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Best rock guitars 2021: 8 of the finest rock-ready axes from Gibson, Fender, Ibanez and others

Best rock guitars 2021: 8 of the finest rock-ready axes from Gibson, Fender, Ibanez and others
(Image credit: Gibson, Ibanez, Gretsch)

As we began to debate which axes should make it onto our list of the best rock guitars you can buy today, it quickly became apparent that we had our work cut out. After all, how are you meant to reach a unanimous decision when each guitar player has their own unique tastes and way of playing? 

Finally, following days of deep soul-searching, we came to an agreement that, yes, we all have our personal preferences, and yes, we all have favorite rock stars whose fretwork we’d like to imitate – but ultimately, some guitars just kick ass

If you want to know what makes a rock guitar… rock, hit the buying advice button above. If you want to get straight to our top picks, keep on scrolling.

Best rock guitars: Guitar World’s Choice

Ever watched the Guns N’ Roses November Rain video with Slash playing guitar outside a church, and wished you could recreate the moment at home? Well, there’s no guarantee you’ll look as cool as the behatted axeman, but tonally a Gibson Les Paul Standard will get you right on the nose.

If you prefer the look and sound of a superstrat, try the Ibanez RG550, a guitar that’s renowned for its effortless playability, unrivalled expression and shred/metal tones.

Best rock guitars: Product guide

Best rock guitars: Gibson Les Paul

(Image credit: Gibson)

1. Gibson Les Paul Standard

Because Jimmy Page, Slash and Al Di Meola can’t be wrong…

Price: $2,499/£2,199 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany, ’50s or ’60s style | Scale: 24.75” | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 22 | Pickups: Gibson 490T (bridge) and 490R (neck) humbuckers | Controls: 2x volume, 2x tone, three-way pickup selector toggle switch | Hardware: Nashville Tune-o-matic bridge with aluminium stop tailpiece, Grover Rotomatic tuners with kidney buttons | Left-handed?: N/A | Finish: Iced Tea, Bourbon Burst, Unburst, Gold Top, Tobacco Burst, Heritage Cherry Sunburst

Will hold its value
A truly timeless instrument
Not cheap

The Gibson Les Paul is one of the most iconic guitars of all time. Though there are different tiers in the Les Paul family (it’s gotten a little confusing over the years), the Standard has always stood tall as the company’s flagship outside of the more expensive Gibson Custom Shop range.

The Les Paul Standard currently comes in two main variations - ’50s and ’60s. Although on the surface, these guitars look very similar, they have a few distinct differences. The first of which is the pickups. The ’50s model is loaded with the classic Burstbucker 1/2 set, whereas the ’60s model comes with the Bustbucker 61T/61R. The most apparent distinction between the two models is the neck profile. The ’50s model opts for a rounder, fatter neck that harkens back to the early years of the Les Paul. Whereas the ’60s model adopts the “60s slim-taper” profile, resulting in a thinner, faster neck.

Each model has its own range of finishes and comes with period-accurate control knobs. If we had to choose between these two models, we’d have to go for the ’60s variation, pictured above. The slim neck simply makes it a dream to play. 

If you’re hoping to tap into the tones adopted by classic rock players like Jimmy Page, Gary Moore and Joe Perry – or even the more metallic crunch of guitarists like James Hetfield, Adam Jones and Matt Heafy – look no further. The Gibson Les Paul Standard always has been, and always will be, the real deal.

Best rock guitars: Fender American Professional II Stratocaster

(Image credit: Fender)

2. Fender American Professional II Stratocaster

Designed in the early ’50s, this is still a revolutionary instrument

Price: £1,679/$1,699/€1,925 | Body: Alder | Neck: Maple | Scale: 25.5” | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 21 | Pickups: 3 x V-Mod II Stratocaster single-coil | Controls: 2x volume, 2x tone, five-way pickup selector toggle switch | Hardware: Two-point synchronized tremolo with bent steel saddles, pop-in tremolo arm and cold-rolled steel block | Left-handed?: Yes | Finish: Dark Night, Miami Blue, Mercury, Roasted Pine, Olympic White, 3 Tone Sunburst, Black, Butterscotch Blonde, Sienna Sunburst, Mystic Surf Green

Unbeatable for versatility 
Lightweight and user-friendly 
Some players might prefer humbuckers 

The initial American Professional series was so popular, it ended up accounting for over half of Fender’s instrument sales. Naturally, big things were expected when The Big F announced a revamp in 2020, and the new line certainly didn’t disappoint. 

While Fender Stratocasters don’t quite have the thickness that Les Pauls are known for, they have an ability to slice through the mix with a more focused attack, and offer more versatility thanks to the dynamic range of single-coil pickups and a five-way selector. 

