Before 1978, a rock guitar was any six-string that made a sexy noise through a big amp. Then Van Halen happened and the band's guitar hooligan Eddie Van Halen changed history, heavily influencing the axes that make up this best rock guitars list.
EVH took a cheap Strat-style body and neck, chiselled in an old Gibson humbucker and yep, he changed the world. Suddenly, the rock guitar was a 'thing'.
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Thanks to Eddie, the pointy, super slim-necked, jumbo fretted, bridge humbucker and Floyd Rose vibrato-loaded rock machine defined the 1980s. Only Slash and AC/DC's Angus Young kept it old school with their vintage Gibsons. So, what camp do you conduct your hard rockin’ business out of? Here’s our pick of the best guitars for playing rock to help you decide…
What is the best rock guitar right now?
If you're taken with the whole vintage thing, you can't beat the Gibson SG Standard 2019. Lightweight with a huge tonal voice and bags of sustain, it also looks cooler than any guitar has a right to. The slim neck makes it instantly player friendly. Ditto the big frets.
Modern lovers might prefer the more contemporary treasures of the Charvel Pro-Mod DK24 HSS. The caramelised neck is super slim yet ultra stable. Tuning stability is perfect too thanks to a set of locking machine heads. A trio of killer Seymour Duncan pickups gives you access to a palette of classic and modern tones.
How to pick the best rock guitar for you
Like any other punters, when rock nuts are looking for a new squeeze, we buy with our eyes. Be honest. Whatever prize you snag has to look the business. Hold that thought however. There are other things you need to consider before you pop your PIN number into the machine and bag your dream rock guitar...
What sounds are you into? There's iconic Fender single coil brightness like Jimi Hendrix and Yngwie Malmsteen. You might prefer the humbucker tones of the likes of Jimmy Page or Metallica's James Hetfield. Don't forget the beefy P90 single coil tones of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and cult proto-punk Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls.
What kind of player are you? Guitars come with a variety of fingerboard radius measurements. Basically, the radius refers to how curved the guitar's fingerboard is. The higher the number, the flatter the fingerboard is. Vintage Fenders had a rounded 7.25" radius. This is great for playing chords but not so awesome if you want a low action (aka string height).
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Modern Fenders have a flatter 9.5" radius which makes it easier to get a comfortable action. Gibson guitars are even easier in the digits thanks to a 12" radius, and many modern rock guitars go flatter still with up to 16" or so on the spec sheets.
If you play classic rock and want to do some easy noodling above the 12th fret, you'll be happy with a 9.5" or 12" 'board. Shredders and metal heads will likely prefer the flatter modern rock guitar feel. Many speed freaks prefer these fingerboards, finding them easier to pull off rapid riffs and licks on.
If that sounds like you, we recommend that you also try a compound radius 'board. These have a curvier radius over the first few frets for comfortable chording, before flattening out as you progress up the neck to make for a super low action.
The best rock guitars in the world right now
Why is the SG the greatest rock guitar of all time? Two words. The first is Angus. The second? You guessed it. Young. The old bloke in the Jimmy Krankie school uniform has recorded some of the best rock guitar tones in history. He did it all with an SG.
Something magical happens when you screw a pair of humbuckers to a mahogany body. You get loads of sustain. Note definition is crystal clear, no matter how much distortion you unload. The SG is lightweight too. Some examples barely squeak past six pounds on the scale.
The SG Standard is the biggest-selling Gibson electric. The latest model has the trademark blend of warmth and snarling treble loved by Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, Modfather Paul Weller, and your man Angus...
All that fiddling about that Eddie Van Halen was doing in the ‘70s is in the DNA of this guitar. Charvel was one of the brands that defined the second coming of rock guitar design... and they're still at it, producing some of the best rock guitars around.
Gone is the cumbersome double-locking Floyd Rose vibrato so prevalent in the ‘90s. Instead you get a simpler vibrato with locking tuners. The Seymour Duncan pickups are screwed straight to the body to maximise sustain and tone.
This guitar also has a caramelised neck. This is the hottest current spec tweak. The neck is baked/roasted to remove moisture which makes it golden brown and ultra stable. This neck won't bend if the weather gets too hot or cold...
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Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones made the ‘70s Telecaster Custom an icon. This is despite the fact that Fender was going through its worst decade of quality control. 70s ‘Teles weighed a ton too.
The new Vintera Series '70s Telecaster gives you all the looks of Keef's old sparring partner with knockout build quality. This new version comes with the period correct 7.25" fingerboard radius. That means it's one of the best rock guitars for whacking out power chords on but die hard widdlers might not like the vibe above the 12th fret.
But who cares? It still looks cooler than an ice lolly dressed like Elvis and pumps out classic Tele tones. The slim C neck profile makes it feel like an old friend.
Gretsch is often the forgotten hero of rock guitars. Let's not forget, Gretsch is the rhythm guitar sound of AC/DC. The late Malcolm Young loved his old Jet. Well, we fell for the supremely affordable G5220 Jet BT just as hard.
The build quality of this thing is fantastic. It plays like a dream, and pumps out a range of classic tones with a modern twist. The onboard Black Top Broad'Tron humbuckers have a bit more power than vintage spec Gretsch pups. That's a tasty tweak.
Yes, you can play rockabilly on this thing, just like any other Gretsch, but it'll take you deep in to classic and modern rock territory. And who doesn't love that beautiful V-shaped tailpiece?
Super light with an unmistakable modern look, the Majesty X is the latest signature model of Dream Theater fret melter John Petrucci. JP has been a Music Man guy for years and the love affair is stronger than ever.
There's nothing retro about the Majesty X. This is as modern as production guitars get. The X is incredibly lightweight yet feels solid with loads of sustain. The vibrato unit and locking vibrato keep the tuning rock solid. That's proof you don't need a Floyd Rose to whammy with tuning impunity.
The only fly in the ointment is that you don't get the Dimarzio humbuckers on JP's top line US-made guitars. That said, the X's pickups do a great job, making this one of the very best rock guitars.
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You can't have a list of the best rock guitars without including a Strat. Why? Jimi Hendrix, man! While all those other cats were digging on their Gretsch and Rickenbacker gear, Jimi saved the Stratocaster.
There are literally more Strats available in the current Fender catalogue than you can shake a stick at. In addition to a veritable smorgasbord of body colour choices, the Mexico-sourced Player model offers the iconic killer good looks with some modern tweaks.
You get: a two-point version of Fender's classic 'Synchronized' vibrato unit for smoother operation; a 9.5" fingerboard radius for easy string bending; and punchy sounding pickups that give you access to a load of modern single coil tones.
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How's this for a best rock guitar sales pitch? Joe "F***in'" Perry of Aerosmith has a Dano '66T. That's how 'rock' this thing is. To be fair, the '66T looks like a surf guitar. That's ‘cos it was modelled on the Mosrite guitars loved by the instrumental and surf kids in the ‘60s.
What you've actually got here is a beefy sounding rock beast with slim comfortable neck shape and a semi-hollow body with a centre block to prevent unwanted feedback.
The bridge Lipstick pickup can be split to provide humbucking and single coil sounds. The neck job is a Mosrite-esque single coil that pumps out fat jazz and blues-friendly tones. Give it a try. You, er, don't want to miss a thing...
About the author
After 20 years in guitar retail, Ed Mitchell joined Total Guitar as reviews editor. These days he contributes to Guitar World, Total Guitar, Guitarist Magazine, MusicRadar and Classic Rock as a freelance writer and reviewer.