Visit any music shop to look at the guitars. Among the first things one may notice is the price variance. A seafoam green Fender Bullet may be going for about $120 while another Fender – a sunburst 1957 Custom Shop Stratocaster – weighs in at $3,200. A Gibson Les Paul Custom is behind bulletproof glass and the asking price is north of $4,000; but here we have a “Blowout Sale” on an Epiphone Les Paul Special II for just $199!
What could possibly cause these kinds of pricing disparities? Is the cheap guitar that much of an inferior construct than the shiny axe that costs more than the pickup truck I bought when I was sixteen?
As one might imagine, the answer can be complicated. The choices a guitarist faces are vast – name brand, wood, electronics, hardware, paint job. It stands to reason that the pricing options are going to be equally as broad.
As a career guitarist, I can tell you that it only gets more complex when you want to upgrade or buy a particular type of guitar for a particular purpose. Is it okay to take your chances on a middle-of-the-road price or a suspiciously affordable Craigslist guitar? Or is it really in your best interest to spring for the top shelf? Hopefully this guide can help you determine that for yourself.
Let’s start by looking at this like a consumer of any other product. As with anything else, someone shopping for a guitar may start with asking about what name brands are most associated with a high rate of satisfaction.
In no particular order, the top rated brands you may come across in your search for an electric guitar will likely be Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, or Paul Reed Smith (PRS). There are also boutique guitars and custom, made-to-order guitars from individual luthiers, but that is very small market and outside the scope of our discussion here.
The reason brands such as these tend to carry heavy price tags is because they have been in the game for a very long time. Lester “Les” Paul was a great guitar player and builder who is credited as being one of the pioneers of the electric guitar. Years of prototypes, experiments, and research have led to some of the best made electric guitars on the market – the Les Paul model.
Leo Fender is another one of the inventors of the instrument whose innovation has led to probably the most recognizable electric guitar in the history of the instrument. High-end Fenders have earned their stripes and have the credentials among consumers to justify the four-figure prices that are often found in the catalogues.
These big brands also work with famous musicians to create the ideal guitar to suit their unique needs. Guitars such as Steve Vai’s “Jem” made by Ibanez, the new Gibson Chuck Berry 350T, and the Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat are all made according to these iconic guitar players’ specifications.
Think about that for a second. Your favorite guitar players were given free reign and complete autonomy to create their ideal guitar. Or perhaps a guitar maker took it upon themselves to improve upon a “custom” design done by a starving artist, e.g., Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass or Jimi Hendrix’s “lefty” guitar. Either way, you can bet it’s going to be pretty amazing.
However, you may be thinking, “Well duh, they (or their estate) get paid in endorsements and get free stuff!”
Two quick things I will say about that:
First, the guitars are not always free. They may get a free guitar somewhere along the way after years of partnership, but oftentimes it’s just a discount along with certain added perks of having the endorsement, depending upon the contract. Free guitars may indeed be part of a particular agreement, but that is not a given.
Second – and I think more important – the manufacturers are competing for the artist, not the other way round. Check out the story on Steve Vai and his signature Ibanez JEM. The artist is looking for who will make them the best guitar, not necessarily who will pay them the most money or do them the most favors to use their product. After all, they have to live with this guitar.
Of course, each of these brands have cheaper entry-level guitars such as the Ibanez Gio and Fender Starcaster, as well as affiliate brands such as Squier (Fender) and Epiphone (Gibson). Among other factors, this tends to lead to quite a bit of confusion, and leads new shoppers to unfairly dislike a particular brand because they bought the $100 Fender Squire Bullet instead of the $500 Telecaster or the $1200 American-made Custom Shop.
And once again the question arises: What is the difference? Is the price really indicative of the quality? Let’s look at some of the other factors that go into the pricing.
Labor Costs & Construction
As with any product or service, this is an obvious one. American-made guitars for example tend to be more expensive due to the fact it just costs more to pay skilled luthiers and factory workers. Does that mean you are definitely getting a higher-quality product? No, but the chances are certainly higher.
In countries like Korea, China, and Indonesia, the labor costs are so much cheaper, but the quality control can be an issue. The bar just isn’t as high because the focus is mainly on mass production. Just like American or European labor doesn’t automatically equal quality, Asian or Latin American labor doesn’t always equate to garbage.
