It wasn’t that long ago that budget guitars had the worst reputation: inferior instruments made from laminated woods, with poor playability and even worse tone. But things have changed. CNC (computer numeric control) machinery now allows guitar components to be accurately and efficiently cut into shape with astonishing speed, making high-quality guitars cheaper to produce. And thanks to technological advances, onboard electronics have become both more natural sounding and less expensive.
Our survey of inexpensive guitars turned up a staggering assortment of winners, from vintage-style parlors to modern cutaway dreadnoughts; from the most traditionally appointed to the most idiosyncratically modern instruments. Most have solid tops, and some are even made from all-solid woods; many come equipped with stage- or studio-ready electronics. And, with no instrument at more than $600, all of these guitars are easy on the wallet.
Top-Shelf Brands at Rock-Bottom Prices
If you dream of owning a fine guitar from one of the major American manufacturers but think you cannot afford one, the good news is that Martin and Taylor do, in fact, offer guitars for under $600 street—made in their Mexican factories and held to the same high-quality standards associated with their much more expensive US-manufactured models.
Martin’s DX1RAE dreadnought and 000X1AE 000 size (both $549 street) have traditional solid Sitka spruce tops with spruce bracing. But their backs and sides are made from HPL (high-pressure laminate) mahogany, and their fretboards and bridges from Richlite, a composite of recycled paper and resin that resembles ebony. These composite materials help make the instruments affordable and environmentally friendly, not to mention durable. Both guitars are also equipped with Fishman electronics, so they’re easy to plug in and play at a gig or for home recording.
Even less expensive are the nifty guitars in the LX (Little Martin) series (from $289), Martin’s smallest guitars. These instruments also have solid soundboards, but laminated backs and sides and Richlite components. Each model has a shortened scale length, 23 inches, making it fun and easy to play. The guitars might be small and travel-friendly, but they sound surprisingly full. And, as the singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran demonstrates, one of these little guitars—namely his signature LX1E ($399), with its Fishman Isys T electronics—can even be used for professional applications.
Taylor also offers some sweet little guitars in its Baby Taylor (from $299) and GS Mini series (from $499). The tops of these guitars are made from solid Sitka spruce or mahogany, and the backs and sides from layered sapele or rosewood (Taylor also offers a GS Mini in koa for $699). The Baby Taylor is a 3/4-sized dreadnought, with a 22 3/4-inch-scale fretboard, while the GS Mini, with a 23 1/2-inch scale length, is a small version of Taylor’s Grand Symphony.
In terms of full-size instruments, Taylor has a pair of instruments in its 100 series—the dreadnought-sized 110e and the grand auditorium 114e (both $599)—that offer a lot of bang for the buck. These guitars include Sitka spruce tops, layered sapele back and sides, and thin necks with 1 11/16-inch nuts, making them highly playable. Taylor’s ES-T under-saddle pickup and preamp further sweeten the deal.
Range of Options
For another high-performance option, check out one of Breedlove’s entry-level guitars, such as the Korean-made Pursuit Concert ($499), an acoustic-electric, Engelmann spruce-top guitar known for its clear tone and warm bass. It includes a built-in USB port for use with GarageBand and other recording software.
Seagull, the Canadian maker, offers a boatload of quality North American-made guitars for under $600. An excellent example is the highly regarded S6 Original ($419), a modified-dreadnought-sized instrument with a solid cedar top (compound curved with a slight arch above the soundhole for enhanced resonance and projection) and laminated Canadian wild cherry back and sides. The guitar is also available with electronics ($529).
Boulder Creek guitars are designed in San Francisco and incorporate elements more commonly found on boutique rather than budget guitars. With its solid cedar top, the ECDG-3N (as low as $413.25) features on offset soundhole working in concert with a side soundport, designed to direct sound toward the player’s ear. Other modern features include a smooth cutaway, a suspended bracing system engineered to enhance the top’s vibrations, and a pickup and preamp system with an onboard tuner.
Best known for heavy-metal-friendly, solid-body electric guitars, Dean courts the acoustic guitarist with its Natural Series (from $299)—instruments with dreadnought-sized bodies and available in Venetian cutaway, Florentine cutaway, and non-cutaway models. Each guitar includes a black Graph Tech Tusq XL nut and saddle, for enhanced tuning stability, and many of the instruments are equipped with studio-quality Aphex electronics.
