Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500

27th Aug 2010 | 15:21

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Washburn WD32SCE £299
Top: Solid spruce; Back and Sides: Mahogany; Neck: Mahogany; Fingerboard: Rosewood with 'slash' inlays; Preamp: 3-Band A3 with onboard tuner; Hardware: Grover machineheads; Finish: Natural satin

Electro-acoustics are everywhere. Almost every luthier makes them, and as a result prices are competitive. Here's a selection of eight worthy models ranging in price from £199 to £499, kicking-off with Washburn's WD32SCE.

Everyone knows Washburn produces some damn fine electric guitars: the awesome Idol Series and Nuno Bettencourt’s N-Series guitars have all triggered spontaneous moistening of undergarments in the office. But will its acoustic guitars have the same effect on our laundry - or will it just dampen our enthusiasm?

Let’s strip down that WD32SCE model name. The ‘S’ bit stands for solid, indicating that this guitar has a solid spruce top. We always like to see that on a guitar at this price point. The ‘CE’ refers to the guitar’s status as a cutaway electric. So, now we know what we’re dealing with here, let’s play the thing.

Washburn has been building acoustic guitars since 1883 so it’s no surprise that the guys are pretty good at it now. All that experience is clear to see in the WD32SCE. This guitar is a true all-rounder: it scores top marks thanks to its sweet acoustic tone and Washburn’s trademark slim neck profile that makes fretting any chord a breeze.

Thanks to the onboard B-Band pickup/preamp combo the amplified sound of the WD32SCE is just as satisfying as its acoustic tone making this guitar the perfect tool for live work and recording in the studio.

Verdict

The WD32SCE sounds great, is beautifully built and finished and plays far better than we could have expected at this price point. Oh, and shop around and you’ll find this peach selling for as low as £229. Time for a change of underwear now then…

Pros: Great tone and playability.
Against: We couldn’t fault it.

Next: Yamaha APX500

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Yamaha APX500 £299
Top: Spruce; Back and Sides: Nato; Neck: Mahogany; Fingerboard: Rosewood with dot inlays; Preamp: 3-Band A3 with built in tuner; Hardware: Grover machineheads; Finish: Natural, Black, Oriental Blue Burst, Dark Red Burst and Old Violin Sunburst

Yamaha’s claim that its APX500 “offers fantastic tone at a reasonable price” becomes even more intriguing when you shop around. We found this best-selling electro-acoustic for just £189. That’s over a hundred sheets cheaper than the recommended retail price!

The APX500 is compact. The smaller body makes it a great choice for electric players who need an acoustic in their arsenal but don’t want to wrestle with a full-bodied dreadnought guitar. Other good bits? A quality onboard preamp with a built-in tuner.

The APX500’s small body means it can’t quite compete with the acoustic tones of bigger guitars. No worries, this little fella really starts to make sense when it’s plugged in.

There’s a huge range of tones available from the guitar’s three-band EQ, and the guitar’s compact size also means that swapping between the APX500 and your electric guitar won’t seem like such a stretch. The slim neck helps too.

Verdict

So it’s easy to see why the APX500 is such a big seller. At £299 it’s well worth checking out; at under £200 it’s a stone bargain. OK, it’s not an all-rounder like some electros but if you intend to plug your acoustic into an amp the majority of the time, the APX500 deserves to be on your must-try list.

Pros: Good playability, amplified tone.
Cons: Not the best acoustic tone.

Next: Adam Black S-5CE

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Adam Black S-5CE £199
Top: Solid spruce; Back and Sides: Mahogany; Neck: Mahogany; Fingerboard: Rosewood with dot inlays; Preamp: Prener-LC 3-band EQ with presence control and onboard tuner; Hardware: Grover machineheads; Finish: Natural Gloss, Trans Black, Trans Blue, Natural Satin and Vintage Sunburst

Every guitar company reckons its instruments are the best, and relative newcomer Adam Black is no exception.

Adam Black says the basis of its guitars is “quality where it is essential for the player’s expressiveness to be transferred to the sound of the instrument”. Sounds like grammatically suspect marketing waffle to us…

OK, waffle aside, Adam Black has put a lot of thought into the construction of its guitars. Fancy cosmetic details aren’t its bag. Instead you get dovetail neck joints (good news for tone and sustain), scalloped bracing and good quality hardware like Grover ’heads and a preamp with a built-in tuner.

