I’ve been a musician for over 20 years of my life, it’s been a journey that never seems to stop producing enjoyable challenges and experiences. I’m a multi-instrumentalist, meaning that I’ve learned all manner of instruments from the violin to the trombone, but by far the most fun for me has been the electric guitar.
If you disagree with this statement, I bet that you’ve never learned the instrument. It’s just so much fun to play, I’ve racked up countless hours both throughout my childhood and adulthood, and I’m not showing any signs of slowing down. I think one of the main reasons for this is simply because electric guitars are so darn versatile.
Many instruments are designed specifically for certain genres or purposes, but not the electric guitar. However, it must be said that some electric guitars are more versatile than others.
For this reason, I’ve decided to challenge myself by considering what truly are the most versatile electric guitars. If you’ve ever wondered about the answer to this question, read on to find out my take!
Bottom Line Up Front: The Gibson Les Paul is in my opinion the absolute most versatile electric guitar on the market. It’s flexible both in terms of its tone and timbre, its visual aesthetic works in just about any musical scenario, and there is even a significantly cheaper Epiphone alternative suitable for smaller budgets.
Why Are Electric Guitars So Versatile in General?
Before we start taking a look at the specifics behind versatile electric guitars, let’s think broadly for a moment – why exactly are electric guitars considered to be versatile in the first place? This is an excellent question and one that not many people take the time to ask.
Head to any music event in the world, and there is an extremely high chance that you will find an electric guitar. It doesn’t matter if it’s at a death metal concert, a school orchestra, a broadway musical, or a church choir – the chances of you hearing an electric guitar are very high.
This is for one simple reason – the electric nature of guitars allows them to be played in so many different ways. Guitars were already versatile as they were before they became electric. There are tons of different ways to tune them, you can pick them, strum them, or even bow them. However, once you have an electric guitar, the opportunities are endless.
You can apply distortion for a heavy sound, reverb for added atmosphere, a grain delay for experimentation, or even a loop pedal to form a one-man band! This is a versatility that you simply don’t get with other instruments. Sure, there is an element of versatility with other electric instruments such as electric basses and violins, but these instruments generally have more of a fixed role.
Electric guitars on the other hand can be found in any genre, performing any role, and can cover everything from the softest and most subtle sounds to the most raunchy and explicit solos. It’s a level of versatility and eclecticism that you just don’t find in other instruments, and it’s one of the main reasons that I love the guitar so darn much.
What Makes a Versatile Electric Guitar?
So, I’ve answered why I think electric guitars are so versatile in the first place, but surely there are specific electric guitar models and brands that are more versatile than others?
That’s right – whilst all electric guitars are pretty versatile, some are way more versatile than others, whilst others are only found within specific genres or playing styles. Let’s take a look at exactly what these defining qualities are.
This first quality is perhaps the most important when choosing a versatile electric guitar – a flexible tone. When I say tone, I simply mean the quality of the sound, otherwise known as the timbre. This is super important because it’s ultimately why we play the guitar in the first place, for its iconic and versatile sound.
Most electric guitars have tone dials that allow you to adjust the tone of the guitar and increase its versatility, but this won’t always save you. I’ve come across tons of guitars that just do not feel versatile. An example of this is the Schecter Reaper-7 Multi-Scale Electric Guitar.
If you’re a metal fan, it’s an absolute cracker, but that is because the tone is designed with this in mind. As a result, it feels almost impossible to play anything that doesn’t sound like heavy metal on these guitars, and for me, that’s a problem.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a flexible tone when choosing a versatile guitar. The tone dials should help you here, but some specialized guitars are simply unrecoverable when it comes to this.
Another factor that makes electric guitars so versatile is the range of features that they can have. When you take a look at a classical instrument such as the cello or the trumpet, the instrument is generally universal. It doesn’t matter want brand or model you go for, the features will always be the same.
This is not the case with electric guitars. Some electric guitars have kill switches that allow the player to mute the volume and create interesting rhythmic effects. Others have flexible bridges and tremolo bars that allow the performer to bend notes and produce wah-wah effects. Some are even custom-built with locked tuning pegs that facilitate the stability of complex tunings.
