Maybe you’re in a country band and a shoegaze band. Maybe they’re the same band. Maybe you want to keep your options open when it comes to freelance gigs. Maybe you just enjoy a lot of different styles. In any case, there are a lot of options if you want a versatile electric guitar – from reliable classics to innovative modern approaches.
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What makes an electric guitar versatile?
The electronics, and how nicely they’ll play with different amplification situations, are arguably the most important thing in deciding a guitar’s versatility. If the pickups have a low output level, then a great clean sound can be easily achieved with a low-gain amp. If you want to engage some distortion, then a clean boost or an EQ pedal can emulate the behaviour of a high-output pickup slamming into overdrive.
Conversely, if the pickups are voiced for extra-beefy output, it can be hard to coax clarity out of them for cleaner sounds, depending on the guitar’s wiring. This is one of the reasons guitars such as the ES-335 and the Telecaster are both viewed as a ‘gold standard’ for versatility – their lower-output pickups provide a canvas upon which you can paint any number of tones.
But that’s not the only way. Plenty of more modern instruments have some tricks up their sleeve to suit any number of styles.
Coil-splitting is the most common: it removes one of the coils from the equation of a humbucker to effectively make a single coil. This is similar to coil-tapping, but not exactly the same: coil-tapping takes the signal from a point partially along a pickup’s coil, rather than using its full length. This reduces the output, as does coil-splitting, but doesn’t necessarily create a true single-coil sound.
To make things even more confusing for everyone, you’ll often see these two terms used interchangeably – so be sure to check the details if you’re looking for a guitar with complex switching.
The best versatile electric guitars to buy in 2021 at a glance
- Cort G300 Pro
- Vintera Road Worn ’50s Telecaster
- Suhr Pete Thorn Signature Series
- Gibson ES-335
- Relish Trinity
- Rivolta Mondata Baritone VII
- Am Pro II Strat
- Les Paul Special Tribute
- Am Pro II Jazzmaster
- PRS Hollowbody II Piezo
Cort G300 Pro
+ Stellar build quality, especially for the price
+ Versatile combination of pickups
– Aesthetics may not be everyone’s cup of tea
When we took a look at the Cort G300 Pro, we were impressed enough to give it a perfect 10. In part, because of the number of sounds it excelled at. It takes a classic set of electrics (A Seymour Duncan Jazz in the neck and a JB in the bridge) and surrounds it with some well-chosen hardware and immaculate construction. There’s comfort across its whole sonic range, too, with a deep cutaway allowing easy access to all 24 frets.
In terms of switching, a five-way switch allows you to engage both the inner and outer coils of the two humbuckers, for glassy, dynamic tones. Full humbucker chunk is, of course, offered in the extreme positions, with both pickups fully engaged in the middle position.
Build: Basswood body with 6mm maple top, bolt-on roasted maple neck with 12-16” compound radius fingerboard, Luminaly side dot inlays, 24 stainless steel jumbo frets, Graph Tech Tusq nut
Hardware: Cort CFA-III 2-point vibrato bridge with six stainless steel saddles, steel block and baseplate, Cort staggered-post rear-locking tuners
Electronics: Seymour Duncan SH2N Jazz (neck) &TB4 JB (bridge) humbuckers, 5-way blade pickup selector, master volume and tone
Scale Length: 25.5″/648mm
Fender Vintera Road Worn ’50s Telecaster
+ Classic, ‘worn-in’ Tele for an affordable price
+ Well proven fact Teles fit in anywhere
– Relic’d look might be blasphemous to some
This great take on a classic formula from Fender offers a no-nonsense 1950s Telecaster: the same combination of two single coils and a solid hardtail that’s seen the Tele travel easily from country and western to alt-rock to jazz and everything in between.
There’s also a vintage-correct 7.25-inch fretboard radius, which might deter some people who want to do large bends. But any fan of vintage Fenders will tell you that with the right setup, a round fretboard is no barrier to silly bends. This rounded radius also provides a lot of comfort when fretting chords below the fifth fret.
Build: Alder body, bolt-on maple neck with 7.25” fretboard radius, 21 vintage tall frets, black dot inlays, synthetic bone nut
Hardware: 3x brass saddle hardtail bridge, vintage-style tuners
Electronics: 2x vintage-style ’50s Hot Tele single-coil pickups, 3-way blade selector switch, master volume, master tone
Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm
Suhr Pete Thorn Signature Series
+ Spectacular featureset
+ Not flashy, just functional
– Compound fretboard not for everyone
‘Signature Model’ and ‘Versatile’ are not often found in the same guitar, but Pete Thorn’s signature Suhr reflects his nature as a session player with a rather full diary. It’s loaded with two Thornbucker humbuckers, with the bridge pickup able to be used in series or in parallel.
The five-way blade switch is wired a little oddly, but offers even more sonic shuffling: positions one and three select the bridge unit and neck and bridge combinations respectively, while position two selects the inner coils of both Thornbuckers. Position four selects the full neck humbucker, while position five is where you’ll find the neck pickup in split mode.
