by Wayne Harvey
In the typical day of a music retailer, we ask and get asked quite a few questions. Questions are the bloodline of our business, whether they’re questions asked by customers looking to gain information or questions we ask to better ascertain their needs. One of the questions we get most, other than “What’s better: a Fender Strat or Tele?” is “What makes one guitar worth $200 and another one worth $2000?” Well, the answer is, overall, simple, and I’m here to give you insight.
For our purposes and as a way to focus, I’m only going to talk about acoustic guitars, because the rabbit hole this discussion can take us down is far too deep for just one white rabbit, so to spare you a book-length dissertation (unless you’re just looking for something to put you to sleep), we’ll leave out electrics for now.
Here's The Question...
Are you ready? What makes one guitar more expensive than another boils down essentially to two things: First is: Where (location) they are built and Second is: What materials are used (woods etc.) in construction.
Now, just to be clear, we’re not talking about basic quality in this discussion: most major guitar companies have skilled workmanship and good basic quality. All major guitar manufacturers such as Yamaha, Ibanez, Martin and Taylor make entry level models all the way up to professional and investment-grade models. So, I urge you not to let price be the sole determining factor in basic quality. Determinations like “what’s best” or “which is the better guitar” is truly in the hands of the player. Once again, for our purposes, we’re going to concentrate on facts of manufacturing, not opinions on playability or basic quality.
First: Where It Is Made
So, let’s start with point one: where a guitar is manufactured or constructed. If you follow business at all, you’ll know that labor outside America can cost less, and therefore most companies make products in other countries. Simply put, American labor costs more. Making guitars are no exception. All major guitar manufacturers make their premium instruments in their native countries, but also have factories elsewhere. Years ago, Fender, Martin and Taylor realized that opening factories in Mexico gave them the ability to make their awesome product at an affordable price, therefore making them able to compete in that lower end market. Taylor’s Mexican factory, as a matter of fact, is less than an hour away from their home in California. Martin’s main factory is in Pennsylvania, and their factory has been churning out awesome instruments for almost 200 years.
Is this to say that American-made guitars are better? Only the player can be the judge of that. The majority opinion is typically that guitars made in the States and Japan are of higher quality and more desirable than guitars made in other countries, but part of that is covered by point two, which is: What they’re made of.
Many guitars made outside America or Japan are made of pressed or layered wood, where many higher priced guitars in the US, Japan and elsewhere tend to be made of solid woods. Laminating the woods can lower the cost of the guitars versus carefully matched and chosen solid woods and may also be stronger and more durable and less sensitive to environmental and humidity changes. Carefully chosen solid wood guitars may increase the costs and may affect the perceived quality of the sound the instrument produces to the trained ear. It could also be more prone to cracking and damage from improper humidification and storage of the instrument.
Second: Materials - The Wood
That is another major reason why costs are kept low: solid wood can cost more money. The better the wood, the more the costs. Some woods can be rare, like Ebony, Cocobolo and Rosewood, while others are more plentiful, like Sapele, Mahogany, Ovangkol, and others. Rosewood was traditionally used for fingerboards but now that it’s becoming more rare, companies are moving more towards other more easily obtainable woods like Pao Ferro. Contrary to what people may think, guitar companies don’t just roam the world chopping down trees to make their guitars. Most high-end wood is harvested from trees that have fallen naturally or from controlled forestry.
Now, if you combine the two above points into one you may form the opinion that American-made guitars are superior. Take high-end wood and combine that with high-quality American labor and it makes for an awesome instrument, but we need to remember that the by-product of that is typically a much higher price point. If you want to combine the best of both worlds of American-made, solid-wood and affordability look no further than the American Dream series of guitars by Taylor. You get all the benefits I mentioned earlier at a price that won't have you living off ramen noodles.
So, whether it’s your first guitar or your fifth, everyone has a budget, and the world being what it is, it’s nice to have a lot of great choices when you begin your quest. If you’re a young beginner dreaming of becoming the next Brad Paisley or John Mayer and are yet to win the lottery, guitars like the Ibanez AW54CEOPN or the Yamaha FS800 can be great values and may be right for you! If your budget allows, there are many great options as you move up the price ladder. If you're considering holding on to your investment those models tend to appreciate the most in value over time - just do a Google search for "pre-war Martin guitar".
I truly hope this has been helpful. And keep those questions coming. We live for them.