How to Buy a New, Better Guitar on a Budget
Tired of your practice guitar? Need a guitar upgrade on a budget? I got you covered.
So you have a practice guitar that you play and beat up regularly.
And now it’s time for an upgrade.
Having done guitar shopping countless times, not just for myself, I’d like to offer a few free tips here.
If you’ve owned a guitar before, some of this will definitely help for buying a newer, better guitar.
And let me address one important point: sometimes brand names don’t matter. Sometimes price doesn’t matter. That premium certified guitar sticker? Yeah, doesn’t matter.
If you’re a wealthy guitar elitist, this one’s not for you. I’m helping guitarists out their who have a set budget of around $400–$800, and need some advice to find good upgrades to their Squiers and Yamaha starter guitars.
I’ll be discussing more mid-grade guitars to help you get a good bang for your buck long-term.
Let’s jump in.
First, What to Look For In A Guitar
You don’t have to spend a fortune to find a great guitar that’ll last for a long time.
See my profile pic? That’s an Ibanez IC 400 that I bought for about $400 and modded it like crazy through the years. I’ve had it for about 16 years, and it’s still one of my favorite guitars of all time.
So first, establish one thing: do you or do you not plan to modify the guitar yourself with some DIY (or through a luthier/shop)?
Buying stock guitars and leaving all the parts alone isn’t my preference. I always customize what I buy.
But that’s why I buy a solid, affordable base model and upgrade what I want.
You can buy a guitar with really good hardware that’ll last, and you’ll not have to touch it.
Let’s cover both.
[Before I cover these, just make sure to create your own checklist for what’s important to you. Use that checklist when browsing for axes.]
If you don’t plan to mod the axe, here is what to look for:
- buy in-person: as much as possible, buy the axe in person, especially if used. Buying online may be fine (I have before, with mixed experience), but there’s always a risk that the axe will not meet your expectations (you haven’t played it, binding is shoddy, action wasn’t set properly, etc.).
- fret wear: make sure the frets are not worn down. You’ll notice worn frets if they’re scratched or uneven compared to each other.
- fret size: got a heavy hand? Go with medium frets. Got a light touch? Go with jumbo frets.
- bridge quality: if you buy a floating bridge, make sure it’s a higher-end Floyd Rose. If you’re buying a fixed bridge, make sure it’s sturdy and doesn’t pivot or move easily. Check the bridge screws and make sure they’re snug and don’t move when you try with your hands.
- playability: did you know that each guitar is suited for certain hand and body sizes? Though more true for acoustic guitars, the rule applies to electric guitars as well. If you have smaller hands, ask for a guitar with a smaller nut width and smaller scale (24 and below). If your hand is as big as a bird-eating tarantula, go for a 25.5 inch scale.
- stick with the well-known brand names: PRS, Ibanez, Fender, Jackson, LTD/ESP, and Epiphone have good mid-range guitars that’ll give you a good bang for your buck.
- glossy neck/smooth neck: if you move your hands around the neck a lot, you might appreciate a smoother, sanded and oiled neck. If you want the neck to have some protection from dirt and sweat, go with the gloss.
- tone: last of all, if the guitar sounds good from every amp you plug it into (plug it into 3 different amps if you can), go for it. If not, ask someone how to get the tone you want.
- check the pickup quality: this is really important. Stock pickups always crap out after a while. Always play both clean and dirty on all pickups. Test the limits of what the axe can do. It may sound great dirty, but awful clean.
Tip: Look for Alnico II pickups for warmer rock sounds. Alnico V is great for punchy riffs. Look for Ceramic pickups if you like high output.
If the pickups are from any of the following brands, for the most part, you’ll be fine: Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Fender, Mojotone, and Bare Knuckle.
EMG and Fishman are good too. But be careful with battery-powered pickups as they can malfunction or lose power at inopportune times. It happened to James Hetfield live. It can happen to you.
That’s a lot. But hey, if you’re not modding your axe, that’s what you’re looking for.
Modding Your Axe
If you’re modding your guitar, there’s less to look for. You can use the last list, but keep these things in mind, more so:
Buy a really good base model: if the guitar was manufactured in China, Indonesia, or Vietnam, there may be some structural and hardware deficiencies in the long run.
Check the machine heads, bridge, binding, frets (if stainless steel, it should be fine), warped necks, pickups, paint (for consistent quality), and body (for dings/scratches).
If it feels cheap, it was made cheap: you can use your instincts here. Go and feel a few high end Les Paul, Charvel, and Ibanez necks. Slide your hands along the neck and fret wire. It should feel even and smooth. Use that feeling as a baseline for the guitar you plan to buy.
Cheap guitars will feel uneven and rough in the neck, and you’ll see the paint job and symmetry will look shoddy, too.
