A Guitar Review Primer: How Scoring Works

How we judge if a guitar is good or bad?

The Scoring Scale

Here are Guitars for Idiots, we use a simple 1 to 10 scale like most people do for rating the quality of each instrument, amplifier, or pedal. However, we try to bring everything back and frame it in comparison to a reference point, after all what’s a number mean if there is no substance behind it?

So what’s a 10? A perfect 10, which is rare, is guitar with unrivaled playability, tone, and construction. For reference sake, I would say it is one of these beauties from a local luthier who makes the finest guitars I’ve ever played. You can check out his work here and read why his specific guitars are a 10 here. But basically, his Meridian models feature every single feature from piezo pickup to carved neck heel, to carbon fiber support rods in the neck, that make a guitar perfectly stable and useable.

The stunning Maguire Meridian semi hollow body that just doesn’t compare to anything else.

So what’s a 5? A 5 is akin to a decent Squier or Epiphone guitar, These guitars are great, and represent what I think is close to “average” performance and playability. These will hold tune fairly well, maybe for hours or longer if you’re lucky, and the pickups aren’t great but at least sound like the guitar you are buying i.e. a tele sounds like a tele. They are certainly great instruments, and offer a lot of value as they are usually $400 or less. Now one thing I caution here is that just because a guitar is in this price range, doesn’t make it a 5, it could be a 9 or it could be a 2, each guitar is different and evokes a different sound, vibe, or emotion. As many of you will notice, this site is on a streak of being sent fantastic guitars, I place a lot of importance on being fair and just, but sometimes a $499 guitar just rocks!

A Squier Affinity Series Tele I consider to be a strong 5-6 range guitar.

So lastly, what’s a 1? A 1 is borderline unplayable, it come out of the box with high action, can’t stay in tune for more than a few minutes, isn’t intonated properly, or has buzzy and noisy electronics. Furthermore, maybe the pickups are missing the highs, mids, or lows or the spread on the tone and volume knobs isn’t great i.e. linear instead of audible. There can be a million problems with these guitars, even if they aren’t hard to fix. Overall, as long as the guitar is cheap enough though, you may still extract value from it as a beginner instrument, project guitar, or throw-around instrument that you don’t care about damaging/losing.

An Indio Classic guitar that is incredibly affordable but in the lower echelon of build and tone quality.

Concerns?

Some of you may be pointing out that the gap between 1 and 5 is much smaller than the gap between 5 and 10, I understand that concern but that’s because of how I grade the guitars. I place a lot of emphasis on the value of the guitar in relation to its price. A lot of times, the differences in brand name high priced pickups and factory made pickups for mid-tier guitars isn’t that different. It takes a really well trained ear and/or picky player to discern a Mexican Strat’s pickups from an American standard’s pickups. This means a lot of the guitars from 5-10 could be anywhere from $500 to $5000 and not too different in rating. In fact, mass production of guitars thanks to CNC machines has made a lot of affordable guitars, really really great. Take my Guild Jetstar or Chapman ML1 Modern V2 reviews, those guitars are both sub-$1000 but are two of the best I’ve ever played and outclass my expensive American-made Gibson Les Paul Special easily.

Fact or Fiction? The Future of Guitar Playing Will Look Different

Will digital rigs like the Kemper Profiling Amp replace analog technology?

For all the arguments about whether the guitar is dead or not, one topic people don’t often discuss is the death of analog gear and rigs, even among veteran musicians. Just like when Pro Tools was introduced to recording decades ago, we stand at a cross roads in guitar technology that has many people choosing between the old way versus the new way. Guitar bodies are being produced with new shapes, and new substances such as carbon fiber, metal, acrylic, and recycled skateboards. While good old fashioned wood Strats and LPs will always have a home in our heart, will this recent aluminum guitar craze carry on? Let’s dive into some questions like this and take a measured approach at what’s fact versus fiction.

Profiling Amps Will Replace Tube Amps

AXE-FX III profiling amp system

Every day it seems like a new article comes out claiming more and more touring musicians or guitar idols are turning to profiling amps. Mark Knopfler, Steve Morse, and Matt Heafy all use the Kemper system. The AXE FX system has an ever greater list featuring Misha Mansoor, Steve Vai, The Edge, John Petrucci, Alex Lifeson, and many more guitar superstars. These products essentially replace your amps, pedalboard, pre-amps, and anything else you use in your rig. Once they are programmed they can be directly hooked up the PA speakers, a venue’s sound system, or can go directly into a recording board.

