Reviewing some of the best electric guitars for beginners under $300

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Best Beginner Electric Guitars (under $400)

Rejoice, all ye who want to play the six-string lute! Nowadays, budget-conscious prices do not have to mean a massive compromise on quality. In the world of guitars, we are especially lucky to have a good number of reputable, world-renown brands that offer great quality instruments at very affordable prices. Now more than ever, a tight budget does not mean a crappy guitar. In fact, I own or have owned a few of these low-priced guitars myself! One of my backup guitars (that I take to gigs abroad where I have to fly, especially with budget airlines) it a Squier Telecaster that retails new for under 200 dollars (see my writeup on it further down below). My main bass guitar, that I’ve used for most of my professional bass gigs as well as all studio recordings over the past three years, is a Squier P-Bass. They’ve served me well, and they’ve always done the job… in fact, I know loads of fellow musicians who use these ‘budget’ instruments for certain types of gigs.

Important note before we begin :

I’ve compiled a list of guitars that should be more than good enough to get you started on your guitar journey, while capping the budget at $400. This amount of money can definitely buy you a reliable instrument which you can use for years to come. The price range for some of these guitars is a little bit higher than your typical ‘beginner guitar’, however the reason I’ve included them is because to be honest, for a little bit more money you can get a lot more quality. As a matter of fact, none of the guitars that will follow can be considered to be purely ‘beginner guitars’, since I know many intermediate and even advanced players who use or have used one or more of these instruments. This means that you won’t need to swap out your guitar after a year of playing because you feel like it’s limiting your progress, meaning that it will be an investment worth making in the long run. With that in mind, let’s get started :

 

Squier Affinity Telecaster (USA / Europe)

Ah Squier! How could we not mention these guys? Squier are a subsidiary of Fender, and offer a more budget conscious range of guitars based on the classic Fender guitar designs. Now I’m aware that you’re supposed to stay neutral when writing up these kinds of reviews… and I will do my absolute best, but it might prove to be tricky. See I actually own one of these guitars, which I bought second hand off a mate of mine for ยฃ50 (that’s around $70) a few years ago. I’ve used that guitar for rock gigs, funk gigs, I’ve flown with it to France, The Channel Islands, and back to the UK. I’ve recorded with it, practiced with it… it’s even featured on some songs that I wrote a couple of years back that were used for TV shows and radio ads! The Fender Telecaster is a famously versatile guitar while simultaneously managing to have a very distinct sound, and the Squier equivalent is really no different. Let’s dive a bit deeper.

Body and Neck

Featuring the classic single cutaway tele design, this guitar features an alder body (same as the Yamaha), a bolt-on maple neck and a rosewood fingerboard with 22 medium-jumbo frets. The neck is a very comfortable C shape profile that makes it easy to play both chords as well as single notes. I personally think that the neck on a telecaster is the most comfortable type of neck there is, it just feels extremely natural when I’m playing it, offering just the right amount of resistance to my hands and fingers. All of this should be taken with a healthy dose of salt though, since everybody has their own preferred style and feel of neck, and what works for me might not necessarily work for you! That said, Tele necks are renowned for their comfort, and you could do much worse in this department.

Pickups

There’s no other way about it… a Tele will always sound like a Tele! What I mean by that is that these guitars have a very distinct, biting sort of sound that makes clean tones pop out and overdriven sounds extremely clear and defined (Killing In The Name Of by Rage Against The Machine was recorded on an inexpensive Tele, and is a great example of that distinctive ‘bite’ and definition even when going for heavier sounds). I can personally attest to this, having used this type of guitar on a lot of different styles as previously mentioned. A lot of this uniqueness in sound boils down to the pair of trademark alnico single coil pickups that this guitar comes equipped with. A three way pickup selector lets you choose either one or a blend of both. The bridge pickup has ‘twang’ for days, and is basically THE sound of country guitar. It’s also great for rock, offering a lovely sustained crunch on both rhythm and lead. The middle pickup offers a lovely blend of single coil bite with a bit more of a rounded low end, making it great for playing syncopated single lines or even chords. The neck pickup is very warm sounding, and with a bit of tone rolled off can even offer a fantastic jazzy tone. So there you go, pretty much any tone configuration you could want enclosed in a couple of inexpensive pickups.

