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Best Overall: Squier Bullet Stratocaster at Amazon
"A great sound and a price tag that will feel plenty comfortable for a beginner."
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Yamaha Pacifica Series PAC112V at Amazon
"It’s built like a tank and plays well."
Best Budget: Epiphone Les Paul SL at Guitar Center
"Offers a beginner some great features in sound and playability."
Best for Transitioning to Intermediate: Epiphone at Guitar Center
"Will last the budding guitarist handily into intermediate skill levels of play."
Best Package: Squier Affinity Stratocaster Pack at Guitar Center
"There’s a 10-watt, eight-ohm Fender Frontman 10G amplifier with a six-inch Fender design speaker."
Best for Metal and Rock: Ibanez GRGR120EX at Guitar Center
"Perfect for the guitar player who aspires to be a real metalhead."
Best for Jazz and Blues: Ibanez Artcore AF55 at Amazon
"The AF55 is a fully hollow option that will make you think you should have paid double for it."
Best Bass: Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar Bass at Amazon
"Get the best of both worlds in terms of tonal options on the pickups."
Fender’s step-down Squier brand has offered unbelievably full-featured guitars, and the Bullet Stratocaster has classic American looks, a great sound and a price tag that will feel plenty comfortable for a beginner. It has a 21-fret neck (not the full two octaves of a pro guitar, but still pretty expansive) and a soft C-shaped neck that will make it easier for a player to get a feel for it. There’s a vintage hardtail bridge, so Fender has foregone the addition of a floating tremolo system, but that is probably better for a beginner as it will increase responsiveness and tuning stability.
It comes in arctic white, fiesta red, black and vintage sunburst, so there’s a healthy level of customization available. Finally, there are three classic Strat single coils, two volume knobs and a tone knob. Accompanying that is a five-way selector switch, so you can dial in your tone and fine tune it with the knobs. It all comes in a really nice package that will feel really good right out of the box. You really can’t go wrong with a classic like this.
Yamaha is known for focusing, in modern years, on band instruments. But at one point in their tenure in the early 90s, they owned a good share of the student model market with their beautiful Pacifica line. Thankfully, in the past few years, they’ve reintroduced mass runs of this guitar, and it is a great option for a first-time guitar player. Why? Well if you ask any older player who once started on a Pacifica, most of them will tell you that they still have it in their collection somewhere, both for sentimental value, and because it’s built like a tank and plays well.
Our pick here is the PAC112V version, for a few reasons. First off, the solid alder body offers you the same tonewood you’ll find in a lot of higher end S-style guitars. The maple neck and diecast tuners will feel really premium in your hands, too. But the 112 series further boosts its value with two Alnico V single coil pickups and an Alnico V humbucker. The addition of the humbucker in the bridge position will open up a whole other world of tones for a budding musician, giving the option for both clean, crisp single coil sounds and thick, high-output humbucker growls.
Finally, this guitar is rounded out with a vintage style tremolo bridge with a block saddle, so you’ll have the ability to introduce tremolo into your playing while also increasing tuning stability. It comes in a few colors, too (sonic blue, metallic red, silver, yellow natural stain).
For a cool hundred bucks, there is really no other modern guitar on the market that can go toe-to-toe with this one, dollar for dollar. Is it the most consistent axe on this list? Absolutely not. But in terms of quality for what you pay, it passes with flying colors.
The guitar offers a beginner some great features in sound and playability. For starters, it is technically a Les Paul (giving you a great “cool factor,” which is important when you’re first starting out). It cuts a couple corners that a Standard or Special Les Paul won’t, like the fact that it’s a bolt-on neck, and there are proprietary single coil pickups (as opposed to the standard humbuckers you’ll usually find in a Les Paul).
It has a solid poplar body with a maple neck and rosewood fingerboard, and based on the early reviews of the Epiphone Les Paul SL, the fit, finish and general playability are all pretty good. It’s loaded up with Epiphone’s reliable tune-o-matic bridge, a volume and tone knob, as well as a three-way selector switch to toggle your pickups and dial in tone. The hardware does feel admittedly cheap, but the general consensus is that this guitar ships well-made, well-setup and more than appropriate for a first-time player.
You can choose from a bunch of color options, including natural sun yellow, turquoise, pacific blue, standard black, vintage sunburst and a really cool heritage cherry burst.
Epiphone’s limited edition Les Paul Studio Deluxe offers a really great middle ground between a guitar that is affordable for a beginner, and one that is still truly an Epiphone Les Paul that will last the budding guitarist handily into intermediate skill levels of play.
