Encore Blaster Series E99 £119
If you’re seeking an electric guitar for less than £200, you’re either a) a beginner, b) the confused parent of an aspiring Hendrix, or c) a struggling semi-pro who just sold the band’s entire rig to pay for a demo at Abbey Road and now has nothing left to record with.
Whatever the reason, the following 13 models have been hand-picked from the pages of Total Guitar, and while they don't stand up to close scrutiny when compared to high-end Fender and Gibson types, each model offers something different. However, all definitely provide bags of fun on a surprisingly low budget. We’ll kick-off with the cheapest…
Encore Blaster Series E99 £119
British brand Encore already rules the entry-level, but it raised its game with the Blaster Series, commissioning designer Trev Wilkinson to upgrade the spec, but not charging you for his time.
It might be the new boy, but Encore has armed the E99 to make sure it doesn’t get bullied. Following the format of the model it kinda resembles but with cheaper materials, you’ve got a thick basswood body and a wuton top, plus a pair of Trev’s highly respected Guitar Tech humbuckers at the neck and at the bridge.
Somebody buy Trevor Wilkinson a pint. Working to a modest budget, he’s come up with a hard-rock guitar that looks the business, weighs a ton, has been built with decent attention to detail, and will have Jimmy Page sniffing around when he sees it.
OK, maybe not… not everyone will like the mighty body mass and palm-filling neck profile. But then again they’d be crazy not to appreciate how these translate into smooth, singing sustain when you plug in, and certifiable not to agree that the overdriven growl of the Guitar Tech humbuckers is indicative of a far more expensive guitar.
If we have one niggle with Encore’s Blaster Series guitar, it’s that - despite generally solid hardware - there was a bit of difficulty keeping the E99 in tune when you’re bending the strings a la Gary Moore. But that didn’t stop us having a blast.
Pros: Satisfying playability, fat sounds.
Cons: Weight, tuning slippage.
Next: Epiphone Les Paul Junior
Epiphone Les Paul Junior £149
For most of us, the affordable Epiphone range of guitars is the only way to get hold of iconic designs from Gibson such as the Les Paul Standard, Firebird, Explorer and Flying V. You already knew that? Hey, we’re just making sure…
Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has a Gibson signature model based on ‘Floyd’, his 1956 Les Paul Junior. Original ’50s LP Juniors like Billie’s cost a bloody fortune, but don’t despair. Our little Epiphone job is on the right side of 200 quid.
Epiphone has obviously cut some corners to bring our Les Paul Junior in at £149. Instead of the mahogany body of the original Gibson guitar we get alder, and the neck is bolted on not glued-in. We also find a big fat humbucker in the bridge position instead of the P90 single-coil that we expect to see on a Les Paul Junior.
The good news is that this guitar sounds pretty damn good, especially with a bit of distortion. Warning: too much filth and the pickup will squeal a bit, so let’s be careful with the fuzz. Playability is decent although we did find the tuning lacked stability. Stretching the strings helped, so do the same and you should be OK.
The Epiphone Les Paul Junior is a cracking little guitar for the money, but get this: shop around and you’ll find this guitar for as little as £79! It’s the cheapest way to bag some vintage-style, punk-approved class.
Pros: Looks the business, it’s a bargain.
Cons: Tuning can be unstable.
Buy: Epiphone Les Paul Junior is currently available from Thomann
Next: First Act CE120 Lola
First Act CE120 Lola £149
First Act offers a range of distinctive looking guitars from the affordable SFA models (produced in the Far East), to big bucks US-made axes. Endorsees include Brent Hinds of Mastodon, Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy and Pete Koller of Sick Of It All.
First Act’s guitars have girly names: Lola, Delia and Sheena. According to First Act, each of its ‘girls’ has a distinct personality; our Lola is ‘free spirited, deep and complex. Take the time to get to know her - the rewards will be considerable and long-lasting. Er, what? We’re guessing they named this guitar after the song Lola by The Kinks, the one about the transvestite who walks like a woman but talks like a man. We could be wrong, of course…
Marketing toss aside, it’s always good to see a company make a strong visual statement with a budget instrument. That big slab of a body helps to set Lola apart from the crowd. We also appreciate the access to the upper frets. Along with the slim neck profile, that access makes this a very player-friendly guitar.
Plus Lola sounds beefier than a herd of Aberdeen Angus.
