Busting Guitar-Genre Stereotypes

Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.

At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments at prices accessible to gigging musicians and garage band virtuosos

We love guitars that shatter stereotypes and help artists establish a distinctive musical identity. Indeed, our Diamond Series Prince Cloud and SRV Series—both dripping unique character—are two of our top selling models.

But more traditional guitar styles can be used to break out of the mold, too. Today, we take a look at guitars stereotyped for certain genres that have gone on to far more versatile uses.

Round Peg, Round Hole?

When a middle-school kid sets out to buy a beginner’s electric guitar and does a little Googling about what he should pick, he’s almost sure to run into a series of incredibly persistent stereotypes.

We all know them—they dominate the way much of the guitar market thinks: Teles are for country and roots rock. Strats are for blues and funk. Les Pauls and SG’s are for rock and roll. Jazz players need a nice archtop. And so on.

Of course, there are real tonal characteristics that inform these stereotypes. A Les Paul really will struggle to quack like a strat. A warm-toned archtop can’t channel a telecaster’s piercing bridge pickup tones (at least without a treble booster).

But many players—from the very beginning to today—continue to prove that it’s mind over matter when it comes to using different sounds for a given genre. In today’s Guitar Sun, we take a look at just a few players who crafted genre-defining tones with guitars we might not expect.

Telecasting is for Country?

Our middle school kid walks into the guitar store and tells the clerk he needs a cheap guitar and likes country music, maybe some classic rock.

Do we have any doubt what type of guitar he’ll be pointed to? The Telecaster guitar style has perhaps a stronger bond with country than any other single guitar and genre.

As we discussed last week, local country musicians couldn’t even keep their hands off Leo Fender's new solid-body design, even in its earliest prototype stages. It let them cop the bright sounds of the lap steel and largely take over its role as a lead instrument.  

But some high-profile country musicians have managed to use guitars besides Teles. And, on the other side of the coin, Teles have delivered iconic tones that extend well beyond their down-home sonic roots.

It goes without saying that much of modern, mainstream country has adopted a modern, gain-laden sound, often employing humbucker guitars into Marshall-style amps—about as far from Tele twang as one can get. In a slightly different direction, last week on SNL, Chris Stapleton busted out his usual Jazzmaster playing next to the (Tele-packing) Sturgill Simpson.

 

But some country artists managed to break out of the mold far earlier. In fact, Chet Atkins—father of the “Nashville” sound that came to define mainstream country music—never favored a Fender. Maintaining a decades-long relationship with Gretsch Guitars, Atkins was a widely acknowledged technical master with a signature sound. Check out his intricate rhythm + melody fingerpicking style below.

 

Meanwhile, Telecaster users are capable of fantastic higher gain sounds that land far away from the traditional country tonal spectrum. While Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was closely associated with Les Pauls during his peak touring years, many of their formative rock recordings in fact feature a Telecaster. Which tracks? Try, for starters, all of the original 1969 Led Zeppelin album (including Communication Breakdown and Dazed & Confused)—as Page himself confirms in this interview. He used a borrowed Flying V on a single track.

Page Telecaster

Playing with a violin bow works, too. 

Jazz Box Required?

If the same kid walks into the guitar store wanting to play jazz, he’s probably not getting handed a Fender.

Ever since Charlie Christian took lead guitar to the mainstream with his ES guitars, Jazz players have largely stuck to the archtop stereotype. While Les Pauls and other humbucking guitars can approximate the warm, dark tones of an archtop, the aesthetic association between traditional jazz and archtops is incredibly strong.

Nevertheless, many legendary players have built their reputations crafting jazz sounds with solid-body guitars that are said to be “too bright” for jazz work. Contemporary jazz legend Bill Frisell is famous for preferring a Telecaster:

 

 The Telecaster neck pickup has a warm, organic sound that can seem at home in a jazz context. But what about the Stratocaster, famously trebly even in the neck position? It’s amazing what tone controls can do:

 

 

No Limits

The story here isn’t that these stereotypes are utter hogwash. We doubt country players will ever abandon their Telecasters. And a new generation of John Mayer acolytes seems set to defend the Stratocaster’s dominance in “soft blues” for another couple decades.

The story is simple: playing guitar is about finding an instrument and playing whatever you want. It's not about following rules set by previous generations. 

 

 

When that middle school kid walks into the guitar store and asks what he should buy, we think the best answer is “whatever sounds awesome.” We hope to see another generation of guitarists shatter stereotypes with Sunfield guitars in-hand. Who knows, maybe in a hundred years heavy metal will be bound at the hip to this beast: