Whether you’re on a strict budget for your first axe or you’re just looking for a project guitar, here are our picks of the best electrics you can buy with $500. And good news for rock and metal players—this list is full of guitars for ya.

1

PRS SE Standard 24

Older players will remember that PRS used to be the sole province of seasoned players 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, modern and versatile guitars.

Highlights
  • All-mahogany body with three lip-smacking finishes and those PRS Birds inlays
  • Coil-split pickups for versatility
  • Maple Wide Thin set neck, which is PRS’ thinnest design
  • Ultra-smooth molded tremolo
  • Retails for under $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—again, they’re affordable versions of the Custom’s 85/15—are transparent, ‘hi-fi,’ articulate and high-output. Lush while clean and thick when clipped, the pickups have also 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 pretty amazing for its price.

2

Dean 350 Custom Floyd

Despite its price tag, the Dean 350 Custom Floyd is a guitar whose specs you’d more commonly find in instruments triple or quadruple its $350 asking price—perhaps being made in China has something to do with that. That said, it’s a choice metal and rock Super Strat for those who want the features but not crazy prices.

Highlights
  • No-nonsense metal guitar
  • Flame arched maple top on a basswood body
  • Legit 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 authentic Floyd Rose Special tremolo system and R3 nut. Dive bombs, squealing harmonics and other guitar acrobatics—they’re all possible now. Add to that the high-output DMT Design humbuckers, and you’re left with a six-string that screams.

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 pretty 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.

3

Squier Contemporary Stratocaster HH

Here’s Fender’s take on a Super Strat. The Squier Contemporary Stratocaster HH draws inspiration from ’80s-era Japanese Strats—meaning it’s well tuned for the progressive player who still wants some of those classic good looks.

Highlights
  • Plays and feels like a high-end Strat at a fraction of the cost
  • Ceramic humbuckers that are voiced to rock
  • Eye-catching aesthetics: ‘Zebra’ pickup bobbins and matching headstock
  • Retails for under $350

The bridge humbucker of a ‘fat’ Strat not enough for you? Then the dual ceramic humbuckers of the Contemporary Strat HH will sort you out. These pickups are voiced specifically for rock and metal, with punchy lows and articulate highs. (These also come in HSS and active HH models.) And simple wiring—master volume and tone knobs, and a three-way pickup selector switch—means you can focus on nailing your playing.

The construction of the guitar also leans towards faster playing styles. Its slim “C”-shaped maple neck, 12-inch fingerboard radius and 22 narrow-tall frets (these are Fender’s largest) mean you’ll find this Strat easy to bend, hold and solo with. And that’s not even mentioning the guitar’s ’80s-harking cosmetic features, like the ‘zebra’ bobbins and a matching headstock.

4

ESP LTD M-200FM

This is a guitar for players who want to do one thing: shred. The ESP LTD M-200FM has all the specs that cater for fretboard pyrotechnics, so if you’re hungry for versatility, there are probably better places to drop your cash. But as far as a shred machine goes, this model is well worth the $450.

Highlights
  • Flamed maple top on a mahogany body
  • Extra-thin “U”-shaped maple neck
  • For shredders: very flat roasted jatoba fingerboard with 24 extra jumbo frets
  • LTD by Floyd Rose tremolo system
  • Two ESP Designed LH-150 humbuckers
  • Retails for about $450

Craftsmanship and aesthetics are two of the M-200FM’s stronger points. A flamed maple top sits above a ‘slab’ mahogany body, while a white binding around the bolt-on maple neck adds a touch of class to the Super Strat.

Specs-wise, the guitar is brimming with shred-friendly tweaks. Like ESP’s Extra Thin “U”-shaped neck, 24 extra jumbo frets, a 13.8-inch fretboard radius and, crucially, an LTD by Floyd Rose tremolo system. A pair of ESP Designed LH-150 humbuckers power this axe—they’re not as hot as those on ESP’s more expensive units, but they’ll get the job done for most beginners and intermediate players.

5

G&L Tribute Series ASAT Junior II

Here’s a Tele with a difference. The G&L Tribute Series ASAT Junior II comes with two P-90s that take it from country twang to punchy rhythms. It kinda falls in-between a Fender Tele and a Gibson Les Paul Junior both looks- and tone-wise. Whichever way you lean, this axe is a spirited instrument that’s also as straightforward as they come.

