Guitars have come a long way in even just the decade or so that I’ve been playing. There are seemingly endless choices for virtually any player at any skill level, price range, and style of playing — and in particular, there are way more great options for someone’s first or second guitar than there were when I started out. Whether you’re looking to pick up a guitar for the first time or give the same gift to someone else, these options should be on your radar.
Best Overall: Sterling Cutlass SSS
I might be a bit biased, given my love for the high-end guitars from Sterling’s parent brand Music Man, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better guitar for under $300 than the Cutlass SSS. The SSS suffix denotes that this particular model comes loaded with three single-coil pickups, making it easy to achieve that famous Strat-like sound while still retaining the versatility needed to create a sonically unique profile of its own.
With the Cutlass, you’ll get 22 frets on a beautiful laurel fretboard, with a neck profile that’s both thick enough to comfortably play chords, but thin enough to branch out into leads and practice scales on. You also get a Music Man-designed tremolo system (you might know it as the “whammy bar”), allowing you to add vibrato to your playing with ease — though keep in mind that low-cost tremolo systems like this one often have less-than-perfect tuning stability, so you might need to tune this guitar more often than others if you start to use the trem too often.
Being a standalone guitar, you won’t get any extra goodies like a hardshell case or a practice amp; you’ll want to look at our starter kit recommendation for that. But assuming you already have those accessories, or don’t mind buying them separately, the Cutlass SSS is an extremely versatile, comfortable, and hey — even great-looking guitar for a reasonable price.
- Comfortable, easy to play neck
- Versatile pickups
- Tremolo arm included
- Available with humbuckers as well
- Additional hardware sold separately
- Cheap trem means less tuning stability
Sterling by Music Man Cutlass SSS
- $300 at Amazon
The guitar I would’ve wanted starting off
The Cutlass doesn’t just look great, it’s comfortable to play and has incredibly versatile pickups that make it useful for a wide range of different genres. The tremolo comes in handy for adding vibrato to your playing, and the Cutlass is available in multiple color options.
Best Starter Kit: Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster
Starter kits are the perfect all-in-one solution when you’re learning the guitar for the first time. You get everything you need in one box, including the guitar itself, a practice amp, a strap so you can play standing up, a cable to run into the amp, a softshell gig bag, and a few picks. My first guitar came as part of a metal-oriented Ibanez starter kit, but Squier’s Affinity Series Stratocaster kit is a bit more versatile.
The Strat is one of the most iconic guitars ever made, and with Squier being a Fender sub-brand, you’re getting that timeless design straight from the source. This particular Strat comes with a humbucker in the bridge position, which should translate to less noise and feedback from your amp, while the middle and neck pickups are single coils for that classic Strat sound.
- Great all-in-one kit
- Available in full- or short-scale
- 15W amp features headphone jack for silent practice
- Cheap trem means less tuning stability
- Not the highest quality parts
Best Starter Kit
Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster HSS Guitar Pack
- $330 at Amazon
Everything you need to get started
The Squier Affinity kit includes a guitar, practice amp, strap, cable, gig bag, and picks. It’s a terrific all-in-one package that makes it quick and easy to get started learning the guitar.
Best Short-Scale: Squier Bullet Mustang
Scale lengths aren’t necessarily something you need to worry about too much when you’re just getting started, but they play a big role in the feel and tonality of your guitar. The longer your scale length, the more tension you’ll need on each string to reach proper pitch. Lots of tension helps keep your strings from feeling loose and flubby, but shorter scale lengths lend to warmer, thicker sounds, and they’re a bit easier to play.
If you’ve ever listened to Nirvana, you’ve heard the short-scale sounds of a Fender Mustang before. The Squier Bullet Mustang brings those looks and sonic characteristics down to an affordable price, with a pair of humbuckers further thickening its tones. Along with the shorter scale length, the Mustang has a particularly compact design, making this a great guitar for small-framed players (or anyone just looking for a smaller instrument).
- Warmer, thicker sound
- Easier to play for many players
- Small, compact body shape
- Short-scales are prone to fret buzz
- Only 21 frets
Squier Bullet Mustang
- $180 at Amazon
Less tension, less frustration
Short-scale guitars are easier to play and have a warmer, thicker sound that works great with various genres of music. The Mustang is a classic shape with a slim profile, and the Bullet HH model comes with two humbucking pickups.
Best for Blues/Jazz: Gretsch G2210 Streamliner
There are few brands whose designs are as instantly recognizable as Gretsch. The Brooklyn-based company is over a century old, and its guitars have become famous over the years in the hands of Chet Atkins, Brian Setzer, Eddie Cochran, and many other notable artists. The Streamliner line brings Gretsch Guitars to an easily affordable price, and the G2210 is a solid guitar for fans of blues, jazz, and classic rock.
