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The best rock guitars 2021: Embrace your inner Eddie Van Halen with this killer collection

The best rock guitars 2020: Embrace your inner Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Future)

You’ve spent your life devoted to rock music – you’ve delved deep into albums, pressed your face against the TV admiring the fretboard theatrics, and now it’s time to buy a proper rock electric guitar. But how do you find the best rock guitar for you?

Well, our hard-rocking friend, we’d advise you start right here. We’ve put together a guide to the key types of electric guitar that you’ll find in rock music, as well as some of the best rock guitar examples you can buy right now, at a range of price points.

So, whether you’re lusting after a Gibson Les Paul, desperately seeking a Fender Stratocaster, or tempted by a Fender Telecaster, we’ve narrowed down the choices to help you make the right decision and keep you rocking into the wee hours.

The pick of the bunch

What's the best rock guitar you can buy now?

If we asked you to reel off a list of the all-time best rock guitar players, odds are a fair proportion played a Les Paul. The instrument beloved of Jimmy Page, Slash and Joe Perry is a bona fide music icon, and the Gibson Les Paul Standard ’50s is true to the most revered examples of this legendary solidbody, with the looks and sounds to satisfy any rocker.

If you see yourself as more of a Fender player, we’d point you in the direction of the Fender Vintera ’50s Telecaster Modified, which gives you all the vibe of the guitar giant’s venerable workhorse with a host of added sounds and improved playability.

Buying guide

Best rock guitars: buying advice

If you’ve come this far, you probably know of the primary classic electric guitar shapes – Les Paul, SG, Stratocaster, Telecaster, ES-335 – but it’s time to get into the nitty gritty to help you find the best rock guitar for you.

We’ll start with solidbody vs hollowbody designs. Pre-1950, all you’d be able to buy was hollowbody guitars – these are the bigger-bodied models with f-holes, like a lot of jazz cats still employ today. These produced a clear, woody tone, but suffered with feedback at high volume. 

Solidbody guitars – like the Les Paul or Tele – are made from a solid piece of wood. That means they’re heavier than their hollowbody brethren, but produce a more aggressive tone and can handle higher volumes. Semi-hollow guitars – like Gibson’s ES-335 – combine the two by offering a thinline hollow body, but with a wood centre block to reduce feedback.

The other key differentiator between models is the type of pickup – these are the oblong-shaped magnets mounted to guitar bodies that convert strings into an electrical signal to run into a guitar amp. The two main types of pickup found on rock guitars are single coils and humbuckers.

Single coils tend to be found on Fender guitars – they produce a relatively low output that’s dynamic with a bright top-end and great clarity. They also pick up mains hum, which is where the humbucker comes in – it literally bucks hum! These are usually found in Gibson electric guitars, and produce a higher output than single coils, with more low-end and a fatter overall tone, which is what makes them so beloved for rock music.

Since the late, great Eddie Van Halen crammed a humbucker into his Stratocaster-style body in the late-’70s, you’ll find humbuckers in some modern Strat-style guitars, too – they’re commonly known as SuperStrats and they’re ready to rock.

So, if you’re a fan of a particular body shape but seeking a different sound, it pays to keep an eye out for that model with a different pickup configuration, or the ability to coil-split – where a humbucker is split to produce a single-coil sound.

The best rock guitars available today

(Image credit: Gibson)

1. Gibson Les Paul Standard ’50s

Get a classic sound which also looks amazing

Price: £1,945/$2,499 | Body: Mahogany w/ maple top | Neck: Mahogany (vintage ’50s profile) | Scale: 24.75" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 22 | Pickups: Burstbucker 1 (neck), Burstbucker 2 (bridge) | Controls: 2 volumes, 2 tones, 3-way pickup selector switch | Hardware: ABR-1 Tune-O-Matic, aluminium stopbar tailpiece, vintage deluxe tuners | Finish: Gold Top, Heritage Cherry Sunburst, Tobacco Burst

The definitive rock guitar tone
Gorgeous looks
The mahogany body and maple top make it a heavy beast
The price

Based on the most coveted of Les Pauls from the 1950s, this Gibson is the real deal, packing the looks, playability and tones that came to define rock.

