Table of Contents
If you ask me, the $500 price range is the sweet spot for electric guitars. You are spending enough money that you are getting past all of the cheap crap that they pitch to the beginners, and — if you don’t get distracted by gimmicks — can get an instrument that actually has the quality of components needed to start delivering impressive sound.
Most people will never own a guitar worth much more than $500. If you shop carefully, this purchase will last you your whole life — or hold its resell value well if you switch hobbies or decide to upgrade.
At this price point, the trick is getting the most value for your money. There are a lot of heavily-marked-up guitars available in this price range as manufacturer‘s hope that shoppers will equate the higher price with a better product. Thankfully, you are doing your research ahead of time, and I hope to steer you to a few good options.
For this list, I focused on durability and tone. You want a model that is going to last, but you also want it to sound really, really good. Here is the list of guitars. I am confident that they will deliver the sound that will blow your fellow band mates away — and yet durable enough to be carefully handed down to your kids.
How Durable Are Foreign-Made Guitars?
There is an understandable stigma with purchasing items made in other countries. We are used to always being held hostage to sub-par construction and there is a mistrust with most items made in China and Mexico.
If you stick with brand-name companies that have a long track-record and who want to protect their brand-name than you should be pretty safe. One of the best examples is the Fender Squier line. They make these guitars at a factory just across the US border in Mexico. This gives them the tax breaks they need to be able to sell them for a huge discount… but the guitars are some of the best you can get for the money.
1. Top Pick- The Schecter Omen Extreme
Schecter has become a popular brand over the past decade thanks to their impressive guitars that took many guitarists by surprise. Instead of trying to create a jack of all trades, Schecter focused on delivering instruments catered to the most aggressive genres of metal. When face melting distortion is the name of the game, Schecter is the best tool for the job. Today we are going to take a look at their Omen Extreme-6 and talk about what makes this particular guitar a top-level shredding machine.
Omen Extreme-6 falls within Schecter’s mid-range lineup, featuring some of the best components in this group of models. The body is made of Mahogany and sports an arched top design bound in a Creme multi-ply binding. With a quilted maple finish, the overall appearance of this guitar is breathtaking. This Schecter comes with a Floyd Rose bridge that is one of the better ones in this price range on the market. It holds the tuning and isn’t fragile at all.
Electronics of choice are two Diamond Plus humbuckers that can be found on several other Schecter models. While higher tier Schecters usually come with EMG active pickups, these passive Diamond Plus humbuckers are a bit more flexible in terms of tone.
The tone this piece of art is capable of delivering is packed full of power and headroom. From the moment you plug it into an amp, and add a decent distortion to your signal chain, you will realize that metal just comes naturally to this model. Humbuckers are very articulate and expressive, while they definitely don’t lack the potential to push even the more saturated, gain heavy distortions with ease. This makes them somewhat streamlined. If your choice of music genres goes beyond metal or heavy rock, you might have a problem with this guitar. While you can definitely do some slightly fuzzy blues, don’t expect to get a Fender Stratocaster type tone out of this guitar. These two guitars are polar opposites, and not only due to the different nature of their pickups either.
This is a guitar designed and created for all kinds of metal. That is no secret. If this is something you are looking for, you will be blown away when you pick up this piece. The heavy and robust tone is something Schecter knows how to do well, and this Omen is a perfect example of that. If you’re looking for the best guitar for metal, this is a valid choice within the given price range.
Schecter Guitar Research guitars are not what you would call a general purpose electric guitar. Their models are genre specific tools that will get you a whole lot of performance for not a lot of money. If you are looking for a great choice for playing metal that can handle the tone you want, this is definitely a way to go. Bottom line is that Omen Extreme-6 will be the best tool in your toolbox as long as you understand what this guitar was built to do.
2. Second Choice: The Fender Standard Stratocaster
Every guitarist should take a moment to write a nice thank you letter to the people at Fender for the inspired concept of a Mexican Stratocaster. This move has made owning a Fender a more accessible dream than ever before.
These made-in-Mexico Strats (also known as “MIMs” among the trendy, abbreviating folks) use the same stock parts as their American made brothers. They’re even inspected here in the U.S., but assembly south of the border means you can have one for a fraction of the cost of a domestic Strat.
Why do musicians of all skill levels and backgrounds covet the Strat? For one thing, it’s a piece of history. Gracing the stage for the last 60 years, it’s something of a status symbol (Strat-us symbol? No, okay, let’s not make that pun ever again…) among guitarists.
