Best Blues Guitar: Top Electric Guitars for Blues and Rock
Play the Blues on Your Guitar
If you’ve got the blues you need to express yourself on the guitar. There’s really no two ways about it. You can sit around the house and mope, but it probably isn’t going to make you feel any better. And your buddies will eventually get sick of listening to you.
You may as well make some music.
Indeed, some of the best music in the world has come straight from the souls of guitar players who’d been wronged by a friend, lost a woman, got fired from their job, been kicked out of their house, or any combination of these and other ill-fated personal fiascos.
So, what’d they do about it? They grabbed a guitar and played the blues!
In the old days, most blues musicians built their guitars from old pieces of metal and wood they found alongside the train tracks. Today, you are fortunate have many amazing guitars to choose from.
This article will cover some of the more popular options from the top guitar brands in the business. I'll also try to keep you down to a reasonable cost. That thing about the train tracks may have been a joke (you knew that, right?) but blues guitar really is about simple, honest music, not fancy guitars.
You don’t need an instrument that costs more than your car. The music will come from your hands, and your heart. The guitar is just the tool you use to bring it to the people.
The guitars in this review don’t just serve as great blues guitars, they’ll carry you through any style of rock music. Playing blues today usually means you’re playing it in the context of some form of rock. The blues is what led to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and the two are forever intertwined.
Will you feel better if you play blues on your guitar? Well, blues guitarists who get recording contracts and go on to sell thousands of records almost always feel a little better. But even if you don’t you’re still making music, and any day when you play guitar is better than one you don’t.
On to the gear!
The Fender Stratocaster is likely first on any list you’ll find of best blues guitars. There’s good reason for it. I’ll admit I’m a Strat guy, so maybe I’m a bit biased, but to me the Fender Stratocaster is about as good as it gets for blues and rock.
Normally when I review guitars I go on and on about tonewoods, construction techniques and hardware, but let’s skip all of that here. The bottom line when it comes to picking a guitar for blues is this: Does it have the mojo, or doesn’t it? The Strat is a perfect ten on the Mojo Meter, and here’s why:
As you probably know, standard Stratocasters have a 5-way pickup selector switch. That’s five different pickup combinations, and each has its own unique sound. From the glassy, round tones of the neck pickup, to the treble rip of the bridge pickup, to the jazzy tones of the middle, and all the quacky, chicken-pickin’ sounds in between, the Strat has an arsenal of great sounds that work well for blues and rock.
To hear the versatility of the Strat in action when it comes to blues, check out the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan switched pickups in mid-song, and sometimes in mid-passage, subtly altering his tone and the vibe of his playing. The Stratocaster is a very versatile guitar for blues, and for this reason it’s high up on the list of best blues guitars.
If you feel you must drop the cash on an American Strat by all means don’t let me stop you. They’re worth every penny, and you won’t regret it. But the Standard, MIM Stratocasters sound great, and they cost about half of what you’d pay for an American version. If you play blues, this is a solid choice.
Gibson Les Paul
Like the Stratocaster, the Gibson Les Paul is off the chart on the Mojo Meter. But this is a different beasty than the Strat, with different sounds and a whole different vibe. The Les Paul is a heavy guitar, built from resonant tonewoods.
But I said I wasn’t going to talk about wood, didn’t I? Instead let me say this: Where the Strat rips, the Les Paul growls. Where the Strat is glassy, the Les Paul is bassy and smooth. Where the Strat is jazzy, the Les Paul is even more jazzy.
So what the heck does all that mean? For one, it means if you’re looking for a warm overdriven tone the Les Paul may be the right guitar for you. Because a Strat has single-coil pickups it doesn’t push your amp as hard compared to the humbuckers on a Les Paul.
If you play through a high-gain amp you probably don’t care, but most blues players use something that requires a little push to break it up. The Les Paul has that push. If your idea of blues is more Allman Brothers or Skynard than SRV this might appeal to you.
If you like a side of hard rock served along with your blues, the Les Paul will certainly get the job done.
But, like the host of that Dirty Jobs show, the Les Paul cleans up nicely when necessary. Clean sounds are full and warm, and those who play a slicker style of blues will find a lot of use for the neck and middle pickup positions.
Again, if you have a couple of thousand dollars and feel like grabbing yourself a Gibson Les Paul Standard I won’t be the one to stand in your way. But if you want to save a whole bunch of money you can go with an Epiphone Les Paul instead.
