Eight Great Electrics Under $800—Reviewed and Tested

November 17, 2015

  • It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that a good guitar has to be expensive. True, there are some plusses to spending $3,000 or more on a finely crafted solidbody from one of the premium makers. Hand-picked woods that are aged to ensure that excess moisture won’t interfere with tone, and pickups that have been wound on the same machines used by Gibson or Fender in their Golden Age are but a few of the factors that support the notion that you get what you pay for when it comes to guitars. Like many things these days, however, companies large and small have cracked the code on how to produce guitars that sound, look, and play very impressively at prices that often defy logic.

    The reasons for this, of course, hinge a lot on the global economy, whereby workers in certain parts of the world—okay, let’s just say Asia—get paid atrociously less than their counterparts in Western countries. Materials factor into it too, as woods sourced from suppliers who don’t give a shite about the sustainability of tonewoods such as mahogany and rosewood are obviously going to be cheaper than those purchased from cutters who harvest trees in a manner that ensures the survival of their habitats.  Just have to say it: As one of the brands featured in this story, Godin is notable for having a long history of building very affordable guitars using a local workforce and materials sourced from forests right in their own Canadian backyard. So it can be done, and depending on your point of view on such things, this alone might influence what you buy.

    For this roundup of “budget” guitars we set the upper price limit at $799 street, which encompasses instruments that qualify as professional quality, while still allowing for “gateway” guitars that the beginner can get into for less than the price of a tablet PC. All of these guitars were evaluated on the basis of build quality and setup, and all were given thorough shakeouts—multiple times, in fact—to see how they stacked up for playability and tone. And while no reviewer can divorce themselves completely from their preferences for pickup types, neck shapes, or body styles, the truth is that after playing these guitars through a broad assortment of amplifiers and pedals, we all came away pretty impressed by what they have to offer.
     
    To see even more great guitars in this category, check out our Holiday 2015 issue, now on newsstands, where you’ll find seven additional models. You’ll also find reviews of more gear, including the PRS 30th Anniversary Custom 24, three new Boss pedals, three Framus guitars, and much more.—Art Thompson
     
     

    Carvin Guitars Bolt-C
    We’ve been quite smitten with the offerings from Carvin and now Kiesel Guitars over the past few years, with their Jason Becker-inspired signature offerings and custom-shop-level showpieces. Well, this hum-sing-sing beauty brings all that quality at a substantially more affordable price point.

    I hit one chord on the Bolt-C and could instantly tell that it has great sustain and resonance. The notes just seem to jump right off the gold EVO frets before I ever plugged it in. The playability is insane, with perfectly leveled and polished frets and unlimited bendability. Kiesel now installs dual carbon-fiber reinforcing rods in every neck they build, greatly contributing to neck stability

    I have always been into the hum-sing-sing pickup configuration. It just seems to possess the perfect combination of VH power chords and SRV neck-pickup tones, and the Bolt-C delivers on all fronts. This model takes advantage of Kiesel’s great promo of $100 of free upgrades, so, at no extra charge, the customer gets the aforementioned EVO gold frets, a KL12B bridge pickup, and S60 neck and middle pickups. That translates to killer tones in all positions, with the neck single-coil being particularly badass. The clean tones sounded great but when I went for some high-gain textures this guitar really came alive. The slick setup made blazing legato passages a breeze and I could bend as crazy as I wanted with no buzz whatsoever. It’s no big surprise that fusion masters like Greg Howe and Frank Gambale choose this Carvin to work their magic. You can pretty much do anything with this guitar.

    Carvin Guitars has long been a place where players can specify whatever options they want on an instrument. The model reviewed here can be modified with a Floyd Rose whammy, different fret options, various neck radii, custom pickup options, and assorted finishes. Their attention to detail is superb and the quality is unassailable. If you’re in the market for a solidbody electric, you need to check out a Bolt-C.  —Matt Blackett

    Carvin Bolt-C
    CONTACT kieselguitars.com
    DIRECT PRICE $799

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Hard rock maple with tung oil finish and inline headstock
    FRETBOARD Maple 25 1/2" scale with 14" radius
    FRETS 22 gold EVO medium jumbo
    TUNERS Chrome
    BODY Alder
    BRIDGE FT6 hardtail
    PICKUPS KL12B Lithium humbucker     (bridge) and two S60     single-coils (neck and middle)
    CONTROLS Master Volume and Tone, 5-way toggle, On/Off Bridge switch
    FACTORY STRINGS Elixir Nanoweb 1046E
    WEIGHT 7.25 lbs
    BUILT USA
    KUDOS Great construction. Huge array of tones. Slick playability.
    CONCERNS None.



