What is it about the signature guitar that makes it such a crowd-pleaser? Is it fan service, the celebrity kudos? That’s one theory. But looking through this year’s Top 10 we might be inclined to argue differently.
There are certainly some very famous names here. The greatest fretboard pyrotechnician of the last 40 years, the late Eddie Van Halen, has a signature model on the last. The top-hatted rock animal Slash is here, so too is Alex Lifeson, who might try arguing that he is not cool in that self-deprecating fashion of his, but he is cool.
The thing is: there is nothing ostentatiously signature about these guitars. Anyone could pick them up.Maybe this is what makes them so appealing – good signature guitar is never overcooked.
It’s also a factor of design. The player’s specs and their discography let us know what sort of sound we might be able to get from the guitar, at least as a launching pad. And there is typically a little more thought and love put into the specs, something special.
For many of us, these signature guitars offer us the chance to get something a little different from the regular models. They won’t not make us cool, but we’ll settle for sounding good, and for a player-friendly experience and a spec that feels little more off-menu. Which brings us to your favourite signature guitar of 2021, a guitar that features an all-new shape and presents a range of sounds that take the HSS S-style format further.
1. PRS Fiore
Having won a podium finish in our Best New Electric Guitars 2021 poll, Mark Lettieri’s PRS Fiore takes gold with over 30 per cent of the vote. The world is clearly ready for a high-end electric guitar that can cover pretty much any style that you can throw at it.
Comprising a solid swamp ash body with a bolt-on maple neck, the Fiore is a typically exceptional feat of guitar making from Paul Reed Smith, and updates the Superstrat format for the 2020s.
If you are on the bridge humbucker, these might be the roaring ‘20s, but there’s something special about the balance in these pickups.
On some HSS formats, the humbucker overpowers the single-coils and the pickup combination can seem a little pick ’n’ mix. This is something different entirely, and the Fiore’s control circuit lets you use the pickups in inspiring ways.
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
2. Epiphone Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess Standard
Alex Lifeson’s signature Les Paul Axcess is arguably the most versatile take on the classic solidbody singlecut.
It has a Graph Tech Ghost double-locking vibrato, putting pitch squeals and divebombs on the menu. It has a generous heel carve, allowing you an all-access pass to the 17th fret and beyond.
There’s a coil-tap for single-coil spank if you need it. Heck, it’s even got a Piezo. It can do it all. It could probably open a can of beans but it didn’t occur to us to try that when it was in for review.
The signature neck profile feels like a SlimTaper D and strikes a nice balance, not too thick, not too thin, and the ergonomics of the Lifeson model gives the Les Paul a high-performance vibe.
And, not that we’re shallow, but it wears these modern appointments well, with its Viceroy Brown finish a classy hue for a classy player.
MusicRadar verdict: This is the most tonally versatile Les Paul around and the fact it's now part of the Epiphone catalogue at a more accessible price is great news for players who want to expand their tonal horizons.
3. Epiphone Slash Les Paul Standard
We have seen Epiphone Slash signature Les Pauls before but the 2021 Slash Collection has delivered the best yet. Taking their lead from their Gibson USA counterparts, the Epiphone Slash Collection Les Paul arrives in a variety of Slash-approved finishes and matching hardware.
That said, the signature appointments are not so overbearing that even if you have no interest whatsoever in welcoming passersby to the jungle, you might enjoy this. It's simply an excellent Epiphone Les Paul Standard, and there have been a few of these in recent years.
Pickups-wise, you've got a pair of PAF-alike Epiphone Custom ProBuckers, delivering classic, old-school LP tones, with the control circuit using Orange Drop capacitors and CTS pots so that you can make the most of the pickups' dynamics. The neck, meanwhile, is carved into a Slash-approved C profile.
It even comes in a hardshell case, but note: the top hat is sold separately.
MusicRadar verdict: With a choice of finishes, superb spec and a tone that’ll welcome you to the jungle, the Epiphone Slash Les Paul is a no-brainer for GNR super-fans and a very attractive proposition for anyone searching for serious but affordable Les Paul.