Take for example the aforementioned Fender brand. American-made strats are renowned for their quality and can carry a hefty price tag. However, the stratocasters out of Mexico are much cheaper, more mass produced, but are still a good quality instrument. I played a $200 “Mexi-Strat” from the age of 15 all the way up to the beginning of my professional career. I loved that thing!
Also, there are brands like Ibanez. Ibanez is based out of Japan and is also quite famous for their craftsmanship. Like Japanese fountain pens, these guitars are typically made with careful attention to detail. The more affordable, entry-level models are farmed out to their factory in Indonesia.
I have owned Ibanez guitars ranging from the Gio, to the RG and S models, and now two JS model electric guitars. The Gio is not nearly as comfortable or pristine as the topshelf JS, but it played in tune and sounded decent!
On the flip side, some of the cheaper guitars made with cheap labor are going to be a “you get what you pay for” situation. Jackson guitars are another company owned by Fender. As with Ibanez, they have factories in China and Indonesia. I had a student a few years ago that had a Jackson electric and the thing was absolute garbage. It would not tune, the frets were not filed properly, and the bridge was questionable at best.
Now, this isn’t to pick on a particular company or country. I’m just using these as real life examples that I can pull from based on my own experience. The point is that when you get a guitar made in a low-cost country, it’s going to be crapshoot. It could be decent, it could be terrible. Your experience with different brands are likely to be different than my own. Consider one of the main reasons for the cheaper labor at some of these places: Quality Control – or lack thereof.
Quality of Materials
The quality of the ingredients makes an enormous difference. All of the craftsmanship in the world is not likely to make a guitar made of Oriented Strand Board or Plywood sound better than the same model made out of choice Alder, Basswood, or Birdseye Maple.
Woods for the neck and body are not the only things that differentiate low-end and high-end guitars. Hardware is another consideration and there are many pieces of hardware on an electric to consider.
Also known as “tuning machines”, the tuners on a guitar are very important. Tuners are not an expensive item, but when you are talking about a guitar that is mass produced by the thousands, some low-end guitars will skimp here. Cheaper tuners will be difficult to turn, stick or get gummed up, or just simply fail under string tension and not hold.
Another pivotal component is the bridge. Higher quality bridges will use more carefully machined parts that allow the strings to remain secure to the body of the guitar, and also allow for the natural movement of the strings due to use or changes in atmosphere. Cheaper bridges will have sharper saddles (the place where the string actually sits) that can cause strings to break more often than normal. Cheap bridges are also more difficult to adjust which can affect the overall tuning of the guitar.
A word on floating tremolo systems
These are even more finicky than your normal tremolo bridge. If you are looking at lower-end guitars that have a floating tremolo system, it is recommended you do as much research as you can on the type of bridge on the guitar. Ever since the invention of the Floyd Rose, there have been a lot of copies – some great, some terrible.
The cheaper to mid-level guitars ($300 – $700) can have a not-so-great floating bridge system. If it is a new design or an early production guitar, tread with caution. It could be said to be even more diligent in your research with the more expensive guitars that have these types of bridges.
Case in point: The Ibanez RG470. Not an expensive guitar, but not exactly entry level either. I have one of these with the Lo-TRS II tremolo bridge and it is virtually unusable. I can not get this thing to stay in tune if I so much as bend a note. Upon further research, I discovered that most people swap out the bridge or block it, hindering its movement. On the other hand, some of these guitars come equipped with an Edge Pro tremolo which is much better.
Another example is the JS2400 – a guitar that I own. That model actually reverted back to an older bridge system that has been found to be superior to the newer bridges that were used in the earlier JS1200 models. So the “upgrade” in the JS1200 wasn’t really that much of an upgrade if they just went back to the older bridge in future models.
So in regards to the bridge, the more expensive guitars are almost always going to be superior, but can be still be a coin flip with certain systems. The best way to research this on your own is to ask a local repair tech or luthier about the guitar in question.
These are the guitar’s vocal cords. Higher quality pickups in more expensive guitars are generally going to have a superior sound. Let me give you a basic rundown of the most common types of pickups you will find in an electric guitar.