While these are definitely for the more technologically savvy player, plenty of younger players are turning to these for consistent tone night after night and lighter carrying cases to take on tour. While I’ll always prefer playing through combo amps or stacks, it is much easier and cheaper to transport a couple of speakers, a foot controller, and these small super computers. Whether you like it or not, I believe these things are here to stay, and will only continue to win over more and more musicians. While traditionalists like Dan Auerbach or Jack White will always stick to amps, I wouldn’t be shocked if the trending, futuristic indie and metal guitarists leave them behind.

What Will Future Guitars Look Like?

Dating back to the ’60s, companies were messing around with alternate materials to make electric guitars. Most famous is the JB Hutto Res-O-Glass guitar that has been made famous by Jack White in the past decade or two. Recently, carbon fiber acoustics have been produced but have achieved only limited success, while higher end luthiers have pursued other, more unique attempts. We’ve seen a Swedish technological group 3D print an all metal, indestructible guitar, we’ve seen an instagram artist create guitars out of epoxy resin, and finally a huge spike in aluminum bodied instruments.

While many of us agree nothing can beat a good, handmade wooden Stratocaster, in an era of unprecedented technological advancement I would be surprised if many attempts along these lines are not made with commercial retail in mind. Furthermore, thanks to social media and the internet, the need to be unique, stick out, or get noticed is becoming a bigger and bigger part of any musician’s arsenal of tools. Realistically, it is probably too soon to worry about guitar construction or designs changing any more than the addition of extra strings, new pickups, or oddball shapes. But be prepared, it’s likely coming at some point in a millennial’s life time.

10 Modern Bands That Prove Rock Isn’t Dead Yet

While many claim that guitars and rock music are dead, these 10 bands are fighting back and proving the naysayers wrong.

Van McCann of Catfish and the Bottlemen and his Squier Jim Root Telecaster

If I had a dollar for every time I hear the phrases “rock is dead” or “the guitar is dead”, I could go out and finally buy my dream guitar (a 1976 Gibson Explorer FYI). As someone who has spent most of my life trying to actively seek out new bands, new sounds, and new rock music, I never understood this claim. Sure, rock isn’t dominating the top 40 hits like it used to, but who cares? Since when have rock stars cared about popularity, in fact, most rock stars started out as the outsiders or quiet, weird kids. While many media members and twitter users were making these claims, I was attending sold out rock shows, contributing to the millions of Spotify streams these new bands accumulated, and was buying electric guitars. And I wasn’t the only one. 

Despite the popular motif that rock is dead, there are plenty of awesome bands making music right now that draw their inspiration from a variety of classic rock artists. They are making guitar based music, playing guitar solos, and carrying the genre into the next decade. Let’s take a look at some of these new acts from the last 10 years or so, and briefly discuss what makes them unique. 

Bad Flower 


One of many guitar based-rock bands to emerge via the American Indie scene in the last decade, Bad Flower has very quickly gained a million Spotify listeners. Their debut was only just released in 2019 after years of successful touring, promotion, and single releases. “Ok, I’m Sick” was released to both critical commercial acclaim with big, vocal hooks in songs like “Ghost” and fuzzed out, spastic soloing in “Heroin”, if the guitar riff was dead, these guys didn’t get the message. As one of the youngest tenured bands on the list, the next few years will be rife with opportunities for them to ride the rock wave being paved by Greta Van Fleet right now. Singer-guitarist Josh Katz and the rest of the band clearly are on to something mixing 70’s riffs with 90’s angst and the rock world is a better place for it. 