Combined with a sturdy locking-saddle vibrato from Wilkinson and some stellar construction, this dual-humbucker S-type certainly has more to it that meets the eye. Its subtle aesthetics are again another reflection of this guitar as a useful session tool rather than an overstated rock machine.
Build: Chambered mahogany body with plain maple cap and scraped binding, bolt-on satin-finished mahogany neck with 10-14” compound radius Indian rosewood fingerboard, 22 jumbo stainless steel frets
Hardware: Suhr locking tuners, Wilkinson WVS130 locking saddle vibrato bridge
Electronics: Suhr Thornbucker+ (bridge) and Thornbucker (neck) with raw nickel covers, 5-way blade pickup selector, volume and tone control (push/pull on tone to activate bridge in parallel)
Scale Length: 25”/635mm
+ Re-voiced pickups for the new Original range
+ History proves an ES-335 can wear many different hats
– Semi-hollow nature might result in feedback at high gain
One of the aforementioned ‘gold standards’ when it comes to versatility, the 335’s vintage-style pickups and airy semi-hollow sound make it perfect for a huge range of applications. Its expressiveness is perfect for blues, as proved by BB King, but there’s certainly enough edge for the countless rock players that use them. The ES-335 can even get aggressive enough for players such as Michael Gira of Swans.
While there’s no complex switching on this guitar, it doesn’t really suffer for it, as the pickups are Gibson’s new Calibrated T-Types: voiced to have a little less output than modern humbuckers, but still provide some warmth and play nicely with overdrive.
Build: Semi-hollow with 3-ply maple/poplar/maple body, maple centreblock, mahogany neck with 12” radius rosewood fretboard, 22 medium jumbo frets, Graph Tech nut
Hardware: Vintage Deluxe tuners, ABR-1 Tune-O-Matic bridge and Aluminum Stop Bar tailpiece
Electronics: Calibrated T-Type, Rhythm (neck), Calibrated T-Type, Lead (bridge), 2 x volume controls, 2 x tone controls, three-way switch, 500k potentiometers
Scale Length: 24.75” / 628.65mm
+ True pickup swapping, no coil-splitting necessary
+ Relatively affordable given the tech on display
– Switching system might come across as overkill for some
The Trinity is a whole new approach to versatility. Where other guitars might try and make one pickup sound like another with some electronic trickery, Relish instead tackled the problem in a different way. The Trinity’s pickups are secured to a magnetic mount, and can be switched out between a humbucker, P-90 or traditional single coil on the fly.
The idea’s been done before, but never quite as elegantly, and it helps that the rest of the instrument is well-made, and Relish’s pickups well-voiced. Players in the US can even enlist Sweetwater to Relish-ify their favourite pickup for hotswapping.
Build: Basswood body, bolt-on maple neck, 10” radius laurel fingerboard with 24 medium-jumbo frets
Hardware: Sealed tuners, fixed bridge with individual saddles and through-body stringing
Electronics: 2x Relish Bucker XX, Relish P-90 and Relish Single-Coil pickups with magnetic mounts; master volume and tone controls, three-way pickup selector switch
Scale Length: 25.5” / 648mm
Rivolta Mondata Baritone VII
+ Baritones are found in a huge number of genres
+ Multitudes of electronics on-board
– Some might want to stick to E standard
Despite what many may believe, baritone guitars are not the antithesis of versatility. Baritones are still a force to be reckoned with in country and western music, and they’re all over ambient, soundtrack and indie rock. And lest we forget, their deep tuning makes them prime candidates for metal of the doom and death varieties.
The Rivolta Mondata Baritone VII is the sort of guitar that’ll happily do any of those: if you need palm-muted riffs, there’s a humbucker in the bridge position, but there’s a P-90 in the neck for deep, smooth clean tones. The bridge position can be coil-split for some expressive tic-tac bass playing, too.
A baritone-specific feature that makes it particularly appealing for the versatile-minded is the scale length – at 28 inches, it’s slightly longer than most baritones but not as long as the 30 inches of a Bass VI. With the right setup and string gauge, the Mondata VII could be happy as low as E standard, or kept at B standard.
Build: Chambered double-bound mahogany body with German carve and raised centre block, set maple neck with C+ profile, 12” radius ebony fingerboard with aged pearloid block inlays and 24 medium-jumbo frets
Hardware: Wilkinson vintage-style machineheads, tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece
Electronics: Rivolta Novanta P-90 (neck) and Brevetto humbucking (bridge) pickups, three-way toggle pickup selector switch, master volume, master tone, coil split and phase switches
Scale Length: 28” / 711mm
Fender American Pro II Stratocaster
+ Classic formula that’s worked since the 50s
+ Addition of a Tele-style bridge/neck position
– Strat vibrato not for everyone
As with the Telecaster, the Stratocaster is found in pretty much every corner of guitar music. The Strat’s extra switching options when compared with the Tele (not to mention the extra pickup), as well as its vibrato system, make it a prime candidate for those who want some more options at their fingertips.
