The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Intermediate-level Electric Guitars
If you’ve been working hard at this guitar thing for a while you are no longer a beginner. But don’t get too excited: You know you're not an expert yet either. Hold your head up high and proudly declare you are an intermediate guitarist!
As such you need an electric guitar worthy of your skill and prowess. It’s time to cast aside that starter guitar and move up to a better grade of instrument. You have a lot of work ahead of you, and you need the right tool for the job.
You're going to expect more from your guitar from here on out. No longer will you play an instrument that's simply good enough to practice and learn on. You’re probably ready to get into a band if you aren’t in one already, and your guitar should look the part of an instrument that’s fit for the stage. Most importantly, it has to sound great and be able to carry you through songwriting, rehearsals, gigs and maybe even some studio recording.
But here’s the tough part: I’m guessing you don’t have a lot of cash to drop on new gear. That’s okay because there are some awesome electric guitars for intermediate players out there on the market today.
This article is intended to help you get started on your quest to find the right guitar. Here you’ll find my top recommended guitars for intermediate players, with entries for just about every style of music you can think of. They're made by the top guitar brands in the world, they all come in somewhere around the $400-$700 mark (give or take a few bucks) and all are good enough to get you through the next few years until you can declare yourself an expert.
So, let’s get on with it. Here is my list of the top electric guitars for intermediate players.
1. Fender Player Stratocaster
My top pick is the Fender Player Series Stratocaster. The Stratocaster is an icon of the guitar world, renowned for its sound and style. Fender wants to make sure intermediate guitar players have access to those sounds and styles, and the Made-in-Mexico Player Series is one way they accomplish this goal.
There are many versions of the MIM Strat out there, from the basic model with three single-coil pickups, to HSS, HSH and HH models, and even a model with a Floyd Rose tremolo.
The Player Series Strat is another guitar that presents an issue for working musicians. While the American-made version of the Stratocaster is superior to the budget MIM version, many players consider the Player Stratocaster better than good enough for gigging and recording.
I have to count myself in the crowd. I’ve played a MIM HSS Strat (the Standard version) for almost a decade now, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. While I love the thick tone of a Les Paul, a Strat with a humbucker gives me a nice middle ground and a very flexible instrument. I wouldn’t be concerned about using it in a band situation, or even in the studio.
2. Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO
My (close) second choice is the Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO. This is a significant upgrade from the Les Paul Standard. At first glance, it is obvious that the top is one major difference between the two guitars. Where the basic Standard comes in plain-top colors, the PRO version features pretty see-through flame tops. Nice!
But the biggest upgrade between the basic Standard and the PlusTop PRO is the pickups. Epiphone ProBuckers are a huge leap ahead of the old Alnico Classic pickups when it comes to character and clarity, and they even have a coil tap feature. I have been very impressed by their sound, and in my opinion, these pickups more than anything else have shortened the distance between Epiphone and big-brother Gibson.
Hardware and electronics have seen improvements across the board on Epiphone guitars as well, and today more than ever the Epiphone Les Paul is a guitar you shouldn’t hesitate to take to a gig.
You also might want to consider the Epiphone Les Paul Custom PRO. This is similar to the PlusTop PRO with some slick gold hardware, attractive binding and awesome black and white finishes.
The Epiphone Les Paul PlusTop PRO gets my vote as the #1 electric guitar for intermediate players, but there is another legendary instrument you should consider.
I'd call the Fender Player Stratocaster a head-to-head tie with the Epi Les Paul PlusTop PRO for the number-one spot when it comes to mid-level instruments. So, which do you choose?
Really, your preference likely won't come down to quality, as both brands are very comparable. More likely, you will make your choice based on your own style. If that still confuses you, then its time to learn more about the differences between the Strat and the Les Paul.
3. PRS SE Standard 24
Like other guitars in the SE Series, the PRS SE Standard 24 brings serious PRS tone and quality down to a price intermediate players can afford.
This guitar may be priced right, but from the pretty and comfortable double-cutaway body design right now to the bird inlays on the fretboard, it has what it takes to call itself a PRS.
The SE Standard 24 features a mahogany body and set mahogany neck with a 24-fret rosewood fingerboard. The pickups are PRS-designed humbuckers controlled via a 3-way switch and one each volume and tone control. Hardware includes a PRS-designed tremolo and locking tuners.
This is another serious contender for the all-mahogany, dual humbucker market the Epi Les Paul has previously dominated. PRS and Gibson are two of the best high-end guitar companies in the world, so it would only make sense that they do battle in the budget guitar market as well!
4. Fender Player Telecaster
The Fender Broadcaster, which eventually morphed into the Telecaster, was the first commercially available solid-body guitar, and the style has remained largely unchanged for over 60 years. While there are many similarities between the Stratocaster and Telecaster, the Tele has a much different vibe and is capable of a unique array of tones.