Build quality

Same as the Yamahas, these guitars tend to come out of the factory set up very well. You can always tweak it to suit your needs, but in general they tend to very much be a plug and play type of instrument. The tuners are generally very sturdy and offer accurate tuning that holds up even during long gigs.

Epihone Les Paul Studio (USA / Europe)

No list of great budget-conscious guitars would be complete without an Epiphone being given a mention. Epiphone are an american-based company that are a subsidiary of the famous Gibson brand of guitars. What Epiphone do (and do quite well if I may say so) is to take many of Gibson’s top quality guitars and create a more affordable alternative that closely resembles its more expensive counterpart. Perhaps the most famous Gibson guitar of all time (and one of the most popular guitars in the world) is the Gibson Les Paul. These guitars are fantastic (I’ve been lucky enough to play a couple over the years), but they can also get quite pricey. Epiphone Les Pauls, on the other hand, offer a similar look, feel and tonal possibilities to the Gibsons at a much lower price. Musicians who use or have extensively used various different models of Epiphone guitars include former Oasis guitarist and primary songwriter Noel Gallagher, rock blues guitar extraordinaire Gary Clark Jr, oh, and at various points, all three string wielding members of a little band called The Beatles.

Body and neck

The main difference between an Epiphone Les Paul Studio and an Epihone Les Paul standard is mainly cosmetic. The studio model features pretty much all the things that the standard model does, without the binding around the guitar and the more ‘refined look’… in other words, it’s more of a bare-bones model that still gets the job done. Epiphone Les Pauls are built out of a mahagony body with a carved maple top, a bolt-on mahogany neck and a rosewood fretboard. The neck is set, which in plain english means that it will give you better sustain. Mahogany is a slightly heavier wood than some of its common alternatives (such as alder), although the guitar is still not heavy to strap around your shoulder (in fact it’s significantly lighter than its Gibson equivalent). Mahogany tends to give a full, bassy and sustained tone that can be used for many styles, but tends to be favoured for rock, blues and jazz due to its ‘boldness’ and mid-range emphasis, without any harsh or overly bright highs.

Pickups

Unlike the other guitars in this list, the Epiphone is the only guitar which features a double humbucker pickup configuration, with a 3-way pickup selector that allows you to choose either just the neck pickup, the bridge pickup, or a blend of the two. This makes the Epiphone have an arguably thicker and somewhat heavier sound than the Yamaha, for example. This is not to say that either guitar could not do the job of the other, but rather that the Epiphone’s speciality is in getting that thick, creamy tone, with loads of bass and crunchy midrange that’s great for cutting through in a live mix, especially when playing with other loud instruments in a rehearsal room or on stage. If you want that classic rock or blues sound, this guitar will do the job beautifully. The Studio comes equipped with Epihone’s stock Alnico Classic open-coil pickups. These pickups offer very good quality and definitely produce more than enough volume. There are some people who feel that these alnico pickups do lack a little bit of clarity sometimes, however this can usually be overcome by compensating on the amplifier side of things.

Build quality

Some people have said that these Epiphones have a slightly higher action than they would normally like on their guitar, making them a bit more challenging to play. This can be fixed of course, but it will require a setup, done either by yourself or a professional guitar technician. Such a procedure does not tend to be too expensive. Naturally this does not mean that every Epiphones have these issues, but for the sake of transparency I believe that they should be mentioned. Also, the electronics seem to be pretty high quality, without and grounding or humming issues coming from the pickups. That said, I still believe this guitar to be a fantastic option for many beginner and intermediate players, especially those with an interest in rock-based styles, and you can get a quality axe for a very affordable price!

Similar alternatives (cheaper or more expensive)

If you want to potentially spend a little bit less money but still get an Epiphone Les Paul, then you might want to look the the Les Paul Special. The differences between the Studio and the Special come down to build quality really. Cosmetically, the Special does not feature a craved top, but rather is flat.

If on the other hand you find that your pockets are a little bit deeper and you can stretch your budget above the $300 mark, then you might want to look at the Epiphone Les Paul Standard, which features all the goodness of the Les Paul Studio plus that classic (and beautiful) signature Les Paul look. This will probably cost you another $200-$300, depending on what kind of finish you want on your guitar.

