Well, where do you start with this one? The Best Guitar Brands. People have written books on the subject, not just articles with somewhat limited space for comment.
Anyone is going to be influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by their own personal experiences. That is only natural. Having said that, there are some stand-out manufacturers. Those who have contributed in so many ways to music and how it is performed.
Some of them are, in some ways, a shadow of their former selves for a variety of reasons. Others are on the rise, producing some quality instruments. They all, though, deserve their place in a hierarchy of manufacturers deserving of respect.
Because they represent different markets, we are going to deal with Electric Guitars and Acoustic Guitars separately. So, let’s start by looking at the Electric Guitar…
Bring on The Electrics
You have to start with Leo and his solid-body revolution. But was Fender the first to create one? Actually no. That accolade went to a young Epiphone designer working after hours in his own time. His name was Les Paul. But by the time Gibson had woken up to the prospect, Leo had sent his Broadcaster onto the market four years before. Leo got the credit.
The Telecaster and the Stratocaster
The rest is history as the Broadcaster became the Fender Telecaster. Sales of this bit of creative genius rocketed. Most would have been happy with that. But in 1954, Leo released what is probably the most famous guitar of all time, the Fender Stratocaster. The company, by the end of the 50s, had established itself as THE brand.
And what about a solid body bass?
But he didn’t stop there. The fast-growing rock n roll circus needed a bass that didn’t need a truck to get it to the stage. A bass designed for the new rebellion. In 1957 along came what became the greatest bass of all time, the Fender Precision. Full neck, great balance, curved design for comfort with a single powerful single-coil, it was the business.
Gibson, who had thought themselves untouchable through the 30s and 40s, were suddenly relegated down the pecking order. Buddy Holly’s grin and his sunburst Strat made sure of that.
But then… oh dear…
All was rosy in the Fender garden until along came CBS and bought Fender. It is not an exaggeration to say that that was pretty much that. CBS didn’t have much of a clue about running a guitar company, and the quality went down the drain. There have been a couple of resurgences since. The Schultz 80s period was one such time when things improved when they got CBS out of the way.
The name on the headstock…
These days they do tend to live on their past glories and their name somewhat. Fender guitars are now made in a variety of places and have lost their exclusive appeal.
You can still get the latest versions of the Telecaster and Strat. There are seemingly dozens of variations of both. But buried away in the lists are the latest Jazzmaster and Mustang and, of course, the Precision and Jazz basses. Quite good they are as well.
You can even get re-issues of those pre-CBS masterpieces. But they aren’t quite the same. And of course, there is the ‘Artist’ series where well-known players, like Jeff Beck, lend their name to instruments. They are usually a Strat but sometimes a Tele. Designed to be like what they use themselves.
There is a full range of instruments out there, and of course, it will have Fender on the headstock.
On to what some would consider the ‘other’ great guitar maker. And another story that almost mirrors Fender. Both companies had great products, but both best guitar brands lost their way. They forgot what it was they were supposed to be doing.
In Gibson’s case, they woke up one morning and thought it was a great idea to start buying turntable companies. Naught out of ten for that decision, boys. The 2018 file for bankruptcy was on the cards. How can a company that makes the ‘other’ iconic guitar, the Les Paul go bankrupt?
They go back a long way…
Orville Gibson started making guitars in Kalamazoo in 1894. They went through a very profitable period of expansion with respected guitars and mandolins. They invented the ‘archtop’ by copying the design of the violin. By the 1930s, they were also making ‘flat tops.’ They made great guitars, including some revered acoustics.
They became popular with jazz musicians, and the arrival of Ted McCarthy led to an expansion of the guitar business. One such ‘new’ guitar was the Les Paul, named after a popular musician of the time who was involved in the design.
The late 50s…
At this time, they were chasing Fender a bit. But they still produced some great guitars. The 335 being one. The 330 we shall mention a bit later. They were creative, though, and developing good ideas.
They were responsible for the design of the Tune-o-Matic bridge. And, of course, something else that made a difference. The Humbucker pickup. You could say that a period had arrived when they were excelling in guitar production.
