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.

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