The Best Guitars and Basses Under $500 (GBG Part II)

September 9, 2008 – 10:29 am by Jonathan Grand

As promised, here is a list of reviews of different instruments for different styles and tastes. These instruments are what we consider to be today’s best options for inexpensive, quality guitars and basses.

Either you’re buying your first or 50th guitar, be sure to check out the options on this list – some are amazing out of the box, and some can be turned into real professional gear after something as simple as a pickup replacement.

But be aware, buying an instrument is still a matter of luck and you should try out as many instances as you can. Although it’s improving, quality control for any guitar is never to be fully trusted. If you try them all, you might even find a $2500 Paul Reed Smith that, for some crazy reason, just didn’t come out of the assembly line as well built as a $600 small brand guitar. And even though it’s more expensive, it might sound worse than the cheap model. True story – and this happens more often than you can imagine.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________

1. Michael Kelly Patriot Review

Michael Kelly guitars are consistent in build quality. Whatever the model you pick, it will probably be one of the most solid guitars you ever played, with indisputably the most dense mahogany you can find out there. The sustain and tone is very Gibson-like, and you can pretty much use a Michael Kelly wherever you would use a Gibson Les Paul. And no need to replace the pickups! Great harmonic richness in all sorts of tones, from fat humbucker rock sound to warm jazz.

Most of the models come with coil tap push-pull systems, to turn each of the humbuckers into improvised single coils, which adds to the versatility of this already amazing guitar. Top of the line Michael Kellys come with name brand pickups, but the cheaper Michael Kelly pickups actually seem to behave slightly better, although the difference is arguable. The photo shows a Patriot Phoenix model, with a street price below $450!

The Catch: the tone and volume pots feel flimsy, and they could use a replacement with better quality ones, and maybe replace all the electronic parts and wires (not the pickups!) while you’re at it. That’s it!

[ Score Board ]
Workmanship: 10
Hardware: 9
Electronics: 4
Pickups: 9
Playability: 8
Versatility: 9
Sound: 10

.
2. PRS SE Soapbar II Review

The SE line can vary considerably in quality – but so can the high-end PRS line! Although there are other great SE models, the Soapbar II comes out as one of the ones with better quality control (apparently), and the included pickups (a pair of real P90s) are practically worth the money you pay for the guitar. The build quality can compete with a standard Paul Reed Smith, and since it has the same design, it’s a pleasure to play.

All in all, an amazing value for such a good looking guitar. It’s considered a real PRS, more than an SE, by a lot of knowledgeable players and reviewers – and the street price goes often below $400. It won awards such as Guitar Player Editor’s Pick.

The Catch: The typical PRS bridge can be limiting to some – specially if you plan to use radical tunings with a properly calibrated bridge.

[ Score Board ]
Workmanship: 9
Hardware: 8
Electronics: 8
Pickups: 10
Playability: 10
Versatility: 7
Sound: 9

.
3. Fender (Made in Mexico) Review (Overall Product Line)

After playing on a couple of low priced, “Mexican” Stratocasters or Telecasters (keywords: MIM Fender Telecaster, MIM Stratocaster, Made In Mexico Fender)  you’ll probably find some that sound just as good as the most expensive American made ones. Unplugged, that is. Because technically, MIM Fenders are assembled from the same body parts as the American models, but fitted with cheaper hardware a cheaper electronics and pickups. This is great news for Fender lovers (and if you’re not a fan yet, you will be).

Specially the necks are impossible to tell apart – the Fender quality is all there, top to bottom, and most of them sound amazing unplugged, with all the tonality and expression. Another big plus is how this guitar can take any tuning you throw at it – the 25 ½ scale and versatility of the Fender tremolo (which you can easily lock) make it a tuning workhorse, and a possible baritone in disguise. Street prices start at $350.

The Catch: the controls and switches might wear out fast, and you will benefit from replacing the pickups as well. Tighten the screws, specially in the neck joint, and if possible replace the plastic nut with a bone-made nut. The tuners are usually weak as well.

[ Score Board ]
Workmanship: 10
Hardware: 5
Electronics: 5
Pickups: 7
Playability: 10
Versatility: 8
Sound: 8 (10 with new pickups/electronics)

.

4. Godin Guitars Review (Overall Product Line) [NEW]

Godin guitars are professionally used by session musicians from acts like Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez and even rockers like Smashing Pumpkins. Godin has been around for a while, but they still keep the quality standards of a startup luthier. Whatever you need, they have a model for it – acoustic, electroacoustic, semi hollow, hollow, solid with piezos, solid with humbuckers or single coils… you name it. Build quality is consistent and very, very good. And they’re one of the few inexpensive guitars that don’t require you to replace parts – they come stock as great, fully professional instruments.

