What makes a guitar “great”?


Senior Member
I’m curious what this community’s thoughts are on what makes a guitar great? And I’m speaking of bolt-on style guitars, similar to what we would build with Warmoth parts and what some of the other builders over the years have done.

Names like Suhr, Anderson, Tyler, Valley Arts, some of the masterbuilt PRS, maybe master built Fender, or Ibanez?

Ordering from Warmoth means you are getting some top notch woods and finishes, as long as you aren’t a nitro stickler. We can spec parts to accept the best bridges, tuners and electronics. I can take these, slap them together and they probably won’t be that “over the top” type of guitar. What are the things that really make a very nice guitar?

I’ve seen some of your fret leveling, crowning, end dressing and polishing, that seems to be a big thing. Fret board edge rolling for comfort. An oiled neck seems to take the playing experience to the next level. Obviously a good setup where any friction points are lubricated and a nut that is well cut.

What else am I missing to take a guitar from the pejorative “partscaster” to a fine instrument?
It’s more art than science I feel. I’ve played guitars that were ‘setup, leveled, dressed’ that were horrible. I have some that weren’t that were way better.

I believe it’s the skill of the craftsman doing the work. The art applied to science.

Then there’s always the unknown of dealing with wood. Some are duds, some are jewels.
To quantify how good guitar is, it is necessary to clarify the criteria for measurement. There are so many different opinions. For example, there are two different camps on whether to believe in "tone wood".

I don’t have time to type too many words, but I think this set of films from 10 years ago is a better summary. Click the link for a set of 4 episodes.

Rules of Tone Introduction​

A great instrument allows an artist to perform great music. It's something that inspires them, enables them, and does not hold them back. It's as individual as the artist.

...can you tell I've been reading some philosophy lately? :)
Then there’s always the unknown of dealing with wood. Some are duds, some are jewels.
That’s a great point that’s kind of a given. I replaced a neck once and the guitar went from kind of dead to just alive. I don’t think there’s a way to determine that when you are just holding a piece of wood.
Actually, I've been able to get some good music out of a piece of trash, so I'd say, once the person playing the guitar gets it into a playable shape, whatever that is, basically the standard set up, it's on the player to make something people want to listen to. So I guess that means once the guitar is playable it's the player that makes it great.
A great instrument allows an artist to perform great music. It's something that inspires them, enables them, and does not hold them back. It's as individual as the artist.

...can you tell I've been reading some philosophy lately? :)
I mean, yes… thinking of two of EVH’s iconic guitars, I bet most would pick up the original Frankie and think a completely different thing compared to the Amber MM. Both inspired him to make some iconic music but even Ed used some interesting descriptions of Frankie. ;)
A great instrument allows an artist to perform great music. It's something that inspires them, enables them, and does not hold them back. It's as individual as the artist.

...can you tell I've been reading some philosophy lately? :)
Bingo. A great guitar is a means to an end - making sounds you want to make, expressing ideas, maybe just getting loud. The instrument that allows the player to do so - or to feel as though they are making progress toward their ends - is a good instrument, I reckon.
It is hard to quantify, but I generally (not always) check to make sure a guitar has a skull on it.
A great guitar is one that sounds great, and is comfortable to play. The most important contributing factors are high quality parts, and the set-up. Of course I also like it to look great, but that's probably last priority.

Oh, and all electric guitars are parts-guitars. ALL of them, regardless of who assembled them or who's name is on the headstock.
Setup setup setup. It doesn't start there, but it ends there.

Good wood, Good parts, and Careful assembly sorta ensures a good guitar.

The setup can make it a great player.

All of the above means very little if the final product sounds like a turd though.

Then, all of the the above depends on the end user's ears and fingers.

I would consider my 3 warmoths great guitars, hands down, but then again, I'm biased

My ibby rg520qs is another. While the neck shape is not my thing these days, I refuse to sell it. It sounds great with any pickup I try in it. It still plays like greased lighting after 25 years with no fret level too.
I also have found time and again that rubbing the guitar on your face can impact tone in a good way.

I try to save that mojo for those greasy blues solos.
You never know when that extra juice is all that stands between you and that next level.

Here are some thoughts. (Some inspired by what other members have written above)

A good guitar needs to be well set up. But a poorly built or assembled guitar even when set up still lacks a proper foundation to be good or great.

You do need to know the science and techniques involved to end up with a good or great result, but the art is in how these are applied, and the care put into the final result.


Set up​

But what is meant by set up. I would include in this final adjustments such as truss rod, bridge and saddle adjustment for string height and intonation. Also, pickup height etc. This has nothing to do with assembly or building, but is something that needs to be done and at times redone over the life of an instrument. This is a skill that I think all players should get familiar with. Adjusting the height of a nut is needed for good set up, but many players might get help with this, as it requires tools and a certain degree of extra skill.

Final assembly​

This is where a set of finished parts are put together, the neck screwed onto the body, the nut fitted, the bridge and pickups fitted, the strap locks attached etc. (this is not in exact order of sequence) but it is what many assembling a Warmoth with a finished neck and body are doing.

Assembly does not really in the opinion of many make you a builder, though a builder will do assembly at some stage of the build process. So we could say assembly is an element of the overall process of guitar building.

The attention to detail here can make a big difference.


