How Bad Are Cheap Guitars?

Key Points

  • Learn to discern the difference between cheap guitars and budget guitars.

  • Cheap guitars don't play well, but budget guitars are economical and do play well.

  • Good cheap guitars often have flaws that you may fix with DIY ingenuity.

  • Budget guitar shopping requires more consideration than expensive guitar shopping.

How bad are cheap guitars? Cheap is a matter of financial perspective. How much someone is willing to spend on something is a matter of taste. Some inexpensive guitars are good, but too many are terrible. Learn to understand the difference: There are cheap guitars, and then there are budget guitars. This article classifies guitars that cost less than $300 as cheap.

Like all commodities, factors such as labor, materials used to construct the guitar, distribution costs, pedigree of the brand, and supply and demand ultimately factor into the price tag for a guitar. You don't want to try to save a dollar and end up with a bad guitar. According to Fender, about 90 percent of guitarists quit within the first year of picking up the instrument. Guitar quality inadvertently becomes a big contributing factor.

Yes, cheaper guitars are statistically more likely to be bad, but there are affordable guitars that sound wonderful and play like a charm. You just have to know where to look.

Cheap Acoustic Guitars Are the Worst

Since the sound of an acoustic guitar is really the product of raw materials, design, and the player's ability, the cheapness factor is most apparent in acoustic guitars. A cheap acoustic guitar can't hide.

Cheap acoustic guitars are often made with tops that are too thick. This robs the acoustic guitar of all of its vibrancy and dynamism. The tops of guitars are responsible for most of the resonation that produces the quality of the guitar's sound.

Better quality acoustic guitars sport an A-grade or better top of either cedar or Sitka spruce. If you find a used acoustic guitar with an A-grade top of either of these woods for under $300, buy it.

There are a couple of upsides to cheap acoustic guitars. Acoustic guitars have fixed bridges, so the intonation is more likely to hold than cheap electric guitars. A cheap acoustic guitar's playability and sound quality are greatly improved by fitting it with a new nut.

Always restring a new cheap acoustic guitar with a fresh set of strings after purchase. Cheap acoustic guitars usually sound best with light or medium gauge strings.

Playability of Cheap Guitars

If there is one near-universal complaint about a cheap guitar, it's about the lack of playability. Due to cheaper materials and sometimes shoddy labor, many cheap guitars don't play optimally. Assembly line labor is partially to blame for this.


The most prevalent complaint regards the fretboard action. A hastily set up neck causes the guitar to be unplayable.

If the tension on a guitar neck is too high, it bows the neck and brings the strings closer to the fretboard. This causes the guitar to fret out and emit a buzz when played in certain places, particularly around the middle of the neck.

If the tension on a guitar neck is too slack, the strings rest higher off the fretboard. This makes playing the guitar a Herculean effort.

Adjusting the truss rod fixes most of these problems. If a cheap guitar doesn't play well and doesn't have a truss rod, don't buy it.


The second most prevalent problem with cheap guitars is terrible intonation. Intonation describes how well a guitar stays in tune. Unfortunately, the malady of lousy intonation has multiple causes: a bent or warped neck, an uncalibrated bridge, or bad tuning pegs.

A bent or warped neck is no bueno. Cheap guitars are more likely to have slightly asymmetrical necks resulting from cheaper wood and less skilled labor.

Cheap parts for the tuning pegs on a guitar cause intonation problems. Swap out your cheap tuning pegs for a set of Grover machine heads.

Per electric guitars, if you've tried everything else and your intonation is still out of whack, the pickups may be too close to the strings. The electromagnetic field pulls the strings unpredictably, causing a note not to hold when played. This is easily remedied by adjusting the pickup height with a small screwdriver.


Improperly aligned frets are another symptom of a bad cheap guitar. This is a bit more of a labor-intensive problem to fix and requires hemming and hawing over nuts and bolts. On the other hand, installing new frets is one of the best ways to customize a guitar.

  • Wider frets are best for playing smooth riffs.

  • Narrower frets are best for young beginners with smaller hands.

  • Taller frets are best for heavy-handed players who do a lot of string bending.

  • Shorter frets are better for speed.

Pickups on Cheap Electric Guitars

Another issue with cheap guitars is the use of bad pickups. On acoustic guitars, this makes an already bad acoustic sound slightly worse; on electric guitars, the problem of badness is exponentially compounded.

For electric guitars, the pickups are their life source. The pickups define their sound more so than any other component. Single coil pickups, P-90 pickups, and humbucker pickups all sound vastly different. Regardless of the configuration, bad pickups don't sound good. A more dense, single-cutaway guitar sounds best with two humbuckers, while a double-cutaway sounds best with three single coil pickups.

A solid set of pickups costs about $200. Is it worth it to buy a $50 guitar with bad pickups only to spend another $200 on switching out the pickups? No. Don't ever buy a $50 guitar unless you plan to smash it onstage that night. Shell out another dollar and get a guitar with decent pickups and save money in the long run while maximizing sound for the duration of the guitar.

That said, a good cheap electric guitar with good action but bad pickups becomes a great guitar with a pickup upgrade. A Squier Bullet Telecaster ($199.99) with a Seymour Duncan JB Humbucker ($99.99) installed in the bridge pickup makes an ideal and economical setup.

Best Cheap Acoustic Guitar

Yamaha has been in the music business for almost 150 years. The company began as a piano maker before becoming the world's largest sum-total producer of musical instruments.

