If you’re looking for some helpful material in your search for the right guitar to learn how to play without breaking the bank, then you’ve come to the right place. If you’ve already been playing for a while and are searching on someone else’s behalf then you’ll appreciate that I’ve set a $300 budget on all my recommendations, I only speak from personal experience, and I won’t be bogging you down with a billion options. I recommend one brand for a category that I feel is able to consistently produce quality, durable electric guitars at a low-end price.
Buying a Quality Starter Guitar is Important
Choosing your first guitar is important – anyone who plays will remember exactly what their first guitar was like, and even if it was a true piece of garbage that fell apart, there’s a special bond that people form with that particular instrument. Liken it to your first kiss or some such sentimental thing, I see it as the key to a door that opens up a door to a new universe. The instrument you learn to play with is facilitating your transition into the world of electric guitars.
Now I don’t believe that any instrument made with today’s manufacturing processes is going to actually be useless enough to turn someone away from wanting to continue playing – CNC machines don’t really make mistakes, only the guys who select the wood and put it under the router bits. The mistakes would be pulled off the line anyway. But the hardware types and quality, pickups & electronics/wiring, strings, wood selection & finish quality, fretting, and assembly are all liable to suck.
When you’re just starting out, you don’t need an authentic vintage ‘59 Sunburst Gibson Les Paul when an Epiphone will be more than sufficient (and maybe a bit better, considering the weight difference will be more comfortable to hang around your neck).
Maybe it would seem to be a better investment to go straight for the highest quality electric guitar money can buy right from the start because – are you not going to upgrade soon after you’ve already spent money on a guitar that is just “sufficient”? Yeah, at some point you’re going to want to upgrade, but not until you’ve had the time to learn how to play and learn exactly what your needs are from an instrument that has so many options.
Dual active – humbuckers, 24 higher gauge frets, a Floyd Rose bridge, and a black finish – the natural upgrade from Squire to Fender simply isn’t going to satisfy (except for the black finish, Fender does do that).
For a beginner, we’re looking for is durability, ease of play, and economy – so let’s look at some popular brands that can deliver this consistently.
Can you buy a good starter guitar for $300?
I’m going to keep the list short and categorize by brand’s flagship models of a particular style. Only brands that I’m experienced enough with to promote, as well…I don’t believe in promoting anything I don’t know about. I’m also setting a price cap of $300 – I don’t believe you need to spend any more than that to get everything you need as a beginner, though I don’t necessarily discourage it since my first guitar was an Ibanez SZ320 ($375 sale / $425 list, if I remember correctly – and discontinued now, sadly) and it’s still my favorite instrument, believe it or not…that’s another story though.
Squier guitars started out as Fender knockoffs, but then Fender saw fit to absorb the company and keep the brand name as a label for their lower priced models. Squire is quite proud of this, so you’ll see them marketed as “Squier by Fender”. That doesn’t really annoy me though, these are solid instruments that’ll last a while. They’re not without their detractors though. My little brother’s first guitar was a Squier and I played it many a time whilst watching TV in his room. It had some poorly filed fret tangs that’d bite at your fingers, maybe even pull a little skin if you slid up the neck quickly and didn’t have the calluses I’ve developed over the years. I dunno if they just machined them off during the manufacturing process without having someone on the line file them properly, or what, but it’s possible that they’ve resolved this issue by now since this was a guitar manufactured around 2001. It was certainly still playable.
For durability, the electronics are solid to this day (~15 years) and has not had any truss-rod adjustments needed either, so the neck is solid (in spite of the grain having some twisting patterns). I will note, however, that the finish on the neck started to wear after about 8 years, resulting in some dead patches that can be pretty bothersome when you’re moving your palm / thumb up the neck. All in all, that guitar has been awesome, and many others have found the same durability in theirs. It didn’t stop me from building a completely custom hollow-body Telecaster with hand-wound pickups for him one Christmas, but that Strat’s still going.
|Starter Packs (Practice Amp Combos)|
|Squier Affinity Stratocaster Beginner Electric Guitar Pack||$299|
|Squier Affinity Stratocaster Beginner Electric Guitar Pack II||$219|
|Squier Affinity Stratocaster HSS||$229|
|Squier Affinity Telecaster (Left-Handed)|
(Right-Handed Model Here!)
|Squier Mustang (H-H)||$179|
Epiphone is to Gibson as what Squier is to Fender – Gibson purchased the company after WWII and they continue to make high quality lower-end Gibson designs today – and they serve as perfect starter guitars. But they have had a bit more success with their own electric guitar models (the Epiphone Casino, for example), as well as various other stringed instruments like upright basses and banjos. My experience with them doesn’t come from ownership, but plenty of hours playing multiple models belonging to close friends during the formative years of my guitaring life. My personal experience had been an incredible ease of play, which can most certainly be attributed to the 24.75” neck scale that most every Gibson and Epiphone uses (the Fender standard is 25.5”). This can be an excellent selling point for young players who are just learning (and is also a just general preference of many lifelong guitarists) because of the lower string tension – and there’s a satisfying feeling of brushing your pick down the strings while playing chords. You can transition between notes/chords much more easily and avoid buzzing with less finger strength. Never did I note any electronic or hardware issues with these instruments either. Since I’m not an owner, though, you may prefer to take the word of my good friend and fellow guitar god, Steve Tague, whose first guitar was an Epiphone Les Paul model that I remember well:
“Epiphones have a slimmer neck than most Les Paul’s, so starting with a medium sized neck is great for any beginner. They usually have good humbuckers that make the guitar scream. It can be used for jazz, rock, blues, reggae and even heavy metal. The price point is extremely affordable, color choices are always good and the guitar stays good if you take care of it. I still have my Epiphone, I’ve had it for 20 years and it still rips!”
