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Best electric guitars under $500 2021: 11 epic electrics for smaller budgets

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Best electric guitars under $500 2021: 10 epic electrics for smaller budgets
(Image credit: Future)

It's pretty mind-blowing just how much choice there is in the best electric guitars under $500 market, with many tantalizing offerings from PRS, Epiphone, Gretsch, Ibanez and others to choose from. Many of these guitars are versatile, and would make a brilliant beginner electric guitar or a cool second guitar if you have already found your dream electric.

When it comes to the best cheap electric guitars under $500, you can fully expect decent build quality and versatile sound. In fact, that clear divide between flagship, often American-made electric guitars and these more budget-friendly electrics has become even more blurred. On YouTube, blind tests have left industry experts scratching their heads over what exactly they are hearing: premium or budget electric.

Some guitarists have even gone on record to say that these cheaper guitars feel better in the hand, which should reassure you that you could be in for a pleasant surprise when taking home one of the best electric guitars under $500.

We've included some expert buying advice at the bottom of this guide, so if you'd like to read it, click the 'buying advice' tab above. If you'd rather get to the products, keep scrolling.

Best electric guitars under $500: Our top picks

If you’re looking for the best electric guitar under $500, we'd highly recommend the PRS SE Standard 24, as there’s a lot to be said for just how much ground one PRS guitar can cover. The SE Standard 24 is the kind of guitar that will thrive in any setting, whether you’re after glassy funk tones (thanks to the coil split) or creamier and meatier high-gain sounds.

Considering the fair few thousands of dollars between this budget electric and the flagship American-made Custom 24 line, there’s not much noticeable difference in what you hold in your hands. And though it might not have the exact same contouring or come in ultra-deluxe finishes such as the jaw-dropping Violet Smoke Burst, you do get the world-renowned bird inlays, components and craftsmanship PRS has built its name on. We love it so much we also included it in our guide to the best beginner electric guitars.

In terms of sheer value for money, it’s practically impossible to beat the Epiphone Les Paul SL. This electric guitar is a steal to the point where it leaves you wondering how any profit is being made at all. With six finishes to choose from and many of the key tonal attributes you’d be expecting from a Gibson-style guitar, thanks to its thicker-sounding ceramic single-coils, there really is no down side here.

Best electric guitars under $500: Product guide

Best electric guitars under $500: PRS SE Standard 24

1. PRS SE Standard 24

PRS tones for less? Meet the best electric guitar under $500

Specifications
Launch price: $499/£499
Body: Mahogany
Neck: Maple
Scale: 25"
Fingerboard: Rosewood
Frets: 24
Pickups: 2x 85/15 'S'
Controls: Volume, tone (with push-pull coil-split), 3-way selector
Hardware: PRS vibrato, PRS tuners
Left-handed: No
Finish: Vintage Cherry, Tobacco Sunburst, Translucent Blue
Reasons to buy
+A lot of bang for your buck+Fantastic vibrato+Searing solo tones
Reasons to avoid
-Wide Thin neck profile isn't for everyone 

A younger brother of sorts to the S2 Standard 24, the PRS SE Standard 24 gives you a ton of bang for your buck. Though its Vintage Cherry-finished top makes it look a bit cheaper than the S2, the guitar does - unlike the S2 - come with bird inlays as a standard feature. 

Its non-locking SE-level tuners are incredibly easy to handle, while its vibrato is near identical in appearance to the S2's. The guitar's electronics are installed in a cavity as - just like the traditional USA-made Custom 24 design - the SE Standard 24 features no scratchplate.

Though the SE Standard 24's action and vibrato response aren't quite ideal, the guitar's player-personal setup helps to rectify these issues as they arise. Tone-wise, the SE Standard 24 really comes into its own at this price level. 

The biting lead tones and full, expressive and fantastic rhythms - everything you'd expect from a PRS - are all here. Though you won't be able to go blow for blow with an S2 with the SE Standard 24, at this price point, it's an incredibly impressive and formidable instrument.

