Table of Contents
In our comparison chart below we gather some of the best guitars for beginners in the $100 to $600 price range, along with their ratings and links to more in-depth reviews. And make sure to check out our complete guide to buying an electric guitar just below the chart.
The Top 10 (+5 More) Entry Level Electric Guitars For Starters
The Complete And Ultimate Electric Guitar Buying Guide
A guitar is so much more than just a bit of wood with some strings. There are many different parts that all affect how a guitar looks, performs, and sounds – from the body and neck construction, to the pickups, bridge and strings. But remember that there is no right answer. Every player is unique, and everyone will have their own ideal guitar. Thankfully in this affordable price range you will find hundreds of makes and models, one of which is bound to be a perfect fit. So let’s look at what exactly makes up a guitar and what you should be looking out for when purchasing your first one.
There are so many body shapes – Strat, Tele, Les Paul, SG, Iceman, Jaguar, Soloist, Warlock, Mockingbird, and Flying V to name just a few! However they can be roughly categorized into three basic styles: single cutaway, double cutaway, and non-cutaway. This refers to the way the body wood is cut to allow access to the neck. Naturally a non-cutaway (like the Flying V style) provides the greatest access to the higher frets, with no obstruction whatsoever. A double cutaway (as seen on Fender’s Stratocaster and similar styles) gives you access to the neck from both sides, while a single cutaway (like a Les Paul or Telecaster style) gives you limited access to the upper frets on just one side of the neck.
The shape you go for will ultimately be defined by your budget and style. But while there is no correct shape, think about the long hours of practice you will be putting in. Perhaps a comfortable SG or Strat will be easier to hold than, say, a Flying V.
There are many woods that can be used to construct the body of the guitar, including ‘tonewoods’ such as alder, ash, basswood, korina, mahogany, maple and poplar. On guitars in our $100 to $600 price range you are most likely to encounter basswood, alder, and mahogany. Basswood is the most common on good budget electric guitars, as it’s the cheapest for manufacturers to use. However just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s bad – some very expensive signature models use basswood as their body wood (look at models from virtuosos like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani). All woods have different tonal properties and will all sound slightly different. Basswood is very light and has a warm sound; alder is also light with a more balanced tone; mahogany is heavier and very warm.
The scale length of an electric guitar essentially refers to the distance between the nut and the bridge, although the calculations are a little more complicated that that. At this stage we can forget how it is measured – all you need to know is what is right for you. A rule of thumb is that Fenders have a 25.5” scale length, Gibsons have a 24.75”, while you’ll find a range of others from 22” to 30”. In a nutshell – the shorter the scale length, the closer the frets are to each other.
Technically it’s only the difference of an inch or so – and for a first time electric guitar buyer it’s unlikely to sway a decision – but the scale length can actually make some difference when it comes to tone. For example the shorter the scale length the warmer the sound is said to be, and the easier the strings are to bend. However longer scale lengths will suit lead players and shredders, as there is slightly more space to work with.
Unlike bodies, the neck of the guitar is usually made from either maple or mahogany, which are strong and sturdy woods – the qualities you need from a neck. As for the fretboard, you will usually encounter maple and rosewood on guitars in this price range. Both are smooth, fast and offer good sustain.
The neck will either be set (essentially glued into the body) or a ‘bolt-on’, which is screwed in. You’ll usually be able to see the ‘bolts’ on the back of the guitar. There’s not a huge amount of difference sound-wise, although set necks are said to lend themselves to a warmer tone, while bolt-ons have a little more ‘snap’ and twang. As with many other aspects of the guitar, this is unlikely to be the decider for what model you go for – if you want a Stratocaster, you are getting a bolt-on neck, end of discussion!
Finally, when looking at a guitar – whether new or used – make sure the neck is straight, free from cracks and smooth to get up and down. It’s the part of the guitar you will interact with the most, so it has to be comfortable to use.
The profile of the neck will usually be classed as U, C, D, or V to reflect the shape of the back of the neck. Fast rock and metal players will probably prefer a modern flat U shape, with vintage players likely to prefer a Les Paul D shape. But there is no ‘best shape’ – it’s all personal preference.
