Country music is a very guitar-influenced music style with hundreds of years of tradition.
So, which is the best guitar for playing country music?
The best electric guitar for country music is, without the shadow of a doubt, the Fender Telecaster. The guitar that Leo built back in 1952 is still today the number one sound for all things related to electric country music. In fact, it has been modified a million times to achieve different sounds and create new classics and remains the number one in several styles like blues, country, bluegrass, folk, and even rock n roll.
Although country music’s beginnings were completely acoustic, nowadays it has turned electric for the most part. Many people think it is fairly easy and minimalistic, but when the time comes to achieve those clean, twangy tones, you need to choose the right equipment.
I’ve been on many live stages, and in music, studios trying to capture the soul of country music through a six-string and learned a thing or two I’d like to share with you in this article.
Although the Fender Telecaster is and will continue to be country music´s number one guitar, there are many others that can occupy a spot for textures and different tones. We are going to go through the whole country music set up for you to be gigging like a pro in no time.
Different Eras Of Country Music
Just in case you are not completely familiar with country music, it all started at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the first-ever recording of country music can be traced back almost a hundred years to 1923. It was back then as it is right now, a mixture of different styles heavily influenced by the landscape and the duties of the countryside.
Europe and Africa brought their own instruments and music and together with locals, they shaped a particular kind of sound.
For example, the role of the fiddle in country music can be traced all the way to the Irish immigrants and Celtic music. Also from the deepest south of the country, some of the tunes and instruments from Mexico like the Spanish six-string guitar and the bass came along shaping a unique sound.
The Beginnings Of Country Music, Acoustic Only
From the beginnings in the 1920s until the mid-1960s, there was a strong influence of acoustic instruments in country music. Such is the case that most of the biggest brands of electric instruments were not aimed at country musicians but to jazz ones. Big Gibsons and Gretsch were among the most used in the genre.
Slowly as bands became bigger and drums were introduced to the live stages, the role of the amplified electric guitar became prominent. This was, of course, to be able to cope with the bigger sound created by an entire band opposite to the beginnings when the only percussive instrument was maybe a washing board or the kicking feet on the wooden stage.
The Bob Dylan Revolution
In 1965, Bob Dylan had been hired to be the headliner of the American Folk Music Revival festival. He was folk’s most prominent star and was touring to support the release of the now-legendary “The times they are a-changing” album.
It was a breakthrough record for him and for the genre since it featured a full band on one of the sides.
He emerged to the stage carrying a sunburst Fender Stratocaster and a full electric live band and got booed by half the audience. This moment will be crucial to the history of country music because Dylan didn’t back out.
He kept on playing not only that show but all of the following ones with the same formation. Eventually, the booers became fans and the rest is rock n roll, folk, blues, and pop music history.
After the Bob Dylan revolution, the world of country music was forever changed.
Nowadays it is all made of super productions with special effects and a full rock and pop formation in every stage. You still have banjo, fiddle, piano, slide guitar, and pedal steel players, harmonicas and all the other country-friendly instruments along with electric basses, drums, synths, and many other modern electric instruments.
Many modern players like Jason Isbell, Keith Urban, Tyler Childers, and even John Mayer tour the world with a backing electric band for their pop-folk-blues tunes.
The era of country-pop is here to stay, and this is why you need your electric guitar to play your favorite folk tunes.
Let’s get right into choosing the perfect one.
The Best Electric Guitar For Country Music
The best electric guitar for country music, as I said before, is the Fender Telecaster.
This machine created in 1952 by Leo Fender is still today the number one guitar for songwriters across many genres. For example, one of country music current icons, Brad Paisley is an almost exclusive telecaster player.
You can take a look at his paisley telecasters in this video.
The Telecaster And Country Music
This is, hands down, the best guitar for the genre and no country music set up would be complete without it.
Throughout the years it has been in production (68 till today) it suffered many modifications to be more suitable for different styles. You can find it today as a metal guitar with Jim Root’s and John 5’s models and as a folk music machine with Brad Paisley going through The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and any other major songwriter in history.
Why is the telecaster the perfect guitar to play folk and country music? Well, the answer to that question lays in what most people call “twang”, which is the add-up of all these characteristics.
- Pickups & Construction – Opposed to the guitars in the 50s, the Fender Telecaster was not hollow or made with dark-sounding mahogany. Neither did it have fat, low-end rich humbuckers. The construction was not a glued set-neck. The fretboard was not ebony or rosewood. The telecaster featured ash, pine or alder body with a maple neck, maple fingerboard, and single-coil pickups.
