If you're lucky enough to find the £1,000/$1,500+ required to play with the more serious electric toys, you'll find the extra investment will, with a little care, buy you a guitar that should serve you faithfully for a lifetime.
In this £1,000 to £2,000* - or approx. $1,500 to $3,000 - section of the market, Fender still rules the roost and you'll see a sizeable chunk of the Big F's big hitters in the following pages.
However, the times they are a-changing. While Gibson's 2015 Les Paul Studio offers excellent value for money in the sub £1,000/$,1500 range, the pricier 2015 Les Paul Deluxe we tested recently didn't quite make the 4.5+ star rating to warrant inclusion.
Elsewhere, premium builds with clever, cost-saving design tweaks are increasingly common - and for good reason. PRS' US-made S2 guitars consistently impress. While Schecter, with its USA Production Series, ESP with it's Japanese-made E-II range and smaller, reputable UK-based luthiers like Manson and Sabre are all challenging the status quo - making some stunning custom-style instruments at home for reasonable prices.
In fact, browse the gallery and you'll see there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
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PRS S2 Standard 24
Other than the solid-colour finish, pickguard-mounted electronics and missing maple top, the PRS S2 Standard is spec'd the same as the 'regular' S2 Custom 24, right down to the S2 locking tuners.
As we've noted with past S2 models, it's hard to see where cost-cutting has taken place. The Seafoam Green won't be to all tastes - the playability, however, is universal.
"The Standard 24 would make a great workhorse for covers-band guitarists who need sonic versatility - or just about any player of any style."
FULL REVIEW: PRS S2 Standard 24
Gibson Memphis ES-335 Satin 2015
Home of the thinline semi-acoustic and hollowbody instruments that will always rank among the company's most desirable electrics, the Gibson Memphis factory has a number of new launches for 2015, including this fine satin-finished semi, which takes its styling cues from the block-inlay ES-335 introduced in mid-1962 but incorporates a range of upgrades with the modern player in mind.
"At this price, we'd ignore the more expensive gloss version - it's simply a killer-sounding contemporary ES-335 with classic looks."
FULL REVIEW: Gibson Memphis ES-335 Satin 2015
PRS S2 Singlecut
This is a thoroughly pro working tool that combines some pretty classic single-cut tones with lighter, brighter and edgier partial coil-splits to really expand the sounds you have at your fingertips.
It's a stark reminder of why some of us play PRS guitars: not because of the fancy maple tops or bird inlays, but because they are simply superb instruments for the working musician who's more concerned about getting the job done than the quality of the flame. If that's you, this guitar comes highly recommended.
"A stripped-down USA guitar that offers build and sound over visual ornamentation."
FULL REVIEW: PRS S2 Singlecut
St Blues Juke Joint Mississippi Bluesmaster
The Mississippi Bluesmaster is the more Gibson-like version of the standard Fender-scale Bluesmaster. The original Bluesmaster design, which dates back to the 70s and is credited to founders Tom Keckler and Charlie Lawing, was the first St Blues guitar and remains its 'classic'.
It's a no-brainer for blues, bump 'n' grind rock and even the dirtier edges of country twang via the cleaner-sounding coil-splits: a Gibbo for the Tele player, or a bit of bolt-on twang for a Les Paul owner? It sits in the middle ground but not on the fence.
"A neat hybrid design that's very tidily made with some good sounds. A gigging workhorse."
FULL REVIEW: St Blues Juke Joint Mississippi Bluesmaster
Caparison C2 ANG-QE
The ANG-QE we have here is part of the C2 range, and represents a stripped-down version of the company's much higher-priced Angelus model. Although this model is less than half the price of its originator, the build quality doesn't appear to have been compromised.
Plugged in, the ANG-QE is a true metal guitar. EMGs are a classic choice for players with heavier tastes, and here we have the company's ever-present 81 and 85 models. Although packing one hell of a punch, it retains a clarity that welcomes big open chords, as well as Metallica-style palm-muted powerchords.
"If metal is your bag, there aren't many guitars in this price range that are built this well and produce such truly brutal metal tones."
FULL REVIEW: Caparison C2 ANG-QE
Gibson 2014 Les Paul Classic
Here's a Les Paul for the modern guitarist; its raunchy image is just the tip of the iceberg for a guitar that's the nearest thing to a 'Formula One' Les Paul yet.
This instrument shows Gibson is far from stuck in the 1950s. The Classic has strengths that any tone lover with an eye on modern, powerful soloing will love. Its skinny neck, big sounds and confident gait mark it out as a modern titan of the breed.
"For a great-value, fully realised modern Les Paul, look no further."
FULL REVIEW: Gibson 2014 Les Paul Classic
As befits Dan MacPherson's reputation, the Nomad is impeccably crafted. It's an elegant, paired-down design, based, of course, on the Stratocaster, with subtly different cutaway geometry and numerous nods to modern makers such as PRS, with its natural edge 'binding'.