The frets are slim metal bars that separate the fretboard, and there are usually around 22 or 24. When buying your first electric guitar, you won’t really need to concern yourself with what these are made of (usually nickel-steel or nickel-silver), but you may want to look at the size (narrow, medium, jumbo). Generally it’s agreed that it’s easier to bend strings on jumbo frets, and that they give a warmer, fatter sound. As a beginner, look towards the jumbo frets, but it’s not going to make too much of a difference to you at this stage.
The headstock is also an important part of the overall instrument, for both style and tuning stability. On higher end guitars the headstock will usually match the body color/graphic. The shape will often be determined by the style of guitar – rock or metal guitars will usually be pointed with all the tuners on one side, while a more vintage inclined guitar will have a traditional 3+3 style, with three tuners per side. But this is just the general rule – many guitars break the mold and throw a traditional headstock on a severe metal guitar. Or some have their own unique styles, in particular Dean, Washburn, and Jackson.
The tuners will usually be the most important thing when it comes to adjusting the string’s pitch, especially after restringing a guitar. These are more often than not standard, factory produced tuners that will do the job required and nothing more. Avoid plasticky tuners – they should feel metallic, solid, and have a nice smooth turning action. In general, the more you spend on a guitar, the better the tuners will perform.
Where the headstock meets the neck, you will find the nut – a thin strip of plastic, metal, or synthetic material that supports and separates the strings from each other. As with literally every other part of the guitar, the nut material and quality can affect the tone and playability. If you feel you are having any trouble with the nut after purchasing your guitar, a local guitar shop will be able to help you fix it relatively cheaply. You may also find a locking nut, which literally locks the strings in tune – allowing you to play as hard as you like and not have to dramatically re-tune after every session.
The bridge of the guitar holds the strings in place on the body and will play a part in the sustain. And unless you are looking at some unique styles of guitar, you will probably find two types of bridge – fixed or tremolo. The tremolo bridge, with its tremolo arm or ‘whammy bar’, gives you scope for some awesome techniques, like dive-bombing and pinch squeals. Be warned: lots of use will throw the strings out of tune, although some bridge/nut combos will lock to help maintain your tuning. With a fixed bridge you obviously don’t get the chance to use a whammy bar, but your tuning will be more stable and – because the bridge is fixed to the guitar – there is usually better sound transfer and more sustain.
You will find saddles on the bridge of the guitar – usually one per string. The saddles lift the strings away from the fretboard, and are adjustable so you can raise or lower the action (how high the strings sit off the fretboard). These are often made of metal, but higher end guitars may include string saving saddles – made from materials that actively lubricate the strings at the point of contact, lessening the stress and reducing string breakage.
There are no standards when it comes to controls. On some guitars it will be like the cockpit of an airplane; on others there will be one single knob. However, on the majority you will find at least one master volume control knob and one master tone knob – usually made of plastic or chrome – and a pickup selector switch, if there is more than one pickup. These are usually three-way or five-way. You can also find some extras, such as coil-tapping to split a humbucker into a single-coil pickup (more on pickups below), or a KillPot, which temporarily mutes the guitar with each press, allowing for some cool effects.
On the majority of guitars there will be one output jack – usually on the side or sometimes face of the body – although on some you may find two, for a stereo output. As long as it feels solid and doesn’t move around when you plug in the lead, the output jack is not something to concern yourself with.
Along with the body and neck, the pickups play a major part in defining a guitar’s sound. There are three main types you will encounter in this price range:
A single-coil pickup is the most basic of pickups, found on the majority of guitars – sometimes along with a humbucker or two, common combo in the reviews of the $300 electric guitars. The pickup has just one coil of wire wrapped around a single magnet, and creates a clean sound that’s usually described as sparkly, thin, bright and crisp. Single-coils tend to have a lower output than other pickups, but are good at cutting through a lot of noise, making them great for solos. Guitars which are best known for their single-coils are Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
The faithful humbucker is a versatile rock pickup that eliminates unwanted noises – two single-coil wires are wound together in series, which helps cancel (or ‘buck’) that hum. They provide a full, thick and meaty sound, and are excellent for rock and metal styles. Many guitars in this affordable $100 to $600 price range will offer a humbucker or two – look towards Ibanez, Schecter, Epiphone, and ESP in particular.
At the higher end of this price range (usually the top electric guitars around the $1000 mark) you may start to see active pickups on some guitars. These pickups have a battery-powered active preamp, which boosts the signal. Active pickups are great for heavier rock and metal – especially shredding – as they keep background noise to a minimum while the output is huge, and tone control very versatile. However they can be seen as a little cold, with less dynamic range than passive pickups.
