We are living in the golden age of affordable guitars, from entry-level beginner instruments by companies like Rogue and First Act to semi-professional low cost electrics and acoustics made by brands like Epiphone and Squier. Although you may, like many others, associate low cost instruments with low quality, time-saving manufacturing processes and cost-saving materials sourcing have enabled guitar companies to provide a cornucopia of great-sounding, high-performing instruments in the affordable price range. If you’re skeptical, here are seven things that do not make guitars expensive anymore.
I’ve always been a big fan of fancy inlays on guitars like the Ibanez JEM or the Schecter C-1 Classic. Ever wondered how they’re done?
In the days before modern mass guitar production, inlays were sketched, routered, cut, and set into the fingerboard all by hand. Inconsistencies between the routered hole in the fretboard and the hand-cut inlay were then meticulously filled before the fingerboard could be fitted to the neck and set with frets.
Manufacturers now use CNC machines to accurately cut both the inlays and the voids in the fretboard in a labor- and cost-saving process. While keeping costs low, they are able to avoid flawed fingerboard inlays and fabricate high-quality guitars in large volumes, so you and I can both afford to shred on cool looking vines and flames.
Once a signature selling point of early Gibsons, maple veneers are now available on a wide range of affordable guitars. Most of these things that do not make guitars expensive anymore are effects of materials in bulk costing less to the manufacturers.
Take, for instance, the Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop Pro. This is a near-perfect remake of a late ‘50s-early ‘60s Gibson LP Standard, complete with the AAA flame maple veneer, produced in mass and available at a fraction of the cost of a Gibson. Epiphone, by buying large amounts of maple veneer to create so many guitar tops, saves on costs and passes the savings down to the consumer.
Don’t be set back hundreds more in your search for the perfect guitar by the unjustifiable premium some manufactures put on binding. While binding by hand is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, modern production methods are enabling guitar companies to optimize the binding process for cost reduction without subtracting from quality. You can see from the Gretsch G5420T to the Epiphone LP Standard, a beautiful binding doesn’t have to cost $1,000.
Necks: Set-in vs Bolt-on
Unless you’re specifically seeking a neck-through style guitar, your options in this age of quality budget friendly instruments are wide open for neck attachments. Compare the affordable range set-in neck Epiphones with the budget bolt-on necks of Fender guitars, and you’ll see that both systems sound equally good and can be found within the same price range.
Pickups are overall fairly simple pieces of equipment. Some magnets, some wire—bada bing, bada boom—you’ve got a pickup. The last huge innovation in pickup technology was the invention of humbuckers in the 1950s, but since then the progress has mostly improved upon, or tried to replicate, the original single- and double-coil designs.
If you take a look at the pickups in Epiphone’s vintage remakes, pickups like the Probucker series or the Alnico classics, and compare their design specs to their Gibson counterparts in the ‘57 Classic and 490 series, you’ll see that they’re almost identical.
With boutique pickups, many times you’re only paying for a name when there is a budget-friendly alternative that is just as good.
Every advancement in physical computing outputs (graphics printing, CNC cutting, 3D printing, plastic injection molding) has the potential to accelerate the guitar manufacturing process. Though guitar traditionalists will always be able to find custom luthiers and makers of hand-crafted instruments, cost-saving technology has opened the market of beautiful, quality guitars to multitudes more people.
For example, custom graphic guitar bodies can now be crafted using a technique similar to car wrapping, in which a printed decal is applied to the body before being finished with a clear coat. From the Ibanez Steve Vai JEM to the Dean Dimebag Razorback, this technique can be used with great effect to produce large amounts of high-quality photo finishes.
You can still find someone to custom airbrush your guitar if you want to support a visual artist, but if you’re looking for a striking guitar body, you can find many great finish options in the affordable range.
With the exception of truly rare and exotic woods, most tonewoods commonly used by guitar companies all cost around the same to source. There are of course outliers, like Taylor’s now-discontinued cocobolo guitars that can cost as much as cars, and on the other end of the spectrum are truly cheap laminates that aren’t worth your money.
Generally, a spruce-top guitar can cost as much as a mahogany-top guitar. Although you’ll pay more for something a bit more exotic such as koa, wood sourcing is on a trend of becoming more cost-efficient, more local, and more sustainable, resulting in a wide variety of budget-friendly guitars made from all types of tonewoods.
As a younger, inexperienced guitarist, I was operating under the false assumption that low cost guitars must be low quality. I thought Gibsons and Taylors and Martins must be the best, and I dreamt of discarding my budget friendly Yamaha for an axe of rock’n’roll legend. I mocked Squiers and scoffed at Epiphones, without really taking the time to compare them with their high-end counterparts.
Now, older, wiser, and more informed, I know that price does not always correlate with quality. With every year comes a new instrument that discourages the stigma against affordable instruments and adds a new item to the list of things that do not make guitars expensive anymore.