A good-sounding, but budget friendly electric guitar for a guitar noob?
October 7, 2010 11:53 PM   Subscribe

What is a good-sounding electric guitar that's easy on the budget?

I played with my friend's Squier for a little more than a month, but I simply gave it back to him because the guitar would just produce unpleasant sounds. I know I'm still new at it, but I've heard much better guitars. Perhaps it was the amp, I have no idea.

One of the biggest problems that I had with it was that the neck of the guitar was too thick. I had trouble reaching for the farthest two strings and would literally stretch my fingers as much as I could to reach for the last two strings without pressing down on the others. So a guitar with a thinner neck would probably allow for easier playing.

As far as amps go, I really don't care. In fact, I don't mind plugging the guitar into my computer either (I heard you could do this. Not sure what software/hardware is required though.) I live in a townhouse, so I can't create a lot of noise anyways. If I were to get an amp though, I'd like something with decent sound.
posted by RaDeuX to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
And your budget is...?
posted by germdisco at 12:01 AM on October 8, 2010

Amp: Epiphone valve junior. For $100, doesn't get a whole lot better.

Guitar: Play a lot of guitars, see what you feel comfortable playing. I bought an electric a while back without really getting a feel for it, and I regret that, because I find the neck quite thick, and not very easy to play.
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 12:21 AM on October 8, 2010

I would go to a guitar shop and play with lots of them. It sounds like the feel of the guitar was as objectionable as the sound, and that's an aspect that's harder to change down the road. So you need to find something that's to your taste.

It should be noted, however, that learning to stretch your fingers is a very definite part of the early guitar playing process.

Also, and I apologise if I'm misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you might be holding it incorrectly. The thumb should be against the back of the neck. You shouldn't have it as far up as the top of the back of the neck. I can't copy and paste easily because I'm on my iPhone, but it might be worth looking at some videos on YouTube.
posted by Magnakai at 12:27 AM on October 8, 2010

Epiphone is the "budget" brand of Gibson. They tend to have a thinner neck than Fenders, and in my experience the the quality tends to be a little tighter between Gibson and Epiphone than Fender and Fender's Squire line.
That said, go to Guitar Center or the like and just play a bunch of different guitars. Go somewhere that has employees that get paid a commission, they'll be much more likely to pull several guitars for you and help you find the right one.
When you figure out what you like, by all means by it there if you're totally stoked, but know that you probably find it cheaper, or with a free case or something if you buy it at a mom & pop.
posted by gally99 at 12:48 AM on October 8, 2010

My budget? I could spend around $300, and maybe more than that if the quality is worth more than the extra amount that I put into the total amount. I don't think I want to pay anything more than $400. I'd also like to ask if it's possible to connect my guitar to my computer instead of an amp to save some money. But if the hardware required to do that costs more than a decent amp, I'll take the latter instead.
posted by RaDeuX at 1:18 AM on October 8, 2010

For $300, I'm pretty sure you can get a nice Mexican Strat on Craigslist. Some people don't like Strats, but it's rarely because they find them uncomfortable.

You usually need a cord that has a 1/4" jack on one end and an 1/8" jack on the other to plug into most computers' line in ports. Then, you need some software that'll do amp modeling for you. If you have a Mac, GarageBand does this and comes with the computer. I'm not sure what's out there for the PC, but half an hour of Googling should tell you.
posted by ignignokt at 1:35 AM on October 8, 2010

On hooking up to a computer: you can get an interface for as little as $40 or so, but more realistically you probably will end up at around $100 which is the starting price point for an interface plus software... something like a Line6 Pod Studio GX, or IK Multimedia StealthPlug. Note that the software is actually the most important part here, as you need one with amp and effect modeling, not just a recording app.

So you really won't save much compared to a decent small amp; the main things you would gain are easier recording capability and a collection of effects, neither of which are probably all that necessary if you're learning and on a budget.
posted by robt at 1:39 AM on October 8, 2010

I'm not clear on whether you have much experience playing the guitar or not, but, to second Magnakai, you do need to learn to stretch your fingers. And if you get into the habit of holding your guitar wrong, you're potentially looking at a lot of wrist and tendon pain in the future. The guitar is very uncomfortable to play right at the beginning, but if you make sure you are using correct positioning, it gets easier as time goes by.

