The price does not always measure a guitar’s value, and I don’t even mean it in an emotional instrument-player relationship sense.
Throughout my career, I have been through the beaten-down 20$ guitars up to recording with a rare pre-war Martin acoustic, and even though some guitars are costly for a good reason, this doesn’t mean that cheap ones don’t have a role to play.
In my first few years as a session musician, I used to bring my Harley Benton Strat copy, the red guitar featured on the top, cover the headstock, and still get out of the room with the recording done and have others asking, ‘Is that a custom?’ Today, I can afford an actual Strat, but if I’m confident, I would still get the session done with my HB if need be.
Out of the many guitars I’ve owned in my life, here is my list of cheap guitars that are better than most think and can make a perfect spare touring instrument, practice tool, beater guitar, or the perfect axe to modify.
Some of the models are well known, while other lesser known brands you’d be interested to explore.
Top Cheap Guitars at a Glance
- Harley Benton HSS Strat Replica – The most affordable versatile guitar
- Yamaha Pacifica – The most reliable cheap electric
- Squire Affinity Series – Best modern Strat copy
- Gretsch G2210 Streamliner – Best vintage-sounding pickups
- Olympia By Takoma OP-2 – Best travel guitar
- Tanglewood SFCE 12 String – Best for recording
- Sterling By Music Man – Best for heavy music
- Washburn Festival EA15 Acoustic-electric – Versatile value acoustic-electric
- Orangewood Rey – Best first guitar
What to Look For on a Cheap Guitar
As I mentioned, the guitars are not on this list because they have sentimental value – they are because they are actually good enough instruments to get the gig done. Considering the many compromises I made for the price range, I used the following criteria of what to look for on a cheap guitar.
- It has to cost a maximum of around 300$
- It can stay in tune and is intonated up to the point of not noticing anything wrong or dissonant.
- It has either a versatile, balanced tone and/or one specific tone that makes it unique.
- The neck is not unplayable
- It’s a solid build that will last over time
- It’s easy to modify
Note: Considering how many different variants of some of the guitars in the list exist and how inconsistent they are, I’ll add one specific model you can buy today that I know is a safe choice that best represents the instrument.
I’ll start with my favorite beater guitar and the first electric guitar I ever owned, an HSS HB Strat copy—first, a word on Harley Benton’s and how they are so good considering the price.
Every Harley Benton you find will probably be a better deal than other brands of the same price because they can keep their guitars extraordinarily cheap but still be solid builds due to how they distribute the instruments.
So don’t be amazed when an HB copy with some slight mods beats an Epiphone or Squire twice its price.
I specifically choose the HSS, first because of its versatility and second cause of how it makes the guitar perfect to modify. The only mods I did to mine were changing the stock bridge humbucker to a classic P90 and replacing the standard tuners with locking ones for more stability.
Harley Benton HSS Pros
- Extreme value for the price
- Very versatile guitar
- Easy to modify
- Balanced tone
Harley Benton HSS Cons
- Not easy to find in shops worldwide
- It’s a heavy guitar
The Pacifica is arguably Yamaha’s most famous electric guitar model that every
What makes it great is the consistency between different years and variations. While there was a golden era of Pacificas, you will rarely encounter a ‘bad’ one with tuning issues or a poor-quality build that can’t easily be fixed. They are always rock solid and have relatively easy-to-play necks made for shredding.
There are good reasons why they are still around, but sadly, I don’t find the tone to be one of them. Most bridge humbuckers on these guitars are very aggressive and good only for hard rock, so I’d first advise finding an affordable quality humbucker if you want to turn it into a gigging jack-of-all-trades.
Yamaha Pacifica Pros
- Easy to find and consistent among it’s many variations
- A sound, stable tremolo system
- Easy to modify
- Easy to play neck
- Great rock guitar
Yamaha Pacifica Cons
- Harsh-sounding stock pickups
Squires are often the object of mockery for guitarists. In truth, I’ve played Squires that felt better than a Strat, but I have also played some that felt like they were made in a shed. It’s only a matter of finding one that works for you and insisting on making it a better guitar.
The trick to picking one, like the Squire I linked here, is not to look for a Stratocaster in it. No matter how similar they look, a Squire won’t be a Strat, so it’s wise to treat it like a separate instrument and buy it even if it only has a good neck, stays in tune, and has one pickup you really like.
I chose the modern Affinity series as they are generally more consistent, while this precise model has a woody-sounding warm neck single-coil that sounds almost like you’d expect from a Strat. It’s rough on the edges and not that refined, but still a perfect
Squire Affinity Series Pros
- The most similar sound to a Strat you can find
- Classic design
- Very versatile for low-gain genres
Squire Affinity Series Cons
- Can’t handle too much gain
- They are not very consistent among the many variations
- Not a very stable tremolo
There is one reason, above all, why I choose this Gretsch: the pickups are amazing. When I first reviewed the Streamliner series, I found all the guitars to have good pickups, but I’m still shocked that the cheapest sounds as good as the most expensive.
The reason why it’s so cheap is because there is not much Gretsch on this guitar besides the Broadtron humbucker; it could even be a random quality Les Paul with Gretsch written on the headstock, but none of this matters once you plug it into a clean amp and boost the drive just slightly to get the edge-of-breakup classic rock n’ roll tone.
The wraparound bridge also makes for good tuning stability, and the nut and tuner are decent. Yet, don’t forget that this is a ‘specialist’ guitar, almost a ‘one trick pony,’ so don’t expect it to be able to deliver everything.
