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The $40 guitar

Ed Driscoll wrote a piece about evolving guitar technology in Friday’s installment of TechCentralStation, and after searching desperately for any thinly-veiled excuse to write about it, I stumbled across an angle.

With a lot of manufactured goods, their production tends to get ‘outsourced’ to the third world because (1) eventually everyone figures out how to do it and (2) capital markets can finance production almost anywhere on the globe. The only thing more predictable than this evolution is that politicians will never stop whining about it.

One trend that Driscoll does not pick up on is that this is also happening with guitars. Just as American streets are filling up with Korean-made autos (more Korean cars are sold here than German cars) the American guitar shops are filling up with Korean-made (and now Chinese-made) guitars. The Korean manufacturer Samick now accounts for almost half of the world’s guitar production. Even Gibson, best known for its estimable and pricey Les Paul (see photo below) is offering high value from its Epiphone series guitars (which Samick builds for them in Korea.)

If you have ever picked up a surviving ‘bargain’ guitar of the ’60s in a pawnshop or a secondhand guitar store — a Harmony, Kay, Eko, etc. — you would likely find cut-rate construction, weak intonation, mediocre playability and thin-sounding pickups. But today’s ‘bargain’ brands offer workmanship and playability that sometimes give the premium brands a run for their money. Danelectro, for example, makes hip, great-sounding guitars that are easy to play and can be had for about US$200.

To give you an idea as to how far this trend has already gone, I personally own a $40 guitar. I was ordering the Line 6 Guitar Port (the guitar-to-PC interface that Driscoll mentions in the article) when I discovered that the vendor was offering the device a la carte for $160 or packaged with an electric guitar for $200. My curiosity got the best of me – how bad can this $40 guitar be? – and I ordered the package deal. And you know what? The cheapo guitar is terrific. It does not hold its tune as well as my main Gibson, but it is easy to play and sounds good to boot.

Driscoll is right that we are not going to see a lot of major innovations in electric guitars anytime soon, in large part because the players themselves are somewhat resistant to change. (Even the most avant-garde noisemakers tend to prefer traditional guitar designs.) What we are seeing instead is global capitalism commoditizing electric guitars and making quality instruments more affordable than ever for a generation of young players.

Nigel Tufnel

The sustain, listen to it!

22 comments to The $40 guitar

  • I was reading Q’s 50 YEARS OF ROCK’N'ROLL Vol. 1 the other day as was amazed to learn all imported guitars in Britain in the 50s had to come from Sweden or Germany. No really. American guitars were out of bounds.

    Buddy Holly changed everything. Not only did the kids who became the beat boom and ultimately the rock revolution drop skiffle for rock n’ roll they all wanted Stratocasters which had to be smuggled into to the country. Paul McCartney was just about the only one of importance to stick with his old European instrument.

  • Dale Amon

    The early US Les Paul was an excellent guitar, but I agree that a lot of the early electrics even in the US were imports. I’ve got an old Hagstrom III I picked up in the seventies secondhand for not very much… which was good because that was all I had.

    As to guitars in general, yes, there are good cheap imports. But as said, guitarists are a conservative lot. There is still a lot of cachet to a Strat or Tele.

    And as to acoustic guitars? If you’re a good player you are going for a Martin or a Lowden or similar mostly hand-made guitar. You want to know that someone named Martin or Lowden actually picked it up and approved it. And if you are really a top pro, you perhaps travel to Nashville and get it custom made by a luthier.

    Myself? I started with a Gibson LG0 and when I could afford it and was playing enough to get the musician’s discount I got a Martin DH28. The lifetime warrantee is rather nice. Martin cares about its guitars and those who own them.

  • Re: innovation:

    Lately there’s been a bit of a market for 7-string guitars (especially with an added low B string). Very few people can play them really well (Steve Vai and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci among them) but when the guitar-owners [sic] in Korn discovered them (they either tune them down a whole step or do some sort of drop-A tuning) a whole bunch of “nu-metal” wannabes started getting them too.
    This goes together with 5-string bass, of course, which is a bit more common these days.

  • What we are seeing instead is global capitalism commoditizing electric guitars and making quality instruments more affordable than ever for a generation of young players.

