Electric guitars first started making their way into the music industry in the 1930s, and have been a staple of American popular music ever since.
Thousands of different models have been manufactured over the years, making it no small task for studio owners and recording guitarists to decide which models are truly essential for their collection.
Today, we break down a list of some of the most important electric guitars that you may want to have handy in the studio —as well as when and why you might want to reach for each of them.
For the purpose of this article, we are focusing on “classic” guitars that offer some truly iconic tones. These are the primary colors of the producer’s palette.
We’ll also provide our top recommendations for specific models that can help you round out your studio collection, no matter what the price. So without further ado, let’s dive right in!
(PS—Did we miss any of your favorites? Tell us about it in the comments below, and you might just find your recommendation in a follow up story on some fantastic and flexible alternatives to these icons of recorded music.)
1. Fender Stratocaster
The Stratocaster, designed by Leo Fender, is about as classic as they come.
In the studio, a Strat is a fantastic tool, with 3 pickups and a 5-way selector to switch between them, allowing you to toggle between the bright, surf-rock chime of its bridge pickup, the bluesy growl of its middle pickup, the mellow chunkiness of its neck pickup, or the smooth and scooped sound of its two in-between positions, which are wired in reverse parallel to reduce hum.
Fender has released countless iterations of the Strat over the years, but the truly classic Strat sound comes from an ash or alder body and a maple or rosewood fingerboard on a maple neck.
Alder is a very balanced tone wood where lows, mids, and highs resonate fairly equally, and is probably the most common body choice for Strats.
When it comes to ash, you’ll find two types: less commonly, northern “hard ash” (a dense, heavy tone wood that Fender used more often in the 1970s, lending some of the guitars of the era a brighter tone) and the more popular “swamp ash”, which tends to be lighter and more porous. This quality helps give Strats made from swamp ash sound both clear and warm, for a tone that is perhaps even more “hi-fi” tone than either alder or hard ash making this choice a perennial favorite for the studio.
The two most common fingerboard woods you will encounter on Strats are rosewood and maple. A rosewood fingerboard adds a lot of warmth to the guitar, whereas a maple fingerboard can a bit of extra brightness and clarity to a Strat (sometimes almost excessively so.)
I tend to prefer maple fretboards on a Strat for the studio, not only because it looks better to my eye, but because it adds some extra articulation and brightness to each note, requiring less EQ to help it fit it into a mix, and making funky guitar parts pop off the neck.
For clean guitar parts, especially funky ones, or for Texas-style distorted riffs in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan, a Strat is a go to studio instrument. It’s also a natural choice for surf rock, certain flavors of blues, and for gritty, fuzzed-out classic rock leads.
If you want articulation, and the ability to hear clear note definition within chords or single-note passages, consider using a Strat on your next session.
The Edge – U2
The Edge of U2 is known for playing many guitars but when it comes to his quintessential guitar tone, “Where The Streets Have No Name” is often the first song that comes to mind. That delayed, jangly, unmistakably Strat-y sound drives the song.
Perhaps the funkiest guitar player alive, Nile Rodgers has been making hits with artists such as Chic, David Bowie, Robert Plant, Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams. His main guitar, humbly dubbed “The Hitmaker,” shows that an old 1960 Strat can still groove—and even excel—when it comes to funky strumming and staccato melodies, even in modern day pop:
Of course, Strats can also rock, and do it well, with some distortion applied. Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” was performed on a Stratocaster and, while gritty, you can also hear some twang from the guitar adding to the flavor of this iconic riff.
Fender’s “Squier” label puts out what is easily my favorite sub-$500 Strat. The “Classic Vibe” models tend to be quite consistent in quality and they play great thanks to their comfortable glossed 60’s style maple necks.
Personally, I dislike the gloss on the back of the neck as it can feel sticky during long studio sessions and make it hard to slide around the neck. Still, as this guitar is relatively cheap, you can take some light grain sandpaper and take away a lot of the gloss without feeling guilty.
With either the Squier or Mexican-made Standard Strats, you can freely experiment with changing the pickups and hardware if you like, such as upgrading the tuners or trying a different style bridge and still have a great (heavily customized) guitar for way under $1000.
Better: Fender American Standard Stratocaster $1,000 and up
The Fender American Standard is the obvious choice for a studio that needs a professional quality Strat without breaking the bank. Though even better options exist for not much more money, no one is ever going to fault you for having an American Standard lying around to round out your studio’s toolbox.
Consider an upgrade to the American Select, which features hotter, “overwound” pickups, or the Deluxe model, which adds in noiseless pickups and “S1” switching that activates serial wiring for higher-gain, humbucker-esque tones.
The Suhr Classic Pro seems to be a more versatile, better-playing, and more faithful emulation of a classic Strat sound, even though it’s not made by Fender.
The first thing that struck me about the guitar was its SSCII passive 60 cycle hum reduction system that seemed amazingly quiet. Suhr also uses a really thin finish on these guitars to allow the wood to resonate even more.
The locking tuners and Gotoh tremolo bridge ensure tuning stability and the V70 pickups capture the punch of the low strings and the sizzle of the high strings. The stainless steel frets are amazingly smooth and pretty, and as they make the guitar brighter, I would recommend a rosewood fingerboard if you want to get a Suhr Classic Pro. This is a fantastic studio instrument that will make you want to play guitar more often.
Matt Brewster at 30th Street Guitars makes some of my favorite guitars in terms of playability, sound, and looks. He uses nitrocellulose finishes and can relic a Rust Guitar for you so that you spend less time worrying about scratching it or denting it, and more time playing the damn guitar!
He tends to use really big 50s style necks that feel incredibly fast and that contribute a lot of low end and directivity to the sound coming out of the guitar.