Even the basic option list is expansive - and we've rarely played a better UK custom guitar. If you know what you want, this is world class.
"Beautifully made and finished with a very clean modern aesthetic. The supplied pickups are aimed at gain-laden tones but, of course, you can choose your own."
FULL REVIEW: MacPherson Nomad
Fender Reclaimed Old Growth Redwood Stratocaster
The wood in this guitar was originally used, says Fender, "in the 1933 construction of road bridges spanning Walker Basin Creek and Caliente Creek, just east of Bakersfield, California." Redwood trees are an endangered species - hence the use of reclaimed wood here.
Aside from being a very tidily built USA Strat with a really great feel, its slightly woodier and more mellow tonality has plenty of practical applications. It also looks fantastic. This guitar is one for the sonic connoisseur.
"While the redwood adds visual and sonic interest here, this is simply a great-sounding Strat."
FULL REVIEW: Fender Reclaimed Old Growth Redwood Stratocaster
BUY: Fender Reclaimed Old Growth Redwood Stratocaster currently available from:
Given that the BW-1FM/ET is the signature model of Dillinger Escape Plan's Ben Weinman, it's no surprise that this guitar is rammed with a veritable smorgasbord of features - most notably the jazzy semi-hollow design, metal-inspired EMG 81 and 85 pickups and futuristic EverTune bridge.
The build quality is exceptional across the board, too: it's the kind you would expect to see on a guitar costing two or three times this price. Impressive. What's more, it's not a screaming metal monster and with the right amp settings dialled in, it certainly has the potential to cover all styles.
"A great example of a signature model that actually delivers the diversity and personality of the player who inspired and helped to design it."
FULL REVIEW: LTD BW-1FM/ET
BUY: LTD BW-1FM/ET currently available from:
PRS S2 Custom 22 Semi-Hollow
The timeless, classic Custom sits in the middle between a semi-like sound and a solidbody, and with the inclusion of the vibrato it's proved to be something of an 'all-rounder'.
Then, of course, there's PRS's superb build, playability, intonation and tuning stability, and it's very gig-ready. Yet another victory for PRS' excellent S2 range.
"A lightweight, semi take on PRS's classic - the vibrato alone might be enough to sway you."
FULL REVIEW: PRS S2 Custom 22 Semi-Hollow review
Ibanez FR6UC-BKF Prestige
The FR6UC's matt black flat finish and lack of bling lends the instrument a mean, no-nonsense aesthetic that would be a perfect fit for the modern metalcore player.
The Bare Knuckle Aftermath pickups are an inspired choice on a rock-solid, ferocious-sounding guitar with a stripped-down charm that's just begging to be taken out on the road and played hard.
"Just a no-frills modern heavy rock guitar with pro sounds and a solid, road-proof build."
FULL REVIEW: Ibanez FR6UC-BKF Prestige
Manson MA-1 EVO
Stylistically, Manson's M Series guitars are based on the good ol' Fender Telecaster platform, but for the MA-1 EVO the shape has been given a unique visual overhaul, courtesy of the Devon-based firm - with a trimmer waist, a deeper treble cutaway and a subtly bigger shoulder.
This is a great guitar with a big ring and clarity aplenty. Up the gain, and it laps it up - the Seymour Duncan JB has surprising clarity in dirtier settings, while the series position of the Cool Rails is like a mid- focused Santana-esque voice, an almost-hot P-90.
"A modern rock guitar par excellence, plus Fuzz Factory!"
FULL REVIEW: Manson MA-1 EVO
ESP E-II ST-2 Rosewood
The E-II range is built in Japan by the same luthiers that turn their routers, chisels and sanders to, among other things, the eye-popping ESP Custom Shop range of guitars.
The ST-2 is designed to rock, that much is obvious, but we're certain that instrumentalists will find much to get excited about too: a great neck, custom-wound pickups and some gorgeous flamed maple into the bargain? Count us in.
"A great high-end rock guitar. With impressive spec and performance, it's up there with the best."
FULL REVIEW: ESP E-II ST-2 Rosewood
Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar NOS
The original version of this guitar was the ultimate Cobain fan's wet dream. The pristine NOS ('New Old Stock') version moves away from the 'collector's replica' element visually, but maintains the sonic distinctions that make it so desirable.
Tonally, the Cobain Jaguar is every bit as good - possibly better - than we remember. The neck PAF sounds great for hollow cleans, particularly with a bit of chorus or flanger (think Lithium or Come As You Are).
"Ultimately, the Kurt Cobain Jaguar remains one of the greatest signature models of modern times, and will work for a range of styles - with or without the dents."
