While you could play the blues on almost any guitar, there are certain guitars that just feel at home when you start playing those SRV or Clapton licks.
So, if you’re looking for a new purpose-built axe for playing the blues – this article is for you.
Below, I’ll be reviewing a bunch of guitars that are perfect for playing the blues.
These are all either guitars I’ve owned, or played myself. And none of them were provided by brands. My opinions are my own.
Let’s get started:
1. Gordon Smith GS1
Gordon Smith is a UK-based boutique company specializing in handmade guitars. Probably not the first brand you’d think of when considering which guitar to purchase.
So, why am I putting this guitar at the top of this list? This is one of the best guitars I’ve ever played. And while it’s more affordable than others in my collection, it gets played more than anything else.
The GS1 appears to be one of their most popular models – I can definitely see why.
My review of the “Gordon Smith GS1” (pictured above):
When I first picked up this guitar, I immediately bonded with it. The feel of the neck, the setup, the tone, the build quality – everything was spot on.
And I had an unusual experience. This guitar felt so good to play that I felt the urge to sell my other guitars and replace them with Gordon Smith’s.
Well, I probably won’t do that, but that’s the first time I’ve ever been so impressed with a guitar.
Ultimately, this is a simple guitar. It’s bare bones but that’s part of the appeal. And the fact it only has one pickup forces you to change how you play.
It makes you work that bit harder and in the end, that’s what we should all strive to do.
So what about tone? There’s not much info about the spec of their pickups, but they make them in-house at their UK workshop. There’s something about a P90 pickup that you just can’t get from a single coil or a humbucker.
There’s plenty of warmth and bite, but the brass nut adds a bit of extra brightness. Despite only having the one pickup, the volume and tone controls provide more tonal flexibility than you might think.
And, the GS1 comes with a gig bag. The quality of which is excellent – there’s plenty of padding. And higher end models come with hard-cases.
This was my first Gordon Smith guitar and it won’t be my last. And for a guitar that’s handbuilt in the UK, the price is pretty impressive too.
Price range: Around £699.
Alternatives in this range:
This model is available with various colours, finishes and pickup configurations but Gordon Smith is a custom shop, so you can get a guitar built to your exact specification. They even have the option to choose your spec and order online.
A few other notes:
You can order direct from Gordon Smith via their web store. They have some models in stock and some on special offer. Alternatively, you can spec out a custom guitar.
There are other retailers that carry Gordon Smith guitars in stock, and I’m guessing we’ll see more of these as time goes on. But, you’ll likely find the most choice at Richards Guitars here in the UK.
I ordered a few guitars from Richards, and the experience has been great. Guitars take a while to be shipped because they have a thorough QC & setup process, where every guitar is booked into their workshop before being dispatched.
This is a refreshing approach from large retailers that fire out guitars without even play testing them.
2. Music Man Cutlass
The Cutlass definitely looks reminiscent of a popular S-type guitar that we all know and love, but that’s because Leo Fender was involved in Music Man.
After Ernie Ball breathed a new lease of life into Music Man, they launched a number of signature models. The Cutlass, while somewhat overshadowed by these popular signature models, is a great option for those looking to grab a new guitar, especially for blues.
My review of the “Music Man Cutlass HSS” (pictured above):
Back when I first started playing the guitar, one of my friends would rave about the quality of Music Man guitars. But I never had the opportunity to play one.
Now that I have one of my own I can say that he was right to rave about the quality.
Out of the box, everything was perfect about this guitar. The neck felt great, the setup was spot on, and the build quality was stellar.
This guitar has some of that traditional S-type magic about it but with a bunch of modern features.
This includes locking tuners, stainless steel frets and noiseless pickups.
Now, these aren’t noiseless pickups like you may find in a Fender Elite. There’s an active buffer to ensure high signal fidelity, and hum-cancelling circuitry. The downside is that you do need to use a battery to power the circuitry.
That said, the pickups sound great – plenty of clarity and spank without sounding too harsh. And the noise reduction is impressive.
As you might expect with a guitar in this price range, you get a hard-case to keep your guitar safe.
Overall, this is one heck of a guitar and I can see it being part of my collection for a long-time to come.
Price range: Around $2100 for the new version with roasted maple necks, made in the USA. For a more affordable version of this guitar, check out the Sterling range of import guitars from Music Man.
