Eight Bold New Electrics for Under $500

January 6, 2015
  • It’s hardly a secret that you can spend a fraction of what a high-end or boutique electric guitar costs, and still end up with an instrument that will serve you well for gigs, practice, and recording. Heck, some of the best blues music was made on circa-’50s and ’60s guitars from Airline, Danelectro, Harmony, and Silvertone. And when you consider how little guitar designs have fundamentally changed since then, what’s the big deal about going on the cheap when looking for a guitar that can cut it for your gigs?

    Sure, a 6-string budget special won’t boast the fine woods, painstakingly reverse-engineered pickups, and fine fretwork and setup that a top-ender touts, but, unlike an acoustic guitar—which depends so much on the quality of its woods and construction—the solidbody electric is a far more forgiving platform when it comes to shaving production costs.

    By far, the biggest ding that can be leveled against many of today’s lower-end guitars is that they are made from woods that haven’t been given the time to become fully dried before they’re tuned into bodies and necks. And once sprayed with a coating of polyurethane—a process that effectively seals in that moisture—those woods will likely never attain their full vibrational potential. In some cases, necks can also suffer from being slapped together from woods that aren’t correctly matched, dooming them to being inconsistent in stiffness (it never hurts to check the neck flex on a guitar you’re considering), and more susceptible to warpage and other maladies that can cause tuning and playability headaches for the buyer.

    But setting those factors aside for a moment, provided that the hardware is solid, the tuners do what they’re supposed to, and the pickups sound good and don’t transmit squealing feedback when subjected to some volume, you’ve got a good chance of getting a guitar that will satisfy your needs without blowing the budget. As always, it’s smart to try before you buy, but if that isn’t possible, at least check to see what players and forums are saying about the guitars that have caught your attention.

    Electric guitars in the sub-$500 category often pack substantial bangfor- the-buck, and, as we’ve found in this group, there are some clear winners that can truly stand up to scrutiny when it comes to tone, playability, and construction. We tested the guitars though a range of amps from Carr, Dr. Z, Fender, Marshall, Line 6, Little Walter, and Vox. —Art Thompson

    Cort CR230

    If you’re in the market for a low-cost LP-style guitar, make a note on your shopping list to give the CR230 a try. This model features all-mahogany construction, and with its gloss black finish and flawless cream binding it exudes the timeless appeal that Gibson’s “black beauty” has always had for rock players. The workmanship all around is of high quality, and you can feel it right away in terms of playability. The neck has a good amount of heft—perhaps a bit too much for some hands—and the smoothly finished frets made for easy bending with the stock .010-.046 strings. The fret ends aren’t at all spikey either, making it easy to slide up and down the neck. The intonation is musically pleasing too, and once pulled to pitch with the diecast machines, the CR230 stayed in tune quite well during a spell of particularly dry California weather we were experiencing during the testing phase for this roundup.

    This guitar has the sonic range afforded by a pair of humbuckers and independent Volume and Tone controls, and it offers increased flexibility via push-pull Tone pots that split the coils of the pickups for some cool single-coil textures. The passive EMG HZ SRO humbuckers have plenty of output and girth, so being able to split them provides a quick way to get more sparkling sounds with a modest reduction in output. Activating this function on the neck ’bucker when in the dual pickup setting, I found some great rhythm tones, and by varying the levels of each pickup, the CR230 offers up quite a lot of useful sounds.

    The bridge unit by itself travels from sturdy rock crunch to searing lead tones, all of which can be easily adjusted to suit the amp by dialing back the Tone controls. Going from a Fender Deluxe to a Marshall PA20—and using an Alairex HALO pedal for higher gain sounds—the CR230 was consistently tuneful and satisfying. I brought it along as a spare guitar for a recent gig playing jazz-based instrumental music, and it cut it well for both clean and overdriven tones, garnering a few compliments for its looks in the process.

