The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Are American made guitars really better?

As a general rule, American-made guitars, particularly electrics, are better made and of higher quality.

The reason isn't because Americans are better at making guitars.

The primary reason is because America only uses the foreign factories to make the lower priced economy models. Countries like Japan, when making first-line guitars for their own market, make guitars as good as American.

One example is Stevie Ray Vaughn. He was playing Japanese Stratocasters before he signed an endorsement deal with Fender. There's one famous photograph out there where he's playing a Strat in a Fender ad, but it was really his Japanese guitar with a Fender logo airbrushed over the headstock.

The reason for that was that for a decade or so, Fender wasn't producing guitars in United States. It was after the infamous "CBS era"when that company bought Fender in the early 70s.

During the 80s Gibson was owned by company called Norlin, and that era was considered a low point also.

During that era both brands were at the receiving end of a lot of critical comments by American buyers (that's miraculously changed now thanks to the vintage market), and Japanese companies like Tokai, Burney, and Ibanez flooded the market with lower-cost high quality (and low quality) copies of Gibsons and Fenders, the best examples of which have become collectors items today.

That was known as the "lawsuit era," where overseas companies had to stop copying the Gibson headstock. It's since become an era that's developed a whole set of myths, where every Japanese guitar made then was superior and of legendary quality.

I won't go into it now, as it's a subject that really should be discussed in a separate blog.

The fact is an overseas made guitar will be as good as the contractor/customer wants it to be. The guitars are made to a certain specification and budget, not because somebody wants to make the guitar inferior to an American-made.

All things being equal in terms of materials and craftsmanship, one of the primary reasons an American guitar is more expensive is labor cost.

One good example was a special limited-edition budget guitar line Gibson came out with a couple of years ago at around $500 each. The guitars were crudely cut, the paint job cheaply applied, the fretboard was baked maple instead of Rosewood, and the only sign that it was a real Gibson was that each had a single stock pick up, and the distinctive headstock shape Gibson has patented.

You could've simply removed that stock pick up and wiring, and put it in a Korean made Epiphone of the same body shape, and you would have had a better guitar for $200 less (or more).

It was sort of funny reading the various reviews for that line of Gibson guitars. The reviewers stressed the simplicity, that it was for players, not collectors, and that it was a Gibson. In other words, they walked a very fine line between telling the truth, and not saying something that would cause Gibson to pull ads from their pubs.

The guitar forums were more entertaining. The opinion split between those who were just happy to have a Gibson at a cheap price, those who saw that if it could be had cheaper (like when Gibson reduced the price to 300 when it closed out the line) that it wasn't a bad "fun" guitar, and those who brutally pointed out all the production shortcuts that the company had made to produce a guitar that was a worse value than their cheaper Epiphone line.

I should add that I did briefly own one at the 300.00 price, but gratefully took advantage of the store's 30 day return policy.

Fender was one of the first major American companies, at least one that most American guitar players care about, that was willing to put out a foreign guitar under its own logo.

Their cheaper Squier line already came from overseas, but somewhere around the 90s the first Mexican made fenders appeared. Those guitars were made cheaply, and didn't sound as good. But the price was certainly right, particularly for those who knew how to upgrade a guitar.

There was some of the usual contempt, some of it borderline racist, but as a whole Fender not only continually improved the process, but has created several lower line Fenders and Squires that all but the most hardline have accepted as exceptional values in each price range. In fact, they've made the mid-range price market competitive with models that cost more.

Fender could do this because it's owners have a different culture than those who own Gibsons. Fenders were intended to be a quality affordable assembly-line guitar, that was screwed and bolted together, thus allowing users to mix-and-match parts.

The Gibson culture values a guitar that is supposed to be the top quality American guitar that has no equals. That would be disputed by companies like PRS and Fender, but there's no denying that Gibsons are like Harleys. It doesn't even have to be better, the name has that much cachet in United States.

In the 60s you could definitely say that an Asian made guitar was inferior to an American one. Most of the Japanese makers didn't even try to be better, as the idea was to capture the low-end market (though the vintage market has changed that).

As Japanese guitar makers got better, they got more expensive. So the next generation of Asian made guitars came from Korea, and the usual denigration of guitars made there began all over again.

The ironic thing is when production began to shift Indonesia and China, guitar players began to value Korean guitars as if those were the good old days, and the perception of Japanese craftsmanship rose even higher.

