If you are new to the acoustic guitar, you might be wondering why some acoustic guitars are far more expensive than others. In today’s article, we’re going to investigate why good acoustic guitars are expensive and explain some of the subtleties involved.
Good acoustic guitars cost more than entry-level acoustic guitars because of the materials aka tonewoods (and their superior acoustic properties) used in the construction of the guitar. The skills and experience of the luthier are perhaps even more critical than the materials however, brand recognition and how this relates to resale value also have a large impact on price.
Cheap vs expensive guitars
Many consider the mark of an instrument strongly related to price. Manufacturers are competing for your hard-earned dollar in a competitive industry. So producing a high-quality instrument without bloat is the intended goal to remain competitive in an ever-saturated market.
This is why many manufacturers now offer guitars at more affordable price points to complement their higher-end offerings, tempting a wider range of buyers who will eventually graduate to more expensive models. The most obvious example of this comes from the electric guitar world, with the Les Paul Junior, released in 1954 as a student guitar and more affordable alternative to the Les Paul.
In the acoustic guitar world, brands like Taylor, Martin, and PRS are all manufacturing less expensive models to cater to a wider audience.
With this in mind, it’s interesting to consider the huge differences in price between entry-level guitars e.g. guitars priced under $100 from brands such as Jasmine, and Kona compared to revered acoustic guitar manufacturers such as Martin, Guild, Taylor, and Gibson with price ranges well more than 10 times the value of an entry-level guitar.
Does this mean the $100 Jasmine acoustic guitar is 60 times less the quality of a new Martin D41 for example?
It depends on who’s asking the question.
In the hands of an experienced guitarist, the answer is yes as the guitarist will extract the absolute maximum from the guitar.
That’s not to say the guitar is going to sound 60 times better, especially to less attuned ears. But it’s a sliding scale, and to reach that upper echelon of clarity, and projection the artist might need to pay 60 times the price of a Jasmine or Kona acoustic guitar.
In the hands of a beginner, however, it’s doubtful the sub $100 guitar will sound 60 times worse than a Martin D41.
And, while I’m certain the fingerstyle mastery of Tommy Emmanuel would still great sound on a Hello Kitty acoustic guitar (Zakk Wylde attempted it, see here), he’s going to get a lot more out of his Maton EBG808TE.
Does low price always indicate low quality?
A lot goes into what makes an acoustic guitar sound great, and in some cases, you will simply come across a decent-sounding, albeit, cheap acoustic guitar.
A good friend of mine, for one reason or another, had an old 12-string acoustic guitar that he had held onto since his earlier days of learning guitar.
I don’t even remember the brand but it was very much an entry-level guitar, and sounded like one, right down to the saddle height adjustment posts on the bridge.
This same friend owns several beautiful electric and acoustic guitars including a couple of Martins and a Taylor 324CE.
One day, he decided to convert his 12-string to a 6-string guitar. He simply cut down the headstock and changed the bridge and nut.
Once completed and restrung something interesting happened. That same guitar almost immediately took on a far richer tone, and it was louder.
Just recently hearing that same guitar up against his Taylor 224CE and a Guild M120 it wasn’t that far behind in terms of projection.
This just goes to show, that sometimes regardless of the brand, the skills of the luthier and tonewoods used in the construction of acoustic guitars at the end of the day are mostly organic products, and the acoustic properties of the wood used and the holistic nature of the wood combined with how the guitar is put together, or in this case, pulled apart, can combine to create something far more than the sum of its parts.
This particular guitar was unbalanced and dull sounding. Cutting down the longer 12-string headstock and replacing the heavier bridge, gave the guitar a new life.
It’s still true that most of the time the more expensive guitar will be the more appealing, so what are the main differences between an entry-level guitar and a high-end acoustic guitar?
What makes an acoustic guitar expensive?
A typical high-end acoustic guitar will be made from carefully sourced and well-matched tonewoods. This is especially the case with the top of the guitar or soundboard, which is most responsible for the quality of sound a guitar offers.
For example, Sitka Spruce is often the gold standard in the acoustic guitar world for its acoustic properties. Being a very strong, yet light timber it has the strength even at 2mm thickness to handle the tension placed on it by the steel strings of the guitar while being light enough to be highly resonant giving the guitar greater projection than many other tonewoods. Spruce is also well known for its clarity.
