Some people get nervous when spending less than $1,000 on a guitar. I wonder why, because all it takes is a trip and a few hours spent playing a bunch of them at your local music store to realize that a lot of excellent choices are available at a healthy price point of $500 (and below).
To help illustrate this point, below, please use our interactive table to compare a variety of excellent guitars all priced $500 or below.
Acoustic Guitars – Why You Want One
The acoustic guitar is your one-stop shop for songwriting. As a multi-instrumentalist, I often begin my songwriting process with an acoustic to track out recordings and write rhythm parts using chord progressions. Lyric writing happens at this stage as well, before adding any other instruments. Some people prefer to start their songwriting process at the piano bench, but this can be an unrealistic option for some.
For us apartment dwellers, turning the electric amp up to 11 is an unrealistic endeavor during the day or night. Furthermore, it’s difficult to play an electric and sing without a microphone and proper PA setup during the songwriting phase.
Picking up the acoustic guarantees that any sounds you make – the good and the ugly – stay within the confines of your apartment or living space. I recommend that even the most dedicated metalhead pick up an acoustic.
Are There Good Guitars Under $500?
I want you, the reader, to understand that a $150 First Act guitar made out of plywood can sound as good or better than a $2,800 Martin D28. But of course, that depends on who is making the claim.
What I find to sound “good” may sound like nails on a chalkboard to you. Music and instrument purchasing is entirely personal, and while I’ll do my best to recommend guitars that sound good to me, it’s important to note that we all have different ears and taste when it comes to music.
What Should I Consider Most and Why?
As always, here is a list of what I look for in every acoustic guitar I handle:
Sound – Does it sound flat? Or does it have a bright, piano-like quality? Both are desirable depending on the player. For instance, a player who only dabbles in rhythm may prefer the sound of a flat-response guitar in that it isn’t too “bassy” or too “bright.” On the other hand, a finger stylist may prefer that the trebles “ring” like a bell with noticeable bass response. Either way, this is a question that the player should be able to answer at first strum…or pick.
Looks – We want to look good, right? Our guitar is an extension of ourselves both on stage and in our living rooms. Acoustic guitars come in all shapes, sizes and looks. What outfits fits you best? As far as finish is concerned, you’ll notice guitars either shine bright or have a nice satin look. Go with what catches your eye.
Feel – Ergonomics. This is a simple question of whether you feel comfortable holding it. A $500 guitar can feel just as natural to hold as a $5,000 instrument. There are literally thousands of choices; I submit there is a match made in guitar heaven for you.
Playability – The guitar should be easy to play, hands down. I don’t care if you are a guitar hero or guitar zero; nobody gains anything by working harder to shred. This is a question best answered by asking yourself if the guitar is easy to fret all the way up and down the neck.
Overall Value – When choosing an instrument below $500, you can bet you lunch that if the aforementioned qualities are present, you are surely getting that value. Will this be a guitar that you will play for many years to come? Excellent. Oh, and look, you aren’t breaking the bank either, so you are getting an excellent value for your money.
My Favorite Acoustic Guitars
Let’s begin this list with a Guitar made by Fender.
Fender CD-60 – $200
Truly, this guitar is outrageously cheap and easy to play. I recommend this guitar for someone who isn’t entirely sure what musical style they want to play in as of yet.
This axe features a solid spruce top. I have recommended this guitar to new students for years because it is incredibly easy to play. The fretting hand won’t have a chance to grow tired, and newer players won’t become discouraged.
The player can choose the dreadnaught size, which is much larger than the auditorium model. I recommend newer players try both sizes to feel how their body contours to the instrument.
A seasoned finger stylist may choose to look elsewhere, as this guitar lacks some of the clear trebles necessary to separate the bass and highs. Strummers will have an absolute ball with bar-chord heavy songs.
As far as looks, this guitar is a classic working-mans guitar. It can get pretty beat up and still look brand new, which may be an eyesore to some (but an excellent feature for others). At $200 and a limited warranty, go ahead and take this one home as a great beginner acoustic guitar. Just be sure to pay for it first.
Epiphone EJ200CE – $430
Do you like a little bling on your strings? Behold the Epiphone EJ200CE, Epiphone’s version of the famous Gibson J200.
The EJ200CE is the most ornate guitar featured in this article. The pick guard and bridge feature inlays similar to what one would find in more expensive guitars. I like the inlays on the fretboard, taking place of the position marker “dots” and replacing them with crowns.
In terms of value, you would be walking out the door with a guitar featuring both a cutaway (for access to the upper frets) and a pickup system. If you are a player who plays in a band or on the stage, you will certainly need a pickup system. Rest assured: if you happen to prefer a guitar that doesn’t include a pickup system, there are relatively cheap ways around this.
Overall, I found the sound to be rather dull across all six strings. Even strummers will have a hard time finding a dynamic range with this guitar. I found the neck to be a little wide for my taste, and the action a little on the high side. Furthermore, what a heavy guitar!
