Just about every music industry publication is talking about the further expansion of gear into global markets. At NAMM2013, China and India were on the lips of all of the manufacturers. Guitars have been a global business at least since the 80’s, but it looks like things are about to get turned up to eleven.
But what does this mean for players?
TheToneKing.com decided to look a little deeper into what seems to be getting everybody so amped up.
Besides for the obvious “Made in USA” stamp on the back of the neck, most discerning guitar players used to be able to tell the difference between a USA Fender Stratocaster and its import counterpart. Now that Japanese and Mexican guitar manufacturing has all but surpassed US in quality, it’s getting harder to differentiate between a US and an import.
In the past two years, the chat on the forums has shifted from “It’s shit if it don’t say USA,” to “If it rocks, who cares where it’s from!” Reasons vary from the increased quality of imports, to stagnant wages and rising product cost. But, what does this mean for the “Made in USA” stamp on the back of your guitar?
If you looked at 5 different companies and how they handle US and Non-US production, you would get 5 different methods.
You can either buy a Fender Stratocaster that’s made in the US for about two grand. Or you can buy one that’s made in Japan for about half that. Or you could buy one that’s made in Mexico for $599 American. No matter which one you buy, it will say Fender Stratocaster on the headstock. They’re all made from the same type of woods, but the build quality and hardware is completely different. But, it is not unheard of for players to buy a Mexi-strat, throw in some quality pickups, and be on their way with a guitar that sounds almost as good as the US version. By the way, you can also pick up a Fender Strat made in Korea for about $399.
So what’s a Squire Stratocaster? Your guess is as good as mine. Squires can be from anywhere in the world; including, Japan, Mexico, India, Korea, China, Taiwan, and Indonesia. And, yes, they even made American Squires for one year in 1989! The cheapest Squire probably costs less than a pack of cigarettes, but I was too lazy to bother to look it up.
Gibson, on the other hand, works a bit differently. Gibsons are manufactured in the US, and they start out at about a grand. There’s no such thing as an imported Gibson guitar. You wanna know what happens if you import a Gibson? It becomes an Epiphone. If you want an import Les Paul style guitar, for example, you’ll end up buying an Epiphone for about $500 bucks. While many companies will have their guitars built in the same factories, Epiphone/Gibson built their own “Epiphone only” factory in Qingdao China in October of 2002. http://www.epiphone.com/News-Features/News/2007/Gibson-Qingdao-Factory-All-Epiphone-All-The-Time.aspx Although, you could still probably find some of those Korean made Epis if you look hard enough.
PRS is similar to Gibson. They have their US product line which is simply called PRS, and they have their import line with is called the SE line or the “Student Edition” line. The thing that’s different, though, is that PRS doesn’t generally offer the same models in both lines. If you want a Custom 24, you have to go with the US PRS line, and it’ll cost you about $3,000 dollars. If you’re looking for a Mikael Akerfeldt Signature Model, you’ll only find it in the SE line, and it will only set you back $679 bucks. And that SE will be built in Korea by World Musical Instrument LTD.
Well, what about Japanese guitar companies. I’m glad you asked. ESP has been Japan made since 1985. ESP models are mostly manufactured in Japan. But, like PRS and Gibson, ESP has their “overseas” line called LTD. LTD series guitars can come from Korea or Indonesia. 1000 series are from Korea. 401 series and below are Indonesian. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ESP_Guitars
Death Match: “Import” vs. “USA”
The term “Import” is starting to become irrelevant. Or, at least as it has been used as colloquialism. If you live in the US, calling a guitar from Japan an “import” makes perfect sense. But, the term “import” has become synonymous with lower quality guitars. Hell, I’ve even heard people in the US refer to LTD as an “import ESP.”
Today, Japanese guitar manufacturing rivals the US in quality. Some Japanese manufactured guitars have even reached the holy “vintage” status. So, it’s pretty foolish to say that all “import” guitars are low quality. I mean, have you played an ESP Eclipse? I’ll put that thing against a Les Paul any day of the week. *You can direct your hate mail to my twitter page @mjohnsonbooks.
Besides, guitars are no longer just a US business. In the 60s and 70s, guitarists from all over the world were playing US made guitars. Clapton and Jeff Beck had their Stratocasters, and Jimmy Page had his Les Paul. It was easy to put guitars into two categories, USA and everywhere else.
Now, guitar players are playing a myriad of guitars built all around the world. In fact, you’ll probably find more guitar players playing guitars made outside of the US than guitars with the “Made in USA” stamp.
And don’t forget about that whole Internet thing. As a writer for TheToneKing.com, I can’t possibly refer to guitars as either USA made or import with a straight face when our subscribers are from all corners of the world. That’s like going to Mexico and saying something stupid like, “This place is full of immigrants!”
The two big emerging markets that many guitar companies have been courting for the past ten years is China and India. Not just for manufacturing, but for the sale of guitars.
Many Asian countries have seen a significant rise in disposable or discretionary income in the past decade. And, China and India have been leading the way.
Coupled with the explosion in discretionary income, India is beginning to relax decades-old policies that wouldn’t allow “multi-brand foreign retailers” to open shop. Basically, under the old rule, multi-brand foreign retailers had to enter into agreements with domestic companies in order to establish shops in India. Basically, if you weren’t born in India, it was a pain in the ass to open a shop. Recently, India’s parliament gave states the authority to bend this rule.
While I don’t see Guitar Center India opening anytime soon, guitar companies are looking for ways to expand into these markets.
And, Asian markets aren’t the only ones that guitar companies are looking to get in to. Just look to Fender, who opened their first custom showroom in Latin America in Mexico City less than six months ago.
Where’d you get that axe, man?
While the US will always be an important focus in the selling of gear, the US remaining significant when it comes to manufacturing is uncertain. While it probably won’t disappear completely, US guitar manufacturing is in danger of becoming boutique. Catering to a small number of players who are willing to pay at least twice as much as guitars manufactured in other countries.
While most players are completely aware where their gear comes from, there are a small segment of uninformed players that swear that the $300 dollar Fender Strat that they just bought is a US made guitar. Or, there’s always the players who think that ESP guitars are manufactured in the US and LTD is Japanese. Hell, I got in an argument with a lady who told me that the Epiphone that she bought her son was built in California. There were so many flaws in her argument that I swore that she must be from a parallel dimension.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to navigate the waters of globalization. Too many countries building guitars with the same name on it, and some of them are getting really damn good at it.
To help, here’s a few guitar companies and where their guitars are manufactured. Feel free to comment below and add to the list!
Carvin – USA
Fender – USA (Corona, California), Japan (FujiGen Gakki, Tokai, and Dyna Gakki) , Mexico (Ensenada), Korea
Squire – USA, Japan, Mexico, Korea, Indonesia, China, India
Gibson – USA
Epiphone – Korea, China
PRS – USA (Stevensville, Maryland)
SE – Korea (World Musical Instrument LTD)
B.C. Rich – USA, Korea, Japan
ESP – Japan
LTD – Korea, Indonesia
Ibanez – Japan, Korea, Indonesia
Washburn – USA, Korea
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About the Author: Marc published his first novel Becoming in 2010. It’s a kick-ass book with monsters and dreams and stuff, and you should buy it. Since then, he’s written thousands of articles for TheToneKing.com, many of which have been picked up for circulation by manufacturers and other news outlets. His next book, Drugs and Pancakes, should be available early 2014 if his alcoholic editor can find time to work on it in-between destroying his liver and screaming about punctuation. He graduated from Roosevelt University with honors, which means that he’s not as dumb as he looks. He’s been playing guitar for over 25 years, which is almost twice as long as most of his students have been alive.