I know nothing about electric guitars, so can't help you on that end. But do go the stores and try out as many as you can until you find one that feels comfortable.
posted by bardophile at 1:42 AM on October 8, 2010

A Danelectro is the best cheap guitar you can buy.
posted by fire&wings at 2:55 AM on October 8, 2010

The Yamaha Pacifica 112 is enormously popular and very well-regarded for the price.
posted by tomcooke at 4:04 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would head to your local Guitar Center etc. and find a good used guitar. A knowledgeable sales person can help you find the right guitar in your budget, abilities and music desires. They can also help hook you up with a guitar teacher.
posted by caddis at 4:17 AM on October 8, 2010

An Epiphone Valve Jr. amp is a much better idea than going computer based. Amp simulators and the like inevitably learn to a bunch of screwing around with effects and "I wonder what this would sound like!?" when beginner's time is much better spent learning basic chords, scales, and technique.
posted by Benjy at 4:57 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was going to say Yamaha or Ibanez. For $300 you get much better quality than with Squier or Epiphone. You have to crack $700 to touch a Fender you'd really want to own. More for a Gibson, frankly.

But frankly, as others have pointed out, this is your inexperience, not the guitar's fault. A Squier strat can sound perfectly fine. Well set up it won't make any "unpleasant sounds" you don't intend it to make, just have a less robust tone and less precise playability than the real thing. It's a perfectly solid $150 guitar for the money. Of course it will make "unpleasant sounds" if you don't even know how to hold it. Or if you have a shitty little practice amp with no tone. (A good amp and a cheap guitar is better than the other way around, IMHO).

Necks are a personal thing. Fender makes half a dozen basic neck designs that vary in wood, width, thickness, fret height, etc. You have to play instruments until you find one that feels right. But from decades of playing, I can tell you that most new players find any neck uncomfortable, and usually "too wide" or "too thick," until they get their hand position worked out. I myself like a very thin neck, but thicker necks are appealing for many players (and styles -- you gonna be power chording heavy metal?).

Don't blame the guitar. Squiers are a fine first instrument and many really good players coming up today learned on a Fender Squier. But if you want a keeper for $300, Yamaha is a better idea.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:07 AM on October 8, 2010

Oh, and seconding "play through a real amp" when you're learning. You are not just learning to play the electric guitar. You're learning to play an amplifier, which is half the story.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:09 AM on October 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm currently playing a Squire Telecaster througha small Vox Transistor based practice Amp. It sounds ok to me.

And I'd recommend using an Amp rather than a DI / Amp PLugin as I've found its harder to get a good sound via the computer than it is to just play through an amp.
posted by mary8nne at 5:42 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I love my Danelectro. I'm not great guitar player by any stretch, but it suits me just fine and is pretty easy to play. I bought it for $150 off eBay about nine years ago, and never looked back. I did take it to my local guitar shop to get it set up after it was delivered.
posted by Shohn at 6:00 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to have the same problem with the Strat knock-off I have: It just never sounded pleasant.

I solved that problem a couple of years ago by doing some research to figure out what bands I liked played (Fender Telecasters, Mustangs, Jaguars), then reading Harmony Central reviews of specific guitars, then going into a big-box music store and trying out guitars.

That is, guitar—I only tried one before I knew I had what I wanted: the Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster Thinline. It's very light (semi-hollowbody), has a nice thin, short neck (a 24.75-inch Gibson-scale one, vs. the usual thick-ass Fender one), and just has a great feel and chime to it.

Now, the only reason I don't play it is 'cause I never have time. Heh.
posted by limeonaire at 6:11 AM on October 8, 2010

I'd like to second the Yamaha Pacifica. It is a very versatile guitar with the classic Strat feel but a range of pickups, so you can practice with a range of sounds and get a feel for what kind of player you want to be.

I started on a Pacifica, and admittedly when I bought a real Strat its flaws became painfully obvious. But as an entry level guitar, it was very, very good. It's solid enough to get through live gigs as well. One of my favourite bands is a group called The Wave Pictures, and their guitarist plays a Pacifica. He does a lot of solos live, and they all sound damn fine.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 6:15 AM on October 8, 2010

Try a Squier Classic Vibe series (tele or strat). They've become legendary among musicians as being pretty much the best value guitar of all time. I was skeptical, having owned a $100 Squier Strat as my first guitar, but then I played one. They really do feel like American quality. Definitely better than Mexican Standards, and lightyears ahead of any other Squier line.

Downside is that you can pretty much only choose one color for each of the models (they have two Strats and three Teles). But the upside is that the colors are good. Check out the Tele Custom - double bound, 3 color sunburst.

