Fable Fighters: What's the Big Deal About USA-made vs. Offshore Guitars

THE GLOBALIZATION OF THE GUITAR market has brought us tremendous variety, both in cost and in features, but for some players a long-standing view of guitars manufactured overseas as somehow inherently “inferior” still holds sway.

THE GLOBALIZATION OF THE GUITAR market has brought us tremendous variety, both in cost and in features, but for some players a long-standing view of guitars manufactured overseas as somehow inherently “inferior” still holds sway. Is there any justification to the derogatory view of offshore-made guitars, or do they offer something to justify their place in the market?

Foreign-made guitars have been with us in a big way since the mid ’60s, when the guitar boom spawned a market for cheap alternatives to America’s standard brands. From the mid to late ’70s, though, the tone shifted dramatically: American guitarists reluctantly accepted that the quality of some large U.S. makers just wasn’t what had been, while Japanese makers in particular— such as Yamaha, Ibanez, Tokai, and Aria— simultaneously made a quantum leap in their own production quality. Suddenly, offshore guitars weren’t just “the inexpensive option,” but a viable alternative, even for professional players.

In response, both Fender and Gibson did two interesting things: they pursued their own offshore manufacturing, and they improved their American-made guitars. Both makers, and others on the home front, have since roared back with a vengeance. Meanwhile, Japan experienced its own boom and related cost increases, and the more affordable production expanded out to Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and, closer to home, Mexico. Still, more than 40 years on from the original “cheapo guitar glut,” offshore-made guitars are again viewed in the eyes of some players as second- or third-rate alternatives—and perhaps, to those people, they always have been.

Dissing offshore guitar production for the sake of bolstering U.S. employment numbers is one thing. Seen from a certain angle, it might even be laudable, but that’s another matter entirely. More to the point: is there any justice in talking down the quality of offshore guitars?

First, the nastier side of such views is occasionally founded in a sort of xenophobia, a “they can’t possibly make ’em as good as we can” attitude. Assessed with any logic, though, that belief just doesn’t hold water. While the lower cost of labor in many Asian and Mexican factories helps to turn out a more affordable product, this is still far from “sweat shop” production. These guitars are made by skilled workers, who likely take as much pride in their jobs as do workers in American guitar factories. And take these facts onboard for a moment: in a report by Pearson, published in the Huffing-ton Post in November 2012, South Korea ranked second in the world for quality of education and graduation rates (behind only Finland), followed closely by Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore, in that order. The USA? Languishing down at #17. Sure, such studies have broader implications than those that impact guitar making, but they also provide a quick perspective adjustment for any assumptions of inherent “superiority” in American skill or achievement.

Also, of course, many offshore-made guitars are manufactured under the auspices of American makers: Gibson/Epiphone, Fender/Squier, PRS, Gretsch, and others build guitars overseas to their own U.S.-originated designs and closely control the quality in order to fill a market that they simply couldn’t reach through domestic production alone. Do these “water down the brand image,” or give access to good renditions of classic designs to many players who just couldn’t afford them otherwise?

Ultimately, we can’t deny that many of the world’s finest luthiers are at work today in small shops and larger custom shops alike in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Western world, producing some of the very best guitars ever made, and these remain instruments to be proud of. At the same time, skilled craftsmen are doing outstanding work beyond these shores, too, making high-quality guitars that play and sound better—for relatively less money—than ever before.

The upshot: choose your instrument according to the specs and features and prices that suit you—and most importantly, its feel in your hands and its sound to your own ears—rather than approaching with any bias related to where it was made. We are truly spoiled for choices in the 21st century, and it’s a great time to be alive as a guitarist!