More than just a Les Paul…
In the midst of all this came other models. The famed SG was one. They also tried to break the Fender monopoly of the bass with the solid body EBO and EB3s. Didn’t quite work. There was also the EB2, but that had the same problems as the six-string 330.
And let’s not forget the ‘Flying V.’ How could we? Some see that as a great innovation. Others that the wheels were starting to come off.
Hanging in there…
Despite ownership changes, rebranding, expansion disasters, and bankruptcy, they are still here. And so is the Les Paul. Manufactured now in a variety of ways, it is one of the top-selling guitars in the world. Rightly so.
Like Fender, they have created ‘re-issues of some of the most famous guitars of the past. They are iconic, after all. But as with Fender, they aren’t quite the same. Just like the Strat, the Les Paul has been copied by every guitar maker in the world, it seems.
But you can still get a Gibson Les Paul, and quite a few Gibson other things as well. They are good guitars. Maybe not as good as they once were. But just like the ‘other lot.’ You are buying a very good guitar that has a name on the headstock. And a name with a big history.
Squier used to be a manufacturer of guitar strings. Founded in 1890 in Michigan, they were bought by Fender, under CBS ownership, in 1965. By 1975 it was finished as a business as Fender took its strings and put the Fender label on them.
Trouble on the horizon…
As we reached the 1980s, CBS was in trouble with their Fender ‘brand’. They thought the way forward was to make ‘cheap’ Fenders, so they reactivated the Squier name and marketed it as a lower-priced Fender guitar. The first were made in Japan and were excellent.
But there was a flaw in the plan. The first Japanese-made guitars were labeled under the Fender flag and were better than their ‘Made in America’ counterparts. And they continued to be so for a while. We know we have Precision from that period. The change to the Squier logo saw a slight drop in standards. But that was quickly recovered.
After Bill Schultz and his cohorts shuffled CBS out of the door in 1985, the Squier brand has grown. They are now made in Japan, Korea, India, Indonesia, China and Mexico, and some in the US.
Their Own Brand
They are now recognized as a brand on their own and a respected one and make the full Fender range, of course, including the Jazzmaster with some other nice inclusions.
They have a couple of ranges, the Affinity and the Classic Vibe. Whereas the Affinity Teles, Strats, and Precisions are rather basic, the Classic Vibe versions are excellent, particularly the Squire by Fender Classic Telecaster. The Affinity options are just a cost-effective way of getting a good guitar in the hands of a beginner. Nothing wrong with that.
Fender might see Squier as the cheap cousin, but they should be careful. The Fender Strat is four times the price of the Squier Classic Vibe. Is it four times better? Not a chance.
Squier makes some very good guitars at great prices, making them one of the best guitar brands you can buy.
Now here is a guitar maker with something special in their locker. We will talk about that a bit later.
From Greece to America…
First founded in Greece in about 1873, the family moved to New York in 1908. The son, Epaminondas Stathopoulos, took over the family business and renamed it. Epi after his nickname and phone from the Greek for voice.
By the 1950s, it had become a rival to Gibson in the ‘archtop’ market, so Gibson bought them out. They moved them from New York to Kalamazoo, which seems an odd thing to do. They were both producing similar guitars and were still seen as competitors by some. Having them in the same factory was just strange, though it did cut costs, we suppose.
Gibson relocated away from Kalamazoo in 1974 to Nashville. Norlin had bought Gibson and the other associated brands in 1969. And just like CBS with Fender, were obsessed with profits and money. Yawn.
The move to Nashville might have had something to do with cutting costs. However, it was just as likely that it was to do with a Union strike that stopped production in Kalamazoo.
Time to go…
Epiphone production was moved to Japan in 1970 and then later to Korea. Was that cost-cutting or sour grapes by the powers that be at Gibson?
Let’s go back to the Gibson ES-330 we mentioned earlier. Nice looking, but for the growing world of rock music, totally unsuitable. You only had to think about plugging the thing in, and it started to feedback. Epiphone had their version, the Casino. That didn’t. A great guitar.
