Cheap Vs. Expensive Guitars

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Determining where and how to spend your hard-earned money is not easy as a guitarist. A quick scroll through an online music store such as Sweetwater will likely overwhelm you with the thousands of options available to choose from.

There is almost an information/gear overload, and the sheer number of choices can confuse you about what to do and where to begin.

If you have somehow managed to narrow down what type of equipment you will buy, which in this case is a guitar, you are still confronted with a daunting number of options.

With so many brands, shapes, colors, materials, and style options, where do you begin?

The first question that should be asked is how much money you are willing to spend. Although we are in a golden age of guitar availability, affordability, and quality, buyers should be aware of some significant differences between cheap and expensive guitars when making this important decision.

So, what are the major differences between cheap and expensive guitars, and how do you decide which route to take?

Many factors determine how expensive a guitar is, such as the brand of the guitar, where and how it is made, the type of wood used for the body, neck, and fretboard, and the quality of the pickups, electronics, and other component parts like volume knobs, tuners, and bridges.

Of course, we all know that a new piece of gear or new guitar won’t instantly improve playing ability and that buying a signature series guitar won’t magically gain the artist’s talents. However, a new piece of gear or new guitar can undoubtedly inspire us to play more or spark creativity in our playing and songwriting.

So, purchasing a new guitar is a very important consideration and one that shouldn’t be approached lightly.

Below we will take a detailed look at the differences between cheap and expensive guitars and some pros and cons that will help you decide which to buy.

What Makes A Guitar Cheap Vs. Expensive?

Many factors determine whether a guitar is considered a cheap (beginner) or expensive guitar. There is no right or wrong choice regarding guitars, but instead should be based on your needs and what you are willing to spend. All of the following factors should be considered when determining the quality of a guitar you are trying to purchase and if the price tag is justified and worth it.

1. Age

Guitars are much like cars, whiskey, and wine, in that the vintage is highly sought after. Players and collectors alike will willingly pay small fortunes for many of these vintage guitars, especially those with household names like Gibson and Fender, which I will discuss in more detail below.

For example, the world-famous Norman’s Rare Guitars in California always features a collection of incredible vintage guitars, often at quite high prices. Because many will pay high prices for vintage guitars, it is unlikely the prices will come down anytime soon.

One way to increase the value of something is to make it scarce, which is absolutely true when dealing with vintage guitars. Although just because a guitar is rare does not make it valuable. If you DIY a guitar in your garage, it will be a one-of-a-kind rarity, but it will unlikely be worth much. There must also be a demand for the guitar.

Take, for example, the infamous Gibson Les Paul Standard produced between 1958 and 1960, also known as “the Burst.” Very few of these were ever produced, and the exact number left around is quite controversial. Not only is the “Burst” rare, but it is also a very coveted piece of music history.

While it is possible to find inexpensive older guitars, even many in poor condition sell for incredibly high amounts of money. If they are the right combination of scarce and demanded. Therefore, if you are seeking a brand-name vintage guitar, it is a safe bet that you should start saving your money.

But why is this? Why are vintage guitars often worth so much more money? Do they actually sound better? Many guitar aficionados would say yes. But why?

A couple of main factors may contribute to the alleged better tone of older guitars. The first is that as the wood dries over time, it will sonically change, resulting in a better tone.

The other reason comes down to the quality of the wood used. There is certainly a quality spectrum when talking about guitar woods- or the wood used in similar instruments for that matter. Still, it is not just the difference between mahogany and maple (for example) but also the quality of individual batches of wood. One batch of mahogany may produce a better tone than a similar batch, with factors such as the climate, and growing condition of the wood, etc. as factors.

Further, many vintage guitars used wood from old-growth forests and other non-sustainable sources, many of which are no longer available for modern guitar production. Because many of these woods are now scarce or unavailable, it puts an increased value on these older guitars.

This does not mean that all wood used on guitars today is of poor quality, but there are some woods/combinations of wood that you are likely never to see on guitars produced now.

You be the judge. Check out the video below and see if you can hear the difference between some vintage (and VERY expensive) guitars and newer (and still expensive) guitars.

2. Brand

Similar to age, certain brands are more sought after than others, though these two reasons often go hand-in-hand. Household names like Gibson, Fender, and Gretsch (now owned by Fender), some of the original manufacturers of guitars, are often much more expensive than some of the other brands available.

