For every musician, walking into your favorite guitar store can be a rollercoaster of joy, wonder, and longing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed as you discover guitars you’ve never seen before or pick up an expensive guitar you’ve always longed to play.
You try not to look at the price tag, it’s daunting. Your pockets are full of picks, not cash. You put the three thousand dollar signature artist replica back in its place and really start to look around. You know it’s possible to pick out the best electric guitar for under $500 and you remain firm in your budget.
To better help you with this search, please take a moment to view the table below to see some of the best electric guitars available, as you’ll be able to directly compare cheaper guitars to their more expensive counterparts.
Top Picks of Budget Electric Guitars
Here’s a short list of the best budget guitars currently on the market. Even if none of these strike your fancy, they give you a good overview of what each company has to offer as well as what most retailers offer.
Fender: Classic and reputable
Squier Deluxe Jazzmaster ST
Fender has been a household name for a long time and is probably only second to Gibson. Of course just about everyone knows their two biggest sellers, and rightly so, are the Stratocaster and Telecaster. That being said, third place would absolutely go to the Jazzmaster. The ST, made by Fender’s cheaper squier line is still a classic guitar and commands a fair price for both sound and quality.
The Jazzmaster has the most unique body out of the Fender lineup and is known for having a deeper sound. The best perk when owning a Squier is that everyone is familiar with what you’ve got. In other words, this guitar has a reputation all on its own. You just have to prove you can handle it.
ESP: For the metalheads
My first electric guitar was an LTD F-50 under $300. As a novice and a 14 year old, I bought the guitar on aesthetic value alone. For me, it was a huge motivator but if I had to do it all over again then I would have taken a closer look at ESP’s less expensive line of LTD guitars.
Most LTD’s run below the $500 range and come in a variety of styles which is more than I can say for Fender, Gibson, or PRS. Not to mention, ESP specializes in signature artist guitars so you can pick from a standard Les Paul style body to some truly wild and more imaginative designs.
My pick after narrowing down the catalog would be the LTD M-200, which comes in a loud neon pink this year- bold enough for those players who are into drop c breakdowns and wild mosh pits. It’s a six string guitar for players who plan on graduating to a seven string ibanez and the tremolo attachment is a nice bonus. The neck is also thinned down for speed and flexibility while the pickups are described by ESP as “punchy.”
I see this type of guitar a lot at post hard-core shows so it fits well for gigging musicians who want to save on some of the hardware and put more money into their amp rig.
Supro: Vintage build, extra style points
Supro Belmont Vibrato
Supro makes guitars that are true to their Americana roots while being visually impressive as well. Their goal is to make you feel like you’ve purchased a classic car with a fresh coat of paint. The Belmont Vibrato is no exception to that rule and it is absolutely unique. The first thing a lot of players notice is that this guitar has one pickup.
However, that one pickup has history. It’s a single coil Vistatone based on its predecessor developed for Valco in the ‘50s and it packs a lot of punch along with some very precise control knobs as well as a tremolo. This guitar has all of the flavor of a rare, vintage model without the pricetag. Supro’s site lists its guitars at around 700-900 dollars but I found several Vibratos locally in the $400 range.
PRS: Best in class, best pickups
This one is admittedly the hardest for me to write about because my own PRS SE is my absolute favorite. Maybe it’s the signature bird detail in the frets or its slim, single cut design. PRS guitars are typically the kind I can pick up and start playing with ease.
Compared to my Squier, the maintenance for the SE Standard is relatively easy and I’ve never had any major neck issues with it after owning it for about five years. The SE line is also updated every year and is available in a variety of colors/styles. The stock pickups are also superb for the price. Actually the guitar is perfect if you want to upgrade as well. My plan is to install some high quality Seymour Duncans to get the very most out of my purchase.
Traveler Guitar: The black sheep
The speedster is a compact electric guitar designed to fit in carry on overhead compartments and other storage areas for easy travel. This isn’t the guitar you play at a gig but if you’re a hobby guitarist with a busy lifestyle and don’t want to risk damaging your expensive guitars, the speedster is the way to go.
The first thing anyone seems to notice is that the guitar has no headstock which is both good and bad. The guitar always stays in standard tuning and you don’t have to worry about pegs bumping up against anything and knocking it out of tune. The guitar is also 28% shorter and 54% lighter than the average electric and when plugged in, will play just as loudly.
Take Care of Your Guitar
Taking care of your guitar is the most important point I can stress in this article. If you put a little love into whatever you pick, you’ll be able to sustain value, playability and sound for years to come. I own three electric guitars and two acoustic guitars that all cost below $600 and I do my best to devote a day to changing strings and polishing them up every few months, even if I haven’t had time to play them much.
Here is my typical maintenance rundown:
- Remove strings to polish guitar body and condition fretboard (remember we’re dealing with wood here which can dry out and crack without upkeep)
- Gently rub steel wool over pickups to clean
- Remove dust from crevices with a qtip or tack cloth
- Check neck alignment
- Tighten any loose connectors or pegs
- Replace strings (be sure to replace the strings often when you’ve been playing heavily. The oils in your fingers will corrode them and make them more likely to break)
- Check alignment of strings
- Tighten or loosen pickups if they seem out of place. The position of your pickups in the body can drastically change your sound once you plug in.
- Tune and check to see if any strings are buzzing, adjust neck if necessary
- Start playing and enjoy your hard work
What to Avoid: Don’t lowball your picks. It may seem you’re getting a great deal and saving a lot of money with these options, but there are too many risky factors and no real guarantee you’ll end up with a guitar you’re satisfied with.
Starter Packs– These are seemingly great because you can pick up a guitar, an amp, and a few accessories all in one package for around 200 bucks. You’ll be well below your budget but the sacrifice in quality simply is not worth it. Once you break out your crappy guitar and amplifier, you’ll immediately start to plan out your next guitar purchase and the return on these sets are essentially worthless.
In fact, you’ll find craigslist is full of listings for Fender Squiers from various unloved starter kits — which brings me to my next point.
Pawn Shops & Craigslist — a picture is worth a thousand words and oftentimes, the way guitars are photographed can give you an idea of how the owner takes care of their instrument.
Was the guitar photographed on the floor? PASS.
Was it photographed sitting against the wall? PASS.
Chances are the guitar hasn’t been kept on a stand and the neck is probably warped. If you don’t know how to make adjustments on the neck, your new purchase might end up costing you repair fees. As a rule of thumb, try to avoid used websites if the guitar you’re looking for hasn’t been discontinued and you’re able to buy it at reputable dealer like Sam Ash or Guitar Center.
So you have your options…now what’s your style? Define yourself as a musician. What do you want the guitar for? Maybe you’re looking for a cheap guitar just to switch the pickups and experiment with different tones. Do you play gigs often or is guitar just a hobby?
In that case you might choose your instrument based on the build of the guitar, how heavy it is and how thick the neck is. If you look hard and really nail down what your needs are as a player then I can confidently say there are budget guitars available from every major brand that fit the right profile. Just be sure to try it before you buy it.
Every guitar feels a bit different in your hands, just like the keyboard on your computer. One of the greatest feelings as a musician is picking up a guitar you’re eyeing and finding that it’s not only the perfect look, but the perfect fit as well.
Always remember to do your due diligence when buying an electric guitar and look online to get an idea of what brands are widely available and their general price range. Consider if you have any local guitar shops nearby and browse their selection. Smaller shops don’t always mean pricy and the ability to negotiate or even make a trade will be far more flexible.
If you have no idea where to start, Reverb is a good blog to check out. The site has a tool to check price ranges of particular models and aggregates the places you can potentially buy them from.
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