    I’m wondering, whilst trying to avoid the label of “troll,” if there isn’t/aren’t some downside(s) to cheaper is all that good. Is there some point where we see that guitars, for example, become so “affordable” that they join the class of a throwaway commodity? Certainly as margins become thinner and postage costs become an important aspect of the beloved ‘bottom’ line’ then service, support et al disappear and the frustration (aka deadly level of stress) rises.

    Aside from the fact that the number of sources of a commodity like a guitar ultimately diminishes and there’s little or no motivation for new competitors, what exactly is gained when, in the long haul, the device no longer performs as desired? Is “custom” (and its accompanying high price) the only solution? What happens to something in between that might still provide apprpriate quality, but can’t compete in the market because so such market exists? Will we buy our guitars from Wal-mart too? Along with the limited number of manufacturers we are, after all, becoming more limited in our choices where to purchase them. Are class action law suits going to be required in every instance where non-functionality is found? California, that great Monolith and Place Where the Gods Worship (and there alone) has already demonstrated the ineffectual (not to mention frustrating) abode of such consumer ideas on what’s right and wrong with the market place.

    Ever send an email to a vendor three times before you worked up the chain where you actually got an individual reply, only to discover that the outsourced tech support was incompetent anyway?

    Call me curious as to what the budding guitar player is going to find available at Sam’s Club not that many years hence.

    And color me a student of economics with ideas which are clearly archaic and reactionary…;)

  • Anyone looking for a good electric should try playing a Godin. They’ve only recently started advertising at all, and their reliance on word-of-mouth instead of pricey advertising means that you’ll get a really good guitar for a surprisingly low price. Yamahas are consistent (no exceedingly good or bad ones), so they’re best if you have to order one without playing it first.

  • Yes, I should have mentioned Godins in the article. They’re made by the same company that makes Seagull acoustics, and you really do get a lot for your money. Plus they make unusual combinations like nylon-string acoustic-electrics with synth output.

    Or try the Carvin catalog. They don’t sell through retail stores at all — it’s all mail-order — but the quality is first rate. They will also sell you a Strat-like “kit” guitar for around $350 — they just ship you a box of parts and instructions instead of a finished product. I’ve built one of these for a friend, and we were both thrilled with the finished product.

    I wouldn’t call 7-strings an “innovation”, by the way — jazz guitarist George van Eps was playing a 7-string Gretsch in the late ’30s. The nu-metal kids like the 7-string because they can tune the bottom three strings to A-E-A and have a one-finger power chord across the bottom three strings, which strikes them as preferable to actually learning to play the thing.

  • I own three Gibson electrics: a 1962 ES-355, a 1977 Les Paul Custom, and a 1995 SG Special. This in addition to many Gibson electrics that have come and gone since the early 70′s. Having been raised on a Gibson neck, I have a peculiar outlook on other guitars.

    I also keep a Fender “MIM” Stratocaster. The MIM’s (“Made In Mexico”) get a really unfair rap from a lot of guitarists, although people who know them are more than happy to stand up for them. I paid next to nothing for mine, in the scheme of things: $225, used. I got an amazing value, however, for my money. For a cheap utility guitar that gets me that distinctive single-coil pickup sound of a sort that only comes from a Strat, this thing is very difficult to beat. One can pay 5-7 times as much for a Strat, but their very design, to me, precludes the necessity for that. To my mind (and ears and fingers), they don’t get that much better just for the money.

    While shopping for a guitar to be a present at Christmas, however, I came across a line called “S101″. A South Korean company named Sejung (with a background in textiles) opened a 600,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Qingdao, China, where they manufacture guitars and pianos.

    I found a bunch of these things in a vintage shop catering essentially to mid-range collectors, although the inventory included a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst Standard, available at a low, low $125,000. Along a wall opposite the collectibles was a line of these S101 Strat copies on stands. I plugged in with several of them, and eventually walked out with one for $129. Brand new, the quality next to my used MIM Strat was sensational.

