If you were a fan of almost any kind of contemporary popular music when you were growing up, there was probably a time when you thought that it might be cool to learn how to play guitar. Whether you admired the road-going, globetrotting, fly by night lifestyle of rock stars or you just thought it might be a good way to pick up chicks, there’s something viscerally desirable about garnering even a modicum of instrumental mastery. And that very well might have something to do with the allure of the instrument itself.
Literal hundreds of years have gone into developing and perfecting the art of guitar making. And unless you have a familiarity of the craft, you probably don’t know how impressive a well-built guitar actually is – even if you do have a base appreciation for the devices and their players. The truth is, making a guitar is an incredibly difficult and drawn out process that requires the utmost attention to detail in order to be well done. From the tonal qualities of the materials out of which they are constructed, to the sturdiness of the overall build, to the dozens of additional fittings, guitars are remarkable gizmos and their developers (alternatively, luthiers) deserve respect for their talents. The following 12 brands, who were started by and have employed many said luthiers, have built their reputations on the creation and production of some of the greatest and most iconic guitars ever to grace this planet.
Eastwood & Airline
A favored brand of a number of against-the-grain musicians – like Jack White of The White Stripes, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, and the late great David Bowie – Eastwood is unique in that, alongside their catalog of more traditional guitars, they’ve also taken it upon themselves to bring back a number of more obscure models through the revived Airline brand. For instance, the ’59 Custom 2P pictured above was originally offered by VALCO in a catalog sale through Montgomery Ward from 1958 to 1968. Their vintage style instruments are updated with modern manufacturing techniques, giving players the opportunity to pick up rare offerings at a reasonable cost. But perhaps the coolest thing about this company is their custom shop. Set up almost like a Kickstarter, the shop allows customers to bid on defunct, new, and bizarre guitars and go on to build whichever models meet their funding requirements.
Originally started as a replacement parts shop in Japan, ESP Guitars – which stands for Electric Sound Products – got their guitar manufacturing business off to a rocky start here in the United States. They were taken to court by Gibson guitars for producing instruments that too closely resembled the American brand’s guitars. But, they settled out of court in 1978 and ESP’s reputation eventually grew, thanks in part to George Lynch, the guitarist for the 80s metal band Dokken, and his signature axe pictured here – The Kamikaze Model 1. Now, ESP guitars are wildly popular amongst metal and hard rock clientele and you can hear their instruments on the records of some of the brand’s loyal artists – including the likes of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica, Page Hamilton of Helmet, and the guys in Children of Bodom.
Boasting the title of the “world’s largest guitar manufacturer,” Fender is responsible for the creation and production of a number of the most iconic guitars ever conceived. The one Jimi Hendrix set on fire on stage? That was a Fender Stratocaster – similar in shape to the one pictured above. The one Bruce Springsteen plays at every concert? That’s a Fender Telecaster. Look at nearly any band on stage around the world and the likelihood is you’ll see a Fender guitar up there. And that’s no accident. Founded by Leo Fender in Fullerton, California in 1946, this brand hasn’t just pioneered iconic looks – they pioneered iconic sound. And that’s what keeps musicians like Eric Clapton, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and Jeff Beck so viciously loyal to the brand: unrepentant quality.
If you do find yourself at a concert and there’s not a Fender onstage, there’s an exponential chance that there will be a Gibson – if not both. Getting their start as a small mandolin manufacturer in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1902, the brand eventually went on to start building guitars, inventing the archtop style of guitar by using the same building techniques as violin manufacturers. In the 1930s, Gibson had made their first electric guitar, but it wouldn’t be until 1952 that the brand would unveil what is still their most popular and iconic guitar ever built: the Les Paul. Now based out of Nashville, Tennessee, Gibson’s storied history is littered with the presence of some of the greatest guitarists of all time, including B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Slash, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend of the Who, and Angus Young of AC/DC.
In 1883, a german immigrant named Frederic Gretsch started a small instrument manufacturing company in Brooklyn, New York. On a trip to visit home in 1895, he died unexpectedly, leaving the company in the hands of his 15-year-old son, Fred. The company flourished for generations, especially due to the popularity of their hollow body guitars with rockabilly, blues, and jazz musicians. In 1967, however, the brand began to falter after the Gretsch family sold to then music industry giant Baldwin. In 1985, Fred W. Gretsch bought the company back from Baldwin and began restoring it to its former glory – coinciding with the rise of one of their most prolific artists, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats. Today, their guitars, like the USA Custom Shop White Falcon pictured above, are used by a wide array of musicians from all walks of life, including Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, Tim Armstrong of Rancid, Band of Skulls, and Portugal. the Man.
In 1952, Alfred Dronge – co-owner of small New York City music shop Sagman & Dronge – registered the Guild Guitar Company. The following year, they began producing deep hollow body guitars, a reflection of Dronge’s love for jazz music. The brand grew steadily through to the 70s – when Alfred Dronge died unexpectedly in a plane crash – getting their instruments in the hands of musicians such as Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and Bonnie Raitt. In the 80s, Guild began producing signature guitars for musicians Hank Williams Jr. and Brian May of Queen. The brand moved around frequently and it wasn’t until 2014 that they settled in their present headquarters in Oxnard, California – where all of their line of USA made guitars are now produced. To this day, they still produce a wide variety of hollow, semi-hollow, and solid body guitars that look as beautiful as they sound.
