A Question of Manufacturing, Perception, And Profits
“Made in USA” …would you pay more for a guitar with this label on it?
This can be a contentious topic, and while there’s no doubt that top level expensive American made guitars are great, there are plenty of highly regarded instruments produced by other countries.
In the case of guitars made in the USA vs Mexico vs Asia, it’s worth researching carefully before reaching your final verdict.
Don’t be fooled by common perceptions!
We often latch on to the opinions of other people. If someone says guitars made in one country are better than guitars made in another country, you may believe them just because you don’t have information to prove otherwise.
If you already have a certain belief about a topic, then chances are the phenomenon known as Confirmation Bias may cause you to connect strongly with opinions of others that align with your own – whether they are true or not.
Branding Is Powerful
Branding is often more than just the name on the instrument, with many of us also heavily swayed by the country of manufacture.
One case in point is during the period when Fender switched manufacturing of Squier guitars from Japan to Korea.
Since Japanese-made guitars had developed a name for quality, once Squier guitars started to be manufactured in Korea the Squier models formerly made in Japan were ‘upgraded’ by placing a Fender decal on them!
Did this make those guitars instantly better, or was the value of those instruments purely in the minds of consumers?
If you approach the subject with an open mind and consider that modern day guitar making involves better machinery, better components, and factories that have built up experienced staff over many years, you may re-think what you thought you knew.
Guitars Made In the US
The US was traditionally a powerhouse of guitar manufacturing, with many of the most popular brands like Fender, Gibson, and Martin founded in America.
If you look back in time a little when electric guitars started rising in popularity, you will find that most electrics produced back then were generally of a lower standard to guitars made today.
Over the decades American luthiers honed their skills to produce increasingly better guitars, using better materials and manufacturing processes.
As the economy improved and wages grew, it became harder for guitar companies to produce quality guitars that were affordable for the general public, and so they started looking to other countries as an alternative.
If you look at the beginner guitar market then this was even more the case, as beginners are looking for cheaper instruments to get started on.
American made guitars are now considered to be high quality instruments, mainly due to the fact that only high-end instruments are produced there, with lower-end guitar making outsourced to countries with cheaper labor costs.
Today, mentioning names like Fender, Gibson, Ernie Ball Music Man, LsL, PRS, and Rickenbacker instantly makes us think of high-quality US made instruments that are worth paying out big dollars for.
If you are prepared to spend big, then you will get a great quality, great sounding American guitar – there is no doubt.
However, if you are prepared to spend some good money on a guitar made in another country, then you might be surprised at what you can get – often comparable to US made guitars, but for a few less dollars.
The Migration of Guitar Manufacturing
As guitar manufacturing become more expensive in the United States, and consumers were looking for reasonably priced instruments, manufacturers were forced to look for cheaper ways to produce guitars.
As a result, Japan became the next major guitar manufacturer as American companies set up factories there, and South of the border Mexico also became a source of cheaper labor.
As Japan’s economy improved and the cost of labor increased manufacturing generally moved to South Korea, then eventually to Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China).
In more recent years manufacturing has continued to move to the next cheap labor countries such as China and Indonesia, where they have built teams of luthiers who have developed knowledge and skills over many years.
A Look at Guitar Making in Different Countries
Early Japanese guitar makers were keen to produce better instruments, and luthiers such as the famous Masaru Kohno studied guitar making in Spain to become masters at their trade.
Looking back at early Japanese guitars, they were originally thought of as junk by Americans, partly due to perceptions toward the Japanese due to Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Japanese guitars had developed a reputation in the US for developing body cracks and warped necks, the result of the drier climate than where they were manufactured.
Shiro Arai, the founder of Aria Guitars, went on a tour of the US with two of the best Japanese Kohno guitars to promote them, finding that after some months they did indeed crack.
He took this knowledge back to Japan where the knowledge was used to improve the manufacture of guitars, along with the use of properly seasoned woods.
Knowledge like this soon permeated through their guitar industry, and quality standards lifted.
Japanese guitar makers watched the trends in the US carefully, eventually making guitars to rival the quality of US-made instruments in styles that Americans loved, exporting them at affordable prices.
From the 60’s onward the legend of Japanese guitar quality continued to grow, with guitars made in companies like FujiGen becoming highly sought after.
So, from their humble beginnings to the present day, Japan is one great example of how perceptions about the country of manufacture can change due to dedication and development of skill over many years.
Korea’s guitar making might not be as rich as Japan, but many guitars made there after a decade of manufacturing became known as the next best thing, and in some cases rivaling Japanese quality.
Like other countries, when mainstream guitar manufacturing first moved there it was done as a cost-cutting exercise to provide affordable guitars to Western nations.
