Who hasn't ventured into a guitar store and picked up the shiniest guitar to give it a strum, picturing themselves on a stage? The availability of cheap electric guitars at stores like Walmart and Radio Shack has pulled more and more buyers into the electric guitars market, but this development has prompted an explosion of unauthorized copies and poorly-built instruments. While there are many cheap electric guitars selling for less than $200, most of these guitars are short on performance and high on looks.
Electric Guitars Buying Guide
One of the best pieces of advice about buying a guitar is to try avoiding buying one that's sold in a cardboard box. While there are many good cheap electric guitar packs you can purchase with an amplifier and stand, they often include guitars that shouldn't be sold for more than $50. If you insist on going the cheap electric guitar package route, one worth looking at is the Epiphone G-310 SG and All Access Amp pack (starting at $350), which features a decent starter guitar with amp, tuner, cable, and headphones. There are many good deals for cheap electric guitars like this one out there, but pay close attention to the guitar itself. If it's too good a deal, it's probably a bad buy long term.
Another good piece of advice: Go to a guitar store and play -- if you buy online be sure of the model and the source. Parents, this means you should take your child to the store and see which cheap electric guitar the child is most comfortable playing. Another reason to buy at the store is that many guitars need to be tuned, even when brand new. Guitar stores often will do a "set up" for a modest price -- usually between $40 to $75 -- and it makes all the difference when playing; if a store offers to do this for free, this is a vendor you want to do business with.
Finally, it's important to know that all the prices in our buying guide are list prices. But the great thing about buying a cheap electric guitar is that you don't have to pay list; this is a market where negotiated prices are the norm, so haggle away. And again, try and avoid purchasing online unless you find a deal that a local retailer can't beat.
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Electric Guitar Review
When buying a cheap electric guitar, the look is the last thing to consider. Instead, focus on the wood, the electronics, the pickups, the weight, and even the size of the frets. You want a guitar that sounds great acoustically before plugging it in. Here are the factors to consider when looking for a good cheap guitar.
Electric Guitar Types.There are three types of electric guitars: solid body, semi-hollow body, and hollow body.The majority of cheap electric guitars are solid-body guitars, like the Epiphone G-400 SG Electric Guitar (starting at $350). This cheap electric guitar is made of a solid piece of wood with no holes for tone. Sweetwater's guitar buying guide says this type of guitar works well with electronic effects, like distortion, chorus pedals, and amps.
Semi-hollow-body electric guitars usually have two slits cut along the face of the guitar, one on each side of the strings, for tone. Semi-hollow guitars are preferred when the natural sound of the guitar is important, as in some rock and blues styles. An example of a cheap semi-hollow-body electric guitar is the Epiphone Dot Studio Semi-Hollow Electric Guitar (starting at $269), which users at Musician's Friend report has an impressive acoustic tone that improves as the wood ages.
A hollow-body guitar, or jazz guitar as it's sometimes known, showcases the acoustic nature of the guitar. When amplified and really cranked up, however, hollow-body guitars sometimes produce feedback. The Ibanez Artcore AF75 (starting at $400) is a relatively cheap hollow-body guitar.
Electric Guitar Wood.The type of wood used for the body and neck of an electric guitar matters; it accounts for much of the difference in sound between a cheap electric guitar and an expensive guitar. Sound interacts differently with each type of wood, and the best guitars are made with the best wood. Some experts claim that the hardness of the wood is critical, but so is weight and durability, especially when it comes to the neck. The wood also affects resonance, and as one site points out, if a guitar sounds good unplugged it will excel when plugged in.Maple is commonly used for cheap electric guitars, mostly because of its mid-range weight and hardness, a quality that's particularly desirable for the neck. The Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plain Top Electric Guitar (starting at $429) is made with maple and has a very thin neck, much like the original Les Paul it attempts to replicate, according to one expert post.
Mahogany is another wood commonly used in cheap electric guitars, such as the Ibanez ARX320 Artist Electric Guitar (starting at $450). Mahogany is a bit lighter weight than maple and darker in color. A user comments at Harmony Central that the body of the Ibanez ARX320 yields a good amount of sustain (i.e., how long a note can be held until you no longer hear it).
Rosewood is often used for the fretboard because of its relatively smooth texture, which makes sliding fingers up and down easier. The Epiphone G-400 SG has a fretboard made of rosewood, but as many users note, including one at Harmony Central, rosewood is heavy, so the neck is likely to slide down because it will throw the balance off when the guitar is strapped on a player.
