Everything you need to know about selecting the perfect guitar

From Eric Clapton’s soaring blues to Tony Iommi’s pulverizing metal riffs and Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic jams, no single instrument has defined the sound and spirit of rock ’n’ roll music more than the guitar. If you want to grab an axe and add a few notes to that legacy, you have to start with the right instrument. With endless variations and models to choose from, how do you figure out which guitar is for you?

We sought out guitar wizards Oz Noy and Tommy Marolda for the answers. Noy specializes in cutting-edge jazz, funk and rock, and has played with the likes of Gavin DeGraw, Chris Botti and Clay Aiken. Meanwhile, veteran guitarist, songwriter and producer Marolda is the founder of the power-pop group the Toms and has worked with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, the Killers and the Cataracs, among others.

How do you pick a guitar?

NOY: Much depends on the style of music you play. A Fender Stratocaster will cover the most ground stylistically. You can’t get a Gibson tone out of a Fender, but you can get close. With a Gibson, you can’t get a Fender tone—period. A Gibson sounds like a Gibson.

MAROLDA: Musical style makes a big difference, as certain guitars are more oriented toward some styles than others. If you want to play country, I’d stick with Fender. For rock or alternative, I’d go with a Gibson—even something used you’d find at a thrift shop. Just put it through an amp, try it out and see if you’re comfortable with it.

NOY: Whether it’s a Strat, a Telecaster, a Gibson or anything else, each has a very specific character that doesn’t sound like the others. But within each type of guitar, individual instruments can sound completely different. Try 10 of the same guitar from the same year and they won’t sound or feel the same. For somebody just getting started, that’s very important. At a store, you want to try at least three different guitars since each one feels and sounds unique.

Once you’ve chosen, what’s next?

MAROLDA: Regardless of the guitar you’re playing, it’s important for any beginner to get some basic lessons under his or her belt. Then I’d suggest playing along with the masters. Put on Jimi Hendrix or Joe Satriani and listen. If you can’t play along with them, slow the recording down on a computer and copy their licks note for note. Learning from the masters is the best advice you can get. Richie Sambora, for example, would stand in front of his TV watching Stevie Ray Vaughan and try to play along with his licks.

What does Richie play?

MAROLDA: He has a huge collection of rare vintage guitars. One favorite was a Gibson Sunburst. At one time we used a Coral guitar set up to sound like an electric sitar. We ran it through a Leslie and used it on the song “Ballad of Youth” on his solo record [Stranger In This Town, 1991]. Running a guitar through the old rotating Leslie speakers gives it a natural tremolo sound. George Harrison did that too.

What are your go-to guitars?

NOY: For jazz and rock, standard Fender Stratocasters are my favorites. I have a few custom shop ones that I love—a ’56 and a ’68 relic. I used them with Gavin DeGraw. If I’m going to a recording session, I’ll take a Strat, a Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul and an acoustic—maybe a 12-string or a nylon-stringed guitar, depending on the project.

MAROLDA: For guitar solos, it’s a black solid-body Gibson Les Paul. It has a sound reminiscent of Eric Clapton during his Cream days. It has a thick, lucid, identifiable tone and is easy to improvise with through any amp situation. For alternative sounds, I prefer a Danelectro. When Danelectro introduced guitars in the 1960s, they had a very twangy sound made popular by Duane Eddy. The company couldn’t afford the type of pickups that Gibson and Fender were installing at the time, so they devised something using metal lipstick cases from some company in New Jersey. Those pickups help the guitars create more of a woody, twangy sound. The same types of guitars with the same pickups are being reissued, and that’s what I have.

Why are pickups important?

MAROLDA: On electric guitars they literally pick up the vibrations of the strings. There’s wire wound very tightly like the coil on a speaker, but it has the opposite effect. It gathers the energy of the string vibrating and sends that energy out of the guitar as an electrical signal to an external amplifier and speaker. A Humbucker pickup has a warmer, thicker sound. It’s famous for being included in most of the Gibson Les Paul guitars. Single-coil pickups are more for the Fender sound—a twangier tone that cuts through and is associated with country music. A lot of funk also came from Fenders, thanks to its ability to cut through the mix live and on recordings.

What’s best for heavy metal?

NOY: It all comes from Gibson Les Paul or SG models, which use Humbuckers. They have a lot more gain. That idea developed with more modern guitars like Ibanez, ESP and Hamer—what I use for playing heavy metal. The main difference in the modern guitars is the whammy bar, which lets you affect pitch with your picking hand. You can move the bar up and down and change the guitar’s pitch and tone, even if you’re doing complicated things with the hand on the fretboard.

MAROLDA: I’d say Gibson or Hamer. Hamer makes cool-looking guitars with a thick, very ballsy sound that’s indicative of metal.

How about other genres?

NOY: For pop, rock or James Brown funk, I’d say a Strat, Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul or SG, depending on the context. Slash plays a Les Paul, for example, and Angus Young uses an SG. For B.B. King-style blues, a Gibson 335 semi-hollow. For big-band jazz, a Gibson hollow-body ES 175 or L5.

How are hollow and solid bodies different?

NOY: Hollow-body electrics can feed back a little, but they usually get more depth of tone. They sound jazzier and usually come with Humbuckers.

What are your favorite acoustics?

NOY: Martin, Gibson, Guild, Santa Cruz and Collings all make amazing instruments. McPherson guitars—which place the hole in the body closer to the top and not in the middle—are incredible. I’ve never heard anything that sounds like it.

MAROLDA: Martin’s a mainstay in the acoustic guitar realm. They’re well made, have a beautiful sound and are also very balanced and easy to work with in the studio. The wood resonates with the strings very evenly, making it easy for me to record them as a producer.

What about 12-string acoustics?

MAROLDA: I use an Ibanez 12-string and it’s very easy to play. Fingering a 12-string guitar can be hard, and not every acoustic guitar maker has a fretboard that’s comfortable with 12 strings on it. Guild also makes a beautiful 12-string.

For a pro, is it important to have a large collection of guitars?

NOY: A lot of guitarists in Los Angeles or Nashville bring 50 guitars to each recording session. They have trucks full of them. I live in New York City, and it’s just not possible here. Knowing what to do with each guitar, how to get the right tone, is always more important than having a lot of guitars to choose from.

–Michael Gallant

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