Alternatives in this range:
There are a bunch of different colours available in the range, with different fretboard woods and HSS or SSS pickup configurations to choose from.
If single coils aren’t your thing, and you want full-fat humbuckers, be sure to check out the Stingray – it’s very similar in terms of build and features, but you get a great sounding pair of humbuckers.
I owned a Stingray for a time and I regret selling it.
3. PRS SE Custom 22 Semi-Hollow
PRS are best known for their high end core line of guitars, but they also offer a more wallet friendly “SE” (or Student Edition) line of guitars built in South Korea.
My review of the “PRS SE Custom 22 Semi-Hollow” (pictured above):
Every time I play a guitar made in South Korea, I’ve been impressed. And this PRS SE Custom 22 is no exception.
The setup and playability on this guitar is great. That may have something to do with how PRS don’t just send these direct from the factory to retailers/distributors, they ship them back to their Maryland factory, or PRS Europe for inspection.
Given this guitar has 22 frets, you’ll get more of a classic feel, similar to many others on this list.
The neck is fairly thin, but not too thin. This is what PRS call a “wide thin” neck and offers nice playability if you like to play fast.
Tonally, you get plenty of sustain and the humbuckers offer a variety of tonal options – they’ve got plenty of punch but they’re not too hot. This is a versatile guitar and can do a lot more than blues.
At this price point, the padded gig bag is a nice touch. Overall, this is a great guitar for the money, and well worth checking out, even if you’re considering a USA made PRS.
Price range: Around $800.
Alternatives in this range:
The SE line offers plenty of options. Although the exact guitar pictured above is no longer available.
PRS change their lineup every year so it’s best to check out their website to find their latest options. You’ll usually find a few different colour options in the semi-hollow, but there’s also the Zack Myers signature if you prefer a single cut.
There’s also a baritone version with P90 pickups, which I have in my collection:
I’ve owned a few PRS SE’s over the years, including these two, and the quality has been very consistant.
If you want to step away from semi-hollow models, you’ll find plenty more variation, including a bunch of left-handed models.
You’ll occasionally find limited runs of guitars like the “Stealth” series they offered a while back.
And, if you want to step up to an USA made version, the PRS S2 line now includes semi-hollow models.
4. Duesenberg Paloma
Duesenberg are a guitar brand with a vibe all of their own. With vintage vibes and a great spec, this guitar will turn heads.
My review of the “Duesenberg Paloma” (pictured above):
Taking this guitar out of its box for the first time was a moment to behold. This thing is a beauty.
The Paloma ticks all of the boxes in terms of build quality, playability, and features.
Every part of this guitar has been thought about and feels high quality. From the Duesenberg Les Trem (I’ll come to that in a moment), to the truss rod cover – it’s a piece of solid metal with their brand name engraved into it.
No cheap plastic truss rod covers here!
If you haven’t come across Duesenberg guitars before, you might be wondering – is that a Bigsby tremolo? Nope. This is Duesenberg’s Les Trem system. Without a doubt, the smoothest tremolo I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
In terms of tone, this guitar offers great sustain and resonates like crazy. There’s a 4 way selector switch controlling a humbucker and two single coil pickups. These pickups sound great for cleans and break up nicely.
That said, this guitar doesn’t feel as at home with overdriven tones than it does with cleans. This is one of my favourite guitars for clean tones.
Compared to most guitars on this list, I was surprised by the upper fret access. It’s a lot easier to access those high notes than I was expecting.
One thing worth noting is that the nut is slotted for an unusual combination of string gauges (010-013-017-028-042-050). A set of strings with those exact gauges is extremely difficult to find so you’d need to order a pack of DSA10 strings from Duesenberg. I originally got mine from Thomann since they had them in stock.
On a side note, I exclusively use Elixir strings now – coated strings are a genius idea. For some guitars (such as this) which are setup for odd string gauges, I’ve resorted to buying several different packs of Elixir’s to get the right string gauges. This might sound ridiculous but it still works out cheaper given how long Elixir strings last.
While this guitar is pricey, Duesenberg are hazy on exactly where it’s built, and there’s no hardcase – this is one heck of a beautiful guitar.
Price range: Around $2900.
Alternatives in this range:
The Paloma is available in a range of colours, but options are limited. But, if you dig the Duesenberg vibe, they’ve got a great selection of models including some semi-hollow and hollow-body guitars.