FULL REVIEW: Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar NOS review
ESP E-II Mystique QM
Like PRS's S2 range, ESP's E-II guitars are made in the same country as the premium models, just at trimmer prices.
The Mystique is a tone-machine, pure and simple, and beneath the bells and whistles of the heavily quilted maple top and gold-plated fixtures is a versatile and eminently playable instrument.
"A modern tone-machine for contemporary blues, restrained rock, jazzy fusion and much more."
FULL REVIEW: ESP E-II Mystique QM review
The Wraith is the entry point of the Sabre line and while the four-figure price tag places it firmly in the realm of the gigging pro, it's actually very reasonable for a British-built axe.
Does Sabre have what it takes to compete with the big boys in the market? Thanks to the ingenious design and detailed tones of the Wraith, the answer to that question can only be a resounding 'yes'.
"An outstanding guitar, whatever your style."
FULL REVIEW: Sabre Wraith
Vigier GV Rock
Vigier's take on the single-cut design was introduced to the world back in 2009 in the form of the GV Wood.
Named in honour of Patrice Vigier's late father, Georges, the GV range has since been extended to include the GV Rock and GV Metal, both with different appointments that reflect those respective musical styles.
"A versatile rock guitar that sports one of the most playable necks out there."
FULL REVIEW: Vigier GV Rock
Sabre Syren 6
The Syren 6 is part of Cambridge firm Sabre's new Stock Series, where each model is built in batches - you put down a 50 per cent deposit online, and once 12 orders have been made, luthier Christian Howe gets to work, you stump up the remaining cash, and get your handmade guitar four months later.
That's a genuine luthier-made instrument for the price of a factory-made model. If you're looking for an alternative to the shred regulars, with a personal touch, you'd be well advised to stick your name down on Sabre's list - based on this evidence, it's going to fill up fast.
"We salute Sabre for giving us the opportunity to get hold of a genuine hand-built instrument without the astronomical price tag."
FULL REVIEW: Sabre Syren 6
Music Man Luke III
Lukather's latest electric vision is sleek, modern and minimalistic. The alder body with its rounded lower bouts and exaggerated offset horns retains Fender-like contouring with enhanced top edge chamfering.
This is a superb modern electric guitar - in this case designed to work for a top guitar player. The Luke III is almost vintage in its neck feel, and its secret weapon gain boost and versatile pickups mean that it'd be superb on any rock gig, not to mention jam session.
"A more 'vintage' version of the original, it's a beautifully made, gig-ready pro, ideal for modern rock and more."
FULL REVIEW: Music Man Luke III
Schecter USA Production Series PT
With the USA Production Series, Schecter's expanded California Custom Shop offers a portfolio of instruments that promise boutique quality at a competitive price.
Well, the PT Standard reaffirms the brand's standing as a purveyor of objects of desire. The build and finish quality, and the playability and tone on offer is as good as it gets at this price point. We also love the sensibly presented list of optional extras. It's focused enough to allow you to craft your dream guitar without potentially losing sight of what you actually need from what will ultimately become your personal signature model.
"The gene-splicing of Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul DNA finds superb expression here."
FULL REVIEW: Schecter USA Production Series PT
Fender American Vintage '52 Telecaster
Fender has spent the last 30+ years re-learning its past and with the new American Vintage range has homed in on what it sees as the essential vintage Teles. This guitar is based one of them: the quintessential ash-bodied 'black guard' '52
An original '52 ranks in this writer's top-three guitars of all time, and this guitar would not be totally embarrassed in its company, especially after a few years' worth of hard gigging. It's hard to criticise this Tele from a build quality or authenticity standpoint.
"You don't know what a Telecaster should sound like if you've never auditioned an American-made or Custom Shop '52-type reissue."
FULL REVIEW: Fender American Vintage '52 Telecaster
PRS S2 Vela
To many of us, PRS guitars just ain't cool. Why? Well, it's not that they don't attract a huge roster of artists and users, it's just that with those fancy looking maple tops and shell adorned fingerboards, they are, well, not always as rock 'n' roll as we'd like.
The trouble is, from the SE range upwards, they are very good guitars, known for their high build quality, perfect intonation, tuning stability and classy tones. Believe it or not, there are plenty of people within PRS who think the same, and it's those guys and gals who fought to create the S2 range, which launched in 2013.
"This is the finest S2 to date... and a PRS guitar that certainly isn't for doctors and dentists!"
FULL REVIEW: PRS S2 Vela
Fender American Vintage '64 Telecaster
On plugging in the '64, the immediate cry was, "You can really hear the rosewood." Indeed, you can. There's a dark warmth here that's absent in the other new Teles in the range, and an early Beck-Kinks-Stones-style wiriness that the others don't quite have.
This is definitely a versatile Tele, and thanks to that rosewood 'board, the most playable of Fender's rigorously faithful American Vintage series, too.
