Perhaps the question is best phrased the other way around – “Does a guitar have to be expensive to be any good?”
This is probably a better way to approach the topic of price vs. performance. To answer the question, I’d like to create a sort of “Guitar Quality Checklist”. Once these “elements” of a good quality guitar are established, then not only can we take a close look at some of our suggested “good cheap guitars”, but you’ll also have a solid basic criteria on which to judge other guitars you may come across – whether they are old pawn-shop relics or the newest “looks like a Fender/Gibson” guitar from a trendy manufacturer.
Here is a video I posted on youtube comparing a Fender USA (70’s Classic Reissue Series) Stratocaster to an inexpensive (under $100) Strat copy. You’ll notice in the video that my initial impression slowly changes over the course of adjusting and playing the guitar.
After watching the video, a few things become apparent:
1) Parts that are “good” are not only those proven by the test of time and practical use, but must also be correctly manufactured to function properly. In the video, just because that strat copy neck looks like a Fender Stratocaster neck at first glance doesn’t mean it will function the same way. This point is the most important! Most of the lesser-quality copy guitars rely on looking like famous brands to convince you to buy them. I can understand why the major guitar manufacturers take legal action – it is not at all because someone is “doing what they do, just cheaper”, it’s mostly because someone is creating inferior imitations, and ruining the trust in the original design! Think of it this way – if you buy a crappy imitation Strat and hate it, are you likely to drop five times as much money on a “real” Strat after that experience? Of course not – unless you read this article, of course. 😉
2) Materials have an impact on quality, but particular materials alone don’t make for good quality parts. Just because that Strat copy neck is “all Maple” ( a typical advertising attempt to lure customers) doesn’t mean it even approaches the quality of the Fender neck. In fact, I’d say that those two necks are as different in construction – despite the similarity of materials – as a Pinto from a Bentley.
3) “Quality” in design is best judged in terms of “stability“, “durability“, and “usefulness“. It doesn’t make sense to say that, for example, a humbucking pickup is better quality than a single coil”, or “A fixed bridge is better quality than a locking tremolo.” These are different types of parts, different style parts for doing a particular job. If you prefer single coils over humbuckers, that is a subjective matter, a preference. As the old expression goes, there is “no accounting for taste” – you can’t measure it or compare it. Was the strat copy in the video completely useless? No. It was a passable guitar, especially compared to dirt-cheap guitars from a decade ago. By nicking the design from Fender, that manufacturer spared themselves the entire process of determining, through time and practical use, of finding out what type of bridge, neck, body, pickups, etc. functions, sounds good, and looks great to boot. What they were missing, however, was the understanding as to how all these elements must work together, how they are adjusted to function properly, and how the damned thing should actually feel in the hands and sound when plugged in!
OK, end rant. Now it’s time to consider the overall picture of a “good guitar” part by part.
By far, the most important part of the guitar is the entire neck/tuners/fingerboard unit. This is where all the fancy finger-work takes place, and it must be 100% in order to make for a “good guitar”. Honestly, you could mount a great neck to a slab of dried and pressed cow poop, and it will at least make a playable guitar! On the other hand, a lousy neck on a precision designed, 3/4″ flamed-Maple capped, one-piece Mahogany body will still make for a lousy guitar.
Furthermore, a neck of quality build that is improperly adjusted will also rain on your parade. If you don’t have the budget for a professional setup, you should invest the time in learning how to properly adjust a guitar neck yourself. It will pay off many, many times over in the long run. See our “Guitar Concepts” DVD & Ebook course for that – I go over neck adjustment and action setup in great detail in those lessons.
Things to look for in a quality guitar neck:
– Maple neck /Maple fingerboard: Look for one-piece construction. Maple is a very hard, stable wood, and a well made neck in this style is perhaps the most stable type of all. It should be free of blemishes and unusual grain patterns and knots in the wood. Knots, blemishes, and wood grain irregularities are weak points, and most likely to be the location of future problems. It goes without saying that a maple neck need not have a maple fingerboard attached. As you saw in the video above, this made the neck less stable, and was likely the result of using cheaper materials – two thin pieces of maple are less expensive that one larger, continuous piece. So part of why that guitar could be made less expensively was by gluing the maple fretboard on a thinner maple back instead of making a one-piece neck.
