Cheap doesn’t have to mean garbage. Learn how to find a beater acoustic or electric guitar on a super-tight budget that plays well and sounds decent.
Whether you’re a parent looking for a first guitar for your kid, a new guitar player on a tight budget, or a collector looking for a low-cost guitar to take the road, here are the some pointers to help you find an affordable workhorse guitar.
1 - What are the essentials?
Even if you’re going to go cheap, you still want a modicum of quality. A too-cheap guitar will likely have playability issues and sound bad enough to discourage a new player before he or she really gets going. The first things you should be looking for from a bargain guitar is how well it plays, and what kind of tone it produces with and without amplification.
Judging the guitar’s playability
- Neck — Is the length and width of the neck an appropriate size for your body and hands?
- Frets — Are the frets wide or narrow enough for your fingers and your style?
- Action — Is the distance between the strings and the fretboard comfortable on your fingers when you play? (Not necessarily a deal breaker: You or a tech can usually adjust the action.)
Judging the guitar’s sound
The guitar’s unamplified tone will help you assess its quality.
- Does it have a good natural sustain?
- Does the tone sound too thin or bright? Or does it seem too heavy?
- Do your bends, hammer ons/offs, and slides sound consistent? Or do they “fret out” and make buzzing noises?
A guitar with a good natural tone will encourage any player to develop his/her skills, but keep in mind that a new player is going to sound … rough … no matter what. Find a guitar you can comfortably make noise with, while you build up your strength and your chops. Legendary Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman Dave Ghrol put it best:
[New] musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old #$%^ing drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll @#$%ing start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some $#!^ty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-@$$ $#!^, and they became the biggest band in the world.
2 - So where can I cut corners?
You don’t need top-of-the-line gear when comes to buying your bargain guitar, so breathe easy.
- Electric guitar pickups — Eventually you’ll learn about pickups and how they affect your sound, but don’t get upset if that one guitar you’re focusing on has no-name pickups. (They, along with better tuners, are common upgrades for new guitarists looking to improve and customize their axes.)
- Acoustic guitar tonewood — Don’t break a sweat over the tonewood. While you’ll want to make sure that the neck’s straight and the guitar will hold tune, you don’t need something that sounds as good as a Martin HD-28 Series or that looks as extravagant as a Gibson Hummingbird Pro just yet.
It's hard to beat the bargain factor delivered by the Yamaha FX370C Acoustic-Electric Guitar.
3 - Should I buy a new or used guitar?
There are pros and cons to going with either the fresh, new axe, or the battle-tested one. The benefits of a new guitar in include:
- A manufacturer’s warranty
- Factory fresh
Going with a used guitar gives you benefits such as:
- Usually a lower price
- Already “broken in”—you can be more carefree in handling of the guitar.
Used guitars also come with some risks. If the top splits or the bridge pickup suddenly stops working, you’re out of luck.
For a used guitar with no surprises, check out Open Box Guitars for instruments that have been returned within the Musician’s Friend 45-day No-Hassle Return period. They’re rated in three categories: mint, blemished, and scratch & dent:
- Mint guitars are virtually new. They still come with the 45-day no hassle return, a full manufacturer’s warranty, and a free two-year Musician’s Friend warranty.
- Blemished instruments are virtual “floor models” — they look at play new, but may have small scuff marks of pick scratches. These come with the same warranties and return policy as mint and new instruments.
- Scratch & Dent gear still works and plays great, but shows normal wear and tear. These are great buys if you want a good instrument, but don’t really care much about cosmetics.
4 - How can I determine the quality of a bargain guitar?
There are a few simple things that even novice players can watch for when choosing a practice guitar.
- Check the neck — Does the neck feel solid? Most guitars have a truss rod inside the neck that allows adjustments. However, some super cheap models lack a truss rod meaning that if the neck warps, you’ll be out of luck.
- Does it hold tune? — Some bargain basement guitars have machine heads or tuners that are too crude to hold strings in tune. Play the instrument for a few minutes. Do you find yourself going out of tune too often? Then you might have found a guitar with bad tuners.
“Cheap” doesn’t have to mean “garbage,” and you don’t need to be a licensed guitar tech to recognize guitar garbage.
5 - What’s in a name?
First things first. You don’t need a Fender American Standard or a Les Paul Standard. While many famous guitarists have made Fenders and Gibsons their go-to instruments because of their high quality, you can actually find guitars made by the same companies, with more beginner-level quality and price tags.
For instance, Epiphone, a subsidiary of Gibson, produces Les Pauls, SGs, and various other popular Gibson styles for a fraction of the price of domestic models.
Love the classic Les Paul P90 soapbar pickup sound? The Epiphone Les Paul Special P90 produces all that tonal goodness for a much smaller price.
Epiphone’s Les Paul Special P90 is an affordable alternative to a Gibson Les Paul.
Are you a Fender fan? The company’s budget-friendly Squier Guitars make excellent starter instruments.
Squier’s Classic Vibe Stratocaster '50s Electric Guitar uses custom AlNiCo 3 single-coil pickups to create that classic strat sound.
These instruments are a great taste of some of the finest guitar craftsmanship in the word, but built for smaller budgets and (possibly) shorter lifespans. Some guitarists will even swear that these off-brands are better. It depends on your personal style and sound.
6 - Is there anything else I should know?
Do your research before you start shopping. You might find a price tag that fits your needs, but money isn’t everything. You want to know how your investment will hold up. Ask musicians you know for their advice, check out forums and fellow guitarists’ reviews, talk to techs, and check out the Guitar Buying Guides here on The HUB—including the Acoustic Guitar Buying Guide and the Electric Guitar Buying Guide.
One other perk to shopping with Musician’s Friend: our 45 Day Return policy. Just in case that guitar you picked out isn’t working for you.
So Now What?
Now, you go out there and find yourself the best possible buy for whatever musical needs you have. Above all, find a guitar you connect with. If you have questions about finding the right bargain, or want more info on a specific model, feel free to give our Musician’s Friend Gear Heads a call at 877-880-5907.