Gutar Man
March 7, 2005 8:48 AM   Subscribe

My 13 yr. old son has been taking electric guitar lessons for about a year and is getting ready to spend his hard earned money on a new guitar. (more inside)

In doing some preliminary research, the electric guitar world seems to be broken down into two broad categories (please correct me if I'm wrong): the stratocaster single pickup world; and the les paul double pickup (humbucker) world. Fender also has an HSS line that seems to straddle the two. While I realize that he really needs to go in and play a few, I would like to be a bit forearmed. Can anyone explain the difference between the two and give me a sense of which would be better for a fairly new player to buy? He seem to concentrate on the classic rock of my youth in his playing -- Zeppelin, Skynard, Hendrix, with some Blink 182 and The Killers thrown in. Bonus points for suggestions of good deals for around $400-$500.
posted by rtimmel to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total)
With two pickups, you can have a tone lever, which switches it between having both pickups on, or just one of the two. My first guitar was an Epiphone Special II with two pickups, and it's great for about $200. I would really suggest you go to a guitar store and have him try out whatever he wants though - the most important thing about a guitar is how it feels when playing it.
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:16 AM on March 7, 2005

You're confusing "single coil pickup" and "dual coil (humbucker)" pickups with "single pickup" and "dual pickup".

A standard statocaster, for instance, has three single coil pickups, which, as borkingchikapa says, can be selected in various combinations to give different tones. A Les Paul (tends to have) two humbucking pickups, which you can switch between.

Single coil pickups tend to sounds "thinner" than dual coil pickups, and the latter have better hum-avoidance under neon lighting or near CRT screens. Broadly speaker, the former are better for pop and blues, and the latter for rock and, erm, blues.
posted by benzo8 at 9:22 AM on March 7, 2005

my first guitar was an Ibanez strat copy that had two single-coils (neck & middle) and one single-coil/humbucker that was switchable via the tone-control button. What I liked about it was that it could mimic lots of different guitars. It was also the right price (and had a locking tremelo to boot - Lookout kids, here comes "Barracuda"!)

Anyway the point is you can have both.
posted by petebest at 9:27 AM on March 7, 2005

I'd recommend a Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster. They're good quality, sell for between 300-500usd and will keep him busy until he's ready to buy his own, higher-quality guitar.
posted by mmcg at 9:29 AM on March 7, 2005

The main differences in a Les Paul and a Strat are, of course, the tone and feel of the instruments. They both feel and sound very different from each other. Another big difference is that, because of their construction, Gibsons are much more fragile than a Strat. A Gibson's neck is glued into the body, whereas a Strat's neck is bolted to the body. Because of this, when you drop a Les Paul, it breaks - not so with a Strat. Strats can take infinitely more punishment than a Les Paul.
posted by wsg at 9:31 AM on March 7, 2005

I've always grouped guitars into Maple vs Rosewood necks.

At this stage of the game, I wouldn't worry too much about the pickups, as more than likely your kid will be going for volume and Rawk factor, not subtle tonal variances.

My pick for new guitar, bar-none the Mexican Fender Strat is the best bet for beginners. They are just solid, solid guitars; worry free, sound great, easy to play and simple to fix/restring.
posted by remlapm at 9:32 AM on March 7, 2005

If he likes that style Ibenez's are fine, but if you've got $400 I would suggest you just spring for the actual strat. You might be a bit wary about buying guitars off Ebay, but as long as you know exactly what you're getting (i.e. you've tried a new one out) it should be fine.
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:41 AM on March 7, 2005

There's no reason not to buy a second-hand guitar, as long as it sounds/feels right, has no buzzing, cracks, missing parts, etc.
A reputable used guitar dealer will let you get a lot more guitar for your buck.
posted by signal at 9:49 AM on March 7, 2005

Lately, Musician's Friend has been offering a Mexican Fender "Fat" Strat (one humbucker) for the same price as the standard. Not sure what's up with that, but I'm hoping my tax return comes in time for me to take advantage of it....

Not to derail, rtimmel, but aren't you curious about amps, too?
posted by kimota at 9:51 AM on March 7, 2005

Get a Godin. For the price they can't be beat, they're hand assembled in the US from Canadian parts. I paid about $300.00 for a used Godin SDXT (humbuckers at the neck and bridge, single in between) and I'll probably buy a Freeway Floyd when my guitar shop gets them.
posted by substrate at 9:57 AM on March 7, 2005

I'm casting a vote for the mexican strat, too. The "fat" version kimota linked sounds pretty cool, but I'm a single-coil guy, myself.