Read more: Epiphone Slash Collection Les Paul Standard
4. Sterling By Music Man Mariposa
One of the coolest shapes we have seen from an artist collaboration in recent years, Omar Rodríguez-López's Mariposa has a Jetsons-esque retro-futurist vibe that seems to exist outside of time itself.
Hitherto this lithe, playable whip was only available in a high-end Ernie Ball Music Man version, but released under the Sterling By Music Man brand, this Mariposa is accessible without stripping the spec back to the bone.
Shipping in Dorado Green or Imperial White, the dual-humbucker electric has a similarly lightweight frame, this time with a nyatoh body rather than the US model's okoume. It has a bolt-on roasted maple neck, locking tuners to keep it in check, and a vintage tremolo for wobble.
The control circuit is quite far out... Well, just the way Rodríguez-López likes it, with two independent volume controls and a three-way pickup selector. No tone! But then if you are the kind of player to keep it on 10, that's no great loss.
5. Emily Wolfe Signature Sheraton
Emily Wolfe’s Sheraton is a rock ’n’ roll machine. Even if it wasn’t, Wolfe would force its hand anyway, running it through a selections of carefully curated fuzz and distortion pedals.
But what makes it particularly successful is how it spans this sense of grown-up guitar – complete with the ‘tree of life’ headstock inlay – and, y’know, one for going bananas onstage on a Friday night.
Wolfe’s signature details can be found on the rear of the headstock, but otherwise she has augmented the Sheraton as we might know with diamond-shaped f-holes a la a Gibson Trini Lopez.
This being a 2021 Epiphone model, we’ve got quality components, with CTS pots, Graph Tech nuts, Grover Rotomatic tuners… And it all comes together in this sort of lived-in black finish.
MusicRadar verdict: A smart and imaginative update to the Sheraton, with heavy Trini Lopez vibes and a voice that's perfectly aligned to the jazz-blues-rock continuum, Wolfe's signature model is at the head of the pack of today's affordable yet giggable semihollow electrics.
6. Jackson Pro Series Jeff Loomis Signature Kelly Ash
MusicRadar verdict: A classy update to one of Jackson's most successful electric guitar designs, the Jeff Loomis Signature Kelly Ash is a tone machine with a pair of perfectly voice pickups and offers a typically speedy ride.
7. EVH Limited Edition Wolfgang Special Sassafras
A high-performance electric guitar designed by and for the ultimate high-performance guitarist, this EVH model is an accessibly priced muscle car of a six-string. And it's capable of some serious stunt guitar.
The all-important Floyd Rose is as stable as it comes, so you can hit that harmonic, hold it and sent it flying, and there's a D-Tuna as well. It's only ever now and then when you pick up a Wolfgang that you reacquaint yourself with how brilliant an invention that is. Drop-D on the fly, with a Floyd? Why is it not more popular?
8. Charvel Henrik Danhage Signature Pro-Mod So-Cal Style 1
Henrik looks as if he has taken receipt of his signature Charvel S-style and celebrated by running his car over it, but in an era in which the relic is much sought-after this we would imagine would be a sign of love.
What can you say about this? It has all the ingredients, from the reverse Strat headstock, the Floyd Rose for stunts, the phenomenal pickup paring of a Seymour Duncan JB TB-4 humbucker at the bridge and a DiMarzio Area 67 DP419CR at the neck, and it plays itself.
9. Knaggs Eric Steckel Kenai T/S
MusicRadar verdict: A boutique solid-bodied singlecut with tones to burn, Steckel and Knaggs has put together a special instrument that is available with a number of finish and spec options.
Read more: Knaggs Eric Steckel Kenai T/S review
10. Jackson Pro Series Brandon Ellis Signature Kelly
We don't speak often enough about how effective Jackson's Kelly body shape is. It loosely assumes the form of an Explorer but sharpens and extends it out of site.
But it is a bona fide cult classic, and its second entry in the Top 10 shows how relevant it is today. Brandon Ellis might be disappointed to see his come in behind Loomis' model, but with the Green Crackle finish and reverse pointed 6-in-line black headstock with green logo, it's the most metal. A single Seymour Duncan Parallel Axis Original Humbucker brings the noise.