Well-known guitar brands run the show, and for good reason. The Fenders, Gibsons and Epiphones of the world are on top because they make great guitars and have managed to keep the fire alive for decades.
But what could one do, should he or she decide to branch out a bit? What lesser-known brands might be worthy of exploring?
There are a slew of boutique and custom guitar brands that have little notoriety but are exceptionally good.
Some of them offer custom services while others have a set product lineup, though all of them are worth knowing, whether you need the more specific custom job or not.
There’s nothing wrong with the Strats and Les Pauls of the world. However, if you want to explore something you’re far less likely to see other people playing, there are some fantastic options available. In fact, there are far too many to count.
Thus, I’ll whittle it down to four of my favorites.
Some of the Distorted Branch lineup. | Image via Distorted Branch.
Peter Griffin once said, "For Distorted Branch, every guitar is a pageant."
Well, that’s not exactly what he said. Although, it would seem that way, if you take time to browse the company's Facebook photos. Every guitar the company makes is truly enticing and a work of art. Moreover, the quality of each instrument is astoundingly good. Take the Xuul Katan VI. While the guitar is certainly unique, it also boasts a strong specs list:
• Lacewood/mahogany body
• Seymour Duncan pickups
• Sperzel tuners
• Deep grain finish.
All these guitars are made by hand, which means you’re getting an instrument that’s entirely unique.
A look at the Xuul Katun VI by Distorted Branch. | Image via Distorted Branch.
The company is based in Mexico, though it routinely works with musicians around the world and will ship to the U.S. At the time of this writing, the company's Facebook page is the best way to get in touch with them, since they’re without a website.
If you decide to have the company build you something, make sure you have everything mapped out in your mind (or on paper). Distorted Branch will give you control of every detail of whatever guitar you have them build. I’d recommend making a list. Cesar Huesca sure did:
Cesar Huesca and his custom Distorted Branch electric. | Image via Distorted Branch.
Diamond guitars homepage. | Image via Diamond Guitars.
Diamond Guitars has garnered a larger following in recent years, and it's almost to the point where it would be hard to consider the company “under the radar.” Yet, it's still a far smaller outfit than the bigger names in guitar manufacturing.
It has an impressive product lineup, headlined by the Barchetta series, one of the company's more popular models, which can be found in a number of different major music retailers and stores.
Unlike Distorted Branch, it has established lines of instruments that don’t have to be custom ordered.
A look at the STE-FR model from Diamond’s Barchetta series. | Image via Diamond Guitars.
Most of the models include a Floyd Rose tremolo system and Seymour Duncan or EMG pickups. Considering those are high-quality parts coming from third-party sources, it’s remarkable that these guitars stay as inexpensive as they do.
For example, the Barchetta STE-FR is only $700 and includes the following perks:
• EMG pickups
• Floyd Rose bridge
• Grover tuners.
That’s a lot of value, especially when you’re getting parts you’d be inclined to mod into other guitars that don’t have them. Diamond Guitars saves you the trouble, getting it all to you up front at an affordable price.
It's an underrated guitar company, to say the least.
Ruokanges homepage. | Image via Ruokangas.
Juha Ruokangas started his company in 1995 when he was an independent luthier. He has since become a well-recognized guitar manufacturer with dealers all over the world that carry his instruments. His website is especially handy, as it gives you a fully functional customization app for whatever model guitar you want to explore.
Pricing (along with currency conversion) is also easily accessible.
The Ruokangas custom guitar builder. | Image via Ruokangas.
This gives you a quick preview of what your finished product might look like, while also allowing you to cycle through all of the possible configurations for your instrument. The customization features are also fairly extensive, giving you control over the following:
• Fretboard wood
• Pickup configuration
• Fret size
• Neck profile.
This is just a fraction of what can be adjusted. While name-brand parts are a little harder to find, it’s clear that Ruokangas uses high-quality material for every aspect of his instruments. Alder and rock maple are common tonewood ingredients, giving you a solid starting point for the rest of your customization.
A look at a few of the LSL guitars on the company’s homepage. | Image via LSL
What a lot of boutique guitar builders will do is take an established body shape, like the Tele, and use it to make their own version of a custom guitar.
While that’s not my absolute favorite approach, LSL does this extremely well, giving you plenty of variety, even within body styles that are going to be familiar to you. Part of the company's method is to provide a slew of in-house parts, including pickups, pickguards and even its own hardware (bridges, tuners, etc.).
All of these products are also for sale individually:
LSL sells all of its parts as standalone products. | Image via LSL
All the goods are made by hand in the U.S. and can be purchased direct from the LSL website, while the guitars are available through a network of dealers. If you like the standard guitar shapes but want something with a lot more customization options, LSL can take care of it for you.
Advantages of Smaller Companies
While electric guitar manufacturers like this are often more expensive, they do provide a level of customization that isn’t available with several mainline models. Most companies of this size can have a casual email or phone conversation with you, take a few notes about how you want your guitar setup (probably jotting it all down with pen and paper) and then making a guitar to your exact specifications.
The greater share of guitar players, myself included, will see a lot of value in that. Plus, you know you’re getting something entirely unique that nobody else will own.
And even though these companies are not always as inexpensive as the bigger names, I’m often surprised at how affordable many of these guitars can be. Besides, cheap electric guitars are rarely made by hand.
It’s always worth digging a little deeper to see what else is out there.