I chose to point this guitar out to you to show you that all the eye candy in the world does not mean a guitar should sound “better.” Even the setup and playability left a lot to be desired. Of course, you may love this guitar, and call me crazy. Maybe I am.
California T-Bucket 300CE – $300
The T-Bucket lineup can be singled out of the crowd by taking a look at it’s unique headstock. It’s got an octagon-shaped profile with a beautiful vase inlay. Look broadly and you’ll notice a beautiful figured maple top. The model I played sported a sunburst finish that enhanced those beautiful folds in the wood.
Overall, I found the guitar to be quite pleasant to play. The action was adjusted well, and lent itself well to bar chords and complex strumming. I advise finger stylists to look elsewhere for a guitar that will enhance the subtle details in their playing, but the sustain was surprisingly impressive. The California range of Fender guitars includes the Fishman Isys III pickup system, which I must say is very impressive.
I appreciated the opportunity to dial in on EQ before reaching toward the controls on the amplifier. Not to mention, I could tune the guitar without reaching for the necessary app on my smartphone. This is a great guitar for a rock ’n roller who wants an almost shocking-looking instrument in their hands.
Overall, not a bad axe for the money.
Epiphone EL-00 – $330
Unlike the EJ200CE, I found this guitar to be absolutely remarkable in terms of sound and playability. While not as finely dressed as the EJ, you still get an excellent, classic looking instrument.
I choose to review Epiphones because they are more often than not setup very well and strongly built guitars. I found myself playing this guitar longer than some of the more expensive models.
Each setup was consistent with excellent felling necks. Although I generally don’t like the look of a sunburst finish, I thoroughly enjoyed Epiphone’s job at it in these models. Each featured a high-gloss finish and Epiphone’s signature “E” on the pickguard.
What stood out most for this guitar was the harmonics: as a finger-stylist, I appreciated the instrument’s propensity to allow them to stand out in the mix. That’s just it, this guitar sounds musical. This guitar is for everyone, no matter skill.
Seagull S6 Original CH – $400
Guys…and gals…we have a clear winner today.
Let me start off by saying that I have a huge amount of respect for Seagull Guitars. This Canadian company embodies what I believe any builder should aspire to in that their guitars are manufactured using materials that are 100% ethically sourced.
This means that when supplies run low of the golden goods – rosewoods, sapeles, ebony, the stuff of acoustic guitar legend that only seem to be found in 3rd world countries – these guys make do with good old fashioned North American hardwoods.
As I’ve stated time and time again, one should not aspire to purchase a guitar based on the fancy materials it’s made out of, or feel any lesser for not doing so. Let the instrument speak for itself, but this one doesn’t speak. It sings.
This guitar made me late for work. I picked several models of the Original CH (Concert Hall) up and would not put them down. Never have I heard of a more musical sounding instrument, even in the $1k+ range of instruments.
Finger-stylists will appreciate the beautiful transition from bass to treble, as well as the drool-worthy sustain on this axe. I didn’t find the guitar to be braced to sound too bright, a mistake often made on smaller-bodied instruments. Furthermore, the overall setup and feel along the neck from top to bottom was flawless.
The pickup system included a tone control that I found to be useful when honing in on proper EQ levels through an acoustic amp. Plugged in, this guy sounded like a dream as well. Overall, this guitar can be played for hours – and it was.
The look of it won’t appeal to everybody. But let me just say, what a unique looking guitar! Because Seagull chooses to use different types of wood from all the other big-names, naturally it’s a completely different looking guitar. This series of Seagull utilizes a satin-finish that I actually found to convey the flat-sawn material in such a way at to celebrate it. This guitar is a true testament to mankind’s desire to preserve what we take for granted so much in this world; a poetic tribute to our ability to make a guitar out of anything, and anything at all.
Cons: Every headstock Seagull manufactures looks like a pinhead. There, I said it. But that doesn’t seem to bother Peppino D’Agostino now, does it?
As with nearly all industries, guitar manufacturers have to find a way now more than ever to stand out from the rest of the crowd. This means that more and more options are available to the player, which means lower and lower prices. I am a firm believer that price is not a testament to an instrument’s worth in your collection. This article was created to show you that a $400 guitar made out of wood from your backyard can and will rival an instrument built out of illicit materials like Brazilian Rosewood.
My best advice to you as the player and ultimate buyer: set aside a full day to go visit the music store of your choice, on a day with a clear head and objective to walk out with a guitar. Have a budget in mind, whether it be $500 or $5,000, and be prepared and willing to beat it. Then, play every single guitar you can lay your hands on within that price range. If you pick it up and immediately have a distaste for it, great! One less to worry about. Don’t check the price tag, don’t even look at it anymore. Onto the next one.
Rinse. Wash. Repeat. Then, Buy. Oh, and practice – that too.
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