The production of a high quality pickup is an art form in itself. A typical pickup has a very thin copper wire that is wound over magnetic pole pieces several thousand times. The number of windings is directly related to the output of the pickup. The quality of the pole pieces, bobbin, lead wire, and the winding job all play a part in the sound of the pickup.
Single coil pickups will just have one coil of copper wire wrapped around a single set of pole pieces. Humbuckers use two sets of pole pieces with two coils of wire wrapped in opposite directions to cancel out or “buck” the hum created by the magnetic fields of the pole pieces.
Cheaper pickups might sound weak, have a buzz caused by improper wiring or a grounding issue. There may be unwanted distortion or breakup, or not enough. Crackling or popping, uneven volume levels across the strings – all of these issues can arise in a cheap pickup that was just slapped together.
Another feature of a pickup might be that it is potted or coated with wax or lacquer. This helps to protect the pickup from moisture and corrosion, a problem that can lead to significant sound issues in cheaper pickups.
However, so much else goes into the guitar’s tone. Expensive pickups with cheap electronics and shoddy wiring isn’t going to make for an impressive sound.
Quality wiring jobs, pickup selectors, and potentiometers (volume/tone controls) along with the more expensive pickups are really going to make a high priced electric guitar stand out from the crowd. It takes a skilled technician to properly wire a guitar so that it sounds its best, and that skilled labor costs money.
The jack is another component that may get the shaft with cheaper guitars. Higher quality jacks with gold contacts are going to conduct electricity better and last a lot longer.
Looking cool is part of a guitar’s life purpose. Guitars with higher attention to detail are going to cost more due to the time and materials used to achieve an eye-popping look. Cheaper guitar models are often copies of the more expensive guitars, but there may be some blemishes in the finish, have an inferior cut of wood, or lower quality lacquer and paint.
However, there is more to the aesthetic element than just looking nice. Often the cool look of a high quality wood for the body has an equally pleasing sound. The fact that it catches your eye and looks amazing is a lot of the time just a byproduct of high quality materials that are assembled for tonal purposes.
The most expensive guitars on the market are typically custom, one-of-a-kind guitars made as sonic and visual works of art. One of my favorite sites to visit just to ogle unique looking guitars is the website for Crimson Guitars.
Is An Expensive Guitar Easier To Play?
One of the other factors of pricing is the setup work that goes into a guitar before it leaves the factory. The more expensive guitars will most of the time get the star treatment after construction to make sure it is comfortable to play on a showroom floor.
A setup is the process by which a luthier or technician makes various adjustments to the neck, the bridge, nut & saddle, and electronic components to make the guitar play in tune, sound its best, and for the string height (action) to be at a comfortable playing position.
One of the most time consuming and expensive processes of the guitar building process is the fret work. After the frets are pressed or hammered into the fretboard, a luthier will go back over the frets to make sure they are level, properly crowned (rounded), polished, and dressed. The fret dressing process involves filing the fret ends after they are bevelled to make them nice and smooth as opposed to jagged and sharp – a decidedly uncomfortable situation.
In addition to this the luthier making the expensive would have run the guitar through a Plek machine where as a cheap guitar would not have been through this process.
If you don’t know what a Plek machine is, then read this explanation below or nerd out on this great video.
Back in the mid-’80s, a German guitar tech named Gerd Anke joined forces with Michael Dubach, a toolmaker, to bring a dream to life: developing an automated, super-accurate process for setting up guitars and dressing frets.
Utilizing sophisticated German engineering practices and attention to detail, along with the latest, state-of-the-art German-crafted computer-driven CNC technology, they designed and built machines that take the luthier’s craft to an entirely new level.
They called their process “Plek.” Today, 30 years later, their Plek machines are the pinnacle in automated instrument setup and are used by industry-leading manufacturers such as Gibson and Taylor – manufacturers who are known for the care and attention they devote to optimizing every single instrument they produce.Sweetwater.com
A Plek machine is accurate to 1000th of a millimetre so it ensures that the brand new guitar with the expensive price tag plays as it should.
However, what if you have a cheaper guitar, what can you do, we discuss that next.
How To Make A Cheap Guitar Sound Expensive
The cheaper, mass produced guitars in factories with day laborers will cut corners on the setup and fret dressing processes to save time and to save money on skilled labor. But that’s not always a bad thing. What you save on a cheaper guitar, you can spend a little bit to have a repair tech or luthier go back over the guitar with a fine toothed comb once you get it home.