The same could be said for Adirondack Spruce, another highly sought-after tonewood used for soundboard construction.
But that’s not the entire story.
Tonewoods are selected by luthiers for specific sounding guitars e.g. a songwriter might favor a Spruce top guitar because it leaves room in the mid-range for vocals. Mahogany, on the other hand, is known for its warmth and ‘woodiness’, and for some, this is far more important than the scooped mid-range of Spruce.
Generally how expensive an item is, comes down to scarcity e.g. the most precious jewels are always the most scarce. If unobtanium did exist, would it not be almost unobtainable for anyone but the Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates of the world?
While most of the materials used in the construction of acoustic guitars are still obtainable, quality tonewoods are becoming more difficult to source than they were last century, especially old-growth timbers, as there are simply fewer forests left in the world today.
Indian Rosewood, commonly used in the construction of acoustic guitars e.g. sides, backs, and fretboards, has been heavily regulated, having a major impact on guitar manufacturers when it came to importing the wood for construction and exporting it as part of a finished guitar. I experienced this myself, and at the time was offering engineered rosewood necks on many of our guitars.
Market forces due to scarcity drive up the price substantially for these long revered tonewoods and because even when they are available they are simply not of the same age and subsequent quality as many of the tonewoods used for guitar manufacturing in times gone by, the manufacturer pays more which is then passed on the customer at the checkout.
So while not all woods used by luthiers are under threat, they have all been impacted in some way, by over-harvesting leaving little in the way of old-growth trees available and a greater demand for sustainability.
What is aged wood?
Wood features annual growth rings. As the name suggests, this indicates one year of growth. On your acoustic guitar, this is perhaps better known as a grain line. So, knowing this you can calculate the age of your guitar by simply counting the individual grain lines.
Old-growth forests are forests that have not been harvested for at least 100 – 150 years and possibly longer. Second, or new growth refers to forests that have been replanted after an initial harvest which results in different growth patterns.
For example, a new growth forest means younger trees are not in the shadows of older trees and fighting for light. This changes the characteristics of the wood as it grows and when it is eventually harvested. New growth trees tend to grow faster than old-growth trees, and there are also obvious changes to the health of the soil.
But that’s only half the story.
While it’s true one could theoretically price the materials used and man-hours put into building an acoustic guitar, how does one put a price on the experience a skilled luthier can provide if the guitar is handmade? This is arguably even more of a factor than the materials used.
Are the skills of a luthier with 40+ years of experience making high-end acoustic guitars all that common? Do they make ’em like they used to?
Of course not, and as demand grows and production efficiency is improved upon. There is also scarcity with regard to experienced workmanship. The results of a skilled luthier who has studied their craft over many years, cannot be compared to a factory luthier working on a production line.
This is why we are seeing more custom, hand-built acoustic guitars than ever before from boutique bench luthiers.
Additionally, there is also new manufacturing technology to consider.
Cheaper guitars mass-produced using CNC technology (automated machining) are made faster and with more precision than ever before. In this sense entry-level guitars have improved, meaning you do get more for $100 nowadays than you might have previously.
But too much of a reliance on technology at the expense of experience overseeing the production also has an impact on quality.
In many cases, a combination of the precision CNC offers along with the skills of a highly skilled luthier working in combination produces an even higher-quality result.
The brand on the headstock of the guitar is also important. Brands such as Martin and Gibson, Taylor, and Guild have built up enviable reputations as makers of fine-quality instruments. Their processes have been refined over many years and their quality control is much higher than lesser-known brands, in most cases anyway.
Regardless, brand recognition is a major factor when it comes to resale value.
An authentic ‘name brand’ guitar will fetch considerably more money than a less known brand, partly because of its vintage appeal, but also because of the value of the brand.
I’ve seen this countless times in the electric guitar world as well. For example, a friend of mine a few years ago purchased a beautiful Carvin guitar, no slouch by any means when it comes to brand recognition but also a step down from a USA-made Fender in terms of resale value.
This same friend purchased a USA-made Telecaster for almost double the price shortly after, and while this is a great-sounding guitar, is it twice as good as the Carvin?
The finish certainly wasn’t, the materials used in the construction were similar and the electronics were probably more impressive on the Carvin, but the Carvin was about half the price, far more versatile, and sounded great. In my opinion, the Carvin is almost forced to be manufactured at a higher quality to even compete.