I always think of the Telecaster as a guitar most suited for country music, but in reality, you can find them in just about every genre. There are even a few metal players who have relied on modified Telecasters.
This is one of the true classics of the guitar world, and it comes in at a price friendly to intermediate guitar players. Like the Player Strat, the Player Series Telecaster is a guitar intermediate and pro-level guitars can rely on for gigs and rehearsals.
So maybe you like the Telecaster look and feel but you don't play country music or care much for the classic Tele twang. And you don't feel like taking a soldering iron and modding your new guitar right out of the box.
You ought to check out some of the new pickup configurations Fender has cooked up for the Player Telecaster and Stratocaster. For example, you can grab a Tele with a pair of Humbuckers instead of the basic single-coil pickups. This makes for a guitar much more suited to rock music, and even hard rock or heavy metal. Pretty cool!
5. ESP LTD EC-401
The ESP LTD EC-401 is the little brother of the EC-1000, one of the top electric guitars under $1000. However, the EC-401 takes no backseat here and packs a serious punch. And, like its bigger brother, there are a few different versions of the EC-401, with a choice of finishes and pickups.
For those looking for a modern metal sound, you can grab an EC-401 with an EMG 81/60 pickup set. Or, if you are a little more traditional, consider an EC-401 with a set of DiMarzio humbuckers.
No matter which finish you choose, this is a gorgeous guitar, and with a mahogany neck and body and a pair of humbuckers it has some classic styling that might look familiar to you. In fact, the ESP LTD EC-Series are some of the best alternatives to the Les Paul you are going to find. However, with more choices of pickups and hardware - including those hot EMG pickups - and a slightly sleeker body style the EC-401 is a bit more modern, and a bit more flexible.
6. Epiphone G-400 PRO
For decades the Epiphone Les Paul has been a way for up-and-coming guitar players to experience the Gibson Les Paul sound and feel without enduring the huge price tag. SG fans have the same opportunity with the Epiphone G-400 PRO.
You'll get a lot of different opinions, but my thoughts are as follows: Like the Les Paul, an Epiphone SG only falls short when you compare it to a Gibson SG. Otherwise, these are the top guitars in this price range, and certainly good enough for an up-and-coming guitarist, or even a gigging pro on a budget.
There is still a very real gap between Gibson and Epiphone, as well there should be. But Epiphone quality has improved tremendously over the past few years. For many players, Epis are more than good enough to forgo an expensive Gibson for a much more budget-friendly Les Paul.
The Epiphone G-400 PRO features Epi’s Alnico Classic Pro humbuckers. While they may lack a little clarity compared to Gibson pickups, these are good pickups for a guitar in this price range.
The G-400 s a great intermediate-level electric guitar and it’s very affordable. It is one of the best electric guitars under $500 and among the most affordable on this list.
7. G&L Tribute S-500
Leo Fender went on to build another great guitars company, and it is easy to see his influence in the design of G&L guitars such as the S-500. With its double-cutaway body, bolt-on neck, and a trio of single-coil pickups the S-500 is seen by many players as a quality alternative to the Fender Stratocaster.
It may be that, but it is also so much more, and in many ways appears to be a continuation of the Fender vision. For one thing, the S-500 features a mahogany body instead of the alder traditionally found in Strats. Mahogany is a warmer, deeper-sounding wood, and in stark contrast to the snappiness of alder.
Then there are the MFD pickups, which can be combined in all the ways you’d expect from the 5-way switch. However, you also have the ability to combine the neck and bridge pickups, or all three together.
If you dig Strat-style guitars but want something a little beyond what you’d normally expect, do yourself a favor and check out the Tribute S-500.
8. Jackson SLX Soloist
The next guitar on my list is the Jackson Soloist SLX, a guitar built for metal that has stood the test of time for decades. If you are a fan of anything from melodic hard rock to death metal you know Jackson is among the best metal guitar brands in the world. More than perhaps any other, this is a guitar company associated with metal and extreme music.
The Soloist design is an interesting one, with a maple neck-through build for amazing sustain and a basswood body. The pickups are Duncan Design humbuckers, and the bridge is a Floyd Rose Special.
This is a guitar built for the extreme, and the Jackson name on the headstock means you can expect quality. For intermediate guitarists who are into anything from ‘80s hard rock to modern extreme metal, this guitar will get the job done.
9. Ibanez RG450DX
The Ibanez RG is a favorite of shredders and metal guitarists around the world, and the RG450DX is an outstanding mid-level RG that will introduce players to a classic shred guitar. The RG thing has always been about speed, precision, and blistering sounds, and this guitar delivers what is expected from its bloodline.
Truthfully, there are many Ibanez guitars worth checking out for the intermediate guitarist. Both the RG and S Series have some affordable options, and there are some awesome guitars in the Iron Label Series. But, if you want the hot pickups, whammy bar, fast neck and classic look the Ibanez RG is known for, the RG450 is the most complete package for the most budget-friendly price.
