In an ever changing financial environment, the customer is constantly searching for value. This is equally true in the guitar market as it is in any other high value single purchase area.
But when you are looking at buying a guitar and you have the time and money to spend, there is a another consideration. Is the hand built custom guitar better value than a mass produced factory instrument?
Now on the face of it, you’d expect me, as a luthier, to staunchly defend my ground here. But the truth is, it’s not so simple and it really depends on what you’re looking for in a guitar.
For working musicians, the answer seems in recent years to have been to go entirely for the factory model. Over the last few years, I have sold almost no instruments to guitarists who make their living by playing. I have built some lovely pieces for some very accomplished players, but they all make their living (or made their living in some cases an they are now retired), in more sensible ways. A GP for instance, a retired former Soldier, a retired civil engineer – all very accomplished players but none who rely on their guitar for their living.
And actually, looking at the market place now, it’s hard to argue that working musicians aren’t making a fairly sensible choice. In the under £1000 market, there is now a huge amount of good quality choices out there in the market place. Quality control, especially in the far east, has improved dramatically, to the point where many guitars coming out of China, Korea and Indonesia, represent not only fantastic bang for the buck, but actually compete fairly well with the US equivalents which are often three or four times the cost. Necks are straight, hardware works and lasts, and the weak points are usually the electrics and the setup.It has given players the confidence to buy instruments on the internet, where the savings are significant.
Even if the guitar arrives and it’s not too exciting or the action’s a bit off, well a fret dress costs about £70, a set of Strat or Les Paul pickups can be found for about £150 new, and you suddenly have a very good working instrument.
Take something really cheap, like the ESP LTD range. That’s £262, then add £75 for a fret dress. Take the pickups out and put Bare Knuckles in it – that’s another £220 fitted (at least that’s what I’d charge).
That’s now £557 for a guitar that would stand up against a Les Paul studio (and would probably sound better with those pickups). I could not build anything like that for under £600- not a chance.
So at that price range, I can’t compete – I can’t even get close. The availability of wood, hardware, pickups and finishes would actually mean that I was paying the player to take the guitar off my hands!
So what if you’re spending £1000? How is the balance then?
Now it’s a different game – for that money (and this model is heavily discounted, so I guess it won’t be around much longer before a revamp), there is a real choice. But I noticed when looking, that there isn’t a lot in the market now between £900 -£2000. And the variety is a question of fancy paint jobs, rather than a great degree of playing options that you’d like for that kind of money.
With something like this, you’d expect it to play great out of the box. And usually they do play pretty well. But it’s more of a risk. If you aren’t that excited by the tone, adding a set of pickups will make the price around £1300. And for that kind of money, most luthiers will build you something very similar.
So why would you choose the luthier built Strat over the Fender one? Well in the main, only if you wanted it to have a specific feel that didn’t match the factory specifications. Different pickups for example – it would be more cost effective to have the guitar built with the pickups you actually want than swap them out of the Fender. If you wanted a neck shape that was a little different – or a fret size, then that’s where the luthier can really offer you something at this level. Then there’s the quality of hardware – at this level it’s not just standard hardware available. One of the main reasons to choose the luthier here is to get something a little more personal. So it’s 50/50 – there’s value either way here. If resale value is a priority then the stock instrument is always easier to sell on – the custom built one is for you, and there’s only one you!
But we’re talking bolt ons in this range, what if we look upward towards the Gibson/PRS market?
The new 2016 Standard – £2100 is actually a very keen price for one of these. At this price suddenly you’re parting with a lot of money – and you’re going to lose half of it approximately, the first time you take it out of the case. So the resale issue is still prevalent, but the advantage is not so clear. Gibson quality control is now recognised as being very hit and miss, and their path away from the traditional build methods well documented.
But it’s in the price range between the Strat and the Les Paul that your luthier can actually beat the value you are offered from the factory hands down. Unless you actually want a Les Paul – Nobody can really make you a Les Paul cheaper than Gibson (though it’s possible that one can be made a little better). Think about it – the costs of making every cut by hand compares badly to the CNC router, churning out precision cut pieces without even a tea break!
But if you’re spending this kind of money, £1200-£2100 in this case, what you have from your luthier is choice. In the factory market, choice at this quality level actually starts to restrict.
So this is where we come into our own – because we’re no longer building what we build, but what you want. Right at the bottom end of that price bracket, it’s probably a design that the luthier uses as his ‘model’, which has then been built to your specifications (neck shape, wood, hardware, pickups, radius, fret size, finish). Once you’re getting into the upper range, then you’re talking about sitting down with your luthier and a blank piece of paper and designing a guitar from scratch. Scale length, Body Shape, Materials – it’s all up for grabs.
When you consider that a Fender Custom Shop Strat is around £2,500, and the Gibson Custom shop around £4000 (at the lower end), then your luthier is offering fantastic value for money, choice and moreover, onward service of the instrument.
So the factory v Luthier debate is one that is complex, and other luthiers will probably have their own take on it. But at any price point in the market your luthier can offer you a service, either revamping a lower cost but high value instrument into something really special, right through to designing and building your own signature model.