I even have an experimental musician friend who has modded his guitar, complete with custom circuitry to facilitate feedback loops and six miniature EBows! It’s completely insane, and something that could only ever be achievable on electric guitars. These instruments have electronics at the core of their build, and this opens all sorts of windows for experimentation and innovation.
Truss Rods and Tunings
This next point may seem a little unusual to you initially, but it’s one of the most important contributing factors to a versatile electric guitar – they need a truss rod! If you’ve never heard of a truss rod, it’s essentially a long piece of metal that acts as the spine of the neck, ultimately determining its bend.
So, what does this have to do with versatility? Well, truss rods keep electric guitars stable, and they can be adjusted to facilitate different preferences when it comes to action and intonation.
Most importantly, however, electric guitars gain a huge element of versatility from the fact that their tunings can be changed dramatically, but that would not be possible without a truss rod.
It’s pretty rare these days to come across an electric guitar without a truss rod, but they do exist. Watch out for these, because you might find that the heavy tuning of Open C that you were looking for is suddenly out of reach!
Aesthetic and Customization
It’s undeniable that the audio qualities and features of an electric guitar are what truly matter when it comes to versatility, but there is a secondary factor that is important to many – the aesthetic of the instrument.
Electric guitars are some of the coolest looking instruments out there, but some look better in certain scenarios. Take the famous Flying V style guitar for example – there is nothing cooler than that when it comes to seeing a thrash metal band live in concert! However, can you imagine Eric Clapton using that model when playing one of his tear-jerking classics? It just wouldn’t fit right.
The same would go for a death metal band using a telecaster, there would simply be something weird about it. Luckily, there are tons of guitars out there that seem to slide into just about any genre.
In my opinion, this all comes down to having a neutral design – it shouldn’t be designed to look too serious, too metal, or too tongue-in-cheek. A nice neutral guitar aesthetic will allow it to look cool in just about any musical scenario.
However, it’s not just about the model of the guitar, but also how customizable it is visually. I mentioned earlier that a telecaster wouldn’t work very well in a heavy metal environment, but I might change my mind if I could get a black and white skulled finish for it!
A lot of popular guitars have all sorts of finishes, scratchplate designs, inlays, and other opportunities for customization, and these visual accessories can make all the difference.
My Top 3 Picks for the Most Versatile Electric Guitars
So, in my opinion, the most versatile guitars out there should have a balance of versatility when it comes to tone, features, build, and aesthetic.
This may sound like a lot to ask for, but there are tons of guitars out there that seem to have a bit of everything.
I’ve made this quick list of the top three examples of versatile electric guitars in my books – read on to find out if I picked your favorite!
When I was discussing the contributing factors to a versatile electric guitar earlier, I mentioned that one of the most important points is a neutral design. This might have sounded a little bit vague, so if you want an example, the Gibson ES 335 or alternatives such as the ES 339 are prime examples.
Take a look at its aesthetic – it’s got a pretty large body, well-rounded curves, a hollow design, and a majestic looking bridge. All of these factors just make it not only look the part on any stage but sound the part too.
Just have a skip through its musical history and it’ll speak for itself – blues guitar master BB King used to swear by this guitar, jazz musicians such as Eric Johnson loved it too, Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters is rarely seen without one and even Johnny Marr from The Smiths played it! It doesn’t take a musical expert to realize that that is a bonkers selection of musicians for just a single guitar, but the Gibson ES 335 pulls it off.
I’ve sadly never owned this guitar and to be honest, I’m not particularly fond of the aesthetic myself – there’s something about the hollowed-out build that doesn’t work for me. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate how it shines in terms of versatility!
- A gorgeous sounding instrument due to its unique yet neutral hollow build
- Reasonably priced considering its reputation
- Its versatility is demonstrated perfectly by its superstar-riddled portfolio
- Some people would argue that this instrument is better for rock music
- I’m not a fan of the hollow aesthetic, although other people are – it just comes down to personal preference.
Ahh, the Fender Stratocaster – what an absolute classic of a guitar. I started to learn the guitar on my father’s Martin jumbo acoustic guitar and I loved it despite the physical pain that my fingers and arms went through, so imagine my sheer joy when he bought me a Fender Strat for my 10th birthday. I was thrilled to play something more lightweight and easy to play, suddenly it felt like my fingers and hands were perfectly shaped for the fretboard.