Rival Sons 

If fuzzed out, garage rock madness is what you wish, then hit the play button on Rival Sons. One part White Stripes, another part Chris Stapleton, the band wrote their 2019 album “Feral Roots” was formed in legendary American studios RCA Studio A and Muscle Shoals. In their song “Do Your Worst”, you can hear their southern rock roots and soul roots underneath heavy layers of fuzzy guitar and drums. Around since their formation in Long Beach, California during the year 2009, the band sounds a long way from the dreamy, hazy beach sounds or DIY punk often associated with their home state. The band has claimed plenty of international success as well, with their top 5 Spotify listening countries featuring Paris, São Paulo, and Stockholm. 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s earlier work could easily be confused with some historic 60’s psych-rock movement thanks to the low-fi recording and easy drifting vocals. If the differences between songs like “Fishing For Fishies” and “Work This Time” weren’t stark enough, take a listen to their most recent single “Self-Immolate” which moves from hazy, experimental rock towards darker, heavy metal spaces. Originating from Melbourne, Australia, the band has quickly made an impression on the rest of the world outside their home island with world tours and millions of streams. To further mix things up, it doesn’t hurt that most of the members are multi-instrumentalists who have worked flute, piano, and horns into their catalog. If you think modern rock is dead or dying because it has become too formulaic, you’ll have an especially good time digging through their albums. 

Real Estate 

Moving into indie rock territory, with growing influences from electronic and new wave music, Real Estate is best described as “chill” music. Songs feature dreamy soundscapes of chiming guitar with smooth lead lines playing counter melodies around lead singer Martin Courtney’s vocals. The band formed in New Jersey but has since been based in Brooklyn, New York and has slowly built up quite an online following thanks to alternative chart hits like “Darling” and “Had to Hear”. After opening for indie heavyweights like Kurt Vile, Real Estate has grown to show that there continues to be a commercial market for indie rock. Fairly dormant since 2017, 2019 and 2020 looks to be big years for the band to get back out there and build on the success of their 2017 record “In Mind”. 

SWMRS 

SWMRS has exploded from the revitalized Bay Area punk scene alongside successful California peers FIDLAR, The Regrettes, and The Wrecks. Fresh off their “International Newcomer” win at the Kerrang awards, SWMRS are building up to become the face of modern punk music, alongside FIDLAR. Unlike the hardcore punk and pop-punk that had taken over the genre in the 2000s, SWMRS are more in the vain of The Clash, The Ramones, and alternative rock heroes like Television. This re-introduction of musicality and song writing into the punk rock format should pay dividends for them as they continue to work towards their follow up to this years explosive “Berkeley’s On Fire” record. 

Catfish and the Bottlemen

If good old English pub-rock is what you’re looking for, check out Catfish and the Bottlemen, who can be best described as a mix of Arctic Monkeys and Oasis rolled into one but with a Welsh accent. Having just released their third album, “The Balcony”, this year, the band continues to headline tours behind their mix of pop song structures with english rock bite. Their musicianship within the confines of these simple, short pop songs is what makes them stick out. Lead guitarist Johnny Bond mixes echoes and modulation effects over pentatonic melodies that would make The Edge proud, while frontman Van McCann bashes out distorted power chords over Benji Blakeway’s driving bass lines. Check out “Kathleen”, “Soundcheck”, and “Longshot” for prime examples of their take on anthems and sing-a-long rock. 

Cage the Elephant 

Likely the most successful and proven band on this list, Cage the Elephant has proven time and time again that they are the engine driving the Indie and Alternative rock boom. Hailing from the southern state of Kentucky, Cage was formed around the brothers Matt and Brad Shultz and drew on a variety of influences on their successful self-titled debut. All their following albums would be equally successful mixing punk, 90’s alternative, and blues influences in ever changing quantities. From early hits like the slide guitar based “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” to the Dan Auerbach produced “Trouble”, the band has shown consistent growth and momentum with each album. The dual guitar attack of Brad Shultz and Nick Bockrath has been a staple of their sound, felt all over their latest release, “Social Cues”. 

The Regrettes 

Another punk band from the same scene as SWMRS, The Regrettes have a bit more anger and classic punk vitriol behind their 2-3 minute songs. The band cites a variety of influences ranging from Bikini Kill to Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, something you can hear in their garage-pop meets distorted guitar songs. One of the most unique things about this band is the success and touring miles they’ve accumulated all while lead singer, Lydia Night, is still a teenager. Having gained major exposure by touring with Twenty One Pilots and Sleigh Bells, the band has slowly seen major growth via streaming platforms and will likely have to continue to hone their craft on the road alongside up and coming punks like Beach Goons and Destroy Boys while playing tracks off their 2017 Feel Your Feelings Fool!” debut and new single “I Dare You”. 