    I gave that guitar away as a present, but if I was in the market for something like that, that’s probably the one I’d pick. And if I compare the value of that instrument (mainly; fit & finish and playability) to what was available to beginners when I started in 1969, there is simply no contest in selection, quality, or price. Pro-level instruments are keeping approximately the same (adjusted) prices that they did in the 50′s and 60′s, but it’s a buyer’s market for beginners. Yeah; some of the beginners’ guitars from the 60′s are cool to own, now, but when it comes to making music on them, they’re really not that cool. These days, people all over the world are building excellent guitars for prices that should have just about everybody practicing, every day. They’re that good, that cheap.

  • Dale Amon

    Yes, you can get a really fine entry-level guitar for a good price if you shop carefully. A long time ago a friend’s wife decided to take up guitar. I gave her some basic lessons, the simple chords and such and took her out to a guitar shop that was a musicians haunt. I proceeded to go through every Epiphone they had in stock… at the time, the quality of them varied astoundingly… and the best of the Epiphones were truely fine instruments. You just had to work to find the peach amongst the lemons.

  • Dale Amon

    PS: I *hate* Ovations with a passion. You can’t play them sitting down and I find them bland sounding. They served a purpose for awhile when bands were trying to mix electric and acoustic on stage and the pickups and sound gear just weren’t up to it yet. Back then the pickups made even a Martin sound like an Ovation… but now you can get a Martin sound mixed in with a Strat next to you. ASSUMING you have a really good sound person. If not… it’s feedback city.

  • Twn

    Per Steve’s comment, “Is there some point where we see that guitars, for example, become so “affordable” that they join the class of a throwaway commodity?”

    I once read an interview with Pete Townsend in the late 60′s — somebody asked him how he could keep destroying his guitars on stage, being valuable instruments. He replied something to the effect that they were mass-produced instruments, and replacements could be easily picked up. The notion of electric guitars as a disposable commodity has been around a good while!!

    A friend of mine bought a recent-vintage used Gibson “Hummingbird” acoustic recently. I’m not sure of the model number — it’s a top-line model — the one with the elaborate engraving of a hummingbird on the pickgaurd. He compared it to a bunch of used acoustics of various makes. Though he thought the Gibson was clearly the best of the bunch, he was impressed how good some of the off-brand guitars were, especially considering they were 1/3 the price of the Gibson. The Gibson offered a little bit extra, but the cheap competition was close.

    I’m not too worried about a general decline in guitar quality — if anything, expectations are rising. If it’s cheap, but crap, it’s not a bargain, especially if there’s a good cheap guitar available. And once you’ve played a well-made guitar you’re not likely to revert to a shoddy product.

  • Here is the Townshend quote that TWN refers to, in context (borrowed from Wire magazine:

    However, smashing up the guitar is in many ways a more interesting area. For both Hendrix and Townshend, destructive tendencies seem not merely showmanship but an integral part of their art. Even at the peak of their popularity The Who were losing money because they were destroying so much equipment. It may have been rock excess and conspicuous consumption at its worst, but it did have an undeniable integrity. Not that its aesthetics were ever entirely clear.

    Pete Townshend has complained, “Someone would come up and say, ‘Well, why did you do it?’ And the thing about autodestruction is that it has no purpose, no reason at all. Some fool in the Bee Gees said, ‘You wouldn’t break a Stradivarius, would you?’ The answer is, ‘Of course I wouldn’t break a Stradivarius.’ But a Gibson guitar that came off a production line? Fuck it.” Keith Moon had an even subtler theory however. He said, “When Pete smashed his guitar it was because he was pissed off.”

    (emphasis added.) So it looks like we weren’t quite at the level of “disposable guitar” yet in the late ’60s.

  • Twn

    So it looks like we weren’t quite at the level of “disposable guitar” yet in the late ’60s.

    Hmm. I guess they weren’t getting enough buck for the bang.

  • Christopher,

    Thank you very much for the link. You’re absolutely right–there are some excellent lower-priced electrics available (and acoustics as well–somebody mentioned the Seagull line; I own one, and think it’s a pretty darn good guitar, especially for the price). But the design of most budget electrics are still based on the Strats, Teles and Les Pauls of the 1950s, right down to the same basic electronics. Even Danelectro’s line (which apparently is no longer in production) is based on their instruments from the late ’50s and early ’60s.

    Some technologies really seem to get locked into a design paradigm that’s fixed in a particular time period. And it seems for the electric guitar, at least if sales are any indication, that period is the 1950s.