You can also take your cheap guitar to Sweetwater or Righteous Guitars, for example, and ask them to put your guitar through the Plek machine and make any corrections.
Once the Plek process has been complete on a cheap guitar you can look to make affordable upgrades that will seriously elevate the quality of your cheap guitar and make it sound of a much higher league. In fact we wrote a complete article breaking down the cost and providing recommendations here that I definitely recommend reading, 7 Best Ways To Upgrade A Cheap Electric Guitar
Considering all that goes into making an expensive guitar, it still doesn’t necessarily make it easier or more comfortable to play. Gibson Les Pauls are some of the most expensive electric guitars on the market, but come with a beefy neck and can be quite heavy. Easy to play? Well, I wouldn’t say they are difficult to play, but I don’t find them to be very comfortable. That is obviously a price plenty of guitarists are willing to pay to get that amazing sound!
A less expensive guitar such as the Ibanez S470 has a much thinner neck and a lighter, more low profile body. If the Les Paul is a Mack truck, the S470 is a sports car.
Should You Buy A More Expensive Guitar?
This is really the question, isn’t it? I can make the case all day long about more expensive guitars being better, but there will always be an exception here and there. As I have noted, sometimes the cheaper guitar is the way to go. Let me clear something up before answering this question.
What I didn’t really define is my use of the word “cheap”. Knock-offs or toy guitars are not part of my discussion, rather I’m speaking of the lower-priced and more affordable instruments.
So with that in mind, the answer to your question about it being worth it to buy the higher priced guitar is going to depend on where you are in your musical journey, your goals, and (duh) your budget.
Unless you are a professional, a collector, or serious “weekend warrior”, it is probably not worth the extra expense to buy the $3500 Les Paul. If you just like playing guitar and are eager to improve your skills, a $350 Ephiphone Les Paul will suffice, even if you are playing with your friends at the pub on the weekends.
If you are in the market for a guitar above $1000, you can still do better by looking for a used guitar and having a trusted technician give it a once over, or even making some improvements to a less expensive version of the guitar you want, again check out our article here if you are looking to go down that route 7 Best Ways To Upgrade A Cheap Electric Guitar .
When I bought my first top tier guitar as a young professional, it was an Ibanez JS1200. At the time, they were going for $1200 new. I got one used from Ebay for $800. I spent another $150 getting the kinks worked out at my local repair shop and it was good as new! There are smarter ways of buying the expensive guitars when you are ready to make that leap.
If you are relatively new to the guitar buying experience, but you are ready to buy a really nice guitar, then I would not recommend buying used if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. It can be worth the little bit of store markup to have the protection of your store receipt if you end up not liking the guitar or if there are defects.
Another perk to buying an high end guitar from the store is that you can usually make some sort of deal. Often, a $1000+ guitar comes with a hardshell case and you can usually talk the salesman into throwing in a cable, strap, or other accessories.
If you do buy from a store, I cannot in all good conscience recommend you buy any extended warranty or extra protection from the store. Those almost always just cost you extra money with little to no benefit. That is what they are designed for – to make extra money for the store. Don’t let them scare you into purchasing the extra coverage or any “insurance”.
Buying second hand is a high risk, high reward situation. I highly recommend that as a consumer, you educate yourself on the basics of the guitar’s construction before buying a guitar from someone else, especially sight unseen. I would also recommend investing time in building a relationship with a local repair tech or luthier to help you out with your investment. These guys are absolutely worth their weight in gold!
Are expensive guitars really better? The short answer is yes. Expensive guitars are made with higher quality parts, better construction, and more skilled craftsmanship. Cheap guitars are mass produced in factories, typically with unskilled labor and lower quality control standards, and will have cheaper components that may inhibit the playability or the sound.
However, a cheaper guitar ranging from about $200 up to $700-ish is still going to be a decent quality for most players and provide an enjoyable experience. Besides, you can always upgrade later with new pickups, better tuners, etc. We go in to all the detail in this article 7 Best Ways To Upgrade A Cheap Electric Guitar if you are looking to do this. As long as you maintain the guitar with regular cleanings and setups periodically, it’s going to last a long time and play well whether it was $300 or $3000.