The Struts 

The Struts are a fantastic mix of classic rock influences all poured into one revivalist outfit featuring a bombastic singer, a do-it-all guitarist, and a tight rhythm section. The Struts have recently been strutting their stuff on tour with Foo Fighters, receiving a warm welcome from crowds everywhere. Vocalist Luke Spiller delivers a sensational duet with Foo’s stickman Taylor Hawkins each night when the Dave Grohl and co. usually cover “Under Pressure”. For a mix of glam rock swagger and blues-rock riffage check out their singles “Kiss This” or “Body Talks” and then try to tell me that rock is dead. These guys certainly have the stage presence to back up their new age anthems. 

Greta Van Fleet 

Lastly, we come to the heavily contested band Greta Van Fleet. While many famous artists and rock community members have spoken out against or for this band, they remain a vital part of the modern day rock scene. Musical skill or commercial success aside, this band is important for one very big reason: they have created an incredibly engaged and loyal fan base. GVF has created a small, mass hysteria for modern day teenagers who grew up listening to their parents’ records. Despite all the headlines that decreed rock could no longer engage and entrance the youth, Greta Van Fleet has done just that, and has set themselves up to grow into a powerhouse of the modern rock scene. Their next album will be heavily scrutinized, as many hope or expect them to move away from the constant Led Zeppelin comparisons into their own sound. 

5 Popular Guitar Effects Pedals Briefly Explained

Ever since the advent of the acoustic guitar, players have sought ways to create new sounds and push the limits on what a single guitar can accomplish. Many guitar heroes from Robert Johnson to Eddy Van Halen have used incredible technical skill and years of practice to propel the guitar forward while some have used more a mix of technique and technology.

Tom Morello, The Edge, and even Jack White have used effects pedals to great success to amplify and accentuate their guitar playing and create sounds unlike any heard before. While some of their pedals and playing styles are pretty out there, they still had to learn the basics about guitar effects, modulation, and experimentation before they could take the next step to legend status. Let’s take a look at a few of the basic, most popular pedals and how they can help take your playing to the next level and inspire creativity.

Overdrive/Distortion/Fuzz

While these pedals are technically three different types, we’ll group them as one here for simplicity’s sake. Basically, the idea here is to change the signal by overloading it and changing the physical sound waves. For physics nerds, you’re taking the nice, clean sine wave of signal, and squaring it off thus changing the harmonics and sound by altering the frequency. For guitar and bass players, you’re taking your nice, clean signal and adding noise and volume.

Typically, this effect was produced naturally by traditional tube amplifiers when volume was cranked up, the tubes warmed up, and players hit the strings harder. Many drive, distortion, or fuzz pedals try to recreate this sound in solid state amps or help push tube amps to break up at a lower volume. This is a huge help, especially for amateurs who are often required to play in dorms, bedrooms, or houses where you cannot turn your amp up enough to naturally distort it.

Generally speaking, overdrive pedals produce the least amount of this effect, instead giving more of a vintage feel associated with early blues and rock legends. Distortion is a bit more of a compressed, hard clipping device that is not meant to drive the tubes to distortion, instead manually “distorting” the sound signal itself. This produces a heavier, grittier, thicker sound and is associated with louder and heavier rock and metal playing. Try comparing the overdriven tone of The Rolling Stone’s “Jumping Jack Flash” to their distorted riff on “Satisfaction”.

Fuzz is like distortion but the next level by being an even harder clipping, more compressing, distorting monster. Often, you hear people describe a fuzz tone as controlled chaos or mayhem, this is because fuzz pedals just produce these crazy harmonics and tones at will. If you’re looking to start an all-out audio ambush on the audience, a fuzz pedal is for you.

Echo/Delay

Next, we come to one of my favorite types of pedal, the echo or delay pedal. Typically echo pedals are described as a short delay or “slapback” kind of sound, and have been widely used in country, rock, and pop music. Delay pedals typically cover longer delay sounds be it either in terms of the length of time between each signal or the number of “delays” or repeating signals. The basic ideology is simple; take what you play and repeat it over and over again with a slight delay in between each signal. These pedals are often used to add texture to guitar solos or to create ambient, lush backgrounds to build songs over. The delay’s biggest endorser in the years has likely been U2’s The Edge who used it to add musical muscle to the band’s simple, one guitar attack. The pedal is also often associated with “shoegaze”-type music that features dense guitar effect sounds and looping.

