Guitar technology has come a long way in recent years. You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money to get a high quality acoustic guitar, and modern acoustic pickups do an excellent job of amplifying all the best features of a guitar’s natural sound.
You can find an acoustic-electric guitar built with quality tonewoods like mahogany, maple, and spruce for under $500 if you know what to look for.
In this guide to the finest budget acoustic-electrics, I’ll cover the key features of each of these guitars and what applications they are best suited for.
For those guitar players looking to add a bang-for-buck acoustic-electric guitar, this article will provide a valuable guide to the best affordable acoustic electric guitars on the market today.
6 Best Budget Acoustic Electric Guitars Under $500
Table of Contents
- 6 Best Budget Acoustic Electric Guitars Under $500
- What to Look for in a Budget Acoustic-Electric Guitar
- Final Word
1. Epiphone Hummingbird
The Epiphone Hummingbird is a big-bodied, full-sounding acoustic guitar drawing heavily from parent company Gibson’s long tradition of excellent acoustic instruments.
The guitar’s sunburst finish is absolutely gorgeous. Often, affordable guitars have tangibly plastic-feeling finishes, but the finish on this guitar’s body feels great under your forearm. The neck finish is nicely comfortable, too.
The guitar’s spruce top and mahogany body provide the Hummingbird with plenty of warm, welcoming tones when strummed. It tends to rattle a little when played extremely hard, but applying a gentler touch coaxes a beautifully thick, articulate voice out of this guitar.
Fingerpickers will be pleased to read that the spruce top helps brighten up the guitar’s tone, so you don’t lose any definition in delicate Travis picked sequences.
The X-braced body feels sturdy and reliable, and resonates well when playing. The Hummingbird feels like it is primarily an acoustic guitar that just happens to have a pickup system included.
The built-in Fishman electronics are predictably treble-heavy. The guitar loses some of its natural warmth when amplified, but this can be remedied with an active EQ. Through an acoustic amp or PA, the Hummingbird’s amplified tone is remarkably similar to its acoustic sound, but it requires some EQ tweaking to get there.
The slender neck feels like it won’t ever get tiring to play, and the guitar’s large body provides a classic acoustic playing experience. This would be a great guitar for folk, country, blues, or pop playing, especially with a band.
2. Fender Tim Armstrong Hellcat
Rancid’s Tim Armstrong has long wielded an old 1960s Fender guitar, which provided the basis for the Fender Hellcat. In true punk style, Armstrong insisted that the guitar be affordable for just about all guitar players.
Most impressive is the inclusion of a solid mahogany top, helping maximize the guitar’s natural sustain. The unplugged tone of the Hellcat is remarkably strong and rich, although it lacks some of the bite and twang you get with spruce or maple.
The guitar has a few adornments to give it a bit of Rancid visual appeal, like the Hellcat inlay and skulls. The guitar definitely looks much more assertive and defiant than the typical acoustic.
The guitar’s maple neck provides enough snap and sparkle to balance out the natural darkness of its all-mahogany body, but this guitar is hardly built for delicate fingerpicking.
The Hellcat responds best to authoritative strumming. Open chords sounded positively delightful, and the guitar offered enough dynamic range to encourage songwriting on the couch or a jam with friends.
The built-in Fishman system boasts Tim Armstrong’s name, and was tweaked to the Rancid man’s own specifications. Accordingly, it sounds best when played with a band. Certain frequencies well-suited to the solo performer feel absent when you play this guitar through a PA or an acoustic amp.
The amplified sound is great, and the guitar manages not to feed back or distort when cranked, which is a great asset when playing with a band.
3. Guild D-240E
Guild have long produced acoustic instruments favored by electric players for their terrific ease of playing. Guns N’ Roses axeman Slash, for example, played Guild acoustic instruments heavily during the band’s early ‘90s heyday, because the playing experience of Guild instruments was so similar to that of an electric guitar.
Fast forward to the modern era, and Guild have unleashed an affordable model with the brand’s legendary playability in the D-240E.
The defining feature of this acoustic-electric is its arched back, which bellies outward like a pear. This makes for a unique standing playing experience, especially for guitarists used to flat-backed instruments.
The arched back does, however, provide this guitar with a powerful, projecting voice. It was satisfyingly loud when strummed unplugged, and felt tailor-made for taking on a camping trip or down to the beach, where its elevated voice can truly sing.