"Classic tones meet playable design. In our opinion, it's the best of Fender's new American Vintage Teles."
FULL REVIEW: Fender American Vintage '64 Telecaster
Rock 'N' Roll Relics Thunders II
If a real 50s Junior is on your radar but off limits due to vintage prices, then perhaps this San Francisco built gem from Rock 'N' Roll Relics might just sneak in under budget.
Luthier Billy Rowe hand-builds his Rock 'N' Roll Relics guitars to an exacting recipe. Each one is constructed using select timbers, then finished in nitrocellulose and aged to three different levels of distress.
"We can't fault Billy Rowe's execution of the 'plain mahogany with twin-P-90s' theme."
FULL REVIEW: Rock 'N' Roll Relics Thunders II
Fender American Standard Stratocaster 2012
Fender's American Standard Strat has remained unchanged since 2012 for a reason. The big F will no doubt return to tweak the world's most popular guitar design again, but the current iteration represents an excellent balance of value for money, build quality, classic style and modern playability.
There are certainly more vintage-styled new versions of this Fender classic, or indeed more modernist tweaked versions. Yet reflecting on our sound tests, we'd be more than happy to walk on any stage with this one.
"Not the most vintage or modern Strat in Fender's range, but hard to fault on any level."
FULL REVIEW: Fender American Standard Stratocaster 2012 review
Suhr Classic Pro
Up until 2006, Suhr was strictly a custom shop, but as demand increased the 'Pro' series was devised, and featured the most requested custom configurations, including stainless steel frets, a compound radius fingerboard and locking tuners. Nine years on, and with five different body styles on offer, the Pro series now represents a healthy proportion of the USA company's output.
Every aspect of the Classic Pro appears to be a compromise between classic vintage-style and the requirements of the modern or 'pro' player.
"A seriously pro instrument for professionally minded players. The single-coil sounds alone are well worth further investigation."
FULL REVIEW: Suhr Classic Pro
BUY: Suhr Classic Pro currently available from:
Caparison Angelus M3B
Rock players are generally spoiled for choice, but Caparison instruments are made in Japan and designed by Itaru Kanno, a former member of the Charvel/Jackon Japanese division from the late 80s – some true pedigree. The company claims to favour quality over quantity, though that comes at a price.
This extensively re-spec'd Angelus M3B was launched earlier this year and falls in line with Caparison's emergence as contenders at the higher-end of the rock market.
"The Angelus's construction and design has proven, in both models reviewed to date, to excel for rock and metal (especially the latter). You can turn the volume and gain up on your amp as much as you like, but sometimes that true metal tone comes from the guitar itself."
FULL REVIEW: Caparison Angelus M3B
Fender American Standard Telecaster 2012
Despite the fact that technology is moving faster than ever in guitar circles, the current American Standard Tele does not feel at all dated - and that's the advantage of picking up the timeless Fender design.
This Tele is more than fit for purpose: not vintage-specific, or overloaded with tweaks and upgrades, just a workmanlike, well-priced, very good playing and sounding USA guitar.
"Not the most vintage or modern Tele in Fender's range, this is nonetheless a thoroughly competent modern Tele: plug in, play."
FULL REVIEW: Fender American Standard Telecaster 2012 review
Strandberg Boden 8
Seven, eight and even nine-string guitars are becoming more and more widespread. Often mistakenly perceived as a novelty, these guitars are fast becoming a mainstay in the realm of progressive metal.
A company that has catered to the prog-metal community for quite some time is Strandberg, based in Uppsala, Sweden, whose impressive user base includes Periphery's Misha Mansoor and Animals As Leaders' Tosin Abasi, and the Boden 8 has its specs taken from the made-to-measure Strandbergs of those very two players.
"If you're serious about eight-string instruments, this is one of the most innovative and intuitive designs out there."
FULL REVIEW: Strandberg Boden 8
Fret-King Corona 70 Fluence Equipped
Fishman is distributed in the UK by JHS, the company behind the Trevor Wilkinson-designed Fret-King range, which is the first guitar brand to fit Fishman's innovative new Fluence pickups onto production models.
In concept, both Fishman's and Wilkinson's designs centre on the same re-imagining of the classics. Wilkinson's Corona, for example, takes the Fender Stratocaster, alters a few lines, adds a few tweaks and creates something that's a good guitar in its own right.
Fishman, meanwhile has re-imagined the classic Gibson humbucker. But perhaps 're-imagined', which suggests a facelift or a subtle redesign, isn't going far enough: Fluence represents one of the most significant redesigns of the magnetic pickup in its entire history.
"Fret-King's host guitar is seriously good and it's loaded with one of the most innovative pickup concepts in decades."
FULL REVIEW: Fret-King Corona 70 Fluence Equipped