White Les Paul gold hardware

Whether you’re on a strict budget for your first axe or you’re looking for a project guitar, here are our picks of the best electric guitars under $500.

We picked these guitars based on two main criteria: their ‘uniqueness,’ and the value of their feature set, construction and specs. As you’d expect, Asian-made models from big brands dominate this list. And that’s simply because they’re able to produce good quality at immense economies of scale.

And while you’re at it, check out our other lists on the best beginner’s guitars, instruments under $200, intermediate guitars and value-for-money axes.

1

Schecter Stealth C-1

The Schecter Stealth C-1 is more than a ‘metal guitar.’ The South Korea-made six-string comes with a host of features and specs that make it fairly versatile for most schools of rock. And, at just under $500 for a well-constructed model, the Stealth C-1 represents great value for money, too.

Highlights
  • Beautiful bound body
  • Shred-friendly: ultra-smooth satin-finished neck, very flat fretboard radius and 24 extra jumbo frets
  • Coil-split Schecter Diamond SuperRock-II humbuckers
  • Hardtail string-through-body bridge
  • Retails for $500

The Stealth C-1 is a robust instrument whose simplicity is reflected in its design. An arched top, subdued finishes, subtle fretboard inlays, a bound body and all-black hardware complement its mahogany body and set neck. This is not a guitar that tries too hard to be something it isn’t.

In this case, it’s all about rock and metal. That’s thanks to the Schecter Diamond SuperRock-II humbuckers that offer straightforward fat, hot tones—but they’re also coil-split, opening up another world of single-coil sounds. As with most budget pickups, these humbuckers aren’t the most articulate or nuanced around. Yet, with ample amounts of distortion, they’ll get the job done.

The thin “C”-shaped satin-finished neck with a 14-inch-radius rosewood fretboard and 24 extra jumbo frets lend the Stealth C-1 more shred cred. But while there isn’t a trem system here, a string-through-body hardtail bridge is a decent trade-off.

2

Gretsch G2622 Streamliner Center Block with V Stoptail

You’d be hard-pressed to find another electric guitar under $500 with the bold and commanding looks of a big ol’ Gretsch. The G2622 Streamliner brings you all of Gretsch’s resonant, semi-hollow tones, handsome looks and overall rock ’n’ roll vibes in an affordable package.

Highlights
  • Semi-hollow build with a spruce center block to reduce feedback
  • Vintage good looks with a bound body and neck
  • Two Broad’Tron humbuckers produce bright and throaty tones
  • Thin “U”-shaped nato neck with a 12-inch-radius rosewood fretboard
  • Retails for about $450

Made in Indonesia, this G2622 Streamliner is capable of producing the tone that has made Gretsch so famous: bright, big and throaty with robust lows. That comes from its semi-hollow construction and pickups.

The G2622 Streamliner pops a spruce center block within a laminated maple top, back and sides—both the top and back are arched. Not only does the center block reduce feedback on a brash-sounding instrument, the semi-hollow build adds to the guitar’s resonance and ‘woody’ tone.

Pickups-wise, this archtop has a pair of Broad’Tron humbuckers. Think of these as budget versions of Gretsch’s revered Filter’Trons. They won’t nail the same roar and clarity as the more expensive models, but they’re close enough imitations. For pickups on a guitar under $500, they’re more than acceptable.

The pickups are also wired up in typical Gretsch fashion. There’s a three-way pickup selection switch alongside four knobs: a master volume, master tone, and individual volumes for each humbucker. Not the simplest setup, but it’s all about versatility.

This semi-hollow’s thin “U”-shaped nato neck also runs contrary to the higher-end Gretsch models, which favor maple necks in chunkier profiles. But the G2622 Streamliner’s 12-inch-radius rosewood fretboard and 24.75-inch scale length keep things familiar.

3

Squier Contemporary Telecaster HH

High-output humbuckers, check. Fast neck, check. Twelve-inch fretboard radius, check. The Squier Contemporary Telecaster HH is an axe built for modern players, with all the muscle necessary for harder styles of rock. And you can’t ignore its stunning good looks, especially with the matching headstock and chrome pickup covers.

Highlights
  • Two hot ceramic humbuckers for aggressive crunch and searing leads
  • Six-saddle Telecaster bridge for sustain and more precise intonation adjustments
  • Slim “C”-shaped neck and 12-inch-radius fretboard
  • Retails for about $350

Given its price tag of under $500, there’s not a lot to fault with the Contemporary Telecaster HH. Sure, it’s made in China, has a poplar body instead of an alder one, and its stock pickups don’t bear the Fender stamp. But this Tele is still comfortable to play and more than capable of producing the rich, meaty tones of punk, classic rock, indie rock and other heavy genres shy of extreme metal.