The humbucker has a ‘dark, brown voice’ just like the fella in the dress in the Kinks song. Lola has the goods to kick ass in any style of music. Figure in that price tag and you’re definitely on to a winner.
Pros: Individual looks, beefy sounds.
Cons: Hard to fault at this price.
Next: BC Rich VG1
BC Rich VG1 £150
Since 1972, the mentalists over at BC Rich have supplied the artillery to everyone from Kerry King to Slash. You’ll pay big bucks for a US model, but Chinese equivalents like the VG1 won’t scare anyone’s wallet.
The Virgin might not be the most famous shape, but metallers will recognise BC Rich as a dependable name. That gave the VG1 a psychological advantage, and it’s backed up with tangible spec highlights that include a meaty agathis body, bolted maple neck and the same BDSM humbuckers that we’ve found on models at twice the price.
Our reason for crowing about the VG1 is not just because it looks so cool (although that is a factor in the entry-level sector). No, we’re dishing out the accolade for the simple reason that when you strap on this beast, it doesn’t feel like a compromise.
Physically, it’s an absolute belter, with the neck playing as fast as you can right up to the 24th fret - there’s only the low bout’s habit of skewering your thigh to detract from this. Tonally, it scored again - the ’buckers supply a versatile tone that gobbles up detuned chugging, relays every nuance of a flashy solo, and scrubs up nicely on the clean channel. With that kind of performance, we don’t reckon BC Rich’s VG1 will stay a virgin for long…
Pros: A genuine sense of aspiration.
Cons: Painful seated practice.
Buy: BC Rich VG1 is currently available from Thomann
Squier Hello Kitty Stratocaster £179
Hello Kitty is a fictional cat (yes, really!) created back in 1974 by Japanese company Sanrio. Originally aimed at prepubescent girls, Hello Kitty is now popular among teens and adults. Her image has adorned cosmetics, jewellery - even cars - and now she’s taking on the guitar world.
Most guitar manufacturers have had a go at designing guitars aimed at female players. To be honest, most of them are nothing more than regular guitars sprayed pink or covered in glitter. There is an element of that with this Squier, but by aligning itself with a hugely successful character like the cute little Kitty, Fender has produced probably the least patronising guitar for young girls - and boys in touch with their feminine side, of course.
OK, all you metalheads and hairy-arsed Dimebag fans, you can stop laughing now. Underneath the cutie pie paint and feline scratchplate on the Hello Kitty Stratocaster lurks a really good little guitar. Fender doesn’t mess about with its Squier range. The finish quality of both the body and neck is great. Yep, this guitar feels like a proper Strat.
On a strap it feels light and well balanced and tuning stability is spot on too thanks to the fixed bridge. Plugged in you might expect this guitar to whimper like a kitten, but whack on some distortion and Hello Kitty roars like a lion. Hey, it might look cute and cuddly, but this cool little guitar is no pussy.
Pros: Fun to play, sounds great.
Cons: No good for kitty haters.
Next: Vintage VR100CR
Vintage VR100CR £189
Vintage produces a range of affordable guitars based on classic instruments of the '50s and '60s. Its guitars feature great quality hardware and pickups designed by British designer Trev Wilkinson.
Hey, this VR100CR guitar looks a wee bit similar to a classic '50s guitar, doesn’t it? We’re not going to say which one ’cos someone might get cross. Vintage describes its guitar as ‘vital, raw and responsive’. Well, we’ll see about that.
The Vintage VR100CR ticks all the right boxes when it comes to making us happy. For instance, we love mahogany. This guitar has it in all the right places; we get a slab of the stuff as a body and a nice slim bit for a neck. We also go ape for a glued-in neck especially when it’s featured on a guitar at this price.
The combined bridge/tailpiece and stacked P90-style pickup makes our hearts sing, too.
The only deal breaker was some difficulty keeping the guitar in tune - we had to do a fair bit of string stretching. But the good stuff continued when we plugged the guitar in. We can’t get enough of that fat singlecoil sound that you get from a good P90 pickup. Is this guitar ‘vital, raw and responsive’ as Vintage claims? Actually, it is.
Pros: Sounds good, the glued-in neck.
Cons: Tuning can be unstable.
Adam Black Orion Raised Centre £194
When Adam Black told us the price of the Orion, we told them to stop messing us about, we’ve got deadlines to meet. They weren’t. This is officially the sexiest thing you can do with a week’s salary.