That stunning maple top will be the first thing to catch your eye, of course – particularly in this choice of Gold Top, Heritage Cherry Sunburst and Tobacco Burst - but this LP sounds as good as it looks, courtesy of a set of calibrated Burstbucker humbuckers, which deliver plenty of output for those wailing leads and hard-rocking rhythms.

The one sticking point is the price, but if you’re serious about nailing the classic-rock vibe – and you want something that looks good in your living room to boot – this is the one.

(Image credit: PRS)

2. PRS SE Custom 24

Great looks balanced with quality performance

Price: £800/$779 | Body: Mahogany w/ maple top | Neck: Maple | Scale: 25" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 24 | Pickups: 2x 85/15 'S' humbuckers | Controls: Volume, tone (w/ push-pull coil-split), 3-way selector | Hardware: PRS vibrato, PRS SE tuners | Left-handed: Yes | Finish: Fire Red Burst, Tobacco Sunburst, Trampas Green, Whale Blue

Superb performance
Stunning looks
Excellent price
Not as ‘classic’ as Fender and Gibson designs

PRS Guitars are seen as the Ferrari or Porsche of guitar design, with high performance – and often an accompanying high price tag – at the top of the agenda. Thankfully, Paul Reed Smith sought to bring that attention to detail to the masses with the SE series, which offers the best possible bang for your buck in this price range.

The SE Custom 24 is PRS’s cut-price take on its flagship model, offering 24 frets and a range of beautifully finished maple tops that give Gibson a run for their money. PRS’s other killer app is its own-brand hardware, which is absolutely top-notch, and its range of pickups, which all offer coil-split options for unparalleled versatility.

(Image credit: EVH)

3. EVH Striped Series

Eddie Van Halen... enough said!

Price: £1299/$999 | Body: Basswood | Neck: Quartersawn maple, EVH Modified ‘C’ Backshape | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 22 | Pickups: Direct Mount EVH Wolfgang humbucker | Controls: 1 volume (labelled ‘tone’) w/ treble-bleed circuit | Hardware: EVH-Branded Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo w/ EVH D-Tuna, EVH-Branded Gotoh tuners | Finish: Red w/ Black Stripes, Black w/ Yellow Stripes, White w/ Black Stripes

The ultimate EVH guitar
Hot-rodded spec
Superb rock tone
It doesn’t do subtle - in looks or sound!

No prizes for guessing the inspiration behind this bestriped wonder, but if your tastes lie in a certain era of hard-rock excess, this is your guy. Harking back to the era where the likes of Eddie Van Halen modded their solidbodies into ‘SuperStrats’, this Striped Series model has one setting: Rock, with a capital 'R'.

Here, you get a single EVH Wolfgang bridge humbucker, designed to be run into an overdriven amp for the tight rhythms and dizzying lead pyrotechnics with which its namesake made his name.

Other features include a hand-rubbed oil finish on the speed-orientated fretboard and a Floyd Rose locking tremolo system, built for divebombs without going out of tune. It also boasts a D-Tuna to quickly drop the low E string down to D – perfect for getting your Unchained on.

(Image credit: Epiphone)

4. Epiphone Dot ES-335

Class for a great price

Price: £379/$449 | Body: Laminated maple | Neck: Mahogany, 1960s SlimTaper D-shape | Scale: 24.75" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 22 | Pickups: Alnico Classic Humbucker (neck), Alnico Classic Plus Humbucker (bridge) | Controls: 2 volume, 2 tone, 3-way pickup selector | Hardware: LockTone Tune-O-Matic, stopbar tailpiece, Grover 18:1 tuners | Finish: Cherry, Vintage Sunburst

Amazing price
Classic tones
Won’t handle heavier styles as well as a solidbody

Before solidbody guitars took over in the early 1950s, hollowbody guitars were all the rage, but they had one problem: a tendency to feed back when exposed to loud volume. Gibson sought to solve the problem with the ES-335, a semi-hollowbody that bridged the gap thanks to a solid wood block that runs through the middle of the guitar.