    The EMGs can do just about anything you ask of them—from light to heavy with lots of cool points in-between—and they certainly contribute to making the CR230 a good choice for players who want the natural sustaining qualities of a Les Paul (albeit one without a maple top) with the enhanced tonal range needed to cover a wide swath of styles.

    So even if Cort isn’t a name that immediately comes to mind when thinking about affordable electrics, they have a large product line with a lot of worthy contenders that come in at surprisingly low prices. Definitely a brand to consider when the budget is tight, and the CR230 certainly proves its abilities in that arena. —Art Thompson

    MODEL

    CR230
    CONTACT
    cortguitars.com
    PRICE $369 street

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Mahogany, set
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24.75" scale, 12" radius
    FRETS 22 large (2.7 mm)
    TUNERS Die-cast chrome
    BODY Mahogany
    BRIDGE Tune-o-matic style
    PICKUPS EMG HZ SRO humbuckers
    CONTROLS Dual Volume, dual Tone w/push-pull coil taps, 3-way pickup selector
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXL 110, .010-.046
    WEIGHT 7.36 lbs
    BUILT Indonesia
    KUDOS Looks great. Plays well.
    CONCERNS None.

  • Danelectro Baritone

    As introduced by Da nelectro in the late 1950s, the Baritone model with its heavy strings and B-to-B tuning quickly found its niche as the “tic-tac bass” that was used so effectively on recordings by Patsy Cline and other country artists of the era. Bringing this classic sound to modern times, the Baritone on review here is a sleek, single-cutaway guitar that looks resplendent in its black finish with cream-colored tape on the sides. The body is constructed of a wood frame with a top and back of Masonite, and to this structure is bolted a gloss-finished maple neck sporting a 30"-scale rosewood ’board that holds an aluminum nut and 24 frets. Despite the frets’ inconsistent crowns and some random file marks, the playing feel is quite good thanks to a setup that accomplishes low action with almost zero fret buzz. The fret tips are also trimmed and beveled so that your hand isn’t hampered from gliding easily along the neck. An adjustable six-saddle bridge helps keep the intonation solid too, and the result is a guitar with a sound that is coherent and musical.

    Plugged in, the Baritone sounds deep and ringing, with a twangy and tactile low-end response. This expressive instrument gives the feeling that you can play pretty much anything and it’ll sound good. The fact that it’s a fifth down from standard tuning often lends to some interesting musical moments when jamming with others (especially when a guitarist or bass player tries to get cues from your hand position!), but the Baritone sure can juice-up a band’s sound with its signature low-end thwap. I love the machine-like rumble it produces, and the resonant construction brings a liveliness to it all that is often missing from solidbody instruments. Listen closely when playing the Baritone acoustically and you can even hear some natural reverb around the notes.

    The Baritone’s pickups feature classic lipstick- tube construction, whereby the coil wire is wrapped around an alnico magnet, covered with tape for insulation, and then inserted into a metal capsule. The modern versions use machined metal tubes rather than surplus lipstick cases, and the pickups in this instrument also are given a few more winds for mildly increased output. As always, though, the result is a unique sounding single-coil that produces a bright, jangly sound that’s ideal for translating the sound of fat strings and a long scale into the amplified realm. Tested through a Carr Skylark combo and a Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue with hand-wired circuitry by George Alessandro, the tones were rich and detailed, with plenty of twangy edge on the bridge setting that worked great for rockabill-ystyle riffing, and a warm, clear delivery from the neck pickup that sounded cool for jazz chords. I especially dug the dual-pickup setting when infused with tremolo, as that swampy, pulsing tone is pure magic for melodic excursions on country and roots-rock tunes.

    The hipness factor of the Baritone is reason enough to own one, and like many guitarists who’ve gravitated to playing baritone, you may well find yourself looking forward to those songs in the set where you can put your “other “ guitar aside, and throw down with the Baritone. —Art Thompson

    MODEL

    BARITONE
    CONTACT danelectro.com
    PRICE $399 street

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1.68"
    NECK Mahogany, bolt-on
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 30" scale
    FRETS 24
    TUNERS Diecast
    BODY Pine and Masonite
    BRIDGE Six saddle, adjustable
    PICKUPS Danelectro Lipstick bridge and neck
    CONTROLS Volume, Tone, 3-way toggle
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .013 -.062
    WEIGHT 6.28 lbs
    BUILT Korea
    KUDOS Super vibey sounding. A blast to play.
    CONCERNS Fret finishing could be better.