In my experience, the neck felt suitably comfortable, and the guitar’s spruce/mahogany construction offered a balanced, if somewhat neutral, tone. The guitar’s sound is excellent, but lacks the discernible personality of other American-made dreadnaughts. For the money, however, it offers fantastic value.
The 240E is designed to be plugged into a PA rather than an amplifier. Piezo pickups tend to sound a little frosty and picky, and this guitar was no exception. Plugged in, it required some EQ tweaking to conjure the guitar’s best features through the PA.
Once that’s been achieved, however, the guitar is ready to rock.
4. Gretsch G5024E Rancher
Like most Gretsch guitars, the G5024E is a bold, well-designed instrument that looks as good as it sounds.
Gretsch’s excellent Rancher series has yielded plenty of beautiful, eye-catching guitars boasting the brand’s distinctive retro-cool appointments.
This Gretch’s signature thumbnail fret inlays, triangular sound hole, red pickguard and Les Paul-esque tobacco burst paintjob beg to be played before a rapt audience.
Fortunately, the guitar offers the goods sonically as well as visually. The solid spruce top offers excellent sustain and balance.
Often, budget acoustics tend to be better for chords or fingerpicking, one or the other. The Rancher, on the other hand, provided a strong, throaty voice when I strummed it, and enough delicacy to encourage a few fingerpicking licks as well.
Where I had the most joy playing this guitar, however, was running through the bluegrass-esque flatpicking styles of classic country. I like to play bass lines with chords on country songs - think “Folsom Prison Blues” or “Walk The Line” - and this guitar has all the note clarity and depth of character necessary to pull those songs off.
The combination of a Fishman preamp and under-saddle pickup offers more tonal depth and clarity than you get from a piezo guitar. I strongly prefer under-saddle pickups in acoustic-electrics, and was pleasantly surprised to find such a high-quality pickup in such an affordable guitar.
I highly recommend this guitar to any gigging musician.
5. Ibanez AEWC32FM
Japanese builders Ibanez are best known these days for their high-quality electric guitars, as favored by the current generation of shred-ready speed demons.
However, Ibanez often turn their guitar-building expertise to acoustic instruments, and the AEWC32FM offers all the craftsmanship we’ve come to expect from Ibanez in a very affordable package.
The AEWC32FM is clearly aimed at beginner players, with its narrow neck and sculpted body. However, it is hardly a beginner’s guitar.
Its small body feels very comfortable when you play it standing. Plugged in, this smaller body helps keep feedback at bay, making this a viable guitar for extremely loud gigs with a band.
Those who are accustomed to the upper-neck access afforded by, for example, Ibanez’s shred guitars, will be happy to see the deep cutaway in the guitar’s body.
It was relatively easy to get up to the eighteenth fret. I have large hands, and could get all the way to the 20th fret with far more ease than on any other acoustic guitar I’ve ever played. I don’t know what I would do with the 20th fret on an acoustic guitar, but it’s nice to have the option.
You can feel the build quality of the guitar when playing it. This Ibanez feels sturdy and reliable. It probably wouldn’t stand up to the rigors of touring, but the guitar’s diminutive profile is just begging to be put in the back of a car with all your camping gear and brought along to a campfire or beach trip.
6. Yamaha FGX800C Dreadnought
Yamaha may not be the biggest Japanese guitar builder in the game, but they have earned a solid reputation for building quality instruments.
This big-bodied dreadnought pays tribute to the classic full-sized American guitars that were popular in the mid-20th century, with a natural wood finish and a stellar array of beautiful unplugged tones.
The guitar is remarkably comfortable to play either sitting or standing. The solid spruce top is a welcome surprise at this price point, and is largely responsible for the Yamaha’s big, bold voice.
Chords jump out of the guitar with authority and gravitas, and the robust neck offers more than enough real estate for fingerpicking or jazz-style walking bass lines around chords.
When plugged in, none of the notes in any chord lose any definition. The large body is somewhat prone to feedback, however, particularly around the E and G notes. That’s easily remedied with a noise gate, EQ, or sound hole dampener, however.
This may be because this Yamaha is fitted with the brand’s own acoustic pickup system rather than a third-party pickup from a dedicated builder like Fishman or Seymour Duncan.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: many in-house pickups are great, such as those offered by Takamine. However, the FGX800C loses some of the natural character and beauty of its voice when plugged in, and one wonders how good it could have been with a better pickup array.
However, for playing at home or with friends, this is a great acoustic guitar.
What to Look for in a Budget Acoustic-Electric Guitar
When considering any guitar purchase, it’s always best to first look at what you need the guitar for.