I started with a terrible no-name monstrosity that was impossible to keep in tune, and sounded awful. When I got my mexican strat, I was in heaven, and it was my main guitar for years.
posted by sluggo at 10:06 AM on March 7, 2005

This is what my folks did when they decided that I was serious about music to warrant a good instrument: they called my teacher and asked for some brand names and models. We went to a store that carried everything and would let me go into a practice room with whatever I wanted and would leave me alone with them.

The possible pitfall is if your son's instructor works for a large music store and is basically a shill for their inventory.

General guideline: if it's cheaply priced, it's probably poorly made.

As far as pickups are concerned, they're amazingly easy to replace - and that's not a bad project to do on a rainy Saturday if you're comfortable with a soldering iron. I wouldn't concern myself with those right away.

Past that, there are a couple things to look at:
1. fingerboard material - ebony or rosewood are the dark ones and fairly durable but feel odd if you're used to playing on maple (which feels softer/smoother to me). I've worn out a maple fretboard in a yeah of heavy playing.
2. fingerboard radius - the fingerboard is curved across the neck and the radius greatly affects the feel. Strats have a smaller radius (more apparent curve) than LesPaul. This is a comfort issue.
3. neck radius - the neck itself has a radius (actual, necks are compound and fingerboards may be as well) and that will feel different between the two
4. weight - Strats are typically made from ash or alder and are light compared to LesPauls which are made from mahogany. Les Pauls are reputed to have more sustain as a result.
5. action - this is how close the strings are to the fingerboard and is adjustable on most instruments--to a degree (after a certain point, adjustments can't make up for a fundamental deficiency in the construction/materials of the instrument)

If you get an instrument that hits these five categories in a way that are comfortable for your son, everything else on the instrument is negotiable and easily if not cheaply replaceable - this includes: tuners, electronics, pick guards, pickups, strap buttons, nut, bridge (for the most part).
posted by plinth at 10:13 AM on March 7, 2005

I'm partial to Gibsons, myself, and for the budget-conscious, the Epiphone G-400 is hard to beat. Great "classic rock" tone for very little money. Plus the neck feels great (well, the neck on my SG does; I've played a friend's G-400 for short periods, and it's quite good as well). But what everyone says about fragility is true: you don't abuse a Gibson/Epiphone like you would abuse a Fender or you wind up with a broken pile of junk. So if you're anticipating rowdy swinging-it-by-the-neck abuse, do like everyone says and buy him a Mexican Strat. He won't get the chicks, but at least he won't break it.

But if you're looking for a badass guitar that sounds great for the money, the G-400 is where it's at.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:19 AM on March 7, 2005

kimota -- My 13 year old is trying to play Hendrix -- no, I am not at all interested in amps.

Actually, he has a small no-name (at least I don't know the name) amp he is currently using. But I'm sure that a new amp will be next on the list, once he gets the guitar and replenishes his account.

So the sense that I am getting is that the difference between the single and dual coil pickups, i.e., the thin vs. thick sound, is fairly subtle. Is that correct?

He is currently most interested in the mexican strat because his teacher just bought a strat. Sounds like that may be a good choice, though we will check out the fat strat. And we are planning on test driving before he buys.
posted by rtimmel at 10:21 AM on March 7, 2005

Here is a recent discussion I participated in on the topic.

I too would rec' the Mexican Strats. I think a strat-styled guitar gives a wider range of sounds, which is good while you are developing a style. Humbucker guitars give more "crunch", but a strat doesn't exactly lack in the department, either.

There are tons of great guitars in the $400-$500 dollar range. There are very few good guitars below $300. So, really, if that's his price range, he's got a ton of options and should go to a bunch of guitar shops and annoy everyone with his Purple Haze riffing till he finds one that really makes him smile. And try out the $1000 guitars too- he might be surprised that he likes a $450 dollar guitar better.
posted by bendybendy at 10:22 AM on March 7, 2005

If he ever wants to sell his first instrument to get something nicer, just let him pawn it to you for the next ten years. I really miss my first guitar.

I'm also a fan of used instruments, but only from a no-pressure store that will let you sit there for days playing. And don't let the salesperson play the guitar, it clouds the mind.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 10:27 AM on March 7, 2005

If he wants a Les Paul: Rondo Music has some *really* nice imported knockoffs - their Agile series are actually better Les Pauls than the Epiphone Les Pauls! Even though I already have a Gibson LP Studio, I've got my heart set on one of the Agile 2500s because that blue is SO DARN PRETTY.