– Maple neck/Rosewood fingerboard: There is a lot of discussion about maple vs. rosewood fingerboards. I suggest you look and listen for yourself and decide what you prefer. As far as the construction goes, look for a neat connection between the maple neck and the fingerboard; no gaps or separations, the ends of the fingerboard at the heel and headstock should be free of glue smears and ragged edges, and should not separate from the neck at all. Anything less than perfect on the visible edges would lead me to suspect that the workmanship is poor, and the guitar a dud.
– Mahogany neck/Rosewood or Ebony fingerboards: Many necks in this style have binding, obscuring the sides of the fingerboard. In this case, have a look at the binding – is it even along the length of the neck? No breaks, thick or thin areas, file marks, glue blobs? Again, a close look at this fine details will clue you in as to how much care went into the manufacturing and finishing. Look at the back of the neck where the headstock connects to the
– Fret finish: Run your fingers up an down the edges of the fretboard – where the frets end at the sides. There should be no sharp, rough, or protruding fretwire. Did you get a boo-boo doing this? Poor fretwork. Sharp fret ends are not entirely uncommon on inexpensive guitars – it’s another handwork step that is often skimped on to save costs.
– Truss rod: In general, I prefer to be able to access the truss rod at the headstock. Living in a climate that experiences a bone-dry winter and sometimes humid summer means that I need to do neck adjustments twice a year (if I’m not lucky). Some guitars (mostly vintage guitars) have access to the truss rod at the heel of the neck, and some bolt-on guitars require that you remove the neck to make adjustments. This is my least-favorite scenario simply because it makes truss rod adjustments a pain in the arse. In any case, it is important that the truss rod is not at either extreme of it’s tension range when the guitar’s action is set as you like it. In other words, if you have to completely crank down the truss rod to get the bow out of the neck, or completely loosen it to keep it from having an arch, then the neck is a dud. Pick a different guitar, or if your axe is a catalog order, send it back now.
All this info so far is just an overview of guitar necks – and this isn’t even as in-depth as a guitar tech or (especially) luthier must go. If a qualified, skilled worker manufactures and assembles a guitar, each manual step increases the cost of the guitar. The more that is done by machine, the less expensive it becomes per unit.
This attention and handwork care is the major difference between, for example, Gibson and Epiphone manufacturing processes, or Fender Squier vs, the Fender USA Custom Shop. Can a Squier or Epiphone come off the line that is as good as a Fender USA or Gibson? Certainly! But the consistency across a whole production run can only be as good as the machines can handle and what the laborers who assemble and check the guitars are allotted per unit! The careful choice of materials, hand finishing, and overall attention to every detail is what makes Fender USA Custom Shop or Gibson instruments both far more expensive, and of a better and more consistent overall quality.
Do I need to know that someone hand carved the body of my guitar, or is it enough to know that a precision, computer controlled router did the work? Let’s consider…
There are a variety of wood types used to make guitar bodies, and in the history of the instrument, there have been many unusual variations and experiments, some successful, some not so much. Ash, Mahogany, Maple, Alder, Basswood, Pine, and Paulowina (Phoenix tree) are often used for guitar bodies, and the discussion about their relative merits is far too much for this blog post. I suggest you look up “tone woods for guitar” if you have the time and inclination to learn more about the influence of wood choice on guitar tone.
I am of the opinion that the major difference between a basswood body and a mahogany body is (as Nigel Tufnel said about extra 4×12 guitar cabinets) that mahogany makes it “harder to pick up”. I am not saying that the body material doesn’t influence the guitar’s tone, but the pickup type and configuration is much more influential to the guitars tone than the body material. Here is a link to an informative “Guitar Player” article on the topic. A few more points to consider regarding guitar body wood:
– My biggest pet peeve with guitars is the so-called “neck dive” effect; when a guitar’s center of balance is somewhere above where the body and neck meet, it tends to be top-heavy and, when standing up, the headstock slips ever downward towards the floor as you play! This is typical of bodies made of less dense wood (such as basswood) or even on guitars made of denser wood, such as mahogany, but with a thinner body profile, such as the Gibson SG. This does not bother some people. To each their own! Just be aware of this, and test a guitar to see how it feels to you when standing as well as sitting.
