MICHAEL MURRAYGuitar Teacher and Performer
When buying a guitar or any other musical instrument, one should always keep in mind that instrument companies function on the same profit principles as other businesses. If guitar manufacturers can sell consumers a cheaper quality product at a higher price they will. Fortunately the market principle of competition hinders their ability to do this but only to the informed consumer. Thus, the consumer must inform himself to ensure that the quality of the guitar he buys is equivalent to the price he will pay for it.
A Short History of the Mass Produced Budget Guitar Industry
Thirty years ago and earlier most budget level guitars were poorly constructed, made of poor materials and difficult to play. Many older players remember the horrible instruments they began on. In those days most guitarists progressed as musicians despite their first instrument not because of it. Fortunately the situation is much different today and quality budget guitars are readily available. It is very important for a beginner student to have a guitar that is easy to play. Difficult to play instruments have caused a great number of people who may have otherwise become proficient guitarists to quit the instrument.
The first change was the entry of Asian manufacturers, such as Yamaha, into the industry. They were able to mass produce instruments which while still being made of cheaper material were nevertheless well constructed, durable and easy to play. These manufacturers also discovered the principle that most first time buyers do not know what to look for in a guitar so if it looks nice and appears reasonably well constructed they will buy it. Their guitars were a big improvement over the earlier beginner instruments but they still lacked one of the most important elements, sound quality. The beginner student no longer had to struggle to play the instrument but it still sounded like a cheap instrument. This is due to the use of laminated wood and the thick finishes applied to the guitar. Laminate is durable but does not resonate as well as solid wood and a thick finish will make a guitar look nice but it will also dampen the vibrations of the guitar top which are so important to sound production. These guitars are ideal if they will be used in difficult situations (campfires, parties, children) but are not ideal for someone who desires a beautiful sounding instrument and is willing to take care of it.
The first major company to take sound production in lower end guitars seriously was the Canadian company, Godin (LaPatrie, Norman, Seagull, Art & Lutherie, Simon & Patrick). Other large guitar companies such as Martin did produce instruments that were designed with sound production in mind but at a price beyond that which the average beginner was willing to pay. Godin decided to put some of the characteristics of a good sounding expensive guitar into lower priced models. It did this by determining which elements were essential to the sound quality of the instrument and integrating them into its guitars while removing those elements that had primarily a visual purpose. The two key elements were the use of solid tops in most of their guitars and the use of a thin finish. They were aided in this purpose by access to a large supply of wood in Canada which they could obtain more cheaply than many foreign firms. It can not be emphasized enough the difference in sound quality between a solid top and laminate top guitar. While a poorly designed solid top guitar can still sound bad, a laminate guitar will never produce the tone possible on a well designed solid top guitar as the wood does not have the ability to vibrate in the same manner as a solid top. A thin finish does not protect the instrument as well as a thick finish but it allows the top to vibrate properly which is crucial in creating a beautiful tone. Such guitars are not rugged instruments ideal for campfires but if you are willing to take care of them are far superior to the many brands that still manufacture laminate guitars with a thick finish. The Godin company became larger and won a significant share of the market so the other manufacturers had to react and improve their own brands. In the last ten years I have noticed a definite improvement in the guitars produced by many of Godin’s competitors and they have also started to offer solid top guitars at lower price levels than previously. At present I would say the Yamaha guitars are comparable in quality to the Godin guitars but most of the other competitors are still not at the same standard of price/quality.
Similar to acoustic guitars, budget level electric guitars were of very poor quality until the Asian manufacturers began mass producing guitars. As the sound of the electric guitar is not produced solely by the wood of the instrument, the use of laminate and cheaper woods by the Asian manufacturers did not effect the quality of sound produced by these instruments to the same extent it did acoustic guitars. This coupled with the fact the Asian manufacturers over time gradually improved the technology and price point of decent pickups (the other element on the guitar that affects its sound) meant that they were at that time producing relatively better sounding electric guitars than acoustic guitars.
Despite the wood being less of an issue with electric guitars, another problem with budget electric guitars is tuning. Many of the cheaper electric guitars go out of tune frequently. For this reason I always recommend people spend a bit more on a first electric than they would if they were buying an acoustic. Electric guitars below $400 often have serious tuning problems that acoustics at a similar price range do not have. This is due to several factors in the construction of the electric guitar such as the neck being attached to the body in a less solid manner than with acoustics and the strings being very thin and of a lower tension. Thus, when an electric guitar is made out of cheaper material and not enough care is put into the construction process, tuning problems can result.