While most brands have numerous models ranging from cheap, entry-level beginner guitars to custom-shop models, Brands like Gibson do not have much below the $1,000 price tag. Similarly, a quick search on Sweetwater also shows nothing below $799 for any Fender models. (Note: These are late 2022 prices).

Of course, Gibson has their Epiphone line, and Fender has their Squire line. Epiphone and Squire are often considered cheaper versions of their better-known parent companies. However, top-of-line Epiphones and Squires are still relatively expensive. The current highest-priced Epiphone Les Pauls will still cost over $1,000, and some new Squire models are around $600.

The brand equals quality debate is not reserved for the world of guitars. While there is undoubtedly some merit to particular brands (or models within brands) having a higher quality, sometimes, as consumers, we pay for the name on the headstock.

There is nothing wrong with buying Brand name guitars, such as Gibson, so that you can have the Gibson name on the headstock. However, even though we all would surely enjoy the extremely high-priced equipment, it will not instantly make us better players.

When it comes down to it, the brand on the headstock should be one of the last considerations when determining what guitar to buy. There are many more important considerations, especially how the guitar feels when you play it and simply making sure you actually enjoy the guitar you pick is huge.

However, the fact is that many guitarists will overlook or discredit many guitars simply because they don’t have a well-known, or what is considered “good,” brand name. This is a shame and causes some potential lost opportunities that could have resulted in a fantastic playing experience and significant money saved.

Take Harley Benton guitars for an example. They make an extensive line of incredibly affordable guitars styled after all the most popular shapes and styles from the more prominent brand names (some would argue they outright rip them off). You might say cheap is one thing, but does it sound good?

The video below puts Harley Benton’s Les Paul model against the classic Gibson Les Paul Standard. Hear for yourself the differences between the two.

The video above shows that the much cheaper Harley Benton can undoubtedly hold its own against its much more expensive cousin. However, one crucial factor that must be considered is the quality control between guitars, where the next segment comes into play: Where and how a guitar is made.

3. Body, Neck, and Fretboard Wood

I mentioned in the section on Age that many vintage guitars often utilized wood from old-growth forests and other highly sought-after locations. In the video of Fender’s Custom Shop, the tour guide mentioned they were able to obtain wood from the Dolomites in northern Italy from the same area where the famous Stradivarius Violins were created only because a storm had knocked the trees over.

Does the type of wood used on a guitar really make a difference? Absolutely! Whether you are talking about electrics, acoustics, or classical guitars, the bulk of the guitar is made of wood, so the type of wood matters regarding tone.

Each type of wood will produce different tonal variations, with some being more popular in electrics and some more popular in acoustics and classical guitars. What about cheap versus expensive guitars? Are there certain woods that cheap guitars use opposed to what the expensive guitars use beyond the old-growth woods I have mentioned earlier?

In Short, yes. However, it is less clear cut than you would think, with many expensive models using similar materials as their cheaper counterparts.

For example, concerning electric guitars, the most expensive Gibson ES-335, currently listed on Sweetwater for $3,999, features a 3-ply figured maple/poplar body with a mahogany neck and rosewood fretboard. The $3,199 Gibson Slash-model Les Paul has a mahogany body, a flamed maple top, a mahogany neck, and a rosewood fretboard.

The $2,899 Brent Mason signature Telecaster has an ash body, maple neck, and fretboard. The $7,299 James Hetfield signature Snakebyte features a mahogany body and neck with an ebony fretboard. Lastly, the $4,199 Jackson USA King Flying V KV2 features an alder body, quartersawn maple neck, and an ebony fretboard.

On the cheapest end of the electric guitar selection on Sweetwater, the $129 Kramer Focus VT-211S features a mahogany body with a maple neck and fretboard. The $159 Epiphone Melody Maker comes with a poplar body, mahogany neck, and rosewood fretboard, and the $159 Jackson Dinky JS11 features a poplar body, maple neck, and amaranth fretboard.

On the acoustic side, the $10,499 Martin D-45 features a spruce top, East Indian rosewood sides and back with a mahogany neck and ebony fretboard, and the $6,999 Gibson SJ-200 has a Sitka spruce top, rosewood back and sides with a 2-piece maple neck with walnut stripe and an ebony fretboard. At the same time, the $129 Epiphone DR-100 has a spruce top, mahogany sides, back, and neck with a rosewood fretboard.

