When you walk into your local music store, there is likely to be row upon row of gleaming, new electric guitars. Do you want to just stand there and salivate, or figure out which one to buy? Although you have many choices, knowing a few basics will make the decision process much easier than you might think it could be. Let's take a look at some essential guidelines.
Woods & Body Types
There are many kinds of electric-guitar bodies. These days, most of them are solid-bodies, which are guitars carved out of a solid piece of wood, or sometimes several pieces that are laminated together. A Fender Telecaster, for example, is usually just a single piece of ash or alder wood, with a maple neck that is bolted on to the body. This simple use of hardwoods contributes to the bright sound these guitars are famous for, especially when combined with single-coil pickups. [More on pickups below.] Les Pauls, on the other hand, are more complicated, usually having a mahogany body with a maple top and a mahogany neck that's glued in place. This creates the Paul's distinctively fat and warm sound. Sometimes you also run into bodies made of basswood, a beefy-sounding wood often used for Ibanez and other "super-Strat" guitars (i.e., Strat-style bodies with humbuckers, tremolos, and 22- or 24-fret fingerboards).
There are also semi-hollow bodies, typified by the Gibson ES-335, which is an electric with a block of maple running through the center of the body but then has hollow "wings" above and below it. This creates a more acoustic-like sound than a regular solidbody. A full hollow-body is essentially an acoustic guitar with pickups. Inside its cavity are no solid pieces of wood, but instead a series of braces that keep the top, back, and sides of the box together. Finally, some guitars have sound chambers, which are routed-out cavities inside solid-bodies that create more resonance and a slightly warmer, more acoustic-like tone - though not as much as a good semi-hollow electric
Tone & Pickups
First off, think about the great guitarists whom you admire and whose tone you'd like to emulate. Though there's no tone like your own, another player's sound provides a great starting point. With that in mind, let's go to the actual tone-producing hardware: pickups. Generally, you have two pickup choices: single-coil (such as those characterized by Fender Stratocasters) or humbuckers (characterized by Gibson Les Pauls). Single-coils have that thinner, "twangy" sound often favored by fans of blues-rock, country, and roots-rock. Humbuckers have a fatter, warmer tone and are often favored by hard-rock/metal players and jazzers. But there are no strict guidelines; you can play jazz with single-coils and country with humbuckers. Use your ears here, and know the difference.
Now let's talk about specific sounds. For example, if you want a funky single-coil tone more like Stevie Ray Vaughan, start with a Strat. You'll also want a Stratocaster if you're trying to emulate Jimi Hendrix (in fact, Fender produces an upside-down Strat if you really want to take the Jimi challenge). If you're more into the fat tones of early Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, or, say, Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, try a Les Paul or other mahogany-bodied guitar with humbuckers. Another popular pickup choice these days is the P90, which is basically Gibson's version of a single-coil pickup. It is often found on old vintage electrics, or new "retro" models that seek to recreate that vintage tone and look.
Be aware, however, that good "tone" is really created by a combination of pickups, body wood, and your individual technique, not to mention your choice of amplifier and effects. So if you buy a Jimmy Page Les Paul, I'm afraid you're still going to have to spend some time practicing. There's no magic bullet here. Pickups are just one piece of that larger tone puzzle.
Neck & Fingerboard
Necks and fingerboards are as different and varied as bodies. With rare exception, though, necks are made out of mahogany or maple. However, some necks have a very rounded back and are somewhat "fat" feeling, while others can have a V-shape in the back that fits into the palm of your hand. Ibanez and Jackson, as well as other hard-rock guitars, frequently have thin, tapered necks make for fast playing. See what fits your hand and your technique best.
Fingerboards typically come in three wood types. Maple is a hardwood and is usually lacquered, creating a hard, slick surface to fret on, which many player prefer. Rosewood is softer to the touch and is common on many Gibson-style guitars. Ebony is a premium wood found on high-end guitars, and is often preferred by pro players for its silky, fast feel. Fret ranges go from 21 frets on old-style Stratocasters and Telecasters to 22 frets on most guitars to 24 frets on fast instruments stylized for hard rock playing. It's all a matter of preference (do you need 24 frets?"), but some players like a certain fret range. Try them all out.
Controls & Electronics
The pots (dials) on electric guitars come in a number of configurations, but generally control the pickups in similar ways. Every guitar has either one or two volume controls. Strats have one master volume, while many humbucker-fitted guitars have a volume for each pickup. The volume control boosts your output level, which can in turn boost the overdrive to the amp. Then there's the tone control, which is usually just a passive treble roll-off: set it on 10 to hear more high-end and on 1 for more mids or lows. Some guitars, however, have active tone controls, meaning they're battery powered and capable of more minute tonal changes. If you're just starting out, this feature isn't a necessity. It's a luxury sought by some players.
Finally, if you have more than one pickup, as both Strats and Les Pauls do, then there's also a pickup selector or toggle switch. This is a switch that allows you to turn on one pickup and turn off another, as well as combine them to create different sounds mixes of the pickups. The type and position of a pickup determine its characteristics, so different combinations can greatly vary your tone.
To Trem or Not To Trem
One of the main accessories for electric guitars is the tremolo bar or whammy. This bar allows the player to alter pitch by wiggling the bar back and forth. The bar is connected to the bridge, and as it's depressed, the strings start to slack; some bars can also be pulled up, which raises the pitch. On old guitars, the tremolo bar was meant to be a soft effect, but thanks to innovators like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Eddie Van Halen, players today can make dramatic changes in pitch, such as Van Halen's legendary "divebomb" sound. This innovation was aided by the development of the locking nut, which locks the strings in place where the fretboard meets the headstock. With a locking nut, you won't go out of tune after a deep, multi-octave divebomb.
The trem is not, however, an essential item to have on an electric guitar. They're standard on Strat models, and never present on Les Pauls. If you the tremolo sound, by all means try one out, but there are plenty of great electric guitarists who do without them and create vibrato with their fingeres. Again, like everything else in the electric-guitar universe, it's all a matter of choice. Use this quick guide to understand the basics, and then go into a guitar store to try out a variety of different axes. Eventually, you'll start to know, hear, and feel just what kind of electric guitar is right for you. Have fun.