There are two competing instincts in electric guitar design that are forever reflected in our year-end polls. 2021 was no different. And no, it’s not the question of single-coil pickups versus humbucker, vibrato or hardtail. It’s something even more fundamental.
The competing instincts we see divide this year’s new designs into two camps – the modern and the traditional, the pursuit of innovative high-performance improvements versus the search for authenticity. It’s a compelling phenomenon but what it means for innovation in electric guitar is uncertain.
Looking at your Top Ten new electric guitars of 2021, we need only look at the first two places to see a real world example of this tension. In first place, we have a design that dates back to 1954 but it has been quite radically overhauled to serve the needs of today’s player, with features and bold finishes that belong to this century, not the last.
And yet, in second place, we have the guitar world’s most dedicated time capsule approach to making vintage guitar replicas that we have seen.
These instruments have been painstakingly aged to look like they were indeed manufactured in the 1950s, and are uncanny doppelgängers of its brand’s storied past. And yet, in their own way, these high-end retro editions are as as technologically advanced as anything on our shortlist.
Elsewhere, there are superb examples of vintage-inspired instruments that deliver that vibe, feel and tone, but without the punitive price tags that their ancestors might command.
There are twists on classic recipes. And there are engineering innovations that just go to the show that electric guitar design will continue to evolve in the year to come. It’ll probably be similarly Janus-faced, splitting the difference between vintage and post-80s modernity. But then that’s just how we like it.
1. Fender Player Plus Stratocaster
The Fender Player Plus Series is a future-forward contemporary range that looks to do for the Mexican-built models what the American Ultra does for the US models.
Placing pro-quality specs within the budget of the dedicated amateur and the jobbing pro, the Player Series features Noiseless pickups, sculpted neck heels for better upper fret access, a flatter 12” fingerboard radius, and some imaginative switching options to offer a huge range of tones.
The Stratocaster is a peach. The Strat has always been a versatile instrument but this extends its tone palette via a a push-pull function on the tone pot to allow you to add the neck single-coil pickup to positions one and two on the five-way pickup selector.
And like the other Player Plus models, it arrives host of new finishes – Aged Candy Apple Red and 3-Color Sunburst and Olympic Pearl for the traditionalists, with Opal Spark and the red-to-yellow Tequila Sunrise gradient burst for the iconoclasts. It’s fun, but serious.
2. Gibson Murphy Lab Les Paul Standard
Headed up by Tom Murphy and operating out of its own secretive fiefdom with the Gibson Custom Shop, the Murphy Lab is all about recreating Holy Grail guitars that look decades old from the moment you take them out the case.
Offered in various degrees of ageing, from Ultra Light to Ultra Heavy, these are as close as you can get to a vintage Gibson without the real thing to hand. And for anyone whose ambitions of of owning a 1959 Les Paul Standard have evaporated in a fiscal reality that demands a six-figure price for such an instrument, the Murphy Lab Les Pauls are our great hope.
Not only does is the ageing process brought to bear on the instrument with realistic dings and marks on the guitar, but the actual nitrocellulose lacquer is aged before being applied, and like those old instruments, each guitar is unique.
No, they are not cheap, but Gibson has always been an aspirational brand, and for Les Paul super fans, the Murphy Lab model is something worth aspiring to.
3. PRS Fiore
The PRS Fiore is a signature guitar for Mark Lettieri, who is exactly the sort of player who might need their electric guitar to cover all bases tonally. Its HSS format is super versatile. The build quality is totally on-point, flawless.
In old money, we’d call this a Superstrat, but it’s one that’s fallen far from the tree. There’s something unique about its outline, with subtle sculpting making it a textbook exercise in contemporary electric guitar ergonomics.
The pickups are superbly voiced, with the beef and power of the humbucker sharing some of the character of the single-coils, and they work well together. PRS offers a suite of switching options in the control circuit. This is the sort of guitar that will find its way into the homes of many a session player.