But like I said, when these countries decide to build a good guitar, they're certainly capable of it. One good example is jazz great George Benson who uses an Ibanez.

America is a richer country than most, so we have strange ideas about guitars and guitar making. Most American guitar players seem to assume a certain superiority in American craftsmanship, and I'm sure our attitude that a $400 guitar is only adequate for beginners would make many musicians around the world roll their eyes.

We're definitely one of the few countries that think if you buy a guitar at a certain price, it will make you that good. Even if some of the most legendary music England and America ever produced was made on cheap or catalogue quality instruments.

The fact is the world can make Instruments just fine.

Any good flamenco guitarist worth his salt will want one made in Spain. There are probably plenty of good luthiers in the United States that can make a flamenco guitar, but if they opened up shop in Spain they'll find that there's centuries of subtleties in the craftsmanship that they don't know.

Guitarists who look down on Chinese guitar makers are simply forgetting that the Japanese had the same learning curve in the 60s, and are making excellent guitars now.

The Chinese are already making very nice guitars for the price, which shouldn't be surprising, given that their culture made vases centuries ago that are now worth millions. A markup that would turn any red blooded American capitalist green with envy, and make computer software makers nod their heads in approval.

The primary value in an American guitar is that it was in fact made better and with better materials. If you gave the same budget and materials to a Japanese maker, i'm sure most guitar players these days would admit that they just might come out with an instrument that is just as good and cheaper.

Our guitar market is actually somewhat of a rigged game, because we're dealing with a product with a basic design that simply hasn't changed much for half a century. Making a guitar that's as good as a Gibson and for less really isn't difficult.

One of the reasons the Asian guitar companies haven't tried to take on Gibson is that as a rule they don't want to. The idea that the average American wants to pay $2000 for a first-line guitar is a philosophy that would put most guitar makers out of business fast. The meat of the industry is in the 300 to 1000 range.

Plus not all Gibsons are 100% American anymore. A lot of their acoustic line is actually made in Canada, where good quality wood is still cheap. I'm sure the reasons why a Canadian made guitar seems perfectly fine with the Gibson crowd run the garment from the obvious quality to stereotypes about Asian factories compared to ones in the Western Hemisphere.

One instructive thing an aspiring Gibson Les Paul owner can do is check out the various guitar forums about that type, and not just the ones dealing with or hosted by Gibson.

A Gibson Les Paul's isn't a complicated guitar to make. In fact except for the fact of the neck is glued on, and the top requires some shaping, it's really as simple as any Fender. Which is why it's probably the most imitated and counterfeited guitar in the world.

You'll find that the majority opinion is that if you find a Les Paul copy that's made with the same craftsmanship and materials, and stick Gibson pickups in it, you probably have a guitar that's as good as Gibson makes. Plus more than a few Gibson owners don't like the stock pickups either and replace those as soon as possible.

Craftsmanship does count. A lower line Epiphone copy that is made will often play better than a Gibson that was made by worker that might've been at less than top efficiency that day, or was passed and approved by careless QA inspector. That goes for guitars as much as tables or anything made of wood.

Even in a lot of the machine made guitars, care in the assembly and manufacturer is a factor. Plus not all pieces of wood are the same, some are excellent quality and resonate sound well, and some don't. If you get a guitar made from the latter, it won't matter if it has a Gibson logo on it, as more than a few Les Paul buyers have found out.

The answer to the question in the title is actually pretty simple, it was just a good vehicle to ramble a bit about guitar quality.

The answer that I stated at the beginning of the blog was obvious (to me anyway), but a lot of the feeling about the quality of American guitars is very emotional, and about supporting American workers.

My general point of view in guitar reviews is that whether it was American-made is only one of the factors. It's certainly an important one, as there's no denying that an American guitar has a certain aura about it that can't always be quantified in price.

As a matter of disclosure, I do own some American-made instruments. Two electric guitars, a 12 string, and a banjo to be exact. The banjo was made in the 30s, but two are modern American electric guitars.

My personal view on buying an American guitar is that if it gives you what you want, then it's worth it. Paying more simply because it was American-made is certainly valid, but I wouldn't pay more simply because it's an American guitar.

Paying 200 or 300 more because it was made in America is patriotic, paying a thousand or more is just a crass exercise in capitalism.