    Danelectro Convertible
    Based on its namesake model from the 1960s, the latest incarnation of the Convertible features a piezo transducer under the bridge and a Blend knob to control the mag/piezo mix. It also has niceties like die-cast tuners, a glossy tobacco-sunburst finish (also available in black and white), and a wooden bridge that can be rotated for intonation adjustments. My only gripe is that the bridge’s un-notched steel saddle allows the strings to slip sideways when you pick or pluck the strings even moderately hard, making little creaking sounds in the process. It’s surprising that the factory hasn’t addressed this issue, but otherwise, the Convertible plays well thanks to its slim, satin-finished neck and polished frets with smooth tips.

    The semi-hollow “shorthorn” body is light and resonant, which helps to give this guitar a vibrant unplugged sound. Running into a Dr. Z Z-Lux or Kendrick 4210 combo, the ’56 Lipstick pickup in the soundhole provides a clear and beefy amplified tone with a voicing that sits well amidst standard humbucker and single-coil guitars. Blending in the under-bridge piezo takes things in a more acoustic direction, albeit with a pleasing sort of nasally honk in the midrange and a top-end sweetness that’s quite different from the often-strident piezo sounds that acoustic-electric guitars can be prone to. In fact, the more piezo you blend in, the more the Convertible assumes a sort of Dobro-like persona, which makes it fun for blues and slide playing, especially when put in an open tuning. Also, unlike many hybrid electrics, the Tone control affects the magnetic and piezo signals.

    The Convertible has always been a different animal in the Dano line, and this latest version carries on the tradition in fine form. The blendable pickups are a good update here, helping to make this Dano a very cool “color” guitar with a voice that can sit equally well in a track or a live mix. —Art Thompson

    Danelectro Convertible
    CONTACT danelectro.com
    STREET PRICE $499

    NUT WIDTH 1.69" aluminum
    NECK Maple, bolt on
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25" scale
    FRETS 21
    TUNERS Vintage-style enclosed
    BODY Poplar and Masonite semi-    hollow
    BRIDGE Wood with steel saddle, floating metal tailpiece
    PICKUPS ’56 Lipstick (neck) and piezo underneath the bridge
    CONTROLS Volume, Tone, piezo/magnetic Blend control
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, 010-.046
    WEIGHT 5.56 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS A good sounding hybrid guitar.
    CONCERNS Strings can move sideways due to un-notched bridge saddle.



    Epiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus Outfit
    With so much attention being focused these days on Gibson’s high-end clones of late ’50 and early ’60s Les Pauls, it’s nice to see that Epiphone has come out with its own highly affordable version of a vintage LP in the guise of the Les Paul Tribute Plus Outfit (the “outfit” part refers to the included hardshell case). This guitar offers the essential elements such as a great playing SlimTaper D-style mahogany set neck capped with 12"-radius rosewood fretboard, a mahogany body with a carved maple top, and a set of Gibson-made ’57 Classic humbuckers that feed the standard configuration of dual Volume and Tone controls and a 3-way selector. The only deference to modern times is that the Tone pots are push-pull types that split the coils of the pickups for single-coil sounds when you pull up on the barrel-style “speed” knobs. Given a high-gloss faded cherry sunburst finish (other finishes available) with flawless cream-colored binding on the top and neck, the Tribute Plus looks fantastic. There are even cream plastic covers for the control and toggle-switch cavities on the back.

    So what you get here is a reasonably lightweight LP that is set up very well and gives the same kind of soulful playing feel you expect from a vintage-style guitar—minus perhaps the feel of nitro lacquer, which is one of the things you pay extra for on the high-end Gibsons. Otherwise, I found the Tribute Plus to be a blast as it has the quick attack and long sustain of a good LP, and packs a sonic wallop courtesy of its PAF-style humbuckers, which deliver a cool blend of fatness and chime for lead playing, and roll back for ringing clean tones when you turn ’em down. The neck pickup can do warm jazz rhythm textures or sing with a sweet tone when driving a high-gain amp such as the Mesa/Boogie Mark 5:25 I used. The bridge position may come up a little short of the Tele-style bite that a prized PAF can deliver, but it’s still a fine sounding pickup with ballsy mids and a clear, smooth top end that makes it very satisfying for grinding rhythm tones and gained-up solos.