– A heavy guitar will weigh on your back at gigs! Lugging a Les Paul around a stage is a different feel altogether than a basswood Ibanez guitar. If you are prone to back pain, this is a serious consideration. I like the feel of a heavier guitar at gigs… it feels “stable” somehow; I feel like I have more leverage when bending strings, and a more stable table when reaching for chords. Again, a matter of preference, and something to consider!
– Single or double cutaway: The Les Paul style single-cut provides additional stability to glued-in neck guitars. A glued-in neck with a double cut allows easier access to higher frets, but less surface area for the neck/body connection. Depending on the design, this can mean more “neck whip” (guitar goes out of tune when applying pressure to the neck from one side) to a higher risk of breaks at the neck/body joint. Bolt on guitar necks are also very stable, and tend to be the less expensive option overall in guitar design. Strat-style guitars are the double cut school, whereas Teles are the single-cut style. Consider how important access to the highest of frets really is to you. Unless your band calls you out for extended solos on a regular basis, chances are you spend 90% of your time playing below the 12th fret. Food for thought.
– The “body cut” and “arm cut”: These features can make all the difference in a guitar body, particularly when you play sitting down. The “body cut” is an angle in, or rounding of, the top back side of the guitar body, so the edge of the body doesn’t jab you in the ribs. After an hour of practicing chord melodies on my ES-175, I am begging for a body-cut guitar! Same goes for the “arm cut”, which saves your picking hand forearm from resting on an edge. Strats are designed with these cut, whereas the classic Tele and Les Paul shapes are not. Modern designs sometimes include these cuts on Tele and Les Paul style guitars, and if you practice while sitting, they can make a tremendous difference. Naturally these cuts add an extra step in manufacturing, which raises the price, but not by much.
The Telecaster bridge is the essence of guitar design simplicity (I’ve borrowed the image from EY Guitar Parts – a supplier of good quality budget parts):
The bridge is screwed down tight to the guitar body. Strings pass through it and over three saddle pieces. You adjust those to get the action and intonation pur’ty good, and you’re done. The strings are fed through the back of the body, giving extra stability to the whole shebang. It’s hard to screw it up, and that’s one of the reasons that the Tele remains a perennial favorite electric guitar design.
Beyond the classic Telecaster bridge, things get somewhat more complicated, and the manufacturing quality takes on more importance.
For example, the Gibson-style “Tune-o-matic” bridge (picture below) requires precision machining to ensure that all adjustable parts (bridge saddles, bridge height pins) can be easily adjusted. The metal used in the bridge must be able to withstand the constant, strong downward tension of the strings – cheap alloys could “sag” in the middle quite quickly, leaving the guitar with unplayable action.
To keep the length of this post from getting completely out of control, I won’t go into detail about the design of the Stratocaster bridge or Bigsby Vibrato (aka “Tremolo”, although that is a misnomer) or their more modern descendants, the Floyd Rose and Kahler vibrato systems. I think it should be quite clear that these bridges – which are meant to be manipulated with the vibrato bar and then return your guitar to proper tuning – with all their attendant moveable parts need to be manufactured to a high quality to be dependable.
A vibrato that leaves your guitar out of tune after use makes for a useless guitar. Period.
So, beware of cheap knockoffs of Fender Strat and Floyd Rose style vibrato systems. If I had to save money when building a guitar, I’d rather skimp on the wood quality in the body than on the vibrato system! Luckily, Wilkinson parts are more readily available and less expensive than ever before – their Strat bridges are great, and the block saddle version (see the Pacifica 112V recommendation below) is a nice upgrade to any modern Strat. In general, good quality Strat bridges are very inexpensive now, so there is no reason to have an inferior copy on any guitar.