On the bridge and neck positions, you’ll find ceramic humbuckers that are geared towards an aggressive crunch, with little of the twanginess associated with Telecasters. Simple Tele-style controls—three-way switch and master “Volume”/“Tone” knobs—are all you have to contend with.

The Contemporary Telecaster also has a satin-finished maple neck with a slim “C” profile, a 12-inch-radius maple fretboard and 22 narrow-tall frets, which are Squier’s largest. These result in a guitar that’s ideal for faster players who still admire the classic looks of a Tele.

4

Danelectro ’59XT

If this one seems familiar, that’s because it is an upgrade of the older Jimmy Page model. The ’59XT is, thanks to its pickups, a more aggressive beast altogether. And if you’re looking for something outside of your typical Strat or Les Paul, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guitar as unique and eccentric as this for under $500.

Highlights
  • Vintage-inspired good looks
  • High-output P-90 (neck) and classic lipstick humbuckers (bridge)
  • Wilkinson tremolo bridge for added versatility
  • Maple neck and rosewood fretboard on a semi-hollow body
  • Retails for $499

Snobs may scoff at the ’59XT’s chambered Masonite body. But plug the guitar in, crank up the amp, and the rich, fat and velvety tones that it’s capable of will zip the lips of any naysayer. It’s a guitar that’s great for old-school rock, punk and other jangly genres.

Slapped onto its semi-hollow body is a P-90 and a lipstick humbucker, the latter of which is coil-split. Both are known for their slightly dirty tone and musical midrange bump. And both pickups are offset: The treble end of the humbucker is tilted towards the bridge, and vice-versa for the P-90. This evens out the tone of the bass and treble strings, especially when you’re strumming.

The other highlight on this guitar is its smooth and sensitive Wilkinson tremolo system. This allows for deep dives and warped pitch changes that frequently appear on anything from surf to psychedelic to new wave.

The ’59XT isn’t the most versatile guitar, even at the $500 mark. But as a dedicated axe for rock that drips with retro coolness, it doesn’t get much more value-for-money than this.

5

Yamaha Revstar RS420

For a guitar a little out of the ordinary, check out the Yamaha Revstar RS420. This dual cutaway instrument is meant for the brawny, visceral tones of rock ’n’ roll—think AC/DC, Badfinger and even Cream. Yamaha is a brand renowned for its build quality, and it’s no different in its sub-$500 offering.

Highlights
  • A robust, stripped-down instrument that can nail most styles of rock
  • Two vintage-output YGD Alnico V humbuckers
  • Push/pull “Dry Switch” splits the humbuckers but also filters out bass frequencies for punch and clarity
  • Retails for just under $500

Inspired by racer motorcycles of the ’60s, the Indonesia-made RS420 is a performance instrument through and through. Its understated looks belie its muscle: Two YGD Alnico V humbuckers (VH3 models) are specially wound for the Revstar series, and yield those distinct vintage-y tones you’ve heard on countless classic rock records. A Yamaha-exclusive “Dry Switch” splits the coils without the hum, and cuts the low frequencies so those single-coil sounds are as punchy and clear as they should be.

While the tonewoods used are modest—the RS420 has a maple-topped nato body and nato neck—it’s a comfortable guitar to play. Yamaha installed a belly cut and kept the slim set neck extremely accessible all the way to the higher frets.

A 13.75-inch-radius rosewood fretboard, 22 medium jumbo frets and 24.75-inch scale length round up the other specs on this guitar. A Tune-o-matic bridge, stopbar tailpiece and chrome tuners are the other components decent enough for an under-$500 guitar.

6

PRS SE Standard 24

Experienced players will remember the time PRS used to be the sole province of seasoned professionals or those with fat bank accounts. Not since 2001, when the brand launched the SE Standard range. And the 2018 PRS SE Standard 24 continues the series’ reputation for being solid, well-crafted, versatile and affordable guitars.

Highlights
  • All-mahogany body with three attractive finishes and classic PRS Birds inlays
  • Coil-split pickups for versatility
  • Maple Wide Thin set neck, which is PRS’ thinnest design
  • Ultra-smooth molded tremolo
  • Retails for about $500

The SE Standard 24 is the ‘budget’ version of the Custom 24, which is PRS’ flagship instrument. Besides their almost-identical looks (save for the Custom’s carved figured maple top), both guitars are some of the most versatile instruments in their price ranges. Blues, rock, metal, shoegaze, ambient—you name it, the SE Standard 24 can handle it.