The Mighty Casino
Keith Richards used one in the early Stones days. McCartney was persuaded to get one by John Mayall. The Epiphone Casino was in the Abbey Road studio for every single Beatles recording session. Lennon used one at times on stage, as did Harrison. Can you just imagine the toys coming out of the pram in Kalamazoo? How funny.
Now Epiphone was labeled as the poor man’s Gibson. Punishment? And while the ‘big shots’ in Nashville lurched from one management disaster to the next, Epiphone got on with making guitars.
Today they make very good guitars. Some are copies of the Gibson favorites. The Epiphone Les Paul, of course, and the Epiphone SG, and also the Epiphone 335. They don’t make a copy of the Gibson 330 (sorry, we are still smiling).
Look who’s still around…
They also do a pretty decent version of the Thunderbird bass. Some, like the Epiphone Sheraton, are exclusive to them and are great guitars in their own right. And of course the Casino.
Yes, they still make it, and if you want a great guitar, you should definitely take a look at that one. No, it’s not exactly the same. It couldn’t be. But it is still a Casino from Epiphone and still sounds great.
But let’s just end in a similar way to Squier. The Gibson Les Paul Standard is four times the price of the Epiphone equivalent. So again, we ask the question? Is it four times better? Same answer, not a chance.
Just like Squier, Epiphone makes some very good guitars at great prices. You can’t go wrong.
Although the birth of Ibanez goes back to 1908, the era of Ibanez guitars really started in 1957 in Japan. They were moved from site to site to manufacture their instruments and got into some hot water in later years. Some of their designs ‘mirrored’ those of Fender, Gibson, and Rickenbacker, and there were some unhappy people. The ‘lawsuit’ period came and ended with a settlement.
The door was opened…
Ibanez also designed their own guitars but found it hard to sell them in the West. But then they got lucky, and two things happened almost simultaneously. The ‘disco craze’ erupted, and suddenly people were not buying electric guitars preferring tight trousers and fancy shirts.
That coincided with the alarming drop in the manufacturing standards of Fender and Gibson. The door was open, and in walked Ibanez.
They set up a deal with a retailer in Pennsylvania, and their guitars begin to arrive. They began to establish their own niche, and they certainly did that in a most unexpected way.
Known for what?
They now produce some of the best guitars for metal and heavy rock you can find. Ibanez has always had their finger on the pulse of what people are buying. They set off in two diverse directions. The metal is something surprising, though, and their versions of the ‘SuperStrat’ are loved.
Whilst wowing the heavy metal brigade, they were making a big noise in jazz circles. In our opinion, George Benson was one of the great jazz guitarists. He played Ibanez. John Scofield, another jazz great, used an Ibanez JSM100. Metal and Jazz are not the most common of bedfellows.
Setting a standard…
The good thing about Ibanez today is this. The standards of workmanship are always very good, unlike some ‘names.’ They will therefore not be a disappointment. They produce a range of guitars for all levels. From beginners to pros, there is something for everyone. And finally, they are all realistically priced.
Take a look at what they have to offer. If you like the ‘cool’ jazz thing, as you get with the Ibanez AG75SB, or like waking up the neighbors with some heavyweight rock, try the Ibanez GRX70QA; there is something for you. But don’t forget, that is not all they do there is plenty of variety. They have a great range.
If you would have asked us in 1980 who is Paul Reed Smith it is likely we would have stared blankly at you. Five years later, we wouldn’t. As recently as 1985, the PRS guitars hit the streets, and they made an immediate impact. Now the guitars, and to a much lesser extent, the basses, are recognized as being something very special.
Many of the range of guitars are what we might call limited editions. This because there weren’t that many made. As an example, in 1999, they released the Dragon 2000. This featured a great design with stunning body curves. It also had a dragon inlay, a three-dimensional dragon. Just 50 of these were ever made.