There is nothing missing here. Specs include the Ibanez Wizard III maple neck, a mahogany body, and Ibanez Quantum pickups. If you are an intermediate guitar player who is into shred or heavy metal check out the Ibanez RG Series, and the RG450DX in particular, and find the perfect instrument.
10. Schecter Damien Platinum 6
I can’t make a shortlist of my favorite guitars without thinking about Schecter. This is a guitar company that always surprises me.
Truthfully, there are a bunch of Schecter guitars I could have named here. The Hellraiser and Blackjack are affordable instruments that sound great, and the C-1 Classic is a good-looking guitar. But I chose the Damien Platinum 6 for its budget-friendly price tag.
The Damien Platinum is a guitar built for heavy music, with active EMG 81/85 pickups, a mahogany body and a bolt-on maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. This combination gives the Damien Elite the right punch and power for extreme metal sounds and solos.
Check Out the Schecter Damien Platinum 6 FR
Which Electric Guitar Is Best for Intermediate Players?
I love the Les Paul PlusTop Pro and the Fender Player Strat. To me, these are two of the best rock and blues guitars out there. They are affordable, but they are good enough to gig and record with, and really that's what you are looking for at this point in your career. Plus, they are flexible, so it doesn't matter if you play country or metal or everything in between, they will get the job done.
A couple of cool alternatives are the PRS SE Standard 24 and the G&L Tribute S-500. These guitars are on-par with Epi and Fender quality but have a slightly different vibe than their more well-known counterparts. These would also be great choices for guitarists who need affordable, versatile guitars.
Really, I think any of the instruments in this review will serve you well for years to come. Take a good look at them and decide which best meets your criteria for the perfect guitar. Then, make your choice and go for it.
Maybe you are looking for an affordable guitar for metal. In that case, I'd be thinking about the ESP LTD with the EMGs, the Schecter, the Ibanez or the Jackson. I think the Schecter and ESP LTD are a bit more geared toward modern metal, where the Ibanez and Jackson appeal more to the shredder in me.
If I wanted a guitar for country or blues I would seriously consider the Fender Tele. Telecasters have that country twang, but then again you can go for a model with humbuckers if you like the Tele look but want something more suited to rock.
But that's what I would do if I were trying to choose the best electric guitar as an intermediate player. The real question is, what will you do?
Guitar Gopher (author) on August 12, 2020:
@James - As far as quality I think they are comparable. But they each have a very different sound and vibe. I know it is tough to do these days, but I'd try to get out and experience each guitar in person. If not, check out some sound samples on YouTube. Good luck!
James Kaloki on August 11, 2020:
hey how does the PRS custom 24 se compare to the fender player series strat. It was im thinking of purchasing
Guitar Gopher (author) on April 19, 2019:
Thanks Wesman. I think the Asian and Mexican guitars are more viable than ever. Especially since the American gear has shot up in price so much over the past decade or so.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on April 18, 2019:
It absolutely IS an accomplishment to have basic skills on a guitar. Wow, getting my hands and fingers under control and coordinated was probably as difficult as passing college algebra, but did algebra ever bring me joy? No, not at all.
Great selection. I guess it's been more than a year now since I went to a music store with a huge Epiphone selection, and I played all the brand new Les Pauls. I was absolutely impressed with what they've got going on today. Especially I was impressed when I'd play the twenty five hundred dollar, or more, Gibson version.
Glad you mentioned G&L's Asian stuff. The Asian manufacturing is such a gift to those of us who can't just up and treat ourselves as we'd like, with premium US models.
Guitar Gopher (author) on February 27, 2019:
@Andrew - In my opinion, Ibanez guitars around that price point are usually pretty good for the money. I like a few things about that particular guitar, but of course whether it is a "good" guitar or not is up to the individual. If you are into metal I would say it is an excellent choice for an intermediate level guitar.
andrew on February 25, 2019:
is the ibanez rg6003 a good guitar?
Sam Gist on July 15, 2016:
Gretsch pro jet, you even get a bigsby !
Pang HuLi on August 31, 2015:
The best part about all of these guitars is they'll be both great backups and mod platforms if/when a guitarist moves on. I've seen/heard Fender (MiM) and Epiphone improve their stock pickups, but they're still generally the weak link after a proper setup. Thankfully, pickups are also the easiest things to change.
I'm also impressed with how many of these more budget friendly guitars wind up with coil tapping. Not every pickup handles it well, but I don't know any guitarist who would complain about more tonal options. : )
I'm modding my current guitar, but if I had the privilege of picking one out of these choices I'd go with the Standard Tele HH. I feel like it'll give me the most tonal variety (while retaining humbuckers) from my current Mahogany body Rosewood neck dual humbucker guitar.
Marion Garbo Seltzer from South Portland, Maine on August 17, 2015:
This is great! I've been considering a Les Paul Standard but I wanted to do some comparison research and this is just what I need. Thank you and thumbs up!