The retail price is $380 but you can get them on eBay for closer to $300 shipped. Play one in a local store to convince yourself of their quality, then buy one from eBay.

Seconding the Valve Junior for an amp... and please please please don't go direct! As fourcheesemac said, the amp is an instrument in itself.
posted by relucent at 6:21 AM on October 8, 2010

Looking on ebay, I'm seeing lots of Paul Reed Smith SE class instruments for sale around $300-$400, and as the longtime owner of one of their bolt-on neck CE guitars, there's not a better axe for the money - and I own a few, including the prerequisite Les Paul Custom. I like wide/thin necks, could never really deal with the shape of most Fender necks, so I think we're on the same general page.
posted by dbiedny at 6:28 AM on October 8, 2010

Oh, and as far as amping, go find thee a used Pocket Pod from Line6, some decent headphones, and be done with it.
posted by dbiedny at 6:32 AM on October 8, 2010

The Mexican-made Fender strats and telecasters are really a great deal. You've got to go to a store and play them because they vary a bit, but some are really excellent. I've got 10 basses, some too expensive to take out of the house, and my go-to daily player is a Mexican Jazz bass. (I replaced the pickups with Seymour Duncans, but that's something you can do on your own time, later if you find the tone weak)

I don't like the Squier brand of budget Fenders, though.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:45 AM on October 8, 2010

Don't buy a new guitar- buy used.
You will be able to get a 'regular' line instead of the budget line. (ie, a jap or mexican strat from the 90s or 80s for the same price as a new squier)

Should be plenty on your local craigslist, or ebay, or other sites.
posted by gatsby died at 6:48 AM on October 8, 2010

Does the Squier produce unpleasant sounds when your friend plays it, or just you? You might get unpleasant sounds if you're not pressing a string down hard enough, or you're accidentally bending a string, or your picking is inconsistent, or anything else that will be fixed by a few months of practice. Squiers aren't the greatest guitars, but a Squier strat is a fine starter instrument.

Also, if your friend gave you the guitar with old strings, change them now.
posted by domnit at 6:55 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, limeonaire, I agree -- the thinline Squier tele is a particularly good Squier. I play a thinline (real) Tele as my main instrument, and I found the Squier knockoff remarkably good.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:58 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, domnit nails something that can't be said enough: have the guitar properly set up and freshly strung whether it's a $100 Chinese toy or a $9000 vintage American strat. Nothing is more frustrating and detrimental to learning to play seriously than bad action, dead strings, worn frets, etc. I'd much rather have a well set up cheap instrument at the gig than the fanciest thing in the world with funky-assed action. Pay a guitar tech to do it right and you can buy a cheaper guitar to make up the difference, and it will still be worth it.

I find I get roughly 10-12 hours of clean tone and good intonation out of a set of light steel strings on my Tele, and I don't play all that hard. For learning purposes, figure on changing the strings every few weeks.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:02 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, re: the Squier VM Telecaster Thinline, check out the reviews on Harmony Central. It's rated a solid 9.5 overall, with all categories rated in the 8's and 9's. Oh, and that price—looks like you can still find 'em on eBay going for around the $279 I paid for mine.
posted by limeonaire at 7:02 AM on October 8, 2010

And because I love this topic (nostalgia . . . .) let me add that yes, you can do well on a used instrument, but not unless you know guitars. There are many serious problems, mostly involving the neck and action and thus expensive to fix, that can be very hard to identify for a non-expert player or tech, and unfortunately those reasons are why people sell instruments (I have honestly never sold a guitar, they are like my children). In addition, on Craigslist you are certain to run into any number of stolen instruments, and it is guitar-player religion not to buy someone's stolen axe. The kharma is *terrible,* trust me.

The quality of new learner/entry-level solid body guitars, even those made cheaply in China, has gone so far up in the last decade or two that a newish player is probably best advised to buy new from a good dealer (I like Sweetwater for mail order, but you shouldn't mail order a guitar if you don't have to -- that said, I've bought two guitars from them and both were lovely on arrival; Guitar Center is hit or miss for advice, but they have the product).

