A true Gibson Les Paul sure is nice…but you gotta admit that how much they cost usually isn’t. That alone is the reason why there are a fair amount of ‘cost effective’ Les Paul copies out in the field. It’s one of the most imitated guitar designs ever and, as with most things, the quality and reliability of some of these models can be all over the place.
If you’re looking for a good Les Paul replica that is truly a solid instrument, but without the solid price, then the Harley Benton SC-550 may be the right guitar for you to check out. Yeah, some may raise one eyebrow up at the mention of the name, most likely because it’s not all that common in the US on top of a general impression that ‘low cost = POS’. Diamonds in the rough exist all over the place, though, and the SC-550 truly is a great guitar for the money.
So, what’s the deal with the SC-550, and what may make it a better choice than the typical Epiphone copy that most players on a budget would pick? Well, that’s what we’re here to do! Let’s take a closer look at what this midrange Harley Benton guitar can offer, and you just might find there’s no reason why you shouldn’t snap this one up for your personal guitar arsenal.
Who is this guitar for?
The Harley Benton SC-550 is for the beginner or more seasoned player who likes the Les Paul shape but doesn’t want to spend $400+ on an Epiphone.
Of course the SC-550 will not compare to the Epiphone’s big brother, but in this price range it can very much hold it’s own, even when you factor in the cost to ship from Europe to the US (for example).
How does it compare to other Harley Benton guitars?
It’s no secret that Harley Benton knows how to make quality guitars at a budget-friendly price, and since the SC-550 falls somewhere in the ‘midrange’ of their single-cut line, you can expect decent quality.
This budget Les Paul is a step up from the SC-450Plus and the SC-500, and absolutely falls in line with their SC-1000 models, which are considered the ‘top of the line’ Single-Cuts Harley Benton makes.
Appearance, Materials, Hardware and Playability
The one thing everyone first notices about the Harley Benton range is that they look killer – but do they also stand up for materials and playability? Let’s take a look.
This guitar is classy, and it doesn’t hide it. The SC-500 comes in a wide array of finishes: Faded Tobacco Flame, Paradise Amber Flame, Desert Flame Burst, Black Cherry Flame, and the immensely popular Silverburst.
The flame is unfortunately not real woodgrain, but picture-wood, which is about what you would expect for a guitar in this price range. The ‘fake-grain’ still looks absolutely stunning, and you wouldn’t know it’s not real unless you get close, so there’s not much to complain about.
It’s very important that a guitar looks good, because it’ll make you want to play it. Especially for beginners, that extra little bit of motivation can be a crucial factor in if someone will continue playing for years and years.
Body and Neck Materials
All SC-550’s come with a solid weight-reduced Mahogany body, and a set mahogany neck. The fretboards are all Roasted Jatoba, which is a great alternative to rosewood. Mahogany is known for having lots of sustain and ‘body’ (pun intended), and it’s what a lot of expensive guitars are made out of, so it’s really nice to see it with these.
Luckily for your shoulders and back, the mahogany has been weight-reduced to solve a problem lots of people have with Les Pauls – the weight. Harley Benton aren’t just copying what Gibson does, they’re improving on the classic design, which is a bold, but respectable choice. The guitar also come with a nice smooth binding that goes all around, which is comfortable and eye catching.
The neck is based on the comfortable 60s slim taper neck. It’s got a comfortable “D” shape which fits most hands nicely. These necks are great for when you have larger hands, but still very comfortable for the guitarist with smaller hands. It’s definitely not Ibanez-thin but also not too thick, just right for most players.
The radius is relatively round, at 350mm (14”), but not so round as to compromise playing speed.
The scale length is 628mm (24.75”), which is the standard Gibson scale length. If you’re used to playing longer (Fender-style) scale-lengths you might want to play with heavier strings to compensate for the string-tension.
Having a good body and neck is important as it’s one the few things you can’t change on a lot of guitars.
Hardware and Electronics
As the SC550 is a mid-range model, it comes with Wilkinson DLX hardware, which is a step-up from the standard Harley Benton hardware. It also features a Tune-o-Matic style bridge for good string tension, a bone nut, and vintage-style tuners. All very impressive for the price – especially the nut, as it’s not unusual for higher-end guitars to come with bad plastic nuts. Props to Harley Benton for not forgetting this piece in the puzzle.
The guitar is equipped with two Roswell LAF- AlNiCo-5 humbuckers. These medium output vintage-style pickups are perfect for that classic overdrive tone of the ’60s. These pickups come with AlNiCo magnets, which add brightness and clarity to an already punchy pickup. They are incredibly versatile, so much so that a metal guitarist will have little problem getting them to chug.
The pots are Harley Benton’s own 250K pots. There are two separate tone and volume controls for the pickups, so you can set them to your liking. The pickup selector is the standard 3-way switch you see on practically all Les Pauls, positioned at the top of the body, next to the neck.
Sound and Feel
Starting with feel, if you happen to pick this up at a store, you’ll notice it’s a bit lighter than other Single-Cuts, as I already stated before. This is done to comply with the wishes of people who are put off by Les Pauls because of the weight. Sitting down with these is definitely less comfortable than a Stratocaster for example. The guitar does not have a belly-cut, so it can get pretty uncomfortable after a while. This is a common complaint of Les Pauls, and it’s a shame Harley Benton didn’t take this into account.
