Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - The Golden Age of Guitar Consumerism

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Golden Age of Guitar Consumerism

  "... when I was your age, we put chicken wire strung on nails on a rotten 2 x 4 and called it a "guitar", and darn it, we liked it!!!"

 Guitars have never been more affordable.  That's not the same thing as "cheaper" - technically you could buy guitars at one time for $20 from a Sears and Roebuck catalog - but it wasn't very playable.


Inside of a $200 Chinese "generic dreadnaught acoustic" 

 There have been different eras in "Guitar Affordability":


 In this era, at the dawn of the creation of "guitar", you only had the choice of getting a handmade guitar.  The relative cost, and quality, can't be quantified, but undoubtably it was more expensive than now.  Strings were made out of animal guts....


 Guitars that were manufactured, albeit by hand.  The dawn of companies like Martin, Gibson.  Relative cost depended on quality again, and given that steel strings started around the very early 1900s, people still often substituted "other found wire" because of cost considerations. "Acceptable action" was probably "not acceptable" by today's standards, something to keep in mind when listening to early wire recordings.


  The beginning of machine fabrication on a large scale.  This is where China is now, except they've got modern machines/tools.  Early examples were pretty crude, but playable (and now coveted by masochistically deranged "Cheap Retro Guitar" collectors...)  Later, some of these guitars were pretty good, good enough to make Gibson sue Ibanez because they were making functional Les Paul copies.  They would still go for around $200+, adjusted for inflation many more hundreds.  The cheap Asian guitars could be found for around $100, $50 in a pawn shop - but the reader must keep in mind that's in 70's/80's dollars.  While the Ibanez guitars approached "modern quality and playability", in general these were not guitars one would want to buy today.  

 From the mid-80s onward Japan took over and invented the "modern high quality cheap guitar".  Ibanez, Tokai, Fender Squire (Fuji Gen Gaki) set a new bar.   Korea entered this field with Westone/Electra, Hondo branded guitars, a forgotten transition-period brand that got lost in the coming Ibanez storm. 

 This is when I started playing guitar.  5 years earlier, and my beginner choices would have been dismal.   At the time in the mid 80s, my only choice was made by a company called Hondo, which is effectively what is now known as the Korean Samick brand.  These were not as good as Ibanez, but not as crummy and unplayable as earlier Asian guitars.  Hondo was "the" beginner guitar for a few years until Ibanez steam rolled the field, requiring Fender to step up with the Squier brand.


 I can remember when China first came on my radar as a guitar builder around .... 2002?  I started to see various corporate-labeled cheap lines with "Made In China" stickers, and they seemed pretty ok.  But they really stepped it up I think around 2010, and as predicted, were going for a transition from OEM to their own branding.  It was obvious they would do that, and while they're not "technically" branding guitars today, it's now a known phenomenon that "China can make good guitars".


 Now.  China has so subtly maneuvered into dominating the guitar market that it's like they've done shades of marketing.  Very quickly from selling clone guitars on Aliexpress - while being OEM for many brands - to "somehow" being used as OEM for alternate brands (Monoprice), and *winning* by making a better product. 
 Now there are the Monoprice guitars, EART, Harley Benton, et al - and they're good guitars, and less than what used to be the equivalent entry level guitar.  While being as good as what used to be a "mid level" guitar, or even higher. 

 What you can get on Amazon for $200 from one of these brands now is astounding to me.   Somewhat of what would be considered an "upper tier" guitar in the 80's.  EART and Harley Benton both offer stainless frets, roasted necks and bodies, great hardware/bridges/tuners, good pickups, and they come set up pretty good as well. 

 When Ibanez had to start offering guitars made outside of Japan, that was a watershed moment.  Maybe Samick, who has massive production facilities in Korea, can hang on?  Hard to know during the covid pandemic, with production being dependent on the health of a lot of workers (note China *does not mess around with trying to knock down covid outbreaks...).   Indonesia has tried to enter this battleground, but they've tried to scale against an already optimized market.


 There isn't a next level.  China is at diminishing returns production wise.  But here is "the next level" that nobody has considered:

 1) Guitars don't evaporate.  They go in a corner, in a closet, under a bed, but they don't go away. 

 2) at this point there are probably enough used guitars on the planet that there is probably a positive ratio of them relative to people that even think for a moment they want to play guitar.  Everyone knows more than one person that plays guitar; I'd even suggest "most families" have a guitar at their disposal.

  3) China has relied on manufacturing *growth*.  The situation with guitar is what I'd think is maybe the penultimate last frontier.  They'll have to go after the car market next (which they are... and the U.S. and EU governments will let them crush our own manufacturers with imports...).  But after that, they're at diminishing reeturns GDP.  Solar will still continue to grow, but as efficiencies go up they'll hit a ceiling pretty quickly in 5 years (particularly as demand scales up due to international energy costs/infrastructure problems).   

 The $200 guitar is almost at a point where one can *objectively* say "that's as good as a manufactured guitar can get".   Meanwhile, if you count how many hundreds of millions of guitars have been made to this date, someone really wanting to learn to play guitar can probably ask around and find someone willing to lend them a guitar, or even have one.  A parent today is likely to have one I'd suggest.   


No comments:

Post a Comment