Read the full PRS SE Standard 24 review

Best electric guitar under $500: Epiphone Les Paul SL

(Image credit: Epiphone)

2. Epiphone Les Paul SL

A solid budget electric guitar with larger-than-life swagger

Specifications
Launch price: $119/£120
Body: Poplar
Neck: Mahogany
Scale: 24.75"
Frets: 22, medium-jumbo
Pickups: Epiphone 650SCR Ceramic Single-Coil (neck),Epiphone 700SCT Ceramic Single-Coil (bridge)
Controls: 3-way pickup selector, Master Volume, Master Tone
Left-Handed: No
Finishes: Ebony, Heritage Cherry Sunburst, Pacific Blue, Sunset Yellow, Turquoise, Vintage Sunburst
Reasons to buy
+Incredibly lightweight+Easy to play+Surprisingly muscular, clear pickups
Reasons to avoid
-Not the typical Epiphone sound 

A merger of the Les Paul Junior and the Melody Maker, the Epiphone Les Paul SL is one seriously kick-ass guitar. Its poplar body is light as a feather but still has all the substantial heft of a Les Paul Junior without feeling cumbersome. The SL features a custom single-ply pickguard that surrounds the two Epiphone 700SCT (bridge) and 650SCR (neck) ceramic single-coil pickups. 

Aside from that though, the SL is a typical single-cut Les Paul Junior with no binding, a mahogany neck, a slim-taper D-profile neck shape, 22 medium jumbo frets, an adjustable intonated “wraparound” stopbar tailpiece,'tophat' master volume and tone controls with a three-way toggle switch and premium die-cast 14:1 tuners.

Epiphone imbued the SL’s ceramic pickups with plenty of body and roundness, which gave these plump single-coils a great deal of touch-sensitivity. Even from a cranked amp, they still sound incredibly balanced and defined. 

The guitar stands perfectly well on its own as an instrument that is poised for rock and blues, with a distinctive tone that cuts on its own terms. What’s even better is how flawlessly the guitar plays, thanks to Epiphone’s consistent textbook setup on its instruments.

Read our full Epiphone Les Paul SL review

Best electric guitar under $500: Schecter Demon-6

3. Schecter Demon-6

Unleash your inner shredder without breaking the bank

Specifications
Launch price: $419/£419
Body: Basswood
Neck: Maple
Scale: 25.5"
Fingerboard: Rosewood
Frets: 24
Pickups: Duncan Designed HB-105B humbucker (bridge), HB-105N (neck)
Controls: Volume, tone, 3-way selector
Hardware: Tune-o-matic bridge, Graph Tech XL Black Tusq nut
Left-handed: Yes
Finish: Crimson Red Burst
Reasons to buy
+Smooth fretboard rewards a light touch+Amazing high-gain tones+Great tuning stability
Reasons to avoid
-Those looks aren't for everyone

Smooth, affordable and ferocious all at once, the Schecter Demon-6 is perfect for unleashing your inner speed demon. The guitar's thin-C profile neck, cut from maple with a satin finish, is incredibly quick and rewards a light touch. 

The bridge is simple but well-built, while the guitar's active pickups - powered by an easily accessible nine-volt battery - are absolutely terrific. Otherwise, the updated Demon-6 remains the same as its predecessors, with industrial black chrome hardware, burled tone and volume knobs and a Crimson Red Burst finish.

Tone-wise, the Demon-6 truly lives up to its name. The bridge humbucker is a workhorse with strong, growling mids and an absolutely diabolical amount of high-end - a gold mine for metal soloists, no doubt. 

Those who don't wish to summon demonic forces with their playing will find that the Demon-6's cleaner tones are just as satisfying. Any punchy classic rock riffs are a breeze, while the cleanest settings yield startlingly articulate leads that are more than adequate for even the most subtle of parts. This electric guitar is - despite its maker's metal target audience - a true all-rounder.