As well as other solid bodies with different bridges and pickup configurations.
5. Fender American Original 50s Telecaster
The Telecaster is one of the most iconic guitars in history and has been played across a wide cross-section of musical genres. From country twang to progressive metal (yes, really!)
But part of it’s charm is in it’s simplicity. And that’s one of the things I love about the Telecaster.
My review of the “Fender American Original 50s Telecaster” (pictured above):
This guitar was somewhat of an unplanned purchase. I’d been wanting a more vintage inspired Telecaster but was waiting for the right time. This one just so happened to be on special offer at my local guitar store because they were moving to a new location.
I’ve played a lot of Fender’s over the years and pretty much all of them have been extremely well made. So, they get top marks for consistency!
It’s a similar story for this guitar – build quality was on-point as I expected it would be.
My local store QC & setup all of their guitars, so it wasn’t surprising that this guitar played well. Whether that’s down to Fender or the store, it’s difficult to tell.
Now, if you’re looking for a guitar with vintage feel and vintage tone, this is a great option. These Pure Vintage ‘52 pickups will get you that classic “Blackguard” tone. These pickups provide plenty of warmth and clarity.
As you might expect, single coil pickups kick out more hum than P90’s or humbuckers. But, it gets you closer to that vintage tone that you would get with the noiseless pickups on a Fender Elite Telecaster.
It’s worth pointing out that if you were looking for modern playability – this isn’t the guitar to go for. The 9.5” fretboard radius make bends that bit harder. Just something to consider going into this!
As you might expect for a USA made Fender, this comes with a hard case. And in vintage tweed, no less!
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a Telecaster with vintage feel and vintage tone – be sure to check out the Fender American Originals.
Price range: Around $1800 for the Original 50s Telecaster, but Fender’s offering starts at $499.
Alternatives in this range:
Within the Original 50s range, there aren’t too many options available. There are a few more if we pull back a bit and also factor in the Original 60s range.
But, what about outside of the American Original series in general? Wow, there are a lot of options available! From Fender Custom Shop models, right down to super affordable Squier models. Various pickup configurations, vintage & modern features, huge choices in colours, etc.
6. Gibson Les Paul
A list like this wouldn’t be complete without the Gibson Les Paul – one of the most iconic guitars in history.
But, oh, wow, is there ever a story behind this particular Les Paul!
My review of the “Gibson Les Paul Sunken Treasure” (pictured above):
I love it when there’s a story attached to guitar. So the story goes, the woods in this guitar were thought to be lost for 200 years, and were uncovered from the bottom of lagoons and lakes in Belize.
Then there’s the bullet wood fretboard – a wood I’ve never heard of before.
Looking at this guitar, it almost feels like looking into a lagoon. One of the nicest finishes I’ve seen on a guitar.
Now, this review will be a little different than any other in this article because this is the only guitar I returned for a refund.
When I ordered this guitar, I was apprehensive because I had no other choice but to buy long distance. It was a heavily limited deal and on a great discount. The story behind the guitar was compelling and I’d been planning on buying a Les Paul for a while – this one stood out from the others I’d looked at.
Since Gibson tend to get roasted about their QC so I asked the retailer to QC it and do a full setup.
So, the moment arrived and I took the guitar out of its case. It felt great, looked great and sounded great.
In terms of the setup, it was without a doubt, one of the best setup guitars I’ve ever played.
But, as I looked closer, I noticed the binding around the fret ends was a mess. I mean really. Bits of spikey plastic hanging off. This wasn’t just for a couple of frets, it was on most of them.
I was disappointed to say the least. Shocked nobody at Gibson caught it and shocked that after specifically asking the retailer to QC the guitar, they missed it too.
As a reflex, I returned the guitar immediately. Almost without thinking. After all, this was still an expensive guitar, even with the discount.
And y’no what? I regret it to this day. What I wish I’d done was ask the retailer to have their tech sort out the binding issue and send it back. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, right?
But why do I regret this decision? There was a feel to this guitar that no other guitar I’ve played since has. It had so much vibe and I’m kicking myself to this day.
Those ‘57 Classic pickups dished out great PAF style tones. Plenty of punch and warmth, but not as hot as some modern Gibson pickups. The net result being great vintage tones.
At this point, I should probably address the elephant in the room. This particular guitar was built at a time when Gibson was a toxic environment to work in (or so I’m told). So, it’s no wonder they had QC issues.