Chorus

Chorus is one of a handful of modulation effects available and widely used by musicians, especially in jazz and alternative rock performances. Some have described the chorus as fattening up your tone while making it sound warm, full, or dreamy. Chorus pedals work by having a circuit that creates two copies of your signal with a delay between them. In theory, they are supposed to create the sound of a backing choir but for your guitar signal, a sound that rings out, fills space, and sounds like multiple signals converging to sound as one.

Reverb

Often built into amplifiers but also popular as a pedal, reverb is another classic guitar effect that has been featured on numerous legendary records. Reverb can be described as bringing space or depth to your music and while a chorus pedal may sound like a choir for your guitar, a reverb pedal sounds like the cathedral hall where the choir’s voices echo and carry.

Reverb is often split into a few smaller categories such as spring reverb or hall reverb. Hall reverb mimics the sound of your guitar tone reflecting off a myriad of surfaces a lot like the way sounds carry through large rooms. Spring reverb is more common on vintage amplifiers such as the wonderful Fender silverfaces or Vox AC30 models. It is characterized by having a tank that houses a number of springs that uses vibrational energy to reflect the sound artificially and amplify it.

Wah

When most people think of wah pedals, they think of blistering guitar solos instead of the technical sine wave manipulation that causes that signature “crying tone”. Wah’s mimic the human voice to some degree by allowing for notes, pitches, and frequencies to swell up and down. The pedal takes the peak response of the frequency filter and alternates it up and down quickly, based vaguely on how a mute can be used on trumpets to alter the sound. The wah can be used in a fixed position to get a specific tone for funk or reggae upstrokes or can be manipulated using the foot pedal to create the full spectrum of sounds that are produced by alternating the frequency response.

Building Your Pedal Board

These are just five of the most popular pedals and there are dozens more that have been used throughout the electric guitar’s history. Many of these pedals are also popular with bassists, especially fuzz and chorus, who are looking to help their bass tone cut through the mix or add texture to a song. If you’re just starting to build a pedal board, it is hard to go wrong with any of the five pedals listed above, but always check to see if any of these are built into your amp and controllable by footswitch. Now that these five are out of the way, what other pedals or guitar signal processing techniques would you like to learn about?

A Guide to Buying Electric Guitars Part I.

I’m going to start this with a disclaimer, I cannot tell you which guitars you should buy. I can’t tell you which one is best either. Guitars, like musicians, are a unique art form and each and every one is different. But in an online world dominated by guitar forums debating which Strat is better and guitar magazine articles advertising “guitar of the year”, let’s all take a step back and think about our experiences buying guitars.

Beginner Instruments

By reflecting on my own youthful experiences with buying guitars, amps, and pedals, I remember swapping gear out all the time, losing money on deals, and still be generally unsatisfied with my playing and tone. Players of any age commonly make the mistake of, well if my favorite front man played instrument x, I need instrument x. I ran into this problem with a friend of mine who has begun to learn the guitar in his late 20’s. He went out and bought a Squier Deluxe Stratocaster because his favorite guitarists played Fender’s with humbuckers in them.

His arguments for why he thought he would love it were as follows.

  • Chris Shifflet (Foo Fighters) used to shred a Deluxe Tele
  • Billie Joe Armstrong had a strat copy with a humbucker in the bridge
  • It was cheap, and what the Guitar Center employee pushed on him as a good beginner
  • It was aesthetically appealing

I understand that many of the fantastic readers of sites and forums like these obviously understand the difference between good and bad guitars, but I find that most online guitar communities (unintentionally) ignore the beginners coming to them not to chat, but to learn. That same friend had spent hours on sites reading through peoples rigs and looking at demos on YouTube deciding that this guitar would be great.

These Squier and Epiphone beginner packs and entry level models obviously have value as they give the beginner everything they need at a set price point but is the convenience worth it? Beginners are most at-risk to quit, get frustrated, or lose interest. An instrument that doesn’t stay in tune, has a rough neck, or lackluster tones can make all that a whole lot easier.

