Entry-level guitars are great – they do a relatively no-nonsense job, and give you a platform on which to learn your first chords and licks. And as you may have seen in our comparison article on the best budget guitars, you can get some pretty great electric guitar deals for under $300 – including guitar and amp packages for an astonishing $99! However, by increasing your budget by a couple of hundred bucks, you can find a guitar that will last you a lot longer, and perform considerably better. Whether it’s better design or locking nuts, manufacturers raise the bar as you raise the cash.
In the chart below you’ll find our round up of the best guitars under $500, along with their individual ratings and links to our in-depth reviews. Make sure to check out our guide to guitars in this price range under the chart, for more tips and advice!
The Top 10 Electric Guitars Under $500:
Tips, Tricks, Guidelines And More
The first thing worth mentioning when it comes to guitars in the $500 price bracket is that in a lot of cases you are no longer getting ‘basic’. Of course, you are highly unlikely to be getting premium features or made-in-America models, but generally the quality of woods, necks, hardware, pickups, fretwork, and overall craftsmanship are a big step up from their cheaper cousins.
Don’t get me wrong – if you want to spend less, there’s a world of excellent entry-level and budget electric guitars for under $300. But if you are starting to get serious about playing guitar, looking at forming a band and gigging for the first time, or even an experienced guitarist looking for a reliable second guitar, spending that little extra is a smart idea in the long run.
So what can you expect from a guitar in the $500 price range? Design-wise you certainly start getting a wider range to choose from. The beginner electric guitars category is littered with guitars that look like Strats, Teles and Les Pauls. Why? Because the design is tried and tested, easy to produce on a mass scale, and likely to appeal to the complete beginner.
However, with the extra cash you have more unique, considered designs available to you. For example Gretsch’s iconic Pro Jet is one of a kind, as is Epiphone’s premium look Wildkat, or Dean’s Dimebag Razorback series. All these guitars would make you look twice, and all come in at under $500.
Talking about the Dimebag series, you’ll also start finding affordable signature models from some of the biggest names in guitar – the likes of George Lynch, Steve Vai, Dave Mustaine, Kirk Hammett, and Tom Delonge all have signature models on the market for under $500. Yes, they aren’t the exact custom shop model that guitarist plays (if you want those, look towards the $4000 mark), but you still get their unique styles and overall spirit.
But it’s not just the looks that are better in this price bracket – we start seeing some quality in the features and hardware departments. One of my favorite features, and something you start seeing on some more rock-inclined guitars in this price range, is a Floyd Rose bridge and locking nut – an awesome combo for huge divebombs, string bends, and all round excellent tuning stability.
You’ll also start finding the build quality and finishes are nicer and feel more durable. Body woods will also start varying – you’ll still encounter a lot of basswood (which isn’t bad at all), but will also see more tonewoods such as alder and mahogany. Necks will usually be made from maple or mahogany, and fretboards from rosewood or maple. One thing you may also start noticing is more unique inlay designs – pearloid blocks instead of dot inlays for example.
Your pickups will remain quite basic, but they certainly improve. Output is louder, sound is clearer, electronics more stable, and tone is warmer. Versatility increases too, with more tone controls and occasionally five-way pickup selectors instead of basic three-ways.
And remember: these guitars offer a better platform for upgrading, so adding your own favorite pickups at a later stage wouldn’t be a problem.
Only you can define your budget and if it is set at $500 or under that’s great – as you have seen, there’s a lot you can get for your money. But if you can go a little higher – even to $600 – you will start to see even more improvements, including active pickups, bridge and saddle upgrades, and most guitars coming with their own gig bags.
Amplifying Your Sound
When spending around $500 on a guitar, you’ll want to consider the amp you’ll be playing it through. You may want to look at something more than the cheapest starter amps out there, but you don’t need to spend thousands to get a great sound.
The quality of practice amps these days will more than suffice if you are just noodling away in your bedroom or jamming with a few friends. Something like a Fender Mustang I V.2 retails for around $120 and gives you 20 watts of power, as well as 17 different amp models, tons of built in effects, and USB connectivity.
If you have your sights set on the stage, you may need an amp with more power. Sticking with Fender’s Mustang series, the Fender Mustang III V.2 ($330) offers everything you get with the practice combo, but with 100 watts of power which is more than enough for jamming and small gigs.
It’s worth mentioning, at this price range it’s certainly not worth being a ‘brand snob’. While you can indeed find ‘real’ Fender (as opposed to a Squier) for under $500, make sure you are getting it for the right reason; not just because it’s a name you know. Sure, Fender make a great guitar, but there’s nothing wrong with a Yamaha, Epiphone or ESP. In fact, you are more likely to end up with more for your money in most cases, as you’re not paying for the name. Just something to consider.
Super Second Hand
A good question. Buying a new high quality electric guitar usually means you’ll have a guitar that’s been untouched by anyone else, and the reassurance of a warranty should something go wrong. If you buy used, you are opening yourself up to a world of mystery. How old is it? Has it been gigged to within an inch of its life? Has anything on it been replaced?
But these questions shouldn’t put you off buying second-hand, because you will undoubtedly find some bargains – whether it’s $20 off the list price, or $100!
Just treat it like buying a used car, and do extra research. Avoid flea markets or boot sales, as you may not be able to test the guitar and you may not have the chance to return it. Look on sites like Amazon or eBay, and at least you have a bit of a safety net.
To Sum It All Up
With $500 in your pocket you can get a whole lot of guitar these days – the choice is huge. And whether you are buying new or used, it always pays to do your research first. A guitar in this price range can last you a lifetime. But make sure to check out our comparisons of guitars in the higher range of $1000, as you may find something more suitable for not that much more cash. Also be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for regular updates on guitar news, reviews and tips.