Like the American Pro II Jazzmaster, this iteration of the Stratocaster features rolled fingerboard edges and a carved neck heel for extra comfort. The V-Mod II pickups also feature refreshed voicing, and some extra switching trickery is still here: this time, a push/push tone pot allows you to add the neck pickup into position one, mimicking the sound of a Telecaster’s middle position.
Build: Roasted pine body with bolt-on maple neck, 9.5” radius rosewood fingerboard, 22 narrow-tall frets, bone nut
Hardware: 2-point vibrato bridge with bent-steel saddles, cold-rolled steel block, and pop-in arm. Fender Standard cast/sealed staggered tuners
Electronics: 3x V-Mod II Strat single-coil pickups, 5-way blade selector switch, master volume, neck/middle tone, push-push bridge tone control activates neck pickup in switch positions 1 and 2
Scale Length: 25”/635mm
Gibson Les Paul Special Tribute
+ No-nonsense, but dynamics are still an option thanks to two pickups
+ Both P-90 and humbucker options available
– Slab body might be unergonomic for some
While this guitar’s sibling, the Les Paul Junior, can be fairly dynamic in the right hands, its single pickup can prove too much of a limitation for some players. Enter the Les Paul Special, revived in this Tribute form for the modern era: two P-90 pickups, each with a volume and tone, and a three-way toggle switch. This arrangement handily lets you dial back everything in one position, and have the other running at full blast. It just takes a confident flick of the selector switch to change things up completely.
Handily, this guitar also comes in a humbucker version if that’s your style – offering a stripped-back version that’s truer to the classic HH Les Paul.
Build: slab mahogany body with set maple neck, 12” radius rosewood fretboard with 22 medium jumbo frets, Graph Tech nut
Hardware: Compensated wraparound tailpiece, Vintage Deluxe tuners
Electronics: 2 x P-90, or 490R Humbucker (neck), 490T Humbucker (bridge), 2 x volume control, 2 x tone control
Scale Length: 24.75”
Fender American Pro II Jazzmaster
+ Stylish, classic looks
+ Re-voiced pickups for the American Pro II range
– Jazzmaster vibrato not for everyone
The Jazzmaster’s journey to this incarnation has been a long one. The guitar missed the mark with its namesake genre, and was instead picked up by surf players. After that wave crashed, it fell into the hands of noise-rockers such as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, and now enjoys a healthy status as a symbol of alternative coolness. Oh, and it was on some purplish album cover in the 90s.
But it’s not just for shoegaze. The Jazzmaster’s extensive switching and wide single-coil pickups mean you can use it for pretty much any genre. Even – now this is a novel idea – jazz.
The most modern incarnation of the instrument, the American Professional II Jazzmaster has a sculpted heel for upper-fret comfort, rolled fingerboard edges, and a new set of V-Mod II Jazzmaster pickups. The bridge pickup has even a tap function that allows both a full-coil, powerful sound or a lower-output vintage sound.
Build: Alder body with bolt-on maple neck, rosewood fretboard, 9.5” radius, 22 narrow tall frets, deep C neck profile
Hardware: 9.5” Radius Jazzmaster/Jaguar Bridge, Panorama Vibrato System Fender Standard Cast/Sealed Staggered tuners
Electronics: 2 x V-Mod II Single-Coil Jazzmaster, Lead and Rhythm circuits each with a master volume and master tone.
Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm
PRS Hollowbody II Piezo
+ High-end PRS appointments
+ Piezo sounds are high-quality
– Hollowbody prone to feedback
Tired of bringing your acoustic guitar to gigs for that one song? Luckily, the PRS Hollowbody II Piezo offers some relatively convincing acoustic sounds, alongside a slew of other premium features.
The piezo system here has been co-designed with LR Baggs, who, it’s safe to say, knows a fair bit about acoustic guitar sounds. There are two outputs: one for just the magnetic pickups and one for an adjustable mix of the piezo and the magnetic sounds.
A piezo pickup works differently to the magnetic pickups such as humbuckers and single coils: a strip of piezoelectric material is compressed and stretched by the guitar’s acoustic vibrations, creating a corresponding signal. No sensing of the string’s motion is needed – it’s a bit like putting your ear up to the back of your electric guitar and giving it a strum. But, you know, better.
Alongside this, there’s a fully-hollow construction with a pair of expressively voiced humbuckers, and a fully-adjustable wraparound bridge. The Wide Fat mahogany neck also provides a reassuring heft in the hand and plenty of playing surface.
Build: Laminated maple top and back with flame veneers, laminated mahogany sides, Wide Fat mahogany set neck with 10”/254mm radius ebony fingerboard, 22 medium frets, bone nut
Hardware: PRS Adjustable Stoptail Piezo, PRS-designed nickel tuners
Electronics: PRS 58/15 ‘S’ bridge and neck humbuckers, 3-way toggle pickup selector, volume and tone. LR Baggs/PRS piezo system with dedicated volume control. Dual outputs (mix/piezo and magnetic)
Scale Length: 25”/635mm