The new edition has a great article on the history of Guild guitars. Guild has gone through many changes of ownership and places of construction in the last ten years or so. Although always viewed as something of a poor cousin of Martin and Gibson (and Fender in electrics - they are now the owner of the company), I always felt that Guild produced a very nice, good quality American-made instrument, if it bit over-built in terms of neck shape and design, finish and overall weight. I have heard and played some truly fine Guilds (mostly in the F series) and even today, Guild 12-strings are generally thought to be the best examples of that type of guitar.
Ironically, Guild had its factory only a few miles from where I grew up. Mystic, Connecticut is my hometown and Guilds were made in nearby Westerly, Rhode Island. I either never knew that back in my teenage days or didn't really care because I never visited the plant. Too bad! Today, "Westerly Guilds" are becoming fairly collectable, although not on the level of similar Martins or Gibsons. I've had many students over the years who owned the venerable Guild D-25, a dark brown or deep red (depending on the year) dread with a solid top and sides and a laminate, arched back. These things were built like tanks - and some sounded like them! - but they were generally good guitars and you can still find them on the used guitar market for well under $1k for late 1970 - about 1990 instruments. Anyway, read the story in FJ about how the company was sold a few times and moved from Rhode Island to California to Washington to China, back to Washington, and now are made at the former Ovation facility in Connecticut.
This got me to thinking about where we are these days in terms of the availability of good quality guitars. I'm talking about acoustics here because the electric guitar market is and always has been extremely fluid in terms of quality, availability and popularity.
Most guitarists know that The Big Three in American-made acoustics are Martin, Taylor and Gibson, although some of the lower end Martins and Taylors are now made in Mexico. I'll bet that the meetings of the Powers That Be at those companies must be pretty high pressure events. With hundreds of thousands of decent to very good quality guitars from China and elsewhere flooding the market it must be a constant challenge to produce guitars that are up to the standards of the Big Three and still remain competitive. As with everything else, the single biggest expense in business is labor cost and there is no way the Big Three can compete with the low wages paid workers overseas. So they must figure other strategies. More on that in a minute.
I think it's ironic that the Japanese manufacturers such as Alvarez-Yairi, who produce world-class guitars are in the same position that the American companies were thirty years ago. Back then, Japanese guitars began showing up and soon they literally drove the cheap American companies like Stella and Silvertone out of business - as well they should: those guitars were junk. But they also put pressure on Martin and Gibson by unabashedly imitating the American guitars, to the point that one company (Takamine) was producing guitars that even featured their name in curved script so they looked from a few feet away just like a Martin (and later, Guild). Martin finally said, enough is enough and filed a successful lawsuit against Takamine. Now here's the real irony - even though those 'Taks were dull and lifeless compared to a Martin, "lawsuit Takamines" have become somewhat collectable. Go figure.
But in the last ten years, manufacturers in Korea and especially China have done to the Japanese companies what they did to the American companies: produce guitars for a much lower price that in some cases are almost as good as their Japanese competitors, and in a few case are superior. The world of commerce is an interesting place, to say the least!
So what about these guitars from China? As I understand it, even though there are a few dozen identifiable names including Epiphone, Gibson's subsidiary that makes almost exact replications of much more expensive Gibbys for a fraction of the cost (interesting sales strategy there!), most come from only one or two mega factories. One is Saga. They produce a few of the popular Chinese guitars including many under their own name but also Silver Creek, The Loar, Recording King, Ibanez and a few others. The Chinese companies have done their homework. They know what guitar players want and expect these days. Many of these guitars are made of all solid wood or at that very least, a solid top, and feature nice touches like diamond abalone inlay, pyramid bridges, vintage style tuners and more.
Some very nice guitars are coming out of Canada too, including those made by Godin, who produce the quite affordable Seagull line.
In some cases though, as the old Pepperidge Farm cookie commercial used to say, "you get what you pay for!" A good example are the Silver Creek guitars, made in China. They are only available in two sizes, dreadnaught and 000, and in two woods, rosewood and mahogany. They are all solid wood and can often be had from one of the mega online retailers for about $200. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, my opinion is that buying a Silver Creek is roughly the same as going to a casino and playing a straight color on the roulette wheel. You have a slightly less than 50% chance of winning. Some Silver Creeks come through perfectly set up and sound very good. Some need a thorough set up by a qualified guitar repairman, something that might cost an additional $50 or so. All have tuning machines that look very much like vintage Grover Sta-Tites but are barely adequate in terms of tuning ease and keeping the guitar in tune.
On the other hand, Recording King has begun producing a line of guitars in conjunction with acoustic guitar master Eric Schoenberg that from all reports are just fantastic. However, their cost bumps into that of the 15- and some 16-series Martins and the popular 214 series Taylors. Will they hold their value as well as an American made guitar? Time will tell.
The American companies are not sitting still and watching the lower end get taken over by the Chinese however. Last year Martin introduced their 1-series guitars. With a suggested retail price of about $1k, these American made guitars feature an all solid wood mahogany body with a composite neck. They are available in D- or OM size, with or without cutaway, with or without electronics. The word on the street is that they sound very good and the set up is excellent. Martin also has their X series which are mostly composite with solid top and made at a Martin owned plant in Mexico. They retail for well under $1k and are an excellent value.
Another issue, for me anyway, is responsibility. I sincerely doubt that any of the import companies care a wit for where their wood comes from, how it is harvested or what the future holds for the countries whose forests are being cut for the wood. Neither do they care about the environmental costs of their manufacturing practices. Martin on the other hand has in their catalog their Sustainable Wood series, made from wood that was "rescued" from the reject piles of lumber companies. They have also begun producing more guitars from woods that are readily available like cherry. Although these guitars generally don't look as fancy as the rosewood or mahogany models, they sound and play great and there is no question that Martin is doing the right thing. Both Martin and Taylor made the decision to stop using rosewood from Madagascar due to its increasing scarcity. Unlike Brazilian rosewood, which is highly regulated the rosewood from Madagascar is under no such restrictions. I think that decision deserves our applause and it does factor into my buying choices.
What the future holds is anyone's guess. Another challenge facing Martin and Gibson are Chinese counterfeits - these are NOT made by the legitimate Chinese companies and are totally illegal representations of American guitars, down to small details and the logos on the headstocks. Be very, very careful of buying what appears to be a dirt cheap Martin or Gibson from an online auction site because more and more of these bogus and highly inferior guitars are showing up. Yet another reason to patronize your local dealer!
I really can't say whether someone should buy American or go with an import. I do know that an American made guitar will most likely hold its value better than an import. But some of the imports are so nice that this fact may not be all that important because your imported guitar may be the only one you'll ever need or want to buy. If you are considering an import, if at all possible try to play it before you buy because buying sight unseen may put you at the roulette wheel.
I always go with red, by the way!
Peace and good music,