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.