If he wants to go Fender: definitely go for one of the made-in-Mexico Strats. I just replaced the pickups in my MiM Standard Strat with a set of Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups, and it's drastically improved the sound of the guitar.
posted by mrbill at 11:15 AM on March 7, 2005

In addition to what plinth said above, also pay attention to fingerboard scale (not just radius). In other words, "the distance between the frets". My Les Paul has a shorter scale than my Stratocaster, and this can be a critical factor depending on the size of your son's hands.
posted by mrbill at 11:20 AM on March 7, 2005

Well, there's the thin squealy crying Hendrix Strat sound, and the fat crunchy Les Paul sound. It kinda should be his decision which is more important to him. FWIW, a Mexican Strat is the workhorse of amateur guitar, they're almost as good as their $800+ American counterparts. A Fat Strat with two humbuckers or one with two singles and a hum at the bridge sounds more like a Les Paul than something halfway between.
posted by abcde at 12:53 PM on March 7, 2005

Oh, possibly another consideration--unless I've been told wrong, Hendrix played a Strat. I don't know the guitars of choice of Zeppelin, Skynyrd, Blink 182, or The Killers. Maybe the rest o' y'all could fill in the blanks?
posted by kimota at 1:05 PM on March 7, 2005

Maybe I can break this down a little for you in terms of styles, based on what I think.

Strat - good for lead guitar and very 'runny' rock, that being arpeggiated chords and lots of non power chord melodies - stuff with a little complexity a la Hendrix, Skynyrd (I'm not saying Skynyrd is all that complex but they tend to have melody runs over chords rather than just doubling the chords up an octave). Maybe complexity is not the right word..maybe clarity is. Clean chords, clean runs and melodies.

Les Paul - perfect for fat, heavy rhytym with a lot of bottom. LED ZEPPELIN. Power chords and lots of meaty, chunky rhythm. Sounds velvety, bluesy, sexy. Think "When The Levee Breaks" or "Since I Been Lovin You".

So, I would say given your sons choices as you've mentioned them, go for the Les Paul. I've seen the guys from The Killers playing Flying Vs and SGs and those Fender Jazzmasters, but they're sound is all processed so it doesn't matter anyway. But Zep and Blink 182 = big power chords and fat bottom.

If he wants to be the lead guitar guy with a lot of technique and clarity, like maybe Alex Liefson from Rush or if he likes stuff like Modest Mouse or Death Cab, get the Strat.
posted by spicynuts at 3:25 PM on March 7, 2005

> If he wants a Les Paul: Rondo Music has some *really* nice imported knockoffs

mrbill, thanks very much for that Rondo link. I've been looking for a nice double-cutaway LP-clone for a long time. I think this is it! And the price, gasp!
posted by jfuller at 5:12 PM on March 7, 2005

Why not ask whether he should use a Mac or PC, or whether he should take up Catholicism or Judaism? You're likely to get a similar quality of information.

If he wants a Strat, to play the electrified blues like Jimi, find him a used Japanese Strat from the 1984-1987 era for about $400. The three stock steelpole single-coil pickups in these are quite tonally flexible and the guitars are built like a dream.

There are more options in humbucker guitars than the Les Paul, which is possibly the world's least ergonomically pleasant guitar. If I were going to buy a Paul tomorrow, I'd get on ebay and find out what ebay user "guitargai" was selling in the "Orville by Gibson" brand. I'd expect to pay about $500 and to have to swap out the pickups.

On the other hand, what I actually did do was buy a Dillion Les Paul clone and put a pair of Fralin humbuckers into it. Sounds great.

That said, the PRS SE Singlecut is a far better guitar in that price range, and has the classic rock humbucker sound and a much higher standard of fit and finish than anything else you'll find. They're out of production - lawsuit - and so ebay is where to find them.

Ask him what color he wants. Kids (myself included - all guitarists are a little bit childish) really care about that kind of stuff. Light burst, tobacco burst, and cherry burst are my favorites, but there's something to be said for flat black too.

Also, why not buy him two guitars? This is your kid's future happiness here - don't skimp on it. As a happy owner of 11 guitars I don't find myself ever thinking, "Wow, I have too many."
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:38 PM on March 7, 2005

I bought my Mexican (aka "Standard") Strat off ebay 6 months ago for about $250 w/ shipping. It's the satin finish Midnight Blue version (actually very purple looking) with black pickguard. They retail for about $400, and I'm thrilled with it. Everything everyone above has said about the value of these is true. Solid.

Mine is exactly like this one.

(Caveat emptor. I know nothing about this seller, this auction, or this exact guitar...just providing a lead).
posted by Bradley at 10:05 PM on March 7, 2005

One more note - if you do go Fender, avoid the "Squier by Fender" bottom-feeder brand. Pay the (slight) premium and get a "real" made-in-Mexico "Fender Stratocaster".

Made-in-Japan or made-in-USA will be even more expensive, but the MiMs are good guitars.
posted by mrbill at 11:41 AM on March 8, 2005

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