Highlights
  • Gutsy, bright pickups that work well when overdriven
  • Pickups have matched outputs so you can switch between them easily
  • Fuss-free controls: master volume and tone knobs, and a three-way pickup selector switch
  • Slim, medium “C”-shaped maple neck with a 12-inch cherry fretboard radius
  • Retails for under $500

The ASAT Junior II, made in Indonesia, is built for overdriven sounds, thanks to the pair of P-90s designed by G&L’s own Paul Gagon. They’re lively little beasts, offering a punchy midrange and brash trebles that you won’t be able to elicit from your average Tele. These aren’t the most versatile guitars—or Teles, for that matter—around, but what it does, it does well.

Look beyond body shape and you’ll spot many specs that are more familiar to Gibson instruments. Like the pickguard, control knobs, mahogany body, and TonePro bridge and tailpiece. Even the only finish available looks like Gibson’s translucent red ones. And that ain’t a bad thing.

6

Schecter Omen-6

One look at the Schecter Omen-6 and you’ll know what it’s built for: metal. The made-in-Indonesia Super Strat is one of the brand’s most affordable instruments, but it’s a well-crafted, sleek-looking piece that aspiring riff gods will love to have in their arsenal.

Highlights
  • Two Diamond Plus overwound humbuckers for tighter and hotter tones
  • Sleek looks: Arched top on a bound basswood body and pearloid Semi-Goth inlays
  • Retails for about $350

If you’re not a fan of the ‘quilted’ (it’s a printed image) top on the Schecter C-6, the Omen-6 will fit you just fine. Three sophisticated—if a little subdued—finishes grace the arched top of this six-string, the body binding looks premium, and those Gothic inlays are wicked enough for your metal band.

Which is what you’ll be doing with the Omen-6: lay down heavy riffs and unleash screaming solos. Two overwound Diamond Plus humbuckers are responsible for the guitar’s hot and thick output, while a thin “C”-shaped neck, 14-inch fretboard radius and extra jumbo frets keep things fast and comfy. Although this doesn’t have a tremolo for those dive bombs, a Tune-o-matic bridge and string-through body ensure your sustain will sing for days.

Other specs of the guitar are fairly ordinary: It has a basswood body, bolt-on maple neck, rosewood fretboard, a 25.5-inch scale length, and simple master tone and volume controls.

7

Gretsch G2420 Streamliner

For a guitar that’s just under $500, the G2420 Streamliner channels a whole lotta Gretsch. Think ringing sustain, hollow-body construction and retrolicious looks. But it isn’t only for jazz cats and country pickers—this guitar has plenty of brawn, bite and balls.

Highlights
  • Excellent fully hollow build
  • Broad’Tron humbuckers for a modern and dynamic sound
  • Laminated and bound maple body with a single cutaway
  • Nato thin “U”-shaped neck with 24.75-inch scale length
  • High-quality hardware: Adjust-o-matic bridge, harp tailpiece and gold vintage-style knobs
  • Retails for about $450

Besides its classic vibe, the best part about this guitar may be its Broad’Tron pickups. These were designed specifically for the Streamliner, and are known for their throaty midrange, booming lows and sparkly highs. They’re also louder than Gretsch’s other popular pups, the Filter’Tron, so push them hard and they’ll snarl and scream. Dial back the volume knob, however, and you’ll encounter the warmth and rounded tone for which Gretsch hollow-bodies are known.

The other specs of the guitar are far from vintage. Take the (white-bound) nato “U”-shaped neck, 12-inch rosewood fretboard radius and 22 medium jumbo frets. Together with nickel hardware and gold knobs, they make a guitar whose beauty extends well below the surface.

8

Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster

If you’re lusting over an OG 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 the price—it’s even more legit than the new Mexican-made Fender Standards.

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, the new, way-more-expensive Fender American Professional Jazzmasters don’t have this circuitry.)

A non-locking floating vibrato system and the vintage-style bridge—with those ‘grooved barrel’ saddles that many players consider unstable—are the other vintage-style specs on this guitar. They aren’t exactly downsides as they contribute to the Jazzmaster’s cherished low sustain and sonic artifacts, though.

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 way more affordable and a tad more versatile, yet it looks pretty much 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
  • Chunky neck
  • 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’re thinking the G-400 PRO is a pale imitation of its Gibson sibling, stop right there. This axe, which by the way will set you back only $350, can rock.

Besides the 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 5 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 more comfortable when holding down power or barred chords—generally speaking, of course.

10

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 pretty much any application.

Highlights
  • Dual beveled cutaways for complete access to upper frets
  • Unique, Alnico V rail split-coil pickups for even more versatility
  • For aspiring shredders: very flat fretboard and medium jumbo frets
  • It looks premium AF
  • 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 is not your average ‘budget’ guitar.

11

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 their bestsellers. And as you can probably tell from its striking shape, expect this to get loud and heavy.

Highlights
  • Looks that can kill: ‘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 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, but makes 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.

