It's All In The Name

Are we paying too much for prestige guitars these days? Are the cheap copies just as worthy? My research finds out...

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Ultimate Guitar
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For years now I have wondered what separates a $3,000 Gibson to a $300 foreign copy. And by talking to people in the music industry I figured that its not a lot...

I work in a small family owned music store and everyday I hear "Can you tell me about this guitar?" "How does this guitar compare to others?" or "What makes this guitar special?" I hear these phrases and I think "What does make this guitar special?" And the answer is, it's not special. Its a cheap copy made in China for a little and sold for a lot more. But then I respond to the customer "What makes a fender special? What makes it superior to this guitar? Or do you just know the name Fender and not Casino?" This response leaves customers stunned and none of them can answer.

The truth is, the guitar market is a name game. You establish a name for yourself and get lots of publicity. Suddenly you can pedal guitars at the price you desire. When I first put forth this idea, all my musician friends protested, "Yes but major companies like Gibson and Fender are 100% US made and not foreign." WRONG. It is true that Fender and Gibson are based in America. Fender has a Californian factory and Gibson has one in Memphis etc, but they are not soley American produced. Both companies use foreign factories to mass produce guitars cheaply, for example Fender has a factory in Mexico and Gibson has one in Qingdao China.

Admittedly in acoustic guitars its all about the quality and type of wood. The price determines the sound and I would rather play an acoustic made of Engleman Spruce than from rotted floorboards. However in electric guitars its different. In electrics its all to do with the pick-ups. If you have decent strings and decent pick-ups ANY cheap foreign guitar can match a guitar 3 times its price.

To test this theory I bought a J&D Luthier Explorer copy for $450. Now if you don't know J&D, they are cheaply produced in China and I got mine from the distributer, Jade Australia. I was suprised by it, the sound quality was average but other than that it wasn't bad. I played it against a 1976 model Gibson Explorer which retails for $2799. As you may expect, the Gibson slaughtered the J&D in sound quality, there was no competition.

I then purchased a Drop and Gain humbucker set from Lace Music Australia for $379. So all up my J&D would cost $829, a fair price. A night in my workshop and the guitar was wired up and ready to go. I played it again compared to the Gibson and the J&D blew the Gibson away. So for $1970 less I had created a guitar far more superior in sound than the famed Gibson.

To prove this wasn't a fluke I asked my friends in the music industry if they had done similar tests and one had. He had a J&D Duke30, a beautiful PRS copy which cost him $699. He had put a set of EMG pick-ups in it and the result was a guitar that sounded better than a true PRS. Simply amazing.

So why do people still buy Gibson and Fender? Because its a name they recognize. A guitarist would rather have a guitar that they know and are comfortable with than adventure into an unknown brand like Harlem or Martinez. The truth is, it's all in the name.

So it would seem from my research that we are paying a price too high. Guitarists are paying 3 times the price for guitars that sound half as good. Many people do not know the brand Casino (a cheap Chinese guitar worth $200-400) but I guarantee if you spend another $400 you can have a guitar with a sound quailty of $2000-4000. Guitarists should stop familiarising themselves with guitar brands and get acquainted with pick-up brands.

In conclusion, here is my advice; find the guitar you like. Then find its cheaper cousin in a foreign brand. Pair the guitar with a set of excellent pick-ups and strings and SAVE. Trust me, you'll never waste money again with this simple guideline.

