In that price range used there are tons of options. Best I saw was a CIJ tele that was $600. I would have if I could have it was that good. Also, you can find well setup and loved MIM Fenders. My strat was $200 and someone had spent some money on it.
I never buy new anymore. You can get some great instruments on the used market. Look into a G&L Legacy. You can find these in that price range. If he wants to add a good humbucker, you can do that in the cheap as well. You can actually get him an instrument that will be a keeper for years!
Moreso than the guitar, what kind of MUSIC does he like? What bands does he dig? Does he have an established style or taste yet? There are a gazillion great guitars in that price range, both new and used... rather than buying what's "best", buy him the one most likely to make him play.
I should have mentioned this earlier...I think that the new Gibson melody Makers are terrific values. I have not played one but the reviews are pretty good. I think that the two pick up version is still less than $400.00.
The sound clips are pretty impressive.
My vote is for a CIJ Fender Strat Hot Rod ReIssue; obviously needs to be purchased used, but a very well rounded axe. Comes with contoured heel, original Floyd Rose, H-S-S with coil tap, slimmish neck.
Some searching would be in order, but I purchased both of mine for under 500.00. Strats crafted in Japan in the 90s are very nice quality, IMO.
"Moreso than the guitar, what kind of MUSIC does he like? What bands does he dig? Does he have an established style or taste yet? There are a gazillion great guitars in that price range, both new and used... rather than buying what's "best", buy him the one most likely to make him play."
Yes, yes to the quote! If he doesn't thingk the guitar is "cool" and looks great and looks like it fits the music his idols play, it isn't going to matter so much how great it plays or sounds. Find out who he listens to & what they play & go from there. You just don't want to get a metal guy a Tele for example. It has got to look the part for a young dude.
I would be disgusted if you brought me home an Ibanez shredder...I would be elated if you brought me home a Fender Highway 1 Fat Strat (a decent new option). But lots of people want a nice locking trem and abrasively high output humbuckers.
My vote without knowing is a Fender Toronado Deluxe. Beautiful guitars. Hard to find but it'll probably be worth a little more than you paid for it later on. This ones mine...its not for sale.
I woulda rathered have the black one probably.
Jonnyunitas has one for sale for $400 dollars over at guitargeek. I thought about picking it up...i couldn't justify two of them.