Best thing you can do on the side is learn about guitar technology, be able to do your own truss rod adjustments, intonation setting, fret buffing, basic wiring, etc. A guitar is like a living thing. You can't set it and forget it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:09 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

fourcheesemac, while I'm of the general mind that you are - it's good to learn just about everything about your instrument - asking a noob to learn about how to do setups is a little unrealistic, IMO. I suspect that this is a person who would like to keep the intimidation factor down to a minimal level, and just be able to get some decent tone with a minimum of investment. It's like they stated that they're in a townhouse - so yeah, the type of tubes in their lovely amp is going to have a serious effect on the tone, but the reality is that something like a POD - or Korg Pandora, or any of the many other turnkey amp sims out there - is going to make infinitely more sense for the OP, as well as actually fall on the affordable side of the fence, versus even a cheap amp with a speaker. And again, I'm a guy with gear coming out of my ears, and while I own both an amazing Groove Tubes Soul-O 75 and an insanely bizarre Fender Super Twin Reverb (with a configuration I've never, ever seen), I'm much more likely to plug into my Johnson J-Station, which shines on it's Blackface sim, or my Guitar Rig 4 setup, which is extremely cool, but way beyond the budget - or tech scope - of the OP.
posted by dbiedny at 7:31 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a converted bass player that rocks out occasionally on my new Epiphone Dot Studio. It's super simple - 2 pickups, a pickup selector switch, one volume knob, one tone knob. I like the way it sounds with the tone rolled all the way open and the volume turned all the way up. The neck pickup is pretty full sounding, and while the bridge pickup is a little boxy sounding, it works nice for most stuff. The neck is thin, but the whole guitar seems solidly built.

I paired that guitar with the Epiphone Valve Junior Half Stack. Again- it literally could not be simpler - on/off switch, volume control, input jack. It sounds good at low volume, and breaks up nicely when it reaches 12 o'clock on the volume dial.

Here's why I did it this way: the semi-hollow body of the Dot Studio means I can practice without the amp and still hear myself pretty clearly (an important feature, given that I have a 1 year old who likes to sleep when I have time to rock), and the guitar/amp combo is simple to manipulate. I'm focused right now on getting good at playing guitar, not digging deep into finding a specific tone or geeking out about effects.

The Valve Junior is loud enough that I can rehearse a band with it or play a show with it, so I can use it "for reals" when the time comes.

One thing I'd do differently: both the guitar and the fake-leather facing of the amp are a maroon-ish color. It looks like I tried to match my guitar to my amp, and that looks kinda goofy.
posted by elmer benson at 8:19 AM on October 8, 2010

I have a Yamaha Pacifica, and I love it. I'm a lady with not-large hands who has been playing for about two years. I think the Pacifica's a good guitar for people like me, who have small hands or prefer thinner guitar necks. And seconding what fourcheesemac said, it will make all the difference in the world if you get your guitar properly set up. It makes it much, much more pleasant to play, and sounds a million times better. Even cheap guitars can sound good when they've been set up.

I got my guitar as a gift, but I think you can get one for about $200-250 at a guitar store. Less if it's used, of course.
posted by zoetrope at 8:28 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's been more said about the guitar than the amp - there are practice amps out there that are really quite impossible to play in "clean" settings, if that's what you're looking for. I tried an inexpensive "modeling" amp at Guitar Center before ending up with a Fender Frontman 25 as the cheap practice amp I went with - and the amp I passed on just did nothing but various flavors of highly distorted rock sounds. Fine if that's what you were wanting, but not if you want it to sound clean. Not touting the Fender unduly, but it does allow the gain channel to be kicked in and out, tone controls, and reverb to be 0-10 - that's about all I wanted, as I play around with everything from gain kicked out to a light touch of gain, sometimes a little reverb... and then my son likes to turn everything up to 10* and strum wildly on things that might or might not be chords...

I would also nth the idea that the Squier may not ultimately be your cup of tea, but shouldn't be impossible to learn on or get within hooting distance of the sound you want. If it's possible to borrow it again, pay to have it set up. It's very possible your friend never bothered, or even if so the strings probably need to be replaced again and it couldn't hurt to go over it. Guitar Center set up my own el-cheapo axe of choice (An Ephiphone SG) for $25 plus strings, and did a good job.

*except the volume, 'cause I won't let him
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:46 AM on October 8, 2010

Oh, and google Behringer Guitar Link UCG102 - it's a USB/guitar interface with software and a headphone jack. No idea if it's any good at all, but at the price I've been tempted to get one and play around with it. There is a bit of a "hidden cost," in that the software included is a demo and after 30 days apparently you have to pick one of the sound profiles (out of 3) or pay to register the software.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:03 AM on October 8, 2010

If you want to do this right, spend a lot of time looking. Go to every guitar shop in town-- small mom & pops, megamall shredder-squall merchants. Try out some expensive guitars so you get a feel for how they compare.