26 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Mr.DeadDuck
    All Gibson guitars are made in the US. Its Epiphone guitars, a different brand that is made in China and of course as with the Mexican Fenders they are significantly cheaper than US made Gibsons. Secondly I have a Tanglewood 335 copy with seymour duncan pickups in and i also have played countless Gibson 335s and you can clearly tell that there is way more to an electric guitar than pickups and strings as Gibson do sound miles better. Ive done similar tests with Fender and squire strats myself and i would suggest that for maybe drop tuned foolishness in which it doesnt matter what you do as long as the gain is on 10 its fine to use w/e. But one thing you have neglected to mention is build quality as you mentioned your friends PRS copy supposedly sounds better but i would be incredibly surprised if it looked better because 2000 PRS's look like works of art and they are always intonated extremely well in my experiance, and if a guitar plays like s**t then pickups will do nothing. Plus playing famous guitars that are heroes played makes it that much easier to emulate them .
    Perge
    One thing on the whole wood thing...the end sound is also largely based on the final lacquer put on at the end of production. The new lacquer (polyurethane) they use in production guitars makes the type of wood less important. It mutes the natural tonal nuances of the wood and its really only used because its more "environmentally friendly" the old lacquer (nitrocellulose) used was used because it let the sound of the guitars natural wood shine through. Now of course your still going to get slight changes from the woods you use today, but not a 2000$ difference. No way. Unless you can get an old finish of course.
    Shoji001
    imbaguitar wrote: wait wait, you're saying a guitar with EMGs sounded better than an expensive PRS?
    EMG's are active pickups, which means they have a pre-amp in them. the tonal qualities of the wood are obscured by the pre-amp, so depending what EMG's it was and your taste, it could sound better
    seemeel
    Many people do not know the brand Casino (a cheap Chinese guitar worth $200-400) but I guarantee if you spend another $400 you can have a guitar with a sound quailty of $2000-4000.
    Mate, please don't make claims you can't back up. This is just silly.
    GangsterLi
    If you buy a big brand guitar you feel good on stage because people see your recognizable guitar
    Henkdemachtige
    I like Ibanez more than Fender or Gibson. Just my opinion, rather pay 480 bucks for an AK then 1000+ for a normal looking fender.
    kkquick
    "In electrics its all to do with the pick-ups. If you have decent strings and decent pick-ups ANY cheap foreign guitar can match a guitar 3 times its price." You sir are very ignorant..
    big_red
    Nigi5K wrote: The author of this article makes an interesting point, but i'd rather save up for a name brand guitar that I know to be awesome and will still be awesome ten years down the line, instead of taking a risk and plonking down money for a cheapo guitar that could turn out to be a piece of crap a few months down the line when the fretboard starts to warp or something. My first electric guitar was cheap-ass strat copy and the body was made out of plywood or something. My next guitar was a second-hand mexican Fender strat and the difference in feel and playability was like night and day.
    reminds me of when I got my MIM Strat, and compared it to my old Samick Malibu.
    Nigi5K
    The author of this article makes an interesting point, but i'd rather save up for a name brand guitar that I know to be awesome and will still be awesome ten years down the line, instead of taking a risk and plonking down money for a cheapo guitar that could turn out to be a piece of crap a few months down the line when the fretboard starts to warp or something. My first electric guitar was cheap-ass strat copy and the body was made out of plywood or something. My next guitar was a second-hand mexican Fender strat and the difference in feel and playability was like night and day.
    Pencil Man
    Survey says: You are wrong. I'm sorry you lose. The more expensive guitars may be overpriced, but they are in heaven when the crap you mentioned barely scrapes hell.
    KurdtStaley
    What about the playability of the instrument? It's true, you can make a cheap guitar sounds good, but can you make it play good? And yes, the quality of woods and materials used in a guitar will effect the tone but people tend to exaggerate this effect. It's quite noticeable when playing unplugged but once you run through an amp the characteristics of the pickups tend to wash out the characteristics of the tone wood. So what you're saying about tone is true. Action and playability is another thing all together. It will take a lot of work to make the average Squire play good. I have one right now that I'm using as a project, I've crowned the frets, replaced the nut, replaced the electronics. It sounds good, and the playability is coming along, but it's still nothing compared to that of my Japanese Fenders. Not to mention that I've had to put in a bunch of work and could potentially ruin the guitar altogether when attempting to improve it.
    bazza92