When buying their first guitar, most people end up buying name brand guitars and this is usually a good choice. A name brand will provide you with a certain guarantee of quality and they will usually repair or replace an instrument if it proves to be defective.
That being the said, some of the more expensive name brands like Fender and Gibson have lower priced lines (Fender Squier and Gibson Epiphone) that do not impress me with their quality. After seeing many Asian factories making no-name knock-offs of their guitars of variable quality, Fender and Gibson both decided to make their own version of the Asian knock-offs. That was not necessarily a bad idea if done properly but I am not particularly impressed by their quality control and the results. Fender also produces some guitars in Mexico at a mid-point price range and while obviously not as good as the expensive American made Fenders, these are of a much better quality than the cheaper Asian made Fender Squier line. The Epiphone line goes into a higher price range (equivalent to the Mexican Fenders) and at this level (roughly $500 and up) the guitars are reasonably good. Thus, if one wants to buy a Fender or Gibson guitar and does not have the money to buy their expensive models made in their American factories, I would recommend avoiding their budget brands and getting one of their mid-level guitars, a Mexican made Fender or one of the more expensive Epiphones. It is also interesting to note that Epiphone was once a very old and well respected manufacturer of high quality guitars that competed against Gibson for many years until Gibson bought it and turned it into their budget brand. The vintage Epiphone that you may see a famous blues guitarist playing on is likely a very good older guitar with little in common with the Epiphones of today.
No Name Brands
Some stores carry guitars which they commission themselves from factories usually in Asia. In principle there is nothing wrong with this practice if there is sufficient quality control. In practice this is seldom the case. The majority of guitars of this category that I have encountered have had problems and were either made of poor materials, poorly constructed or both. The stores that sell such guitars also do not back them up to the extent of those stores that sell name brand guitars. Such stores often advertise sales with large discounts. Since the store is the actual producer of the brand they are able to set the manufacturers suggested retail price themselves. While the MSRP of a name brand is typically a bit higher than the price it is usually sold for, it does give you an objective idea of the worth of the guitar and is something you can readily find on the internet. A store producing its own guitars can state whatever MSRP they want and can take a guitar worth $300, state that the MSRP is $1000 and that it is 60% off at $400.
How do you tell if a guitar is a name brand or no name brand guitar? Some no name brands will carry the name of the store and are thus easy to distinguish. Many will carry a name made up by the store. The easiest way to see if a guitar is a no name brand is to search for it on the internet. A name brand guitar manufacturer will have its own website and in addition there will be a great deal of other information about its guitars on the net including reviews. Very few no name manufacturers have their own website and information about the guitars is often difficult to find. There is one exception to the rule of staying away from store brands. This is when a store actually commissions a well known manufacturer to make a guitar under the store name. An example here in Quebec is the Archambault chain of music stores which has a line of guitars under its own name that is made for it by Godin. This type of guitar will usually state somewhere in small print on the label who it is manufactured by. Since the guitar is made by a reputable company neither the store nor the manufacturer are trying to hide who made it, it is merely a special or exclusive model made for a certain store.
Box Store and Televison Guitars
Large discount retailers often sell beginner level guitars. Unfortunately these guitars are often of very poor quality, comparable to the poor quality beginner guitars of 30 years ago. The same holds true of guitars bought through television marketing. Despite the claims of quality by the host, many of these guitars will be unplayable within a year. This is a type of guitar I would completely stay away from as they will not last and will cause needless frustration for a beginning guitarist.
Guitars are very affordable compared to most other instruments. For $300 you can buy a decent guitar that for many people will be all they will ever need. It is much wiser to spend $300 on a guitar that will last and you will be happy with than $150 on a guitar that will frustrate you, hinder your learning of the instrument and need repairs after a short time. Unless you know a great deal of information about buying guitars, stick to buying the name brands and try to inform yourself as much as possible about their merits and demerits.
The Fate of a Cheap Guitar
The guitar below was a cheap guitar that one of my students had. At one lesson he pulled it out of its case and it was in the condition pictured below. It would have cost more to fix it than the guitar was worth so he ended up having to buy a new guitar.