Gretsch G2210 Pros
- Excellent pickups for blues, rock, and jazz
- Classic design
- Stable tuning and intonation
- Comfortable fretboard
Gretsch G2210 Cons
- Not very versatile
- Pickups shrill at high gain
I got this small guitar as a gift a year back. I thought it was a ‘cute’ instrument in my room, but it eventually became one of the best travel guitars I’ve played. The size and unknown brand tricked me into thinking it’s just a cheap guitar, yet the natural resonance of the first G chords I strummed convinced me otherwise.
Years later, I discovered the brand was so well known for its affordable guitars that Fender purchased it in the early 2000s. It surely has its flaws, mainly due to its size restrictions, but like any good travel guitar, it can handle a beating on the road and come out unscathed.
Olympia By Takoma 0P-2 Pros
- The rich tone for its size
- The string spacing and neck feel like a full-size guitars
- Good tuning stability
- Strong built
Olympia By Takoma 0P-2 Cons
- Low volume due to the size
Most serious players own 12-string guitars in their arsenal for their unique and unmatched tone. Typically, they are expensive, and it’s hard to find affordable ones that sound as a proper one should sound, apart from a few exceptions like this Tanglewood SCFE electric-acoustic.
This UK-made guitar had an open, airy, breezy tone full of the natural overtones you’d expect from an expensive 12-string.
Even though the electronics are not the best, it sounds like a record under the mic and so far has been in hundreds of songs I’ve recorded as a layering instrument or main acoustic.
The tonewoods could be better, and so the fretboard; however, the tone of the strummed chords alone makes it worth the slightly over 300$ price tag.
Tanglewood SFCE 12 String Pros
- Excellent acoustic resonance
- Loud and full sound
- Good intonation
- Great guitar for recording
Tanglewood SFCE 12 String Cons
- Not the best electronics
- Challenging neck to play
Not many players know that Music Man has its
The neck felt almost exactly like a proper Music Man: small, compact, and easy to shred on. The tuning is held after hours of soloing and can sound like a ‘ big’ guitar, controlling massive amounts of gain with the proper high-gain amp and keeping up with the metal rhythm guitar tasks.
It is impressive for a 300$ guitar, but let’s remember it’s still a Music Man, made by the same company that makes John Petrucci’s guitar.
Starling By Music Man Pros
- Easy to play neck
- Great for players with small hands
- Can handle a lot of gain
- Versatile in the heavy music world
- Solid tuning and intonation
Starling By Music Man Cons
- Not very dynamic clean sounds
- The volume knobs don’t clean up the sound when lowered
I bought this guitar as a teenager, trying to imitate my guitar hero, Nuno Bettencourt.
It’s the guitar I played my first shows with, and now the one I keep beside the bed to play at random times and a spare acoustic – another proof that Washburn is a master of value guitars that are ready for the gig and look fantastic.
Nothing about this guitar screams cheap, especially the plugged-in tone that I manage to get to almost that grungy mid-rangy sound of the MTV unplugged sessions of the early 90s.
The shape is exceptionally comfortable for acoustic gigs, allowing you to easily switch from rhythm to lead while sounding natural in both roles.
The acoustic tone is not very impressive, yet it’s not lifeless like many other cheap acoustics I have tried. It can easily be your first instrument and stay with you until your upper intermediate years.
Washburn Festival EA15 Pros
- Comfortable neck and body shape
- Great plugged-in tone
- Versatile electronics
- Good tuning stability
Washburn Festival EA15 Cons
- Not the best acoustic tone
- Cheap tonewoods
Orangewood is the Harley Benton of acoustic guitars. They are extremely cheap but deliver much more than you might think due to the company’s effective way of keeping costs low.
I’ve reviewed it in depth, and I still stand in saying that is the ultimate first acoustic guitar you could buy for anyone. It sounds decent, almost rich on the right hands, has low action, and doesn’t need frequent retuning – not bad for 150$.
Best of all, the Tonewoods used are layered and real mahogany that guitars twice its price typically don’t use.
Orangewood Rey Pros
- Modern C shape neck
- Real smooth Satin finish
- Good blend of tonewoods
- Balanced tone
- Extreme value for the price
Orangewood Rey Cons
- Limited quantity and only available from the builder’s website
- Not very robust
Making the Best Out of a Cheap Guitar
A guitar will never be perfect, cheap or not, so don’t shy away from modifying it to match your standards. Even Slash himself plays a modified, affordable Epiphone, not a Gold Top Gibson, as many think, but no one ever said his tone lacks something.
Give yourself time to grow with your instrument and experiment, and don’t be too fast on selling your old guitar – you never know if one specific element of it will grab your attention in the future as my Harley Benton did with me, or if you’ll need one spare guitar which has the ‘mojo’ of nostalgia but can also deliver when required.
Question: Which Famous Player Plays Cheap Guitars?
Answer: Jack Piercen, Slash, Jack White, Prince, Billie Joel Armstrong, Bek, Jared James Nichols, and many others have played guitars at stadium shows with guitars that retail for under $ 500$.
Question: How Can You Tell if a Guitar is Cheap?
Answer: Besides the brand name, cheap guitars typically don’t have a rich pleasant sound when directly plugged in an amp and not tweaking the knobs at least slightly; the action feels either too low or too high, it’s hard to keep in tune, and you can notice that the finish is not very refined and/or there are imperfections in the wood.
Question: Should Beginners Start with a Cheap Guitar?
Answer: Beginners should not necessarily start playing with a cheap guitar. Yet, it’s not recommended to buy an expensive guitar for a player who won’t likely tell the difference or might not ever need a better instrument.
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