    The Tribute Plus is an obvious choice for anyone who wants to get into this legendary blues/rock guitar for a fraction of what a Gibson would set you back. It packs all the essential LP elements needed to deliver the classic dual-humbucker experience, and what a swingin’ deal for all you get! —Art Thompson

    Epiphone Les Paul Tribute Plus Outfit
    CONTACT epiphone.com
    STREET PRICE $749, including hardshell case

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Mahogany, SilmTaper D style profile
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24.75" scale, 12" radius
    FRETS 22 jumbo
    TUNERS Grover locking
    BODY Mahogany with carved     maple top
    BRIDGE Lock Tone Tune-o-matic with stop tailpiece
    PICKUPS Two Gibson USA ’57 Classic     humbuckers
    CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone (with push-pull coil-split), 3-way     selector
    FACTORY STRINGS 010-.046
    WEIGHT 8.64 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS A well made, good sounding, and very affordable vintage-style Les Paul
    CONCERNS None.



    ESP LTD FRX-401
    When we unboxed this LTD FRX-401, we were a little frightened by the pointy horns and seemingly jagged edges along the body contours. Still, though, we were drawn in by the sleek curves, glossy finish, and undeniable solidity that this guitar exudes. Anyone who has played an ESP instrument knows all about their astounding fit and finish, slick playability, and overall quality, and this piece is right in keeping with that ethos. It was perfectly in tune right out of the case and immediately gave up big chords and effortless runs. Nice!

    The cosmetics are admittedly a two-edged sword, but they are expertly rendered. The snow white finish is flawless and the hardware sets it off very nicely. Once you pick up the 401 and start playing, you really don’t notice that it has some extreme features. You’re much more likely to be taken in by the beautiful fretwork, easy bends, and impressive sustain. The set-neck construction gives you super-easy access to the 24th fret and also imparts a delicious resonance that you can feel all through the body.

    This guitar was obviously built to rock, and the EMG humbuckers do a great job of that, with the mean, focused distorted tones that we love about them. That doesn’t mean that they can’t do great clean sounds (ever heard a Metallica record?), and the neck pickup is beautifully balanced and the two-pickup tones are nicely detailed. With those pickups and the guitar’s sweet setup I found myself blazing through legato passages and churning out fiendishly picked staccato lines. You never want to ask a piece of gear to make up for what you lack as a player, but I swear the 401 can do a little bit of that. Bonus!

    It’s up to each of us to decide what kind of look we need in a guitar, but we can all pretty much agree on what we want in terms of quality, and this guitar flat-out delivers. This level of quality can be found on any LTD model, however, so keep that in mind while shopping. —Matt Blackett

    ESP LTD FRX-401
    CONTACT espguitars.com
    STREET PRICE $799

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Maple
    FRETBOARD Rosewood 25 1/2" scale with 13.78" radius
    FRETS 24 jumbo
    TUNERS Grover
    BODY Mahogany
    BRIDGE LTD Fixed
    PICKUPS EMG 81 humbucker (bridge) and 60 humbucker (neck)
    CONTROLS Master Volume and Tone, 5-way toggle, On/Off Bridge switch
    FACTORY STRINGS Elixir Nanoweb 1046E
    WEIGHT 7.1 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS Amazing playability. Unique look. Impressive sustain.
    CONCERNS Body style might be extreme for some tastes.





  • Fender Standard Jazzmaster HH
    It’s always fun to imagine what might have happened if Fender and Gibson had merged in the 1960s, but one possibility would have been a Jazzmaster with humbuckers and a Tune-o-matic bridge (and, of course, the mercurial floating vibrato with its extra-long arm), which is basically what we have here with the Jazzmaster HH. Presented in Ghost Silver with a black pickguard, and outfitted with pickups sporting black and chrome bobbins, the HH is one graphic treatment away from becoming something you could snap up at an Oakland Raiders kiosk. With 22 well-dressed jumbo frets on its rosewood ’board, the Jazzmaster HH also feels like the rock axe it might have become if  Gibson’s Ted McCarty had his way with this model. Would the Ventures, the Surfaris or Sonic Youth have been the same if things had gone that way? Who knows, but for today’s players who dig the Jazzmaster’s visual allure, the HH is a rock-friendly platform with plenty of sonic tricks up its sleeve.

