I think a good place to start with this topic is to first get some misinformation out of the way. In many cases you'll read a guitar review by a beginner guitarist who has very little knowledge about guitars, guitar tone, how guitars are made or the effects of humidity on something as fundamental as the wood a guitar is made of.
Here is a list of things beginners complain about on their guitars: 1.) Fret buzz, which means that the strings rattle against the fretboard (fingerboard) when plucked. 2.) Sharp fret ends: This is when the frets protrude slightly over the edge of the fretboard, which can irritate the palm of the hand when moving up and down the neck. 3.) Guitar won't stay in tune. 4.) The guitar sounds horrible. 5.) The guitar is difficult to play. 6.) The electronics: The switches, tone and volume controls or output jack stops working.
While some of these issues may be the result of bad quality control at the factory, most of them are problems that are easily remedied with a good setup.
We'll look at the solution to these problem areas a little further down the page, but for now lets look at some features worth having in a beginners electric guitar as well as a few reliable makes.
The parts of an electric guitar
There are two reasons I created the picture on the parts: Firstly, so that everyone knows what I'm talking about, and secondly because it's the kind of guitar I recommend for most people starting out on electric guitar.
If you look at the pickups, you'll notice that the one near the bridge is a double sized pickup. This is called a Humbucker pickup. The other two pickups are single coil pickups.
Humbuckers are great for getting a good rock or metal sound while single coils are good for lighter music like country, Texas blues and general clean sounds.
That being said, the single coil at the neck position can still be great for those overdriven heavy rock sounds and is reminiscent of that Jimi Hendrix tone.
This pickup combination is known as the "Fat Strat" pickup configuration.
Obviously the term refers more to Fender Stratocaster guitars with the same pickup set but there are other makes that do the job just as well.
Fender guitars have their own range of economy guitars which go under the brand name Squier. Many people swear by their Squiers as being on a par with some Fenders. Some even prefer them.
On a recent trip to Australia I bought the cheapest Squier I could find. The Squier Bullet Strat. I was suitably impressed.
Why buy a Fat Strat?
The Squier Bullet Strat Demo
The Bullet Strat wasn't available as a Fat Strat when I bought this guitar.
Fortunately though, not long after I bought mine, they came out with the humbucker equipped version, as I mention in the video
The advantages of a Stratocaster style guitar
There are two things that make a Fender Stratocaster or one of the many copies a great first choice in beginner electric guitars, namely:
1.) The fact that it has a bolt on neck means either the body or neck can be replaced if they get damaged, and there are plenty of replacement parts for both. You could even go so far as to build an entire Strat style guitar from spare parts, tailor made to your preference. It may work out a bit more expensive though.
2.) Because of their easier construction, they're one of the most copied guitars around and you'll find as a general rule of thumb that they're cheaper than the Gibson Les Paul style copies, which have a glued in neck.
Be that as it may, I'm still a big fan of the Gibson Les Paul look and sound. They're distinctly different in all ways and I enjoy them both. The Stratocaster is more versitile though.
Apart from Fender's Squier range of guitars, there's also the SX brand which make a pretty decent Strat copy in my opinion. I currently own an older SX vintage series Stratocaster which plays and sounds great.
They're also excellent guitars to modify to your liking, especially seeing as they're cheap enough for you not to worry too much about buggering them up. Tonally, visually and feel wise, my SX has currently become my "go to" guitar in the studio.
Comparing the SX Strat and Squier Bullet Strat
Considering that both are Stratocaster copies, albeit the Squier is actually a Fender product, and taking into account that they're both in the same price range, I consider the SX to be a superior product. Keep in mind though that I like both these guitars and consider either a great choice for a beginner.
Here are a few reasons for saying the SX is better: 1.) The tuners on the SX are of higher quality, being replicas of vintage Fender Strat tuners. The same kind of tuners that are found on the Squier Classic Vibe series, which is the top of the range Squier Stratocaster. The more recent SX guitars I've seen have sealed tuners which are still better than the Squier Bullet's tuners.
2.) The body is made of Alder wood, just like some more expensive strats. The body on the Bullet Strat is basswood. Admittedly, basswood is also a good tone wood but alder is better. This of course is just my opinion.
3.) The SX has a flatter fingerboard (fretboard) which helps prevent the strings chocking during string bends. Although not a big issue for a beginner, it may be useful further down the line.
4.) The neck on mine is a beautiful flame maple, something you won't find on a Squier.
5.) The body of the SX is a full size body thickness of 45mm or 1 and 3/4 inch whereas the Squier bullet is slightly thinner. That being said, the Squier doesn't seem too thin as to be noticeably deficient.
6.) Sound wise, the SX pickups sound somewhat fuller.
SX Vintage series compared to a Fender USA Deluxe Stratocaster
Important info on beginner electric guitars
First of all, there will be lemons. This is just a sad fact about mass produced budget guitars
All it takes is a look around guitar forums, Amazon.com and a few other user review sites to see the ratio of people happy with their purchase to those who are not. Most people are impressed by the quality of their guitars and appreciate the quality versus price issue.
Most beginner Stratocaster guitars won't be ready straight out the box to go play a live concert with, and even with a good setup there are problems, especially when it comes to heavy rock and metal music, however, for the purpose of learning to play guitar, especially for the first six months to a year, they are more than adequate and hold good potential for future use with a few inexpensive modifications.
Here is the first area that often needs attention later on: At high volume, distortion or overdrive, whether from the amplifier or overdrive / distortion pedal is going to make the pickups squeel with uncontrollable microphonic feedback. At lower volume at practice levels or with a clean sound this doesn't present a problem, only when you crank it up and add overdrive/distortion effects.
There's good feedback and bad feedback. This is bad feedback because it's actually the pickup itself that is vibrating internally. Good feedback comes from the strings and can be used constructively to enhance the music.
As it turns out, Humbucker pickups seem more resistant to pickup coil feedback, although not totally immune. A good quality pickup would be soaked in a pot of molten wax, which hardens later to stop the coils from vibrating. This is known as wax potting.