Is anyone using Floyd Rose trems anymore? Just kidding. Do your homework on those, there are a variety of models that I’m not going to get into here.
Pickups & Electronics
After all that hard work of getting a decent neck on a the right body style, mounting the right bridge, and stringing that baby up, all your hard-earned tone is going to wind up traveling down a hair-thin wire on it’s way out of a pickup, and through a couple of potentiometers on it’s way to your amp. We’d better get this part right!
I’m a sort of an easy-come, easy-go pickups and electronic person; until I hear otherwise. I dig lower-output pickups because they tend to have better dynamic response to picking, and make for beautifully subtle clean tones. On the other hand, a high-output pickup that really gooses an amp into overdrive is much sexy fun! See what I mean? I can’t decide. Maybe I have too many guitars.
One thing I can say for sure is that there’s nothing more frustrating (in the world of guitars) than a guitar that actually plays well, but sounds like 10 lbs. of shit in a 5 lb. bag. In fact, it does rank high on the overall list, just a notch above “tissue in the wash” and below “typed a long email and the damned thing didn’t save somehow”.
Thanks to the current state of pickup manufacturing (read “Artec Pickups”) the market is simply saturated with good quality guitar pickups in all shapes and sizes – single coils, humbuckers, mini-humbuckers, P-90s, TV Jones, and on and on. And all this in black, white, cream, zebra, and you name it – even “aged chrome”. Guitar Fetish has Artec make pickups for them to their own specs, but how far away from the usual can that be? What, magnets sealed in whale blubber and wound with anodized beaver hairs? I doubt it. I mean, I hope not. In any case, those humbuckers, Strat & Tele-style single coils, and all on down the line are being made VERY close to the classic specs we all know and expect. Want to upgrade the pickups on a budget Les Paul? If they aren’t already Artec made PAF style pickups, then I’d be surprised. Not hot enough for ya, Kent!? Go with the overwound versions, or open the damned things up and wind ’em yourself.
Maybe I’m just ranting here, hoping that some pickup guru will comment saying, “You ignorant sot!” (I’ve always wanted to be called a sot), “You appear to know NOTHING about the intricacies of wrapping wire around a magnet! How dare you equate Asian ceramics with New World neodymium superiority!” [signed, Seymour Alouitious Burstbucker III]
Please, dear Alouitious, explain to me why that $200 pickup built from the same exact materials as that stock Epiphone pickup I am painstakingly soldering out of my Les Paul is going to make me sound like a rock star. More volume? More gain? More mids? More bass? More “pressure”? Or is it “detail” and “definition”? I’m at a loss so far. Some are hotter, some are not as hot. Some do sound like the proverbial gluteus maximus, and I don’t know why!
As you may have guessed, I’m also a bit underwhelmed with the way electronics are supposed to affect the tone of a guitar. I’ll admit, I understand and have always liked the “capacitor and resistor across the volume pot” mod – keeping the signal’s treble as you turn down the volume is a great thing. Overall, however, I have found that a guitar’s stock electronics either do the job or completely shit the bed. Sure, a quality potentiometer is likely to stand up to many more turns before it becomes intermittent (“crackly”), but are there some that provide a better sounding resistance than others? Is the capacitance of a corn cob soaked in Afro-Glo and wrapped in paper from the ad pages in a Superman#1 comic book better sounding than a mylar or ceramic capacitor? Again, I’m posing these questions in a cheeky, annoying fashion, hoping that someone with an education in the field will fill in the details. So far, it sounds like a lot of marketing hype and forum conjecture as to what really works: “Yo brah – I swapped out the caps in my Strat for orange oil dipsters, and the sound is like burning but cold, still, you know? Damn I am TYPING here!”