The 85/15 “S” humbuckers here are affordable versions of the Custom’s 85/15, and are transparent, ‘hi-fi,’ articulate and high-output. Additionally, the pickups have been coil-split to take you into glassier, single-coil territory. However, you can’t coil-split them individually to form HS or SH combinations, for instance.

Even its other features don’t lean towards a specific style of playing. The SE Standard 24 has a very thin neck profile, moderate ten-inch fretboard radius, 25-inch scale, 24 frets and a molded tremolo that, like the guitar as a whole, is well worth its price tag of under $500.

7

Dean 350 Custom Floyd

The Dean 350 Custom Floyd is a guitar whose specs you’d more commonly find in instruments triple or quadruple its sub-$500 asking price—perhaps being made in China has something to do with it. That said, it’s a choice metal and rock Super Strat for those who want the features without having to dig deep in their pockets.

Highlights
  • No-nonsense metal guitar
  • Flame arched maple top on a basswood body
  • Floyd Rose Special tremolo system
  • For shredders: very flat fretboard radius and 24 jumbo frets
  • Retails for about $350

As its name suggests, the key highlight of the 350 Custom is its Floyd Rose Special tremolo system and R3 nut. Dive bombs, squealing harmonics and other guitar acrobatics are all fair game with this guitar. Add to that the high-output DMT Design humbuckers, and you’re left with a six-string screamer.

The other specs tick off all the boxes for a workhorse of a metal-inclined guitar. The Dean 350 boasts a bolt-on “C”-shaped maple neck that allows for fast and furious riffs, while its rosewood fingerboard with 24 frets and 16-inch radius make for easy bends and lightning solos. It’s well staffed in the aesthetics’ department, too: Check out the winged Dean logo, black chrome hardware and the custom pearl inlay on the 12th fret.

8

Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster

If you’re lusting over an original Jazzmaster but don’t want to plonk down thousands of bucks for it, the Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster is right up your alley. The offset guitar retains many of the old-school specs that made the model famous back in the day, with a few modern enhancements to appeal to contemporary players.

Highlights
  • Original rhythm and lead circuits, and their corresponding controls
  • Duncan Designed Alnico V single-coils
  • Floating vibrato system, just like on a traditional Jazzmaster
  • Lightweight basswood body
  • Modern 9.5-inch fretboard radius and “C”-shaped neck
  • Retails for under $400

Despite its low price, this is not a guitar for newbies. The circuitry’s complex, the bridge is notoriously wonky, and it feels huge when you’re playing sitting down. But it is the most authentic Jazzmaster you can get for under $500—we’d go as far to say even more so than the MIM Fender Players.

The Vintage Modified Jazzmaster has the tried-and-tested dual circuitry of the original models from the ’60s. The “Rhythm” circuit activates only the neck pickup, while the “Lead” circuit lets you pick between neck, bridge and both at the same time. Each circuit has its own dedicated master volume and tone knobs. (In comparison, even Fender American Professional Jazzmasters don’t have this circuitry.)

Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you may love or hate the floating vibrato system and vintage-style bridge on this Jazzmaster. Some consider the grooved barrel saddles unstable, while others believe they contribute to the Jazzmaster’s signature low sustain and sonic artifacts.

On to the modern appointments. A pair of Duncan Designed JM-101B Alnico V single-coils give this Squier that coveted clear, syrupy and mellow Jazzmaster tone that works brilliantly with effects—which is one reason why you’ll find many shoegazers, post-rockers and experimental musicians toting this iconic axe.

9

Epiphone G-400 PRO

The Epiphone G-400 PRO is to a Gibson SG what a Squier Contemporary Strat is to an American Original Fender: It’s far more affordable and a tad more versatile, yet it looks almost identical. So while the G-400 PRO has the tone, feel and aesthetics of a rock ’n’ roll beast, it packs a few surprises up its sleeves.

Highlights
  • Split-coil Epiphone Alnico Classic PRO humbuckers
  • Classic SG looks that guitar deities the likes of Angus Young, Eric Clapton and Tony Iommi have popularized
  • Mahogany body that won’t weigh you down
  • Retails for about $350 

We won’t waste your time with words on how and why the SG is as iconic as it is. But if you consider the G-400 PRO a pale imitation of its Gibson sibling, think again. This axe, which will set you back under $500, can rock.

Besides the solid mahogany body, the two Epiphone Alnico Classic PRO humbuckers are hugely responsible for the guitar’s characteristic growling, almost ‘honky,’ tone with rather brash trebles. They have Alnico V magnets, which yield a tight response and are perfect for crunchy rock rhythms à la AC/DC.

