Whether you’re looking for your first guitar or just one more for your collection, it can be a confusing and daunting task to find the right instrument. In this guide I’ll try to take you through the jungle and share some knowledge that helped me in my search.
Updated March 2023
But, before you read on I will warn you that this is no ordinary guide to a specific model or brand. In my opinion, there are far more important things to keep in mind than what it says on the headstock.
Buying an instrument is all about inspiration. You’re the artist and the guitar is the tool you use to express yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing in your bedroom or in a big stadium. It doesn’t matter if the guitar is cheap or cost a fortune. What matters is that you’re comfortable using that instrument and that it allows you to be inspired.
My best tip is to just forget everything you’ve read and heard and just go down to your local guitar shop and try a bunch of guitars. You will learn how each model sounds, how different neck contours feels and just how picking up a different guitar makes you play in a different way.
Keep an open mind! David Gilmour’s Black Strat may not be the best guitar for you. What I prefer and use may be just the opposite of what you’re looking for or get inspired by.
Let’s look at some important things to consider.
Bodies and necks
Personally I don’t care what kind of wood a body is. Or what lacquer it has. There are all kinds of different wood but it really doesn’t matter. A good guitar is a good guitar. You should try different body shapes and contours though to get an idea of what feels right for you.
Necks are, in my opinion, more important because that’s where you’ll be doing much of the work.
I prefer darker wood fingerboard. Like rosewood, mahogany or ebony. Darker wood usually doesn’t have any lacquer and they tend to sound warmer and softer.
Maple fingerboard usually have a bit of lacquer and, depending on the type of lacquer and the number of coatings, maple tend to sound a bit brighter, with a bit more bite.
Neck radius and shapes are also important. A typical vintage 50s era Stratocaster neck is fat, with a distinct V shape resting in your palm. Its 7.25″ radius makes it hard to reach all those crazy bends without your notes fretting out. A thinner C shaped neck, with a 9.25″ radius might be more comfortable for most players, while retaining that vintage feel.
I like to try a new guitar without plugging into an amp. Just play it for a few minutes to get a sense of how it feels and sound.
Get the store to set it up for you and pay attention to the neck and look for dead spots and frets that might need maintenance. Listen to the overall sustain and resonance of the guitar when you play single notes and strum chords.
You can always change the setup later once you get to know the instrument so don’t dismiss a good guitar over a bad factory setup. Pickups and hardware are easily replaced too if you want to upgrade later on.
Fender – USA, Mexico or Japanese?
Fender’s American Vintage II line is as close as you’ll get to the original guitars of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It’s superior craftsmanship, with classic details, expensive lacquer and hand wound pickups. The perfect choice if you’re looking for the feel and tone of David Gilmour’s iconic black and red Strats. Or some of his Telecasters.
When I started this site some 20 years ago, there was a huge debate over the quality of different Fender models. USA made guitars were, with good reason, recommended over Mexican made, simply because Mexican made Fenders didn’t stand up quality wise. That has changed dramatically.
Fender’s Mexican made Vintera picks up on the American Vintage models, with the same attention to detail but with cheaper lacquer, machine wound pickups and the price is kept down due to lower labour costs in Mexico. These are high quality instruments and a huge step up from the lesser Mexican models made some 15-20 years ago.
So, what about Japanese Fenders? These are hard to come by these days. Mostly due to import regulations. Japanese Fenders used to be superior to even US made but nowadays I would go for a Mexican made, which cost about the same.
Fender’s Squier brand has really stepped up their game over the past decade and are now producing impressive instruments, with great feel and tone.
The Classic Vibe series feature models from the 50s, 60s and 70s, with beautiful details and great sounding pickups. Down the line you might want to upgrade the pickups and bridge system for something better but there’s really no need.
Pickups are an important part of your tone and changing pickups can often prove to be a good investment. Either for something better or different sounding.
David Gilmour’s Black Strat feature Fender 1971 neck and middle pickups and a Seymour Duncan SSL1C bridge pickup. The modern equivalents would be Fender Custom Shop 69 and Seymour Duncan SSL5. Read more about David Gilmour’s Black Strat.
There are tons of different takes on these offered by different brands. The combination of the 60s era low output and transparent sounding neck pickup and the hot overwound almost P90 sounding SSL5 bridge pickup is really what makes the Black Strat sound.
David’s red Strat feature the EMG SA active single coils, with the EXG and SPC tone controls. EMG are offering a David Gilmour signature set, the DG20, that feature a quick and easy assembly of the whole set. Read more about David Gilmour’s red Stratocaster.
To my ears, active pickups sound a bit flat and dull. They lack some of the dynamics and presence of passive pickups but the DG20 is essential for recreating the authentic red Stratocaster sound. Not least due to the active tone controls that act as really powerful EQs.
Humbuckers might not be the obvious choice for your David Gilmour tones but personally I tend to use humbuckers a lot more than single coils. Part because that’s the tone I grew up with, listening to rock and metal, but I also find 50s era PAF style humbuckers to be very versatile. Not least for recording.
PAF humbuckers or P90s are very close to what you get from a Seymour Duncan SSL5 or the EMG SA, with the SPC tone control engaged.
Did I miss something? Please use the comments field below and share your tips and recommendations!