Best electric guitars under $500: Squier Classic Vibe '70s Telecaster Thinline

(Image credit: Fender)

4. Squier Classic Vibe '70s Telecaster Thinline

The best cheap electric guitar under $500 if you want Thinline tones for less

Specifications
Launch price: $449/£409
Body: Maple, semi-hollow
Neck: Maple
Scale: 25.5"
Fingerboard: Maple
Frets: 21
Pickups: 2x Fender Designed Wide Range humbuckers
Controls: Volume, tone, 3-way selector
Hardware: Strings-through-body Telecaster bridge with six saddles
Left-handed: No
Finish: 3-Color Sunburst, Natural
Reasons to buy
+Classic Tele Thinline look+Great attention to detail in the build+Airy Thinline tones
Reasons to avoid
-Some players may prefer a satin neck finish

Squier's take on the classic '70s Fender Telecaster Thinline brings the guitar's iconic looks and sound to the table at an incredibly affordable price point. With a white pearloid scratchplate, finely carved f-hole and Fender-embossed humbuckers, Squier's version of the guitar certainly looks the part. Though, like most other Squier guitars, the Modified '72 Telecaster Thinline features a gloss-finished modern C neck, the guitar's performance and tone - considering its price tag - is simply phenomenal.

The '70s Telecaster Thinline's cleans from the neck and middle positions are rock-solid. Reminiscent of the sounds produced by fat P-90-esque single coils, they pack plenty of punch, while the semi-hollow body makes for a woodier, less aggressive tone than you'd get from a straight-up solidbody.

The bridge humbucker yields a much more formidable voice that would sound right at home coming from an overdriven, cranked-to-11 valve amp. The guitar's open midrange makes it ideal for both delicate fingerpicking and massive, in-your-face rock riffing. Like its Fender-produced big brother, the Squier Modified '72 Telecaster Thinline is a beautiful instrument that can wear any number of hats.

Best electric guitars under $500: Danelectro ’59XT

5. Danelectro ’59XT

An aggressive rock and roll beast

Specifications
Launch price: $499/£529
Body: Composite/Plywood
Neck: Maple with double acting truss rod
Scale Length: 25"
Fingerboard: Rosewood
Frets: 21
Pickups: Lipstick dual humbucking (bridge), vintage-style large housing single coil (neck)
Controls: 3 way pickup switch, Master Volume, Master Tone (with push pull switch to split bridge pickup)
Left-handed: No
Finishes: Gloss Black, Aqua, Burgundy, Silver
Reasons to buy
+Classic Dano single-coil tones abound+Fast, comfortable neck+Rock-solid tremolo
Reasons to avoid
-A bit sensitive to high-gain settings

When it comes to guitars with the perfect combination of cool styling, righteous tones and amazing value, Danelectro has been the guitar industry’s shining city on the hill since 1954. The company's '59XT model is no exception. The guitar's tone is rich, thick, dynamic and musical. Its neck has 21 jumbo frets with a shallow, rounded profile, while the profile itself is a shallow C shape that plays fast and comfortably. 

The pickups consist of a high-output single-coil P90 at the neck position and a pair of iconic Dano lipstick tube pickups placed side-by-side in a humbucking configuration at the bridge position. The Wilkinson tremolo is floating, so users can raise or drop pitch.

The '59XT's tone is simply ferocious. The P90 and lipstick humbucker absolutely roar with a vicious snarl, emphasizing delicious upper midrange frequencies that slice through a mix without sounding shrill or harsh. The Wilkinson tremolo has a vintage-style non-locking design with all of the expected tonal benefits, but even the most aggressive whammy action won’t knock the strings out of tune.