The reason I’ve talked mostly about the Studio model is because I believe it’s a happy medium between the two, that will get you the quality instrument you need with a very modest upfront investment.

 

Yamaha Pacifica PAC112v (USA / Europe)

When thinking of Yamaha, you could be forgiven for thinking more of dirt-bikes and motorcycles. However, Yamaha also happen to make fantastic quality guitars at very competitive prices. Truth be told I have personally never owned a Yamaha, but I know many guitar friends of mine who have, and I’ve honestly never heard a bad word about them! Famous players who play Yamahas include jazz guitar great Mike Stern (who played with Miles Davis, amongst many other music legends over the years), and Wes Borland, guitarist for nu-metal titans Limp Bizkit.

Their Pacifica range is aimed at anybody from beginners to advanced players, who wish to own a guitar that’s solid, reliable and has tonal versatility without breaking the bank. It’s design is based on the most popular guitar of all time, the Fender Stratocaster. Let’s look at different aspects of the guitar and why it might be a good option for you.

Body and Neck

These guitars feature the classic ‘double cutaway’ shape, which makes it very easy to access even the highest notes on the neck without being hindered by other parts of the guitar body. Pacificas are made with alder bodies and rosewood necks (which is a pretty standard configuration for electric guitars). Alder is not a very heavy wood, making the guitar easy to hold up while playing without putting strain on the shoulders and back. Despite this, alder tends to give a nice, full and well rounded sound, with good sustain, powerful lows, and balanced mids and highs. This translates into rich sounding chords and, when playing lead, creamy single notes that have clarity and brightness. The neck has a nice rounded ‘C’ profile, and is quite thin, meaning that it’s quite easy to get a good grip while playing without straining your hand muscles unnecessarily. If you want to get a bit more technical, the fretboard has a 13.5โ€ radius, making it slightly ‘flatter’ than a standard fender stratocaster or telecaster neck, making lead guitar playing a bit easier while not losing the roundness needed for playing chords. The action can also be set nice and low, allowing for easier playability all over the neck.

Pickups

Pacificas are configured in HSS, meaning a humbucking pickup in the bridge and two single coils in the middle and neck positions. This offer five different pickup options via the pickup selector switch, where you can either get a pure humbucking or single coil sound, or a blend of the two (much like you’d get on an HSS stratocaster). One of the biggest advantages of having this pickup configuration is that it will offer you a wide range of tonal abilities and allow you to play a wide variety of styles on the same guitar. The bridge humbucker is ideal for achieving driving, overdriven rock and blues sounds, both for rhythm and lead (due to the beefiness and sustain that it offers), while the single coils give more of a clear, crisp tone that’s great for playing with clean sounds and getting that ‘snappy’ percussive sound out of the guitar. So whether you’re into rock, jazz, funk, blues, jazz, country… this guitar can do it all and then some!

Other features and points to mention

The Pacifica also comes equipped with a floating bridge and whammy bar, which I can tell you from first hand experience is loads of fun to use! (I’d be the first to admit I’m a bit too whammy happy sometimes when playing live). It also features high quality machine heads (tuners) which ensure that the guitar gets in tune easily and, perhaps even more importantly, stays in tune while you’re playing. The general consensus seems to be that Pacificas tend to come out of the factory very well setup, without needing a lot of additional work done on them to get them to their most playable level. This is definitely something to consider as it might save you money in terms of having to take it for a professional setup once you’ve already bought it.

Build quality

The general consensus with Yamahas seems to be that they’re set up very well at the factory, and you would often be able to pick it up for the first time and just start playing it without needing to take it for a major setup. Naturally this will not be the case 100% of the time, especially when considering the price range we’re talking about, but the chances are high that you’ll get a quality instruments delivered to you right from the get go.

Cheaper alternative (PAC112V vs PAC112J)

It’s worth noting that the Pacifica range also features the PAC112J, which retails for about $100 cheaper than it’s 112V counterpart detailed above. The difference in price is owing to the fact that the pickups on the 112V are a bit better in terms of quality and clarity. Many owners of the 112V also report that the tremolo system is better and more stable (ie : keeps the guitar in tune) better than the 112J. It seems like the 112J is more of a ‘beginner’ guitar in the classic sense, while the 112V offers quality to players of all levels. It is of course up to you whether you’d want to spend the extra $100… many seem to think it is for the leap in quality that you get in return. Look good… sounds great.. what else could you ask for!