Basswood is a wide-grained, softer wood that's almost always used for the cheapest electric guitars, like the Squier by Fender Bullet Stratocaster HSS Electric Guitar with Tremolo (starting at $119). A user posting comments on Ultimate-Guitar.com says the Squier by Fender Bullet Stratocaster feels very light.
Electric Guitar Neck Build.The way the neck attaches to the guitar body affects its intonation; that is, how well it stays in tune. There's nothing worse than a guitar that drops out of tune quickly.A set-in neck, like that on the Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plain Top, connects with the body at the rear, sort of like two pieces of a puzzle, and is glued in place. It's often said that a set-in neck has better sustain than other build types.
A bolt-on neck is just that -- bolted to the body. As Sweetwater explains, a bolt-on neck was devised by Leo Fender when he created the Telecaster and subsequently became the basis for many future guitar designs. The Fender Standard Telecaster Electric Guitar (starting at $499), still a popular and relatively cheap electric guitar, has a bolt-on neck. Every Stratocaster (the primary models made by Fender) has a bolt-on neck; the Fender Starcaster Strat Electric Guitar (starting at $150) is one very inexpensive example.
The neck-through-body design makes the neck a core part of the body. Everything is set on this piece of wood, including the electronics; Gibson's Firebird is a good example of this style. While some players disagree about the advantages of this build technique, many bass guitars, such as ESP's LTD D6 ($450), are constructed this way.
Electric Guitar Neck Width.The width and feel of an electric guitar's neck affects your style, according to the experts at Music Gear Review, and may be more or less suited to certain types of music. It's easier to play fast on a thin neck, for example, while a fatter neck is better for playing chords in long stretches. What really matters, though, is what's comfortable for you. The Fender Standard Telecaster has a thin neck, which some users posting on Ultimate-Guitar.com find very easy to play. The Epiphone G-400 SG, by contrast, has a thicker neck.
Electric Guitar Pickups.Pickups, electronic magnets placed under the strings to distinguish their movements and sound, affect how a guitar is played and its overall sound. Experienced guitarists often find that the stock pickups that come with a guitar don't produce the tone they want, although an amateur player might not notice the difference between stock pickups and fancy new ones. Buying replacement pickups will cost you anywhere from $50 to $300, depending on the quality, but can be helpful in getting better sound from cheap electric guitars.The most common pickup for cheap electric guitars is single-coil, like that found on the Fender Standard Telecaster. These pickups can be arranged underneath the strings between the neck and the bridge, or where the strings are held. Sweetwater experts explain that single-coil pickups produce clean, translucent sound and are usually good for pop, blues, and country music. One downside to some single coil pickups is that they sometimes interact with a nearby electrical source to produce a hum.
Enter humbucker pickups, which were introduced to repel the hum caused by electrical interference. The resulting sound is warm and smooth, and particularly suited to rock, jazz, and blues. The Ibanez ARX320 is decked out with two humbuckers, which give this cheap electric guitar a warm and versatile sound, according to users at Musician's Friend.
Like many electric guitars, the Epiphone G-400 SG has a pickup switch that changes the way the guitar's two pickups read the strings: one setting uses the front pickup close to the neck, another uses the rear pickup near the bridge, and the third uses both pickups at once. According to a user posting on Music Gear Review, the pickups give you a smooth sound in one position and an all-out rock buzz in another.
Electric Guitar Bridge.There are two types of bridges on guitars: tremolo (or whammy bar, as they're sometimes called) and stoptail. Tremolo bridges, like that found on the Fender Starcaster Strat, sit above the body. They're good at bending notes and adding natural tremolo to a song. But here's the catch -- cheaper electric guitars often fall out of tune quickly with tremolo bridges. The Starcaster is guilty of this problem, notes a user posting on Harmony Central.The stoptail bridge is very sturdy and holds its tune better because it's attached to the guitar body. Sweetwater notes that many guitarists believe the sustain of a stoptail bridge is superior to that of a tremolo bridge. The Les Paul Standard Plain Top has a stoptail bridge that users appreciate for its good quality and sound, according to electric guitar reviews on Musician's Friend.