Some big names…
The first recognized rocker to get his hands on one was Ted Nugent. The ‘Motor city Madman’ was a bit dubious at first. He has used them ever since. Same story with one of the greats, Carlos Santana, who was another who picked one up in the 80s. He hasn’t put it down yet.
A recording engineer friend of ours has got one. He got it out and showed it to us. I cannot remember seeing a guitar with such great workmanship. It was a work of art just to look at. And the sound? Hang on to your hats; it isn’t for the faint-hearted.
More lawsuits, this time aimed at PRS. Evidently, Gibson thinks that any guitar with one cutaway is a Les Paul copy and should be sued out of existence. Production was stopped for a while but was resumed when the case was eventually thrown out.
There is a range of great guitars. There is also a reasonable range in the price tag. You can get a cost-effective version for about the same price as a Fender Tele. Or you can go to the very top of the range, where it is a bit pricey. In the middle, though, they are about the same price as a Gibson Les Paul. It would be for you to decide which is better.
Great guitars with a look that is stunning, to say the least.
David Schecter opened his workshop in 1976 in California. He specialized in providing spare and replacement parts for a range of guitars. Contrary to belief, he never supplied Gibson or Fender. In 1979 he started to sell his own custom-made guitars. They were high quality and expensive and were not widely available at the time.
Too big too quickly?
They drew some attention, and very soon, requirements outstripped manufacturing capacity. The company was sold and moved to Dallas, where they continued to produce quality instruments. But they were getting bigger, and the respect and sales levels were growing, so something had to give.
More lawsuits..yawn!! What is it with lawsuits? Is it that the shareholders of these companies are lawyers and see an easy pot of gold for their services? Fender had allowed Schecter to use their Strat and Tele headstocks. But now they said they couldn’t and sued them. Yawn.
This, though, caused the company to close for a year. It reopened in 1987, now owned by a Japanese businessman. He moved it back to California and back to making and selling high-end guitars.
After a brief spell making the guitars in South Korea, they came back again to California when suitable factory space was acquired.
A new emphasis
They had been known for their hard-rocking and metal guitars, such as the excellent Schecter Apocalypse and Schecter C1 Platinum. But now, the range was broadening. They included Jazz and Blues guitars in their catalog.
The range now is wide, but you can still see the Fender influence in the designs. Strats with pointed horns and a Telecaster type that isn’t a million miles away in shape. (Time for another lawsuit?).
They are well-priced as well, which puts them right in competition with some of the perceived bigger boys. But the truth is many guitar players prefer the Schecter. It isn’t hard to see why. These days many carry Seymour Duncan pickups, and you know what that means.
Mix and match
They have a design culture that allows you to find a guitar with exactly the right spec for you. Whatever your personal tastes in shape, fittings, pickups, tuners, and the bridge, it will be there somewhere. They mix and match various parts at will.
Some very desirable guitars, with a great sound. They are well-made with nice designs and attractive colors. If you are looking for something different, then this is a good place to start.
Were you aware that Rickenbacker made the first-ever electric guitar? Formed in 1931 that came out in 1932. They have been doing it ever since.
Some famous faces…
On the guitar side, we have had George Harrison and Pete Townshend. Tom Petty, Paul Weller, and John Fogerty, and quite a few others.
Their 4001 and 4003 bass design has also had illustrious company. Chris Squire, Roger Glover, Geddy Lee, Paul McCartney, and Lemmy. Not a bad list of recommendations. But we have deliberately missed one out.
Whenever you see a picture of the Beatles, you will most likely see John Lennon using his. He has used a variety of instruments, but his ‘Rickie 325’ is the one that sticks in your mind. He broke it once in the US, and Rickenbacker rushed a new one to him.
And the sounds?
Almost unique, especially that absolutely delicious 12 string, the 360/12 that George used on a ‘Hard Day’s Night.’
They are all still available today, which is something to get excited about. It is fair to say that they don’t fit all genres of music. There is a certain ‘feel’ to them. But if that is what you are looking for, you will go a long way to find anything better.
Of all the manufacturers from the 50s until now, in our opinion, Rickenbacker is the most underrated of all of the best guitar brands. They play beautifully, look great, and have that ‘ring’ of a sound that is unmistakable.