  • Epiphone Casino Coupe

    Small-bodied semi-hollow guitars have seen a rise in popularity in recent years: The diminutive Gibson ES-336 often appears on stage when Jon Herington deals out classic Steely Dan licks, while both Gibson and Epiphone offer compact ES-339 models. The design originated with the idea that players used to solidbody instruments might want the acoustic woodiness of a semi-hollow, but without the attendant size and weight of a standard “thinline” like the ES-335 or Epiphone Sheraton. Like the original Casino—which was made famous by John Lennon and George Harrison—Epiphone’s new Casino Coupe is fully hollow, yet its smaller body helps tame feedback issues common with hollowbody instruments. It also packs the distinctive bark of P-90 pickups.

    Our test model Coupe came in a blond finish, looking much like Lennon’s—that is, if he had accidently run it through the dryer and shrunk the body. (Lennon’s guitar was not originally “blond,” however—he sanded down the original finish to reveal the bare wood.) Visually, the Coupe’s proportions might take getting used to, but strapped on they worked immediately for me. The neck was well balanced by the body, placing no strain on the fretting hand, and the smaller body reduced tension on my back when playing it for long stretches.

    One reason Gibson initially put a center block in its hollow guitars was to enhance sustain. Lacking this, the fully hollow Coupe’s notes tended to decay fairly quickly when I played the guitar straight into my Little Walter 50 Watt or a new Epiphone Century amp. Where this fully hollow instrument trumped its center block cousins, however, was in delivering a more acoustic sound. Combined with the warmth of the P-90s, the result was a distinctive clean rhythm character that sounded excellent whether strummed or fingerpicked.

    Kicking on a little drive quickly solved any sustain issues and allowed the Coupe to push easily into hard-rock territory. The bridge pickup packed a nice twangy bite, and the small body let me turn up quite loud in a small space without losing control of the feedback. That said, I still wouldn’t want to be facing the amp in a high-volume situation.

    The Coupe’s neck pickup produced everything from Grant Green-style jazz tones to dynamic, Daniel Lanois-style distortion. The Volume controls evidenced a smooth taper and consistent tone throughout their range (i.e. the sound didn’t darken when I turned down), and the four-knob scheme allowed me to wring a wide variety of sounds from the Coupe by playing with the bridge and neck volume balance in the dual-pickup setting.

    The Casino Coupe plays well, is easy on the shoulders, and it sits in a cool sonic space that’s unlikely to be covered by any of your other axes. And with a price that’s so affordable, there are plenty of good reasons to add this guitar to your arsenal. —Michael Ross

    MODEL

    CASINO COUPE
    CONTACT epiphone.com
    PRICE $449 street

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1.68"
    NECK Mahogany set
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24.75" scale, 12" radius
    FRETS 22 Medium Jumbo
    TUNERS “Deluxe” with small metal buttons; 14:1 ratio
    BODY 5-Ply maple
    BRIDGE LockTone Tune-o-matic with Coupe Trapeze Tailpiece
    PICKUPS Epiphone P90R (neck), Epiphone P90T (bridge)
    CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way toggle
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
    WEIGHT 6.5 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS Delivers classic, hollowbody/P-90 tones in a smaller package. Great price.
    CONCERNS None.

  • ESP LTD EC-331FR

    ESP’s rep for quality is legendary in the music biz. It doesn’t seem to matter if we’re reviewing a top-of-the-line signature model or a budget-friendly unit like the EC-331FR you see here, they all come in with great setups and impressive attention to detail.

