A big birthday, a graduation present, retirement, a tax rebate, a lucky day at the races – what better way is there to celebrate a special occasion than by investing in one of the best high-end electric guitars?
There’s so much joy to savor. That wow moment when you open the case for the very first time; the weight in your hands as you pick it up; the glossy smoothness of the thin nitro lacquer; the allure of the select tonewood top as it catches the light; the tactile feel of the perfectly finished neck. Then there’s the tone…
Let’s rewind. When you can purchase a good guitar for $350, and a great one for $750, why would you feel the need to spend a lot more than that?
Well, if you appreciate masterful craftsmanship that’s been devoted to building a top-class instrument from the finest materials, that’s probably reason enough. At this level, you’re investing in a piece of art as much as you are a guitar.
As well as the best tonewoods, it’ll benefit from outstanding components, making it an instrument that’ll be a delight to play as well as hear.
Then there’s the exclusivity. We’re all about accessibility here at Guitar World, but even we can't deny the seductive appeal of owning an exceptional instrument. Whatever genre of music you enjoy playing, there’s a high-end electric guitar out there waiting for you. Go on, you know you’re worth it…
Best high-end electric guitars: Our top picks
It’s got to be the '52 Tele, hasn’t it? It’s not the most expensive guitar here – that honor goes to ESP’s Snakebyte. Clearly, it’s not the most proficient either – the Ibanez PIA is far more accomplished.
What it does do is exude character and charisma by the bucketload. Fender’s Custom Shop has done a fine job of recreating the iconic ’52 Telecaster; so much so that this is undoubtedly a better guitar than any that rolled off the production line back then.
The ’52 wasn’t the first electric guitar, or even the first Tele, but it’s the first one we’d choose to start our collection of high-end guitars.
And the second? We know this is going to be a controversial decision, but our second recommendation is the versatile Yamaha SA2200 (opens in new tab). Yes, it’s ‘just a Yamaha’, but this guitar is so beautifully made, and from such fine materials, that we don’t understand why it’s not priced $1,000/£1,000 higher. The fact that you can find them listed for about a third less than retail makes the SA2200 the bargain of the century. It’s a high-end guitar for the people.
Best high-end electric guitars: Product guide
The ’52 wasn’t the very first Telecaster, but in most guitarists’ eyes it’s the most iconic. This is Fender Custom Shop’s latest homage to Leo’s masterpiece – it’s about as complicated as a knife and fork, but none the worse for that.
Two Custom Shop hand-wound ’50/’51 Blackguard pickups sit at the very heart of this Tele, connected up with ’51 modified Nocaster wiring, which enables you to blend both pickups together in switch position one. The resulting tone is reassuringly vintage, but a Tele like this can journey across any sonic territory from country to rock to jazz.
The blonde body, which gets progressively more butterscotch as the relicing escalates, comprises two pieces of select ash with a bolted-on ‘soft V’ maple neck. The latter boasts a vintage compound-radius fingerboard and 21 narrow tall frets. You can choose between six levels of relic, from new old stock through to super-heavy relic.
It’s not lost on us that the world’s first mass-produced electric guitar is now being exquisitely crafted by some of Fender’s best luthiers. Is it as good as an original? In many ways, it’ll be substantially better.
Yamaha rarely makes mistakes, but it’s dropped a real clanger here. They've given this semi-hollow SA2200 an RRP of just $3,148/£2,422. More mystifying still, many retailers are choosing to discount these beauties.
Maybe the issue is that the SA2200’s body shape looks somewhat familiar – people who insist on a genuine Gibson ES-335/ES-355 are prepared to pay top dollar for one.
The SA2200 is made in low numbers in the same Hamamatsu shop where Yamaha makes its high-end acoustics (we’re talking five figures for a GC82). The quality of craftsmanship is off the charts – we challenge you to find anyone with a bad thing to say about this guitar.
It’s voiced slightly differently to an ES-335 – perhaps a touch smoother with a little more clarity in the mids – and the Alnico V humbuckers can be coil-split for single-coil tones, too. With its flame maple/sycamore laminate body, mahogany neck, ebony fingerboard and Gotoh hardware, the SA2200 is good for any genre from jazz to rock.
In the early ’50s, Les Paul requested a more sophisticated-looking version of his newly invented eponymous guitar; one that looked like it was dressed up in a tuxedo. He was, after all, playing some of the smarter jazz venues at the time. Gibson’s answer was the piano-black Les Paul Custom with gold accouterments, quickly nicknamed ‘The Black Beauty’.