The best thing about the S-5CE is its acoustic tone. Strum it hard and it fills the room with a beautiful well-balanced sound. Pick it gently with your fingers and you’ll love its crisp top end and deep bass. Whack a microphone on it and we think this guitar would kill in a recording studio.

It’s only when you amplify it via the onboard pickup that the enthusiasm dulls a bit. The pickup/preamp setup isn’t quite as satisfying as units on other guitars.

Verdict

Don’t get us wrong though, it’s not terrible, but we much preferred this guitar acoustically. Adam Black may be the newbie in this illustrious line-up but it’s off to a flying start. In fact, we reckon the company should forget about all that marketing guff and let its guitars speak for themselves.

Pros: Acoustic tone, construction.
Cons: Scratchy amplified sound.

Next: Vintage VEC380N

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Vintage VEC380N £249
Top: Solid spruce; Back and Sides: Figured flame maple; Neck: Nato; Fingerboard: Ebony with dot inlays; Preamp: Shadow 5 Plus; Hardware: Vintage style machineheads; Finish: Natural, Burgundy Burst

Vintage is determined to ‘own’ the entry-level guitar market. The company that brought you the Metal Axxe guitars, the battle-scarred Icon series and the Advance range of electrics, has set its sights on the acoustic market. The VEC380N here is one of its big hitters…

The VEC380N is as wide as a super jumbo but not as deep as a regular dreadnought guitar. It’s depth is similar to Yamaha’s APX500. Cosmetically, it has an attractive old-school slotted headstock and tasty flame maple back and sides. It’s even got an ebony fingerboard.

If it’s a beauty queen you’re after then the VEC380N is worth considering. The flame maple back and sides help it to stand out from the crowd, and that slotted headstock with its gold machinehead looks ace.

Verdict

The preamp and pickup system helps this guitar punch above its weight too. It’s a Shadow system and what those guys don’t know about amplifying acoustics, er, isn’t worth knowing. Plugged in this guitar can handle just about anything. Conversely, its shallow body results in a bright acoustic tone that lacks some depth in the bottom end. As it is, a price of only £169 in some shops could be the real clincher.

Pros: Looks, sweet amplified sound.
Cons: Slightly weak acoustic tone.

Next: Ibanez JSA5

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Ibanez JSA5 £399
Top: Solid Engelmann spruce; Back and Sides: Laminate mahogany; Neck: Mahogany; Fingerboard: Rosewood with dot inlays; Preamp: Presys; Hardware: Chrome; Finish: Black

Hard to imagine Joe Satriani doing anything as prosaic as strumming an A minor, but the shred godfather reckons he’s sold on the Ibanez JSA5. "It feels great, plays great and sounds wonderful," spouts Satch. "It has outstanding projection, an impressive dynamic range with a powerful clear tone, and a full and balanced sound that’s perfect for strumming, soloing or delicate fingerpicking."

Apparently designed by Satriani himself, the JSA5’s slim 103mm body and whopping 405mm soundboard are more like a jumbo, adding up to the most manageable player in this selection, even before you throw in a slim neck that feels like it’s been transplanted from an electric. By comparison, though, the tone is more derivative.

The Sonicore piezo does a great job conveying the JSA5’s natural jangle, and the keen note definition is admittedly great for solos, but overall there’s perhaps not quite the departure you expect from an instrument with Satriani’s name above the door. It sounds great - but so do a hundred spruce/mahogany models priced less than £399.

Verdict

The JSA5’s physical performance leaves you in no doubt this is a player’s guitar, and we’re all for that. To be clear, we do like the tone, but can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu and stealing envious glances at Satch’s more expensive JSA10 (£899), whose solid rosewood body and flashier electronics could throw the tonal curveball this model needs.

Pros: Physical performance, keen tone.
Cons: Lack of tonal identity.

Next: Takamine EG481SCX

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Takamine EG481SCX £399
Top: Solid spruce; Back and Sides: Laminate mahogany; Neck: Mahogany; Fingerboard: Rosewood with shell inlays; Preamp: TP4T; Hardware: Chrome; Finish: Black

Some rockers worry that an acoustic will turn them into a bare-footed hippie. No danger of that with Takamine’s cutaway bruiser, which banishes such drippy connotations with its hearse-inspired paint job and Hells Angel bike chain rosette.