Honestly, this is last on my list. In my experience, most tuning problems people have complained about with their guitars were due to something other than the tuning pegs. Generally, the strings were not properly wound, not yet entirely stretched, getting stuck in the nut, or something was going on with the vibrato/nut/string winding combo. I think that the old Kluson tuners on a Les Paul work just fine, and look great to boot. Gotoh tuners are great, especially having a higher ratio for easier fine tuning. But even the good old standard Fender tuners work just fine as long as everything else is in shape. Always remember to tune UP to pitch, too. If your string is sharp, go down flat first and then come up to pitch – this helps prevent the string from sticking in the nut and going flat as soon as you bend it or apply heavy vibrato. In any case, the lousiest of cheap tuners on an inexpensive guitar may be problematic, but I am willing to bet that guitar has bigger problems than the tuners. If everything else is great, well, then swap out those tuners, by all means.
So where did we wind up after all this?
Quality. Ah yes – we started there! So hopefully the information above has tuned you in to some of the finer details of what comprises the object we call a “guitar”. To put it in a nutshell: It has to feel good under your fingers, and make a sound come out the amplifier. All the rest is a matter of taste. It would be nice if the guitar is also stable and durable – that it maintains this particular state of playability for a period of time. That, too.
I get the impression that most of what we are sold in terms of the “finer details”, such as pickup magnet type and the magnitude of picofarads in the tone control capacitor is somewhat about tone, and more of a way to market something to consumers. Or perhaps we do it as an excuse to distract ourselves from actually sitting down and playing the damned guitar. It’s more daunting to open a blank page in a songwriting notepad than to grab a screwdriver and soldering iron and create a few plumes of fragrant white smoke.
Here’s the usual story:
Someone gets into the studio or out on the stage and plays something that burns down the barn. Next, the philosophising starts; “What kind of amp did he use?” (As if having THAT amp will enable me to play a solo like Mr. X did). Or someone takes apart his guitar and says, “Well, don’t ya know – he’s actually got a set of Cranston-Willikers in there. Damndest thing.” And then everyone needs CW volume knobs or they can’t play another note without preparing a written excuse for their poor tone.
Didn’t the music used to come before the technology? This is perhaps a larger question than we can handle (buzzers sound in my studio, must throw override switch…) Wasn’t it the musicians saying to some pedal designer, “I want the guitar to sound like it’s poking a hole in the sun” that moved things forward? Why should a singer say, “can you Auto-tune it?” after a take, or a guitarist obsess about the tone of their middle position Strat pickup? We’re drowning in the details, and I do it too! All the f’in time! Help… can anyone hear me…? *blub blubbb blubbb*
My Favorite “Cheap” Guitars:
And now for the most opinionated part of the program! What “cheap” guitars do I think are good? Or rather, “Are there any quality guitars that are not expensive?”
Here are a few of my favorites:
Hoefner Colorama –
My personal favorite. With it’s “Double-Cut LP Junior” kind of vibe, either P-90 or min-humbucker pickups, and overall great finishing work, this guitar plays like a far more expensive guitar, and sounds like it too. It won’t do those great clean strat-style tones, but for anything dirty, this one rocks.
With a variety of models available, I do suggest skipping the “Bullet Strat” and going right for the $229 (approx) standard models. Squier Strats give you so much of the Fender vibe and quality that there’s no need to lust after an expensive USA model. Alternately look for a used M.I.M. Fender Standard Strat for just a few $$ more – they have great pickups.
(Rondomusic) Agile and SX Guitars:
Agile “Les Paul” Guitars are the current contender for first place in quality inexpensive guitars. Manufactured in Korea and marketed by Rondo Music in the USA, Agile guitars are the very best that you can get in machine-made guitars. They save big by not advertising like Epiphone & co. do, but instead depend on word of mouth. Well, this mouth says “I love Agile guitars”. My Goldtop/P90 AG-3010 melts my face like a peek into the Ark Of The Covenant. The SX “Strats” and “Teles” are, IMHO, the best of the around-$100 models available. This “Furrian” (Tele) model with a P-90 in the neck? Me want. One word of caution: Since Rondomusic is saving $ by having the guitars sent to them and reshipping to you with no showroom, etc. every so often, a guitar slips through with blemishes or problems. Rondo takes them back with no problem, so be sure to use our checklist above and inspect your Agile or SX guitar upon receipt.
