guitarguitar Gear of the Year 2023

Published on 22 December 2023

Welcome to this year’s round up of all the best, most interesting and coolest guitar gear!

2023 has been chock-full of exciting releases across the board, from excellent vintage reissue guitars to models that have propelled the entire concept of ‘electric guitar’ into the future.

It’s been a golden year for amplifiers, which may surprise a few players who feel that digital is taking over! That said, there was a huge release on the modelling front too, which I’ll talk about in this blog too.

Pedal enthusiasts must have been flat broke this year, given the frequency of top quality effects that have hit the market in 2023. Basically, there’s so much gear that we have to make a shortlist of favourites. I know, it’s a tough task but here are the pieces of gear that caught my eye this year!

Contents

 

Epiphone Kirk Hammett Greeny Les Paul

My first choice is a guitar that has only been newly released, but already it has created a good few thousand threads on the online forums! It’s the Epiphone Kirk Hammett Greeny Les Paul, and it’s fair to say that there has never been an Epiphone quite like this one!

How so? Well, there’s a lot to like about this guitar (that cool out-of-phase sound, the excellent neck profile, the amber finish) but the big talking point has been about…the headstock shape!

Yes, Epiphone have finally done something that many players have wanted to see for many years: an Epi guitar featuring Gibson’s ‘open book’ headstock shape. They’ve done it here, and it looks quite lovely. Now, this is not an indicator that Epiphone are going to do this with all of their output (if fact, I know this not to be the case), but with special releases like the Greeny Les Paul, it seems appropriate, particularly considering the fact that this is effectively a replica of a famous old Gibson guitar!

It’s by no means cheap by the standards we’d normally expect from an Epiphone guitar, but the Kirk Hammett Greeny offers a wonderful feel, a great sound (yes, you can have THAT out of phase sound) and a look that is close enough to the real thing for your audience to appreciate.

 

EVH 5150 Iconic combos

Once in a while, an item comes along that ticks so many boxes, it’s hard to offer up any critiques. So it is with this range of EVH 5150 Iconic amps. 

I could write about these all day long (indeed, I bought a 40w combo for myself), but the long and short of it is this: in my opinion, there is no other tube amp on the market that delivers such an arse-kickingly excellent distorted sound at anything like this price. You’d honestly have to move up to Soldano SLO territory - which is multiple times more expensive - to hear a sound that is somewhat noticeably better. These things just absolutely rip, with a bottom end (thanks to the closed back design and special speaker) that thumps like a herd of rhinos.

The real surprise? Well, along with the price, I mean? I’d say the clean channel, which brings a proper clean sound that is not a million miles from that famous Fender clean tone we all know. It’s not the same but it is a gajillion times nicer than the clean channel on previous iterations of this amp, and there’s built in reverb, a noise gate and even a boost!

Honestly, why do you not have one of these?

 

Music Man Kaizen

The Music Man Kaizen is one of those guitars that has the real feeling of ‘future-forwardness’ about it. Designed more as a collaboration than a strict signature guitar  for Tosin Abasi (he has his own Abasi guitars in operation too), this instrument certainly fits the bill for such a player of technique-heavy, sci-fi music.

Indeed, the Kaizen spec includes terms like ‘infinite conical radius’ to describe the fingerboard, so we know we are not in standard guitar territory here! The body shape is unique (something that Music Man are increasingly known for) but also far more comfortable than it may seem to be from merely looking at its stealthy edges. Available as both a 6 and a (more appropriate) 7 string, both variants come supplied with custom pickups and multiscale fretwork for an absolutely cutting edge playing experience.

As much as the classic Strats, Les Pauls and Teles are wonderful - and they obviously are - we still need people who are willing to push the creativity forward, and with the Kaizen, Music Man and Tosin Abasi and ably proving to be exactly that.



BOSS ME-90

The BOSS ME range has always been a good value voice for players looking to get busy with effects without splashing out on top tier tech like the Quad Cortex or Helix. BOSS multi-fx played a large role in my early years as a guitarist, so I’ve always had an appreciation for them. With this new addition to the lineup - the ME-90 - I’m struggling to find anything negative about it to report back.

I can highly recommend the ME-90 for everything it does: its wide palette of sounds, the straightforward interface that largely does away with menus in favour of control knobs; the tough construction that is easily gig-proof, and the pleasingly simple layout. 

I can also celebrate the inputs and outputs, which are not comprehensive but entirely generous for this price bracket. Most of all, I can happily remark that the actual sounds onboard are great, with loads of options both sensible and eccentric to choose from. On its own terms, it sounds excellent, and will inspire excitement in those who choose to play it. The ME-90 makes guitar playing loads of fun, and that, at the end of the day, is really everything.



Fender Vintera II 50s Precision Bass

Even if you’re super picky about which basses you play, the P-bass is so 'on the money' in so many ways that most bassists will have a fine old time on one.

I’ve chosen the 1950s version of the Vintera II P Bass for my end of year list, because I think it’s pretty hard to beat that lovely chunky maple neck. A vintage radius fingerboard (7.25”) is hardly ever what I look for in a guitar, but with a bass it’s an entirely different story, and the comfort levels are off the chart here.

I’ll be honest though, and say that I choose basses as much for how they look as anything else. I know I can work with the sound no matter what I have to play with, so it often comes back to that most shallow and basic of thought processes: how cool does this instrument look? And if we’re talking about a big P-bass with a black finish, a gold anodised pickguard and a maple fingerboard, that I have to tell you, I think that’s pretty much as cool as it gets.