    Well, sure enough, this ESP looks great, sounds great, and plays like a dream. Cosmetically, the 331 is a no-nonsense affair, with a satin black finish and black chrome hardware set off by white binding on the neck and body and tasteful pearloid inlays. It’s an ingenious color scheme that can kind of work for any gig. Think about it: You could put on a tux and play a wedding with this or do a vicious metal gig—or both—and this guitar would look right at home.

    ESP not only gets the big things right but the little things as well, right down to stuff like the strap buttons, which are just oversized enough to ensure that your strap never fails. Details like that just reek of quality to me. Likewise all the bevels under the knobs and on the cutaway are totally smooth and perfect. Very nice.

    The 331’s frets are expertly polished and are a pleasure to bend on. The sustain is impressive even before you plug in. I wanted to hear the ESP Designed active humbuckers, though, so I dialed up a meaty distorted tone and was met with a muscular rock sound with great snarling harmonics. The neck pickup flavors are rich and flutey and perfect for the kind of sweep arpeggios that ESP artists love so much. And the Floyd has so much uptrem range that when you hit a harmonic on the G string, you can yank it up a perfect fifth! You can (and should) then dump it down to the depths of hell—or at least until the strings are totally slackened and flopping. Yes! My only gripe, and really it’s my only gripe on the entire guitar, is with the way the bar attaches on the Floyd Rose system. Like most Floyds these days, it screws in with a threaded collar—rather than a threaded bar like on my old-school Floyd—and I found it pretty much impossible to tighten it enough so the bar would be gripped tightly. I didn’t want to take a pair of pliers to the thing, and normal playing caused the collar to constantly loosen and get rattle-y.

    That small whammy issue notwithstanding, it’s tough to find fault with the 331. It’s simply a great workhorse that can cover whatever part of the rock spectrum you find yourself in. If you like what the EC-331 is bringing but don’t need a Floyd, they offer this model with a Tune-o-matic-style bridge as well. In the market for a two-humbucker solidbody? You’d be crazy not to give this guitar a test drive. Excellent job! —Matt Blackett

    MODEL

    LTD EC -331FR
    CONTACT
    espguitars.com
    PRICE $499 street

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1.65"
    NECK Mahogany
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24 ¾" scale, 13.8" radius
    FRETS 24 jumbo nickel silver
    TUNERS Sealed LTD
    BODY Mahogany
    BRIDGE Locking Floyd Rose Special
    PICKUPS ESP-Designed ALH-200N (neck) and ALH-200B (bridge) humbuckers
    CONTROLS Two Volume, one Tone, 3-way switch
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .009-.042
    WEIGHT 7.9 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS Excellent build quality. Slick playability. Impressive sustain.
    CONCERNS Loose whammy bar.

  • Ibanez RG7421PB

    Given Ibanez’s formidable history with both 7-strings and shred machines, the RG7421PB comes to us with a solid pedigree for a sub-$500 performer. There’s a version available with double-locking vibrato, but this one is nailed down with through-body stringing and a fixed bridge for those who eschew the wonders of whammy. The distinctive, super- Strat-derived RG body shape will be familiar to anyone already splashing in the deep end of the metal pool, and the RG7421PB does credit to its upmarket brethren in the range in terms of dress and components too. The solid mahogany body is capped with a poplar burl top finished in Sapphire Blue Flat—a no-gloss finish that, despite just a couple glitches, looks great over this exotic wood, and even shows a few enticing divots where it has sunken into the natural flaws in the burl. Ibanez’s 25.5”-scale, 24-fret Wizard II-7 neck is a three-piece maple construction with rosewood fingerboard, and feels about as comfortable as an extremely slim 7-string creation is likely to be. Your dealer might agree to smooth out any bumpy fret ends, a few being in evidence on this model.

    Pickups are Ibanez’s gutsy ceramic QM7 models, measuring 9.5kΩ in the bridge position and 8.90kΩ in the neck, with two rows of fully adjustable polepieces each. Wired through a clever 5-way selector that offers full neck, neck in parallel, both pickups full, both pickups inner-coils only, and bridge full, they deliver plenty of power and a boatload of sonic versatility. Master Volume and Tone controls, diecast mini tuners, and black chrome on everything round out the package.