This version, which is Gibson Custom Shop’s original-spec recreation of the ’68 Custom reissue (stay with us) is simply breathtaking. Don’t let those smart looks deceive you, though – in one guise or another, the LP Custom has seen active duty with everyone from Randy Rhoads to James Hetfield. Beauty one minute, beast the next.
The maple-capped hog body is loaded with two ’68 custom humbuckers for killer tone and incredible amounts of sustain. Despite its vintage looks, the neck is a medium C-shape with a relatively flat, 12”-radius ebony fretboard, so it’s a very comfortable handful to play.
Some of us still think of PRS as the newbie on the block, so it’s surprising to recall that Paul Reed Smith launched his Custom 24 guitar almost 37 years ago now. It remains his flagship guitar. He’s launched plenty of other models in its wake, including the vintage-inspired McCarty, but if you want the purest PRS DNA then this is the one to own. We’d even go as far as to claim that it’s a modern classic.
PRS has done well with the Custom 24 because Paul’s attention to detail is second to none. His guitars are legendary for the level of craftsmanship invested in them, which is reassuring when you’re parting with this kind of money. He’s also a remarkable engineer, designing not just the guitars but many of the components, too, including PRS’s innovative trem systems and its pickups.
The original Custom 24 was lauded for its beauty and versatility. With its Fender-like, 25”-scale length, Strat-like trem system and Gibson-like dual humbuckers, it covered a lot of ground. The version we’re recommending here adds even more to the mix, with an LR Baggs piezo system, which enables you to go from rich humbucker tones to the natural sound of an acoustic in a heartbeat. You can even blend the two.
Nothing looks or sounds like a Gretsch White Falcon. It so belongs in another era, propped up on the front seat of a ’59 Cadillac Eldorado, yet it’s found favor with musicians as diverse as Don Felder, Neil Young, Billy Duffy and John Frusciante.
While everyone falls in love with its historic good looks and iconic tone, back in the day the White Falcon suffered a reputation for being – how can we put this politely? – idiosyncratic to own and play. Tuning issues, noise issues, feedback issues, floating bridge issues – it wasn’t an easy guitar to live with.
Gretsch has cast aside all of this antique quirkiness with its Players Edition. It still makes a bold visual statement, but the Filter'Tron pups have been revoiced for more contemporary tones, the circuitry has been updated for added versatility, and the body thickness is now a comfortable 2.5” deep.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s still a Gretsch – there’s barely a square inch that doesn’t dazzle with gold or glisten with glitter. The thing is, it now plays as good as it looks.
How do you improve on a masterpiece? This is Suhr’s modern take on the classic Strat-style guitars of the ’50s that we all know and love, and it’s a real departure.
The Standard Plus’s slender body, sharp-radiused edges and long horns give it an assertively modern look – a taste of what’s to come. Then there’s the stunning flame maple top, the scraped binding, the roasted maple neck and the beautifully polished stainless-steel frets – eye-catching features that mark this guitar out as something very special. S-types aren’t built any better than this.
It’s more than just a pretty face, though, and the Standard Plus’s HSS setup gives you plenty to play with. The neck and middle single coils sound beautifully vintage; bell-like, clear and articulate. They’re also hum-free, thanks to Suhr’s proprietary Silent Single Coil System II.
Select the high-output SSH+ humbucker in the bridge and the Standard Plus will dramatically shift personality. Dial in some modern high-gain settings on your amp and it’ll start flirting with strident metal tones. Back off and you’ll be in classic rock territory.
Times have moved on and Suhr has moved with them. If the thought of a beautifully made, thoroughly versatile S-type excites you, then look no further. Yes, Suhr!
Who needs ‘vintage ’50s looks’ when you can have a guitar designed by one of the world’s greatest contemporary guitarists? It’s no secret that brands such as Gibson and Fender feel constrained by their heritage, unable to properly update their product lines because their loyal following regards anything non-vintage with suspicion; disdain even.
Not so with Steve Vai and Ibanez, a fruitful partnership that’s spawned some refreshingly modern takes on the electric guitar. The PIA is their latest creation, named after Steve’s wife Pia Maiocco, in case you were wondering. Isn’t that sweet.
It’s Steve’s shot at improving on what many already consider to be the ultimate guitar – the legendary Ibanez Jem, which he developed in 1985. Visually, the PIA is a slightly mellower interpretation of the aggressively styled Jem. Apparently, the new ‘petal grip’ and blossom fretboard inlay symbolize unity, companionship and interpersonal bonds.