The black model in the picture is the Godin Redline, and only one bridge pickup and a utilitarian design didn’t stop her from receiving a Guitar Player Editor’s Pick Award. Beautifully crafted guitars that definitely deserve a buyer’s attention. Check the website to see which model suits you best.

The Catch: they can be a little limited (not too versatile), so you really have to know what you want: the Redline series does exclusively rock/metal, and some other models are not perfect for hard rock styles.

[ Score Board ]
Workmanship: 9
Hardware: 9
Electronics: 9
Pickups: 10
Playability: 10
Versatility: 7
Sound: 9

.
5. Schecter Guitars Review (Overall Product Line)

I personally have never played a Schecter guitar that disappointed me. Their build quality and design is consistently admired by guitarists. If you’re looking for a guitar with a metal vibe, look no further (OK, maybe check out some Reverend models, as an alternative).

If you need a baritone guitar with a scale that is still playable and comfortable (26 ½), Schecter makes the C-1 EX Baritone Blackjack. It’s a great model with tones that have not been forgotten by the players who tried it.

The other example is the red model in the illustration, the Schecter C-1 Lady Luck. Winner of the Guitar Player Editor’s Pick award in a group review, it’s a very serious metal/rock guitar. And it comes with coil-tap configuration, like the Michael Kelly.

Schecters are known for their beautiful finish and design, that almost convince you that they cost four times as much as they actually do. They all play beautifully and the hardware is of perfect quality. Only very few models like the PT are bolt-on – all others are either set-neck (glued) or neck-thru, which adds to the sustain and overall tone. Paired with great pickups and Grover tuners, these are killer machines for the serious player. Street prices go a little higher, but you can surely find some models at $500. Even if you have to haggle with your Guitar Center clerk!

The Catch: too metallic-looking for more classic vibe players. Metal-oriented. Prices can be a little higher than the limit imposed by this article.

[ Score Board ]
Workmanship: 10
Hardware: 10
Electronics: 9
Pickups: 8
Playability: 9
Versatility: 9
Sound: 9

.
6. OLP MM3 Review

Despite having written “Basses” in the title, this is the only bass guitar reviewed here. But there is a good reason for that. OLP basses have gained a considerable number of fans since their introduction. I would dare to say it changed the market for inexpensive bass guitars and raised the bar so high, that other brands will have no choice but to start selling better basses for less money. OLP stands for Officially Licensed Product – “licensed” by none other than Ernie Ball Music Man Incorporated. Music Man is considered by (most) professional bass players as possibly the best mass market bass manufacturer, and the Sting Ray model is the Fender Strat and the Gibson Les Paul of bass guitars. Their intention was to keep their quality standards in their OLP affordable product line. They all say that – but in this very rare case, OLP kept their word.

The reason why this list doesn’t need another bass is that this is a versatile machine that sounds beautiful and feels like a Sting Ray all the way. Right now will be very, very difficult to find such a great value with any other bass on the market. The neck is one piece maple, no cuts near the headstock. Everything is fully professional about this instrument. Build quality is astonishing – and even if you’re not happy with it out of the box, you can still change the electronics and pickups. Some professionals have tried to customize the MM3 model specifically, and EMG active pickups seem to sound amazing in this bass as well. Although the whole product line seems to have solid quality control, there is something about the MM3 model that makes it special in some way – maybe the wider 5 string neck influences the structure and tone.

Street price goes as low as $200 for a new model! I own one, and I paid $100 at Guitar Center, after haggling with the manager over the poor maintenance conditions of the instrument. Simple things – loose jack, bad neck and bridge setup, pickup out of place. After taking it home and fixing it, it’s the best bass I ever had. Plug it to your DAW and use some cheap amp simulation, and you have world-class bass tone for life.

The Catch: no catch. Just buy it.

[ Score Board ]
Workmanship: 10
Hardware: 10
Electronics: 8
Pickups: 9
Playability: 10
Versatility: 9
Sound: 10

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

7. [Extra] Ibanez Opinion

Looks cheap? It is cheap.

Looks cheap? It is cheap.

