Best Electric Guitar for Intermediate Players
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 with this guitar thing, 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 all come in somewhere around the $400-$600 mark (give or take 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.
Epiphone Les Paul Standard
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. Truthfully, even advanced guitarists may choose Epiphone over Gibson based on the cost alone. But what about based on quality?
You'll get a lot of different opinions, but my thoughts are as follows: An Epiphone Les Paul only falls short when you compare it to a Gibson Les Paul. 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 Les Paul Standard features Epi’s Alnico Classic humbuckers. These are good pickups for a guitar in this price range. While they may lack a little clarity compared to Gibson pickups, they were standard-issue in Epiphone guitars for many years, and they are part of the reason Epiphone became so popular.
The Les Paul Standard is a great intermediate-level electric guitar and it’s very affordable, but there is another Les Paul you are going to want to consider.
Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO is a significant upgrade from the LP 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.
Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO Demo
Fender Standard Stratocaster
Like Gibson, Fender wants to make sure intermediate guitar players have access to their legendary sounds and styles, and the Made-in-Mexico Standard 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 MIM 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 MIM Stratocaster better than good enough for gigging and recording.
I have to count myself in the crowd. I’ve played an MIM HSS Strat 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.
I'd call the Fender MIM Stratocaster a head-to-head tie with the Epi Les Paul 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.
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 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’s 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.
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 PAF 36th Anniversary 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.
PRS SE Standard 24
The PRS SE Standard 24 is new for 2015, but like other guitars in the SE Series it 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!
Check Out the PRS SE Standard 24!
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 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.
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.
Fender Standard 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 MIM Strat, the Mexican Telecaster is a guitar intermediate and pro-level guitars 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 Standard MIM Telecaster and Stratocaster. For example, you can grab a Tele with a pair of Blacktop 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!
Hear the MIM Standard Telecaster HH
Schecter Damien Elite 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 Elite 6 for its budget-friendly price tag.
The Damien Elite 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.
Choose Your Guitar!
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.
What do you mean it's not so easy? Okay, so some of these guitars are as different as night and day, where others are so comparable that its hard to choose between them. So what would Guitar Gopher do?
I love the Epi Les Paul and the Fender MIM Strat. To me, these two guitars are the staples of the intermediate-level guitar world. 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.
On the other hand, maybe you don't care about being versatile. Maybe you are a fire-breathing metal maniac, or something like that. In that case, I'd be thikning 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 were dedicated to 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?
Find More Awesome Intermediate-level Guitars
- Recommended Electric Guitars Under $750
A list of guitars that walk the line between pro and intermediate-level instruments.
- Top Intermediate-level Guitars for Under $500
Check out some of the most affordable gig and studio-worth electric guitars on the market today.
- Affordable Metal Guitars for Intermediate Players
A list of amazing metal guitars that sound and look amazing but won't bust your budget.
- Top Guitars for Rock and Blues
Review some affordable instruments geared toward rock and blues.
- Guitar Choices for Country Music
Intermediate county players can grab affordable instruments too! Check them out here.