Best Intermediate Guitar Review in 2018
The decision to move up from a beginner guitar to an intermediate one is a big one, because it means a significant step forward as a musician. Intermediate electric guitars tend to be more specialized and have higher build quality, although they are also more expensive: you should expect to pay at least $400 for the guitar alone. It is a rewarding purchase, though, and worth it if you intend to keep playing. In this post, I will talk about the most important things to keep in mind when shopping for an intermediate guitar and review 5 top options.
Key Characteristics of Intermediate Guitars
Wood and Pickups
Even though electric guitars do not have a hollow body for sound to resonate within, the wood that they are composed of still has an effect on the tone. Moreover, the type of wood in the fingerboard and the neck determine how fast the neck feels, as well as how heavy the instrument is and how well it balances. The pickups have a bigger effect on the tone than the sound. Some guitars have two sets of the same pickup, while others have different ones located at the bridge and neck. A few even have 3 sets and 5 combinations of usage. All of this adds up to a lot of combinations of choices that determine what the guitar sounds like. It isn't always easy to tell in advance what that tone will be, so it's a good idea to try out a model with the same pickups in person or listen to demos online. That will give you an idea of what you like. You should also look up what your favorite players use for inspiration.
Appearance and Design
If you are going to perform in a band, or even if you aren't, the look and feel of the guitar matters. It should fit in with the genre of music that you want to play. The right design will make you feel more confident and feel better about the guitar. This is functional, too. Design choices include things like whether the bridge has a tremolo arm, where the cutouts are located, how many frets the guitar has, the quality and type of tuners, the profile of the neck, and more. All of these things change how the guitar plays and how it sounds. The differences can be subtle, but they add up to determine the overall character of the guitar, as well as how comfortable it is to play. For example, a round C neck generally doesn't play as fast as a flatter D neck, but if you have longer fingers it might be more comfortable. There is no right or wrong choice for any of these options, but you should understand how they will change how the guitar acts. Again, it's a good idea to try to see them in person and try them out.
There are a few different kinds of features that you can find on an intermediate guitar. For sound purposes, perhaps the most important is whether and what kind of onboard EQ the guitar has. There might be a simple tone control knob that lets you roll off one band, typically the mids or highs, or you might have a full 3-band EQ with a knob for each band. It's also common to see a switch for changing between different configurations of pickups, from neck only to bridge only to both on. Many intermediates have a neck pickup for a lead tone and a bridge one that is better for rhythm. The occasional guitar has a rare feature like an extra port or something similar. In general, features won't be make or break characteristics but they can help you settle a dispute between two models that are otherwise similar.
Because intermediate guitars tend to get specialized into different genres, it's worth thinking about what kind of style you want to play. Perhaps the best way to tell which style a guitar will have is its brand. Most brands have a close association with a particular genre, or even a subgenre. Metal is probably the genre that has the most brands that specialize in it, but there are dozens of different brands. Even so, there are guitars within each brand that can sound good in other genres. A guitar that is well-made will tend to sound good no matter how you use it, but there are some things, like the pickups, that do tend to push the tone in one direction or another. Think about what kind of music you want to play. It's a good idea to look up some inspirational players and see what brand of guitar they like to use: many musicians rotate among different guitars but stick to one or two brands.
When you move up to the intermediate level and are ready to spend a little more money, it is still important to get a good deal on your guitar. Try to get a feel for how much each feature is worth so that you don't overpay for one characteristic, no matter how important. It's a good idea to set a hard budget for yourself and agree not to even consider any instrument over that limit. Just keep in mind that the money you save can go into an amp, a pedal, or some other key accessory. You'll need to invest in those too to get your guitar sounding the way you want, so don't go overboard on the guitar itself. You can always make an upgrade later on if you find that you really need some improvement, but for now it is enough to graduate from the beginner level.
Five Best Intermediate Guitar
Epiphone Les Paul Standard
The Les Paul design is an iconic one. It's one of the very first electric guitar designs, and the fact that it is still around is a testament to its quality. The Epiphone version does not have the quality of the top of the line Gibson Les Paul, but it costs far less at just about $400. For another $30 you can get a lefty version. It comes with Alnico Classic humbucker pickups, a rosewood fingerboard, a mahogany body, and a top made of maple. It has a full 3-band EQ and a volume knob for total tone control. It's not a particularly specialized guitar, so you can achieve a wide range of tones. The pickups can get a little muddy in lower tones, so be careful if you plan to downtune. If you like this guitar, one good idea is to play it for a while and then upgrade the pickups for a better and more specialized set. That will leave you with excellent hardware and a step up in tone quality without breaking the bank.
