It’s no secret that we are living in the golden age of the affordable guitar. Thanks to advancements in mass production strategies and supply change management affordable gear has seen its quality skyrocket. And thankfully these reliable, sweet sounding instruments couldn’t have come at a better time. While quality has steadily increased, so has the affordability of guitars. With better gear available at accessible pricing, many of us can avoid selling an arm and a leg to get a stage or studio ready guitar. But what actually differentiates guitars at different price points aside from the logo on the headstock? Let’s dig into what guitar parts inflate cost and which brand name features you can live without.
Country of Origin Matters, But Do You Know Why?
While historically it is true to say that the country of origin was correlated with the quality of the guitar, those days are over. While price is still impacted by the country of origin, any savings are almost entirely based on labor costs. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of well made overseas guitars with brand name pickups, tremolo systems, and more. The big difference is now down to how much the guitar manufacturer has to pay the employees to build and assemble the guitar. Labor in the United States, Canada, and Europe tends to cost the manufacturer far more than it would in a Chinese or Indonesian factory. The concept of outsourcing isn’t unique to guitars, and is one of the major economic principles behind the growth of corporations like Walmart and Amazon. At the end of the day, you could build two guitars with the same wood, pickups, hardware, and finish but two very different prices if one was built in China versus the USA. The main takeaway? Judge a guitar by the features and feel, not by the country of origin.
Brand Name Pickups Equate To Cost, Not Always Quality
There are countless, iconic guitar pickups that simply cannot be beaten. From original PAF humbuckers on an old Gibson, to the jangly toaster tops on Rickenbacker guitars. However, how close can a pickup get to replicating, or improving on those old sounds to tempt you into trying it? While a Lollar or Seymour Duncan pickup will certainly provide killer tones, there are tons of guitar pickups that can get almost 75% of that sound for 50% of the price.
This underlines just how much the pickup choice can inflate or deflate a guitar’s cost, independent of sound quality. For example, Duncan Designed pickups are affordable replicas of Seymour Duncan patented pickups, but cost so much less to put into a guitar. However, many Duncan Designed pickups are also very highly regarded by most players and not considered that much less desirable. Oftentimes, players will buy an affordable guitar and then later swap out the pickups for a brand name alternative. This almost always costs less than buying a guitar with those same pickups already installed. For Squier Strat users, you can get more tone out of the guitar by adjusting the Strat pickup height.
CNC Vs Handcrafted
While there is a huge appreciation within the guitar world for handcrafted instruments they don’t magically sound or perform better. We as guitarists place a lot of intrinsic value on this, which is a great thing, but not necessarily something that each member of your audience can hear. Handcrafted instruments are simply more expensive, regardless of where they were built or assembled. It is a great way to support local businesses and small builders, but that is where a lot of the value ends. Two guitars, made from the same wood, electronics, and hardware, will sound 99.9% identical if one is cut using a CNC machine and one is hand sculpted into the same shape.
In fact, the CNC machine is partly responsible for the huge increase in affordable guitar quality. CNC, or Computer Numerical Control machines are essentially giant routers, programmed by a computer, to cut or rout out guitar bodies. This means you don’t need to pay a seasoned luthier and you can produce bodies and necks almost 24/7. As long as multiple shifts of factory workers are there to care for the CNC machine and do quality control, these machines simply out compete humans. Better yet, it can produce these cuts with incredible accuracy, precision, and reproducibility meaning that the cheaper guitars that are mass produced have far less flaws than they did in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s.
Branding Carries A Cost
For better or worse, people will pay extra for a certain name on the headstock of their guitar. And to be fair, those names and company logos carry years of legacy and reliability that gives the buyer confidence. But it also means that certain big brand names like Rickenbacker, Gibson, or Fender will never drop their guitar prices lower than a certain point. Gibson and Fender for example adopted sub-brands like Epiphone and Squier to produce their affordable and beginner-level guitars. Sub-branding makes sure you limit how much you can devalue your brand name in the eyes of the buyer. This is more marketing and analytics than guitar building, but it still plays a vital role in guitar pricing. Furthermore, this can be completely removed from the quality of the guitar itself. A Squier Telecaster could be a phenomenal guitar, loved by all who pick it up, but Fender would still prefer to have it bear the Squier logo on the headstock. This means they don’t have to justify why some Fender guitars are $300 and some are $3000. Business management is complicated and certainly above my pay grade, but it has a strong impact on why your Epiphone can cost so much less than your Gibson, regardless of quality.
Understanding Where The Best Values Are
My goal with this article is to highlight that some cheap guitars can out-compete big brand names and domestic built options. When you are looking for a guitar to buy, there are so many things to consider aside from the names on the headstock and pickups, or the country of origin. I personally have picked up a South Korean made Les Paul with no name pickups and preferred it to a Gibson that cost twice the price. Sometimes, an expensive guitar is going to be better than an inexpensive guitar. But it is important for you as the consumer to understand why it is better and why it costs more or less. With rapid advancements in overseas guitar building, the science behind the cost is changing too! What are your favorite affordable guitars that defy expectations and provide bang for the buck?
About the Author and Contributors
A journalist from southern Rhode Island who focuses on DIY guitar mods, gear reviews, and opinion articles and has been playing guitars since he was 14.
When he's not writing or installing P-90s into guitars, he's pursuing a graduate degree in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter @MDunn_33.
Jason Horton - Editing and Illustrating.
Main/Top Image: Logos and original guitar photographs were sourced from the respective guitar brands and the image was created for Gearank.com.