    Played though a Mesa/Boogie Mark 5: 25, and a BluGuitar Amp 1, the Jazzmaster HH proved its ability to field tones that ranged from majestically clean to massively distorted. The neck pickup has a rich and detailed sound, and since it’s the louder of the two, it’s especially cool for soloing in humbucker mode, as well as for clean chording and fingerpicking when functioning as a single-coil. The dual-pickup setting with the coils split also provides cool rhythmic and melodic textures, and the only issue here is that the skirted Tone knob is difficult to get your fingers under when you want to pull it up in a hurry (a push-push Tone pot would be a welcome update). The bridge pickup isn’t so hot that it loses clarity when you crank it up, making for meaty OD tones that have depth and detail, even when pushing a blizzard of distortion. The bottom line is, the more I played this guitar the more it grew on me, so if you seek a classic Fender that goes where no Fender has gone before, you owe it to yourself to try out the Jazzmaster HH. —Art Thompson

    Fender Standard Jazzmaster HH
    CONTACT fender.com
    STREET PRICE $599

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Maple
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25.5" scale, 9.5" radius
    FRETS 22 jumbo
    TUNERS Die-cast
    BODY Alder
    BRIDGE Adjustable 6-saddle with Jazzmaster vibrato
    PICKUPS Two Blacktop humbuckers
    CONTROLS Volume, Tone (with push-pull coil-split), 3-way selector
    FACTORY STRINGS Fender, 010-.046
    WEIGHT 8.64 lbs
    BUILT Mexico
    KUDOS Biggest sounding Jazzmaster yet. Plays well.
    CONCERNS Difficult to pull the Tone knob. No vibrato lock.



    Gretsch Electromatic Pro Jet
    This modern version of Gretsch’s ’50s-era rock-and-roll hot-rod features a compact chambered body, Blacktop Filter ’Tron humbuckers in pearloid rings, and classic touches that include “hump-block” fretboard inlays, chrome-plated “G-Arrow” knobs, a white pearloid pickguard with Gretsch logo, threaded/knurled strap buttons, and vintage-style tuners with line-embossed cases. The Bigsby Licensed B50 vibrato with roller bar has a smooth, responsive feel, and it kept the strings in tune quite well when imbuing parts with sweet-sounding bends. The C-shaped maple neck with its 24.6” rosewood ’board feels great and the setup on our review guitar is spot on, providing nice low action and no buzzing when fingering notes as high up on the fretboard as the cutaway allows.

    The chambered construction provides a resonant acoustic sound, and when played through a variety of rigs that included a Kendrick 4210 combo, a Dr. Z Z-Lux, and a BluGuitar Amp 1, the Pro Jet spoke with a crisp, twangy voice that combined humbucker girth with a touch of single-coil shimmer. The moderate output of these lower-wind pickups will appeal to players who gravitate toward PAFs, and they have a dynamic response that’s very cool when paired with an overdriven tube amp. You can fake bluesy archtop tones with the meatier neck pickup, while the bridge setting can deliver that Malcolm Young kind of rock attack when driving a high-gain amp channel or a distortion pedal. The system of three Volume knobs makes it easy to dial in hip dual-pickup sounds while controlling overall volume with the Master, however, the lone Tone control likes to kept wide open as it starts to reduce volume and murk the sound when turned down more than halfway.

    That’s small point though, in what is one hell-of-a-deal in a swanky looking guitar that harks to the Golden Age of Gretsch electrics. —Art Thompson


    Gretsch Electromatic Pro Jet
    CONTACT gretschguitars.com
    STREET PRICE $499

    NUT WIDTH 1.69"
    NECK Maple
    FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24.6" scale
    FRETS 22
    TUNERS Vintage style
    BODY Chambered basswood with arched laminated maple top
    BRIDGE Bigsby Licensed B50 vibrato
    PICKUPS Two Blacktop Filter ’Trons
    CONTROLS Neck Volume, Bridge Volume, Master Volume, Tone, 3-position selector
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario XL110 Regular Light, 010-.046
    WEIGHT 7.14 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS Cool look. A twangy sounding rock-and-roll classic
    CONCERNS None.


    Guild S-100 Polara
    For those who love the look, the feel, and the vibe of a vintage-style double-cutaway guitar, the S-100 Polara from Guild’s Newark St. Collection series is a serious contender. From a distance, the body style is similar to that of a standard Gibson SG, but upon closer inspection, the S-100 has slightly offset horns, a larger headstock, and an angled tailpiece, giving it a look all its own. Designed to be an exact replication of the original ’70s-era S-100, this guitar is built with the same specs, hardware, materials, and electronics in mind.

