Your First (electric) Guitar: Stratocasters, Telecasters, Les Pauls and Shred Guitars

Choosing a first instrument is not an easy task. Maybe you are not sure if you are talented enough or that you will persevere. It is even harder when you can not rely on someone to advise you. It is also possible that you will switch instruments later on. Some people even end up being drummers (that’s a joke).

So, if you have never played an instrument (or the guitar) before and if your budget is limited you should not go for the 2000$ Gibson Les Paul Immediately. 

An electric guitar (or bass) is nothing without an amp (amplifier), so you will have to take that into account too. 

Electric guitars belong roughly to one of these categories:

  1. Gibson style instruments, thinks Les Paul models
  2. Fender style instruments, think Stratocasters and Telecasters. Okey, these last 2 are already 2 sub-categories, my bad :-). 
  3. Shred/ Heavy metal guitars like the Ibanez RG series
  4. Semi-Acoustic (thin line) and jazz guitars

Let’s have a look at the differences.

Les Paul type guitars:

Les Pauls (Gibson and Epiphone) have humbucker pick-ups. These give you a big, fat and powerful tone. Check out Guns ‘n Roses, Led Zeppelin etc…

Les Pauls have a fixed tailpiece/ bridge. This is better for sustain and tone, but does not allow for “tremolo” dive bombing and such. 

Les Paul bridge and Pickups:

Les Pauls are suited for rock, blues and even jazz. Of course you can play funk with a Les Paul, but if you really need that snappy Chick or Sister Sledge sound (Paul Rodgers), a “Strat” is your thing.

Fender Stratocaster type:

Stratocasters (and Telecasters) are mostly equipped with single coil pick-ups. Single coil pick-ups generally have a more trebly/ crystalline and elegant character and weaker output. Think Dire Straits (Marc Knopfler), Jeff Beck, The Shadows etc…You can of course shred on a Stratocaster, but for that thick death metal tone, humbucker pick-ups are almost mandatory.

Stratocasters have a bridge with a tremolo system. You will need this if you want to pitch down your notes. Done in an exaggerated way, this is also known as “dive bombing”. Think Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen…

Strat bridge (and 2 of the 3 pick-ups):

You can play almost any style using a Stratocaster, except jazz. Playing jazz on a Stratocaster is not impossible, but a traditional jazz tone is not really in the reach of that type of instrument.

Telecasters:

The Telecaster is also a creation by Fender. I like Telecasters. They cover a lot of styles and the neck position pick-up has a thicker tone than a Stratocaster neck pick-up. The bridge pickup can have a lot of “bite” and ‘twang”. This is the preferred instrument of a lot of country guitarists. Hey, even some jazz players play Telecasters.

“Modern” guitars (shred guitars):

Some guitars combine elements of Stratocaster and Les Pauls. They have mostly the built of a Stratocaster (shape) and a tremolo system, but come with humbucker or mixed pick-up configuration for more versatility and/ or output. Modern guitarists like Guthrie Govan, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai play such instruments.

These “modernised” Stratocaster type guitars also feature a more advanced and elaborated tremolo system (Floyd Rose) that allows for heavier tremolo work without the guitar going out of tune. A good Floyd Rose system comes at a price however and string replacement and guitar maintenance becomes difficult. Maybe not the best choice for a beginner.

Floyd Rose style bridge:

All in all it’s a good idea to have a look (and listen) what kind of instrument your favourite guitarist(s) is playing and base your choice roughly on the features of his guitar. 

Recommendations:

When I recommend an instrument to my beginning pupils I tend to go with the big names. This means Epiphones and Squier/ Fender Telecasters if no tremolo is required (based on the taste and wishes of the pupil) and Squiers (These are Chinese Fenders) or Mexican Fender Stratocasters if a tremolo system is required. 

If you don’t need a tremolo system the basic Epiphone Les Paul will do the job nicely. Even if you decide to upgrade to a “real” Gibson Les Paul or another type of guitar later on, it will hold it’s own as a backup or travel instrument.

If budget is a concern you can buy an even cheaper Les Paul from Epiphone. These are not really bad instruments, but they are in my opinion not built to last and playability and tone are not up to par with the “Standard” model. Some pupils of mine had such a one of these and I have to say they did have some mechanical problems after some time like screws falling out and bad contacts. 

If you prefer a Fender Stratocaster model, I usually recommend the Mexican Made Fender Standard Stratocaster.

If budget is of a bigger concern, Squiers are good instruments too. I had a Squier Stratocaster and really liked it for what it is, but a Squier Stratocaster is no match for a Mexican or American Fender.

Squier Telecasters. My general impression is that these are even a tad better than Squier Stratocasters:

Standard Telecasters (Made in Mexico). Quite a bit better than the Squiers. Two of these come with humbuckers, the Classic ’72 and the one with “HH” in the description (HH stands for 2x humbucker).

For modern “post Eddy Van Halen” rock shredding, Ibanez models are very popular and a de facto standard. The cheapest models (sub-300$) don’t come with a Floyd Rose tremolo system. I think that in the sub-300$ range the Squier Stratocasters have better “tone”.

Jazz Guitars. Thinline models (Gibson 335 style). 

These Epiphone 335 models are based on the Gibson 335. Of course they don’t have the depth, bite and shimmer of the “real” Gibsons, but these are not bad instruments at all and they do the job.

Jazz Guitars, hollow body.

I have recently purchased an Epiphone ES-175 premium outfit. The guitar is well made and the finish is flawless. The sound coming from it is as expected from a jazz guitar.

 

Hope this helps

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