Finding an inexpensive guitar doesn’t mean you have to settle for junk. Discover the smart places to cut back on your expectations.
The saying goes that you get what you pay for. But what about guitars?
It’s true that cutting your costs on a guitar purchase often means compromising, but depending on your level of experience, the sound you’re going for, and what you consider important in a guitar, you can skimp on a couple of components and still end up with a great instrument that suits you perfectly. And by upgrading your guitar as you go, you can even turn a budget guitar into a tone machine that will stay by your side for life.
So buying an inexpensive axe can, in fact, be a wise investment. You just need to make sure the one you choose gets all the critical stuff right. Here, we’ll outline the most important qualities to look for in an inexpensive guitar, as well as how to make sure you’re getting a great deal.
Essentials to look for
The details that matter to professional-level players aren’t as much of a concern for beginners, intermediate players, or even advanced hobbyist players. Instead, keep some more fundamental considerations in mind as you consider your options for an entry-level guitar.
Comfortable neck and body
Before you even consider how a guitar sounds, you need to make sure it has the right feel. If the instrument isn’t comfortable when you play it, you’ll likely run into more roadblocks, and progressing might not come as easily as it would otherwise.
Make sure the body of your guitar is a good fit for you, and that the neck is solid and is shaped in a way that feels natural to you.
Guitar necks vary in a number of ways. First, manufacturers use a variety of different woods, with maple and mahogany being among the most popular. Instruments with a mahogany neck typically include a fretboard made of rosewood or ebony. The Epiphone Les Paul Standard is a popular example of a model that uses this configuration.
The Epiphone Les Paul features mahogany for both the body and neck, with a rosewood fretboard.
Some maple necks have integral fretboards. Such is the case for many of Fender’s entry-level guitars, such as the Squier Classic Vibe Stratocaster guitar.
This Squier Classic Vibe Strat has an alder body and 21-fret vintage tint gloss maple neck.
Some economy guitars use basswood as a neck wood. Even though this is a less costly alternative to maple or mahogany, basswood is not without its own advantages. Most notably, this softer grain wood is very light, and can be quite solid if a good epoxy coating is applied.
When it comes to which kind of wood makes for the best fretboard, you will hear arguments for each type. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.
The way the neck is shaped or curved across the back is referred to as its profile, and not all neck profiles are the same. You will see some experimental shapes and variations with higher-end and signature guitars, but most lower-cost guitars use one of a few different profiles:
- The “C” profile is the thinnest among these and most likely the easiest to play for those with smaller hands.
- The “U” profile is a fatter, fuller, rounded profile that leaves less space between the palm of the fretting hand and the neck, which many players find comfortable.
- The V-style neck takes a more angular approach, which puts a groove down the middle.
You’ll want to make sure the guitar you're considering has a neck profile that feels comfortable in your hands.
Good, solid hardware
Stable hardware is a critical consideration, especially when you are looking at lower-cost instruments.
Of particular importance are the guitar’s tuners. With low-quality tuners, you will often find your strings going out of tune as you play, which means having to stop and re-tune frequently.
You can find affordable guitars with good quality tuners. However, one way to really make sure your instrument will keep from losing its tuning (if you are playing an electric) is to consider a model with a locking tremolo system or locking tuners. Models like the ESP LTD M-100FM have locking tremolo bridges that deliver greater tuning stability when you use the “whammy” bar vigorously.
The Floyd Rose Special tremolo system on the ESP LTD M-100FM keeps the guitar in tune through wild whammy-bar passages.
Acoustic guitar tuner quality comes down to quality materials and effective designs. The mini chrome tuners on Breedlove’s Pursuit Concert Mahogany guitar have smooth action and accuracy.
Breedlove’s Pursuit Concert Mahogany Acoustic-Electric Guitar incorporates quality electronics and hardware. The Fishman Isys+ pickup system with a built-in USB port allows easy GarageBand recording.
Fretwork and craftsmanship
Good workmanship: you won’t see this listed on a spec sheet, but it’s absolutely critical to factor in with any purchase. Any part of a guitar that’s poorly constructed can quickly become a problem, but keep in mind that issues like cracks, poor glue jobs, warps, etc. are covered by both manufacturer and Musician’s Friend warranties.. Have your local guitar technician take a look at the instrument to have it properly set up and adjusted.
Frets should feel smooth under your fingers and not cause buzzing sounds. Crudely finished frets and those that extend beyond fingerboard edges are a sign of poor manufacturing. That said, if you otherwise like the instrument, a guitar tech can properly finish and dress the frets for better playability.
A lower price should never mean having to accept seriously shoddy workmanship. Instruments like the Yamaha FG800 Folk Acoustic Guitar demonstrate that a decent-quality instrument can be had for a very reasonable price.
Considering its crisp-sounding, solid Sitka spruce top and easy playing fingerboard, the Yamaha FG800 Folk Acoustic Guitar is a terrific buy.
Some not-so-essentials you can skip
If you’re focused on affordability, you can’t get the best of everything, but you still can get the best of what matters by cutting back on these features.
You will hear a lot about the difference that various kinds of woods make on your guitar’s tone, whether it’s electric or acoustic. There’s truth to this, though the effect is more subtle on electric guitars.
Especially with acoustic guitars, the sound you get from the top of the guitar is key. A more cost-effective wood can be used for backs and sides without seriously compromising the tone. The Seagull S6 Entourage, which combines a solid cedar top with wild cherry laminate sides, is an example of this.
The Seagull S6 Entourage is an entry-level guitar that uses a high-quality solid cedar top for a tone you’d expect from higher-priced instruments.
With electric guitars, it’s tempting to focus a lot on the pickups. After all, these are the components that are sending the signal to your amp, and they have a lot to do with how your tone will ultimately sound.
However, high-quality pickups can add a lot to the cost of the guitar, and compared to most other components of the instrument, they are easily changed out—you can upgrade them later when you are ready (and have deeper pockets). Until then, it’s a better idea to focus on an instrument that sounds and plays great even when it isn’t plugged in.
General advice for buying your first guitar
Buying your first guitar is a big, personal decision. The model that works best for you may be entirely different than the one that best suits another person, so dig into the different options you have available. Musician’s Friend offers two great resources to help: our Open Box Gear deals and our 45-day, no hassle return policy. We want to make sure you find a guitar you love that doesn’t blow your budget.
Need more help?
If you still have questions, or just want to talk to someone about your options, reach out to a Musician’s Friend Gear Head at 877-880-5907. We’ll be glad to help you find the right affordable guitar!