Steve hasn’t gone all soft on us, though. Under the hood, there’s a trio of mid-to-high output DiMarzio UtoPIA pickups, voiced for smooth highs, balanced mids and a pronounced lower end. In neck and bridge positions, you get full humbucker tones, and in positions two, three and four the ’buckers are split.
Other contemporary features include the five-piece maple/walnut neck, the rosewood fretboard that’s scalloped at the dusty end for easier bends, and the ultra-reliable Edge trem system with its unique lion’s claw cavity design.
Does the PIA represent the ultimate in guitar development? Only you can decide…
If you’re a huge Metallica fan with a significant amount of wonga burning a hole in your pocket, then welcome to your new guitar. Brand-new for 2022, the Snakebyte is the very model that James Hetfield uses. Not a tribute or an interpretation – the very same one.
No, it’s not cheap but it is handmade, one guitar at a time, by Japanese luthiers known to possess an almost religious fervor for quality and attention to detail. You won’t find a better-made guitar.
The pickups are James’s signature JH ‘HET’ humbuckers. These are powerful active pups, but James and the team at ESP have tweaked them to deliver nuance and dynamics more associated with passive pickups.
The body and neck are finest-grade mahogany, and the fretboard is glassy-smooth ebony. ESP strap locks, Sperzel locking tuners, along with a TonePros locking TOM bridge and tailpiece, complete the hardware.
That camo finish? It's James’s choice; a camouflage pattern based on a design used by hunting gear manufacturer KUIU. It’s splashed all over the bundled hard case, too.
You can play jazz on a thinline ES-335 or a Casino – heck, some guitarists even get away with playing it on a Telecaster. But if you’re really serious about your playing, at some point you’re going to hanker after a proper jazz box like the Heritage Eagle.
The Eagle looks the part, but more importantly it delivers that quintessential jazz tone that only a large hollowbody can. There’s nothing much new to see here, just good old- fashioned traditional craftsmanship.
It’s a long story but, essentially, when Gibson moved out of its original Kalamazoo factory in 1985, some of the luthiers stayed put to found Heritage Guitars. So, it could be argued that the Heritage Eagle can claim a shared lineage with some of Gibson’s classic archtops, such as the fabulous L-5.
There’s nothing ground-breaking about the timeless Eagle – spruce top, deep maple body, ebony fretboard, twin Seth Lover humbuckers, white binding, nitro finish. Would you want it any other way?
Best high-end electric guitars: Buying advice
Congratulations! If you’re planning on buying a high-end electric guitar, not only will you gain many hours of pleasure from it, you’ll also be investing in an heirloom-quality instrument that can be enjoyed by generations of players to come.
But where should you start? As with any guitar purchase, think about the basics. What genre, or genres, of music do you intend playing? Which body style appeals to you most? What size will be most comfortable to play? The clarity of a single coil vs the warmth of a humbucker, and so on.
Nailing down the basics will help you to narrow down your choice, but don’t be completely blinkered from the alternatives. After all, even Eric Clapton – who was originally a die-hard Gibson player – eventually found the Strat to be a revelation.
The hierarchy of luthiers
What is the definition of a high-end guitar? Cost? These days, the sky’s the limit when it comes to pricing. If you want a diamond-encrusted headstock and gold hardware, then somebody somewhere will build it for you, but the cost of your guitar could easily soar into the tens of thousands of dollars or pounds.
So, to keep this guide manageable, our low-tide mark is around $2,000/£2,000, and our high-tide mark is four times that. Why? At the lower end of that scale, brands start to introduce their ‘pro’ series guitars – think Fender with its American Ultra Luxe range. At the higher end, you’ll be getting something very special indeed, but it won’t be excessively blingtastic.
All of the guitars mentioned in this guide are available ‘off the shelf’. You can easily order any of them online, or pop down to your friendly local guitar store and pray that they have one in stock. But that’s only half the story. If you have deep pockets, and a creative outlook, then you can purchase something more individual, or even unique. Here’s how.
Most of the big brands – Fender, Gibson, PRS et al – run custom shops that employ skilled luthiers to produce everything from subtle enhancements to complete one-offs. Fender pioneered this approach, and it currently offers two levels of craft – Custom-built and Masterbuilt.
Fender’s Custom-built facility employs around 50 luthiers, who will customize one of the manufacturer’s base models for you from a catalog of options – neck shape, pickups and so on. The Masterbuilt team is much smaller, and the guitars are far more exclusive. You’ll be working in partnership with one of a dozen big-name luthiers, who can build something totally unique for you. In Fender’s words, no idea is too crazy and no job too large or too small.