Only you will know when you find the right one. This is not all that different from looking for a long-term relationship with a person... you may fall in love immediately with someone that's totally impractical or wrong for you in some way... and the guitar you end up with might not be what you expect at first.

But commit to shopping diligently for months. It'll be worth it.
posted by Erroneous at 9:55 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Holy crap, this is a lot of information all thrown at once. Not that I'm complaining, of course.

The kind of music I want to play? I'd like to be able to play some prog rock/metal someday, but that's a long time from now. I know that I most likely won't be playing any jazz/blues. I generally like fast-paced songs.

I have a friend who plays the bass, so maybe he can help me find a good guitar.

My inexperience may have been part of the reason why my friend's Squier sounded really bad, but it seems as if it has been neglected for a while. There was a layer of dust on it, so I guess he just left it alone for a while and hasn't set it up or anything.
posted by RaDeuX at 10:11 AM on October 8, 2010

If you want to play prog or metal, then you'll most likely want something with humbuckers. That's going to get you more toward the Gibson/Epiphone side of things than the Fenders, which typically have single coils. That being said, Fender does have a new "Blacktop" line of humbucking guitars that look pretty nice for around $450. I think they're made in Mexico, which in Fender-land is the mid-range between the Squiers and the American-made top of the line.

Another important difference between the Fender/Gibson options is the scale-length of the guitars. Gibsons typically use a 24.75" scale, Fenders typically are 25.5". This means on a Fender the frets are larger but the strings have more tension, making them harder to bend. I have huge hands, so for me the longer scale length on my Strat feels more comfortable to play. My hands feel cramped when I try to play up the neck on a Les Paul, for example.

Another neck consideration is the fretboard radius. Basically, the bigger the radius number, the flatter (and typically wider) the fretboard is going to be. Gibsons (and all of the shredder-type guitars) usually have a flatter radius than Fenders because it makes it easier to play scales and bend notes on them. A rounder fretboard can be more comfortable for chords. A lot of guitar makers now put something called a "compound radius" fretboard on their guitars, which starts out more rounded at the neck and flattens as you move up. This is to make it more comfortable for playing open chords at the neck and soloing up near the body of the guitar.

The best advice to pick out a guitar is what several others have already said: go to as many guitar shops as you can and play as many guitars as you can get your hands on. Even guitars that are the same model or have supposedly the same specs can play very differently. What someone else said about a good setup on the guitar is essential too. Even if the store where you buy it supposedly sets it up for you, take it to a reputable repair shop and have them do it. The difference between a badly setup guitar and a well setup one is huge, and having the action, intonation, etc. set up right will make it much easier and more enjoyable to learn.

Oh yeah, and as far as amps go, I agree that a decent practice amp is a better investment than the DI gear for a computer. Most of the big amp manufacturers make something in the $100 range. Here's a Vox, for example, that a friend of mine has. It sounds pretty good and has a headphone jack for silent practicing. The Epiphone Valve Jr. that someone else mentioned is another good option and will sound better since it's a real tube amp, but keep in mind that even a 5W tube amp can get really, really loud if you push it.
posted by sbrollins at 12:17 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

For the most bang for the buck, look at Agile guitars at wwww.rondomusic.com

I paid $260 shipped for my AL-2000 + hard case, and it still sounds better than my friends Epiphone LP Standard. They are a little heavy though (~8-12lbs), but it makes a man out of you :)

FWIW, they also have slim neck versions, and I'm still thinking about getting one, but the standard thickness works for my (slightly smaller) hands just fine.

Amp-wise, I bought a used Vox AD30VT for $140 through Craigslist, and it works for my purposes. I can be heard over a drummer, and can keep up with my friend's Orange AD50
posted by bodaciousllama at 12:25 PM on October 8, 2010

A few years ago I had an accident where I broke both hands, wrists, arms and left elbow (amongst other things) and have only 65% use of my left arm. I can barely bend my left wrist and playing my usual guitars was tough. I went to Guitar Center and bought the Epiphone Les Paul Lp 100 for $300. The neck is thinner and the guitar is lighter.
posted by jara1953 at 12:29 PM on October 8, 2010

Also, the classifieds section at The Agile Guitar Forum usually features used (not abused) guitars selling for awesome prices, AND customers with 8-10+ Agiles singing their praises.

I recognize that it's hard to buy a guitar online without feeling it in your hands, but do some homework and you might find it's what you're looking for.
posted by bodaciousllama at 12:31 PM on October 8, 2010

« Older Looking for HST   |   How to seem prepared when interviewing for a job... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.