Read our full Danelectro ’59XT review

Best electric guitars under $500: Gretsch G5220 Electromatic Jet BT Single-Cut

6. Gretsch G5220 Electromatic Jet BT Single-Cut

A low-cost, twin-humbucker single-cut for the ages

Specifications
Launch price: $449/£415
Body: Chambered mahogany body with laminated-maple top
Neck: Mahogany
Scale: 24.6"
Fingerboard: Black walnut
Frets: 22
Pickups: 2x Black Top Broad'Tron humbuckers
Controls: Neck volume, bridge volume, tone, master volume, 3-way pickup selector
Hardware: Anchored Adjusto-Matic bridge, V-stoptail tailpiece
Left-handed: Yes
Finish: Black, Dark Cherry Metallic, Casino Gold
Reasons to buy
+Come on, it looks incredible!+Articulate and responsive pickups+Player-friendly low tension
Reasons to avoid
-Control layout is a bit awkward

This slim mahogany single-cut can genuinely give a Les Paul a run for its money. Featuring two incredibly responsive Broad’Tron pickups, the Gretsch G5220 Electromatic Jet BT Single-Cut can handle both detailed, expressive lead work and scorching hard-rock with equal aplomb. 

Though the fretboard is made of black walnut, the guitar is smooth and elegant enough to pass for a much more expensive instrument at first glance. 

The Broad’Tron is a humbucker-sized Filter’Tron- style (PAF warmth and single-coil brightness), giving the guitar pristine cleans with a touch of vintage Gretsch twang. Hard-rock and even metal tones are no sweat for this thing either. 

Its harder-edge tones are confident and formidable, without losing any of the articulation the guitar exhibits when engaged in more subtle work. The guitar's low action and player-friendly tension will also have you waking up the neighbors as you play into the night.

Best electric guitar under $500: Squier Affinity Stratocaster FMT HSS

(Image credit: Fender)

7. Squier Affinity Stratocaster FMT HSS

Bag the versatility of a Strat for less

Specifications
Launch price: $329/£269
Body: Poplar
Neck: Maple
Scale: 25.5"
Fingerboard: Maple
Frets: 21
Pickups: Ceramic Humbucker/Ceramic Single-Coil/Ceramic Single-Coil
Controls: Master Volume, Tone 1. (Neck/Middle Pickups), Tone 2. (Bridge Pickup) 5-way switch
Hardware: 2-Point Synchronized Tremolo with Block Saddles
Left-handed: Yes
Finish: Sienna Sunburst, Black Burst
Reasons to buy
+HSS pickup configuration +Flame Top +70’s style large headstock 
Reasons to avoid
-Some players may prefer SSS set up

The Fender Strat has long been considered one of the most versatile guitars of all time, and when you throw a high-output ceramic humbucker into the mix, it gets even better. 

The Affinity series may be the entry-level point into the varied catalog of Fender guitars, but it certainly doesn’t hold back on quality. Featuring an attractive flame maple top, a slim and comfortable C-shaped neck and the iconic large 70s headstock, it’s hard to believe this guitar comes in under $500! 

The ace up the sleeve of this budget-friendly Strat is the Squier humbucker and single-coil neck and middle pickups. This allows you to achieve any tone imaginable with a simple flick of the 5-way selector switch. 

Best electric guitar under $500: Mitchell MD400

(Image credit: Mitchell)

8. Mitchell MD400

The playability of a high-end custom solidbody on an entry-level budget

Specifications
Launch price: $299
Body: Mahogany
Neck: Mahogany
Scale Length: 25.5"
Fingerboard: Indian Rosewood
Frets: 24
Pickups: Mini-Rail Humbucker Alnico V (Neck), Rail Humbucker Alnico V (Bridge)
Controls: Volume 1, Volume 2, Master Tone
Hardware: 18:1 Die-Cast Locking tuning machines, TUSQ XL nut
Left-handed: No
Finishes: Black, Transparent Ocean Blue, Transparent Purple w/AAA Quilt Maple Veneer Top, Transparent Forest Green w/AAA Quilt Maple Veneer Top, Natural w/AAA Quilt Maple Veneer Top
Reasons to buy
+Incredibly durable+Fantastic tonal versatility
Reasons to avoid
-Tuning stability isn't always perfect

The Mitchell MD400 offers the quality, playability and modern, custom design aesthetics normally only found on instruments costing two to four times more. The guitar features a 3+3 tuner configuration on the headstock, a slim, seamless contour where the set-in neck joins the body, and a neck and body made of mahogany. 