    Tested alternately through a Dr. Z Remedy head and closed-back 2x12 with Celestion G12-65 and Creamback speakers, and a Line 6 POD HD into Mackie HR824 monitors via a Fireface 800 interface, the RG7421PB quickly showed itself equally adept at tight, thumping, low-string metal and wailing upper-fret excursions. Growly low-B and -E string riffs were a ball with the Remedy set fairly clean, emitting a firm, piano-like boing with a gutsy wallop behind it. Staying in the clean zone, I was also surprised by how good this guitar sounded for a wide range of playing styles. Its pickups delivered sweet high-end shimmer, plenty of tactile bite in the mids, solid lows, and no hint of harsh or brittle tones— a downside of some lesser ceramic pickups. Dialing up an über-high-gain POD patch really thrust this RG into its element, though, tapping the incendiary nature of the beast. Between the gut-rumbling rhythm chunk and the eviscerating shred up top, the bridge pickup aptly covered all the bases. That alone would probably suffice for many 7-string shredders, but each of the remaining voices had something constructive to bring to the table. All in all, the RG7421PB proved an impressive performer, an easy guitar to find my way around, and a good option, in this price range, for a player looking to make an easy transition into the rumbling world of the 7-string. —Dave Hunter

    MODEL

    RG7421PB
    CONTACT
    Ibanez.com
    PRICE $499 street

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1.69", graphite
    NECK Maple, 25.5" scale
    FRETBOARD Rosewood
    FRETS 24 jumbo
    TUNERS Diecast Ibanez
    BODY Mahogany body with poplar burl top
    BRIDGE Fixed Ibanez bridge, through-body stringing
    PICKUPS Two Ibanez QM7 humbuckers
    CONTROLS Master Volume and Tone controls, 5-way switch
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .009-.054
    WEIGHT 7.85 lbs
    BUILT Indonesia
    KUDOS Solid build. Stylishly contemporary looks. Impressive sonic power and versatility.
    CONCERNS Some road-bumpy fret ends.

  • Washburn Parallaxe PXM100C

    Washburn continues a tradition of solid, powerful, entry-level rock axes with the Parallaxe PXM100C, a menacingly elegant creation that looks like it’s here to get the job done. Impressive at this price are details such as an ebony fretboard with stylish mini-dot markers and 12th-fret phoenix inlay, the inclusion of the Buzz Feiten tuning system for optimal intonation, and the inventive patented Stephens Extended Cutaway neck joint. In addition, the smooth, accomplished construction and setup speak to the guitar’s overall quality. A carbonblack matte finish conceals a solid basswood body and a maple neck, complemented by black hardware and plastics. Through-body stringing emerges via Washburn’s own fixed low-profile bridge, which has rounded sidewalls for a comfortable right-hand playing position. A pair of Duncan Design humbuckers—vintage spec in the neck, hot as hell in the bridge—take it all home through master Volume and Tone and a 5-way switch that offers the popular selections of a full neck, neck in parallel, both pickups full, both pickups inner-coils only, and bridge full.

    Beyond all of this, I was impressed by the fact that this guitar’s action felt the smoothest and most ready right out of the box of any of the three guitars that I personally tested in this roundup. Although it was a narrower neck than I’d usually select for myself, the profile was extremely comfortable, and the result was superbly playable all the way up thanks to snagfree fret ends and a gently rolled binding edge. There were just a few fret-crown burrs that I felt when bending the G and D strings up the 13th to 15th frets, but nothing major.