There were some early examples of guitars that missed the mark due to the cost cutting, like the plywood body Marlin Sidewinder, and the earliest Squier Stratocasters.
The famous CorTek (Cort) guitar company sprung up in in Korea as a huge guitar maker, and many brands were made there such as Ibanez, Epiphone, Schecter, and of course their own Cort guitars.
Many of these brands grew loyal legions of fans who lay testament to their quality, and today guitars made in Korea are considered great quality as they grow closer to the end of large-scale guitar manufacturing.
Back in the 1970’s the company who would eventually become SX (guitars) established a factory in Taiwan, which eventually became the largest guitar factory in that country.
Many famous guitar brands were produced and distributed from there until the 1990’s when the cost of producing guitars in Taiwan started becoming prohibitive, and the manufacturing migration began shifting to China & Indonesia.
Yamaha built many high quality guitars in their Taiwanese factory over the years, and apart from very early models are known for their great build quality and sound.
Guitarists who own vintage made in Taiwan guitars still comment on the quality of their guitars, often ranking them at least on par with instruments made in Japan.
Mexico’s guitar making history goes back to the 1800’s, so it’s really no surprise that with their cheap labor costs, knowledge of guitar making, and proximity to the US that big American companies looked there to make budget guitars.
Today some big brands have factories in Mexico, and they are mostly used for medium-priced guitars built with cheaper hardware, and have become well respected for their price point.
You will find brands like Taylor, Fender, Martin, Charvel, and Jackson made in Mexico, and they are considered great guitars for the price, quite often a good choice at half the price of an American made premium guitar.
If you look more toward high-end acoustic guitars, look no further that the town of Paracho, which has become famous particularly in the last two decades for their guitars, some being worked on for months by a single luthier, and selling for many thousands of dollars.
The general misconception of guitars made In China is that they are all low to average quality. This may have been more true many years ago, but these days Chinese factories and their workers have become a powerhouse of quality manufacturing.
Bad news always grabs our attention, and so largely our perceptions are shaped by the sensational few media stories pointing out failures in Chinese manufacturing.
Obviously not every guitar produced in China is super high quality, but that really comes down to the mandates of the companies commissioning the manufacturing. Even cheap guitars made recently are far beyond the standard of cheap guitars from 20 years ago.
When it comes to machinery, the Chinese factories have the same high-tech machinery as other developed nations, and after so many years of making guitars, they have staff with a good deal of experience.
Regardless of which country a factory is in, if costs are skimmed to the lowest possible, the finished product will reflect that.
Guitar companies have traditionally used China’s cheap labor to produce their lower cost guitars, ultimately driving perceptions of what a guitar made in China is worth compared to Japan or the United States.
Normally costs are kept to a minimum, as there is still a limit on how much a guitar made in China is worth on the retail floor.
If a guitar company wants to build quality instruments that they intend to sell at higher prices, they will invest in higher quality woods and components, and more money will be allocated for detailed labor to finish them to high standards.
Since guitar companies know consumers will pay more for a US made guitar, they are happy to throw more dollars into the manufacturing process – knowing consumers will happily pay more for them.
The bottom line is that if consumers demand low-cost instruments, then the guitar companies will supply to meet our demands, and this often comes at the cost of lower quality guitars.
If you think Chinese manufacturing quality isn’t the best, then think about the mobile phone in your hand, the laptop computer you use, or the high-tech brand name drone you fly. Times have changed, and so have the quality standards coming out of developing nations like China and Indonesia.
Next time you pick up a guitar made in China you may be surprised how good they really are for the price, just don’t expect an amazing guitar for a very low price – you get what you pay for.
Usually, a mid-priced guitar made in China will be well made and put an instrument in your hands that looks and sounds good.
Although guitars coming from this island nation were initially low quality, they have quickly ramped up their manufacturing, driven by knowledge passed from their parent companies such as PT Wildwood, CorTek, and Samick.
Indonesia is the newest main player in the guitar manufacturing world, and with their high-production capacity coupled with an industry that has matured over the last 20 years, their guitars are becoming known as good value for money.
A good example is PRS manufacturing guitars there with tight quality control, and delivering affordable guitars that musicians are proud to own.
Perception Vs Playablity
In the end you can see any country is capable of producing good quality guitars, and it’s really down to the investment that guitar companies put into each guitar model for tonewood, hardware, and labor.
Guitar companies are highly aware of public perceptions when it comes to country of manufacture, building their guitar lines within the accepted price points that people are happy to pay.
One last thought to consider is how much of the sound quality is attributed to the guitar vs the skill of the guitarist themselves.
In all reality it’s the guitarist who makes a guitar sound great, so it’s worth balancing that thought with the notion of needing an high-end expensive guitar to get good tone.