The neck provides 24 tall/narrow medium jumbo frets, a 25 1/2-inch scale, 15 3/4-inch radius, and a shallow “C” profile, and the back of the neck has a gloss finish that matches the body.

Each MD400 is set up to play perfectly out of the box, requiring at most a simple truss rod adjustment to adjust for climate. The alnico V mini-humbucker and full-size alnico V humbucker pickups also deliver their own distinct personality, with a voice-like midrange, tight bass and tonal versatility thanks to the coil-tap function. These are the kind of details that were previously non-existent on guitars selling for less than $500.

Read our full Mitchell MD400 review

Best electric guitars under $500: Sterling By Music Man Albert Lee HH

(Image credit: Sterling by Music Man)

9. Sterling By Music Man Albert Lee HH

Incredible tonal variety at a mouth-watering price

Specifications
Launch price: $399/£425
Body: Mahogany
Neck: Hard Maple
Scale Length: 25.5"
Fingerboard: Jatoba
Frets: 22
Pickups: HH
Controls: 1 Volume, 1 Tone
Hardware: Diecast tuning machines, Fulcrum tremolo bridge
Left-handed: No
Finishes: Trans Walnut, Black, Daphne Blue
Reasons to buy
+Amazing tonal variety+Adjustable solid saddles are a nice touch
Reasons to avoid
-Styling may not be everyone's cup of tea

The Sterling by Music Man Albert Lee HH provides the eye-grabbing looks and the amazing buffet of tones supplied by its Ernie Ball Music Man-produced counterpart at a price that won't make you cringe when you check your bank account post-purchase. 

Like the Ernie Ball Music Man version, the Sterling Albert Lee HH is built with an African Mahogany body and two humbuckers wired to a five-way-switch. The vintage tremolo, optional on the Ernie Ball Music man edition of the instrument, comes standard.

Though it lacks the DiMarzios its big brother features, the Albert Lee HH's Sterling by Music Man four-conductor humbuckers certainly don't slouch themselves. From gorgeous, ringing cleans to chunkier single-coil sounds that charge forth with impressive clout, the Albert Lee HH punches well above its weight. 

With its sturdy, player-friendly construction and dazzling tonal variety, you can see why Lee was convinced to abandon his signature vintage Teles to design his own standout mode - now available at an affordable price.

Best electric guitars under $500: Jackson King V JS32T

(Image credit: Jackson)

10. Jackson King V JS32T

One of the best budget electric guitar deals on a metal guitar

Specifications
Launch price: $335/£239
Body: Poplar
Neck: 1-piece Maple
Scale Length: 25.5"
Fingerboard: Amaranth
Frets: 24
Pickups: Jackson High-Output Humbucking (Neck and Bridge)
Controls: Master Volume, Master Tone
Hardware: Jackson Sealed Die-Cast tuning machines, Jackson TOM-Style Adjustable String-Through-Body Bridge
Left-Handed: No
Finishes: Ferrari Red, Gloss Black
Reasons to buy
+Sustain for days+Equally great for metal rhythm and leads+Looks amazing
Reasons to avoid
-More finishes would be nice

Sleek, and chock-full of visual and sonic attitude, the Jackson King V JS32T is simply one of the best bang-for-your-buck deals in the metal guitar market today. With Jackson's trademark pointy headstock and Sharkfin position inlays, this thing makes a hell of an impression before you even play a note. 

The King V JS32T features a bolt-on, graphite-reinforced maple speed neck with 24 jumbo frets and a 12" to 16" compound-radius. The guitar's two Jackson humbucking pickups are fitted with ceramic magnets.

The King V JS32T's tone is incredibly aggressive, while its sustain would please even the Nigel Tufnels of the world. The guitar's compound-radius makes it incredibly easy to play. Sustained, steady riffage and hurricane-speed shredding both end up being a piece of cake as a result.