Best Electric Guitars
Inexpensive electric guitars may have cheaper parts and a more economical design, but according to electric guitar reviews, many sound darn good from the get go. And remember, any guitar can be improved upon; change the pickups, give it a tune up -- a cheap guitar will always benefit from some tinkering. But the critical first step is buying a good-quality instrument.
Sound Quality.When it comes to low priced electric guitars, you're automatically sacrificing some craftsmanship. But what you don't want to give up is tone and sound quality. Even if an inexpensive electric guitar has a few minor flaws, like a heavy neck or loose electronics, if its tone sings it's still a value buy. In electric guitar reviews, both users and experts laud the Ibanez ARX320 for its sound quality. One user writes on Harmony Central that it has a very full tone, particularly when using the full potential of both humbuckers. Another electric guitars review at Music123.com comments on the fullness of the sustain and the clarity of the sound.The super-cheap Epiphone LP Junior Special (starting at $129) may have some design and durability shortcomings, but its tone surpasses that of many similarly-priced guitars. According to electric guitars reviews on Music123, this guitar sings with a full sound, whether you're playing blues, rock or anything in between. The Epiphone LP Junior Special may need a few adjustments for optimum performance, but it's a solid guitar for beginners or kids.
Sound quality is also a hallmark of the Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plain Top. In an electric guitar review on YouTube, an expert compares the Standard Plain Top with the original Gibson Les Paul and concludes that the sound quality on this budget electric model deserves applause. While the pickups don't quite capture the sound that they do on the Gibson, the sound you do get is like no other moderately priced electric guitar. As an expert comments in an electric guitars review on Electric Guitar Planet, the sound is impressive and the pickups give good sustain, which suits a range of musical styles.
The Fender Standard Telecaster has long been a favorite of many players, and it's not just because of the stylish finish. An electric guitars review on this site concludes that the sound quality of the Standard Telecaster outperforms many other cheap electric guitars even though the pickups can get a bit noisy when in overdrive. And the Standard Telecaster is also praised by at an electric guitar review website, who commends its sound quality, and says it's a solid value and suitable for players at all levels.
A downscale version of the Gibson Standard SG, the Epiphone G-400 SG is a versatile and high quality instrument, according to electric guitar reviews on Musician's Friend, where one player describes the tone as fiery despite the humbucker pickups' occasional struggles with a lot of bass. Another electric guitars review on Music Gear Review asserts that the G-400 SG has good sustain and tone but suggests replacing the stock pickups.
Although the Squier by Fender Bullet Stratocaster is supposed to be an improvement over previous models, weaknesses remain. An electric guitars review on Musician's Friend reports that the guitar doesn't stay in tune and both the tone and sustain are deficient. Similar problems plague the Fender Starcaster Strat. According to an electric guitars review on Amazon, the guitar easily falls out of tune, its tone is weak, and the high E string has barely any body.
Durability.Most cheap electric guitars won't fall apart, but they may not stay in tune after a while. The Fender Starcaster Strat draws boos in an electric guitars review on Amazon because its tune-holding ability gives out quickly and the tremolo arm is vulnerable to breakage. Another player reports in an electric guitars review on TheTabWorld.com that the Fender Starcaster was unusable after a month; among other failures, it didn't stay in tune and the pickups stopped working. A player posting an electric guitars review on Musician's Friend agrees, and says there are better cheap electric guitars on the market.The Epiphone LP Junior Special Electric Guitar is another instrument with durability problems. It's prone to falling out of tune after a couple of months, according to electric guitars reviews on Musician's Friend, and it seems fragile (the finish chips and scratches easily). This is a common issue with very cheap electric guitars; new tuners will fix the tuning problem, but the finish will always be easy to ding because the quality of the wood is subpar.
On the other hand, there are several cheap but tough electric guitars. The Epiphone Les Paul Standard Plain Top never falls out of tune regardless how roughly it's played, notes an electric guitars review at Musician's Friend. Ditto with the Ibanez ARZ320; an electric guitars review on Harmony Central reports it holds its tune even after taking a solid hit, and another player writes on Musician's Friend that the hardware isn't the highest quality but the guitar has held up well for more than two years. The Epiphone G-400 SG is another cheap electric guitar with a reputation for durability despite some grousing about a fragile pickup selector switch. One user posting electric guitar reviews on this site says he's used the G-400 SG for a while at heavy metal rehearsals and it survived the punishing workouts.