    Plugged into a Dr. Z Remedy head and closed-back 2x12 with Celestion G12-65 and Creamback speakers, the PXM100C sounded entirely passable into semi-clean settings, though more musical on the neck and middle positions. This bridge pickup is predisposed to spit fire, so I quickly moved to indulge it, winding up the Remedy’s gain and reining in the master, for some old-school classic rock grind that brought this guitar right into its wheelhouse. With this platform, the PXM100C’s bridge pickup emitted lots of sting and sizzle in the highs (though not icepicky), solid lows, and enough nasal honk in the midrange to help my lead lines bark through with ease. Several high-gain settings on a POD HD into Mackie HR824 monitors further elucidated this Washburn’s talents, revealing singing sustain, willing harmonic feedback, and easy pinched harmonics all up and down the ’board. This isn’t one for your lounge-jazz gig at the Holiday Inn or a country twang-down at the harvest festival, but for scorching rock and metal tones, a confident playing feel, and admirable looks and appointments in this price range, the Washburn Parallaxe PXM100C earns an Editors’ Pick Award. —Dave Hunter

    MODEL

    PARALLAXE PXM100C
    CONTACT
    washburn.com
    PRICE $499 street

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1.69", graphite
    NECK Maple, 25.5" scale
    FRETBOARD Ebony
    FRETS 24 jumbo
    TUNERS Grover
    BODY Basswood
    BRIDGE Fixed six-saddle bridge, through-body stringing
    PICKUPS Two Duncan Design humbuckers
    CONTROLS Master Volume and Tone controls, 5-way switch
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .009-.042
    WEIGHT 7.7 lbs
    BUILT Indonesia
    KUDOS Menacingly cool looks. Impressive features. Scorching rock tones
    CONCERNS Some slightly rough fret crowns at the 13th to 15th frets

  • Yamaha Pacifica PAC510V

    The Pacifica clan of Yamaha’s solidbody electric lineup has always had some impressively performing members that don’t cost an arm and a leg, and the PAC510V is a noteworthy addition. It offers super clean lines, robust hardware and a simple electronics package consisting of Volume and Tone controls and a 3-way selector that toggles between three different wiring modes for the Duncan Trembucker P-Rails pickup: Humbucker, “soap bar”, and single-coil. The strings anchor into a beautifully machined Wilkinson VS50-6 vibrato bridge, while locking Grover tuners take up the slack at the headstock end. The gloss-finished neck is given a hip looking vintage tint, and its comfy shape and well-attended frets provide a sweet playing feel. The setup was great on arrival: The action was low on the deck, string buzz was practically non-existent, and intervals and chords sounded musical in all positions. The Wilkinson’s vibrato action felt smooth and precise, and moderate workouts on the arm didn’t cause any tuning problems once the strings were fully stretched. In all, the PAC510V is ideal for players who favor a quick playing guitar with a bright, resonant sound, and the bolt-on neck and gloss-finished solid alder body combine in a synergistic way to achieve these aims.

    Though the single-pickup format is sonically limited, Yamaha has found a creative solution to increased flexibility here via the Duncan P-Rails’ switching functions, and the result is a guitar that can dish out a surprising range of sounds: from bright and twangy to full and meaty, with a throaty, P-90-style response thrown in for good measure. Played though a Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue (which was modified with hand-wired circuitry by George Alessandro), as well as a vintage Marshall PA20 head driving an Alessandro 1x12 speaker cabinet, the PAC510V made it easy to cover everything from jazz tones to crisp funk textures to sustaining overdriven sounds. The “soap-bar” setting offers a great midrange bite that, while not exactly turning this guitar into a Les Paul Junior, does give it some blues-rock authority that I found compelling enough to keep it full time on this setting. When a cleaner tone is needed, you’ll find the Volume knob doesn’t shave off highs when turned down. That’s the job of the Tone control, and this one yielded predictable treble rolloff without making things overly muddy in its lower settings.