Players searching for a little more firepower may end up preferring a superstrat – fitted with humbucking pickups – but, in all fairness, there’s a lot you can get done with a Strat in its classic form. If in doubt, just ask Swedish super-shredder Yngwie Malmsteen…

Read the full Fender American Professional II Stratocaster review

Best rock guitars: Ibanez RG550

(Image credit: Ibanez)

3. Ibanez RG550

The weapon of choice for many ’80s super-shredders…

Price: $999/£899 | Body: Basswood | Neck: Five-piece maple/walnut | Scale: 25.5” | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 24 | Pickups: V7 (neck), S1 (middle), V8 (bridge) | Controls: 1x volume, 1x tone, five-way pickup selector toggle switch | Hardware: Edge tremolo bridge, locking nut | Left-handed?: Yes | Finish: Road Flare Red, Purple Neon, Desert Sun Yellow

Excellent value for money 
Unbeatable playability 
Less sustain than a Les Paul 

Introduced by Ibanez in 1987, the RG series marked a new age for the superstrat. Previous Ibanez models, like the Roadstar and the Blazer, were closer to the Fender guitars that inspired them, but the first RG – the famous 550 – felt like a guitar from the future (it was, after all, partly based on Steve Vai’s designs for his JEM777 signature). 

Angular and aggressive in both appearance and tone, it was aimed at players who were looking to push the boundaries of guitar – which explains why the likes of John Petrucci, Paul Gilbert and Richie Kotzen were seen playing RG series instruments in the years that followed. 

The double-locking Floyd Rose tremolo system found on these models also allowed players to extend the range and add more expression via the floating bridge – a tradition that rightly continues to this day in the Ibanez Genesis Collection. 

Best rock guitars: Jackson USA Signature Adrian Smith San Dimas SDQM

(Image credit: Jackson )

4. Jackson USA Signature Adrian Smith San Dimas SDQM

World-conquering tones fit for the Iron Maiden guitar god…

Price: $2,999/£2,199 | Body: Alder, flame maple top | Neck: Quartersawn maple | Scale: 25.5” | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2x Samarium Cobalt Noiseless single-coil (neck/middle), 1x Seymour Duncan JB Model TB-4 (bridge) | Controls: 1x volume, 1x tone, five-way pickup selector toggle switch | Hardware: Floyd Rose Original Tremolo System and locking nut | Left-handed?: No | Finish: Transparent Green Burst

Transparent Green Burst finish is stunning
Versatile HSS configuration
Not cheap, but there’s always the X Series option 

“If I have to mess around with a guitar too much, I kind of lose interest with it… it’s got to be right,” explained Adrian Smith when asked about his Jackson guitars. 

Though the Iron Maiden legend has played Les Pauls over the years, most notably his 1972 Gold Top, his signature Jackson superstrat is undoubtedly his main instrument of choice. 

There’s an affordable version in the Jackson X series, but if you’re after the very same guitar that was designed and played by one of the pioneering minds in heavy music, it simply has to be the San Dimas SDQM.

Best rock guitars: Schecter PT Pro

(Image credit: Schecter )

5. Schecter PT Pro

An old classic gets a modern update

Price: $899/£849 | Body: Alder, quilted maple top | Neck: Roasted maple | Scale: 25.5” | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2x Schecter Z-Plus | Controls: 1x volume, 1x tone (push/pull), three-way switch | Hardware: Stainless steel saddles, string-thru body | Left-handed?: No | Finish: Trans Blue Burst, Trans Purple Burst

Highly dependable roasted maple neck 
Great looks and affordability 
There are no negatives at this price 

Though it’s known for producing some truly jaw-dropping metal axes, there’s a lot to be said for Schecter’s more classic and vintage-inspired offerings. The two new PT Pro models announced last year, for example, strike a perfect balance between old-school design and modern functionality, with Schecter’s Z-Plus humbuckers bringing more power to that timeless T-style shape, and a roasted maple neck offering consistent playability no matter what the weather conditions. 

Which means the only difficulty will be deciding which of the transparent finishes to go for – will it be the Blue Burst or the Purple Burst?

Best rock guitars: Gibson SG

(Image credit: Gibson)

6. Gibson SG Standard

If it was good enough for Jack Black in School Of Rock…

Price: $1,499/£1,199 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany | Scale: 24.75” | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 22 | Pickups: Gibson 490T (bridge) and 490R (neck) humbuckers | Controls: 2x volume, 2x tone, three-way pickup selector toggle switch | Hardware: Nashville Tune-o-matic bridge with aluminium stop tailpiece, Grover Rotomatic tuners with kidney buttons | Left-handed?: N/A | Finish: Heritage Cherry, Ebony

Not as heavy as a Les Paul
Pronounced mids   
Not hugely versatile 

The Gibson SG was first introduced in 1961 as part of the Les Paul range, but by 1963 it had become its own line – the initials standing for ‘solid guitar’. The thinner and more contoured body made it lighter and more comfortable for musicians, and, due to the shallower neck profile and double-cut body, it was more playable too. 