Especially when one of the first changes implemented by the new CEO was to install better lighting (erm?). Anyway, given the changes happening at Gibson I feel a renewed sense of confidence in the brand.
So, despite my experience, don’t let that impact your decision to consider a Gibson Les Paul (or any other Gibson, for that matter).
Price range: Currently unavailable, but can sometimes be found used for around $3,300. More budget friendly Gibson Les Paul’s can be found for less than $1,200.
Alternatives in this range:
There’s a common misconception that Gibson guitars are too expensive. Sure, the Les Paul Standard is pricey, but that’s to be expected because it is THE standard of guitars. The benchmark, if you will.
The reality is that you can pick up a Gibson Les Paul for around $1,200. And a Les Paul Special for below $800. That’s not bad for an American made guitar.
There are a bunch of different variations available. The Special, Studio Tribute, Studio, Classic, Traditional, Standard, and more.
As you go up in price, you’ll find better finishes and improved features.
It’s also worth checking out the used market too. I was able to pick up this 1999 Les Paul Standard for a pretty good price.
7. PRS S2 Vela
We’ve talked a bit about PRS already. Here, we’re looking at one of their popular S2 models, the Vela.
If you want an American made PRS but the hefty price tag of a core model is out of reach, the Vela is a great option.
My review of the “PRS S2 Vela Semi-Hollow Reclaimed Wood Series” (pictured above):
I love the vibe of reclaimed woods. The idea that wood brimming with character can be remade to get a new lease of life is a wonderful thing.
This Vela was made from the wood from old buildings in the Brazilian Rainforest. There’s even a nail hole, which just adds to the character.
Like all PRS guitars that I’ve bought over the years, the Vela arrived with a great setup, and impeccable attention to detail.
This guitar is full of vintage vibe and character. There’s a set neck for singing sustain, a plate bridge with brass saddles, and PRS locking tuners.
The tonal options with this guitar are substantial. You’ve got a low output alnico “Starla” humbucker in the bridge, and a Type D single coil in the neck position.
There’s a 3 way toggle switch, with a coil split on the tone pot. If you have expectations in terms of PRS tone, chances are this guitar will break those expectations – in a great way. This guitar has more spank and bite than you might think.
In addition, there’s a padded gig bag to keep the guitar safe.
Overall, I was blown away by this guitar. There’s really something special about that Starla pickup. There’s plenty of tonal variation – it’s great for blues and rock.
If you want a versatile guitar with beautiful tone, superb playability, great build quality, and plenty of vintage vibe – be sure to check out the PRS S2 Vela.
Price range: This specific model was part of a limited run, but Vela’s will generally cost around $1400.
Alternatives in this range:
While the reclaimed wood series was a limited run, the Vela comes in a selection of beautiful colours.
Since this guitar is part of the S2 series, you’ll find a lot more choice when you look at the S2 range. That includes various body shapes, pickup configurations, bridge options, and colours, etc.
8. Fender Original 50’s Stratocaster
We’ve talked a bit about the Fender Original Series earlier. Up next, we’ve got the Original 50’s Strat.
Like the 50’s Tele, we’ve got a maple neck. But, as you might expect, it’s a very different animal.
My review of the “Fender American Original 50’s Stratocaster” (pictured above):
I had this guitar ordered into my local store and like the 50’s Telecaster, they QC’d and setup the guitar prior to collection. Whether they changed much about the setup, I’m not sure.
But, the setup on all American Fenders that I’ve played over the past few years have all had good setups out of the box.
There was a bit of a snag with this guitar. The store called me up to let me know the scratch plate warped in transit. They ordered a new one from Fender, which also arrived warped.
The replacement scratch plate wasn’t too bad so I stuck with it. It’s not too noticeable. I’ll likely fit an aftermarket scratch plate at some stage.
One thing about these vintage “inspired” Strats is they have 8 screws for the pickguard, instead of the 11 on the modern-day versions. And the pickguard is single ply. So, warping is more likely here.
So, setup was great. And build quality is on point too – I always look for manufacturing flaws in a guitar but this was perfect.
This Strat in particular has a quite a thick neck. Fender refer to it as a thick “soft V” neck.