MusicRadar verdict: An impeccable built do-it-all S-style that gets the most out of its HSS pickup configuration via a most-imaginative control circuit, Mark Lettieri’s signature Fiori sees PRS chalk up bolt-on triumph.
Read more: PRS Fiore review
4. Fender 75th Anniversary Telecaster
Ah, the Fender Telecaster, the guitar that Leo got right the first time around, and here we are with a 75th Anniversary model testament to its enduring appeal. This Tele might have been inspired by the occasion but it doesn’t let succumb to the weight of history on its slab-bodied shoulders.
Indeed, this is simply a great Telecaster in a commemorative Diamond finish, a super classy one-off edition. It is nice to see that finish reprised on the painted headstock. It’s nice to see a six-saddle bridge, too, if only for those whose intonation pedantry causes them anxiety.
But in the hand, played through a guitar amplifier of your choice, it really is heaps of fun, with vintage-style American-made single-coil pickups that have a twang that’ll make your lip curl. It’s a sound that’s rooted in Nashville, yet with some overdrive or through a hot amp or fuzz pedal, that trebly attitude reasserts the Tele as a formidable rock ’n’ roll machine.
Don’t get too hung up on the finish. This one is simply Leo’s workhorse all dressed up in its fancy duds.
MusicRadar verdict: A 75th Anniversary Tele that serves to showcase Fender’s unerring ability to keep its most-loved designs relevant and at the forefront of guitar culture, with classic sounds, superb feel and once more another finish for the ages.
Read more: Fender 75th Anniversary Telecaster review
5. Epiphone ES-335
Epiphone’s Inspired By Gibson series has been one of its many triumphs in the past couple of years, but no range bearing that name could be complete without a quality version of the world’s most-loved semi-hollow electric guitar.
This ES-335 has all the vibe and a more than convincing tone. The fit and finish of these Chinese-built Epiphone models is unerring and tidy to a fault, and a welcome reminder that the ES-335 can hold its own in any company, covering pretty much any style.
Here we have a layered maple body and set mahogany neck, with an Indian laurel fingerboard with dot inlays. The one-ply binding rounds things off nicely. While the dual Alnico Classic Pro humbuckers have a medium-output that is dynamic and cleans up nicely when you pull the volume back.
It makes for one of the best blues guitars you can buy, but then it is also a superb jazz guitar, and there is enough power there for classic rock, punk, new-wave... As ever, whether it has the Gibson or Epiphone name on the headstock, the ES-335 is ready for anything.
6. Charvel DK24 HH HT E
MusicRadar verdict: A stripped-down, high-performance hot-rod that's as good as it gets in this price range.
Read more: Charvel DK24 HH HT E review
7. Fender Noventa Telecaster
MusicRadar verdict: The Noventa Tele presents a fun, inspiring reimagining of classic Fender guitar design and might just convert those who feel regular Tele single-coils are too thin for their needs.
Read more: Fender Noventa Series review
8. Gretsch G2215-P90 Streamliner Junior Jet Club
MusicRadar verdict: An entry-level model that doesn't feel entry-level, this Junior Jet Club is ridiculously good fun – super-playable with some serious tones to burn.
Read more: Gretsch G2215-P90 Streamliner Junior Jet Club review
9. Cort G300 Pro
MusicRadar verdict: A super-classy operator that's a cheap date and a great night out, the G290 Pro is a six-string charm offensive from a brand that consistently hits all the right notes and yet is still bubbling under. It'll handle whatever you throw at it, and has one of the all-time classic pickup combos.
Read more: Cort G300 Pro review
10. Jackson Pro Series Dinky DK Modern EverTune 6
What do you give the neoclassical electric guitar design that has everything? That's the conundrum, and over the years, Jackson has festooned its compact, doublecut Dinky models with a cornucopia of awesome high-performance features.
Well, in 2021, it fitted the Dinky with an EverTune bridge, allowing you to shred harder, riff bigger than you have ever done so before, without throwing the guitar out of tune. Pretty neat.