10 Best Electric Guitars Under $500 in 2016
Top Guitars for 500 Dollars
If you only have $500 to spend on an electric guitar you might think the best instruments are out of your reach. Reading the popular guitar magazines can be a little depressing. Those famous guys in the bands you love, it seems like every one of them plays an instrument costing thousands of dollars.
How are you supposed to compete with that if you’re a student or an average working Joe or Jane?
And who has a spare $3,000 sitting around to plunk down on a new Gibson? Not me, and I’m guessing not you.
I’ve played guitar for 30 years. It took me a long time to realize that the price tag on the guitar doesn’t always mean it will sound better, and it definitely doesn’t make you play better.
Don't let gear snobs convince you otherwise: The sound is all about you, not some pricey guitar. It's far too easy to lose sight of what's important.
In this article you'll read about some of the best electric guitars under $500, from some of the top guitar brands in the world. They are favorites of intermediate guitarists and veterans on a budget, and they routinely receive high marks for sound, quality and value.
They aren’t as pretty and perfect as their more expensive brothers, but they are solid instruments that a good player can make great. If you're more interested in your skills and your music than you are bragging about expensive gear, these guitars might be exactly what you're looking for.
If you want to find the best electric guitar for the money, $400-500 is a good price range. Let's check out some great guitars!
Epiphone Les Paul Standard
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard gets my top recommendation here. At first glance this guitar looks almost exactly like its expensive Gibson big brother. That's because Epiphone is owned by Gibson, and only Epiphone has the right to produce Les Pauls to their specs.
Looking closer, you’ll note a few differences. The headstock shape is unique to Epiphone, and the guitar is not quite as thick. The USA-made Gibson body features a maple cap, where the Epi has a maple veneer, and the hardware and finish are of higher quality on the Gibson.
The differences go deeper than cosmetics and tonewoods, as you would expect. The Gibson Les Paul sound has become legendary in the rock world, and the Epi just about nails it, but not quite.
But you have to ask yourself: Is the difference in sound worth the $2,000 jump in price? Unless you’re a professional musician, the answer is usually No!
The Epi sound is very good, so good in fact that many gigging musicians leave their Gibsons at home and bring the Epi to work.
Both the Epiphone Les Paul and Gibson Les Paul have mahogany bodies, but because of the maple top the Gibsons have a little more bite. Then again, depending on your style of music, the Epi sound might be just what you’re looking for.
Nobody would ever dispute that the Gibson Les Paul is one of the finest guitars ever made, and if you have the cash you should consider one. But if you are on a budget, you will be pleasantly surprised with the Epiphone Les Paul. It is truly among the best electric guitars around $500 you're going to find.
You've got a few options in Epiphone's lineup for 2016 at this budget level, but the basic Les Paul Standard is still at the top of the list. And, it's nice that it comes in around the $400 mark.
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO saw a small price bump this year, putting it slightly over $500. In my mind it is well worth the extra few bucks, but if you are really serious about staying under your budget consider the basic Les Paul Standard instead.
The difference between the two guitars largely comes down to the pickups. Where the PlusTop PRO features Epiphone's awesome ProBucker pickups, the basic Standard still uses the older Alnico Classics. They are still very good pickups, but in my opinion the ProBuckers are what make the PlusTop Pro worth it.
If you are still on the fence about whether you should choose Epiphone or save up for a Gibson, here is an article that might help:
Check Out the Epiphone Les Paul Standard
Fender and Squier Stratocasters
In the past I’ve recommend the Fender Standard Stratocaster as one of my top picks in this price range. However, like Epiphone, Fender has bumped up some of their intermediate-level guitars, putting them more in the category of best electric guitar under $600. I considered removing the Standard Strat entirely from this review, but instead chose to leave it because I do feel it is still an excellent option in the budget price range.
The Fender’s Standard (MIM) Stratocaster is a lower-budget version of a classic, in this case the American Standard Stratocaster. Yeah, one word means a price bump of about $600, and the differences are even harder to spot than the Epiphone. Standard Fenders are made in Mexico, and you'll see them referred to as Mexican Strats or MIM Strats.
MIM Strats have the same general specs as Americans: three pickups, five-way selector switch, maple or rosewood fingerboard, basic Fender-style bridge. On the American version, some of these appointments are kicked up a level.
For instance, instead of the vintage tremolo bridge you’d find on the MIM Strat, the American Strats have a slicker two-point tremolo bridge.
Again, you have to ask yourself if this sound difference is worth the extra cash. Both guitars are super-playable, and both look fantastic.
The good news is that Stratocasters are kind of like the “shop cars” of the guitar world. They are easy to work on, and if you’re not happy with some aspect of the guitar you can change it later down the road.
