For decades, the recording studio has been the testing ground of great musicianship, creativity, and gear. The moment the red recording light is, all the flaws and imperfections of your playing and instrument are the first to stand out.
In this familiar scenario, a guitar fit for recording will make your life easier, remove some of the pressure of being under the producer’s microscope and ultimately help you record the best take possible.
In the 10 years of being a studio musician, I have experimented with multiple acoustic and electric guitars on hundreds of records; thus, I came up with my criteria of what makes a guitar great for recording and a list of the best I still use today.
Whether you are recording your demos in your home studio or are preparing your start on the session scene, this article will guide you toward the best guitar guitars for recording.
Bottom Line Up-Front
The best guitars for recording are highly reliable instruments with excellent tuning and intonation that offer a wide range of sounds or serve a particular role. There are different categories of guitars for different gain stages that you must have for a complete recording rig – ready for anything your inspiration or recording session can throw at you.
Your best options are going for premium brands or modifying your existing guitar.
What Makes a Guitar Fit for Recording?
A good guitar to record has to fit some rigorous non-negotiable criteria and a few relaxed ones that depend on the player’s taste and style. I have personally gone to great lengths to analyze why recording in the studio is harder than playing live – and besides some 10 000 hours of practice, the guitar is a big part of the reason.
Whether you record at home or in the studio, you must aim for the following.
- Tuning stability and intonation have to be as perfect as possible. Many great takes are ruined by a guitar slightly sharp on the high frets, and you want to avoid that.
- It should be as noiseless as possible with silent pickups, reliable electronics, and hardware that is solid and does not move.
- The tone must be the ‘industry standard’ of the genre, leaving you enough versatility to find the proper sound for the song and even cover some ground out of its specific use.
- The playability must be exactly what you look for without giving you a hard time doing anything up or below the neck.
- A loud big body is preferred for acoustic guitars as they sound best when miced up.
- For both acoustic and electric, you want to avoid a boomy low-end. Guitars live in the mid-range, and it’s not uncommon for engineers to take the bass to 0 on the pre-amp or amp.
- It does not need frequent setups.
Ideally, you want to aim for big brands when buying a guitar for recording, as the Teles and Les Pauls defined what a guitar should sound like, and you want to recreate those sounds. I am asked multiple times to play a Strat or Gibson in the studio as that’s the sound artists want on their songs.
A studio fit is a notch higher than the standard fit to record the guitar as the pressures to have premium instruments get higher the bigger the studio and record. Some producers and artists I have worked for sometimes ask for specific vintage gear that you either need to own or offer a similar alternative.
How Many Guitars Do You Need for Recording?
To have a complete recording rig, you need to fill the main guitar categories for both acoustic and electric. If you only record specific genres, for example, prog metal guitar, you can skip to your class; however, for most players who have a mix of clean and distorted guitars, you need to fill these categories the best you can.
If you can only afford a few guitars, the first one to aim for is the do-it-all electric. Every session musician owns a Strat because of the ground it can cover, besides being excellent in some styles.
A combination of humbuckers and single coils, coil taps, tremolos with a bridge lock, and guitars with similar gadgets are helpful. My personal jack is my modded mexican strat, on which I replaced the bridge single coil with a single coil-sized humbucker.
The Clean & Crunchy Masters
Different gain stages require different guitars. Teles, Strats, and everything with bright sparkly quality single coils are necessary, especially for modern pop, where guitars have a hard time cutting on a dense mix with synthesizers and effects.
The higher the gain, we go into the land of rock n’ roll, where single coils and P-90s hold up well.
The Dirty and Heavy
When the distortions pedal is on, common in the 80s as it is today in modern rock and metal, you need a humbucker-packed guitar. Sometimes, you need the well-rounded and silent humbucker to play or double single-coil lines.
You’d be surprised how many, at first soft-sounding songs are recorded on heavy guitars due to the tight nature of sound,
The Stylish Ones
Certain sounds call for a specific guitar in rock history and beyond. For example, The airy thin Rickenbacker sound inspired by the Beatles, The B Bender and Resonator used in country, 12-string acoustics and electrics, or baritone guitars are particular instruments with distinct uses.
These are guitars that you buy if you’re devoted to a style, blends of genres, or want to spice up your recordings. The good news is that you can have one that is not very expensive and will still do its job perfectly since you only need it in specific cases.
Out of all, every recording guitarist should have is the 12-string acoustic due to its highly versatile nature and how it can inspire new songs.
The One Great Acoustic
Luckily, Acoustic guitars are recorded using a microphone and rarely DI; you can use only one great one, like the great Martin D-28, to record almost everything. Choosing a good microphone for your acoustic guitar is nearly as important as the guitar itself.