When you own a Stratocaster, it’s like you join some kind of brotherhood. The unspoken camaraderie among Strat owners is really pretty cool.
An additional reason why musicians love them is that—because they’re a pillar in the musical community—they’re also one of the most popular, easiest, and cheapest instruments to customize. Upgrades and custom pieces can be found in droves online and in music shops worldwide. All that availability means they’re also relatively easy and cheap to repair when something goes wrong. With the proper upkeep, this investment can conceivably be passed down to your grandkids.
While the pickups are usually the first thing musicians upgrade when customizing their Standard, the 3 single coil pickups it comes equipped with offer lots of room to play with a myriad of crystal clear tones and are certainly more than sufficient for the casual player.
Another popular area for modification is the strings. The stock strings are a very light gauge and are easy to play, but lack the dimension of weightier varieties. Switch them out for some medium gauge strings and the difference is like hearing your guitar in 3D.
Changing the strings will also necessitate installing some tremolo springs, since the amount of tension on your bridge will be increased considerably. Fortunately, such an installation is easy and inexpensive.
The Strat Standard is pretty well known for its sporty, classic feel. From the vintage vibe of the bridge to the sleek, 70’s style headstock with the brazen Fender logo, this is a lush mix of modern verve and unapologetic throwback style.
The 9.5-inch radius neck has more of an arc than the usual 12 inch, which may pose a bit of a learning curve (hyuk) for those who are used to playing something else.
But I would say you’ll likely find yourself accustomed to it within a couple of days of playing. The neck’s durable satin poly finish is clear, shiny, and ready to stand up to years of wear, so don’t be shy about practicing as much as you need to in order to adjust to the radius.
The tremolo is honestly pretty lackluster and falls out of tune easily. If you use your trem a lot, you may want to consider making that an early modification if you go with this guitar.
While lacking some of the gloss and tonal detail of its American made counterpart, the Fender Stratocaster Standard is, on the whole, a really, really nice piece.
It’s a reliable favorite from a brand that’s been trusted for more than half a century. This instrument is versatile, versatile, versatile and will lend itself well to any genre you wish to explore.
3. The Fender Modern Tele Plus
Fender guitars have been and still are among the best. Pure and simple. Their Stratocaster has reached legendary heights over the years, but there is one more Fender model that usually slips under the radar. Fender Telecaster offered what Stratocaster couldn’t. A heavier tone packed in a body that still retained all the attributes people loved on a Stratocaster. Finding a good Fender Telecaster is an expensive ordeal. These don’t come cheap. On that note, Fender does have a line of Telecaster that is catered to the budget crowd. Fender Modern Player Tele Plus is one such model.
What you see here is a Pine body Telecaster that comes with a C-shaped Maple neck and glossy Maple fretboard. That’s probably as standard as it comes for a Telecaster. The choice of finishes is somewhat limited. This particular model comes with a very dark sunburst finish. If looks were the only criteria, this Tele would pass with flying colors. What many people find as the main flaw here is the fact that it was manufactured in China. However, this was one of the tradeoffs that allowed Fender to cut down the price of this model. Even though it’s made in China, Fender’s quality control policies still apply. There is nothing mediocre about this guitar.
Electronics found on this Tele are an interesting combination of traditional Telecaster setup and some Strat vibes. You get a bridge humbucker, a middle Strat single-coil, and a Telecaster neck single-coil. All of these are controlled with a 5-way switch that can split the humbucker as well. With these three pickups, you can dial in a wide range of tones.
The performance of Fender’s Modern Player Tele is a whole new territory. Telecaster purists will find this guitar odd, to say the least. Bridge humbucker gives it a well-rounded rhythm tone that can drive even the more aggressive rock leads while the single coils just shine when you need a nice blues tone. There’s a lot of low-end power with this guitar. The humbucker is definitely deeper in range than a standard Telecaster humbucker. Even when you split the coils, it still carries a decent punch. You could go as far to say that it has a similar tone as the bridge humbucker on the Epiphone Les Paul Standard.
Depending on what genre of music you want to play, this Telecaster can give you that vintage sound. What Fender gave us with this model is a very affordable ticket into a signature tone. Sure, it falls behind a standard Telecaster in some ways, but it still delivers a large chunk of the same experience.
Fender made a very smart move with Fender Modern Player Tele Plus. They designed a very affordable instrument that is in top tier Squier territory but has a Fender tag on it. This detail alone will attract a large user base who want to own a Fender, but can’t afford one of the models from the mid-range line-up. All in all, this Tele is definitely a good deal.
