Historically, there’s always been a clear line of division between flagship, often American-made, models and their more affordable, Eastern-produced counterparts - but in recent years that gap has most certainly been narrowed - as highlighted by our list of the best electric guitars under $500. Thanks to YouTube, there have been endless blind tests conducted that have left even industry experts scratching their heads over what exactly they are hearing.
- Bigger budget? Try the best electric guitars under $1,000
- Even BIGGER budget? Try the best electric guitars under $2,000
- And these are the best electric guitars for all budgets
Some musicians have even claimed it’s the so-called ‘inferior’ versions that feel better in their hands, which goes to prove that in this day and age, there really is no reason for being handed a sub-par guitar just because you’re working to a budget. Compiled by a group of Guitar World experts, these 10 axes will give you fantastic tone and great playability at prices that won't break the bank account…
The best electric guitars under $500: Guitar World recommends
If you’re looking for the best all-rounder on a budget, you’d be wise to check out the PRS SE Standard 24. 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 instrument that will thrive in any setting, whether you’re after glassy funk tones - thanks to the coil split - or creamier and meatier higher gain sounds.
Considering the fair few thousands of dollars between these and the flagship American-made Custom 24 line, there’s not a huge amount of noticeable difference in what you hold in your hands. And though it might not have the exact same curves or come in ultra deluxe finishes like Violet Smoke Burst, you do get the world-renowned bird inlays, components and craftsmanship that PRS built its name on.
In terms of sheer value for money, it’s practically impossible to beat the Epiphone Les Paul SL – a steal to the point where it leaves you wondering how any profit is being made. 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.
Best electric guitars under $500: what to look for
The first thing to consider when looking for a sub-$500 guitar is what kind of tone you hear in your head. Is it darker and warmer? Thinner and slinkier? Somewhere in between? Look into the specs of the guitars wielded by your biggest guitar heroes and those whom you’re attempting to sound like. While pickups can be changed, it’s better to start off with something made to handle the sound you’re looking for.
Funk players inspired by Nile Rodgers might gravitate towards Strat-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 humbucking 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 strings. It’s worth bearing in mind that all of these factors will affect the tone of an instrument before any further colouration from amplifiers or pedals.
Do you plan to use the vibrato arm? If not, it would perhaps be wise to avoid a guitar with locking tremolos, which require a little more work to maintain and restring. 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.
Our pick of the best electric guitars under $500
1. PRS SE Standard 24
PRS tones for under $500? Sounds like a juicy deal to us...
Launch price: $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
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.
2. Epiphone Les Paul SL
An affordable, solid guitar with larger-than-life swagger
Price: : $119 | 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
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 the full review: Epiphone Les Paul SL
3. Schecter Demon-6
Unleash your inner shredder without breaking the bank
Launch price: $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
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. 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.
4. Squier Vintage Modified '72 Telecaster Thinline
Fantastic Thinline tones for a bargain
Launch price: $499 | Body: Ash, semi-hollow | Neck: Maple | Scale: 25.5" | Fingerboard: Maple | Frets: 21 | Pickups: 2x Dual 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
Squier's take on the classic 1972 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 Squiers, 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 Modified '72 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. 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 mid-range 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.
5. Danelectro ’59XT
An aggressive rock and roll beast
Price: $499 | 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
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 that emphasizes 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 the full review: Danelectro ’59XT
6. Gretsch G5220 Electromatic Jet BT Single-Cut
A low-cost, twin-humbucker single-cut for the ages
Launch price: $449 | 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
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'll also have you waking up the neighbors.
7. Mitchell MD400
The playability of a high-end custom solidbody on an entry-level budget
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
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 the full review: Mitchell MD400
8. Sterling By Music Man Albert Lee HH
Incredible tonal variety at a mouth-watering price
Price: $399 | 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
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 back 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.
9. Jackson King V JS32T
One of the best deals in the metal guitar market
Price: $335 | 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
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. 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.
10. Ibanez S521
The look (and tones) of an Ibanez at a terrifically low price
Price: $399 | 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
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.