Longtime readers know that I have a rule about electric guitars – I won’t spend more than $500 on one. Of course, I’ve gone a little over that a couple of times, but not by very much at all. I am the Budget Guitarist, after all. But I like good guitars. So I spend a lot of time trying to find good guitars at budget prices.
The problem with comparing guitars is that the most important thing is the sound, and sound is subjective. But the second most important thing is playability, and that is a little easier to discuss. First things first – if you are on a budget and you want to get the most for your money, never buy a guitar brand new for the sticker price. You need to look at used guitars, and guitars that are on sale. Guitar Center and Sam Ash both carry used instruments, but you should also consider any small mom & pop shops in your area. If there still are any.
So what can you get used for around $500-ish? Here are a few contenders. For the sake of argument, let’s assume each of these guitars has had some decent amount of playing before hitting the used market:
- American Special Stratocaster. You might luck out and find one of these guys for around $550 – $599. In my opinion, this is a great deal. You’ll likely get some hot Texas Special pickups, and the neck is pure American Fender – the nut won’t be made out of plastic and the fretwork and wood will be very good. The Strat is THE modder’s guitar – you can easily change out any and every part. On the downside, you might find more than normal fretwear in the spots where most Strat players bend notes. C’mon, y’all play the blues in either Em or Am, don’t you? And those fret dents will be right where the next Strat player will want to bend. Fortunately the American Special comes with jumbo frets, so it can be levelled and crowned and still be taller than medium-jumbo frets. The body and parts on this guitar will be comparable with a Mexican Strat – the upgrade is the neck and pickups.
- PRS SE Custom 24. I’ve seen this used in the $500-ish range. I own one, and let me say this: this guitar has fretwire and fretwork that are outstanding. These guitars are made by the famous South Korean company World Musical Instruments, and they were set up and trained by Paul and his staff. Compared to the American versions, some corners are cut. I doubt the neck is one piece. On mine, the high e string corner of the nut was sharp and I had to round it with a file. The bridge saddles are not high quality, the pickups are decent but not great, and the tone you get is a little thinner than the real thing. BUT it plays extremely well, and it has superior fretwork.
- Gibson Les Paul Tribute. The Studio model is a better guitar, but you won’t find a Gibson Les Paul Studio for $500, and if you do, be careful. The Tribute line can be had used in this price range, though, and they are great deals. They come with great pickups and great parts, they sound great, and they play great. These are workhorse guitars – they don’t look like much, but that’s where you’re saving the money – on the looks. The fretwork is very good, as it is on all Gibsons. However, that said, the frets may be sticking out of the sides of the neck a little bit. That’s not the fault of the fretwork. It’s not the end of the world for the wood in a guitar to expand and contract a teeny amount. But you won’t see this on most really good guitars, and you will see it on low end Gibson Les Pauls. This means the fret ends need to be filed down a bit.
There are a lot of other guitars out there that can be had used in this price range and I’ve played most of them. But of all of them, the above three have been my favorites. And of the three, the “Best Budget Guitar” would be the PRS SE Custom 24. It has the least best pickups, but in terms of fretwork, playability, and craftsmanship, the PRS wins. So why’d I put a Gibson Les Paul Tribute as the featured image for this post? To confuse people. And because on a different day, if I were in a different mood, I’d choose the Tribute. It’s that close.