Fender Standard Stratocaster
It would be unfair to include a Les Paul without also examining the other most iconic design in electric guitar history, the Strat. The Standard Strat is Fender's midrange version. It's made in Mexico, which reduces production costs. The components are excellent, though, and it plays like a guitar that costs much more than its $600 price tag. It has a modern high-mass bridge with a tremolo arm, two tone knobs, and three Fender-designed single-coil pickups, and there's a lefty model for the same price. The single style of pickup is core to Fender's design and has been for many decades. It's the only way to get the perfect classic rock tone. The biggest difference between the Strat and the Les Paul is this pickup philosophy, so listen to both and decide on which one fits your preferences more. Both are excellent value and are designs with very long histories, and both can deliver gig-quality sound. You can play almost anything with a Strat and many musicians have, making it one of the most popular designs ever for its entire existence.
ESP LTD EC-401
ESP is one of the lesser-known guitar brands in comparison to Gibson and Fender, but it has a reputation for excellence. ESP is most commonly associated with metal guitars, and they have many sponsorships and associations with metal musicians. Their LTD EC-401 Eclipse is an introduction to their style. It is immediately clear that this has a Les Paul-esque design, but the comparisons stop there. You get two main options for pickups: there's a set of EMG humbuckers and DiMarzio humbuckers. The EMGs are much better for metal, with one set at the neck for shredding leads and another at the bridge for thick rhythm tones. The DiMarzios are a little more generalist in tone. The Eclipse costs about $650. It has a thin neck, rosewood fingerboard, and two tone knobs with a full 24-fret scale. Each finish option looks excellent, with simple paint options and shiny pearl inlay. The Eclipse is good for someone looking to venture away from the mainstream Les Paul and Strat builds and is willing to spend a bit more to get better pickups out of the box. It has Grover tuners and a bridge that can potentially accomodate a tremolo arm.
Gibson 2017 SG Fusion
We return to the classic styles with the Gibson SG Fusion. The Fusion line is Gibson's way of building affordable made-in-America versions of their classics. The SG Fusion costs $600. It has the SG double-cutaway design and 24 frets on the rosewood fingerboard. The pickups consist of a Double Slugs Lead DS-C+ in the neck and a Double Slugs Rhythm DS-C in the bridge position. It's always nice to see the diversity between neck and bridge pickups, and both of these sound clear and powerful. It only comes in one finish (black) and has one tone knob. The finish is satin gloss. The body is made of mahogany. The guitar is surprisingly light and comfortable to play. The SG sound is a popular one, with iconic musicians of many genres using an SG or SG derivative, so it'll sound good in many different configurations. The set neck is thin and fast. The simple pearl inlay really stands out with the black satin finish of the body. If one of your favorite guitarists plays an SG, then this model is the most accessible way to replicate their approach.
Jackson SLX Soloist X
Jackson is the most popular and well-known of the several brands that specialize in metal. The Soloist is their most popular design, and the SLX series is Jackson's way of making their high-end guitars more inexpensive and accessible, much like the Standard models from Epiphone and Fender. At $550 the SLX Soloist is right in the intermediate midrange of prices. It has some key Jackson features that set it apart. For one thing, it comes with a tremolo arm installed at the bridge and separated humbuckers, an HB-103N at the neck and an HB-102B at the bridge, both designed by Duncan. The "stretched Strat" shape makes accessing the top notes easy. The neck design is fascinating: the neck is flatter near the pickups for easy access to high notes and rounder near the tuners for more support during chords. It comes in black, white, green, and yellow gloss finishes. The body is basswood and the neck is maple with a rosewood fingerboard. If you want to play metal, the Soloist in some form is bound to be on your list of target guitars. The SLX Soloist is the easiest way to try out that sound.
I believe the best value purchase for an intermediate guitar is the ESP LTD EC-401. It's the pickups that set it apart, with great quality and value coming from its tone and versatility. It'll give you lots of playtime thanks to durable construction and minimal prep required. You can specialize with it or go general, but both pickup sets are excellent for this price range.