- String-Through – The strings in a regular telecaster go all the way across the body, making it more resonant. All the guitars back then featured wrap-around or stop tail bridges. The telecaster changed that and became a signature sound.
- Bolt-On Necks – The Fender brand did not feature any kind of set-neck or neck-through construction at all; the telecaster, Stratocaster and all that came afterward were held together by either three or four bolts. This gave a characteristic sound to the guitar and it was also easier to send the neck in for readjustment or get a replacement one.
All these characteristics combined created a unique sound.
It was brighter, edgier, more resonant, and treble-oriented. Picture the big bands at the time with brasses and fiddles and basses; the guitar was quite lost.
The telecaster is bright enough to cut through any mix. I’ve experienced in the studio myself plenty of times; you can throw a telecaster on top of anything and it will be there, present. Also, the bridge is completely made of metal gives it the resonance and twang to make those quick country finger-picking riffs sound just amazing.
It was as if country music was waiting for the telecaster and the telecaster was made exactly for it. As they say, those two are a musical match made in heaven.
The B And G Benders
If there is a mod to a telecaster that can make it even more country-sounding, that is definitely a G or a B bender.
These mechanisms can be installed in any Tele-style guitar work bending a certain string when played without having to fret it anywhere. This means that by pulling it up with your strap you can create an effect on a string. It sounds amazing when done as a tasteful touch over a chord.
Over the years there have been a million incarnations of such a device. In this video by country legend Brad Paisley, you can see it in action on one of his telecasters.
I have written an article that discusses many things you can do to keep a guitar in tune for longer periods of time. You can take a look at it here.
The Stratocaster And Country Music
Second in the list is another guitar by Fender, the almighty Stratocaster.
This 3-pickup guitar made its debut to the world just a couple of years after the telecaster in 1954.
Its first model was similar to a telecaster but offered a wider palette of sounds to work with. Ever since its inception, the telecaster became the “songwriter” guitar while the Stratocaster has always been the “lead” guitar.
This is perfectly exemplified in The Rolling Stones with Keith Richards playing telecasters and Ronnie Wood playing Stratocasters. One is the songwriter bass player and the other is the lead player. In fact, back in 1965, Bob Dylan made the revolution with a Stratocaster in his hands.
A famous current country-rock icon is Keith Urban and you can check his collection of strats, teles, and others on stage in this video. Also, John Mayer, a country, rock and pop guitar maestro relies heavily on strats and acoustics as you can see in this video.
Not everything in country music is about Fenders, the Gibson Company also made its part in it.
Let’s go a little back in time because Gibsons were around before Fenders with many other guitar builders.
Gibson made iconic guitars and the big L5s, L6s and the entire ES line was very famous and widely used as well as their acoustics. A guitar that you can still see today in country music is the huge ES-175, a sunburst yacht that was designed to be a jazz vessel but ended up being much more flexible than that.
These guitars as opposed to Fenders, can occupy a different frequency range, and hence it is possible to use both of them in the same band.
They provide a low key tone that fills up way more sonic space than what Fender guitars do. It is possible to see them in duos or bands that need guitars to fill up more space like Shakey Graves, a current country and blues musician who built up his career playing solo. You can see him speaking about his guitar in this video.
The Gretsch Country Gentleman
Finally, the last of the guitar poker is the guitar chose by one of country music’s biggest guitar legend: Mr. Chet Atkins.
He, along with other players mostly invented what we now recognize as country fingerpicking style that has defined generations of players. He is an avid player of acoustics but it is not strange to see him on a banjo, a telecaster, and a big Gretsch 12-string Country Gentleman as well.
Chet Atkins defined a generation as a player, producer, and songwriter and his legacy lives on in his instrument. In fact, he is one of few players in history who has a signature guitar on two companies because Gibson made him a very nice acoustic as well.
These instruments are just as beautiful.
They come at quite a cost, but don’t despair if you want to plan to a budget because you can get them in their cheaper versions.
In fact, Telecasters and Stratocasters might just be the most imitated guitars in the world. You can get Chinese-made copies of the 175 as well.
The only guitar with no budget copy is the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman, but Gretsch manufactures the “Electromatic” series made in China with some similar models that can help you get that unique sound without breaking the bank.
The Best Country Music Set Up
Playing guitar in a country music band is not only about the instrument. You might have the best guitar for playing country, but without a proper country music set up, you won’t sound anything like your idols.