This isn’t the only reason I loved this guitar though. I was beginning to go through a musical journey at this stage in my life, starting loving pop-punk bands like Green Day and progressing through to brit-pop, indie, ska, and even death metal! Luckily for me, the Fender Stratocaster’s tone was fantastic at handling this versatility. It seemed to me that it didn’t matter what kind of music I played, there was always a pickup and tone-setting that worked perfectly with it.
My Fender Strat is a bit tired these days, but if I’m ever unsure which electric guitar to bring to band practice, I know that this one will fit right in. It’s timeless.
- A ridiculously good value for money guitar, it doesn’t get much better than this
- Due to its popularity, there is a huge range of customizable finishes and scratchplates for the strat
- A gorgeously versatile tone that works in just about any genre
- Pickup and tone controls that massively increase the already high versatility
- Some people claim that Stratocasters are more suitable for indie-rock than other genres, but I disagree – it’s a versatile sound and looks.
The first versatile electric guitar on my list simply has to be the Epiphone Les Paul. This guitar is an absolute classic and I challenge you to change my mind on the fact that it is the most versatile electric guitar out there. Firstly, let’s take a look at the aesthetic – it’s a nice and neutral shape that is available in all kinds of finishes, with some models such as the Buckethead signature providing additional features such as a killswitch!
In the standard model though it has a reliable truss rod, a ton of excellent timbral dials, a strong bridge for tremolo, and most importantly, a tone that fits just about any genre!
The only real problem with this guitar is that it’s seriously expensive due to its quality, but that’s where the most important part of the versatility comes in – there’s a significantly cheaper alternative, the Epiphone Les Paul! It doesn’t sound quite as good, but I have always loved the fact that if you are on a budget, you can still benefit from this incredibly versatile guitar. Love it.
- There aren’t many guitars with such an excellent reputation, being favored by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and even Buckethead!
- The build quality is superb, being hand-made in the USA by expert guitar builders
- A fantastically stable truss rod and bridge combination making it an excellent choice for versatile tuners
- If the Gibson Les Paul is out of your price range, you can still enjoy its versatility in the form of the significantly cheaper Epiphone Les Paul
- Very expensive especially if you are a
beginner, but at least there is an Epiphone alternative
I sure have covered a ton of information in regards to what makes a versatile electric guitar – it’s been quite exhausting! To chill things out a little, let’s take a break with a nice and digestible FAQ. Hopefully, it answers some pressing questions that have been on your mind!
Question: What Makes Electric Guitars So Versatile?
Answer: Electric guitars are generally known for being versatile due to their wide range of possible tunings, a multitude of feature modifications, different aesthetics for different genres, and generally appearing in just about any musical situation.
Question: What Should You Always Look For in a Versatile Electric Guitar?
Answer: When purchasing an electric guitar, you should search for something that has versatility when it comes to its tone and timbre, build quality, features, and visual aesthetic.
Question: Which Electric Guitars are Not Versatile?
Answer: Examples of guitars that are not versatile are usually designed for specific genres, such as the Schecter Reaper-7 Multi-Scale Electric Guitar, the Solar E2.6 or Flying V builds.
Question: What is the Most Versatile Electric Guitar?
Answer: The answer to this question is subjective, but many people consider the Gibson Les Paul to be the most versatile electric guitar in history due to its neutral body design and flexible tone.
Wow, that sure was an intense journey across the history of versatility in my favorite instrument, the electric guitar. There are so many things that I love about this instrument, but it is simply undeniable that eclecticism and versatility are in the top three things that I like about it.
The versatility of an electric guitar depends greatly on the specific model that you purchase, and I really would recommend that you avoid guitars such as flying Vs or Reaper-7s that are designed for specific genres. They may look cool when you see them in Guitar World, but it’s not necessarily what you will need in the long term!
If I were to decide for you, I know that I would be going for a Les Paul. The aesthetic, features, and tone make it incredibly versatile, and if you can’t afford a Gibson, you even have a budget Epiphone option to further increase the guitar’s versatility.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and show your guitar some love, and don’t forget to consider assessing your current electric guitar in terms of its versatility and whether you should get a more versatile option. Whether you decide to stick with what you’ve already got or purchase something fresh, I wish you the best of luck on your electric guitar journey, rock star!