The Orion is touted as a “hard rocker hidden beneath a classic-looking exterior” and backs this up with a cock-eyed alder body and humbuckers so badass that they’ve been served with anti-social behavioural orders (sort of). Then there’s that raised central stripe. “It not only looks great,” claims Mr Black, “but it also slightly increases the mass for improved sustain.”
Having stirred our loins with visuals not unlike Tom DeLonge’s signature Gibson, the Orion continues to impress with a physical performance that never feels like corners have been cut. The quirky, staggered cutaways let you right up to the 24th fret, while the weight and the unfussy neck carve mean you’ll quickly feel at home. It’s not tailored to shred, but eats up gutsy hard rock and blues licks.
If you call your humbucker the ASBO, you’d better make sure it rocks. These do. The target market should love the spit ’n’ sawdust tone that can be coaxed from this electric. You don’t get the warmth you’d get from a mahogany model, but there’s plenty of punch and great sustain. It’s not quite the best here on test, but it’s the sexiest.
Pros: Sorted tone, unfussy feel.
Cons: We just liked others more.
Next: Aria Diamond DM-380
Aria Diamond DM-380 £199
Aria made a big splash with its quality Strat and Les Paul inspired models in the '70s - an era when the average lookie-likie was an unplayable crapocaster. The brand continues to make great instruments known for their value for money. The Diamond 380 is the lowest priced guitar in the group, but price isn’t always everything. The Diamond presents itself well.
The Light Candy Apple Red finish is pulled off nicely; the matching headstock adds a nice touch too. The pickups are lacking a little character, but give a vintage soapbar flavour for under £200, and at this price fitting some aftermarket models won’t break the bank. If you enjoy nit-picking (we do) you might argue that a single volume and tone control doesn’t provide enough tonal options.
The inclusion of the two-point vibrato ensures that you can wham away without fear of drifting into coarse tuning problems.
The truth is that the Aria comes out with its penny-pinching gloves raised high. The alder body and two-point vibrato are a steal at this price, making this a truly playable contender in the lower price bracket. So if you’re looking for your first guitar - or perhaps a spare - and you’re sick of generic copies, then this Diamond guitar fits the (relatively small) bill.
Pros: Competitively priced, retro vibe.
Cons: Pickups could be better.
Next: Danelectro '63
Danelectro '63 £199
Danelectro guitars have been played by Beatle George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, punk pioneer Link Wray, dinky Dave Navarro and the brilliant Rick Miller of Southern Culture On The Skids. Not bad for a guitar that was designed as an entry-level model for kids!
The ’63 model is based on a Silvertone guitar that came with an inbuilt amp in its case. This reissue features the ‘coke bottle’ headstock and classic lipstick singlecoil pickups. There’s even a baritone at £249.
Take it as read that this guitar plays as brilliantly as the other models in the Dano range. It has the slim neck and low action that we’ve come to expect and love. And thanks to the unique Danelectro construction method this guitar is lightweight and perfectly balanced.
The coolest thing about this guitar is its tone. 200 quid guitars don’t usually sound this good. Think of the ’63 as a fat-sounding Strat: the bridge pickup has loads of bite but never sounds harsh; and the neck unit adds warmth but there’s still plenty of clarity. Combine both pickups and you get this fat beefy tone that’s perfect for blues leads and fuzzed-out solos.
Like Jimmy, Eric and Elvis, we’re sold on the Dano vibe. Some of the most expensive guitars in the world pass through the office. Not many of them can match the fun we had with the ’63. You can’t get a better recommendation than that.
Pros: Looks, tone, playability, price.
Cons: You must be joking!
Buy: Danelectro '63 is currently available from Thomann
Next: Danelectro Pro
Danelectro Pro £199
The Danelectro Pro is a reissue of the Pro 1, a single pickup guitar that was produced between 1963 and 1969. Although the original guitar has never been considered one of the classic Danelectro models, the new Pro may just change that opinion with its additional pickup, upgraded hardware, improved playability and cutie pie looks.
Of all the guitars in this round-up, this is the one that we couldn’t put down. We love the fact that this kooky plank looks like it was designed by a '50s cartoonist. The Pro’s body looks like a table in an American diner. The ‘Coke bottle’ headstock is slightly different than the original, but still looks just perfect. And how can you not love those lipstick pickups and boomerang scratchplate?
