Guitar technology has come a long way in the past few decades. While lower end guitars might have been a death sentence for tone and credibility on the scene in the past, there are now more than ever many great sounding and playing budget electric guitars available.
Some of these models have been discontinued, but I've made a point to try and include some of the current run models available on the market as of the creation of this article (November, 2013). Let's dig in!
Squier Tom DeLonge Strat Deluxe
By far one of the best and most underrated guitars in the Squier anthology, the Tom DeLonge signature Strat Deluxe is built for heavy duty rock n' roll. It features a single bridge humbucker and gets nasty for all kinds of heavier styles, but can clean up very nicely when the single volume knob is rolled down. The Fender version features a treble bleed which is very handy for cleaning up the output, but it is easily enough retro-fitted into the Squier model.
The Squier version features many of the same tonewoods used in the higher-grade Fender version – alder body, maple neck, rosewood fretboard. One of the best features of this axe is the hardtail bridge – a rarity among Strats. It also features the large 70's Fender headstock, which really stands out.
This guitar is a masterpiece from which to build upon. They can be had for around $300 on the used market, which believe me is worth every bit. The tuners and nut will need to be replaced to really get it there, but I've never found a need to change the bridge. It has good intonation and resonance, although an aftermarket bridge surely isn't a bad idea.
Epiphone Les Paul Jr. '57 Reissue
This guitar was a great budget gem that flew wildly under the radar. It features aesthetics and appointments of the classic Gibson Les Paul Jr. in a more affordable Epiphone format. The neck is set, not a bolt-on which is typical of cheaper Epiphone Jrs.
The single bridge pickup was a stacked single-coil P100, easily moddable for the more classic P-90 variant. The P100 really divides people, as it does not have the ubiquitous P90 “sound” but the aforementioned pickup swap is not hard to do.
She plays like a classic Les Paul. The 57's tone is that warm low-mid roar that Les Pauls are so well known for. The body and neck are mahogany, the fretboard rosewood. Make no mistake, there is a lot of tone variation to be had from the single volume and tone knobs.
When Squier first introduced the '51 it was met with a very mixed reaction. Is it a Strat? A Tele? Toward the end of the run Fender began blowing them out at rock-bottom prices, eventually going for even as low as $69. These guitars soon became somewhat of the holy grail of mod guitars, and countless sites popped up with people showcasing how they'd upgraded them. Fender even came out with their version under the Pawn Shop series, but the differences between the Fender and Squier versions were negligible.
The Squier was a great guitar, boasting very good tonewoods. They had a very musical basswood body, but the necks were where they really shined. One piece maple, fat, and playable forever. Definitely one of the best necks ever put out on a Squier. Another odd thing about this guitar was the pickup configuration, a single-coil in the neck and a humbucker in the body. The bridge humbucker has a coil split for even more options.
These were recently reissued under Squier's Vintage Modified line and they did it one better – they added a string-through body. The 51s are for sure worth a look!
Fender JA-90 Telecaster
Still a current production model as of this publication (November 2013), the JA-90 is one of the most unique signature guitars Fender has ever produced. It's the signature model of Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins, and is based off of his prized Fender TC-90. If you've never heard of the TC-90 it is a Thinline Telecaster with a double cut (think Strat) body and P90 pickups.
The JA-90 is a similar model, a Thinline Telecaster (with Tele body) and KILLER sounding Seymour Duncan soapbard P90 pickups. One of the coolest features of the JA-90? It sports a tune-o-matic Les Paul-style bridge. This guitar is a terrific hybrid of Telecaster and Les Paul features. The body is lightweight ash and it features a beautiful set neck with a quite comfortable neck heel.
A true gem not to be passed up, if you're lucky you can grab one on the used market for a little over $500.
Agile seems to be synonymous with "copy". The AL-2000 is a Les Paul "copy" but that is not to intimate that it is a generic rip-off. Agile for years has produced quality, affordable instruments and the AL-2000 might be their crowning achievement. It features all the appointments of a Les Paul – set neck, mahogany body/neck, rosewood fretboard, dual humbuckers with volume and tone controls for each.
Quality control can waver a bit, as with "real" Les Pauls, but if you can find one, these guitars are well worth a look.
Epiphone Dot Studio
Epiphone is known for great quality when it comes to lower end guitars, and their semi-hollow designs are some of the best bang for the buck in the guitar world. The DOT Studio is a great introduction to the beautiful world of semi-hollow guitars. It sports a killer combination of quality and sound in a very affordable package. Les Paul-style controls top everything off. It comes with humbuckers, but throw some P90s in there and you're in heaven.
Squier Classic Vibe 50's Telecaster
Squier has in recent times released their Classic Vibe line, pretty much the premier Squiers that are in current production. They are GREAT guitars, don't let the Squier name deter you in any way. Fender has great quality control (better than some other big name manufacturers...) and the Classic Vibe 50's Tele packs everything you love about the classic Telecaster design and puts it in a great-sounding, and great-playing package.
The Classic Vibe series can run as much as some Fenders, but they're every bit as good! Appointments feature a pine body (like the old Esquires), 1 piece maple neck, vintage style bridge with brass barrel saddles, and custom Tele pickups for that signature twang.
Squier Classic Vibe 60's Stratocaster
Another gem in the Classic Vibe line features an alder body and rosewood fretboard. One-piece maple neck rounds out the classic tonewood configuration. Classic dark looks create an era of mystique for ripping the blues with the Alnico V single-coils or turning up the gain and rocking out with their increased mid-range bump.
Schecter SGR Solo-6
Schecter makes some great guitars and the SGR Solo-6 is a great introduction to their stuff. Similar aesthetics and feel to a Les Paul it sports a basswood body, maple neck, and rosewood fretboard – classic!
Gretsch Guitars G5410 Electromatic Special Jet
Gretsch is a Nashville legend and this model of their Electromatic Jet is a perfect jumping off point. Features the same tonewoods and many appointments of the Schecter above but with the classic Gretsch look. Dual coil pickups with the classic TV Jones look finish out this beauty.
There are many great playing and sounding budget electric guitars available on the market today, these are just a few. Go plug in and play without destroying your bank account!
About the author:
Brandon Stoner runs Audio Ecstasy Productions out of Los Angeles, CA specializing in guitar and backline tech for touring, custom stompbox and cable design for stage and studio, audio engineering, and many other audio and guitar-related services.