When you have signature models for two of the most impressive guitar virtuosos in the world, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, there’s certainly something you’re doing right. Such is the case with Ibanez. Started as a sub-brand beneath sheet music and music-product distributing company, Hoshino Gakki, Ibanez began in the 1920s, specializing in importing the guitars of respected Spanish builder Salvador Ibáñez. In the 1930s, they adopted the maker’s name as a show of respect. In the 1960s through the 70s, the brand shifted focus to making high-quality knockoffs of Fender and Gibson models, until Gibson’s parent company filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement. After settling out of court in 1978, the brand again began making original models, including signature guitars for the likes of Kiss frontman Paul Stanley (who plays a guitar similar in shape to the Iceman pictured above) and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. Now they specialize in precision instruments for musicians who like their music loud, hard, and fast.
Martin Guitars has a storied history that dates back as far as the mid-1700s when Christian Frederick Martin was born to a family of modest German cabinet makers. At the age of 15, Christian Frederick traveled to Vienna and took up an apprenticeship with a renowned guitar maker, where he flourished in his craft. Years later and after a feud with the Violin Makers Guild, Martin decided to move his business to the United States, opening up shop in New York City. More than 100 years later (and through many trials and tribulations), Martin introduced their signature Dreadnought acoustic guitar, the same shape as the one pictured above. Funny thing is, it was actually based on a defunct style created by another company years prior. Now the standard for acoustic guitar shapes, nearly every manufacturer offers a version of the instrument made popular by Martin. Currently, the brand is run by Christian Frederick Martin IV, the 6th generation of the Martin family – and they’re still making some of the best instruments in the world.
Paul Reed Smith
PRS, for short, was started in 1985 as a true bootstrap brand and passion project of its namesake, Mr. Paul Reed Smith. Initially designing and building everything himself, Paul garnered his first following and retail purchases by selling guitars out of the back of his car. Over time, the business grew into what it is today: one of the world’s premier guitar manufacturing brands. Now headquartered in Stevensville, Maryland, PRS is a brand that is still as dedicated to their craft as they ever were. And with musician’s like Carlos Santana, Dave Navarro, Daryl Hall of Hall and Oats, and Orianthi Panagaris (the female guitarist from Michael Jackson’s final tour) backing them, it’s hard to make an argument against the brand or their instruments.
Another company that dates back nearly a century, Rickenbacker was started by Adolph Rickenbacker and George D. Beauchamp in 1931 with the intention of creating fully electric instruments. Following a long and rocky history that included wild successes (like getting their guitars in the hands of the musicians that played with Bing Crosby) and incredibly tough tribulations (like starting an instrument business at the depths of the Great Depression), the brand eventually sold to F.C. Hall in 1953. From that point forward, Rickenbacker flourished as one of the most iconic brands both in the looks of their instruments and their sound. George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon of the Beatles all played Rickenbackers at one time or another. Additionally, Chris Squire of Yes, Tom Petty, Pete Townsend of the Who, and Glen Frey of the Eagles are all Rickenbacker signature artists. Like tech giant Apple, however, Rickenbacker doesn’t give their endorsers anything for free nor do they ask for the advertising, making them an even more admiral brand as a result.
Started in 1997 by Steve Suhr and Steve Smith, this Lake Elsinore, California-based guitar-building brand is the finest in a relatively new wave of manufacturers. They do not have a line of guitars, per se. Instead, they make every single guitar to order. This high-end boutique style manufacturing in a large-scale format was all but unheard of until the internet changed the world. Now, this brand can offer dozens of shapes, pickup combinations, finishes, etc. reasonably. But don’t let the fact that their guitar shapes seem like knock-offs of other long-standing brands fool you. Any Suhr guitar you’ll encounter is going to be of the utmost in quality of construction and sound. There simply is not a better custom brand out there with the same vast catalog of offerings. There are literally thousands of possible combinations, so if you are looking for a unique and superb instrument and are willing to pay for it, it’s hard to say there’s anything better.
Started similarly to PRS, Taylor was a brand that began out of passion and the back of a car. In 1974, friends and coworkers Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug joined together to purchase American Dream, the guitar making shop for whom they both worked. Geared toward producing the most high-quality USA made acoustic guitars they could muster, they changed the name of the business to Taylor Guitars, as it sounded more “American” than Listug. Though they went through some financial troubles initially, the brand eventually grew into what they are today: the number one manufacturer of acoustic guitars in the United States. They’ve also taken it upon themselves to pioneer a business model based around sustainable practices – Bob even goes so far as to travel to competitors to share with them said practices, understanding that, in order for guitar builders to continue to flourish, everyone needs to be an active participant in taking care of the environment. Or else there might come a time when there’s no more wood with which to build guitars. And that makes the El Cajon, California-based brand even mightier.