These guitars are ubiquitous in metal music, generally of the heavier variety. Most models are made to cater to the needs of people wanting to play more technical music, and I can attest to their suitability for that. But they also sell lots of models that can serve as perfect starter guitars. As I mentioned before, my first guitar was an Ibanez and I still use it as my main guitar – no, I’m not a bum with no experience. I’ve have been playing for a good 16 years or so, and in that time I’ve also trained as a professional luthier under some extremely competent instruction, and worked considerably on guitars performing repairs, modifications, upgrades, and complete builds. I’ve played many guitars, and even after building myself a neck-through baritone 7-string that I thought would satisfy my growing needs, I still felt a stronger connection with the same old Ibanez SZ320 I’d been playing for over a decade. It’s been absolutely, positively the most comfortable instrument I’ve ever played.
Unlike the previous brands, Ibanez is not necessarily known for their low-end models – they produce guitars in mid to high range pricing, and beautiful ones at that. But it seems their low end models are benefitting from the same high quality manufacturing standards – the same care on the production line. As with every guitar company, the hardware quality is sliding up and down with the price range, but Ibanez has a bigger selection of bridges across their models. The most popular are the Floyd Rose type bridges, which are a staple of the brand. Ibanez makes Licensed Floyd Roses and multiple versions of similar floating tremolos, the Edge series being something to watch out for since their newer versions are apparently made out of a ‘mystery metal’ that may lose its ability to hold the guitar in tune if it’s subjected to hard dive bombs and the like (the stuff you probably can’t wait to do) because of its alleged malleability.
Other than that, you’re gonna find some awesome carved tops, neck-through construction (at least the SZ series had it), a decent set of humbuckers to get you going, properly filed frets, and all of the hardware fitted snugly. The lower models tend to have 22 frets, which is not much of a big deal when you’re just learning. Over the coming years, you may find yourself wanting to upgrade the pickups, depending on the model you’re going for, but that’s nothing when you consider the build quality.
I’ve worked on quite a few of them, so I’ve had a close look at multiple models of varying price ranges, and all of the necks I’ve seen were much less problematic than the average. In summation, excellent build quality.
|Ibanez IJRX20Z Jumpstart Set||$229|
|Ibanez AX120 Starter Pack||$199|
|Ibanez AS53TF Semi-Hollow Guitar||$299|
|Ibanez GRX70QATBB Electric Guitar||$199|
|Ibanez GRX20ZBKN Electric Guitar||$149|
|Ibanez GRG Series GRG131DXBKF Guitar||$229|
Electric-Acoustic Guitars (Piezo Pickups)
You won’t find too many low-end electric-acoustic starter guitars with magnetic soundhole pickups, and piezo pickups tend to be as good as the preamps they’re plugged into. I also actually didn’t find much tonal difference when I exchanged a US made mid-range preamp system with a cheap Chinese one, so maybe you don’t care for my opinions on these items. But one thing I can be confident about is the construction of acoustic guitars. I was playing classical guitar exclusively for a few years, so I’ve held a few more classical models than regular acoustics but the same building principles apply in most respects anyway.
Poorly made low-end acoustic models models can have some truly atrocious hardware that doesn’t want to stay in place, so you get tuning machines wiggling around and bridge pins worn from the steel string windings pulling and rubbing against them. My recommendations are more concerned with something often overlooked: the finish.
On cheaper acoustics you always seem to get a gallon of lacquer dumped across the whole thing. Maybe it’s something to do with cheapening the manufacturing process. The thick coat (polyurethane, nitrocellulose, whatever) deadens the resonance qualities of the top wood so you don’t get much presence and you’ll find the notes drop off much quicker compared to less-lacquered guitars when you let them ring out. You’ll also find the coating thickens around the neck joint (probably thanks to gravity at the time of spraying) and, at least in my case, I get little spots of resistance to my hand sliding up closer to the neck joint. This could be argued in a polyurethane / nitrocellulose dialogue, but that’s not for today.
Yamaha guitars seem to be manufactured with an even, healthy amount of polyurethane that isn’t bunching up everywhere. The bridges were virtually all polished rosewood, glued and clamped solidly and clean cuts on the lacquer without gaps or uneven thickness made apparent by creeping up the sides anywhere. So – that’s my experience with lower-end Yamaha starter guitars, and I’ll say it’s been quite a good one.
In review, my brand choices for lower end guitar models are as follows:
I had a section of this article marked “Duds” for brands that I’d found some serious issues with, but after searching around for models to buy on Google, I saw that there was usually a few negative reviews on these particular brands & models that touched on the same grievances. It’s not always a sound method to just go by someone else’s word, and if you have the opportunity to just go sit down in the shop and play a bunch of guitars to get a feel for what you like best – do that first. If you’re buying as a gift and don’t really play guitar yourself, I stand by the aforementioned brands.
For further reading on the matter of purchasing electric guitars, feel free to continue on to the Smart Buyer’s Guide for Used Guitars.