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Expensive Gear - Is it worth it?

I have no training or education in economics, branding or observations in the pricing of guitars and associated equipment. All I can do is share my thoughts and experiences whilst we explore the questions of expensive gear, and if it is worth the cost.


Firstly, let us explore some known facts about guitars specifically. Expensive instruments are not necessarily better; many will argue otherwise, but price does not equal quality. Modern methods have allowed for the consistent and fairly priced construction of guitars for many years now, and the cost of the instrument is based more on the brand name, location it was made, materials used and construction methods - will we discuss the latter in more detail later on. Arguably, a £100 guitar will be worse than a £1000 guitar. However, due to the law of diminishing returns, it doesn’t mean that a £10,000 guitar is better than a £1,000 example. 


Many larger brands have a subsidiary company, like Epiphone is to Gibson, that is focused more on the affordable guitar market (though the current price of new Epiphone guitars is no small amount of change!). Alternatively, PRS Guitars has the SE line of models that are produced in various Asian countries. There are other brands such as Cort that not only produce their own guitars, but are often outsourced by other companies to build guitars under a license agreement.


The opinion that I have, and one shared by many of my more objectively minded peers, is that if you can afford a piece of equipment, and you really want it, then buy it. There is no shame in having an expensive guitar, amplifier or any other gear. However, you should never buy something that has a high retail price purely for the fact that it is expensive and you can use it to show off.





Why Are Some Guitars So Expensive?

Brands like Squire, EastCoast, Cort and many others are produced in high numbers, therefore the economy of scale comes into play and the end cost is reduced. Premium brands like Tom Anderson, Suhr, James Tyler and Sadowsky are almost treated like custom shop instruments, even at their most basic production level. This means that each instrument has more individual attention which can drive up the price.


Sometimes you will find exotic or rare woods being used in the construction of a guitar, which is typically for aesthetic purposes (see my post on buying guitars here). The material cost for these woods, or even period correct plastics for VOS models (vintage original specification) drastically increase the end cost.


Entirely hand-made guitars are usually the most expensive, because there is limited use of machines for routing and sanding the wood. In this case, the cost of labor is compounded with everything else (it’s unlikely that a hand-built guitar would use the cheapest materials!). 


The final point to make here, is that brands like Gibson, Fender and other big corporate names can charge so much purely because their history allows them too - many modern variations of instruments made by these big names are fallen far below my expectations, and you would probably be better off buying second-hand if you were set on having that name on the headstock of your guitar. 


Should I Buy an Expensive Guitar?

As I mentioned before, if you really want to then there is no shame in that, providing it is within your means financially. However, I do own some expensive guitars, and I will attempt to explain why.


A floating tremolo system, such as a Floyd Rose, Kahler or similar, is hinged (quite literally!) on the quality of its materials. These components are almost exclusively a third-party item, which is that they are manufactured by a separate company than who is actually building the guitar. The floating bridge design operates on a knife edge, and cheaper versions of the design use a lower-quality metal that dulls quickly and causes tuning or playability issues. On my Suhr guitar, I have a Japanese-made Gotoh Floyd Rose that is made with the highest possible grade of metal - that one won’t be wearing out anytime soon! It’s this premium feature that constitutes a premium price. The locking tuners on the guitar are of their own manufacture, but rival brands like Schaller in their quality and function. Also, for the final time I shall talk about the wood used in the guitar. Companies that produce lower priced instruments tend to take less care when selected a sample of wood from which they will make a guitar - this means that sometimes the wood can be of a high standard, but there is always the chance you will get a sample that is sub-par (too heavy, excess joints in the wood etc). Suhr, Tom Anderson and the like are extremely critical of the material they use.


This brings us onto the subject of quality control. Premium brands, though some expensive ones are an exception (looking at you, Gibson!) have a stricter quality control process, ensuring the guitar you receive is more likely to work the way it was intended to. 


If signature instruments or copying a famous guitar rig down to the finest detail is appealing to you, I would recommend you try it with the understanding that it will not make you play like the said artist. These instruments come with an ‘artist premium’, so be prepared to pay a bit more (Pro-tip: Instead of paying through the nose for an Ibanez Pia Steve Vai Signature, maybe you’d fare better with an Ibanez RG series guitar.). A good challenge is to try to match some of your favorite recorded guitar tones by only using the equipment you have at your disposal. Just remember that the tone might sound different when played by itself, owing to how a mixing a song works.




Buying Cheap Gear

Everyone loves to save money, but there are many people that will only play cheap guitars and amplifiers. Perhaps they struggle to save up for one big purchase, though I think it’s more than likely that they have settled and compromised - not something to be sniffed at. However, don’t compromise on a feature you need for the sake of saving some money; don’t persevere with some low-quality tuners if you don’t have to. 


Once upon a time, Japanese made guitars were thought to be of poor quality and insignificant, now they are respected around the world for their quality. The same is true in recent years for guitars made in China or Korea. Indonesia, India and Mexico are all popular locations from which to source guitars. Coupled with my point earlier on regarding the advancement of manufacturing techniques, it is now easier than ever to find a great guitar for not a lot of money. 


Location

Not only can the location of manufacture have an influence on the cost of guitars, but your location when buying a guitar can make a difference too! For example, in Japan you can buy a brand new E-II Horizon NT-7 ET (a complicated model number, but a fantastic guitar!) for roughly ¥290,000 (JPY) which at the time of writing this article is roughly £1530 (GBP), whereas buying the exact same guitar in the UK would cost £3,199 (¥602000) - that’s more than double the price!


This is due to import taxes and duties levied when the guitar is imported into the UK, and a premium applied by the store for selling the guitar. 


Here are the links with the costs of that guitar cited above:



For some anecdotal evidence, I will tell you about a story a close friend of mine had when ordering a guitar from James Trussart based in Los Angeles. Due to the custom nature of the guitar he was having built for him, and the delivery and import costs on top, the guitar would have cost in excess of £6000 from the factory to his house in the UK. He instead opted to fly to LA, spend a week visiting friends and family, visit the James Trussart workshop/factory and collect the guitar directly from the source. Afterwards, he flew home with the guitar next to him in its own seat and he saved a significant amount of money in the process.


The moral of the story, and the example before it, is that you may be able to find a custom made instrument, or a high-quality hand crafted example if it is made in your home country. If you live in France, consider Vigier, or if you’re in Brazil then consider S by Solar - there are also bound to be many independent luthiers close to you if you search for them.


Many of the points made above can be applied to effects pedals, pickups and amplifiers. There is no magic sauce that will make you better all on its own - if something inspires you to practice more, or the placebo effect of you thinking it is making you better works, then we can consider it a positive. An old or vintage guitar doesn’t mean better, either! The two main things that will affect your tone are the speaker (or simulation thereof), and practice (this can be technique or simply practice crafting your sound). Expensive gear is just the icing on the cake!


Alex

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