Gibson’s budget brand Epiphone does a great version of the 335, with a maple top and sides, easy-playing SlimTaper neck and Alnico Classic humbuckers for the vintage-voiced sounds that Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton and Noel Gallagher found so appealing.

(Image credit: Fender)

5. Fender Vintera ’50s Telecaster Modified

A great guitar to play – with classic looks

Price: £830/$999 | Body: Alder | Neck: Maple (soft ‘V’) | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 22 | Pickups: Custom Shop Vintage-Style Single-Coil Tele (bridge), Custom Shop ‘Twisted’ Single-Coil Tele (neck) | Controls: 1 volume, 1 tone, 4-way pickup selector switch, S-1 Switch | Hardware: 3-saddle vintage-style strings-through body Tele bridge, vintage-style tuning machines | Finish: Daphne Blue, Surf Green

Classic Tele looks
Loads of extra sounds
Modern playability
Vintage purists will want to look elsewhere

The Telecaster was the first mass-produced solidbody electric guitar – and it’s still going strong today. This is the original workhorse electric guitar, with two single-coil pickups and a whole lot of attitude.

This Vintera model is one of Fender’s latest takes on the Telecaster, and combines the best of vintage and modern specs. While the looks are pure ’50s, the playability is more comfortable thanks to a modern neck shape, while a concealed S-1 Switch allows you to unlock more humbucker-esque and out-of-phase tones, making this just about the most versatile Telecaster on the market. 

(Image credit: Gibson)

6. Gibson SG Tribute

Looking for something comfortable and easy to play?

Price: £950/$1,099 | Body: Mahogany | Neck: Maple, rounded | Scale: 24.75" | Fingerboard: Rosewood | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 490R humbucker (neck), 490T humbucker (bridge) | Controls: 2 volume, 2 tone, 3-way pickup selector switch | Hardware: Aluminium Nashville Tune-O-Matic, Aluminium Stop Bar tailpiece, Vintage Deluxe tuners | Finish: Vintage Cherry Satin, Natural Walnut

Light weight
Great upper-fret access
Easy to play
Not as great to look at as a Les Paul

Gibson’s ‘other’ rock guitar was a sequel of sorts to the Les Paul – early runs even bore the guitarist and innovator’s name – but soon fostered an altogether heavier audience, finding itself in the hands of Tony Iommi, Angus Young and Frank Zappa.

The SG’s big plus points are the easy upper-fret access, relatively light weight and a slender, easy-to-play neck, which is set into the body for increased sustain.

This particular incarnation not only offers great value for money, but great tones, too, with a pair of riff-friendly Alnico II magnet-loaded humbucker pickups. The model’s stripped-back vibe perfectly matches its no-nonsense sonic aesthetic.

(Image credit: Fender)

7. Fender American Performer Stratocaster HSS

Smooth as a knife through butter - with some added rock

Price: £999/$1,149 | Body: Alder | Neck: Maple, Modern ‘C’ | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Maple/rosewood (finish-dependent) | Frets: 22 | Pickups: 2 Yosemite Single-Coil Stratocaster (neck, middle), Double Tap humbucker (bridge) | Controls: 1 volume, 1 tone (w/ push/pull coil split), 5-way pickup selector switch | Hardware: 6-saddle vintage-style Synchronized Tremolo, American Performer tuning machines | Finish: 3-Color Sunburst, Aubergine, Black, Satin Surf Green

Excellent range of tones, from subtle to rock
Bonus tonal options
Smooth playability
Not one for vintage-spec enthusiasts

The Stratocaster is one of the all-time great electric guitar designs, beloved of David Gilmour and Ritchie Blackmore, and although Fender hasn’t messed too much with the formula over the years, it has added a number of bonus features.

For some guitarists, equipping a Stratocaster with a humbucker bridge pickup amounts to sacrilege, but hear us out: here, it enables you to wring more muscular rock tones out of the typically brash bridge position, plus this American Performer model has a killer coil-split function, where that humbucker is transformed into a single coil, so you get the best of both worlds! A comfortable satin-finished Modern C neck ensures great playability, too.