Guitar players, more than any other musicians I know, are addicted to buying new guitar gear. Who wouldn’t want to have a Strat, a Tele, AND a Les Paul in their arsenal?
Of course, throwing your life savings away on thirty guitars might not be the best move…
In truth, you only need a few guitars to harness most tones. I’ve always kept five guitars handy, as they provide me with the versatility I need for most of the work I do, without becoming overwhelming.
Today, I want to break down my list of the five essential guitars that I keep handy to nail every tone I might need. Let’s dig in.
Fender Standard Stratocaster
The Stratocaster is just about as classic as guitars come. Whether at the studio or on stage, it is a phenomenal tool. You get a five-way selector switch to toggle between chime-y Surf Rock tones on the bridge pickup, growling Blues tones on the middle pickup, and chunky, full tones on the neck pickup, as well as a few in-between tones for when you want to reduce unnecessary hum.
There are far too many Stratocaster iterations to count, though I’ve always preferred the traditional Alder body strat with a Rosewood fingerboard. Alder has great sustain and pushes the upper midrange through a bit more, which is what makes it such an excellent guitar for leads. One reason I love having a Rosewood fingerboard with my Fender Strat, complementary to the ‘mid-rangey’ Alder, is that Rosewood adds a bit of warmth to this notoriously bright guitar.
When it comes to playing style, the Stratocaster stretches just about as far as your imagination can take you. It’s terrific for clean Funk, a-la Nile Rodgers to the gritty, Texas-style Blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Surf Rockers find it to be a staple as well.
If versatility is what you seek, having a Strat in your arsenal is imperative.
Notable Fender Stratocaster Users:
- Jimi Hendrix
- Eric Clapton
- David Gilmour
- Eddie Van Halen
- Nile Rodgers
Fender Deluxe Thinline Telecaster
The Thinline Telecaster has become synonymous with Country music. While this guitar has some undeniable twang, it is surprisingly versatile. Even some Jazz players, such as Adam Rogers and Oscar Moore, have been known to fancy the Tele.
The main difference between the Thinline and the standard Telecaster is that the Thinline has a semi-hollow body to provide both acoustic resonance and solid body sustain.
This particular iteration of the Thinline comes with noiseless single-coil pickups that provide you with that lovely ‘60s twang and bite without all of the unwanted hum. The Deluxe also comes with a six-saddle bridge, which is far better for tuning stability than the classic model.
I often use this guitar for lead-playing, especially if I’ve already laid down rhythm parts with my Strat. The 12” fretboard radius is a bit flatter than your average neck, making it easy to move up and down the neck with speed and confidence. You can’t beat the added acoustic harmonics that come from the F-hole either. Plus, thanks to the absence of wood inside a fair portion of the body, the guitar is incredibly lightweight, which is why it’s my favorite to travel with.
Notable Fender Thinline Telecaster Users:
- Curtis Mayfield
- Buck Ownes
- Conway Twitty
- Bob Dylan
- Daryl Hall
Gibson Les Paul
The Gibson Les Paul often completes the top three “essential” guitars list, as it has been used by so many great guitarists throughout history. With the Les Paul, you can expect tons of sustain and a rich and warm tone. Of course, the classic Mahogany body makes these things a real workout to hold, which is why I don’t often travel with mine.
The beauty of having a Gibson Les Paul is that if ever a Rock session comes up, I can grab my Les Paul, plug it in, and get the sound I’m looking for in less than a minute. In fact, for many years, the combination of the Gibson Les Paul and the Marshall Amplifier was the defining sound for Rock music. Think of players like Zakk Wylde, Slash, Randy Rhoads, and Joe Perry.
The Gibson Les Paul is one of the most recorded guitars of all time. Beyond Rock, its dark, warm sustain makes it an excellent choice for Jazz, especially if you can afford to have a bit more beef in your track.
Notable Gibson Les Paul Users:
- Jimmy Page
- Randy Rhoads
- Les Paul
- Ace Frehley
Sears Silvertone Model 1454
I think it’s incredibly important that every guitarist has a hollow-body guitar — and if you plan to play Jazz, the hollow-body is a staple. They have far more natural, open tones compared to solid-body guitars, and can be played without an amp, which makes them excellent for practice.
I’ve played through my fair share of hollow-body guitars, including the Hofner 4560 and the Gretsch Streamliner, though I always seem to revert back to the strangely satisfying tones of the Silvertone 1454. This dark horse was a top-of-the-line Sears model back in the mid-1960s and sold for almost $200 at the time.
The guitar provides three on-off pickup switches for a wide variety of tones, as well as individual volume and tone controls for each pickup. The DeArmond Gold Foil Pickups produce a warm, rounded tone that is perfect for mellow, Jazzy tones. However, when cranked through a bit of distortion using the bridge pickup, you can get some serious twang. I also love the feel of the classic Bigsby arm, which helps bring additional expressiveness to the guitar’s character.
While you probably won’t see the 1454 on the cover of Guitar Player magazine anytime soon, it has become my go-to axe for playing Jazz.
Notable Silvertone 1454 Users:
- Dan Auerbach
- Alison Sudol
- Josh Homme
- Dave Catching
Whenever I’m looking for unique, jangly rhythm tones or unidentified lead tones, the Danelectro DC-59 is my go-to. These guitars are cheap and tons of fun to play. Plus, you can’t beat the look of the lightweight Masonite body, dual-concentric volume and tone knobs, and that janky, coke-bottle headstock. I’m just glad the newer iterations — unlike the old ones — have an intonatable saddled bridge, which makes them far more playable.
With the lightweight body and lipstick pickups, you get an airy, twangy tone like no other guitar out there. When played through a Fender amp, you get an added dose of top-end sparkle, which is perfect for cutting through a dense mix, even when using loads of distortion.
It’s not fair to label the DC-59 as a one-trick-pony, as it can do so much more than bring sparkle to the party. Just look at Jimmy Page, who often tuned his Dano a step down to punchy, dirty, mid-heavy tones. Danelectro guitars are wonderful for those looking to impart some classic edge to their arsenal of tones.
Plus, the ultra-lightweight body makes the Danelectro one of the best travel companions around.
Notable Danelectro DC-59 Users:
- Jimmy Page
- Mark Knopfler
- Ry Cooder
Capturing The World of Tone With The Fab 5
From the soft lulls of low-tone Jazz to the heavy screeches of driving hard rock, these five guitars always have my back.
While having a roomful of guitars gives you a lot of options, having a solid collection of five go-to guitars that cover the tonal spectrum will do the trick for most guitarists. Having a less-is-more approach allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the instruments you do have. The range of tones you can yield from just a few guitars may surprise you.