Cheap vs. Expensive Guitars: Four Common Misconceptions
When I was a teenager looking to upgrade from the Yamaha acoustic my parents had bought me as a starter guitar to something that better fit my burgeoning career as a musician, I saved up many, many paychecks from my menial job and splurged on a 12-string Ovation acoustic-electric. The band Heart was big back then, and that's what Nancy Wilson played. She was my frame of reference. If it was good enough for Nancy, I reckoned it was good enough for me, Ms. Rock-Star-in-the-Making. In my young and somewhat deluded mind, I equated being
a success with buying
the same equipment as someone who was already successful. I buy, therefore I am.
And I am not alone in this thinking. Many guitarists, especially younger ones and those relatively new to playing, tend to spend a bundle on high-end guitars. After all, who doesn't like to be the envy of friends, you there, with that shiny new axe slung over your shoulder. Other than the ability to play, the instrument itself was really the first object of musical desire. Sometimes, to a less-experienced player, the guitar is the most visible evidence of their evolution as a guitarist. While it is certainly a thrill to buy a custom built guitar hot out of the hands of a master craftsman, and although the adage "you get what you pay for" has proven truer than not in my experience, still, when it comes to guitars, more isn't always necessarily, well, more
Cheap guitars are getting better and better each year. Automated cutting and manufacturing techniques have allowed manufacturers to make guitars, especially electrics, for less money. Competition between manufacturers and between retailers keeps prices on these guitars at just above cost. But although there are actually really good guitars out there for lower prices, people still make the mental leap that lower-priced guitars are strictly imitation, beginner, or something "less-than" due to some common misconceptions. So let's first get clear on the definition of the offending word, shall we?Misconception #1: The Word "Cheap"
The meaning of the word "cheap" has evolved from having a lower price than other products to being downright worthless. This twisted perception of the word has also given low-priced guitars a bad rap. When a guitar is being sold for cheap, it doesn't mean the instrument will disintegrate in your hands the minute you take it for a good ride. Cheap means just that—a low price. The word "expensive," on the other hand, is not up for interpretation. It means only one thing: costly.Misconception #2: The Guitar Makes the Music
As with my leap to an Ovation with no consideration whatsoever given to anything that cost under a cool grand, it's a popular belief that the better the guitar (read expensive), the better the music. This school of thought typically gives rise to a desire to own top-of-the-line models. While it may be true you can't expect to play like Eddie Van Halen on shoddy equipment, the guitar is only part of the equation. Electric guitars are made to be played with effects pedals. You can own a really low-priced guitar, but if you know your music, you can mix up the effects so well it will still sound good no matter what your axe. It's the player that makes the music. Doesn't matter if your guitar of choice is a garage sale steal or the Strat right off Eddie's back, if you're lacking in the skill department, both will sound like crap. Assuming the instrument is made well, i.e. it holds its tuning, action is just right, good sustain, straight neck, etc., a decent guitarist can make even a beater sound great. Misconception #3: Cheap Guitars are Made Cheaply
Okay, yes, it's true. Cheap guitars are made of cheaper materials than more expensive ones. Cheaper guitars use plywood bodies. More expensive guitars are made of more expensive solid woods like rosewood and mahogany. Cheaper guitars also have cheaper paints, lacquers, and finishes. Hardware and electronics can also vary greatly from guitar to guitar. There are different quality grades for tuners, bridges, pickups, pick guards, tremolo mechanisms, etc.
Although the added attention to detail that goes into crafting a more expensive instrument is very time consuming and costly for manufacturers, it can have a marked effect on the instrument's overall playability. This is not to say that a quality guitar can't be had for the more budget-conscious player. Most guitar manufacturers are small, highly personal companies that stress detail and quality. Each company does its own research and testing, which virtually insures the customer a flawless guitar.
During the past few decades, the guitar industry has become more mechanized, allowing for greater speed, higher consistency and lower pricing. Cheaper guitars are produced with advanced automated manufacturing techniques, which allow manufacturers to produce a very uniform product with a minimum of oversight. The reduced time spent on quality control allows the manufacturer to sell the product for less. Although purists resist mechanization, a well-trained workman using machine tools can usually produce a higher-quality instrument than a craftsman working alone. The final testing procedures at most manufacturers are quite stringent; only the best guitars leave the plant, and more than one person makes the final determination as to which instruments are shipped out and which are rejected.
Every bit as important as the quality of the materials and workmanship involved in the making of a guitar is how a particular guitar sounds
to your ear and feels
in your hands. A cheap, poorly made guitar is no fun to play. Nor is too much guitar for your abilities. If a guitar is no fun to play, chances are excellent that it will end up collecting dust in a corner somewhere or forgotten entirely in the back of your closet. Sometimes it's not all about the newest and bestest. Sometimes it's the guitar's mojo that renders it priceless. Old used guitars with a little history behind them have years of experience infused into their wood. Like an old pair of slippers, they feel just right. Misconception #4: Expensive Guitars Stay in Tune
Typically, a cheap guitar doesn't stay in tune nearly as well as a higher-end instrument. Now, that's not to say all expensive guitars stay in tune. They don't. The problem of keeping stringed instruments, particularly guitars, in tune has been a continuing issue since the instrument was first invented. Many guitars—yes, even the expensive ones—come from the factory with high frets that can complicate tuning.
And don't assume that the guitar you just purchased has new strings on it. It might be a new guitar, but if it's been in a showroom for a while, it's probably been played by any number of people, and the strings will have dulled considerably since they were put on. Once you’ve brought your new baby home, you should replace the strings with your preferred brand and gauge.
Ruling out strings (worn out, improperly stretched or incorrectly wound on the tuners), tuning issues, with any guitar, can be assumed to be mechanical, i.e. nut and/or bridge issues. It can also be a matter of your tremolo bar, which puts considerable stress on the strings which can cause considerable tuning problems. A skilled luthier can assess the situation and make any required adjustments or replace parts if necessary.
Buying a guitar is an investment in your musical future, monetarily and otherwise. When next you find yourself in the market for a new guitar, approach the purchase with an open mind. Do your homework. Just because a guitar costs more doesn't mean it's any good, just as a cheaper guitar isn't always a piece of junk. Remember that at one point in time even Gibson guitars were cheaper than average and considered to be trash. Epiphone, which now is a lower-priced copy brand, was once the market leader and has made some of the most sought-after guitars in the world. And as far as guitar heroes go, Queen's Brian May has used a homemade guitar since the late '60s that he and his father built from a fireplace mantel and his mother's knitting needles, while Green Day frontman Billie Jo Armstrong favors his much beloved "Blue," a Fender knockoff. Every brand has at least the occasional shining example, and even the best brands produce a dud now and then.
Evaluating the quality of any guitar means looking at individual components that make up the instrument—the body and neck, tuners, frets, pickups, electronics and hardware. Much like buying a new car, the best way to find out what features and feel you like is to "test drive" the instrument—play as many guitars as you can get your hands on, in all price ranges. Ultimately, it will all come down to the way the guitar sounds to you and how it feels in your hands. You can't measure the worth of an instrument in dollars and cents alone. Listen for the guitar that speaks to you.