Whichever pickup style you go for will be defined by your price range and musical style. It’s always worth trying a few guitars out – or watching videos of the guitars in action if buying online – to hear the kind of output you’d be getting.
You could buy a brand new $4000 Les Paul custom, but it would be pretty useless without strings. Whether you purchase a guitar online or in a local store, it will usually come strung up with standard factory strings, which are usually pretty poor on the cheaper models.
Strings come in a variety of gauges – ranging from .008 (the thinnest) to .56 (the thickest). The subtle size changes make quite a lot of difference. The lighter the string, the easier it is to play and makes string bending almost effortless. Heavier strings are excellent for the lower tunings (perfect for rock and metal), and produce more volume and sustain. However these are harder to play and may not be suited to beginners.
So if you need to buy new strings early in your guitar playing life, look at a set of 0.009s and you won’t go far wrong. Finally you can also find some pretty cool neon or multicolored strings out there – these are great for learning on and also give your performances that added visual edge.
Making A Sound: Amplifiers
Like strings, an amplifier is a vital piece of equipment. Without it you are technically playing a very, very quiet acoustic! But with about as many amps as there are guitars, what should you go for? There are two questions to ask before you decide – what is your budget and what are your aspirations?
Are you planning to jump on stage or start jamming with a band in the next year? If so, you’ll want something a little more powerful than if you are likely to practice and play by yourself. It could be false economy to buy a cheap amp now, then have to go out and buy a bigger one in the next few months. However, if you are a complete beginner, chances are you won’t have the skill or confidence to take to the stage immediately (unless you are a prodigy who is able to shred like Vai after one lesson).
With this in mind, it’s probably worth looking at a practice combo amp. For bedroom playing you don’t really need much more than 10 watts. There are some simple amps with basic controls – tone, bass, treble and gain, which will allow you to get a decent crunchy rock sound. However you’ll also be wise to consider an amp with built in distortion and effects, such as reverb, delay, and chorus. For bedroom playing, I personally use a Blackstar ID: Core Stereo Combo ($130) – 10 watts of power, straightforward to navigate, and loud enough for a bedroom or even jamming with another guitarist or two.
If you would rather spend more money on a guitar and save up for a bigger amp at a later stage, a smaller practice amp would also suffice. The VOX V9106 Pathfinder 10 is $79 and offers the same 10 watts, with gain, treble, bass controls and a clean/overdrive switch.
As with purchasing your guitar, an amp is a personal choice and one may give your playing style a better platform than another. Either listen to comparison videos online or pop into your local guitar store to try some out – preferably with the guitar you are considering. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a headphone jack so you can play late into the night without waking up the neighbors!
Finally let’s look at a couple of the essential extras you will need at the same time (or very soon after) purchasing your first electric guitar. A lead is undoubtedly the most important item – without one, the guitar has no way to communicate with the amp. A lot of the time the guitar will come with a lead, but make sure to check. If not, these are about $5.
A strap is very important for supporting your guitar, whether standing up or sitting down. These usually don’t come with the guitar (unless you buy a package), but a decent one can be picked up for under $10. A case is another essential to look at, whether storing the guitar or transporting it around. A hard shell case is ideal, but a soft padded gig bag would suffice, and usually only costs around $20-$30. You’ll also want to consider a digital tuner, which will help nail your tuning, while plectrums are a must – and only cost a few dollars for a ten pack.
Finally, you may want to consider a package, put together by the guitar manufacturer or your local guitar store. These will usually include a basic amp, lead, strap and plectrums, and may also give you a bag, tuner, and a guitar stand. It’s always worth checking how much the individual items would cost – as you may be better off buying things separately in the long run – but generally these packs will save you money, and are so convenient for beginners who own no equipment or accessories.
Before You Go Out There
As you have seen, there is a lot to consider when purchasing your first guitar. Some guitars are tailored to rock, some vintage, and some are just excellent all rounders. Whatever you choose will ultimately come down to personal taste and budget. If you have the chance to try some guitars out before you buy, do so! You can usually tell within the first minute whether it’s worth your money or whether you need to keep looking. Remember to sign up for our newsletter for tips, advice, guitar news, and reviews straight to your inbox. Good luck with the hunt for your perfect guitar!