    This will be good news for Soundgarden fans who have heard Kim Thayil play on various S-100s throughout his career. But even if you are interested in playing jazz, country, metal, or something in between, the S-100 is suitable for a wide range of styles, because the guitar is so responsive to the way you play. The pickups have a lower output than some modern humbuckers, giving the S-100 enhanced depth and clarity. Plugged into a Fender Hot Rod DeVille 212, the S-100 delivered a fantastic clean tone that sounded perky and full with funky or percussive guitar riffs on the bridge pickup, but it could also fill the room with rich sustain on big open chords. Combined with various levels of distortion, notes sang out with zest and punch. Overdriven tones had a classic, midrange-boosted sound that never got overly muddy or bass heavy. Testing this guitar was truly a blast, as it was really comfortable to play and it sounded amazing. Well built with high-quality parts, the S-100 Polara is durable, reliable, and a great choice for adding some vintage flair to any of your performances. —Joyce Kuo


    Guild S-100 Polara
    CONTACT guildguitars.com
    STREET PRICE $799

    NUT 1 11/16"
    NECK Mahogany, set
    FRETBOARD Rosewood 24.75" scale
    FRETS 22 narrow jumbo
    TUNERS Grover Sta-Tite
    BODY Mahogany
    BRIDGE Guild Tune-o-matic, Guild compensated stop tailpiece
    PICKUPS Two Guild HB-1 humbuckers
    CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way selector
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXL110, .010-.046
    WEIGHT 8.81 lbs
    BUILT Korea
    KUDOS Excellent build quality and performance. Classic hum-    bucker tones. Very responsive.
    CONCERNS None.

     
    Slick SL57
    Sometimes it’s the little things that matter. At first glance, this Slick SL57 might look like just another Strat clone. And, at its insanely low price of $279, no one could blame you if you assumed that they cut every available corner on materials and workmanship. But you’d be dead wrong, and here’s why. The Slick folks, in conjunction with Mr. Earl Slick himself, have addressed every aspect of what separates good guitars from great ones and put that knowledge into each component on their instruments.

    You get a solid swamp ash body that is left unfinished so the wood can breathe (and it looks bitchin’ too). The bridge features a solid steel baseplate with brass saddles and a massive solid brass sustain block. The nut is graphite and leads to a super straight string pull up the tilt-back headstock (so no need for string trees) to the precise tuners. All of this adds up to amazing sustain and acoustic volume. You can feel each chord ringing through the body.

    The amplified tones are exactly what you would want out of a three-single-coil instrument, with big neck-pickup sounds, bright and cutting bridge tones, and the delightfully Knopfler-esque in-between sounds. The only thing I might change is to raise the middle pickup slightly to even out the output on the sounds with that pickup. The medium jumbo frets are nicely polished and easy to bend on. The whammy system arrived set for down-only action, as opposed to floating. This no doubt adds to the resonant quality of the SL57, but it did create some tuning problems, especially on the D, G, and B strings. All non-locking systems take a bit of work for me to keep them reliably in tune, and I’m sure I could tame this one (I would set it up as a floating system so I could always yank everything back to the equilibrium point). None of this changes the fact that this is a great-sounding, great-playing guitar that is an absolute steal at this price. I would not hesitate to bring an SL57 on stage or in the studio. —Matt Blackett

    Slick SL57
    CONTACT guitarfetish.com
    DIRECT PRICE $279

    NUT WIDTH 1.7"
    NECK Solid Canadian hard rock maple
    FRETBOARD Rosewood 25 1/2" scale and 12" radius
    FRETS 22 nickel silver 6105 medium jumbo
    TUNERS Slick with bronze crown gears, bronze pinion gears, and solid brass knobs
    BODY Solid swamp ash
    BRIDGE Vintage USA tremolo with solid steel baseplate, solid machined brass sustain block, and bent brass saddles
    PICKUPS Three Slick “65” alnico single-coils
    CONTROLS Master Volume, two Tone, 5-way toggle
    FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXL110
    WEIGHT 8.26 lbs
    BUILT China
    KUDOS Cool look. Great sustain. Awesome Stratty tones.
    CONCERNS Whammy system created some tuning issues.
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