Regarding classical guitars, the $9,999 Yamaha GC82C has a solid American cedar top with solid Madagascar rosewood sides and back, a cedro neck, and an ebony fretboard, while the $4,399 Cordoba Hauser Master Series has an Engelmann spruce top, Indian rosewood sides and back, mahogany neck, and ebony fretboard. On the cheap end, the $129 Epiphone E1 is a cedar top with mahogany sides, back, and neck, with a rosewood fretboard.

So if all the woods are similar across cheap and expensive guitars, why is there such a wide range in pricing? Remember, not all wood batches are created equally, but beyond that, where and how guitars are made, along with the quality of the hardware, makes a huge difference between cheap and expensive guitars.

4. Where And How It Is Made

Even within brands, not all guitars are created equally. Where and how guitars are made has a significant impact on the overall quality and cost of the guitar.

Starting at the top, most major brands have a custom shop, where the guitars are handmade by master luthiers. Of course, these guitars will be considerably more expensive than production-line guitars. You typically won’t find anything less than $2,000-4,000 from a Gibson, Fender, or ESP custom shop, with many guitars going for $6,000 on up past $10,000.

Further, if you opt for a fully customized, one-of-a-kind guitar, you might be waiting a while for your guitar if you place a custom order, but if you are willing to spend that kind of money, a little bit of a wait is worth it.

Many of us will never be able to spend that amount of money on a big brand custom shop guitar, but is the extra cost even worth it? Tone is often subjective, but watch the video below comparing a custom shop Fender Stratocaster and another high-end Fender Stratocaster and decide for yourself.

There are also smaller custom shops where you can find high-quality, custom-built guitars for much cheaper than you would find at a Gibson, ESP, or Fender custom shop. One such shop is Crimson from the UK, where many of the guitars are in the $2,000 range. Another benefit of going this route is that you will be guaranteed a unique guitar that no one else will have while also supporting small business owners.

If you are interested in how a company like Fender builds these custom shop guitars, check out the video below.

Moving on from custom shop guitars to production models, one significant factor is where a guitar is made. For example, my favorite guitar company, ESP, has factory locations worldwide. Their custom shop is located in Japan, and they have a manufacturing location in the United States. In contrast, their more affordable “LTD” line has production factories in many countries, such as Korea, Indonesia, and China, as do many other big brand names.

Where a guitar is manufactured does not have as big of an impact on the quality as what method the guitar is being produced does. A guitar being mass-produced on an assembly line indeed runs a higher risk of lower quality control, but the physical location of the factory has little to do with that. However, due to often lower labor costs in places such as China and Indonesia, these are places where companies generally choose to set up their factories.

Improvements in the assembly line and mass production style practices have resulted in a boom of high-quality mid and lower-range “cheap” guitars. This has led to what is considered lower-quality woods sounding pretty dang good despite being cheaper.

5. Bridge & Tuners

There is a wide selection of guitar bridges and tuners available, but does the quality of these components make much of a difference in the overall quality of the guitar? Online forums are full of debates regarding these parts of the guitar, but generally speaking, these parts can make a difference in overall quality.

Like potential quality control issues on mass-produced guitars, cheaper components will have higher quality control issues. One of the reasons that cheap guitars can be less expensive is that manufacturers may skimp a bit on these areas as well as strings.

Guitar bridges can range in price from around twenty bucks to a couple of hundred dollars depending on the style you are looking for. More expensive guitars will typically have higher-end bridges, but if you purchase a cheaper guitar, you might have serious issues with the bridge and need to replace it. This is one of those crucial pieces of hardware that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tuners are another area that companies will cut corners on to keep the overall cost of the guitar lower. In my experience, I have had a lot more issues with cheap guitar tuners than with bridges. Low-quality tuning machine heads can be a nightmare and make your guitar playing a very unpleasant experience.

A set of high-quality tuners will cost around the $150 range but are well worth it if you have a guitar that has terrible tuners. Once again, many higher-end guitars will have good tuners, but the cheaper models, especially those under $300, often have poor-quality tuners.

6. Pickups & Electronics

Poor electronics and lousy wiring can also plague cheaper guitars, but usually, they are still playable. One of my cheapest guitars, an Epiphone Les Paul Special ii, came with some electronic issues where, occasionally, when I toggled between pickups, the sound would cut out. It wasn’t a big deal, and often a quick jiggle of the pickup selector would kick the sound back in, but it was still annoying and could be a serious issue during live shows.

