The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Affordable Electric Guitars
If you are watching your budget but still need a new guitar you might think there is no hope of landing an instrument you'll love. Lucky for you, you’d be wrong! No matter what genre of music you are into there are some amazing, affordable, high-quality instruments out there, made by some of the biggest names in the guitar world.
These instruments are a notch above the typical starter guitar when it comes to quality and performance. In fact, for an up-and-coming guitar player they are good enough to carry onstage, or even into the recording studio.
So, what is a budget electric guitar, anyway?
To me, this is not the same thing as a cheap guitar. There are plenty of cheap, low-quality instruments out there. You’ll never see me recommending those, not even to newbies. These days, there are so many excellent lower-priced instruments on the market that there really is no excuse to purchase some piece of junk you found for a bargain price at a big-box store.
To put together my list of top budget guitars I looked at the following criteria:
- Cost: We're hoping to save a few bucks, here. This is the point, right? I'm looking for guitars around the $400 price range, give or take. I think that's a step above beginner’s instruments, but not quite up to the level of pro gear
- Quality: This is the difference between an affordable guitar and a cheap guitar. I'm looking for instruments that are reasonably priced but still bring a lot to the table when it comes to sound and performance.
- Value: In short, good budget guitars should give you whole lot of bang for your buck. You want to know your money is well spent, because you want to hang on to your new guitar for a long time to come.
There are some outstanding electric guitars out there for under $200, and they are mostly aimed at beginners. That's not what I'm talking about here. For serious beginners, the instruments in this article will take you a long way. For intermediate players, they are an uber-affordable way to expand your collection, or move up from that crummy no-name starter guitar that Aunt Bernice gave you for your last birthday.
So let’s look at some guitars!
Epiphone Les Paul Standard
At the top of my list is the Epiphone Les Paul Standard. This is a guitar I've consider one of the best budget options for a few decades, and the ones I've owned have been great instruments for the money. It is one of the best electric guitars under $500 you're going to find.
The Epi Les Paul is modeled after the Gibson Les Paul. The Gibson version is a classic, and one of the best guitars you could ever own, but with a price tag of several thousand dollars it isn’t affordable for most of us.
But Gibson won’t leave us hanging. They offer awesome, lower-cost versions of their most classic instruments through their Epiphone brand.
This is a Les Paul built to the specs and quality standards of the people who invented the Les Paul.
I don't have a lot of complaints about the Epiphpone LP Standard, but the pickups were always one issue I've had to live with in the past. The Alnico Classics are very good in this price range, but naturally I'm going to compare them with Gibson pickups, and that was always a little disappointing.
Then Epiphone came out with their ProBucker pickup, and it was a game changer. You'll find them on guitars like the Les Paul PlusTop PRO and Custom PRO, and they sound much closer to Gibson pickups.
Those guitars are a little more expensive, but it is important to note that you have several affordable options in the Epiphone lineup. The Les Paul Studio is a step down from the Standard, the most notable differences being open-coil humbuckers and the lack of a maple top and binding.
You can compare the different Standard models and decide for yourself which Epiphone Les Paul best fits your needs.
Hear the Les Paul Standard in This Epiphone Demo
Squier by Fender Classic Vibe Stratocaster
For me, right up there with the Les Paul is the Fender Stratocaster, so it only makes sense that a Strat would be next on my list. Fender is where it all started when it comes to the solid-body electric guitar, and today’s American-made Stratocaster is one of the finest instruments in the world. They are amazing guitars for players with deeper pockets, but if you are counting your pennies you need to look elsewhere.
I recommend checking out Squier Classic Vibe '60s Stratocaster. Classic Vibe Series Strats are real Stratocasters made under the Squier by Fender brand name, with a few corners cut to bring them down to a price that’s more affordable for many musicians.
The headstock says Squier, but don't let that fool you into thinking this isn't an amazing guitar. The Classic Vibe Series has impressed many veteran guitar players since it hit the scene, including me!
Like their legendary Fender namesake, Squier Strats feature alder bodies and maple necks for that classic Stratocaster rip. There's a '50s version, and a '60s version, each with slightly different specs. The '50s Classic Vibe Strat takes you back to early days of Fender, where the '60s model captures the golden era of Hendrix, Clapton and the like.
Which should you choose? For me it's a close call but I'd go with '60s model. While I like the vintage vibe of the '50s version, the Alinco V pickups on the '60s model are a little hotter and beefier. The Strat was born in the '50s, but the '60s is when it became a legend.
Schecter Omen 6
When it comes to modern metal, Schecter is a guitar company that has really risen to the top of the heap in recent years. Their designs don't yet have the history of the other instruments in this review, but they have developed a solid reputation for quality gear and excellent attention to detail.
The Schecter Omen comes in a few different versions, but the basic model is pretty darned good. It’s a solid guitar that sounds and plays a whole lot better than you’d expect for the price.
This is not only my favorite budget guitar for metal, but one of my favorite all-around inexpensive guitars. In fact, I have one in my collection and couldn't be happier with it!