Plug the guitar in and it sounds as good as it looks. The lipstick pickups are surprisingly beefy, especially when you run them both together. No wonder Jimmy Page loved Danelectro guitars.
The Pro looks like a cartoon, but there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about its construction or the way it feels and sounds. It’s a winner simply because we don’t think we can live without it. That’s all folks.
Pros: The look, the sounds, the price.
Cons: Not a thing.
Buy: Danelectro Pro is currently available from Thomann
Next: Yamaha Pacifica 112V
Yamaha Pacifica 112V £199
Most sub-£200 electrics are played through necessity. Since 1993, Pacificas have been chosen by proper grown-ups with jobs, cars and everything. No wonder we have high hopes for the updated 112V.
The 112V is designed to let us “play harder”. Yamaha refers us to the solid US alder body, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, vintage vibrato and a tantalising configuration of single-coils and humbuckers bolstered by a coil tap. If we had a guitar tech, he’d “approve of the stage-ready setup.”
Stick a blindfold on a guitar snob and they’ll swear this is a mid-price Strat. That boring body is contoured in all the right places, giving you free reign over a neck that is sensibly pitched between fast and fat, and offers fledgling players a decent platform for learning. The only conceivable criticism is that it feels a little generic, dealing in all styles but excelling at none.
You might argue the same applies to the tone. The 112V is easily one of the most adaptable models in this round-up, delivering a decent Strat quack from the singlecoils and scoring with a bridge humbucker that has decent weight behind it for rock and blues licks.
Again, our only issue is its slight lack of sonic identity, with the balanced tone covering all bases but never quite polarising its audience. Still, it is certainly one of the best all-rounders here.
Pros: Versatility, pro feel, tone.
Cons: Slight lack of identity.
Next: Spear RD-W
Spear RD-W £199
From a distance the RD-W looks like yet another Les Paul clone. But come a little closer. It says Spear on the headstock - shorthand for high-spec and low prices - and what have they done to that finish?
Black i, Spear’s official UK distributors, were blushing with excitement about the RD-W. “Spear ’buckers with Alnico magnets give a warm, vintage-like tone,” they cooed. “The body is pink mahogany… a light tonewood that has all the sustain and tone of regular mahogany without the spine-troubling weight.” Don’t worry, the guitar isn’t pink.
Spear’s reputation is rising thanks to all the quality components they lovingly ram onto their guitars. Take those alnico humbuckers. Anyone familiar with Slash will have an approximation of where these things are tonally: they’re warm, dynamic, and can rock the blues to rock and back again. At high volume, the RD-W is great for donning your Gary Moore mask and treading those Parisienne Walkways.
The neck (geez, the neck!) is slim, glued to the body, and a big surprise. Wannabe shredders will be intrigued; while young players and folk with small hands will find it a neat fit. The open pore finish is controversial. Purists’ heads will revolve like Linda Blair, while others will just get biscuit crumbs stuck in the grooves.
Pros: Resonant, with great tones.
Cons: Slim neck, crazy finish.
Next: Höfner Colorama
Höfner Colorama £199
The elder statesman, Höfner has been flying the rock ’n’ roll flag for Germany since 1887, and though the best-known design is Paul McCartney’s 500/1 bass, its Chinese electrics kick ass, too.
“It’s the tool for every blues guitarist!” reckons Höfner, and considering the Colorama features twin P90s and a solid body made of real mahogany, there’s an argument it has the most interesting spec of the lot. It’s actually based on an old Höfner model… “However!” the website reminds us, “this is no yesterday’s collector’s model, but designed for the tough live performance of today’s guitarist.” Bring it on, baby!
This electric guitar is a meisterwerk that combines a tidy build with supreme playability, and gave us a break from humbuckers with the grinding output and jagged bite of the P90s.
Between the bend-friendly profile, the luxurious fretboard and the surprising level of sustain you get from that slim body, we’d agree that this model would cheer up the bluesmen, but it would also rule in a hard rock context and will even deliver the goods if you worship the raggedy-arsed riffs of The Libertines.
Pros: Classy materials and tone.
Cons: One of the most expensive guitars in this round-up.
Buy: Höfner Coloramais currently available from Thomann
Liked this? Now read: The best electric guitars under £300 and Round-up: 4 beginner guitar and amp starter packs
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