This is where I act all old and stuff, and I want to try and pass some of the wisdom I've acquired over the years onto those that have not yet learnt the stuff I'm about to share. So, if you consider yourself a seasoned gigging pro and you feel completely comfortable tackling all sorts of different jobs with your setup; this is probably stuff you know. However, feel free to use the comments sections to bash me into the ground and say stuff like: everybody knows this, you suck! as if I never wrote the sentence above. For the rest of you; here's my guide to the gear that can get you through anything! O, and yes: this will be very, very long.
If you want to try and make a living out of playing guitar, it is most likely that you would prefer to do this by playing your own songs, in the style you like best and with a band made up out of your friends. In the real world, musicianship is something of a competition where you are found guilty of being crap until you've proven your skill, and even then you'll probably be frowned upon as being a 'widdler'. To be able to cover all the necessary bases and not have to turn good opportunities down, you will need a setup that can go from jazz to country to metal without much change and/or effort. I have been through more gear than Allen Holdsworth, and I think I can give those of you who want to do it all a few pointers.
Gentlemen (and -women); Choose your weapons!
Buying a guitar is hard. There are always at least three different models in your price range that you like, and then there are the ones you can't afford, but maybe if you saved a little more Forget it. You have to choose. Every price range has a gem in it, and I do not want to advocate that you should always buy a $1500+ guitar because everything below that is crap. I do however agree with the writer of the Buy It Once-article in that you should always get the best instrument you can afford. Please note that I am going for versatility in this article, and not my preferences. Thus you will not find a Les Paul or a BC Rich Warlock in this article, however fantastic Les Pauls or Warlocks might be. (And they are!) Also, I have omitted the option of having an instrument custom built, since it's completely up to you to decide if that's what you want.
Things To Consider
If you want to do a lot of different things with your main axe, it needs to have some serious tricks up it's sleeve. Here is a list of specs that will help determine whether the guitar you long for, is the one you need.
Vibrato/Tremolo/Whammy bar: You'll need this, whether you like it or not. I don't like 'em, but I have one. For some reason, especially non-guitar players seem to love the sound of subtle vibrato, and the songs that go along with it. People that do not play guitar, i.e. 'singers', will look upon your guitar as 'flawed' if it does not have the mighty power of Whammy! Not being able to deliver the vibrato will cost you gigs.
Humbucker/Single-coil switching: The basis of versatility. Even though HSS guitars are decidedly 1991, they are extremely useful when you have to 'do it all'. Splittable humbuckers will get you very close, as will an active boost for single coils. (as in a Powerhouse-Strat.)
Active electronics: many people fear the hassle of dealing with the batteries that come with extra tone-shaping options, but the trouble in no way outweighs the benefits. Even though the 5-band EQ is typically a bass-thing, it is starting to find it's way into the six-string arena, and being able to fine-tune your sound without extra equipment is really valuable.
If you want an axe that can cover a really wide range of tones, most likely you're going to have to cut some corners somewhere. This can either be character, appearance or brand. You should never compromise on sound quality, playability or 'vibe' (if something's not your guitar, you'll know it as soon as you pick it up.) however. Some of the guitar I list, I wouldn't want to be seen dead with, but I'm trying to be objective and I really think all of these guitars are great, versatile instruments. I'm trying to pick the cherries here, especially the ones I think are good deals. So, in case of the ESP/LTD, the ESP Horizon would also be a good choice, just not as good of a deal, get it? Therefore, if you want to be able to play fusion on Fridays and Slayer on Saturdays while switching to Salsa on Sunday (mambo on Monday? Two-step on Tuesday? I could go on forever!), here are some of the guitars I'd recommend:
Parker P-series: Great guitars, pickups are decent quality and convincing both in humbucking and single-coil sounds. You have to be able to deal with the look of the thing, and I've seen some with troubled (i.e. 'warped') necks.
Ibanez Sa160: This is definitely a beginner's guitar, but also the best one you could get for your hard-earned bucks. I have had many go through my hands, and I never encountered one that did not play perfectly. Sounds are very good, and blow away those of Squire's or Epiphone's budget axes.
ESP LTD H-20-something: They keep changing the number-spec for these models just about every two minutes, but the guitars stay pretty much the same. I'm referring to the set-neck, five-way switching, Duncan-designed pickup models. The sounds are all of a really high quality and the guitar will handle all kinds of tunings or string sizes.
Yamaha Pacificas: Yes! They might not be the most exciting guitars on earth, but these people bring you a very high-quality instrument that you can afford. This is true throughout the range.
Money's No Problem?
PRS CE & Custom 22 & 24's: Proven in their versatility and playability. I disagree that the CE is in any way inferior to a Custom; they're different. PRS charging more for a set-neck is retarded and without ground. The idea should be that CE's are for the Fender-prone player and The Customs do a better job of emulating Gibson-esque sounds. I like the PRS's better than Andersons, Vigiers, Brian Moores and other, more expensive, high-end guitars as they seem to retain a little more of a vintage character where the others are a little bland and sterile sound-wise. (The main reason you will not find any Blades in this article, sorry to all you Blade-owners.)
Music Man Luke: This might be a little plain looking for the money and maybe the Lukather-image is not what you're going for, but this guitar is a well-designed piece of kit that will do everything without compromise. The EMG's might sound a little sterile for clean sounds; they work very well for everything from a light crunch to balls-out distortion. Music-Mans always play well and they seem to hold their value, which is not unimportant. (Can you say Patrick Eggle?)
Gibson ES-355: This instrument is a little underrated in my opinion, and should be seen on stages a lot more than it currently is. If you feel you can do without Fender-esque single-coil sounds, this might very well be the ultimate guitar for you. It does everything and looks amazingly cool (o, no! he expressed an opinion again!) For those that can't dish out more than $2000, there are many copies, both by Epiphone and others (I like The Yamaha AES2200), that come very close to the original at a fraction of the price.
Fender Fat Strats: I personally feel the American series and upwards are a very good deal, because the higher grade materials and, specifically, pickups help them dish out the humbucker sounds more convincingly. The Mexicans are nothing to spit at, though, and if you're in that price range, be sure to check 'em out.
Best Of The Rest
Here are some other instruments that deserve your attention when you want an axe that can do it all:
Line 6 Variax
Jackson Soloist Pro Series
OLP Petrucci Model
Ibanez JEM Series
Floyd Rose Redmond Series
Peavey Wolfgang EXP
Fender Thinline 90's Telecaster
Thanks for sticking with me this long. Hope this was/is of any use to you, feel free to hammer me with comments if it wasn't, but please realize I haven't played every guitar on earth and if your absolutely awesome guitar is not in here; sorry. Next Time: Amps & Effects!
I salute you,