There are plenty of social psychology studies examining the relationship between price and perceived quality. Many reveal that people base an item’s quality on the price being charged. For some, it’s as simple as low price = low quality, while high price = high quality. In some instances, that’s true, but many markets encompass a really broad spectrum of items and prices, and that doesn’t address all of the grey area in between.
Let’s get specific – we’re talking about guitars here. A guitar’s actual value is not an easy thing to determine. This is partially because actual value to each person is variable, though actual price isn’t. It’s also because to really understand what is or isn’t a good price to quality ratio i.e. what is worth the money, you have to know a lot of information – a product’s origins, the market at large, material quality, and utility. Thus, in justifying higher price tags, it’s important to identify a nexus between what the actual value of a guitar is to you and its price.
This article isn’t meant to tell you what is or isn’t a good price for a specific guitar, but to help you understand what goes into valuing an instrument and what makes high-end instruments worth the money.
This is Mostly About You
Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but a guitar’s value is really up to you. If you don’t play guitar, no guitar is worth anything—aside from for home decoration.
If you’re a beginner, only less expensive guitars have appeal to you, and thus, actual value, since you don’t want to spend any more money than absolutely necessary to test the waters and see if you’ll stick with the instrument. That makes total sense.
But if you’re an intermediate or even an expert player, you have to decipher where your “sweet spot” is with regards to cost and value. If you play every day for fun or make your living playing, expensive guitars can pay dividends in personal satisfaction or literally pay for themselves within a few weeks.
So in order to understand and accept a certain price tag you need to know where you’re at. Once you do, you can get a better understanding of how the guitar makers value their instruments.
The Parts That Aren’t About You
While you are the main factor in any guitar purchase, if you don’t understand at least some of the information brands use in valuing their instruments, a less expensive guitar might seem good to you, while a really expensive one may seem less appealing. Conversely, you may decide to spend too much money on something that just isn’t worth it.
Where it’s made
As with many manufactured products, the old “made in America” adage is alive and well in the guitar world. Of course there’s an element of pride and patriotism in having a guitar built right here in the U.S. of A, but there’s more to it than that.
If U.S. companies are making a product in a foreign country, it’s because it can be done much more affordably. This doesn’t necessarily mean lesser quality, but it does imply certain features won’t be as impressive.
Guitars produced out of the country (excluding where the foreign country is actually the home-base of the company—for example, Japanese made Ibanez guitars) are machined and assembled in the fastest way, which is to say, not hand-crafted with grave attention to detail. The process is streamlined, the methods are models of efficiency and the quality control procedure may not be too stringent. That guitar also has to be inexpensively transported here, before being delivered to a distributor/retailer in the U.S. — and who knows what the journey is like.
Again, this is not to say all foreign, budget-priced guitars are not good. Some of the facilities which produce more affordable models for name brands have become pretty great at doing what they do.
However, buying an American made guitar assures that the quality is increased in certain respects. People are trained to machine parts, assemble, and hand-craft aspects of the guitar in a way that represents the greatness of the brand. Finer details which are omitted on budget guitars are paid careful attention. Each guitar is made to exacting specifications and the quality control process is strict. This is all a part of what you pay for when you buy a more expensive instrument.
What it’s made of
Where a guitar is made certainly has an effect on the quality of the instrument and thus the price. But, intertwined with where a guitar is made, is also what the guitar is made of. American made guitars almost always use more expensive and higher quality components than their overseas counterparts and that’s another big part of justifying the additional cost.
For example, acoustic guitars that are made out of the country may use some of the same tonewoods, but they are laminate versions of those woods—that’s not the same as solid pieces of wood. The laminates are thinner, more porous, layers of wood which are bonded together. Solid wood affords an excellent sound and feel, which reflects the wood species. While it’s not terrible, some people think laminate doesn’t feel or resonate the same way. In addition, the look of the wood, even when finished, can be different.
Other aspects of foreign manufactured guitars are also different, like the purity and strength of metals used, the quality of electrical wiring, and the finish composition. Some aspects of foreign guitars may be comprised of plastics and the pickups may be shoddily wound.
With high-priced American guitars, you know that all the wood is solid. Often the tonewoods are meticulously sourced and parsed through to make sure the grains are as good as it gets. The sanding and finish process are very detailed. Sometimes the finish is limited or one of a kind.
How It’s Made
The number of people that are involved in creating a guitar also varies with its price. With more affordable guitars, they may be primarily made with machinery and assembled by a number of people. However, with the higher priced guitars, it could be one or two people following the process from start to finish. When it comes to the difference which that makes, we can look to a number of aspects. For instance, the pickups are wound to precise specifications, often by hand. The electrical components are also hand-wired and must meet important standards. With many high-level models, you’ll also get some beautiful extras in the way of detailed craftsmanship in aesthetic design.
In building some of the most high-priced guitars, as few as one single builder in a custom shop may take painstaking time to perfect it. It could take days, weeks, or even months in certain circumstances. Occasionally, they may even relic these guitars i.e. replicate a guitar from a certain era or appear worn and ragged. The incredible amount of detail and focus that goes into these guitars, when done by a master builder, makes it highly unique, and rightfully increases the price.
It’s Probably Worth the Money
In short, high-priced American guitars are built to look great, sound great, and last a long time. Not to mention these instruments will retain a significant value for their lifetime and eventually become classics after enough years go by. So if you’re trying to understand where a guitar’s price comes from, hopefully this article has shed some light on it.
We’re not suggesting that the most expensive guitar is the right one for you, or that you throw caution to the wind and splurge. But spending a little extra on a quality, American-made axe that you’re going to play for years to come makes sense. And more than likely, you’ll be real happy with your purchase.
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