Cort, for many years one of the biggest names in budget guitars, offers the MR710F ($370, see full review in the May 2012 issue of AG).A respectable cutaway dreadnought with solid Sitka spruce top and Fishman electronics, this nicely made guitar should call for a reexamination of the company whose offerings have been previously dismissed as questionable beginner’s instruments.
If laminated construction just isn’t your thing, check out two of the guitars in Guild’s Chinese-manufactured GAD series, boasting all-solid woods and selling for less than $600. Take the M-120 ($529.99, see full review in the April 2013 issue ofAG), with its mahogany back, top, and sides. This simply appointed, highly regarded small-bodied guitar boasts a warm sound with impressive projection, and, thanks to its satin-finished 24-3/4-inch-scale neck, easy playability. The D-125 (also $529.99) is the M-120’s impressive dreadnought counterpart.
Recording King, a resurrection of the Great Depression-era guitars sold by the Montgomery Ward department store, offers several all-solid options at unbeatable prices. These include the RD-10 ($399.99), a vintage-inspired dreadnought with a spruce top and mahogany back and sides, and its 000-style brother, the RO-10 (also $399.99). Slightly more expensive is the RO-310 (as low as $493.23), with a soundboard made from Adirondack spruce—the prized tonewood used on the majority of fine prewar guitars but seldom seen on modern budget instruments.
Notes from the Far East
Large Japanese-headquartered companies like Alvarez, Ibanez, Takamine, and Yamaha have long offered respectable and affordable acoustic guitars. These instruments have become quite varied in their designs, including some that reference much older instruments. A good example is Alvarez’s AP70 ($399.99, reviewed in the March 2012 issue of AG). With its slotted headstock and narrow waist, this parlor guitar wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of 19th-century instruments. It boasts a solid, high-grade Sitka spruce top and laminated rosewood back and sides.
In an entirely different direction, the Ibanez Performance Series PF28ECE acoustic-electric guitar ($299.99) is a handsome modern dreadnought with its flamed maple soundboard and dark violin-like finish. Mahogany back and sides, a smooth cutaway, and a Fishman Sonicore pickup and preamp system round out the package. More traditional is Ibanez’s AC240 (also $299.99), an all-mahogany grand concert guitar.
Among many other sensibly priced guitars, Takamine offers the GJ72CE ($549.99, or $599.99 for a 12-string version)—a modern jumbo guitar with a solid spruce top, flamed maple back and sides, a cutaway, and a vintage-approved brown sunburst or natural finish. Takamine is known for pioneering the use of electronics on acoustic guitars, and this jumbo comes stage-ready with a pickup and TK-40D preamp system.
On select guitars, Yamaha has begun using torrefied tonewoods—wood that has been heat-treated to simulate the sonic and visual transformations that occur over the course of many decades. The small-bodied LS6M ($499.99), for instance, has a torrefied solid Engelmann spruce top, mahogany back and sides, and a modern-tapered mahogany neck. It’s also outfitted with Yamaha’s SRT Zero Impact Pickup, which, with its lack of preamp and controls, does not detract from the guitar’s traditional appearance.
The well-regarded TanglewoodJava Series guitars come in three shapes: TWJP (parlor), TWJF (orchestra), and TWJD (dreadnought). Each features a solid cedar top, and stunning amara back and sides, with a spalted mango center wedge completing the three-piece back. All are priced at $379 street (or $449-$499 for the same models with a Fishman Sonitone pickup, with the dreadnought also getting a cutaway).
Also well-worth checking out from Tanglewood is the TW40-0-AN, which in 2013 AG hailed as “the most accurate recreation of a vintage Martin OM at a budget price that we’ve seen.” It streets for $499.
Vintage guitars and even US-made classic reissues can be prohibitively expensive. That needn’t preclude you, however, from scoring a new guitar with an old-school vibe. Check out Washburn’s Vintage Series, which revisits instruments the company made in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Made in Indonesia, the R319SWKK ($599) is a slotted-headstock parlor guitar with a solid spruce top, and, thanks to its elaborate inlay work and distressed hardware and finish, quite an ancient look.