Shopping Around

No matter what your buying experience or playing experience is, go play the guitar before you buy it. Or at least play a model that has the same neck, the same pickups, or the same brand name so you can begin to familiarize yourself with how the guitar gets you to that dream tone. That same friend who bought the Strat has since played a few of my shorter scale Gibson-style instruments and realized that they are easier for him to play and find notes on. Scale length, fret size, and pickups are not often things a beginner would know to look for. Even when a demo says “oh this has jumbo frets” or “this is a baseball bat neck”, not everyone in the audience knows what that means, yet many of us experienced players forget that in my opinion (myself included).

These cheap instruments are so abundant and available for a reason: they generate more income for the business than other models. Production costs are lower in bulk, the general market for beginner’s is always high, and not everyone’s guitar acumen is equivalent to their wallet size. I.e. some of the best, most knowledgeable people on this site may still only be able to afford a sub-$500 guitar. So, let’s conclude these guitars are valuable to the manufacturer and that is why they are pushed on customers, advertised in excess, and flood the market.

Remember: Guitar prices fluctuate, especially when buying used.

This doesn’t mean the instrument is valuable to the guitar community. It is not a controversial opinion to say that the guitar market’s goals do not line up with the guitar player’s goals. While we may drool over their products, they are businesses that have to keep profit margins up no matter how musician-focused they claim to be. When buying your first guitar, or last guitar, I highly recommend not buying the one that seems the easiest to get, the most available, or is the newest model.

(NOTE: There are exceptions when buying guitars to modify, or budget isn’t an issue, or you’ve specifically fallen in love with a new model that does get you to that dream tone. Many of these recommendations are for a broad base of players.)

Branching Out

Don’t interpret this as to avoid cheap guitars, as there are many affordable models that are absolutely fantastic. For example, for only an extra hundred dollars or so, pass up the Squier affinity series and check out the vintage modified options. They look unique, sound great, and give off a whole different vibe than your average beginner Telecaster or Stratocaster. And with traditional retail expanding used gear sections and online retailers like Reverb growing, you can find really great instruments for fractions of what you’d pay new.

Furthermore, in the pursuit of tone or feel, don’t box yourself into just the most familiar Gibson/Fender/ESP families of gear. Maybe in your hands, a Mexican-made Telecaster is all you need to be the next Jimi Hendrix. But what if what you’re looking for was in that old $300 Tiesco sitting in Sam Ash’s used section? What if it is the partscaster that is worth nothing because retail doesn’t value parts and modifications, they value brand name.

Always Remember to check out more than just the most well known version of the guitar model you are shopping for.

Trying a new brand can mean different things to different people, moving to a Gretsch (smaller than Fender but still a huge brand name) can be a huge jump for example. Or maybe it is going out and buying a Reverend Sensei Junior instead of a Gibson Les Paul Junior. Especially on a budget, it is easy to see the value of getting a known quantity like an Epiphone instead of trying something new. I get it, you only have money to buy one nice guitar every few years, just get what you know will work and get you in the same ballpark and move on. But in reality, limiting yourself to only a handful of brands will hurt you in the end. Like you just said, you only get to buy one every few years or so, that’s a long wait to try again and settle for just okay.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, the influx of YouTubers, magazines, and forums has helped us a guitar player community be exposed to more information than ever before. But with this information came increased opportunities for advertising and market manipulation by major brands and retailers. Being a smart shopper is only getting more important as retail begins to shift to more and more online platforms at the expense of the mom and pop stores that fueled many of rock music’s beginnings. With the sudden increase in available guitars of all prices, it is more important than ever to do thorough research before buying and pick a guitar based on feel, comfort, sound, and inspiration instead of brand name, price, or aesthetics.

The guitar industry is changing at a rapid pace, shifting from traditional retail to online and second-hand sources. According to Digital Music News, the average price of electric guitars has increased since 2008 while overall volume of sales has decreased. This is due to the increasing parity in the abundance between low-end and high-end guitar models, with my mid-range options and used gear moving online. As the market changes, we as consumers must adapt as well and stay educated to make sure we get the best value for our hard earned money.