Some are probably asking: “what about Ibanez guitars and basses?” They have been the go-to guitars for beginners who are looking for decent quality. Well, if you’re picky like I am, I’ll tell you to be careful. Guitars are not cars, so you never really know for sure what comes out of the factory. Some cheaper models can be a good place to start for a lot of beginners, specially if you replace the pickups with something more beefy (assuming it came with standard Ibanez and not DiMarzios). I have had mixed results with Ibanez guitars, and overall bad results with Ibanez basses, so try them out – if you know what you’re doing and you like them, go ahead.
Ibanez guitars can be a very good value – but once the other models in this article appeared in the market, they started having fierce competition. If you really like Ibanez, do yourself a favor and check out a Schecter or a Godin instead – they are good alternatives in tone and style.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

If you have any suggestions, leave a comment! We’re eager to know what hidden gems of guitar quality all the players out there are discovering everyday.

  1. 17 Responses to “The Best Guitars and Basses Under $500 (GBG Part II)”

  2. How about the Godins,freeway or sd guitars.

    By mark stearle on Sep 9, 2008

  3. Actually was thinking about Godins! I might write about those too :) thanks [[[]]]

    By Jonathan Grand on Sep 9, 2008

  4. I love my Music Man, but the “Strat and Les Paul” of bass guitars would probably be the Fender Jazz Bass.

    By Jon Newell on Sep 9, 2008

  5. Excellent post man!

    I must say I’m a little surprised by the Ibanez statement though, I’ve had two relatively cheap Ibanezes that sounded really good for the price.

    By stiff on Sep 10, 2008

  6. True, Ibanezes are not bad! What I’m trying to say is that they’re not the best value in the market anymore. So for the same money you can actually get something better – but if you like the Ibanez brand – go for it!

    A guitar has to make you happy and inspire you :)

    By Jonathan Grand on Sep 10, 2008

  7. I’ve had an OLP MM2 for five years. I love it. Many other (more skilled) bass players I’ve shown it to comment on how full it sounds for a passive guitar.

    By Cadden on Sep 11, 2008

  8. OLP sounds great, doesn’t it? The Yamaha BB series it’s also a nice low cost bass option. ;)

    Regards

    Tox

    By Tox on Sep 11, 2008

  9. yep OLP is awesome :)

    By Jonathan Grand on Sep 12, 2008

  10. Nice article, great pics!

    By FrugalGuitarist.com on Sep 16, 2008

  11. I would agree…Ibanez guitars are pretty much terrible, especially the basses. As a musician and one who dabbles with running Front of House, I have come to absolutely hate Ibanez basses. I have such a difficult time squeezing out any semblance of articulation out of them.

    By Matt Huber on Nov 4, 2008

  12. @FrugalGuitarist.com
    Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks

    @Matt
    Thaank you! Finally someone who acknowledges that. The guitars and specially basses look pretty cool and sexy, and they can trick you for a while. But once I REALLY played one of those basses and actually paid attention to the sound produced… Wow! Terrible. Very bad indeed. And it was a $2000 something 5 string bass. My $200 OLP is miles ahead, very similar to a Music Man in tone and feel, and that’s why I eventually bought it. I was prepared to spend a lot more.

    By Jonathan Grand on Nov 7, 2008

  13. Good work! How about you give us a similar breakdown for acoustic guitars?

    By Kevin Reeder on Nov 15, 2008

  14. I purchased the Schecter Lady Luck a few months ago after playing half a dozen similarly priced guitars. It really is a great guitar for the money!

    By Jeff Campbell on Dec 7, 2008

  15. I have played a couple of Schecter at guitar center and was very impressed. They were about $600 to $700. How much do those models above cost and would I be able to find them in any store in the Chicagoland area to demo them?

    By Patrick O'Donnell on May 5, 2010

  16. Fender Squire P or Jazz Basses are excellent.
    Best value out there, IMHO.

    Wood used by current Chinese version not what is found on American or Mexican axe, but good enough. I actually prefer the hardware on my Chinese P bass better than on the Mexican Fender. I also prefer the neck contour of the Chinese Squire slightly over the Mexican or American Fenders. Pickups are very good, although if you are recording and have picky ears, you can save your pennies and install vintage Fender pickups or what ever you prefer. :-)

    P.S. Beware of lifeless pickups with no upper spectrum on lower priced guitars.

    By Skler on Jul 27, 2010

  17. Very impressive!!! I give you guys a 10

    By Dave on Mar 15, 2011

  18. this was extreamly helpfull
    im a begginer but i know what i wsant
    other post relate begginer with fragil guitars

    By Rashid Ali-Cassim on Oct 10, 2011

Post a Comment