Thanks to players like Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi and Angus Young, the guitar would become synonymous with rock, often known for having more bite and midrange than a Les Paul, which tend to be darker-sounding. 

Best rock guitars: Jackson USA Signature Adrian Smith San Dimas SDQM

(Image credit: Jackson)

7. Gretsch G5220 Electromatic Jet BT

High-voltage rock ’n’ roll from the legendary American brand

Price: $649/£450 | Body: Chambered mahogany with laminate maple top | Neck: Mahogany | Scale: 24.6” | Fingerboard: Black walnut | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2x Gretsch Black Top Broad'Tron humbuckers | Controls: 2x volume, master volume, master tone, three-way pickup selector toggle switch | Hardware: Adjusto-Matic bridge with “V” Stoptail, die-cast tuners | Left-handed?: N/A | Finish: Dark Cherry Metallic, Jade Grey Metallic, Black, Casino Gold

Unbelievable value for money
Gorgeous “V” Stoptail  
At this price? You must be kidding 

As we mentioned, Angus Young was monumental in popularizing the Gibson SG, but a very big part of that classic AC/DC sound came from his older brother, Malcolm, who – before sadly passing away in 2017 – was rarely seen without his natural-finish Gretsch Jet. 

This Jet BT from the more affordable Electromatic series might not be a doublecut like Malcolm’s, but it certainly offers a lot of the classic Gretsch tones and looks for those on a budget. 

Of course, it’ll accommodate your best rockabilly licks with effortless ease but, thanks to the Black Top Broad'Tron humbuckers, you’ll also be able to dial in some pretty impressive hard rock tone

Best rock guitars: 8. Fender Parallel Universe Volume II Troublemaker Tele Deluxe

(Image credit: Fender)

8. Fender Parallel Universe Volume II Troublemaker Tele Deluxe

Could it be a Les Paul in disguise?

Price: $2,399/£2,049 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Mahogany | Scale: 25.5” | Fingerboard: Ebony | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2x Fender Double Tap humbuckers | Controls: 2x volume, 2x tone, three-way pickup selector toggle switch | Hardware: Adjusto-Matic bridge with anchored tailpiece, gold die-cast tuning machines | Left-handed?: No | Finish: Olympic White

Great-sounding humbuckers 
More Gibson-style aesthetics 
Not a Tele in the classic sense 

Though it’s clearly an instrument deeply rooted in country music, a fair few rock players have sworn by their Fender singlecut over the years – from original masters like Muddy Waters and George Harrison to the likes of Andy Summers, Jeff Buckley and Richie Kotzen. And more metallic players like Rob Zombie guitarist John 5 and Slipknot’s Jim Root have depended on their Telecasters in the studio and on stage, even putting their own signature models out over the years. 

This Troublemaker from Fender’s Parallel Universe range packs more power than your typical Telecaster, thanks to the combination of a mahogany body and neck with twin humbuckers, which are more typical of Les Paul-style guitars. A truly unique ‘best of both worlds’ instrument.

Best rock guitars: Buying advice

Best rock guitars: Close up of Gibson Les Paul

(Image credit: Future)

Electric guitars come in all shapes, colors and sizes – but perhaps the most crucial consideration will be the pickups carried inside. For example, if your ultimate guitar god is Ritchie Blackmore or Yngwie Malmsteen, you may well prefer the sound of single-coil electric guitar pickups. Alternatively, if you want to sound like Slash or Zakk Wylde, who are both known for darker and thicker guitar tones, you’ll probably want medium or high-output humbuckers respectively – Slash favoring Seymour Duncan Alnico IIs and Wylde opting for the metallic beef that comes with active EMGs. 

The pickups make a huge difference in how the guitar is voiced, so it’s always worth doing a little research on what your heroes were using on your favorite albums, and going from there…

Then, of course, you’ll need to think about the guitar build itself. Some players will prefer the slinkiness of a Strat and others might prefer the girth of a Les Paul-style model. Beyond that, it’s also worth thinking about the bridge – if you’re a Steve Vai or Joe Satriani fan, you’ll need a double-locking tremolo system to recreate all those divebombs and screams with the whammy bar. 

Other players – for example, those Slash and Zakk Wylde fans we mentioned earlier – might prefer what is often called a ‘hardtail’, with no whammy bar whatsoever for maximum resonance and sustain. So there’s plenty to consider before you find the right rock guitar for you…