Epiphone offers inexpensive versions of Gibson classics, such as the Hummingbird PRO ($299; reviewed inAG’s May 2014 issue), with its iconic avian pickguard and cherry sunburst finish. The guitar looks traditional but is updated with Shadow electronics, just as Epiphone’s Dove PRO (also $299) has Fishman electronics. Meanwhile, several all-acoustic Epiphones are even more within reach, such as the limited-edition 1963 J-45 ($199), a tribute to the Gibson workhorse, and the AJ-220S (also $199), which tips its hat to the Advanced Jumbo that Gibson introduced in the mid-1930s.
Gretsch offers the neatest little 12-fret parlor guitar in its G9500 Jim Dandy, inspired by blues instruments of the 1930s and ’40s. It’s absolutely a steal at $149 (Eric Bibb recently picked one up on Haight Street in San Francisco and played it on an Acoustic Guitar Sessions episode). Their G9550 New Yorker ($499) is a reissue of the classic 16-inch archtop, with a carved solid spruce top and f-holes. And Godin’s smart 5th Avenue (from $519) is a comparable model with a wild cherry body.
The Loar, the company named after Gibson’s pioneering sound engineer Lloyd Loar, also offers a range of vintage-approved designs. The LH300 ($579.99) is patterned after the earliest Gibson archtops and pairs a solid, hand-carved soundboard with maple rims and sides. The Loar also offers some excellent small-bodied flattops, like the LO-16, a 00-sized instrument with a solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides. Built from the same tonewood combination, the LH-204 Brownstone ($449) is distinguished by its handsome brown satin finish.
For a larger-bodied option, check out Blueridge’s Historic Series BR-140. This sharp-dressed dreadnought features a solid Sitka spruce top with hand-carved forward-X bracing and mahogany back and sides, to say nothing of vintage-approved flourishes like a Dalmatian-style pickguard and an extensively inlaid rosewood peghead overlay. The company also offers a bargain of a 000 model in the BR-43AS ($511.90), which boasts a solid Adirondack spruce top, mahogany back and sides, and a lovely autumnal sunburst finish.
And Fender offers the CD-60, a classic sunburst dreadnought with laminated spruce top, laminated nato back and sides, and a solid rosewood bridge plate for $199 (street). Also available in an all-mahogany model.
If you’re suffering from classical G.A.S. (that’s guitar acquisition syndrome), you don’t have to shell out thousands for a handmade concert instrument. Look into an imported guitar by Córdoba, the premier company for nylon-strings in all styles, with a healthy selection selling for under $600. The C7 is a traditional model with a solid Canadian cedar or European spruce top, Indian rosewood back and sides, and rosewood binding and rosette work ($499.99). The Fusion 12 (from $529.99) is a crossover model that feels like a steel-string acoustic with its thin and narrow neck and Fishman electronics system.
For a North American-made option, the Canadian company La Patrie offers a few smart buys. The Motif ($399) has a solid cedar top and mahogany back and sides, plus a relatively shallow body and thin neck. The Etude (also $399) is essentially the same guitar, with a larger box and wild cherry back and sides.
Yamaha has long specialized in classical guitars, and the company’s CG192 ($499.99), with a solid Engelmann spruce or cedar top, is a quality, budget-friendly choice, as is the CG172SF($329.99), a flamenco model sporting a solid European spruce top and cypress back and sides.
At one time, budget acoustic guitars tended to have pretty generic look, but now there are many inexpensive models to consider if you’re looking to avoid a staid appearance. Fender has many options in all styles for under $600, including the Sonoran SCE ($349.99), a cutaway with Fishman’s Isys III system. This latter guitar borrows cosmetic elements from classic Fender solid-bodies and is available in a range of custom colors—from Shell Pink to Lake Placid Blue—with a matching Stratocaster-style headstock and a snazzy pearloid pickguard.
Luna, the company founded by stained-glass artist Yvonne de Villiers, offers a number of eye-catching designs. The Henna Sahara ($469), for instance, is a solid-spruce-topped grand concert guitar with Moroccan-inspired geometric motifs. The Fauna Dolphin ($459) boasts a deep-blue-finished quilted maple top, with inlaid dolphins swimming around the soundhole.
Ovation, famous for its high-tech, round-back guitars (made from the same material as helicopter blades), offers a bargain in its Celebrity Standard series. Among other guitars, the black-finish version ($369) cuts a sharp figure, while the burled-maple-top version (Standard Plus, $449) showcases the naturally striking quality of that tonewood.