In terms of tones, this set of Pure Vintage ‘59 pickups offer those beautiful Fender tones we’ve all come to know and love. These pickups are low-output but if you throw a Tube Screamer in front, you can get some SRV-esque tones out of it (you may need to throw on some higher gauge strings on to get a bit closer to that tone, though).
You’ve also got a vintage 6-point tremolo, vintage tuners, and a beautiful tweed hard-case to complete the package.
If you Strats are your thing, and you dig the vintage vibe – the American Originals series is well checking out.
Price range: Around $2,000.
Alternatives in this range:
There are a few different colour options available. There’s also the Original 60’s series that offers a slightly different spec guitar, with extra colour options.
But, like the Telecaster, you’ll be able to find Strats from around $499, or even less if you look at their more affordable Squier range.
9. Fender Elite Stratocaster
The Elite series is one of Fender’s unsung heroes.
A lot of players I talk to, particularly those that play heavier music but appreciate that great Strat tone have no idea that Fender makes a modern Strat. Regardless, it’s a great option for those that want a Strat with modern features.
My review of the “Fender American Elite Stratocaster in Turquoise” (pictured above):
Out of the box, the setup on this guitar was great and build quality was to the same high standard that I’ve come to expect from American made Fenders.
Now, I mentioned earlier that the Elite Strat comes with modern features.
So, what exactly do I mean by that? Well, you get locking tuners, a modern 2-point tremolo, a more comfortable neck heel joint, double action truss-rod, S1 switching system for more tonal options, and …. noiseless pickups!
It must be said that this isn’t a Strat for tone purists. The 4th generation noiseless pickups aren’t going to get that precise sought-after Strat tone. It’s got a slightly different flavour to that of the Original 50’s Strat I mentioned earlier.
These pickups aren’t what I’d consider to be low-output, so they’ve got some go in them. They provide plenty of clarity and hold up really well when overdriven. There’s also the S1 switching system which opens up more tonal options.
In terms of comfort and playability, this is one of the best Fenders that I’ve played. The neck has more of a satin feel so you can blaze up and down the fretboard without being slowed down.
You’ve got a compound fretboard radius which goes from 9.5” to 14”, and the back of the neck is compound too. Going from a modern “C” to “D” shape.
And the locking tuners and 2-point tremolo provide great tuning stability. Then, the sturdy hard-case rounds out the package.
I’ve had a few Elite series guitars over the years, and I’ve been impressed with each one. Definitely worth checking out if you want a Strat with modern features.
Price range: While this specific color is no longer available, you can pick up a new Elite Strat for around $1900.
Alternatives in this range:
The American Elite Stratocaster comes in a range of colours. There’s a choice of Maple and Ebony necks. Aside from the regular SSS pickup configuration, there are also a few options with a HSS pickup configuration.
There’s a lefty version available but only in SSS configuration, with a 3 tone sunburst finish.
And if a Telecaster is more your speed, be sure to check out the range of Elite series Telecasters.
Wrapping it up (and a few frequently asked questions)
Are there other great guitars for playing blues out there? You bet! This is far from an exhaustive list but these are some great options out of those that I’ve played (and owned) over the years.
Here are a few things to remember when choosing your next guitar, especially if you don’t have the option to try before you buy:
- Neck shape & thickness – This doesn’t matter to everyone but it will matter to some of you. Guitars like the Fender American Original 50’s Strat have quite a thick neck, whereas the PRS guitars above tend to have fairly slim necks by comparison.
- Fretboard radius – Some of the guitars on this list, such as the Fender American Originals have a 9.5” radius fretboard. They feel very different to modern-day fretboard boards and do make bends more difficult. Something worth considering before purchase.
- Neck joint – This will impact the tone. Guitars with a set neck such as the PRS Vela and Gibson Les Paul will have more sustain. Whereas guitars with bolt-on necks such as the Strat’s and Tele’s will offer a more “snappy” tone.
- Pickups & tonal versatility – This all comes down to personal preference. I love the full sound of humbuckers and the fact they “buck the hum”, but there’s something special about the tone from low-output single coils. P90’s offer a nice compromise between the two. In terms of versatility though, the PRS S2 Vela is a great option.
- Resale value – When purchasing a new guitar, you may want to consider resale value. Iconic guitars like the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster will always be easier to sell. But, don’t that stop you from getting the guitar you really want. After all, that’s what matters, right?
Thanks for stopping by and good luck on your musical journey.