The guitar offers a carved mahogany top with a set neck and a slim-tapered profile (a shape normally reserved for more premium guitars). The rosewood fingerboard sports premium trapezoid inlays for a really pro look. The Alnico classic humbuckers are true, high-output gems that, paired with the set neck, will offer a rich, long sustain. There are two tone knobs and two volume knobs, as well as a three-way selector switch for all of those classic Les Paul sounds. The stop bar tailpiece and the LockTone Tune-O-Matic bridge give you rock-solid tuning stability, so you won’t have more frustrating retunes than you absolutely need.
A Squier strat is a killer starter instrument (it has the looks, playability, and classic style beginners are looking for). But the guitar itself is only part of the journey when learning an instrument. Especially with electric guitar, you’ll need things such as a small practice amp, a strap, a case, some picks and more. Thankfully, companies such as Fender now cater to the first-time buyers with all-inclusive packs that house a pretty solid guitar along with some great beginner gear to get you jamming. The Strat in this pack gives you three single coil pickups for that crisp, bright, clear sound, a five-way selector switch for all the classic Strat options, as well as a fulcrum-based tremolo to add nice depth to your playing. But the pack includes a lot more than just the guitar.
There’s a 10-watt, eight-ohm Fender Frontman 10G amplifier with a six-inch Fender design speaker that will give you plenty of amplification if you’re learning in your bedroom or apartment. There’s even a two-band EQ giving you more tonal control and a silver-face mesh grill paying homage to Fender’s classic vintage amps. They’ve also thrown in an instrument cable (for connecting your guitar up to your amp), an electronic tuner for keeping things sounding right, a gig bag, a guitar strap, a pick sampler (so you can audition different thicknesses of pick to determine the best for your playing style), plus an instructional DVD to make sure you start your learning off on the right foot.
The Ibanez RG series is basically synonymous with shreddable metal music. Inspired by the classic JEM series of the glammy 80s rock years, this GRGR120EX guitar is perfect for the guitar player who aspires to be a real metalhead. The body is made of solid alder and it comes with a slick black binding. There are two super-high-output, extra-snarly Infinity R pickups that will respond well to overdrive and distortion pedals. Moreover, a rosewood fingerboard with classic Ibanez sharktooth inlays and sharp black hardware make this guitar look like the real deal.
The jumbo frets give you extra room for shredding, which is great because this guitar plays fast and smooth, so you’ll definitely be shredding on it (once you work up the chops). It employs Ibanez’s classic bolt-on neck with the ultra-deep cutaway for high access to the fretboard and rounds it all out with a three-way selector and plenty of onboard tone controls.
The Ibanez Artcore line is a beautiful example of modern guitar manufacturing. Normally, hollow-body guitars, even those from Epiphone, provide interesting challenges to companies trying to produce axes on a mass scale, and thus they have to charge a higher dollar. The Artcore series provides buyers with an option to shell out a fraction of the price for a really impressive guitar. The AF55 is a fully hollow option that will make you think you should have paid double for it.
The guitar is built of full, all-solid maple that gives a nice clean tone and helps to avert some of the feedback prone to other fully hollow guitars. There’s a mahogany set neck to both help with longer sustain and to give you the premium fit and finish usually reserved for more expensive hollow-body instruments. The two ACH-ST humbuckers aren’t ultra-heavy metal pickups, so you won’t get a ton of snarling distortion out of the AF55, but you can push an overdrive sound to the next level if you want to. It all adds up to a sound that’s perfect for a player who’s looking to go for the jazz/blues vibe, or someone who’s looking to go for a singer/songwriter roots project. The trapezoid tailpiece also gives you a nice nod to vintage axes, too.
The Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar Bass has major “cool” factor, and the sound holds out, too. With a P-bass style single in the neck position, and a J-bass style single in the bridge position, you’ll actually get the best of both worlds in terms of tonal options on the pickups. You have a choice between basswood (on the sunburst and crimson models) and agathis (on the black model), so there isn’t anything special about the woods they’re using in these basses. But the slim, fast-action, C contour of the maple neck will give you a nice, smooth J-bass feel that plays well above this guitar’s pay grade.
Of course, we’ve already mentioned the cool offset Jaguar shape of the body, which will turn plenty of heads whenever this budding bassist hits the stage. But with an active bass boost circuit, you also have the option to bump the sound of this way up past what’s normally afforded in a passive bass. Not to mention, the chrome hardware and the curved vintage logo print on the head really put this bass guitar over the edge visually.