Aftermarket parts are available from Fender and other manufacturers, and they usually aren’t expensive. Many musicians prefer MIM Fenders because they can upgrade and customize them any way they want, and still end up spending less than if they'd gone with an American Fender.
So, what if you want a Strat but you can’t justify the bump in price? I recommend checking out Squier Classic Vibe and Vintage Modified Strats. Don’t let the Squier badge fool you. These guitars come in under $400, and they offer outstanding quality and sound for they money.
This ESP Eclipse is a gorgeous, single-cutaway electric guitar that you'll never fit in under your $500 budget. But ESP's working-man's brand, ESP-LTD, features some great renditions of the ESP Eclipse in their EC series. The EC-256 is a solid guitar with the vibe and sound of the original Eclipse.
Yeah, I know what this guitar looks like. But there are some cutting edge features you'll see in the EC series that you won't find in tamer versions of this design.
For one, the EC-256 features ESP-designed LH active pickups and a 22-fret fingerboard with extra jumbo frets. And you also see some of the specs you'd expect to here, like a mahogany body with a mahogany beck and a rosewood fingerboard.
The ESP LTD EC Series is one of the top alternatives to the Les Paul out there. If you like the Les Paul look and sound, but you want something a little more modern, and a little faster, this might be the guitar for you. The EC-256 will get you all of that, while keeping you under a budget of around $400.
Epiphone G-400 PRO
Guitarists on a tight budget will appreciate the Epiphone G-400 PRO. This is Epiphone's version of the famous Gibson SG, and it has many of the features for a much lower price. It's a great choice for guitarists looking to make that jump to their first real guitar after they grow weary of the beginner's instrument they started out on.
It's an SG, so it has the right tonewoods and electronics: mahogany body and neck, with a rosewood fingerboard, and Alnico PRO humbuckers with push/pull coil tap.
If you really want an SG, don't let the Epiphone logo turn you off. Sure, they may not be up to the standards of Gibsons, but what is? Epiphone makes great instruments for reasonable prices, and some of the best electric guitars under $500.
Another great thing about Epiphone guitars is that you don't need to feel guilty about swapping out pickups and parts. If you want to upgrade your Epiphone there are plenty of aftermarket options. Some guitarists love gabbing an Epiphone, then upgrading and creating a guitar that rivals a Gibson for a fraction of the cost.
More on the Epiphone G-400 PRO
Ibanez guitars are legendary, especially in the hard rock and metal community, and they have been among the favorite guitars for shredders for decades. Like Schecter, they feature some really great instruments for reasonable prices. The big dog of the Ibanez lineup is the RG, and many RG models will land you under the $500 spending limit.
The Ibanez RG is one of the classic superstrats out there. It comes in all shapes and sizes, from beginner's models all the way up to RGs that will run you more than the value of your car. The RG450 is a solid middle option for guitarists who like the RG vibe, but don't want to shell out a ton of cash.
The RG450 features typical Ibanez RG components: basswood body, Wizard III three-piece maple neck, the Ibanez Edge Zero II bridge and Ibanez Infinity pickups. There are a few different versions of the RG450.
This is one of the best electric guitars under $500, not only because it has the Ibanez name, but because it brings tremendous value for the money.
I couldn't mention the RG without adding in an S-model Ibanez. This instrument has become almost as popular among rock guitarists. The Ibanez S-series features guitars with smaller, sleeker mahogany bodies.
Just like with the RG, you can spend a whole lot on it if you want to. But the S520 is an excellent option for musicians on a budget who want that shredder vibe and still would like to keep some money in their pocket.
The Ibanez S520 features a mahogany body with a Wizard III three-piece maple neck and rosewood fingerboard, along with Ibanez's Edge Zero II bridge. There's a pair of Ibanez infinity pickups, and since this thing is built for speed and precision, the neck is lightning-fast.
Either the RG or the S is a great choice for hard rock and metal guitar players, and Ibanez is one of the top guitar brands in the world for heavy metal.
Fender Modern Player Telecaster Plus
The Fender Modern Player Tele Plus is an affordable version of a classic Fender design. The Fender Telecaster was the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar, though it was then called the Broadcaster.
It's also a little-known fact that the Fender Telecaster is partly responsible for the birth of the Gibson Les Paul!
Here's an affordable Telecaster that sounds great, plays like a champ, and comes in at an great price. You can save your pennies for the American version if you want to, but why wait?
This guitar is a departure from what you might expect from a Telecaster. It has a pine body and a humbucker with coil tap, which opens up a wide range of options when it comes to available tones.