 

Ibanez Tim Henson TOD-10N

Are you a Polyphia fan? Are you into slimline nylon string electro acoustics? I can’t wholeheartedly say ‘yes’ to either of those questions, if I’m being honest. The thing is, this guitar - notable by its eccentric flair - was instantly one of our best sellers. As soon as people were able to buy them, this model kept selling out, which was a surprise, given how niche it is.

Still, it’s a ton of fun to play, and it is maybe indicative of a general want for a fresh playing experience. We’ve had lots of what I’d maybe call ‘acoustic-adjacent’ guitars released these last few years, mainly from Fender with the Acoustasonic and so on. This Tim Henson sig is in the same wheelhouse, but it’s obviously cut to a far more specific piece of cloth. It’s defiantly its own thing, and for that reason, I am all for it!

 

Fender Tone Master Pro

One of the most notable releases this year was the Fender Tone Master Pro. This was Fender’s entry into the realm of premium digital modelling, a realm reigned over thus far by the likes of Neural DSP, Line 6 and Kemper. A bold move, even for an industry giant like Fender, because this isn’t really their turf, and also because the competition is very stiff indeed.

How did Fender fare? Well, ignoring all of the marketing bluster about the Tone Master being “the best sounding, most powerful and easiest to use guitar processor ever” (their words, not mine), Fender have absolutely joined the front lines of the modelling revolution. There’s some very credible sounding amps and effects on here, with a UI that in my own experience is degrees easier to navigate than some of the competition.

The added exclusivity of being able to offer official models for not only the Twin, Princeton etc but also the EVH 5150 III is quite a flex, and it’s one they’ve been able to support with performance.

My personal opinion? Easiest to use: probably yes. Most powerful? A moot point: we are guitarists, and we just want to sound great, not boast about processors! How about the sound? I’d say that it sounds very, very good. Not the best, but the best sounding (Neural DSP’s QUad Cortex, in my opinion) is also quite a counter-intuitive pain to work with at times, so one picks one’s battles in this case: each unit is pretty ace!

 

Martin SC10E

Martin are not exactly known for breaking with tradition. As one of the most history-rich companies in our industry, it’s understandable that they lean on their legacy, particularly when guitar players keep telling them it’s the old classics that they want!

That said, they caught us all by surprise a year or so ago when they released their first offset acoustic, and they’ve used that shape in this year’s Martin SC10E guitar.

For me, this is very much like what Music Man have done with the Kaizen: there is a need for forward momentum in the guitar design arena, and whilst there may be developments out in the margins with boutique builders, it’s a rare thing for the big brands to push forward. That’s why it’s all the more remarkable that Martin have doubled down on their offset shape, and I’m really happy to see that. It means that people are still interested in new things, fresh designs and are open about using them.

It’s a comfortable shape, it helps with feedback, and you can go for a Spruce top or a Sapele one, depending on your tonal and/or visual preferences. If you’re a bit tired of seeing endless dreadnoughts in your life, why not address the situation by choosing something that’s different altogether?

 

Fender Tom DeLonge Stratocaster 

Are you a Blink 182 fan? Doesn’t matter! I’m not, and I still love the guitars that Tom DeLonge sticks his name on. This year, we saw Fender reissue one of his earliest and most well known Strats, a single pickup’d hard tail effort with four finish options. Prices for original examples of the DeLonge Strat have been approaching the nose-bleed territory, and given that Blink came back with new material late last year, it seems that Fender were right on the money with their timing.

Although it’s a Strat, the Fender Tom Delonge sig sounds nothing like a typical Strat thanks to the inclusion of one one pickup: a mega powerful Seymour Duncan Invader. Is it powerful enough to communicate with aliens? I dunno, but you should try it! There’s no whammy bar either, so this is a solid, no nonsense rock machine with a wonderful ‘plug in and go’ vibe.

The biggest problem here is choosing your favourite colour: all four look equally amazing! 

 

Catalinbread Soft Focus 

In the 80s, Yamaha had a particular preset in their rack units with the name ‘Soft Focus’. It was a complex plate reverb which split your guitar signal into three parts, adding a high octave and a chorus as it did so.

Loads of early 90s shoegaze bands used that setting when making their ‘cathedrals of sound’ and that’s what Catalinbread aimed to create with the FX40 Soft Focus reverb pedal.

This is one of those eminently moreish dream effects that you can strum away on for entire weekends, going ‘full Cocteau Twins’ with just this one pedal. It’s pretty blissful, and distortion works well with it too, as you’ll no doubt expect, given its provenance.

The Catalinbread Soft Focus is one of the most enjoyable, playable and useful effects I’ve tried this year. It’s an obvious thing to go for if you are a shoegaze aficionado, but I think all players can benefit from the creative sort of ‘production’ this pedal can add to your sound.

 

Gear Maketh the Player

How was your 2023, in terms of gear? Did you uncover some shining gemstones amongst the raft of new releases? Did you double down on your existing gear and coax more from the pedals you know and love?

There’s always room for that next sound, that next flash of inspiration, and sometimes new equipment can play a part in that feeling. Well, actually, that’s frequently the case, even though creativity is ultimately more about ourselves than our equipment. Still, it’s great to try new things, change things out, swap them about and see how it all looks through a different lens. May your 2024 be creatively exhilarating! 






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About the author

Ray

Features Editor, Warehouse

I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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