My List of Best Guitarsfor Recording
I could pick from hundreds of guitars, yet I have refrained from the list of a few popular choices for each guitar category I detailed before. This way, you can use this guide as your reference point even if you don’t have budgets for these specific models or can’t find them.
Fender American Vintage II 1951 Telecaster Electric Guitar
The Telecaster is considered by many as the greatest studio guitar of all time. The instrument’s simplicity makes it the most reliable workhorse that can take any shape and color, depending on who holds it.
Rock’ n’ Roll was born on a Tele and evolved on it. It can fit incredibly well in all genres, is an icon of country, a great tool to use in Pop music and iconic rock guitar, for which Jimi Page gave up the iconic Les Paul to record Stairway to Heaven.
The crisp cleans, crunchy chords, and twangy attack make the Tele iconic. The heavy section is the only region where the Tele fails to deliver unless modded.
- Incredibly solid and reliable
- Highly versatile and easy to play
- Great for classic sounds
- Light and easy to carry
- Does not handle too much gain well
- The bridge pickup can sound too bright
- The lack of tremolo can be limiting
Fender American Ultra Stratocaster
The Stratocaster tops the list of versatile jack-of-all-trades recording guitars, fitting almost everywhere there is space for a rhythm or lead to kick in.
The instrument was and is so popular that it became a norm among working musicians to own at least one great Strat and arguably the shape even non-guitar players have in mind when thinking about an electric guitar.
A woody glassy clean at-the-edge-of-breakup tone might be the best way to describe the Strat tone that Jimi Hendrix first made popular, and decades of guitar legends led Knopfler, Beck, Gilmour, and SRV then followed.
The Strat offers a broad tonal palette of sounds which can be taken to the extreme by switching a few single coils for humbuckers. Most of my work has been recorded on a Strat, even though some of the artists for whom I record guitar sessions remotely assume I used multiple guitars.
- Highly versatile guitar
- Excellent for classic and modern tones
- Very reliable guitar for the studio and road
- Ergonomic body and easy-to-play neck
- Easy to modify guitar
- Not great for high gain in SSS configuration
- Some of the pickups positions can be very noisy
- The volume knob can get in the way if you don’t get used to it
Gibson Les Paul Standard ’60s AAA Top Electric Guitar
The sound of rock is preserved inside a Gibson Les Paul. The guitar brought the power to rock and the darkness to blues more than any other instrument. It’s a must-have dirty guitar with the right blend of sweetness and bite.
The Les Paul is far more versatile than many suggest as a recording instrument. It’s an exceptional rock machine with an iconic overdrive tone but a similarly impressive edge-of-breakup sound and crisp clean that fit almost everywhere.
You can use it exclusively as rock machinery, but you’ll be rewarded if you spend more time getting the best out of it in other styles. If you’re lucky to own a Plexi Marshall, the world of vintage classic rock tones will open up.
As great as the guitar is, there are a few flaws behind the extremely high price. Few people realize it, but all vintage Les Pauls have slight intonation problems due to how they were built back in the day – that is not at all an issue. In the dirty world of blues and rock, but it might matter in the world of gridded pop recordings.
- Excellent rock and blues guitar for classic and modern tones
- Very versatile instruments
- Easy to play short-scale neck high and down the neck
- Noiseless pickups
- A lot of natural sustain
- More prone to tuning and intonation issues
- Heavy guitar
- More prone to headstock breaking
- It can sound slightly boomy unless properly equalized
- Notorious for being overly expensive
Ibanez Prestige Electric Guitar
After Van Halen brought the Superstrat into existence with his homemade creation, Japanese brands all had their breakthrough in the new heavy rock and glam world. Out of all, Ibanez is the one that managed to get hold of the best players and set the standard for the do-it-all rock guitar.
The Ibanez Prestige best encompasses the characteristics of a studio guitar fit for a modern rock record. Technical players like Satriani, Vai, and the studio ace Steve Lukather all play variations of this guitar, which from the 80s to now, delivers clean compressed cleans up to heavy, aggressive rock riffs and leads.
The locking mechanisms and modern tap coil option make it close to the ultimate modern studio guitar. And If you want to go lower, other models offer extra strings and tighter tunning stability.
- Very stable tuning and intonation
- Excellent for high-gain amps
- Easy to play neck for technical players
- The tremolo is extremely table
- Very versatile for virtually every genre
- The clean can sound overly compressed.
- The coil tap single coil is not a perfect representation of a single-coil
Gibson ES-335 Figured Semi-Hollowbody Electric Guitar
Larry Carlton tops every list of best studio musicians, so his trusty 335 could not be off the list. This guitar has been on thousands of records, from the hip Steely Dan jazz rock excellence to the Joni Mitchel soft folky tunes with a bluesy spice.