The Yamaha FG 800 is the best cheap acoustic guitar. The baseline model starts at $229. The FG 800 baseline sports a dreadnaught body, which is the most versatile of acoustic guitar bodies. Featuring a solid spruce top and a hybrid of nato and okoumé for the back and sides — two currently undervalued but beautifully resonant woods — the Yamaha 800 competes above its price class.

The rosewood fingerboard of the FG 800 softens up the punch of the spruce top. It's the best pairing of wood choices available for good cheap acoustic guitars.

The people who assemble the guitars at Yamaha know what they're doing and pay meticulous attention to their work. Even the cheap Yamaha guitars have a low complaint rate about improperly mounted necks.

The thoughtful people at Yamaha include a hex wrench to adjust the truss rod in your shipment if you ask for it.

Best Cheap Electric Guitar

Google "the best cheap guitar," and you find a picture of an Ibanez next to it.

John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded the entire Mother's Milk album on an Ibanez electric guitar. It was the only guitar he had at the time. Bradley Nowell, the lead singer and guitarist of Sublime, used the same Ibanez for three years.

The Ibanez AX 120 is the best cheap electric guitar on the market.

With a double-cutaway poplar body, twin humbucker pickups (Ibanez produced its own quality pickups in-house for decades), a one-piece maple neck, and jatoba fretboard, the AX 120 is part for part the best bang for buck or pound available. The 22-fretted fingerboard has cool vintage trapezoid inlays. The electronic knobs feature individual volume and tone knobs to fine-tune the overall sound.

Ibanez sadly discontinued production of the AX 120 in 2021, but a glut of them is available from third-party vendors online.

Online guitar shopping has pros and cons. Although you have access to a greater variety of choices, you sacrifice being able to play the guitar before buying it. The meticulous guitar shopper doesn't relish reboxing a guitar and printing a shipping label to exchange it for another test drive.

How To Maximize Your Guitar $ Power

There are a few ways to get the best bang for your buck when guitar shopping. Sometimes you find a real value buy when you shop for cheap guitars if you know where to look. However, if you don't do your research, you often get a lemon. Purchase a used guitar, scope out pawn shops, build your own, or consider the best guitars under $200.

Used Guitars

Guitar prices are similar to those of automobiles and couches, except for the cases of rare or vintage guitars. Used guitars are always cheaper than brand-new ones.

Sometimes you find a cool alteration to the guitar that the previous owner made. Perhaps the owners swapped out the stock pickups and upgraded them to a more dynamic arrangement. Maybe they fixed an intonation issue.

Pawn Shop

Pawn shops are great places to pick up solid guitars on the cheap. You find good guitars for even cheaper, and sometimes you find great guitar models that are no longer in production. You potentially get to haggle a little bit in person over the price or barter a few bucks off by throwing in an iPhone 8 that's been in your junk drawer for three years.

Build Your Own

Calling all engineers! Brian May built a DIY guitar as a teenager because he could not afford a Fender Stratocaster. After his band Queen became rockstars, he could afford any guitar he wanted; he still used his red DIY guitar because it sounded great and people associated it with him. Since no copyright law exists on body styles, a Les Paul or Stratocaster body style is purchasable from a guitar parts distributor.

A Cheap Guitar Sounds Better Through Good Amplification & Sound Production

Technology has mitigated some of the inferiorities of cheap guitars, but you can't substitute sound production.

At this risk of sounding too on the nose, Sawtooth dubbed its legendary indie 25-watt solid state guitar amplifier…25 Watt Solid State.

Armed with two channels, clean and overdrive, a three-band EQ, and a state-of-the-art reverb knob, 25 Watt Solid State has a sound redolent of a hybrid between a Fender Princeton Reverb and Vox AC15 — compliments to a solid state cheap hybrid sound of two iconic amplifiers.

When recorded with a Blue Yeti USB microphone, an excellent cheap acoustic guitar shines. Digital postproduction with the cheapest of DAWs improves an undesirable trait of an acoustic guitar. Lack of bass in a cheap acoustic guitar? Boost the EQ of the track after recording it.

Spare a Thought for the Bass Guitar

Part for part, cheap bass guitars are a better value buy than cheap electric guitars. Skimp on the bass cost if you feel ambitious and decide to learn both simultaneously.

The bass guitar is also easier to learn than the six-string guitar. You usually only play one note at a time, and it's typically just the chord's root note.

Possessing the ability to play bass and guitar well makes you a better prospect for a band member and a more versatile guitarist.

Cheap Does Not Necessarily Mean Bad

The yardstick of economics — supply and demand — calculates the price of anything. A product is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Truth be told, guitars are a seller's market. With diligent research and hopefully test-driving a guitar before purchasing, finding a cheap guitar that sounds good is not impossible.

Used guitars are almost always cheaper than new guitars. Reverb is like eBay for music equipment. For around $100 and up, a playable, decent-sounding guitar is out there for you to find. Shop around the $300 range — it makes a world of difference. The Epiphone Les Paul 100 E1 is an excellent example of a baller cheap guitar with a price tag of $299.99 MSRP.

Some of the greats favored cheap guitars for various reasons: David Byrne of Talking Heads, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and Johnny Ramone of The Ramones.

As Rolling Stones guitarist and songwriter Keith Richards says, "Music is a necessity. After food, air, water, and warmth, music is the next necessity of life."

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