Its low action also lends a hand to the instrument's shredding prowess, while also paving the way for titanic string bends. Lean, mean and incredibly easy on the wallet, the Jackson King V JS32T is certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Best electric guitars under $500: Ibanez S521

(Image credit: Ibanez)

11. Ibanez S521

The look (and tones) of an Ibanez at a terrifically low price

Specifications
Launch price: $399/£359
Body: Meranti
Neck: Maple
Scale Length: 25.5"
Fingerboard: Jatoba
Frets: 24
Pickups: Quantum (H) (neck and bridge)
Controls: 5-way pickup switch, Master Volume, Master Tone
Left-Handed: Yes
Finishes: Ocean Fade Metallic, Blackberry Sunburst
Reasons to buy
+Terrific sustain+Beautiful, classic Ibanez look+Great playability
Reasons to avoid
-Clean tones do occasionally leave a bit to be desired

The latest evolution in Ibanez's S series, the S521 gets you the look (and a lot of the great tones) of an Ibanez at a terrifically low price. The guitar's rosewood fretboard is two-octave and features 24 jumbo frets, while its mahogany body is coated in an eye-catching burst finish. 

Quantum pickups (in the neck and bridge) plus a five-way switch also come as standard. Overall, the Wizard III maple neck is well-constructed and reliable. The Cosmo black finish on the S521's hardware adds an elegant touch to the low-budget model.

The S521's fretboard is incredibly quick, and smooth as silk. Tonally, though the guitar's cleans aren't always top-notch, its mid-range is phenomenal. On the higher end, its articulation is quite good and expressive, with leads sounding lean but nimble. In addition to its rock-solid variety of tones, the S521's sustain stands out within its price range. 

Best electric guitars under $500: Buying advice

Schecter Demon-6 on concrete floor

(Image credit: Future)

What makes a great budget electric guitar?

It’s all well and good for a guitar to be cheap, but a guitar has to be more than just affordable for us to include it in this guide to the best electric guitars under $500. For starters, the guitar should be well-built, finished to a reasonable standard, and sound great. Each of the hand-selected guitars on this list certainly meets this criteria and offers bags of style and superb value for money. 

When looking at guitars in this price bracket, it’s essential to check the common areas in which entry-level guitars tend to fall down. Pay careful attention to frets. On budget guitars, you often see sharp fret ends, frets not seated correctly and even tarnished or unpolished frets. Each of these problems can drastically affect how the guitar feels to play, so make sure to check them.  

What style of guitar should I choose?  

The first thing to consider when choosing from among the best budget electric guitars under $500 is what kind of tone you hear in your head. Is it darker and warmer? Thinner and slinkier? Somewhere in between? 

To get an idea, look into the specs of the guitars wielded by your biggest guitar heroes or the players you’re attempting to sound like. While electric guitar pickups can be changed, it’s better to start off with something made to handle the sound you’re after. 

Funk players inspired by Nile Rodgers might gravitate towards Fender Stratocaster style guitars because of their single-coil pickups and five-way tone switch, using body woods like alder or ash that are perfect for cutting through above any rhythm section, whereas heavy metal guitarists tend to prefer the hellfire of mahogany bodies wired with hotter humbucker pickups, in some cases with active circuitry.

Jazz guitarists, on the other hand, might gravitate to the woollier sound of a semi-acoustic with flatwound electric guitar strings. It’s worth bearing in mind that all of these factors will affect the tone of an instrument before any further coloration from amplifiers or pedals.

Other features to consider  

Guitars can come with a lot of different features that vary from model to model. For example, some come with a vibrato or whammy bar. If this isn’t something you see yourself taking advantage of, then it may be wise to avoid it. Likewise, a guitar with a locking tremolo such as a Floyd Rose requires a little more work to maintain and restring, so if you don’t need it, go for a fixed bridge guitar.

 Then there’s the physical aspect of holding a guitar for hours on end. Do you prefer the sonic muscle of something heavy or instead like the idea of something less taxing on the spinal column? Ultimately, you should go with whatever feels most natural under the fingers. Try as many models as you can. See if you can remember what was different about the guitars you liked and the ones you didn’t, bearing in mind that action and string gauges can always be adjusted to suit each player.

Buyer's guides for different budgets

Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.