The timbers are a familiar spruce/mahogany combo, so the twist could be the hourglass NEX body. The NEX is a fair compromise: its pinched waist gives decent control, the bloated lower bout delivers plenty of mid-range ‘boom’, and the chunky neck bears out Takamine’s claims that this axe would suit fingerpicking singer-songwriters.

Unplugged, there’s nice jangle and a winning blend of both tonewoods. Plucked notes are given an underpinned warmth by the laminate mahogany, but the bite of the solid spruce top ensures open chords don’t turn soupy. You should be able to protect that tone with a decent acoustic amp, but the TP4T preamp gives good scope to fatten lush chords or boost the treble for solos too.

Verdict

Beneath the biker attitude, the EG481SCX is a grown-up and balanced electro. It hasn’t got the world-class character that would see it on the rack at a top recording studio, but it’s a tough, tone- packed workhorse that doesn’t drop the ball in any department and gives you enough control over the amplified tone to ensure nobody will hate it.

Pros: Comfortable, tone, good EQ.
Cons: No world-class character.

Next: Tanglewood TW28 CE XFM

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Tanglewood TW28 CE XFM £399
Top: Solid spruce; Back and Sides: Flamed maple; Neck: Maple; Fingerboard: Rosewood; Preamp: Fishman ION-T; Hardware: Chrome; Finish: Natural Gloss

Charles Darwin’s evolution theory claims that man is descended from monkeys. Whatever. We’re more interested in Tanglewood’s Evolution Series, which sets out to skim prices and maintain features for modern guitarists with opposable thumbs.

The TW28 is the most interesting, complementing its solid spruce top with a less humdrum maple body. The TW28 underlines the pros and cons of the dreadnought format, with a deep-pan 117mm body that can be overwhelming, and an effortless ‘boom’ and lengthy sustain that means you’ll forgive it immediately.

Tonally, the maple makes a big, if potentially divisive impact; it brings glorious clarity to your performance and softens nicely with fingertips, but strummers might miss the mellow warmth of a mahogany or rosewood body, and playing with a pick does make things a little jarring.

We’ve no complaints with the piezo, but the Fishman ION-T preamp doesn’t offer any meaningful EQ tweaking capability - you’ll need a good acoustic amp to fatten the tone.

Verdict

Many players will love the cut ’n’ thrust of the maple-powered bite, particularly those sick of hearing their precise fretwork muffled by flabby acoustic tone. But the price you pay becomes apparent when you stop playing Nick Drake, strum some Jack Johnson, and are faced with a slightly abrasive tone. No complaints for £399, but it feels like a small step (not a giant leap) for mankind.

Pros: Distinctive looks and tone.
Cons: Hefty body, divisive sound.

Next: Freshman Apollo 3 DC

Round-up: 8 electro acoustic guitars under £500
Freshman Apollo 3 DC £499
Top: Solid spruce; Back and Sides: Laminate mahogany; Neck: Mahogany; Fingerboard: Rosewood with dot inlays; Preamp: Fishman Presys dual blend system; Hardware: Gold die-cast; Finish: Natural finish

Freshman founder Sean Kelly makes a good case for the Apollo 3’s price tag. "We don’t allow second-best," says the Glaswegian luthier. "Everything is done under my design and I source the woods myself, haggling hard to get premium quality tonewoods… The top is solid AA-grade sitka selected spruce. There are a lot of guitars out there; we have to be better."

It’s not the biggest name, nor much to look at, but the Apollo starts impressing from the moment you strum it unplugged. There’s a gorgeous balance to the tone: a rolling, clear, characterful voice that you’d happily play without the embellishment of amp or effects, with spruce bite and organic mahogany warmth combining to remind you that this thing used to be a tree.

Alongside a manageable neck and effortless fingerboard, it’s enough to make you forget about the pretty bulky body (and slightly untidy nut). The best news? Plugged in, it’s exactly the same - only louder.

Verdict

Freshman has a habit of building dark horses; the Apollo 3 turned up looking unassuming then proceeded to nail the raw sound we’d been hunting for and relay it through an amp. You could gripe over the extra £100 here, but it’s a small price to pay for a great-handling, tone-packed guitar that will sustain you well into your career.

Pros: Lovely balanced tone, great feel.
Cons: Doesn’t jump off the shelf.


Liked this? Now read: 10 best acoustic guitars under £300

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