We live in the era of unprecedented guitar quality, no matter the price of the product. The industry has been able to mass produce hundreds, if not thousands, of guitars thanks to overseas factories and accurate CNC technology. That being said, there still are many factors to consider when purchasing an affordable guitar, whether you are a beginner or a grizzled vet.
Not every guitar is going to be the bargain that the price tag indicates it could be. Likewise, you shouldn’t assume that a more expensive guitar will be superior to a budget alternative or new, smaller brand you may have never heard of. Let’s review 6 important things I always consider before buying an affordable guitar, which I classify as anything being around $500 USD or below. Each person classifies affordable in their own terms however, and these 6 tips aren’t just good cheap guitar buying tips, they are good guitar buying tips.
If Playing Live Is The Goal, Prioritize Tuning & Reliability
For many guitar consumers, the ultimate goal is to try and play live, be it as part of a traditional rock band or as a solo acoustic act at a coffee shop. If you consider yourself in this class of musicians, might I recommend finding a guitar that stays in tune, and stays together ahead of aesthetics or brand name features. As someone who has played many a sweaty basement show or awkward high school open mic night, the one thing that often bailed me out was my Mexican Fender HSS Strat. Sure, it didn’t look as pretty or even sound as fancy as some of the cheap Epiphone, Jackson, or Dean guitars my contemporaries played, but wow did mine stay in tune better. Oh, and it takes a fall to the floor a lot better than most Gibson-style headstocks. You can always upgrade pickups, replace the bridge, or even repaint the guitar fairly easily. But a guitar that isn’t properly intonated or set up can be a real headache.
Don’t Be Afraid To Try A Brand You’ve Never Heard Of
This is especially true when you are actually trying guitars in a store and can get your hands on them. If the instrument feels special, stays in tune, and inspires you, don’t feel that you have to choose the popular Squier, Epiphone, or ESP LTD guitar because of their brand name recognition. Sometimes smaller companies or dusty used guitars bring unique form and function that you won’t normally find at that price. Look at Jack White, who has made his name behind “Pawnshop” guitars like the Airline JB Hutto and Kay Hollowbody. Especially now with articles like this, YouTube videos, and Instagram, it is easier than ever to fully explore the guitar marketplace. You might just find a diamond in the rough, and if your band makes it big, you’ll be holding the next guitar to skyrocket in price and become a sought after model.
If Unsure About Picking Between Similar Guitars, Go With The Most Mod-Friendly One
While DIY guitar mods may seem like a stressful, or altogether impossible procedure now, just wait until you’ve grown as a player. You may find yourself much more willing, and capable, of installing a new pickup or locking tuners in your affordable instrument. This is why Squier, and many Fender-style guitars, continue to sell so well at lower prices. While Gibson-style guitars are wonderful in all their own ways, a Strat or Tele is just so easy to mod, even with minimal guitar experience. You can purchase pre-loaded pickguards that will take soldering out of the equation, or you can quickly install a variety of upgraded necks for smooth playability. If you’re looking at a variety of guitars, it may be best to get that one that you can most easily tailor to your needs. Loving the bridge humbucker on an Epiphone Les Paul or Gretsch Electromatic? If you also love the pickup versatility of a Squier Classic Vibe Strat, you can always swap a hot humbucker into the bridge and get the best of both worlds.
Don’t Overthink It, Sometimes A Best Seller Is A Best Seller For A Reason
While I love trying new brands and new guitar designs, sometimes it doesn’t make economic sense to roll the dice. Likewise, if you’re buying a cheap instrument to use as a backup or low-risk gigging instrument, get something you know you can trust. I always bring this point back to the Squier Classic Vibe series in my head. They are a bit more expensive than some comparable affordable products from Tagima or Harley Benton, but they are popular for a reason. Simply put, these guitars will get you incredibly close to classic Fender tones, performance, and looks for a lot less than a USA Fender. When you can’t get your hands on the instrument and don’t want to go through the hassle of returning a guitar only to try this whole thing again, go with what you know works!
If You Play More Than One Style Of Music, Look For Versatility
One of the best things a cheap guitar can do for you is provide versatility. Whether it is through various pickup options, a coil split feature, or just incredible comfort up and down the fretboard, look for versatility if you play more than one style of music. I liked being able to go from gutteral punk riffs in the vein of The Clash and Sex Pistols while also switching on a delay pedal and doing my best U2 impersonation. For me, an HSS configuration was just a must have no matter the budget. Take advantage of the growing trend of guitars making coil splits or in/out of phase options standard on cheap guitars. While a single P90 guitar can be real fun for punk music, make sure your affordable guitar purchase doesn’t leave you locked into only a handful of sounds. Especially because if you’re looking for a cheap guitar, odds are you won’t have a ton of budget room left to expand your rig with pedals, amps, or additional guitars.
Why Not Shop Used Gear?
While many consumers want a brand new, shiny guitar right out of the box, don’t hold your nose up at the used market. You can save hundreds of dollars and often get access to instruments you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Suddenly a low end Gibson or Fender or nicer Ibanez is on the table. Some people prefer their guitars to be broken in a bit too, so as long as you can inspect the guitar beforehand, you may get an awesome feeling instrument! And hey, with relic’d guitars all the rage right now, you could get something people pays thousands of dollars to the Fender Custom Shop for at a bargain!
About the Author and Contributors
A journalist from southern Rhode Island who focuses on DIY guitar mods, gear reviews, and opinion articles and has been playing guitars since he was 14.
When he's not writing or installing P-90s into guitars, he's pursuing a graduate degree in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter @MDunn_33.
Jason Horton - Editing and Illustrating.
Main/Top Image: by Jason Horton using electric guitar images from Epiphone and Ibanez.