If you're in the market for a cheap electric guitar, your primary goal is to find a decent instrument that will provide you with years of enjoyable playing. You don't have to shell out a fortune to get a guitar that will suit your needs. You just need to know what to look for and what to avoid.
Well-Known Guitar Brands
The golden rule of purchasing a good quality, affordable guitar is to stick with established, well-known brands that offer high-end instruments in addition to their bargain instruments. If you've never heard of a particular brand of guitar, there's probably a reason. Companies that only make cheap guitars tend to cut more corners to keep their costs down. Stick with brands that are established and well known, such as:
For decades, Fender has been one of the most celebrated brands in guitars. Their electric guitars have shaped the development of modern music. Consequently, it's no surprise that Fender's bargain brand, Squier, provides standards by which all other bargain electric guitars are judged.
Since the 1950s, Gibson has been a major innovator in the design of electric guitars. Epiphone, a subsidiary of Gibson, offers various Gibson guitar models like the Les Paul and the SG at more affordable prices.
What to Avoid
It's important to know what you need to avoid when you're shopping for an electric guitar in a budget price range. Off-brands rely on insidious techniques to sell cheaply-made guitars that will prove useless over time. If you're not careful, you could wind up buying a piece of junk you might not even be able to play at all. A guitar that looks cool but won't stay in tune is a waste of money.
A lightning bolt-shaped guitar with a splashy paint job might look good sitting in a stand, but the watchword here is beware. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. In reality the instrument in question, if it's manufactured by an off-brand, is likely a cheap novelty guitar that won't stand up to serious playing.
Light Gauge Strings
Off-brand guitars might seem to have light-falling action and cool distortion. Such guitars are usually strung with light gauge strings. Light strings make a guitar easier to play since the strings bend easily, cause less pain in your fingers, and make the guitar feel good in your hands. The truth is, though, that light gauge strings on a poorly-constructed guitar can result in poor intonation and tuning ability.
Thin Necks and Bodies
Guitars that have skimpily-built bodies and necks are highly susceptible to atmospheric damage and will soon begin to bow and warp. On cheaply-made guitars, adjustable truss rods can't compensate for wood movement, rendering the instruments unplayable. Guitars like these invariably use bottom-of-the-line hardware and cannot stay in tune for any length of time, particularly during aggressive playing.
Signs of Quality
The larger, well-known brands have buying power that allows them to use high quality hardware and materials, meaning you'll wind up with a better inexpensive guitar if you choose a model made by a recognized brand. If you compare these models with the more cheaply made off-brand guitars, the quality in the former is obvious.
Good Quality Wood
Decent quality wood means that the guitar will be more resistant to warping and bowing. The result is an affordable instrument that is capable of tuning and, more importantly, staying in tune.
Established guitar brands use decent bridges and tuning heads for their more affordable models. Good quality hardware helps ensure that an instrument will stay in tune, have good sustain, and stand up to serious playing. Budget Ibanez and Yamaha guitars generally have good distortion pickups, while Fender Squier and Epiphone feature a classic, clean sound.
Getting the Best Deal for Your Money
Each instrument is a unique individual, and that's as true for inexpensive guitars as it is for high-end guitars. Even though the guitars are manufactured on assembly lines, each one will have a slightly different personality.
Try Before You Buy
It's a good idea to play an instrument before you buy it. Check the tuning, intonation, and action. If the guitar doesn't pass these tests, don't waste any more time with it. When you find a guitar that plays properly, play it hard, and make sure it stays in tune. You don't have to do Pete Townsend windmills, but strum it with authority and do some string bends. If it passes this test, then you probably have a winner.
The Importance of Sound
If you're testing an inexpensive guitar that seems to have lots of cool distortion, consider whether all that distortion might be hiding something. Try making the guitar sound clean, if that's possible. If you hear a thin tone with weak sustain, the hallmark of a guitar that's a piece of junk, then give the instrument a quick pass. Good guitars always sound great whether the sound is clean and bright or loud and dirty.
If you'll be buying a guitar online, sight-unseen, then go for a model made by one of the well-known brands. Differences in wood grain between instruments account for most of the variation in how individual guitars sound, but frets and finish also play their roles. Guitars that are manufactured by established brands will be a lot more consistent in quality from one individual instrument to the next.
A Good Investment
A skillful player can make a cheap guitar sound great, but a great guitar won't help a beginning guitar player sound any better. Many guitar players get their start by playing cheap models before working their way up to higher-end instruments. Whether you are a beginner or renewing an interest in playing, your purchase of a good quality, inexpensive guitar is a solid investment that will pay off with many years of enjoyment.