I ran into a local guitar maker the other day, someone I hadn't seen in quite a few years and we spent a few minutes catching up. Of course, the talk turned to what's going on with guitars these days and he had some interesting observations, one of which is that he believes we are in the midst of something of a "golden age" of guitar making. He bases this feeling on not only the plethora of small, "boutique" makers producing superb instruments - a class of makers who were rare not that long ago - but also the quality of what's being built by the big guys: Martin, Taylor, Gibson. I had to agree. But in thinking about our discussion later on something else struck me.
Yes, the high end options are many and of consistently good or even great quality. But on the opposite extreme I see the same sort of thing going on: a beginner or recreational player who doesn't want to drop a lot of money has some fantastic options too. More than ever, in fact.
Back in the 1960s when I began playing there were basically three options on the bottom rung of the guitar ladder: Stella, Harmony and (Sears brand) Silvertone. For all I know they were all made by the same company because they shared many of the same characteristics: plywood bodies, tuners that barely worked if they worked at all, necks that were both narrow and chunky with sharp fret edges that were sure to cut the inside or your hand sooner or later, and most of all, absolutely horrible sound. But many thousands of us, enthralled by the Beatles or Bob Dylan spent our hard earned paper route money on those clunkers and it was a true test of one's commitment to playing the guitar. The first guitar I bought came from a music store in New London, Connecticut and I couldn't take it home until I made three monthly payments of ten dollars! It definitely fell into the category of the above instruments.
Everything changed a few years later when the first decent Japanese guitars arrived, primarily from Yamaha. Most of them at least looked like the Martins and Gibsons we lusted after (kinda....) and they were at least a step up in all the bad areas I mentioned. Yamaha's success was noticed by other Japanese companies and soon other brands began appearing for relatively low cost. Some of these unfortunately were junk - looked nice but had serious intonation problems or basically fell apart after a year or so. But some companies "got it" in terms of what American guitarists wanted and expected and by the end of 1970s the imports were really hurting the big guys like Martin and Gibson. Players who still wanted an American made premium guitar were more likely to hold onto their "OK" import for a longer amount of time than in the old days when that hunk of junk Stella was something to get rid of as soon as possible. The American companies just could not compete, price-wise, with the imports. That, combined with it being a low point in interest in acoustic guitars almost put Martin out of business.
By the end of 1980s something else was happening. Some of the higher end Japanese guitars, while quite nice, were bumping into the lower end American guitars price-wise. Even the lower priced Japanese instruments were getting a little pricey. This did not go unnoticed by the Chinese, who were becoming a major competitor of Japan in virtually all manufactured goods. So before long low priced guitars starting appearing with "Made in China" on the label. The first ones were pretty much junk - made to look somewhat like famous American models but the quality of the build, woods used and especially the sound was awful. But the Chinese are fast learners and by the late 1990s some decent instruments were coming in - and priced lower than anything comparable coming out of Japan.
Ten years passed, bringing us close to the present day. That low end is still dominated by Chinese guitars but they are getting some heat from low end instruments coming from places like Korea and Indonesia. I predict that India will be the next producer of good quality, low end guitars. The American companies have taken an interesting stance while all this has gone on. Martin and Taylor are now making most of their lower end guitars in plants in Mexico and while they are quite nice, my opinion is that you can get more bang-for-the-buck with a mid priced Chinese guitar. I'm sure Martin and Taylor are at least partially banking on consumers wanting those names on the headstocks of their guitars in spite of the possibility of getting a better instrument for the same price, made in China.
The bottom line is that the beginner or casual recreational player today has dozens of choices and not only that, the builds are quite uniform in quality - no more rolling the dice when you order a less expensive guitar without playing it first. You can be reasonably sure that a guitar from Epiphone, Recording King, Silver Creek or a few others will be set up well, have good fit-and-finish and will sound good. One import brand that I've been very impressed with recently are made under the name of Austin. They are very reasonably priced and sound great. On the other end, guitars from Eastman and Takamine, while definitely (in many cases) in the price range of lower end Martins and Taylors are superb instruments.
So that's what I mean about it being another golden age of guitars. The first "golden age" is considered to be the 1930s and into the early 1950s, with Martins and Gibsons from that era commanding a king's ransom. A 1932 Martin owned by actor Richard Gere recently sold at auction for $62,000 - before the buyer's premium! When that guitar was new, it sold for less than $200. Many of the guitars from that era are now bought purely as investments, which I think is very sad. Guitars are made to played!
Will the guitars made today be worth a hundred times more in 50 or 60 years? Doubtful, just based on the fact that those early guitars were made in small numbers and of those, only a small percentage survive. Not so even with the nicest guitars today.
So if you're stuck with a junk guitar owned by your great uncle or if you're considering an upgrade, the time is now. Your options are many and that can't help but be a good thing!
Peace & good music,