Ibanez RG421 (USA / Europe)

Funnily enough, I actually owned an Ibanez RG back in the day, before I sold it when I moved to another country. It really was a fantastic guitar, and it got a lot of use over the years that I had it. I even took it with me to an international guitar workshop that I used to attend for three years in a row. Ibanez in general make absolutely quality guitars. Perhaps one of their strongest points, at least in my eyes, is the versatility they offer. These guitars are true chameleons, and can blend into playing pretty much any style under the sun (or moon eve, if you’re more nocturnally inclined). We’ll explore why this is in more detail a bit further down.

Body and neck

Perhaps one of the stand out features of Ibanez guitars in general is their extremely ergonomic and thin necks. The Wizard III neck featured on this guitar is super slick and makes fast playing as easy as it can get (if that’s your thing of course). Couple that with the fact that you can the action on these guitars super low (if you’re into that), and you have a recipe for easy playing goodness galore! But having a neck like this is not solely useful if you want to blow melt people’s faces off with a five minute super-shred solo, hair blowing and sweat dripping. It also makes playing anything from chords to smooth lead lines very comfortable, and reduces strain both while practicing as well as during live performances (take it from me, if you spend long hours with the instrument, these things make quite a bit of difference!). Unlike the other guitars in this list, the Ibanez has 24 jumbo frets, giving you a little bit more high end to make the guitar really scream!

The body of the guitar is made out of mahogany, which gives it fantastic sustain and an overall warm and ‘earthy’ sound. The neck is made out of maple, and features a somewhat unusual jatoba fretboard that feels very comfortable to the fingers.

Pickups

Earlier on I mentioned that this guitar can play pretty much any style you can conceive of. One of the main reasons for this is Ibanez’s fantastic five way pickup selector based on the two humbucking pickups that it comes equipped with. You can achieve both humbucker and more single coil sounding tones with just one guitar (position 4 specifically splits the two pickups for that single coil ‘bite’, while position 2 changes the humbucker to parallel wiring which gives the sond a very interesting, ‘phased’ sort of sound). The pickups themselves are two ceramic humbuckers, which in their default positions are great for achieving full, rounded tones, useful for rock, blues, and even jazz. If you want to get more funky and/or twangy, simply switch to one of the middle positions and you’re good to go!

Build quality

I’ve personally tried many Ibanez guitars in stores across the world. I honestly can’t remember a single instance where the guitar I picked wasn’t set up well and pretty much ready to play right there and then. Their quality control tends to be on point. The electronics are generally reliable, as are the tuning heads. Also worth giving a mention to the floating bridge and whammy bar… this was the first guitar I’d ever owned that had a whammy bar system like this, and believe me I made the most of it! It has a really nice sweep and range, and can achieve crazy pitch bends without compromising the tuning stability of the guitar. Honestly, probably the best way to describe this guitar is that it’s tons of fun!

Cheaper alternative

If you like the idea of owning an Ibanez but would like to spend a bit less money, another option for you could be the Ibanez GRX20, which you can get for about half the price of the RG model we’ve just spoken about. This guitar is part of Ibanez’s Gio line of guitars, which were developed specifically with beginner guitarists in mind. Now with any guitar along this price range, it is important to manage expectations when it comes to the quality you expect it to deliver. However this does not in any way mean that these guitars don’t offer a good solution for the budding guitarist. You get pretty much the same features as you would with an RG in terms of pickup configuration etc, except the body is made of poplar, which is (unsurprisingly) a cheaper wood than mahogony.. you will lose some sustain and fullness of tone, but the sound you can achieve will still be more than enough to get you started. There are tons of great reviews for this guitar online which you can read… after all, it’s still an Ibanez!