The Junior Jet Club has outstanding sustain, meaning that held out notes will last longer than on many other guitars, and it’s available in four equally great-looking colors. The humbucking pickups have a nice focus on the midrange, and the guitar has a nice twangy tone that almost sounds Strat- or Tele-like at times. It isn’t the smallest guitar out there, but it’s versatile, stylish, and comfortable.
- Great sustain
- Versatile pickups
- Easily adjustable bridge
- Not the lightest guitar around
- Not particularly small, either
Best for Blues/Jazz
Gretsch G2210 Streamliner Junior Jet Club
- $300 at Amazon
From one of the longest-running guitar makers around
The G2210 is part of Gretsch’s affordable Streamliner lineup, and offers classic design with great sustain and well-rounded pickups that sound great for a wide variety of musical genres.
Best for Metal: Jackson JS32 Dinky DKA
One look at the Jackson JS32 tells you exactly what it’s made for. This guitar makes no attempts to hide its inclination towards metal, with Jackson’s signature jagged headstock and a Superstrat body style that features deep cutouts near the bottom of the neck, offering easy access to the highest frets.
Being geared towards metal, you get two high-output humbucking pickups that definitely favor a bit of distortion, along with 24 frets and a licensed Floyd Rose tremolo that lets you play Dimebag Darrell-inspired divebombs to your heart’s content. Best of all, you won’t run into the same type of tuning stability issues that other trem-equipped guitars in this list face, since the Floyd Rose locks at both the bridge and the nut.
- High output pickups
- Double-locking tremolo system
- Great upper fret access
- Not the most versatile pickups
- Floyd Rose requires additional setup
Best for Metal
Jackson JS32 Dinky DKA
- $300 at Amazon
A double-locking trem without breaking the bank
If you’ve ever wanted to play Pantera- or Ozzy-inspired riffs with divebombs and heavy chugs, it’s hard to go wrong with the shred-oriented Jackson Dinky. It isn’t the most versatile guitar in the world, but it’s great for metal.
Best Under $200: Ibanez AX120
Ibanez has long been known for its metal guitar lineage as well, but the AX120 takes a more neutral approach with a more rounded shape and contoured edges that let it sit comfortably against your body while you play. There’s a small pickguard by the humbucking pickups, which keeps the paint job from getting scratched up over time, and you get four knobs that give you individual volume and tone control for each pickup.
The AX120 is well-built for the price, and its ceramic pickups work well for various types of music. It’s stable, thanks to the fixed bridge, and the 24.75-inch “Gibson scale length” offers a nice balance of proper tension and a naturally warm, thick tonality. For a penny shy of $200, this guitar is hard to beat.
- Easily affordable for virtually any player
- Scale length offers nice tension and tone
- Well-rounded pickups
- Shorter scale not great for low tunings
- Prone to fret buzz
Best Under $200
- $200 at Amazon
As good as it gets on a tight budget
The Ibanez AX120 is a versatile, affordable guitar that’s available in over half a dozen finishes at a low price. It’s comfortable to play, and its pickups work for a variety of genres.
Upgrade Pick: ESP LTD EC-256FM
I wanted to keep this list limited to a $300 threshold, since most people probably won’t want to spend a ton of money on an instrument before they really know that they’ll stick with it. But it’s okay to treat yourself sometimes, and even though it’s the most expensive option in this list, the LTD EC-256FM offers a lot of bang for your buck.
ESP’s EC, or Eclipse, series is based around the ever-famous Les Paul — the single guitar shape that embodies rock and roll above all else. With the EX-256FM, you’ll get a set-neck design (great for sustain and high fret access), two ESP-designed pickups, and a push-pull knob for coil splitting, allowing you to instantly switch between the sound of humbuckers and single-coil pickups.
- Four gorgeous finish options
- Dual humbuckers with coil splitting
- Set-neck design means great sustain
- Set-neck also makes the neck hard to repair
- Expensive for a first guitar
ESP LTD EC-256FM
- $429 at Amazon
Worth splurging on
The EC-256FM is a great-looking instrument based on one of the most iconic rock guitars of all time. With it, you’ll get splittable humbuckers, a set neck, and four eye-catching finishes.
No matter your skill level of preferred genres of music, there’s a neverending list of great guitars for you to choose from. Of course, if my picks don’t speak to you, don’t be afraid to consider models or brands not featured in this list. This is just a small selection I’d recommend to a student or first-time buyer, but there are plenty of options from other incredible companies!
Credits — The staff that worked on this guide
Hayato Huseman has been playing guitar at a middle school level since high school. These days, he plays Aristides Guitars and tweets videos on rare occasion at @hayatohuseman. Got a tip or inquiry? Drop him a line at [email protected]