Everyone knows about the Strats, Teles, and Les Pauls. These guitars are ubiquitous in the rock world. In fact, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a guitarist who’s been playing for over ten years who hasn’t at some point owned or dabbled with one or all of those classics. Yet no matter how much we love the ol’ faithfuls, I am always drawn to the strange and innovative guitars — the ones that look into the weird, dark future and just say, “yes.”
And I mean, we’re only human, we’ve all spent time looking through web listicles of the craziest looking monster guitars out there (rife with skulls, lasers, and every imaginable bell and whistle affixed somewhere on the poor thing’s body), but are they really functional instruments, or just shiny on-stage centerpieces?
So, I want to take a minute to examine a list of some of the more interesting and strange, while still remaining playable and great sounding, guitars I’ve come across.
1. The Danelectro ‘63
First up, this guitar might be more tame-looking than some of the others to follow, sure, but it is still one of the most unique sounding guitars I’ve personally ever played. It uses “Lipstick” pickups which only have a single magnet as opposed to other single coil pickups that have two individual magnets as pole pieces held in place with a bobbin. This means there is more note smear and the guitar produces a less-precise clean sound.
This guitar sounds best when you’re looking for a little bit of crunch with scooped mids and a lot of treble. If you want a guitar to cut through a big, funky band this is the guitar for you. You can hear a Danelectro ‘63 on Bruno Mars’ funky smash-hit “Uptown Funk.”
2. St. Vincent’s Signature Ernie Ball Music Man
Annie Clark of St. Vincent designed her signature guitar in collaboration with Ernie Ball Music Man. While a lot of artists simply make some cosmetic changes to a guitar, call it a custom, and sell it at a markup, Clark has really built something amazing from the ground up. She brought her own designs to the Ernie Ball staff and they worked closely to achieve something irregular and incredible. The guitar is light and comfortable, and because of its unique five-way pickup switch, players can achieve a tone similar to a Stratocaster or a Les Paul depending on what settings you use.
It’s one of the coolest guitars on the market from one of the coolest musicians out there. In fact, she lovingly named the Polaris White version of the guitar after David Bowie, calling it “Thin White Duke.”
3. Eastwood Airline 3P
The new Airline models are all based off the original Airline models sold back in the late 1950s by Montgomery Ward. With six knobs, a five-position switch, and a giant whammy bar, the guitar looks like you’d need a degree in engineering to play it. The original Airline guitars used to have fiberglass bodies that were held together by a rubber grommet. This produced a sort of wild, savage sound that can be heard on a lot of Calexico’s recordings. Also, PJ Harvey and Jack White have both used these guitars and extolled their values. In my opinion, this is the ultimate White Stripes-style guitar.
4. Ovation Breadwinner
I have to be honest, I think this guitar is really dumb. I think it looks dumb and I don’t understand a lot of the decisions they made in the construction and design of the instrument. The pickup switch is wired nonintuitively, the neck pickup sounds too dark, it has a nylon bridge, and the biggest oversight in my opinion, is that when you’re using both pickups, they’re out of phase! If you can think of a reason for this please, please, please leave a comment below.
The only person I could find who actually used this guitar was Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, although I couldn’t find any videos of him playing one of these monstrosities, so here’s some guy’s compilation video.
5. Electric Guitar Company Hinds Flying V
Ok, I know I already included one artist signature guitar but Brent Hinds’ (of Mastodon) custom design in collaboration with the Electrical Guitar Company is just so cool. EGC guitars all are made with aluminium. This can give players crystal clear resonance, but what it’s more often used for is giving your heavy, distorted sound an extra level of savagery. There’s not much more to point out about this particular guitar, save for its ridiculous V shape, for which Hinds clearly has a penchant, but if you need any more convincing just watch Brent Hinds shred it to pieces live.
6. Ibanez IMG2010
Did you really think I was going to get through this whole list without including a guitar synth? Please. In the early 1980s, Ibanez was trying to innovate and decided to get in on the guitar synth game. This is not a bad guitar, if you even consider it a guitar. Players can affect various parameters of the guitar’s sound through the many knobs and would be a great addition to any spacey guitarist’s arsenal.
7. Cigar Box and Hubcap Guitars
Now, these are more DIY then anything else. There are tons of people out there making wacky guitars out of whatever is lying around the house and yard. Every little thing that goes into the construction of an electric guitar will affect its tone and resonance, and for some reason, people really seem to love the sound of the wood in cigar boxes. The hubcap thing, I can understand, as the metal will help the sonic energy from the strings vibrate like a Dobro-style resonator guitar. If you want to learn a bit more about how design and construction affect guitar tone, check out Elyadeen Anbar’s “Fundamentals of Guitar Anatomy” article series on Flypaper. Anyway, here’s Seasick Steve playing his homemade hubcap, broom, and spatula creation.
8. The Frankenstrat
Eddie Van Halen’s signature guitar is what happens when you try to make a guitar that sounds like a Gibson but plays like a Fender. Eddie bought the neck and body separately as used parts in 1978. After experimenting with different pickups he found that he only really liked the sound of humbucker pickups, which are typically used in Gibson guitars. Unfortunately, the pickup was too large for the guitar so Eddie decided to chip away at his guitar with a chisel until he could fit the pickup in there. Then, he removed the tone controls from the guitar and wired the tone knob directly to his pickup bay. It wasn’t pretty, and the paint job looks like a murder site, but there have been a handful of replica releases over the years, so that counts for something!
9. Fender Pawn Shop Super-Sonic
This is a guitar that just screams strange. First of all, this guitar is intentionally made upside down so it just looks “off” right from the start. And the Atomic humbucker pickups are at a slant to the strings which makes it look even more off balance. With that said, Fender’s “Pawn Shop Series” has been touted for their reliability and great value, and you can’t deny the rawness of that sound!
10. Steve Vai’s Heart Guitar
Too. Many. Necks.
He makes it work though. Vai could probably solo on a screwdriver.
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* A previous version of this article made an uninformed claim that Annie Clark worked with Ted McCarthy on the design of her guitar. That section has been amended.