If you think about it, the phrase “budget guitar” is actually quite confusing. Whose budget are we talking about here? What you consider “budget” may feel like a fortune to me…or vice-a-versa.
This idea of a budget guitar also doesn’t really take into consideration what you really need. Is this a guitar you need to play on stage? Do you just need something small for traveling? Are you just starting out and don’t want to spend too much on a hobby you’re not sure you’ll like?
In my opinion, your answer to these questions completely changes what a budget guitar would be for you. So instead of searching Google for the term “best budget guitar”, I suggest you stop for a moment and change your focus.
Start with the Guitar, not the Budget
There’s a simple secret to being satisfied with whatever guitar you buy and it’s this: start with the guitar in mind, not the budget.
Sit down with a pen and paper and jot down a few things for yourself:
What’s your purpose for the guitar?
In other words, how you want to use this guitar. On stage? Only at home? Write down all the places you can imagine using this guitar you want to buy. This is going to help you in a few ways. Not only will this help you determine the importance of a high-quality pickup system (or not), it will also determine what other accessories you need to buy like a hard case (or a soft case depending on your needs).
How long do you want the guitar to last?
This question may seem weird because honestly, even a $100 guitar isn’t going to fall apart or break after 5 years. More than likely it’s going to last. Here’s what does happen, though: after a few years you begin to develop an ear for quality and the cheaper your guitar, the more you’re going to notice its inferior quality, particularly if you’re playing with others who have better guitars or if you play on stage.
What features are important to you?
List out as many as you can. Is it important for you to have a particular name brand guitar? A particular style? A tremolo bar? A cutaway? Once you’ve finished listing them out, rank them. Chances are you’re going to have to eventually adjust your expectations so it’s good to be able to throw away the things that aren’t as important as others.
Starter Guitar or Heirloom?
If this is your very first guitar, make note of that. Even if you have unlimited funds, I wouldn’t go all-in until you’re absolutely sure that guitar is a hobby you want to invest in. Same goes for pretty much any investment in life in my opinion.
Once you’ve written out this list, put it down and don’t look at it for at least 24 hours. When you come back with fresh eyes, see if there’s anything you would change.
It’s also not a bad idea to sit down with a fellow guitarist – preferably one who has more experience than you – and talk this list through with them. They’ll be able to tell you what things may not be as important as you first thought, or even those things which really don’t matter as much as you originally thought.
Developing a Proper Budget
I’m going to break down guitars into five categories to give you an idea what to expect with various budgets. Of course there will be exceptions, but for the most part I speak from 20 years of experience when I share with you these categories.
Beginner Guitar Packs $100-$200
These guitars are designed with the complete beginner in mind. It’s usually a pretty simple guitar and might come with a gig bag case, a tuner, some picks, etc. These guitars are all laminate wood, which means that after a year or two you’ll begin to hear that the quality isn’t very high but it’s not bad to begin with. Electric guitar beginner packs will have a mediocre pickup system and most acoustic packs will not.
If you’ve never played guitar in your life or if you’re buying for a younger player, these guitars are an excellent start.
Advanced Beginner Guitars $200-$400
The next step up from the beginner guitar pack is what I consider the “advanced beginner”. Most of these guitars don’t come with cases, or if they do it’s a very simple gig bag. Usually there is an upgrade in the type of wood used and in rare occasions I’ve seen an acoustic/classical guitar here with a solid top (read more on the advantages of a solid top guitar).
Pickup systems on electric guitars in this price range are upgraded and you’re more likely to find an acoustic-electric guitar here as well.
For those who just need a backup guitar or a travel guitar, this is the budget you should expect to be working with at the very least.
Quality Mid-Range Guitars $400-$700
Once you set your budget above $400 you really free yourself to quite a few more options. In fact, for anybody who isn’t strapped for cash and has already been playing guitar for a few years, I recommend you start at around $400 when thinking about budget.
All of these guitars will use solid wood, at the very least on the top for acoustic/classical guitars. It’s at this level that I believe the pickup systems reach a level that is worthy of plugging into a proper sound system. Overall quality will keep you satisfied for many years to come.
Some of these guitars will come with a hard shell case but many will still require you to buy one, so keep this in mind as you’re purchasing.
Entry-Level Professional Guitars $700-$1500
Once you begin paying over $700, you can start looking at the first series of well-known quality name brands like Taylor, Martin, PRS, etc. Electric guitars will have premium electronic components and acoustic guitars will be manufactured using all-solid wood.
At this level, manufacturers are more prone to provide branded hard cases and there may be other little perks as well. These guitars will sound incredible acoustically or plugged up and the action on the frets will feel like you barely have to press the strings down to get crystal clear sound.
These are what I consider investment guitars. They are going to last you as long as you live and will probably be great guitars to hand down to your son or daughter. You don’t replace these guitars, you just add more to your collection.
Premium Professional Guitars $1,500+
If you’re spending over $1,500 on a guitar, you probably know exactly what you’re looking for. Either it’s a certain style or a certain wood. At this price point, the difference in quality is not as noticeable.
These guitars are for people who have been playing for decades and regularly play gigs. Either that or you have too much money for your own good 😉
Conclusion: Building Your Guitar Budget
In summary, I recommend you build your guitar on paper and then determine if the guitar you come up with is within your budget range. If not, is it better to eliminate some of your requirements or to save up more money? It’s hard to do, but sometimes the latter is a better option.
Don’t search for “budget guitars”…that’s ridiculous. Search for the right guitar and then figure out the your budget from there.
What do you think?