Notice the smiley face? That’s meant as conspiratorial grin for those in the know. The plain fact of the matter is that there’s really no objective way to pick a guitar. You simply have to play lots of them and make a choice. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a starting point. For me, there’s only one starting point: Single-coil vs. Humbuckers; or perhaps at the risk of sounding cliche, Strat- vs. Les Paul-style. Do you want a thinner sounding tone? Then single-coils are what you might start evaluating. Want a fatter, more full, or boomy sound? Then humbuckers are the way to go. Mind you, I stated the aforementioned “brand” guitars because most guitars are modeled after those two styles; in between are literally hundreds of variations and combinations of the two. Now, armed with that “general direction,” go and play a bunch of guitars. But be forewarned: What you thought you might want may not be what you ultimately get. I’ll share with you my own experience.
About a year ago, I was dead set on getting a Les Paul Double Cutaway. I scrimped and save, and had played all sorts of Les Pauls in various shops in my area, and I always seemed to gravitate towards the DC. To my ears, it sounded great, and gave me a more gritty sound than my ES-335, without feeding back as easily (which is actually a very nice trait in the 335). Plus, it was VERY light as compared to a LP due to its chambered body.
But on a whim, I thought I’d try some Strats – I can’t exactly explain why; perhaps there was just some uncertainty in me at the time… In any case, I’d never been a Strat guy, having always played with dual humbuckers, and preferring the rich, fat tone that humbuckers produce. But I thought I’d give a few Strats a try before I actually bought the DC. So I went to my favorite shop and played several Strats, from standards to custom shop models. Sure enough, while they sounded great, they just didn’t really do it for me. Then Jordan (the guitar dude at Gelb Music in Redwood City, CA) said, “Sounds like you want more of a vintage sound. I’ve got something here that you should check out. I love how this guitar sounds.” He then proceeded to pull down a white Strat. “Now this is a special edition, albeit Made in Mexico Strat,” said Jordan, “It’s a 60th Diamond Anniversary model, with vintage TexMex pickups, and I think this may have the sound you’re after.”
I’m never one to be impressed by jargon, but I started playing it, and turned my lunch hour into two hours. Oops. Needless to say, I walked out of the shop with that guitar in hand. Here I was, all set to plunk down a couple of grand on the DC, and I picked up my Strat (who is now affectionately called “Pearl”) for under 500 bucks!
So, besides general tone, here’s another piece of advice: Don’t look at the price tag (at least at first). Just because something doesn’t cost much, doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound very good. I would’ve never even considered buying a MIM Strat, but Pearl is my absolute go-to guitar right now. To me she’s got the right tone, and equally important, she just feels great in my hands. I still have the means to buy a guitar that’s four times the price of Pearl, but why bother? I’m so satisfied with how she sounds that I don’t have a compelling reason to look elsewhere.
I only have one nit about Strats, and it’s a small nit; and that is the placement of the volume and tone knobs. When I play, I use a percussive strumming technique that combines palm muting and picking – mostly near the bridge, and that’s where the volume pot is located. So I’ve had to train myself to reposition my right hand a bit. But that’s a small nit.