As for the sound, it’s actually pretty impressive. The SC-550 is incredibly versatile and easily outperforms other guitars in this price range. The Roswell pickups are very balanced and relatively clear. I would say they are closer to Gibson pickups than they are to Seymour Duncans, to give you an idea of the sound. They are maybe a tad muddy, so lowering the bass knob on your amp and boosting the treble will probably be a good idea. I wouldn’t pick them over a set of SD’s, but for the price, you’re getting a really killer set of pickups.
It comes loaded with D’Addario EXL 10-46 strings. Due to the ‘short’ scale length, these strings might feel a bit floppy to some, but it’s nice that they come with quality strings so that you can start playing right away. Having decent quality hardware and electronics is crucial at this price point because upgrading it all will cost more than the guitar itself.
Harley Benton Q&A
As an up and coming brand, everyone has questions about Harley Benton guitars. Here are some of the more common ones.
Why are Harley Benton guitars so cheap?
The vast majority of guitars that are available to buy have several layers between the factory and the customer, all of whom must get paid. However, Harley Benton guitars are owned, distributed and sold by Thomann, so there are no extra parties who’s costs and profits have to be built into the overall price. This means they can give you a lot more guitar for the money, and why a $250 Thomann is equal if not better quality than a $400 guitar of any other brand.
How much does it cost to ship a Harley Benton guitar to the US?
At the time of writing, shipping from Thomann was around $70 for just one guitar.
How long does it take to ship a Harley Benton guitar to the US?
At the time of writing, Thomann estimated it would take three days to deliver a guitar to the US using UPS express.
Where are Harley Benton guitars made?
While most major manufacturers build their guitars in one single factory, Harley Benton’s guitars are made in about 20 different factories in Indonesia, Vietnam and China.
Who owns Harley Benton?
Harley Benton is the house brand of Musikhaus Thomann, one of the biggest music retailers in Europe.
Do Harley Benton make anything other than guitars?
The full Harley Benton line extends far beyond guitars and basses, into amps and cabs, banjos, harmonicas, violas, violins, and many other instruments.
Does Harley Benton make any high end instrument?
Harley Benton’s product line is aimed squarely at affordable instruments for the beginner and intermediate guitarist. While their upper range instruments are of surprisingly high quality for the price, they do not at the time of writing make any high end guitars.
Other Guitars to consider
The Harley Benton’s main qualities are the ‘bang-for-the-buck’ factor, the versatility, and the classic vibe. Here are some other guitars that offer the same features in a Les Paul shape.
Epiphone Les Paul Studio
The SC-550 is modeled on a Gibson Les Paul, so the natural place to look for an alternative is Epiphone, Gibson’s more affordable range of guitars.
Epiphone dominate the market for Les Paul style guitars in this price range, and it’s easy to see why. In look and feel they match their more expensive counterparts almost exactly, and with the newer 2020 ranges, they have a lot of upgraded components that make them a very attractive proposition.
Another other major factor in Epiphone’s favor is that they tend to have much tighter quality control – while Harley Benton’s QC has come along in the last year or so, many complain about issues with fret sprout or crackly pickups out of the box, whereas Epiphone don’t tend to have this iss.
Finally, if you want a guitar from Thomann, you have to order it from overseas without the opportunity to try it first, whereas every guitar store in America has a few Epiphones in stock. This also cuts both ways – if your HB has an issue, you’ll have to pay to send it back.
The only downside is that you will pay significantly more for an Epiphone Les Paul than you will a Harley Benton SC-550, making the Les Paul Studio an excellent option.
While it is still a little more expensive than the HB SC-550, you’re getting a ton of guitar for your money, with fantastic hardware, electronics, and playability, but with some of the looks dialed back, leaving you with only what matters – that Les Paul growl.
For something a little different, we recommend taking a peek at the Harley Benton CST-24. These guitars have a very similar layout to the SC-550, but are more oriented to the modern player. It’s in the same price range, but might be better for some players.
The CST is based on the classic PRS format (you can check out our review of the PRS SE Standard here) and is very much a jack of all trades in that vein. The pickups on this guitar provide a fat and creamy tone, while being well able to handle as much gain as you can throw at them. They also clean up very well, and the addition of coil tapping to this guitar means you have just a barrel load of tonal options.
The CST has a mahogony neck and body, flamed maple arch top with a set neck, 24 fret C neck with Jatoba fretboard and pearloid dot inlays. It has a 25 inch scale length, graphite nut and DLX hardware. The guitar also comes with a tremolo bridge as the CST-24T, and in both configurations is available in a wide array of eye catching finishes.
Why choose this over the SC-550? If you want something a little more versatile, especially with coil tapping, the CST is your guy.
Summary and Conclusion
Some important points of the Harley Benton SC-550.
- True to the classic design, but with it’s own twist.
- Many finish options so every player can find something they like
- Incredible versatility
- Nice quality hardware and electronics
- Incredible value for money
- More comfortable than a Gibson, less comfortable than other guitars.
It’s very easy to forget that this is a $250 guitar, and that’s what Harley Benton is famous for. This guitar, along with most of the HB catalogue, is a must-try for any guitarist looking for a great guitar for little money.