4. The Epiphone Les Paul Standard
This is another classic. The Les Paul Standard has been gracing stage and studio for over 50 years.
Generally, when you hear the name “Les Paul”, you think of “Gibson” in the same instant, but Epiphone’s model is making this instrument more accessible to the everyman. Isn’t that wonderful? For a fraction of the price, some of the features of the original aren’t going to be the same, but it really is so much guitar—so, so much guitar—for the money. It really has the legit Les Paul vibe to it, all the way down to the weighty feel and the chunky, vintage neck.
Alnico Classic humbucker pickups aren’t exactly top of the line, but they still deliver a savory, gritty sound that carries and sustain that just keeps on going. For a casual player or beginner, they’ll definitely do the trick.
Some musicians are dismayed when the part they’ve ordered to customize or repair their instrument arrives and doesn’t fit. The Epiphone Les Paul doesn’t always take a standard sized part, so you’ll want to double check the specs before you order anything like that. Fret buzz is another common issue with this model, but it’s easy enough to make a few adjustments to the strings in order to correct it.
The tone is lush and sustained. You can hear each and every note individuated and layering one on top of another, even with distorted chords that other guitars would turn to sonic mush.
Jam away and love every nuance as you do.
The Les Paul is super durable, making it a great companion for a musician who possesses what we’ll diplomatically call “an enthusiastic stage presence” (you know who you are). This instrument will take all of your abuse and reward you with bright, clear tones and lots of all around charisma.
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard is a great option for the musician who has an eye on the Gibson Les Paul but nowhere near enough money. If you’re a serious Les Paul devotee, you may find yourself pining for the bank breaker a little further down the road, and if you buy it, you’ll see there is, in fact, a big difference between a Gibson and an Epiphone.
But until that day comes, you only have around $500 to spend on your dream guitar. And, for that this range, this will do quite well.
The Final Pick: The Dean Speaketh
Bringing up the rear, we have the Dean Custom 350F with Floyd Rose Special tremolo bridge. This 24-fret guitar has a maple top, basswood back, and a maple C neck. Its sporty double cutaway body makes a striking silhouette, and the pearl custom inlays make for a really nice touch.
One really fun feature here is the coil-splitting capability, which gives your humbucking pickups loads of mileage. Do you remember how we talked about the difference between humbuckers and single coil pickups a few minutes ago? Well, the 350F makes it possible for you to split the dual coils in your humbuckers in order to trade in your dark, gritty tones for that glassy, sweet, single coil sound. It’s another clever way the guitar fairies have devised to bring the best of both worlds into one instrument. The pups on this guitar, in particular, are quite responsive. The bridge pickup makes for a tone that’s heavy, crunchy, and a little metallic. The neck pickup, by contrast, has a fluid, jazz-and-bluesy tone that’s really quite nice. Splitting your coils buffs out a bright, clear quality in your guitar’s sound.
Let’s talk about this guitar’s namesake whammy bar. The Floyd Rose Special is an industry standard for a reason. This tremolo will stand up to all the aggressive harmonic drives you can dish out and still hold its tune when you’re done. The bar is positioned in a great spot, easily and even intuitively accessible, minimizing the “real estate” you’ll need to cover when playing. The tone is well-suited to genres beyond metal. Try it on for a little rockabilly or jazz and see if I’m lying.
Some drawbacks: The craftsmanship on this model leaves a little to be desired. The mechanically installed pearl inlays, for example, are not always so delicately inlaid. Sometimes the fretboard can look a little hinky has a result. The finish may have a little nick or scratch, even when arriving new in the box.
These issues are minute and easy to overlook, but it’s still something to consider. The frets can be a little uneven, which can cause some buzz. That’s easily remedied by filing the frets down a bit, but until then, it may not be an ideal instrument for fast fretting.
The stringing method with this model in particular is a little offbeat as well…you thread the string from the string nut at the top of the neck all the way down to the bridge, where it’s clamped before tuning.
This method can actually be a little hazardous if you don’t clamp the strings tight enough, so exercise a little extra care and—as you should do with any stringing—always tune away from your face in case a string snaps. (I can tell you from experience that a snapped string to the face really hurts. I only made that mistake once, let me tell you.)
Hiccups aside, this guitar brings miles and miles of value for the price you pay with a decent dose of style dolloped on top. The 350F is my pick for the beginning musician looking to make the transition from hobby to craft…it’s also an ideal candidate for permanent fixture in the casual musician’s arsenal.