Search for cracks and unfinished binding: some new guitars may have some very small, barely noticeable binding and structural imperfections (especially between neck and body).
Take your time and search the guitar for these. It’ll save you a headache in the long-run if you plan to tinker with it.
Single coil/humbucker: depending on the sound you want, buy a guitar with the most suitable pickup type. Look for your preferred configuration, too (modern strat H-S-S, super strat H-S-H, humbucker H-H, etc.).
Have in mind what you want to mod: if you want to change pickups, you’ll be fine as long as you know how to do some basic soldering, assembly, and string changing.
Check the hardware to ensure that anything you won’t mod is durable and good quality. If it looks and feels cheap, it probably is.
What Guitar Models Are Good?
Guitar shopping is fun. But miss one thing, and it ruins your guitar purchase forever. There’s a lot to keep in mind.
And inflation sucks. It’s getting more expensive to be a musician (let alone live).
Here are some models that I like, and can give you a good bang for your buck long-term:
Kramer Assault/Striker series:
I have to say, Kramer guitars are a mixed bag for me. If you can find a good Assault (Les Paul-style body) or Striker (strat-style) guitar, they can give you decent quality for your hard-earned dollars.
Price ranges from $400 — $800 bucks (USD). I especially liked their Assault guitars with the Floyd Rose, but they costs more.
Make sure to feel the neck for fret consistency.
These guitars can cover most genres, especially if you get a Striker H-S-H model. And they got 24 frets, too. If you plan to mod, these guitars would make decent base models. I prefer brand name pickups to the Kramer stock pickups, but you do you, baby.
Ibanez RG450 (or greater):
These guitars go for around $450 or more. Higher-end RG’s command a high price. RG450’s are most suited for hard rock and metal. To some degree, if you can adjust your amp and guitar settings, it can cover jazz, too.
[story time] I admit, I have a love affair with this brand.
I recently shopped at a Korean guitar joint, and I said I want to look at their Ibanez stuff. The shopkeeper said (in Korean, which my fiance had to translate): “Ibanez is evolution”.
Instant bromance. And I don’t even speak Korean that well.
Let me balance that fanfare out: check each guitar from Ibanez carefully, especially around the $400 range. Not all guitars are made equally. Some lines are made in cheaper factories in Asia, so be careful.
With that said, RG guitars feel great in the hands, especially if you like jumbo frets and a slender neck. The quality is consistent for RGs in my experience, and tone is decent, too — though I always mod stock pickups. Blistering shreds are easy to do on RGs. And you get 24 frets.
If you got the cash, go for a higher # RG (>450) that’s got features you like.
You might also find some cheaper S class guitars that are shred-worthy, but do inspect them, first. They are lighter on the shoulders, too.
Epiphone Les Paul Custom/Modern:
[rant alert] I can hear the religious Gibson heads shrieking “buy a Gibson Standard instead!”. Those cost $1000s more, by the way.
The cheapest comparable Les Paul line is the Tribute series, though I don’t find the quality any better, especially for a price tag of $1300–$1400. I’d rather buy another brand at that price.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually like Gibson. But man, Gibson snobs are obnoxious.
Don’t be afraid to mess with Epiphone. I’d rather pay to watch a great Epiphone player perform than a shitty Gibson player. [rant over]
Good Epiphone guitars can last a really long time, and are good for gigging, too. They’re good for rock n’ roll, blues, and hard rock. Anything that needs a deep humbucker growl. They cover some metal, too.
I like the custom series better than the Epiphone standard, as some finer detail is added to the production quality. Make sure to inspect the binding and necks, as always. You can find them around $700 as of the publishing date.
The Modern series is…well, more modern. And cheaper, too. They have coil splitting, phase inversion, and more switch options to change your tone on the fly. I think that’s pretty cool, and can satisfy the needs of many tone-heads out there.
They feel good to play, so I give them my thumbs up.
PRS SE Custom 22/24 series:
The number denotes the number of frets. Try and find one under $800 USD. If used, that’s fine, but inspect it.
These PRS axes are good for many genres, perhaps not including the heaviest of metal, nor the twangiest of country (though they come with coil splitting tone knobs, so there’s that).
PRS guitars feel great and sound good. The neck is thinner but slightly wider than most guitars, which I like. You can really isolate each string for lead play.
Pickup quality is usually solid at that price point. If you plan to mod it later, it’s a great base model to add some pickups and machine heads. PRS guitars get my thumbs up.
There’s so much to cover in the world of guitars, but you can use this information as a jump-off point.
If you find a great axe in the wild, and the price point is good, go for it. We need more aspiring musicians who can play good music.
Until next time, keep playing, and see you in the next blog!
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