But perhaps this is the wrong question to be asking. To acquire that much sought-after Telecaster tone does the player need to pay the price being asked? While the Carvin may even be a better guitar, all things considered, it still doesn’t sound like a Tele.
There’s also no question that older guitars from established brands are of a higher perceived value. I’ve already written a fairly detailed article on why aged guitars tend to sound better, but when it comes to vintage guitars, the tone is just one consideration. Collectors value these due to scarcity. This means guitars of this vintage make great investment pieces, as prices continue to rise.
There’s also an argument that cheaper guitars never reach vintage status because they are inferior with regard to workmanship and materials used.
Do you need an expensive guitar?
Do expensive guitars really sound better?
It entirely depends on how you plan on using the guitar.
For example, if you are a recording artist a great-sounding guitar is a must.
If you are a touring artist a durable, reliable, and great-sounding guitar is a must.
But if you are not using the guitar professionally or are still in the beginner stage, a reliable, mid-price guitar is ideal, one that won’t hold you back, but also won’t break the bank either.
Brands such as Yamaha offer several high-quality mid-range acoustic guitars, that are ideal for this type of application.
What affects the quality of an acoustic guitar?
As discussed almost every part of the manufacturing process and the materials used affect the quality of the guitar. From the tonewoods selected and their resonant qualities, to how the wood is stored and dried, along with less obvious things such as the quality and thickness of the finish.
There’s also the construction of the neck, how the frets are seated, the glues used to join the back and sides to the soundboard and the fretboard to the neck, the materials used for the nut and saddle, the structural integrity of the neck joint, the quality of the hardware along with a myriad of other considerations.
To summarize, the quality of the materials and the quality of the workmanship are the largest factors, and well-established manufacturers such as Martin, Taylor, and Guild have been producing guitars for many years, and have specialized processes allowing them to produce a far superior instrument to anything mass-produced.
This is really what you are paying for, the many years of trial and error, the processes, and the experience of a particular brand.
Does it matter where it was built?
While it shouldn’t matter, there are often differences between a USA-made guitar and a guitar made in China, Korea, or Indonesia.
This isn’t to say US-based companies are necessarily more capable, but it is a fact that US-based acoustic guitar manufacturers are the dominant players in the market and therefore utilize more advanced and ultimately consistent and reliable processes.
Not to mention these same companies invest more in R&D and as a result, have incorporated higher levels of technology that ensure precision and consistent quality of production working hand in hand with dedicated and skilled luthiers.
Many of the factories in the US are also temperature and humidity-controlled. This is important as rapid changes in humidity cause wood to expand and/or contract which can also lead to more inconsistencies during manufacturing.
Having worked closely with some of the larger guitar factories in China I know first-hand that many of the very real differences in quality are just due to cost and demand. Countries such as China are chosen for offshore production due to the lower cost of living, resulting in less outlay for wages and they build instruments to a set price.
While the processes the company utilizes can be exported to an extent there are still many differences and brand name manufacturers recognize this and price their instruments produced offshore accordingly.
For example, many US companies with a long history of acoustic guitar manufacturing, move the production of their less expensive models offshore to reduce costs.
So while you might find any number of entry to mid-range instruments are produced in countries with a lower cost of living and therefore lower production costs, the same companies will ensure the manufacturing of their more expensive models is still performed in-house, following their proprietary processes, which ensure a consistent high-quality.
While acoustic guitars are largely organic the instruments produced overseas are often more inconsistent with regard to quality and workmanship.
Some of this is also down to historical reasons. To put it bluntly, Chinese-made guitars have often been inferior but that is also changing and as more companies shift their production and processes to countries such as China, the quality of guitars being produced has increased dramatically.
This is consistent with many industries including car manufacturers and white goods. So, while it’s common practice to consider these guitars as poorly made, for the most part, they are merely made to a set price, and this is not the fault of the country of manufacture.
The value of a guitar comes back to the person who owns it. I have a couple of guitars that you could offer me 10 times the purchase price and I’d be reluctant to let them go, they would be one of the first material things I would think of if my home were to catch fire.
At the end of the day, guitars are tools used to create music and it’s the music that matters. Whichever tool helps you become a better musician is the right tool for you. And while you are more likely to find the guitar that helps you become a better musician by spending a little more, keep an open mind, as it isn’t always the case.