    Ed

  • Recently the pot on my strat went bad, and I had it replaced. i think the guy screwed it up, because yesterday I was jamming with some guys and it was feeding back in a weird way, uncontrollable, bad sound. So I played my friend’s kid’s Squier.

    The Squier is a Strat copy made in China by Fender, and goes for a couple hundred dollars. And to tell you the truth, I can’t find anything wrong with it. The feel is good, it looks just like the real thing, the tone is great, tuning heads seem to hold, action is perfect… what do ya want? I can’t see anything at all wrong with this cheap guitar.

  • Kit Taylor

    Those worried about low prices eventually turning everything into grey goo might want to read The Support Economy.

    The authors argue that the current problems of poor
    service and low quality are not a crisis of capitalism per se, but the death throes of the age of mass production. Customers are are less satisfied not because of the profit motive, but because we’re at the fag end of a business model that raises profit by cutting delivery costs rather than adding value.

    Twentieth century mass production has excelled in making the same cheap, generic goods available to all, but what people crave today is individual customisation. This is were value needs to be added but isn’t.

    The book is optimistic in that it puts higher profits and customer satisfaction in symbiosis rather than conflict, chiming as it does with my own view that people would pay premiums if only somebody would offer them premium products. Cheap guitars would sell for a lot more if they were available in any unique finish or configuration indvidual customers. Note also the cottage industry that’s sprung up to take cheapo japcrap cd players and rebuild them with exotic parts according the customers tastes and budget, turning them into giant killing hotrods in the process.

    Excitingly, the suggestion is that the customisation of goods and services be contracted by individuals to 3rd party enforcers. Anarchal capitalism by the back door?

  • Kit Taylor

    Bugger, something appears to have gone awry. The link is

    http://www.thesupporteconomy.com

  • After years of playing a Rickenbacker 4001 bass (pro and semi-pro), I now have an Epiphone copy of a Gibson EB-3, and I love it. If I were that way inclined anymore, I’d rewire the selector switch so that both pickups are always on (like I did with my Rick) — the stupid selector switches are always breaking.

    The Epi’s sound is lovely, the heads hold their position, and as I don’t play in a band anymore, it’s as rugged as I need it to be.

    In days of yore, copies were generally horrible — but they’re now in the Lexus class, compared to the Mercedes Gibson/Fender/Ricks.

  • Ah, the old Epiphone 335 copies were as good as the Gibsons. The old ones, I mean.

  • Amazing — when I write about serious topics, I get 5, 6 comments, but when I write about guitars the comments never end! Of course, some of you just wrote to boast about your righteous guitar collection. :P

    Ed makes a good point about guitar design being “locked in the ’50s.” If you think about it, it’s not just the Fender Strat/Tele and the Paul — the Gibson Explorer and Flying V solidbodies date back to the late ’50s, as do the 175 and 335 archtops. The SG has been around since ’61. Gretsch still makes the 6120, the same guitar they were selling in 1958, although they call it the “Brian Setzer” now. It really is quite remarkable …

  • some of you just wrote to boast about your righteous guitar collection.
    Dude, I didn’t even mention the ’63 Firebird I got tucked in the closet, or the Jaguar that a neighborhood kid is borrowing… !

    ‘D you notice the SG is cool again? Kinda dropped off the map for a few years there. Even the EBO, which was laughed off the bandstand years ago, now you see ‘em again.

  • Someone mentioned Mexi-strats… as was stated, you just have to play them all, and you’ll probably find the good one. Like my Fender bass — it’s head and shoulders above the other Standard Jazz one we’ve played, and for no apparent reason. (Of course, now we’ve sanded down the neck, filed the fret edges, and adjusted the intonation, so it’s even better now.)

    (What is intonation? It’s about the setup of the bridge to make sure that the strings get the correct note all the way down the neck. It’s either a very expensive professional job or a job for someone with a good intuitive feel and perfect pitch, such as my husband, who can’t explain what he does to make it perfect.)

    Hmm. I’m suddenly reminded of a band called Fourth Estate who used TransPerformance guitars, self-tuning/re-tuning guitars, and then created songs where the chords change while they’re holding the strings down. Very, very cool music.

  • ben

    i like pizza

    u suck