If you have an instrument under $500 and you have been playing for 3 years, I would recommend at least trying out other instruments in a higher affordable price range to see if you can tell the difference. There is no doubt (with the right instrument), you should see a significant difference right away with sound quality, ability to create a clean sound, and just overall better playing experience. Many shops have payment plans and try-before-you-buy programs that are no risk to try out a set of 2-3 instruments. That is normally how the process starts.
Here are some further tips. When a student first starts playing, I try to encourage them to consider at least a nice beginner quality instrument. If they can afford something even nicer ($1,000-$1,500), that makes a big difference in sound quality. I see it time and time again, where students get frustrated, because they try to take the opposite approach to this (purchase cheap because they think they don’t have enough of a commitment yet). Often times players make it so hard on themselves with a weak instrument (ability to create a clean sound), that they end up quitting in frustration. I hate when that happens!
And finally…Purchasing a premium quality instrument (I consider premium over $2,000) benefits players of all ability levels. I see it all the time where players that invest in this price range end up sticking with it, and enjoy a great sound quality right off the bat. Many companies will allow you to work out a payment plan with them, that makes it easier to get into this price range than you might think. I’ve never seen someone say it didn’t significantly improve their sound from a beginner quality.
So to summarize, take advantage of programs that allow you to try out instruments in higher quality levels. It makes a world of difference.