For country players, the Fender Telecaster is a must-have part of their gear arsenals, but rock and blues players can pull great sounds out of it as well. It's a bare-bones, no-nonsense classic for a great price.
Unfortunately, it appears it is no longer possible to grab a Standard MIM Telecaster for under $500, at least not in 2016. Still, the Standard Telecaster remains a solid option when it comes to reasonably priced guitars, and it is a great alternative to the American Tele. However, if this increase doesn't set well with you, and you aren't digging the Modern Player Telecaster Plus, I suggest checking out what Squier has to offer.
It is also worth noting that G&L Guitars has a few instruments in their Tribute Series that are outstanding alternatives to Fender instruments, and will keep you under budget.
Hear the Fender Modern Player Telecaster Plus
Schecter Demon 6
Schecter has have gained tremendous popularity in recent years, and for good reason. Schecter guitars, in my opinion, are probably the finest medium-budget instruments out there.
Their quality is usually spot-on as far as fit and finish, and you’ll find features and options that you almost never see on instruments in their price range. The flagship of their guitar line is the C-1, and many other Schecter guitar models are built around this “C-style” body shape.
It is truly a beautiful shape for a guitar body, and when added to the finishes and details Schecter includes with their various instruments, it can make for some amazing guitars.
The Demon 6 features some great improvements to the basic C-1 Standard. This guitar has a basswood body and a maple neck, along with pair of hot Duncan Designed active pickups. This thing is built for metal.
Schecter has many affordable guitars in their lineup, including somewhat more expensive models such as the Blackjack and Hellraiser series. They also have a wide range of seven and eight-string guitars to choose from. These instruments are the reason Schecter has become one of the top metal guitar brands in the world.
Going in the other direction, if you wanted to spend even less money you can pick up the Schecter Omen for about $300. This is a guitar based on the C-shape body, but some of the features are downgraded. Still, the Omen is a great guitar for the price, and features many of the same appointments as its brothers.
Schecter guitars are definitely worth checking out. I believe they are the best values of any instruments on my list.
Hear the Schecter Demon 6
The Epiphone Dot is a classic semi-hollow body guitar modeled after the famous Gibson ES-335. Even before their association with Gibson, Epiphone had a strong reputation for building quality hollow and semi-hollow instruments. This tradition continues today, and the Dot is one of the most popular guitar models in the world.
I wrote about the Dot in my article on top semi-hollow body guitars, but I think it warrants mention here as well.
Clearly this is a guitar that may appeal more to the blues and jazz crowds, but the Dot has been spotted in all kinds of diverse musical genres, from country to rock, and it even makes a rare appearance in metal.
The Dot features a laminate maple body and top with a set mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard. The pickups are Epiphone Alnico Classics. Epiphone pickups have come a long way in recent years, and on the Dot as well as on the Les Paul above they are no longer the weak spots they once were.
Of course you can swap out the pickups or anything else you want and customize your Dot. One of the reasons it is one of the best guitars under $500 is that it provides tremendous basic value, and a solid platform for upgrading to your dream guitar.
Or you may find out, like many players do, that your Dot is just perfect the way it is.
Jackson Adrian Smith SDX
Adrian Smith is one of the guitarists for metal giants Iron Maiden, and his signature model Jackson guitar is based on the Charvel San Dimas strat design. But he also puts his name on the SDX Model, a less expensive version of Smith's American-made Jackson masterpiece.
I'm usually not a huge fan of signature-model guitars. Except for Les Pauls, of course! But this guitar fills a void for musicians looking for a super-Strat-style guitar with a Floyd Rose bridge and a hot humbucker for under $500. I like it!
Specs include a basswood body, maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, Jackson pickups in a H/S/S configuration, and a Floyd Rose Special tremolo.
If you're into anything from '80s glam rock to modern metal, this guitar is a great choice. For those of us who miss the '80s a little more than we ought to, the San Dimas design is one we'd like to see a little more of.
Hear the Jackson Adrian Smith SDX
Which Electric Guitar Should You Choose?
I’ve given you some good starting points for selecting your new guitar. You’ll likely discover some others on your own.
Search around online so you can get a clear idea of exactly what you’re looking for in a guitar. Once you know what you want you can make the decision whether to buy local or online.
Personally, I think it's tough to beat the Epiphone Les Paul or Fender Standard Stratocaster in this price range. They're classic guitars that have proven themselves in just about every genre imaginable. If you are an intermediate player, or an advanced musician on a budget, either is a great choice.
If you're looking for something more modern, consider the Schecter C Series. Schecter makes some of the best guitars for the money, and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Good luck finding the best electric guitar for your $500 budget, and enjoy your new instrument!