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The difference between American and Chinese/Asian made guitars

Updated on April 16, 2014

Where a guitar is made is often used by companies to show certain price points. Expensive guitars are often made in America or the UK, whereas cheaper guitars are often produced in countries such as Mexico, or in one of many countries in Asia.

For example Fender's premium American Standard's are produced in America and cost roughly $1000 dollars, Fenders Mexican standards (MIM's) are roughly $500 and then Fenders subsidiary Squier produces guitars in Asia for only a few hundred dollars. The same goes for Gibson, their branded guitars are made in Nashville Tennessee, where as their cheaper Epiphones are made in a selection of factories in Asia.

Why is there this difference and what are you paying extra for? in this article I will investigate that

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Labour

Labour is the reason most often sited for guitars being made in third world countries being cheaper. Living costs are lower and there are less workers regulations in these countries, thus companies can pay less wages. This is a technique not unique to the music industry, this same outsourcing is done with clothes and electronics for the same reasons.

  • Average Wage in China (2011), $6400 per year
  • Average (Median to avoid skew from very high earners) Wage in USA (2011) $50,000

Parts & Production

Cheaper guitar are not made from the same parts as expensive guitars, the parts used on cheaper guitars will be designed to be easy and cheaper to produce. This often is done in a way that doesn't impact the final product with control knobs and switches. However often cheaper tuners and bridges may affect how the guitar plays when compared to more premium American models with better quality parts.

Production techniques are simplified also, For example on the cheapest Epiphone guitars you find a Bolt On Neck rather then a set neck on more expensive models. You are also unlikely to find a maple cap on a Chinese guitar.

Materials are often skimped on when guitars are produced more cheaply. Gibson spend significant effort to match the grain on their mahogany backs and attempt to source only the best rosewood for fretboards (Which got them in trouble with the US government over sustainability), whereas cheaper guitars may use faster growing woods which are grown naturally in Asia such as Basswood.

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Quality Control

As you would expect from more expensive guitars they normally have more care taken to make sure they are produced correctly with no flaws. Historically this is more true where the cheaper guitars were nasty to play with sharp edges and bad fret buzz. In the last 15 years however these foreign producers have upped their game. Combine this with how the traditional brands are now being forced to cut costs due to the economic downturn then there seems to be roughly the same number of cases of serious flaws where ever the guitar is made.

Prestige

Many famous guitar companies were started and are based in the United States. Their guitars were first made in the USA, thus when people purchase a guitar from these companies they want to buy into this history and prestige. Companies also use this in the advertising, the way Fender advertise their American Stratocasters and Telecasters as "American Standards" gives off the aura that these guitars are the real deal, they are not a compromise as cheaper guitars may be hinted at being, thus convincing you to purchase the more expensive models.

Do you think American made guitars are worth the extra cost?

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Conclusion, Location or Price

Cheaper guitars are often made in China, Indonesia, ect out of necessity to reach the cheaper price point, the fact that the guitars are made in these countries themselves isn't a quality issue it's a price issue. These less expensive guitars have cost cutting in other areas as well which is what may end up effecting the quality. When you are looking at guitars many people put the country the guitar is made in as a serious factor, however in reality looking at the specification of the guitars is a much better way to start, if the guitar you are looking at has the specification you want (and the company has good review for quality control), then the country you are buying the guitar from should not put you off.

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