I have never had an issue with the electronics on my mid to higher-end guitars.

Pickups are another area where cheaper guitars tend to lack. However, the stock pickups in most cheap guitars get the job done just fine. Still, there often is a difference (sometimes slight) in overall quality between many stock pickups and higher-end models like Seymour Duncan or DiMarzio.

Regarding pricing, top-of-the-line pickups for electric guitars can range anywhere from $300 to almost $1,000, which is way more expensive than many quality mid-range guitars. Top-end acoustic pickups are less pricey, but a quality Fishman pickup will still cost you around $360.

You can see by the pricing that cheap guitars will have cheap pickups, but as the video shows, cheap pickups can still sound good.

Which Should You Choose?

So which should you choose? Below I will quickly run through some pros and cons of expensive and cheap guitars. That, coupled with the information above, will help point you in the direction that works best for you.

Expensive Pro #1: Quality Craftsmanship

Whether you are splurging for a custom shop model or simply spending a couple thousand on a top-of-the-line, brand-name guitar, you can be sure that the craftsmanship will also be top-of-the-line.

Brands like Fender, ESP, and others pride themselves on the product they put out to the world. High-end guitars are a form of beautiful art, and the artists who spend hours, days, and weeks of their lives crafting these products care about every little detail that goes into them.

Further, small boutique custom shops can only continue to get business if their products are of high quality, so you can be assured that if you go with lesser-known brands that produce handmade guitars, you will get a high-quality guitar.

Expensive Pro #2: Top-of-the-line Components

As I discussed above, expensive guitars will have expensive components. It makes no sense to craft a beautiful work of art only to load it up with cheap parts and pickups that might break down and ruin the overall quality of the product.

When you spend top dollar for a guitar, you can bet you will also get the best components. Everything from the tuners to the bridge to the volume and tone knobs will be of a higher quality than on their cheaper counterparts.

Expensive Con #1: Quality Control Issues

Despite what I just said about quality craftsmanship, there will still be quality control issues, especially on guitars that are not from the custom shop. In the last couple of years, I have read many forums about how displeased many customers were with quality control issues on the higher-end, brand-name guitars. Buyer beware!

Expensive Con #2: Money Could Be Spent Elsewhere

Do you want to spend thousands of dollars on one piece of equipment? The answer for me is no, but many players would say yes; they only need one high-quality guitar. I like variety and am much more comfortable buying numerous mid-range guitars rather than one or two extremely expensive guitars.

For my recording and playing needs, I prefer a wide selection of guitars that offer various tones as I play multiple genres of music.

While I have a couple of mid to high-end guitars, they have all been bought secondhand, saving me a bunch of money. If you are willing to get a guitar with some scratches and dents, used guitars or B-stock guitars can be a great alternative to spending money on a new expensive guitar.

Cheap Pro #1: Most Low & Mid-Range Guitars Are Good Quality

As I have said, we live in a golden age of guitars. Never before have the options on what to choose and the quality of those choices been so high. Nowadays, it is a safe bet that you will get a high-quality product if you purchase a mid-range (and often even lower-range) guitar.

Further, dedication to your craft can often overcome the low price tag and quality of many guitars.

Cheap Pro #2: Easy To UpGrade

Another pro of cheap guitars is that they are easy to upgrade. In the end, you will likely spend as much as a relatively expensive guitar, but upgrading various components is like having your own custom-made guitar.

Plus, upgrading a guitar can be a fun and rewarding experience, like restoring an old car or renovating your home, and with the right pieces, you can make a horrible guitar sound really good.

Cheap Con#1: Quality Control Issues Are More Frequent

If quality control issues are present even in expensive guitars, you had better believe they are present and much more frequent in the cheaper models. It should be expected that there will be imperfections when purchasing a cheap guitar.

Usually, they are not big deals, but if you are picky about the little details like perfectly filed frets, you are best off buying an expensive guitar.

Closing Thoughts

I have just given you much information to consider as you decide if you should buy an expensive guitar from a big-name brand company or small custom luthier or if you should risk settling for a cheaper guitar.

From my personal experience, I have had extremely positive experiences with cheap guitars, and many of them sound just as good, if not better, in some situations than my more expensive models.

Plus, at the end of the day, the average listener usually won’t be able to tell one way or the other.

I hope you found this article meaningful, and I wish you the best in finding your dream guitar(s)!