This is of course applying things such as lacquer, poly or other finishing materials such as tru-oil to a body and neck.

Initial assembly​

This would be either a full assembly or dry assembly to check for overall fit. With a full assembly, a disassembly would be done prior to finish and final assembly and set up.

(note all Warmoth and related parts should undergo a dry assembly prior to actual assembly or applying any finish that may be needed to check for fit etc, especially if something is not to spec and needs to be returned to be corrected or replaced)

Body and neck manufacturing​

In the case of Warmoth, this is what you are buying. Parts that are in various possible stages, such as fully finished and routed, or a body or neck blank that needs more work done by the end customer.

The more that Warmoth has done, you will have a set of parts for assembly, the less you will have to do part of the job. Either way, it should be realized that putting parts together is not always a join the dots process.


Warmoth necks can be obtained already fretted or without frets. I personally think they benefit from further work where needed to take things to another level than will be obtained out of the box. But this is more skilled and requires the correct tools, so is something that many either do not do, or farm out the work. A few of us take a pride in doing this work.


Not all wood, even of the same species, is created equal. Do you know the difference between, flat, rift or quarter sawn for example and why you might use one over the other for example?

A maple neck with rosewood board from one maker is not the same as a maple neck with rosewood from someone else, for example. For that matter, no two necks with similar specs are the same or identical, they are merely similar.

You then have how much wood is rejected due to even slight defects such as a mineral streak. Some defects may be aesthetic and not really have an influence on playability, but a manufacturer will set the standards they are looking for and may even end up cutting a neck and rejecting it for a flaw that did not show up before cutting the neck. All of this goes into the final cost someone might pay for a guitar or a part. What one manufacturer may reject may still be in the tolerance of another manufacturer offering a lower cost product.


How much of a guitar are you designing, you might choose the pickups, the colour, hardware types etc and this is all under the heading of design.

Making tweaks to an existing design such as a Tele or Strat by changing or improving the dimensions and hardware choices or tweaking the shape of a contour could fall into design.

However, the basic design of a Strat or Tele, or its architecture if you will, was created or designed years ago and design tweaks do not change the basic architecture.

Playability versus Aesthetics​

Some might not care how something looks as long as it plays well. Or in the case of a "coffee table" type build, exotic expensive woods may be chosen, but these may be no more playable or have better "tone" than a plainer finish and reasonably priced woods.


Can someone take a set of Warmoth parts and make something great? Yes
Can anyone take a set of Warmoth parts and make something great? No
Can any reasonable player with basic tool skills make a good instrument from Warmoth parts? Yes, the potential is there to do that.

If I bought the best parts I could and gave them to a new assembler or to John Suhr or Ron Thorn, for example, my money would be on John Suhr or Ron Thorn, producing something great from what they were given.

To use an analogy it is not just the recipe, or the ingredients, or the tools, it is the skill and art of the chef that makes a great meal.

Click on the Welcome to the Forum thread link in my signature, there you can find links to lots of useful threads where further knowledge may be gleaned for taking things to the next level.
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Something you just can’t stop going back for more! And More and More!
It is like a Fine Woman you just Know when she is the Right one ☝️
A "great" guitar is one that puts a big ol' smile on your face when you play it!

It could be because it feels, plays, and sounds great
It could be because you payed a lot of money for it.
It could be for sentimental reasons, or anything else

But It's got to put a smile on your face!

This. Most definitely this.

Is it comfortable to play?
Does it sound so good as to give you chills, no matter the setting on the amp or effects?
Does it look good?
Do you feel yourself unable to wait to play it again?
Do you enjoy just holding it in your lap or slung around your shoulders without even having to play it?

In my collection, I have a few guitars I love, but I think only two meet the criteria I posted above plus Ragamuffin's, and they're my basses.

I certainly enjoy playing my V-K, the Mockingbird, and my LP. But my Conklin basses transcend that level of appreciation. I'd be sad if I lost my instruments in a fire or other disaster, but I'd be devastated over the loss of my Conklins.

To me, those are my "great" guitars.
Aside from the obvious which I stated in my previous post, a great guitar is one that is customized to the player's personal preferences.The majority of guitar players play a mass-produced assembly line guitar. After I built my first Warmoth, I decided I would never buy a new production line guitar ever again.
@PFDarkside ,
I never thought building my own guitar would be so rewarding. What I have learned doing it is that each time I add a "favorite" style or brand component, the instrument is elevated, which increases both my interest and enjoyment.

I received my first Warmoth neck yesterday, if I didn't suspect different I would easily believe I had gone to Heaven. I am astounded at how luxurious it feels. I can not imagine a neck shape or size feeling better, then there is the finish. It is so incredibly silky, the hard maple feels like a down pillow, it is blowing my mind, non-stop!

I so regret not having done this decades ago!! I was speaking with a buddy about this and his simply advice/direction was to "make it the way I like it"...what utter genius!!

So far I only have the maple on maple neck and a set of my favorite brand and style tuners. I was devastated by the neck but when I installed my favorite tuners, my feelings increased. This is helping me with the remaining components, primarily the body, the pickups and the bridge.

Unfortunately I have a thing for mahogany bodies but my current rig is swamp ash and I love how it sounds. If only the entire world had to deal with but my dilemma.