The PRS SE veneer flamed Singlecuts are the best guitar I've ever seen at that price point.
And the surprise of the year (as much as it pains me to say it) is the new Chinese Fenders....Modern Player Telecaster Plus is the best $400 Fender they've ever made.
It's one of my main players, now that I've gutted the pickups and electronics and replaced them with Duncan/CTS. The neck is equal to USA vintage necks.
Epiphone has really come up in recent years. Their pickups are still crap, but the overall quality is good. You do have to cherry pick though, just like with all the budget guitars. Last year I bought a $99 Epiphone J45 copy that is SO close to a Gibson it's scary. The semi hollow electrics and acoustics aren't junk at all.
I have to say the new Charvels are really good too. Way better than the Texas made 80's budget Charvels.
Even if you don't convert 80's dollars to 2010 dollars, the new guitars are better.
Then when you do calculate for inflation, the budget guitars nowadays are WAY better than ever before.
And again, I hate to give a shout out to Chinese goods, but almost all the Chinese guitar gear in the past few years has been surprisingly good.
Gear: More junk than I know what to do with
The fact is that import guitars are all getting better across the board, and rapidly.
At this point, any import line from a reputable brand is going to be a decent, giggable guitar.
There are some standouts, though. The PRS SE line has been consistently good for years. MIM Fenders are better now than ever. The Japanese Charvel Pro Mods are fantastic, though that's no real surprise.
I've found the import G&Ls to be tremendously hit-or-miss, though. I've played ones that felt as good as a USA model. I've also played ones that I had to check to make sure they didn't say "Rogue" on the headstock. I think they recently moved production from Korea or China to Indonesia or Malaysia and the new factory hasn't quite caught up yet.
Ibanez premium series are the best guitars made in indonesia PERIOD, PRS SE are fantastic, as are the LTD deluxe guitars MIK. Even though i hate them, i have to concede that the upper end of the schecter diamond series are fantastic guitars for the price.
I'm biased to ESP/LTD since Metallica got me into metal and guitars
LTD M-50 W/ AHB-1 Blackouts.
Douglas Rhoads W/ GFS Crunchy Rails
Douglas Thinline W/ GFS Pro
Epi 100 W/JB-'59
Soloist W/SD-Super 2
SX Strat T.O.M.
Custom 112 cab W/G12 75T.
Epiphones, g&l Tributes, PRS SE
MIJ Fenders are great, but don't care for MIM
Support Code 211
When we do right nobody remembers when we do wrong nobody forgets! 81 - 1% all the way!
The PRS SE line is the top of the heap in my opinion
Gravity...its just a theory
Lumbering dinosaur (what's a master volume control?)
I'm an internet person. All we do is waste time evaluating things that have next-to-zero real world significance.
Remember, it's just a plank of wood. YOU have to find the music in it - The Telecaster Handbook
Hmmmm... Well, first thing that jumps to mind is the Fender boys in Ensenada. I think the MIM stuff has come a long way and is honestly pretty damn solid for what you pay. My Blacktop Strat's neck actually got some props from my tech when he set it up. Pickups and pots have to go though, but who didn't see that coming? +1 for the Modern Player series from China. I just picked up a Thinline Tele from the MP series with P90's and the playability even before setting it up is incredible for being off the shelf. Now, to add Duncans, CTS, and a new nut (plus I always replace the tuners with sperzel). I thinki Epiphone is hit or miss, I've played some stuff that is stupid-good, and I've seen some shoddy craftsmanship that is even sloppy for a no-name sears-catalog guitar! Picking and choosing carefully here is important.
Here's how I break it down:
Classic Style - Fender MIM, no question (sorry Epi, they're more consistent)
Modern Under $500 - Ibanez; I think you get a lot of guitar for the money
Modern Over $500 - LTD; at this price point, I find it hard to match the value that you get from them. Pretty awesome stuff, really. Schecter gets an honorable mention here as I'm pretty sure they're made by the same peeps abroad, but they kinda all are made abroad unless you go custom shop from what I understand. If I'm wrong here, correct me.
AND JUST TO CHANGE IT UP FOR A SECOND...
Best American Made Value - Fender American Special Series. I have an American Special Strat HSS and I see no reason personally to buy the American Standard HSS. For the features I want, no question.
I have to give the nod to PRS as well. Amazing quality for the buck.
Though I'll also second the notion that China has upped their quality control tremendously the last few years.
Both my Ibanez ARTs played great out of the box. If Ibanez focused on improving metallurgy on their hardware they'd have a dangerously competitive budget line.
It's getting harder and harder these days to find imports that aren't at least decent. It's great; it means fewer beginners will be discouraged by instruments that are just plain awful. They'll be more likely to be able to afford something that's at least a little bit like the guitar that inspired them to play in the first place.
PRS SE and Fender MIM for me too. They're really very difficult to fault for the outlay.