Let’s take a look at the elements that round up the perfect rig.
Country music amplifiers, just like guitars, are dominated by Fender.
There is a reason behind this fact and it is just as simple as having THAT iconic clean sound.
While there are thousands of manufacturers around the world making killer amps, the quintessential pinnacle of clean guitar tone comes from Fender amps. Let’s go through the models you should be looking at.
- Fender Deluxe Reverb Amp – This is, perhaps, one of the best amplifiers ever built. It is very simple and only produces 22 watts of power through a 1×12 combo configuration. It has built-in valve reverb and tremolo. You can throw anything at this amplifier and it will give you back a Fender sound. Plugging a telecaster directly to it will get you in country-music heaven in a heartbeat. Check out this amp here on Amazon
- Fender Twin Reverb – For the players who want the same amazing sound with just more volume, the twin reverb is the bigger 85-watt, 2×12 version of the Deluxe, and one of the most well-known guitar amps in history. Check at this amazing amp here.
- Fender Vibro King – This is an ultimate classic with a sound of its own. It has a very special 3×10 configuration and valve-driven reverb with three controls. This amp was the king of its time and it is one of Fender´s best-sounding amps still.
- Fender Bassman – The quintessential Fender tone is divided into two families (with the exception of the Vibro King). On one side, you have the Twin Reverb, the Deluxe Reverb, the Princetone Reverb and such. On the other side, you have the Bassman. This is a no-frills, five-knobs amp with no reverb and a 4×10 configuration. As you might notice from its name, it was originally thought as a bass amp, but guitar players around the world used it for decades to create an amazing guitar sound.
There you have it, a collection of guitars and a collection of amps. If your budget is not enough to buy one of these valve amps, you can always find the cheaper, solid-state version of them made by Fender.
Pedal-wise country music is all about simplicity.
Usually, what hits you first when you see a country musician is the ability of the right- hand fingerpicking or the amount of sound he or she can make with a simple set up. Ideally, country music is played with no pedals, but let’s see some that can help you.
- Overdrive – Overdrive pedals flood the market like no other kind. This has its foundations in the fact that we, guitar players, are very, very picky about them. To achieve a little dirty, edgy country music sound, I recommend any iteration of the Ibanez Tube Screamer.
- Compressor – If you want to keep the guitar pristine clean and still cut through the mix to be the main character of the story, you need a compressor. My all-time favourite is the Dyna Comp, but I’ve tried some very good ones lately made by Keeley too.
- Reverb – In case you don’t have an amplifier with reverb, this pedal is a must. There are many that can do the job out there. My absolute favorite is the Strymon Flint that comes with a tremolo as well to fenderize any amp.
- Delay/echo – If you don’t know what it is now don’t despair, you will very soon because slapback echo is one of country music most widely used resources. My favorite to do it is the all-analog MXR Carbon Copy delay, check these out here on Amazon.
None of these pedals are needed to get started, but they surely add some cool colors to the mix.
In fact, most of the biggest names in the industry use many different effects to keep it interesting for themselves and the audience. To get you started, just a guitar, a cable and an amp will do.
When starting out with country music you just need to get the best guitar you can afford.
The tone of the instrument in this style is very important.
Being budget-conscious means distributing your money the best way while building your country music set up. If you have a limited budget, I would spend as much of it as possible on a guitar. Spend the spare money on a good amp and cable and then if you have some left over, buy a pedal.
Bear in mind that a good instrument in such a straight-forward style is going to make 90% of your tone.
Building up your tone on country music or any other genre takes time.
You won’t be Chet Atkins overnight and even with the best guitar and best country music set up, you will still have a lot to learn to make it sound right.
All of us guitar players built up our rigs little by little. I still remember the red and white Ibanez Stratocaster copy and 15-watt Crate amp my dad bought me on a Saturday morning. It meant the world to me until one day my playing and my ears went beyond it and sold it to buy better stuff.
Be patient, the road of gear acquisition never ends.
Playing country music with the best guitar through the best country music set up is a total treat.
Hearing and feeling a telecaster pushing the valves of a naturally overdriven Fender amp is a one-of-a-kind feeling. There is a road to get there and you have to walk it being patient, humble, and learning the sweet spot of every instrument you own.
My own journey on guitar playing taught me patience and the tips I shared with you above. Follow them to make the most out of your money and get a pure country music sound. The rest is just hours of sitting down and playing your guitar looking for the perfect song and the right lyrics.
Whichever set up you choose, be sure to enjoy your playing!