12

Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Stratocaster

There’s nothing much to say about a Stratocaster that hasn’t already been said 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

Don’t be put off by the Squier logo on the headstock. This model encapsulates a Strat’s reputation of being a versatile axe 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? Easy. Cosmetics notwithstanding, the latter has hotter Alnico V single-coils and an Indian laurel fretboard. Everything else—including their price tags—is identical.

13

Epiphone Dot

Dollar for dollar and feature for feature, the Epiphone Dot is arguably the best semi-hollow out there. It retails for a little over $400, and is versatile enough to take you from rock to blues to jazz, easy. Frankly, we wouldn’t recommend a semi-hollow as a starter guitar, but if you must have one, the Dot is your answer.

Highlights
  • Semi-hollow body that’s acoustically resonant
  • Alnico Classic humbuckers are voiced to vintage tones
  • That iconic Gibson ‘ES’ look
  • Retails for under $500 

In simple terms, the Dot is a budget Gibson ES-335. And like the far more expensive guitar, this one has a laminated maple body and top, a mahogany neck, and a center block running within the otherwise hollow body to help out with the sustain and feedback—more and less, respectively. The SlimTaper “D” neck isn’t as fast as the Gibson’s rounded “C,” but it has thicker ‘shoulders’ that some players will find better for chords. Both models have a 12-inch fretboard radius.

The biggest difference between the two (besides the logos on the headstock, of course) is in the pickups. The Dot uses Epiphone’s Alnico Classic humbuckers, which admittedly don’t have the character, clarity and ‘singing’ mid-range of the ES-335’s PAF-harking Gibson Burstbuckers. But they’re still ace for the price: clean, thick and punchy.

You won’t be able to throw the horns up and unleash metal riffs with the Dot, yet it’s versatile enough for most types of rock, blues, country and jazz. Thanks to the center block, you’ll be able to drive this fella hard. And lest we all forget, the Dot clocks in at about an eighth of the price of a new 335.

14

Fender Modern Player Telecaster Plus

It’s the cheapest Fender electric out there, and, honestly, we’re not sure why. The China-made Modern Player Telecaster Plus is brimming with contemporary features you won’t find on your average Tele, American or otherwise.

Highlights
  • Versatile: unique triple pickup configuration
  • Coil-split bridge humbucker takes you from aggressive to traditional
  • String-through pine body with a hardtail bridge
  • Retails for under $500

The first thing you’d notice about this Tele is its unique triple pickup configuration: There’s a humbucker at the bridge, a Telecaster single-coil at the neck, and a Stratocaster-style single-coil in the middle. Which means it can get way more aggressive than your average Tele.

However, the humbucker is coil-split: You can flick a toggle switch on the guitar to transform the pickup into a single-coil if you want the traditional Tele ‘spank.’ Mind you, the bridge humbucker probably won’t get you that exact tone, but it’s a trade-off for versatility.

A pine body is another unusual choice for today’s guitars (it was, however, the standard tonewood in earlier iterations of the Telecaster). But everything else about the Plus is modern. Like the 9.5-inch fretboard radius to easily switch between rhythm and lead playing, to the glossy “C”-shaped neck, to the Strat-style bridge for better stability and intonation.

15

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. Not everyone can afford a bona fide Gibson, though, but the Epiphone Les Paul Standard makes those sounds accessible to most of us.

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
  • It’s a fraction of the price of a Gibson Les Paul

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 are 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. 

16

Fender Mustang

Meant as a ‘student guitar’ when it was released in the ’60s, the Fender Mustang has come a long way. The offset guitar is now known for its bright and punchy tone, smallish size, and, of course, its role as the main instrument of many alt-rock legends, Kurt Cobain included.

Highlights
  • Short, 24-inch scale length
  • Lightweight, with a thin body and quirky shape
  • Fuss-free controls and simplified circuitry
  • Retails for under $500

Unlike an OG Mustang or the Squier Vintage Modified models, the new, made-in-Mexico Mustang is stripped-down but just as ballsy. Gone are the complex circuitry and switching systems—you only have a three-way pickup selector, and a volume and tone knob to negotiate.

The two single-coil pickups on this Mustang are modeled after the originals, but are slightly hotter in output. Couple these with the short, 24-inch scale and you can get percussive slaps the harder you hit the strings. And thanks to their pronounced midrange, the pickups also lend themselves well to effects, be it a fuzz or reverb. Or both.

Other modern appointments on the Mustang include a flatter, 9.5-inch radius fretboard, a Strat-style hardtail bridge, and a “C”-shaped neck. Tonewood-wise, the six-string uses alder in its body, and maple for its neck and fretboard.