Before you get too excited, they don’t come particularly cheap. But they do come particularly good. In our opinion, they are one of the best brands of guitar you can buy. One of our favorite guitars? You betcha.
Next, we take a look at the Acoustics
Established as far back as1833, Martin has had an illustrious history. Since day one, they have been run by the Martin family and still are. There have been no ‘CBS moments’ or’ turntable companies’ here. They know what they do well. And they try to do it even better. And that they certainly do.
They are innovators too. The ‘Dreadnought’ was of their design, and so was the now popular scalloped internal bracing. And of course, they are famous for their ‘flat tops.’
“Here come old flat top… etc.”
They are not limited to acoustics, though, and also make the more classically designed guitars and also mandolins.
But it is for their acoustic guitars they are probably best-known. And for a sound that is like no other. Over the years, there have been some great acoustic guitars; the Gibson J45 or the Hummingbird comes to mind. They were, though, rather one-off instruments. Everything that Martin makes is that good.
A wide range to choose from
From the LX1 Little Martin designed for beginners or those that want a smaller guitar to the imposing Martin HD 28. There is something for everybody from Martin. And with that choice comes a range of prices. They aren’t cheap, of course, they aren’t, but this sort of quality never is.
The quality with which these instruments are put together gives you an indication of what they are about. If you have been close to one, you will know. Some of the cheaper models are made down Mexico way. But the quality is still superior to just about anything else you will see.
If you are looking for a new acoustic and want one of the best, you must look at Martin. Some might echo Tina Turner, “simply the best”. They might not be far wrong. Of course, they are one of the Best guitar brands. However, there is one brand that might give them a run for their money.
And that brand is Taylor. Set up with two others by Bob Taylor in 1974, it was he that was the guitar maker. The business was originally called the Westland Music Company. But that doesn’t fit too easily on the headstock. It became simply Taylor.
Progress was slow at first
The expansion of the business was slow at first, but they knew the quality was there. But by 2012, they had two factories and 700 employees and a product that was considered one of the best. They also have a warehouse in Holland for European distribution.
They were honored by the US State dept for excellence in production and for their ethical work values. In 2021 the company became completely employee-owned. All very nice, of course, but what about the guitars?
Offering the challenge
If there is a company that can offer a challenge to Martin, then it is Taylor. Not only in the quality of the workmanship. That is as good as you will find at their competitors. But it is the sound. It is different, it is hard to put your finger on exactly why; it is just different.
They seem to have created an alternative acoustic guitar stance. People are either Martin fans or lovers of the Taylor sound. We played one recently. It is surprising in every way. How easy it was to play and how nice and warm it sounded. A nice top end and warm lows, but so much middle. Excellent is how you would describe it.
Is wide and all-encompassing. From the Baby Taylor for beginners and those that want a smaller guitar. Up to the big booming Dreadnoughts. Prices match the ranges. Again they are not cheap, but again they are of great quality. They have to be considered as one of the best acoustic guitar brands.
We want to add an extra manufacturer on the end here. The reason is that in the future, they are going to challenge the ‘Big 2’ of the acoustic world.
Over they came
We remember when their first acoustics arrived. They were pretty poor. Hard to play with rather a flat sound, not good. Within a few years, that had changed. Now they were producing good acoustics. Rich warm sounding and, of course, cheaper than the competition.
There is a guitar for all seasons. Beginners, Improvers, the Pros, are all catered for. They are well-made, have a great sound, and look the part. If you can’t afford the Martins and Taylors of this world, try a Yamaha. You are not going to be disappointed.
Best Guitar Brands – So much to consider
There was a time when if you wanted the best, you bought Fender or Gibson. Those days are long gone. There is too much quality out there now.
Sure, those two are still there. They probably always will be based in part on past glories. And, of course, they still make some very good classic guitars. But these days there is so much to choose from. And even in this list, we haven’t included them all.
Going to get a new guitar? Have fun; there is a lot of great options to look at.