I bought my Schecter Omen years ago because I was looking for an inexpensive guitar that would sound good tuned down, and that I wouldn't feel bad about abusing a little. It turned out to be a much better guitar that I expected, with thick, rich tone and a nice feel to the neck. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised, and became a Schecter fan for life.
Apparently Schecter fully understands they have a underappreciated gem in the Omen, because they have expanded the lineup in recent years. There is an Extreme version with some upgraded components, as well a version with a Floyd Rose and extended-range versions with seven and eight strings.
All of the guitars in the Omen lineup are affordable, but for me the Omen 6 has been a great bargain. You can check out my full Omen 6 review for more thoughts on this awesome guitar.
Epiphone G-400 PRO
Epiphone’s G-400 electric guitars are affordable versions of Gibson’s SG design. Like the Epi Les Paul, it gives you the chance to own a rock classic for a price that will still allow you to buy groceries for the next few months.
The Gibson SG actually started out as a re-imagining of the Les Paul design, but today it has a life of its own. The design is simpler than that of a Les Paul, but the SG still commands serious tone.
The G-400 has a mahogany body and set neck with a rosewood fingerboard. The pickups are Epiphones Alnico Classic PRO humbuckers, and the electronics are a volume and tone control for each pickup with a 3-way switch. There is also the push-pull coil tap design, a nice feature for a guitar in this price range.
So why would you choose the SG over the Les Paul? When comparing Gibsons there is a definite difference in sound, but when we’re talking about the Epiphone Les Paul Standard and the Epiphone G-400 really it comes down to style. To me, the Les Paul is more elegant, where the SG has more attitude.
Check Out the Epiphone G-400 PRO
Squier by Fender Classic Vibe ‘50s Telecaster
Before the Stratocaster, there was the Telecaster. Well, technically it was called the Broadcaster back then. The simple design that Leo Fender imagined over 60 years ago has changed little over the years, and the Telecaster is still one of top guitars in the world.
In this case we’re looking at the Squier Classic Vibe ‘50s Telecaster. Squier is Fender’s budget brand, and they build Fender-style instruments for beginners and those of us who are watching our pennies.
The Classic Vibe ‘50s Strat aims to recapture the essence of those early Fenders.
It has a pine body with a maple neck and fingerboard, a pair of Custom Vintage-Style Single-Coil Telecaster pickups, and even a vintage-style 3-saddle bridge.
It’s a guitar that captures the style and tone of the Fender Telecaster while retaining some modern updates, and remaining affordable.
You might also want to check out the Fender Standard Telecaster, though it is a bit more expensive. In the past I always recommended Fender Standard guitars for players looking for affordable options, but the prices have risen to the point where I think Squier is often a more viable option.
Jackson JS32 Rhoads
For decades the finest guitars for hard rock and heavy metal have come with the Jackson brand on their headstocks. The biggest names in metal music gravitated to the company back in the ‘80s and have never let go.
Of course those famous guitar players play instruments beyond the reach of many of us, but we can all afford the versions in the Jackson JS Series. These are epic Jackson designs presented in budget packages for all levels of guitarist.
The Rhoads is one of Jackson’s best-known design, and the JS32 version is perfect for anyone into classic metal, thrash, hard rock or today’s more extreme styles. It features a basswood body, maple neck with 24-fret rosewood fingerboard, hot Jackson humbuckers and a choice of a Floyd-Rose-style double-locking tremolo or Tune-o-matic-style bridge.
There are bunch of amazing instruments in the Jackson JS32 lineup. Aside from the Rhoads there's the King V, Dinky, Kelly and Warrior. These are classic Jackson designs, and these lower-cost versions are accessible even for beginners.
Jackson's JS32 Rhoads Demo
Choose Your Guitar!
All of these guitars come from the top guitar builders in the world. Even so, you may noticed that I’ve purposely chosen six distinctly different styles of guitar in my recommendations above. If you snoop around you will no doubt find other affordable instruments in each of these styles, but I feel these are your best bets.
While of course it is true that you can use any guitar for any purpose, some of these designs excel in specific style of music.
- The Les Paul design is a benchmark of rock greatness, but it’s also a super flexible guitar that can handle pretty much any style you throw at it.
- The Stratocaster is another iconic and versatile instrument, but with a decidedly different tone than the Les Paul.
- The Telecaster is a staple in country music and known for its distinctive twang. It’ll work for rock and blues too, but doesn’t quite have the versatility of the Strat.
- The G-400, or SG, is a rock ‘n’ roll machine, perfect for all forms of hard-driving rock.
- The Omen 6 is made for modern metal, with a deep and resonant tone. Detune it and put it through a high-gain amp for best results.
- The Jackson Rhoads is built for shred, hard rock and heavy metal, with a fast neck, hot pickups and Jackson attitude.
So, which guitar you choose depends on who you are, what kind of music you want to excel at, and what you want to accomplish. You can’t go wrong with any of the above, but the choice isn’t easy! Have fun picking out the best budget electric guitar for you and your style!