    The PAC510V really shines for fusion-y instrumental and harder rock styles, and there’s no reason that you couldn’t use it for blues or roots music too, as it has the capacity to go there sonically, and the bending feel is as good or better as on any higher priced American-made Strat. For what this instrument costs, the PAC510V is a gem of a guitar that shows some forward thinking on Yamaha’s part as it continues to strive to give players a boatload of bang for the buck. In short, if a hot-rodded, single-pickup S-style ax works for you, this is a guitar to try out. —Art Thompson

    MODEL

    PACIFICA PAC510V
    CONTACT
    yamaha.com
    PRICE $499 street

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Maple, bolt-on
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25.5" scale, 13.75" radius
    FRETS 22
    TUNERS Grover locking
    BODY Alder
    BRIDGE Wilkinson VS50-6
    PICKUPS Seymour Duncan Trembucker P-Rails
    CONTROLS Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXL 110, .010-.046
    WEIGHT 7.72 lbs
    BUILT Indonesia
    KUDOS Sounds great. Plays well. Three options from one pickup.
    CONCERNS None.

  • Xaviere XV-555

    Xaviere guitars have traditionally fared well in our budget solidbody roundups. Like everything on guitarfetish.com, they deliver tremendous bang for the buck. This model impressed right away with its beautiful dark burst on the ¾” maple cap and black solid mahogany neck and back. The addition of a Floyd-licensed whammy on an LP-style guitar elicits strong reactions from some, but for me it gives the XV-555 a Justin Derrico-approved rock attitude. Of course, one thing that some people fear about locking whammy systems is getting them in tune initially, and sure enough— the 555 needed serious tuning when it arrived, so I unclamped the nut and got it in the ballpark with the tuning machines before re-clamping and getting it spot-on with the fine tuners. That proved a little tricky because the fine tuners on the bridge were very tight and tough to turn. Probably nothing a good lube job wouldn’t fix, but it was hard work. I also noticed that the saddles weren’t in the staggered array that is typical with standard-gauged string sets, with the B string saddle noticeably closer to the pickups than the high E… hmmm. Checking the intonation with a Peterson tuner confirmed that it was indeed off a tad. Certainly fixable, but a tough enough job on a Floyd that I’d rather not have to.

    I checked out the 555’s amplified tones through my trusty Vox VT20+ and it absolutely delivers what you would hope for from a two-humbucker guitar. The bridge tones provide good rock crunch with nice detail, and the neck tones are clear and articulate. Plenty of two-humbucker/3-way switch guitars can seem limited in their range of sounds, but not this one, thanks to the beautifully voiced Volume controls. I had no problem transforming a singing lead tone into a distorted rhythm sound all the way into a sparkly clean-ish tone just by turning down. Sweet! Same deal on the neck pickup; I was able to get a truckload of nice sounds by riding the Volume knob. This makes the Xaviere a great candidate for gigs where you just want to lug a one-channel amp, and you can’t say that about every guitar.

    From a playability standpoint the XV-555 was a little stiff. It’s normal to have to really lean into bends on a floating whammy guitar to counteract the inherent sag, but I feel like I have to fight these strings a bit to get bends to sing. This is partly a setup question and, once again, is something that strikes me as very fixable. (Xaviere offers this guitar with a Tune-o-matic style bridge for $209.)

    There was a time when players would buy an inexpensive guitar, spend a little to set it up, and be totally happy. Companies like Xaviere have raised the bar for quality on budget guitars so high that it’s easy to believe you no longer need to do that. But the fact is that the 555 brings so much to the table from a tonal and visual standpoint that you would still have a great bargain on your hands if you kicked down a little extra to make it all it can be. —Matt Blackett

    MODEL

    XV-555
    CONTACT
    guitarfetish.com
    PRICE $269 direct, $338 direct as tested with premium checkerboard case

    SPECIFICATIONS

    NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
    NECK Mahogany
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24 3/4" scale, 12" radius
    FRETS 22 medium jumbo nickel silver
    TUNERS Sealed die-cast 14:1 ratio
    BODY Mahogany
    BRIDGE Locking trem, licensed under Floyd Rose patents
    PICKUPS GFS Crunchy PAT humbuckers
    CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way switch
    FACTORY STRINGS Olympia nickel wound, .010-.046
    WEIGHT 8.5 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS Sweet cosmetics. Great price. Clear tones.
    CONCERNS Tough to play. Minor intonation issues.

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