An incredibly reliable and versatile guitar, the 335 would fit every studio situation in which the T-type humbuckers can deliver. The pickups stand between a P90 and high output humbucker and have a unique raw bite when distorted and a rounded, warm sound when clean.
The fretboard is my favorite part of this guitar, as it allows for easy access on all frets, delivering for styles.
If the 335 is too expensive, its Epiphone counterparts are still great guitars to record with at home.
- Warm, rounded tone that can quickly become aggressive
- Incredibly versatile for anything from Jazz to Rock
- The clean sound is crips and almost acoustic-like
- Easy-to-play and access neck
- Very dynamic humbuckers
- The sound shrills at a very high gain
- Tend to feedback to very high volume
Martin D-28 Acoustic Guitar
The D-28 had a way of ending up in the hands of the right people throughout history. David Gilmour shares a story of how he bought it randomly on the street, and then it became the guitar that inspired the famous ‘Wish You Were Here’ Iconic intro. Like him, many in the world of folk, pop, and country share similar stories.
What makes the big dreadnought Martin, an exceptional guitarist is its airy nature. Strumming will always sound full and light, while fingerstyle warm and rounded due to the focused mid-range and lack of excess low end.
The one guitar I would save from my studio in case of a fire would be my D-28. It’s the perfect songwriter’s partner you can write and record a song with.
Taylor is a close match to Martin, with a more affordable option of excellent quality.
- Rich acoustic tone
- Sound fantastic under the mic
- Great for fingerstyle and strumming
- Excellent compassion for singer-songwriters
- Loud guitar, perfect for unplugged recording sessions
- Hard to carry due to its size
- Hard to play for people with small hands
- Not a great fit for lead playing
Epiphone Hummingbird 12-string Acoustic-electric Guitar
A 12-string is a must-have guitar if you’re dedicated to recording. Even though it’s a particular sound, the uses of a 12 are beyond only being the main rhythm guitar of a song. The instrument’s layering possibilities are the main reason you might buy one, even if you rarely play it.
The Hummingbird Epiphone‘s airy nature and iconic legacy make it perfect for recording. It still falls into the range of affordable instruments, but it does its role as a support rhythm instrument or main acoustic guitar perfectly under the studio mic.
Another advantage it has it’s the electronics. Typically acoustics are only recorded on a mic, yet what’s unique about a 120string is that it can make for a particular sound when DI and remove the need for a 12-string electric as long as the tone is clean.
- Great airy unplugged 12-string tone
- Loud guitar
- Fantastic for strumming chords
- Great to add as a layering guitar
- Sound great under the mic
- It often needs retuning.
- The electronics are not very flat and versatile
- Not the best guitar to play live on big gigs
- Hard to play for small-handed people
Question: Can I Record with an Affordable Guitar?
Answer: Yes, you can record with an affordable guitar if you ensure it fits some of the hard criteria in which every recording guitar should fit. You can modify it to your vision if it’s not the most reliable instrument or well-known brand.
Guitarists have been hot-rodding their guitars for decades to make the studio. In fact, the mods the wrecking crew did to their instrument and studio experimenting of the 60s is the basis of modern recording instruments.
• If you want to modify your guitar to make it studio fit, I would first pick the right guitar; the biggest reason would be the unique tone or playability, I would first replace the bridge, tuning keys, and nut to the best you can buy for maximum stability and intonation.
• Clean up the wiring to avoid noise and change all electronics that don’t affect the tone want to preserve.
• Change the frets if the guitar is very old.
There is more to it that we have included in our full guide on modifying guitars.
Question: How the Studio Pros Choose their Guitars?
Answer: Every instrument must be tested in the heat of battle to know if it’s good for playing at high levels. I can pick up any guitar from a wall and tell if it’s good to play in 30 seconds, yet I can only tell if it’s suitable for recording or a big gig after I have tested it.
As I learned from Nashville’s guitar whisperer, Tom Bukovac, I give a new guitar two sessions in the studio – if it fails both times, I either take it back to the shop or find a new use for it.
Question: Should I Use New or Used Guitar For Recording?
Answer: You can use a used guitar for recording if you ensure it stays in tune well and has no flaws that cause noise, buzzing, or failure. Used guitars will generally need a setup, and old vintage gear might need re-fretting and changing the nut, bridge, and tuners.
Question: What Do I Need to Record Guitars at Home?
Answer: You can start recording at home using only on Microphone, a sound card, a laptop with plugins, and a few acoustic and electric guitars, as specified in our guide for home recording.