    Admittedly yes, wood type and build quality are important in a guitar. But I did not explain myself well. You are all correct, nobody wants a guitar with screws so fragile they bend and snap (something I have seen countless times). But there are copies out there which have an excellent build quality and are passable as high end guitars. For example, the Samick Greg Bennett UM3. It sounds nothing like a PRS but looks like one and is built very well for about $600. It has a quilt maple top and the hardware (grover machine heads etc) are sturdy and worthy of a pricey guitar. Putting high quality pickups in the UM3 would make it just as good as a low-mid price PRS. This solution is really for people who cannot afford $4000 for a PRS or Gibson etc. There will always be those who trust big brands and that is great. I have many friends who enjoy them but most people simply cannot afford them. My point is, you CAN have a fantasitc guitar that has a professional sound for under $1000. If you know of a copy that has a good solid build quality and has used the best wood but still is cheap (Yes people they are out there) then why not experiment a bit? Be careful and research your copy/pick-ups and you will be pleasantly suprised. As for the question of puting said pickups into the Gibson I will experiment further and get back to you all ASAP
    Colohue
    No. I love my Fender Strat. I would never think to have bought a Squier instead.
    Caseyrh43
    Yeah with an electric wood is very important. The fretboard, every piece of anything on that guitar is going to change the sound, because it will vibrate differently. Yeah and you are talking about like MIM strats as apposed to MIA strats... LOL. Hagstrom is coming out with some great guitars at an affordable price. But if you want a cheap but awesome japanese replica guitar I would say go for an Aria or an Aria Pro II.
    imbaguitar
    wait wait, you're saying a guitar with EMGs sounded better than an expensive PRS?
    EFGuitar
    wood and build quailty do in fact have everything to do with electrics as well. Thats why vintage guitars sound that much better. Properly made guitars, created from some of the best wood available because they didn't care about the rain forest then. And, by todays standards, vintage pickups are crude and ungainly, which disproves your whole argument.
    wannabe_punk
    interesting point of view, but you could have done this more scientifically
    AxeHappy wrote: did you try putting those pups in the Gibson? Did you examine build and finish quality? Intonation. Hardware Quality? Durability? Playability? Etc?
    i would love to see all of this examined as well
    big_red
    I own a 1977 Gibson RD Custom, as well as an Ibanez AS93. Love the Ibanez, but the Gibson is just so wonderfully full of tone and feels amazing. I will agree that most of the price is name brand reputation, but even if someone did produce a knock-off RD, I would never buy it, it's my baby. As for the Ibanez, I would trade it in and pay more cash if I were able to find an ES335 in the same color and finish, but I don't think Gibson makes them in Tiger Blue Sunburst.
    gmoore447
    Beware of the cheap brand 'Encore ', as i have bought an e99, which is a cheaper version of a Gibson Les Paul, and my bottom humbucker broke after a month, and the durability is pure crap, also im stuck in the Treble/Lead setting in my pickup switch, as a wire has went loose, and its too far up to fix. Try to avoid this brand as often as you can, unless it is a last resort.
    hildesaw
    Maybe you can say something about sound, but how about taking into consideration durability, or the way they play? I have never played a knock off that played as well as my real Gibson Explorer. I've never had cheap guitar last longer, or have less problems than any of my even mid range guitars.
    AxeHappy
    There is a grain of truth here. Wood makes very little difference in an electric guitar. It's there but it has more to do with frequency combing than actually creating the tone and most of the difference can be compensated for with EQ anyways. But, and I'll preface this by saying I think Gibson guitars are overpriced pieces of crap, to compare a $3000 Gibson to a $300 copy is foolish. Even if the copy does sound better with new pups...did you try putting those pups in the Gibson? Did you examine build and finish quality? Intonation. Hardware Quality? Durability? Playability? Etc? There is a hell of lot more to a quality guitar than just sound. Sound isn't even the number one thing I look for when buying a new guitar as it's going to sound different on my rig than at the store anyways. I do wish more people would realise there are more quality brands out there than the insanely over-priced Fender and Gibson though. But if somebody is aware and has tried out other things and still prefers Fender or Gibson, good for them!
    ChucklesMginty
    This is complete crap, if you can't hear the difference between different tone woods you're not listening very hard...
    PureMagic
    Well not any1 can afford a Fender Strat or a Gibson Les Paul or whatever.So there are more cheap alternatives for playing guitar than those brands. The cheaper ones might never sound as good as the branded ones,but with the right modifications they might give you a well rounded sound for what you are playing and save you some money as well.
    sonic_777111
    You've oversimplified this. If pickups and strings were all that mattered I would not have bought my Gibson archtop. The structure of the body and the quality of the wood and hardware make HUGE differences to how the strings vibrate, and isn't that most of the sound? Also I find cheap guitars are less comfortable to play. I had your mindset when I started playing. Then, with some more experience, I lost it.