But the pickups are also where the G-400 goes a step beyond the SG: Both humbuckers are coil-split, which, in combination with a three-way pickup selector switch and two push/pull knobs, open up a whole new palette of sounds. Eight, to be precise. Go from the sizzling cleans of a neck single-coil, to the dirt of the bridge humbucker, to the power of both humbuckers in tandem—or anything in-between.

The other big difference between this and a Gibson is its neck. Where the Gibson uses a “C”-shaped SlimTaper profile, the G-400 has a “D”-shaped one. It isn’t quite as fast, but the thick ‘shoulders’ of the G-400’s neck make this model generally more comfortable when holding down power or barred chords.

10

ESP EC-256

The EC-256 is ESP’s entry-level version of its Eclipse line. And while it’s no mystery where it draws its good looks from, don’t let that distract you from what makes it a great guitar under $500. Everything about the EC-256 is decidedly modern, and can take you from blues to rock to metal, easy.

Highlights
  • Single-cutaway with mahogany body and three-piece mahogany set neck
  • Blackwood or jatoba fretboard
  • Thin “U”-shaped neck for fast playing and comfort
  • 22 extra jumbo frets
  • Coil-split ESP LH-150 pickups
  • Retails for under $400

The EC-256 looks like a Les Paul Black Beauty, and has very similar specs: a mahogany body and set neck, 24.75-inch scale, a Tune-o-matic bridge, and a pair of humbuckers, in this case the ESP Designed LH-150. The pickups here are a tad muddy when played clean, even when split, but they’re easily swapped out, anyway.

While it may resemble a Les Paul, the EC-256 isn’t quite as traditional. Many features on the guitar are better suited for today’s players: a thin “U”-shaped neck that’s faster to play on, a flatter fretboard radius of about 14 inches, 22 extra jumbo frets, and coil-split humbuckers. A deeper cutaway also makes reaching those higher frets easier.

11

Mitchell MD400

Simply put, the Mitchell MD400 boasts features and specs that are more common on a guitar quadruple its cost. It’s a good-looking, versatile beast that you can use for any application.

Highlights
  • Dual beveled cutaways for complete access to upper frets
  • Unique, Alnico V rail split-coil pickups for even more versatility
  • Shred-friendly: very flat fretboard and medium jumbo frets
  • Retails for about $400

It’s a Super Strat, but not of the headbanging variety. The MD400 has a gorgeous AAA quilt maple veneer top in a variety of translucent finishes, body and neck bindings, offset abalone dot inlays, and a carved mahogany body. But where it really shines is in its features.

The MD400 has one Alnico V humbucker at the bridge and one Alnico V mini-humbucker at the neck. Both are ‘rail’-style pickups, which are quieter and provide more consistent tone and sustain across the strings. And both pickups have been coil-split, too—so push or pull the master tone knob to disable one coil of each humbucker, effectively turning them into single-coil pickups.

Other features on the instrument tilt towards the speed merchant category: It has a flat 15.75-inch fretboard radius, shallow “C”-shaped neck, 24 medium jumbo frets, dramatic bevels on both cutaways, and a string-through body and set neck for added sustain. Like we mentioned, the MD400 represents a ton of value for a guitar under $500.

12

Jackson King V JS32T

If a Gibson Flying V isn’t evil enough for you, there’s always the Jackson King V. This particular model, the JS32T, is the brand’s wallet-friendly version of one of its bestsellers. And as you can probably tell from its striking shape, expect this to get loud and heavy.

Highlights
  • ‘Sharp’ Flying V shape, all-black hardware and pearloid sharkfin inlays
  • For shredders: compound radius fretboard
  • High-output Jackson humbuckers voiced for richness, sustain and overdriven tones
  • Graphite-reinforced neck and string-through body for stability
  • Retails for about $250

Frankly, besides body shape, there’s not a lot that separates the JS32T from the other Jackson budget favorite, the JS22 Dinky. They both have poplar bodies, maple necks, a compound fretboard radius of 12 to 16 inches, and a pair of Jackson High-output Humbuckers, among other identical specs. The compound radius is an important one, though: It means you’ll feel as comfortable holding down chords as you would soloing on the upper registers.

But the devil is in the details. The JS32T doesn’t have a tremolo system, making up for that with a string-through body, Tune-o-matic bridge, and a slightly slimmer maple ‘speed’ neck.

A word of warning, though: King Vs don’t sit on your lap like most guitars do, so don’t shoot for this piece unless you enjoy playing while standing. But if that’s not a problem for you, then all you’ve got to worry about is deciding between Ferrari Red and Gloss Black, the two slick finishes for this eye-catching instrument.