For example, players who just need something to strum on at home and practice or write songs will benefit from a different instrument than a guitarist who needs a reliable gig-ready instrument.
The questions you want to ask yourself are:
- How often will you play plugged vs unplugged?
- What kind of music do you play?
- Will you be playing mostly at home, or performing?
A guitar’s looks are as important a part of your performance as its sound. Some guitars are built with this in mind, while others take a subtler, less eye-catching approach.
There are a few major factors that influence the quality of an acoustic electric guitar at any price point. Budget instruments might actually be particularly affected by these considerations, as manufacturers often have to choose just one or two quality features for their affordable instruments.
The key things to consider on an acoustic-electric are:
- Build quality
- Tuning stability
These factors tend to influence one another. For example, quality tonewoods like solid spruce will make your guitar more durable, and will be less prone to warping than cheap, soft woods.
A Quick Guide to Acoustic Tonewoods
The guitar’s basic sound will be defined by which wood it is made out of, and the size and shape of its neck and body. Generally speaking, acoustic guitars with solid tops (the piece of the body with a sound hole) sound better than those without.
Usually, acoustic guitars are made from some combination of mahogany and spruce. Budget guitars often use more affordable or sustainable alternatives to these woods now that instrument-quality mahogany and spruce supplies are dwindling.
Sapele, or African mahogany, is one example, as is Sitka spruce, often used for the top of an acoustic guitar.
Generally, acoustic guitars have a rosewood, mahogany, or walnut fretboard. As a general rule, tonewood is more important for acoustic instruments than for electric, as the guitar’s pickup is not the primary source of its tone.
Mahogany has a darker, warmer tone, while spruce has a snappy, bright sound. The combination thereof is typically balanced and full, and has long been used to produce high-quality acoustic instruments.
Maple has an even brighter tone than spruce, and is often used for an acoustic guitar’s neck, rather than for its body. Maple can be too bright and trebly for acoustic playing on its own, but can offer much-needed balance to a darker-voiced guitar in some cases.
Guitars with a solid back and sides are favored by advanced acoustic players, but you won’t find those at this price point, so laminated back and sides are just fine.
The guitar’s plugged-in sound is defined almost entirely by its pickup configuration. There are companies, like Fishman and L.R. Baggs, that specialize in making pickups for acoustic guitars.
The type of pickup is another thing worth considering: piezo pickups tend to have a thinner, more treble-forward tone, while under-saddle pickups typically have a warmer, more balanced sound.
Playability and tuning stability are self-explanatory, and are best determined by playing the guitar yourself. However, quality tonewoods, and high-quality tuning machines such as Grovers tend to improve tuning stability.
Similarly, the quality of craftsmanship of the guitar should be a major consideration. One major difference between acoustic and electric guitars is how acoustic guitars are built.
What is Bracing?
Wooden struts are arranged on the inside of an acoustic guitar, along the guitar’s top and back. These “braces” help reduce the stress on the guitar’s neck, body, and bridge caused by the tension in the strings and vibrations through the guitar when playing.
Bracing helps regulate the guitar’s sound and keeps the instrument stable.
The three main types of bracing are:
- Ladder bracing
- Fan bracing
- X bracing
Ladder and fan bracing are rare on steel-stringed acoustic guitars because they lack the structural strength required to withstand the tension of steel strings.
X-bracing, developed by Martin Guitars, is the strongest form of bracing, and is the type you will see on all the guitars on this list. Any budget guitar without X-bracing will lose its shape and fail to stay in tune after a certain period of time.
Some X-braced guitars have scalloped braces, which have some parts of the wooden struts removed, to reduce the weight of the guitar. Many budget acoustic-electric guitars (such as Yamaha’s entry-level models) have scalloped braces for this reason.
Curiously, some guitar players prefer the tone of scalloped braces, so you will also see scalloped X-bracing on higher-end models. As with many things about playing guitar, it really comes down to each individual player.
Acoustic-electric guitars don’t have to bust the bank to be great instruments. Modern advances in guitar-building technology and the cultivation of affordable, sustainable tonewoods led to the development of excellent budget acoustic guitars.
While, once upon a time, acoustic players had to rely on a microphone in front of their guitar or a rudimentary pickup, modern acoustic guitar pickups can amplify an acoustic instrument’s natural tone without compromising on tonal quality.
All the guitars on this list offer excellent value for money, with some better suited to some players than others. Whether you need a simple guitar to take to the beach, or a reliable instrument for regular gigging, there’s an affordable acoustic-electric out there for you.