We’ve picked Fender as an example, but most brands offer a similar service. Even Yamaha, which is best known for its mass-produced guitars, has a custom shop that’s capable of exhibition-quality work.
Smaller companies, like Suhr and Heritage, don’t produce entry-level models. All of their guitars are low-volume, high-end instruments, but their luthiers will also customize these models further for a fee.
Finally, there are plenty of individual luthiers around the world who will build you a custom guitar. The disadvantage with this option is that they’ll rarely have access to the vast choice of tonewoods that a custom shop working within a corporation like Yamaha does. On the flip side, you’ll end up with a guitar that’s totally individual to you, and the build quality should be high.
The problem with these custom or bespoke options, regardless of whether you’re commissioning a company like Fender or a local luthier, is time. Why wait months, or even a year or more, for a luthier to build you a guitar when you can buy an off-the-shelf guitar from dealers such as Thomann, Sweetwater or Guitar Center?
As well as stocking regular high-end models, it’s common for dealers to carry a good number of custom shop guitars from all the big brands. The spec will usually be quite generic, but they’ll be fine guitars.
It’s also quite common for dealers to stock a limited number of slightly more unusually specced custom shop guitars that they’ll have commissioned some months previously. These are there to help clients who are looking for something a little bit different but without the long wait. Often, these will be labeled ‘dealer select’ or ‘dealer exclusive’.
Of course, there’s absolutely no need to buy a custom shop guitar, as there are plenty of high-end electrics to choose from within most brands’ core ranges. Some are just as expensive and just as well made as their custom counterparts.
Expectations of quality
From a distance, an Epiphone Les Paul and a high-end Gibson Les Paul will look broadly similar. The same observation applies to a Squier Tele and its high-end Fender cousin. So, where’s all your money going?
You can expect a high-end guitar to be flawless. That means no surface imperfections and no significant gaps in areas such as neck pockets. Bindings should be straight, and frets should be perfectly seated, leveled and polished.
Materials should be first-class. Generally speaking, tonewoods become more expensive as the figuring becomes more pronounced, but they should also have excellent acoustic properties and not be overly heavy. Sadly, there’s no standard for quality, so if a guitar top or neck is described as AA or AAA, just consider the descriptor as rough guidance, and remember it has no bearing on the guitar’s sound.
Stainless-steel frets are commonplace on high-end guitars, and some vintage-inclined brands will even formulate glue the way it was made back in the ’50s or ’60s.
You can also expect components to be of a high standard – especially pickups, tuners and trems, but also the kit that’s hidden out of sight, such as wiring, capacitors and switchgear.
Finally, finish is very important. Guitars at this level will almost certainly have a fine coat of nitro-cellulose applied to them. This protects the surface of the wood, looks stunning and becomes even more attractive as it ages. It’s quite a delicate finish, but over time your instrument will build up a glorious patina of wear. Because it’s so thinly applied, it won’t dampen the way your guitar naturally reverberates.
The alternative is polyurethane, which is commonly found on mid- to high-end guitars. This has far better protective qualities but doesn’t age as sympathetically. It works well if applied thinly, but a gloopy layer of polyurethane looks plasticky and will choke your guitar’s tone.
We’re often led to believe that the ’50s and ’60s were the golden decades of electric guitar manufacture, with the best instruments coming out of the US. This is largely nonsense – it’s just that US quality got even worse in the ’70s and ’80s!
The truth is that, right now, quality has never been higher in the traditional guitar-making heartlands of the US, Europe and Japan. Far East nations, such as China, Korea and Indonesia, are also producing incredible work. So, the best time to buy an excellent high-end guitar is now.
Should I buy a high-end electric guitar online?
The simple answer is yes, absolutely. There are a number of good reasons to buy from a reputable online dealer such as Sweetwater or Thomann. First, they operate a bombproof returns system, which makes it easy to return a guitar that you’re not satisfied with.
The second reason is stock. Like it or not, these dealers have access to a far wider range of stock than any local small shop could ever dream of. If you’re buying a high-end guitar sight-unseen, they’ll almost certainly take photographs of the particular instrument you’re interested in, which will help you to assess any potential flaws.
Try to remember that the majority of these dealers are passionate about musical instruments – it’s not as if they’re box-shifting kitchen appliances or IT equipment. Trust us, dealers are fully aware that most musicians are rarely satisfied with owning just one guitar, which means they’re going to work tremendously hard to safeguard your loyalty and the repeat business that may come with it.