13

Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Stratocaster

There’s nothing much to say about a Stratocaster that hasn’t already been hammered home over the 50 years since it made its debut. Fender’s flagship instrument shares the same reputation as a Les Paul: They’re the most iconic electric guitars ever. And the Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Stratocaster is one of the most value-for-money Strats out there today.

Highlights
  • Plays and feels like a high-end Strat at a fraction of the cost
  • Has a 9.5-inch fretboard radius that’s neither too flat nor too curved
  • Three Alnico III single-coils emulate a ’50s-era tone
  • Retails for under $400

This model encapsulates a Strat’s reputation of being a versatile guitar that can swerve from rock to blues to funk to ambient—and everything in-between.

The three Alnico III single-coils, wired up in five positions, are partly responsible for that. You can go from glassy tones of the neck pickup to the bite of the bridge pickup to the ‘quacks’ of the positions in-between, the latter of which refers to two single-coils activated in tandem.

Like many Fender Strats, the Classic Vibe ’50s has a lightweight alder body, maple neck and maple fretboard. Its “C”-shaped neck and 9.5-inch fretboard radius mean it’s comfortable for both rhythm and lead playing, while a vintage-style synchronized tremolo bridge makes the guitar even more of an all-rounder.

Wondering about the differences between the Classic Vibe ’50s and the Classic Vibe ’60s? Cosmetics notwithstanding, the latter has hotter Alnico V single-coils and an Indian laurel fretboard. Everything else—including their under-$500 price tags—is identical.

14

Epiphone Les Paul Standard

Alongside the Stratocaster, Les Pauls have pretty much defined rock ’n’ roll. Everyone from Jimmy Page to Slash to Zakk Wylde has wielded one of these, and the guitar’s fat, creamy tone with near-endless sustain is instantly recognizable. If you’re not looking to spring for a bona fide Gibson, the Epiphone Les Paul Standard is your next best bet.

Highlights
  • A pair of warm, fat-sounding Alnico and Alnico Classic humbuckers
  • Robust mahogany body with a solid maple top
  • Neck and body bindings, trapezoid fingerboard inlays for that classic Les Paul look
  • Retails for just under $500

Epiphone Les Paul Standards are built in China, South Korea or Indonesia. They no longer come with figured maple tops (you’ll find those on the Plustop PRO models), but have the cream neck and body binding, chrome pickup covers, and trapezoid inlays of their Gibson cousins. In other words, they’re drop-dead gorgeous.

They don’t just look the part, either. Epiphone Les Paul Standards come with an Alnico humbucker at the neck and Alnico Classic humbucker at the bridge, which yield the classic thick, saturated tone Les Pauls are renowned for. And like a Gibson, these Les Pauls have a set of volume and tone knobs for each pickup.

The other specs on these also mimic those of a Gibson: a mahogany body and set neck, 12-inch fretboard radius, 24.75-inch scale, and Tune-o-matic bridge, among others. If you’re hankering after a rock-ready guitar that won’t break the bank, the Epiphone Les Paul Standard should top your list. 

15

Ibanez S520

It’s one of Ibanez’s longest-running models, and deservedly so. The S520 is a dependable, robust six-string that’s ever so slightly geared towards metal and rock thanks to its pickups, Floyd Rose-style tremolo system and fast neck. Beginner guitarists eager to dive into those heavier genres will find plenty to love about this axe.

Highlights
  • Sophisticated, ‘rounded’ good looks with a sculpted top
  • Two Ibanez Quantum humbuckers with heightened bass
  • Mahogany body, maple neck and jatoba fretboard
  • Edge Zero II tremolo bridge that offers tuning stability
  • For shredders: very fast neck, flat fretboard radius and two-octave range
  • Retails for about $500

Simplicity lies at the heart of the S520. Its elegant finish, sculpted top and black hardware don’t wail for attention, and it’s versatile enough for most (heavy) genres of music.

The S520’s pair of Quantum humbuckers are responsible for most of its ‘high-definition’ tone. These pickups offer a heightened bass response with a full midrange and articulate highs, perfect for those palm-muted riffs and screaming solos. You can also engage the neck humbucker’s coils in parallel, which gives the pickup a brighter, single-coil-ish bite.

The Wizard III maple neck on the guitar is built for shred players, too. It’s thin and has a very flat 15.8-inch fretboard radius—not to mention 24 jumbo frets—that your hands and fingers will have no problem gliding across. And an Edge Zero II tremolo system, which provides tuning stability as you’re abusing the whammy bar, is yet another shred-friendly feature.