Epiphone Les Paul Models
If you’re not comfortable with the “Off Brands”, and would prefer to have the Epiphone name scrawled across your guitar’s headstock, then be prepared to shell out about 20% more for premium features than you’d pay for an Agile guitar. Alternately, go for a stripped-down version of the Les Paul in Epi’s “LP-100 model”. By using a bolt on neck, body of joined mahogany (several smaller, albeit solid, pieces of mahogany), and a flat instead of figured top, Epiphone puts all the tone of their higher-up-the-music-store-wall models into what are very solid, good sounding working-musician’s guitars. A great beginner’s axe, and something you can take onstage with no worries.
Yamaha’s Pacifica series guitars have been top sellers for many years now, and most owners hold on to these guitars even after they “grow out” of the simpler-featured beginner’s models into a more expensive guitar. Designed to be a “Super-Strat” – a more modern-voiced Strat style guitar with a bridge humbucker and better access to higher frets, Pacificas also happen to be very price-effective (cheap!) while maintaining a very high standard of quality. I recommend the 112V model, it has a block saddle bridge in the vibrato system, which is a step up in tuning stability compared to the 012 and 112J models. At $300 brand-spankin’ new, a Yamaha 112V should be within the reach of any beginner, and makes an excellent addition to any experienced player’s collection. Here’s a link to another video I did regarding vibrato setup for the Pacifica 112V.
No Amazon link here – just gotta give Samick good word of mouth. Although they don’t have the “Big Name Factor” like Gibson, Fender, ESP, Ibanez, etc., the Samick factory makes many of the aforementioned guitars! Pair the technological know-how with some excellent design concepts that put a twist on some of the classic designs (such as the JTR-10, pictured) and you have some very cool alternatives to straight-up Strat, Tele, and Les Paul copies. I own a Samick JTR, and have to say that it is incredibly well built for the price (well built at any price, actually). . These are quality guitars.
ESP LTD Guitars
For those of you with more modern tastes in pickups, go straight for ESP’s LTD series of guitars, rather than retrofitting an Epiphone or Agile guitar with EMG pickups. LTD produces guitars with “that expensive guitar feel” – all good quality parts and with “vintage updated” body styles. In the $350 – $600 range, you can find the body style that fits your taste and have a guitar that is ready to go for practice, studio, and stage work without a hitch.
Vintage Icon Series
More commonly available in Europe, this is another line of guitars with parts sourced from the best Asian factories, and then assembled with a twist – they are “relic-ed” en masse, with a particular consistent pattern of “wear” showing up on each model. My guess was that they started out by sourcing top-grade parts that only had cosmetic blemishes, such as inconsistencies in lacquer or runs in the clear coat. Take those otherwise perfect parts, and beat the imperfections out with rusty chains, sandpaper, and a drag along the concrete warehouse floor, and *BAM* – upgraded guitars. Regardless of the plan, these are quality guitars at great prices, as long as the “vintage/relic” look is your cup of tea.
Fender Standard Telecaster
A Tele is a thing of beauty, joy, and simplicity. No tremolo. Simplest of simple bridge. Bolt on neck. Iconic look. What more do you want? I was going to suggest the Squier or G&L ASAT models, but really, at $450, why not just get a regular Fender Tele? In the very unlikely scenario that you want to sell the guitar, it will retain it’s value better than it’s Fender-licensed and -designed cousins. They just have “that sound”, with no compromises. The Fender Standard is less than $100 more than the Squier Classic Vibe 50’s, which is also great:
At $379, that’s a lot of guitar.
I hope this list has been helpful. Despite my ramblings and probable crimes against grammar and good taste, I have carefully considered this article for quite some time. I also own (or have owned) many of the guitars in the above list, and can vouch for their grooviness. If you do order any of the above guitars from Amazon, you help support this blog and my free youtube lessons without any cost to you, so please shake out those pockets and get to it!