Ask Charlie...

What Do You Get for Your Money?

Hello Troubadourians! Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of YouTube reviews of so-called budget guitars—guitars starting from less that $200 in some cases, to under $400—that are receiving rave reviews. I won’t name the brands but you can find them on several YouTube channels and it made me think about what makes a guitar “good” these days. Do you really have to spend a lot of money to get a good guitar? The answer is, well, that depends. Are premium guitars that much better such they are worth the thousands of dollars more that they cost? There was a time when the answer was, obviously, yes. The minimum price of entry into having a guitar that could even be considered as a quality instrument was $1000 minimum. And even then, there was no guarantee that every guitar in that price range—or even two of the same model—would compare to a premium instrument. Some would, while others were often just a pile of parts. It could be a real crap shoot. On occasion, even a $2000 instrument could require quite a bit of work to really play and sound good. While playability is measurable, and somewhat a matter of taste, sound is definitely subjective…to a point.

Not everyone can hear the subtleties of tone in a guitar—either electric or acoustic—and not everyone likes the same tone, but to paraphrase Huey Lewis: Good is a rule but sometimes bad is bad. For a guitar to be considered good by most players it has to be more than the sum of its components and parts. And, this is somewhat easier to achieve in an electric guitar than it is in an acoustic guitar. I have personally played acoustic guitars made from the best available woods that played and sounded pretty bad. With most of these instruments, even if the playability can be improved, the tone rarely improves. The entire concept for a high-quality acoustic guitar is that it begins life sounding—and hopefully playing—good and will continue to improve with time and playing. And, to some degree, the same can be expected of electric guitars but it is subject to an entirely different set of metrics. I think it is important at this time to point out that the guitars being discussed and the reviews of those guitars are exclusively electric guitars. I think it’s fair to say that evaluating acoustic guitars is much more difficult and subtle than it is for electric guitars and there are also overwhelmingly more budget electric guitars being manufactured than there are acoustic guitars in the same category. And it is easier for them to be evaluated online. For that reason, I’m excluding acoustic guitars from this discussion. Perhaps we’ll take a look at budget acoustic guitars another time.

In general, it is easier to build an electric guitar than it is an acoustic guitar, and a considerable amount of the manufacturing improvements over the last decade or so have been focused on electric guitars. The result is that the overall quality of electric guitars has improved dramatically across the cost spectrum with the most significant improvement being realized in the lowest-end instruments. Along with those manufacturing improvements, electric guitars have been the focus of intense scrutiny and research, primarily in how to replicate the look, touch, feel, and sound of vintage instruments. One result has been that large manufacturers and smaller builders have acquired the knowledge and skills to make new guitars that exhibit most or all of the things that make vintage instruments so desirable. Of course, the most visible realization of all of the afore mentioned scrutiny and research are the so-called “relic” guitars from Fender, Gibson, and other companies. Even my friends at Collings have figured out how to create new guitars that look and play “old and broken in.”

In truth, I believe that Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars was the first manufacturer to put the effort into making every guitar they manufacture playable, even gig-ready, right off the rack. They have been exceedingly successful at doing exactly that. In addition, they were one of the first manufacturers to successfully export that quality to their offshore manufacturing facilities. Their import guitars are comparable in quality, playability, and sound to their core line of American guitars. Certainly, there are differences between an $800–$1200 guitar and one that goes for over $4000, but to a lot of players the lower-priced PRS guitars are more than good enough to gig with. The success of PRS has raised the bar for every other manufacturer and we all have benefited from that. As an aside, I find it ironic that while PRS led the way to guitars playing and sounding like vintage played-in guitars, they don’t relic their guitars. Preferring instead to dazzle with beautifully figured woods and finishes that look inches deep.

So, do you really have to spend a lot of money to get a good guitar? Well, it depends on what your expectations are. It is possible today to buy a guitar for somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 that can be used on a gig. Is it different from what would be generally considered a “professional grade” instrument? Most certainly. What, then, is the difference? As always, the difference is time. An ingredient that is always expensive. A budget guitar is what it is from the moment it is completed. It is as good as it is ever going to be. If you don’t like the sound of the pickups, you can replace them with some that are more to your liking but you can do that with any guitar, so nothing new there. The essential tonal characteristics of the guitar—it’s acoustic properties if you will—will remain constant throughout its life. In contrast, a high-end instrument made from high-quality wood and components will, in fact, improve with age. This is a property that definitely enhances the electric tonality of the instrument. Even such an instrument that has been made to look old, “relic-ed” in appearance, will continue to improve with age. The ingredient of time in that case is limited to appearance and is artificial. And, believe me, making a new instrument look authentically old is very expensive. The aging of the instrument’s wood, in fact the instrument as a complete system, will continue to improve with the passage of time and the amount and type of playing it receives. And while we have learned how to age the appearance of an instrument, it still takes actual time for that instrument to physically age and can’t be rushed. That is quite an investment. So, whether or not it is worth the expense is up to you.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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