Squier Affinity Stratocaster (USA / Europe)

Dude, another Squier? Really? Yes, really. And I’ll tell you why. On the surface it might seem like it’s all a bit pointless to feature this guitar after having spoken about the Squier Telecaster earlier. However, there are distinct differences between the Telecaster and Stratocaster models that make it worth having its own feature. If you go online and look up Tele vs Strat, you fill find plenty of heated forum debates and discussions as to the pros and cons of each type of guitar. One thing cannot be debated though, which is that they’re both absolutely fantastic options for guitarists looking for a quality axe to wield. Yes I just said that. Let’s move on :

Body and neck

Like the Yamaha and Tele, the Strat’s body is made of alder, which you might remember is a great wood for giving a balanced tone across all frequencies, making it a great option both for live performances as well as studio recording. The neck features the classic Fender C shape profile, just like you’d find on the Yamaha Pacifica or the Ibanez, except the Strat’s neck is a little bit thicker than the other two. Tele and Strat necks, at least on paper, are the same. There can be subtle differences in feel depending on the model, but at least in the case of these Squiers, the similarity should be quite strong.

Pickups

Ah, now this is where the fun really begins! One of the great things about Strats in general is that they tend to come in a variety of different pickup configurations, giving you more options when it comes to choosing the type of tonal variety that you want. Squier Strats come with a 3 pickup system, neck-middle-bridge. The pickup selector is the classic 5 way selector system, allowing you to get the sound of either one of the pickups by itself, or a blend of two of the pickups depending on what kind of tone you need.

The two most common Strat models are the SSS and HSS types. Basically, the difference between the two is that in the case of the former, all three pickups on the guitar are single coil pickups, whereas in the case of the latter, you get a humbucking pickup in the bridge position. What this humbucking pickup doesis offer you a ‘hotter’ and warmer signal that can be used for more of a ‘driven’ sound for rhythm, or a sustained creamy tone for lead. That is not to say that such sounds can’t be achieved with solely single coils (many greats have done exactly that over the years), but you might prefer to have both tonal options in one guitar. Personally speaking, I like the HSS models for precisely this reason, and although I don’t own a Strat yet, if (when?) I eventually get one, it will be an HSS.

Ultimately which one you prefer is up to you… if you intend to be playing mostly clean sounds and want a sparkly, twangy tone across all pickups, perhaps the SSS would be the better model. If you’d wanna rock/blues it up on a farily regular basis, perhaps an HSS will be the right candidate for the job. There are loads of videos online demoing the sonic differences between the two, but ultimately what’s for sure is that you can’t really go wrong with either one.

Build quality

Same as the Yamahas and Squier Teles, these guitars tend to come out of the factory set up very well. You can always tweak it to suit your needs, but in general they tend to very much be a plug and play type of instrument. The tuners are generally very sturdy and offer accurate tuning that holds up even during long gigs.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

Jackson JS Dinky (USA / Europe)

This is actually another guitar that I personally owned and played for many years… well truthfully I actually owned the more expensive model which the JS is based on, but the guitar was very similar in terms of build and sound. The reason I’m putting this guitar here and not in the main list is because I feel that it’s more of a specialised instrument, and does certain styles extremely well while others perhaps not so much. I used this guitar almost exclusively with my old metal band that I used to be a part of, and for good reason. This guitar is specifically designed to do the ‘heavier’ side of things beautifully… namely rock and metal. Now this is not to say that it’s a one-trick pony, far from it. But if what you’re looking for is versatility, then I feel that there are other guitars in this list that will give you that in spades while also being able to rock out.

Let’s face it, these guitars look badass. The reverse headstock is a very distinctive feature of these instruments, and if I’m honest, it was one of the reasons why I’d decided to buy it back in the day. It features a basswood body, maple neck and rosewood fingerboard. Oh and 24 frets of pure shred goodness! The neck itself is very thin, as you’d expect in a rock/metal oriented guitar, making playing very easy and economical.

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Disclaimer

Some links on this post could be affiliate links, so if you click it, find something you like and buy it, Iโ€™ll be set for life. Not really, but I do get a small commission for driving sales to the seller. It helps keep the lights on and allows me to keep on rambling and raving on this grand digital medium we call the internet. The Music Hermit is affiliated with, but not limited to, Amazon’s Associate Program for amazon.com, amazon.uk and amazon.eu. Boring legal stuff over… now get back to the fun bits!

 

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