Or, check out the Gibson Les Paul Studio Faded T. It’s a bare-bones, real-deal Les Paul for about a third of what you’d pay for a Standard. With its rugged look it seems made for the blues.
More on the Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO
I’ll be honest: I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Fender Telecaster when it comes to blues. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Telecaster, but to me it has more of a country vibe. But many guitarists swear by it, and it worked okay for the Karate Kid in that movie, so my bias aside I’d still say it’s worth a look.
A standard Tele has two pickups, one at the bridge and one at the neck. Tones are clucky and brittle, perfect for that country twang and even strumming rock chords, but for blues?
You’ll have to decide how the Tele sound matches up with what you’ve got going on in your head, but for me, if I were thinking of a Telecaster for blues, I’d probably be looking at something with double humbuckers. The Fender Standard Telecaster HH is one such critter.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, the HH Tele will put you somewhere between a Strat and Les Paul. It has hotter pickups, so it pushes your amp harder. It’s made from alder and maple, similar to a Strat, so you get some of that Strat airiness.
With that in mind, remember each guitar has a sound all its own, and the HH Tele can’t sound like anything but itself.
Now, I know I’m going to get at least one comment that says, “Aw, dude, you don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve been using a stock Telecaster for blues for fifty years and I turned out okay!”
Fine. Telecasters have been used for decades in every imaginable style of music, and I recognize this. If a Standard Tele does it for you tone-wise, there’s definitely nothing wrong with that. But these reviews aren’t worth much if I don’t give my personal opinion, and my opinion is, for blues, I’d rather have a Tele with a couple of humbuckers.
Of course the choice it up to you!
The Fender HH Standard Telecaster
You probably know that Epiphone is a company owned by Gibson. They make authorized copies of many Gibson models for a much lower price, and Epiphone guitars are great mid-level guitars for those who can’t justify the madness of spending a month’s salary on a guitar.
But you may not know that Epiphone was once a company all of its own, and one of Gibson’s biggest competitors. Gibson eventually crushed them and bought them up (it is the American way), but back in the day Epiphone made some amazing archtop guitars. When it comes to semi-hollow designs Epi really seems to know what they are doing, just like the old days.
The Dot is based on the classic Gibson ES-335 design, and if you know what the 335 looks like a pretty famous bluesman likely comes to mind. B.B. King is one of the most respected blues guitarists of all time, and his guitar named Lucille is kinda famous too. (On a side note, if you’re going to play blues it’s never a bad idea to name your guitars.)
King’s Lucille isn’t exactly the same as a stock ES-335, but the same vibe you’ll hear in King’s music comes through in the Epiphone Dot.
All that is a round-about way of saying you can expect some smooth, woody, natural sounds from the Dot, if that’s what you’re looking for. Dial back the distortion, tune in to that neck pickup and go for it.
On the other hand, semi-hollow designs can have a wonderful vintage grittiness about them in higher-gain settings. Think George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
Gibson makes a whole bunch of incredible semi-hollow designs, but of course they have a steep price tag that comes along with them. The Epiphone Dot is an affordable guitar that continuously gets positive reviews for sound and quality. The semi-hollow thing may not be for everyone, but if you’re thinking about taking the plunge the Dot is a great way to start.
Which Guitar for Blues?
You’ve read about four very different guitars, each with its unique vibe. Every guitar mentioned here will work for blues, so it really comes down to your vision of what you want out of your instrument. Only you can figure that out.
Maybe you already know, but if not a great way to sort it all out is to listen to your favorite guitar players and figure out what kind of guitars they use. Really dial in to how they are using the different pickup settings, what kind of amps and effects they use, and even how their playing style influences the guitar’s tone.
For example, just using a couple of players mentioned in this article: If you listen to SRV on record it really sounds like his Strat is screaming, and you may be thinking he's using super-hot pickups. When you watch live recordings it’s obvious he’s getting that sound by employing a very aggressive and unique picking style.
Compare that to the efficient picking style of B.B. King, and the warm, smooth sounds he pulls out of his guitar. Sure, gear matters. But when it comes to tone, a lot of it really is in your hands.
And if you’re playing the blues it comes from inside you as well. Hopefully this article helped you find the right instrument to bring it out so people can hear it. If you’ve got the blues, play your guitar.