By David Knowles
For many American consumers, the words “made in China” elicit feelings ranging from skepticism to outright disdain. Given the rash of headlines in recent years documenting the darker side of Chinese manufacturing—from lead paint used on Chinese-made toys, to a string of suicides at an Apple computer plant in Shenzhen—that sentiment is hardly surprising.
“Support your own country. Too much is being made there, and we are losing jobs,” Ross McCormack said in response to an Acoustic Guitar poll on whether readers had ever purchased a guitar made in China. “Besides, they will have to cut corners to beat other prices, and that means poor if not toxic products.”
Such views, however, would seem to be in the minority. Unable to afford many American-made guitars, consumers have shown little hesitance in purchasing Chinese-made models, especially when those guitars come with a familiar label on the headstock.
“Most of my guitars are of Asian make, since I don’t have the bucks for American-made instruments,” AG reader David Lahti said. “And for the most part, [they] have been fairly well-made and set-up instruments. Gives me, and those in my own financial bracket, an opportunity to buy and play a decent if not sometimes excellent instrument.”
Setting aside globalization’s labor ramifications for the moment, when it comes to the quality of acoustic guitars made in China, is the bad rap they’ve received justified? Or should buyers on a budget take a serious look at the growing number of reasonably priced instruments manufactured there?
“I believe that I can make that case solely through the thousands of individual player testimonials about how great our products are, in particular our Blueridge guitars,” says David Gartland, marketing director for Saga Musical Instruments, Blueridge’s parent company. “One of the metrics that we use is how well our products have been received by the bluegrass and country-music communities, as well as professional musicians of the highest caliber, who judge instruments based on playability and tone, not country of origin.”
Dennis Webster, manager of marketing for Yamaha’s Pro Audio & Combo Division, echoes Gartland’s sentiments. “When an earthy roots musician performs a great solo or plays a song that resonates with the listener,” Webster says, “no one cares where the guitar is made.”
To be sure, there is no shortage of guitars being made in China these days, including some of the most recognizable and best-selling brands: Washburn, Yamaha, Guild, Epiphone, Eastman, the Loar, Fender, Ovation, Blueridge, Recording King, Alvarez, Luna, Sigma, and Gibson all manufacture guitars, or components of them, in China. For Saga, the decision to shift its production line from Japan to China in the 1990s was a financial one, rising out of a fluctuation in currency exchange rates that radically impacted the company’s bottom line. But setting up a guitar factory in a new country isn’t as easy as renting space, moving in equipment, and turning on the lights.
“In 2007, there was this sudden surge,” says Travis Atz, director of product development at Music Link, the parent company for Recording King and the Loar. “There was this thinking that, well, people are doing this Chinese manufacturing, and maybe I can do this, too. But nearly every single one who tried ended up turning away from it, because it is really difficult.” The most important aspect of having a successful foreign factory, he says, is “physically being there as much as you can, both in the design side and the ongoing quality side. Emails and phone calls are not enough, especially when we’re dealing with something as subjective as sound.”
Gartland agrees that oversight is the key to producing quality acoustic guitars overseas. “To assure that the quality of our products meets our demanding requirements, we have offices in China that are staffed with quality control experts who consistently visit our factories,” Gartland says. “In addition, key product managers from our offices in San Francisco make the trip several times per year.”
Atz fills that role for Recording King and the Loar, visiting China every other month and staying for weeks at a time to ensure that no detail in the production line is overlooked. “We’d been manufacturing in Asia since the mid-’90s,” he says. “And then, when we were ready to make some more premium stuff with Recording King and the Loar, we finally felt that the Chinese craftsmen were at a level that we were happy with, and we built a factory—the Carved Workshop—in Shanghai from the ground up. We wanted to produce some great-sounding, but still classic American-style instruments.”
Yamaha, says Webster, “helped change the perception of the Made in China label by establishing a Yamaha-owned-and-operated guitar-manufacturing center that focuses on quality, since the most important factor is the company of origin, not the country of origin.” Webster says his company also maintains strict oversight of the manufacturing and parts-sourcing process. “Clean, well-lit, employee-friendly facilities and fair wages enable Yamaha to attract and retain well-trained, talented local workers—a key factor in consistently producing high-quality instruments that we like to say are ‘Made in Yamaha,’” Webster says.
The diligent oversight at some American-run Chinese factories has not been lost on consumers, who compare a few models to top-of-the line acoustics made in the United States. “Blueridge makes some of the best guitars you can buy in their price range,” AG reader Josh Logan said. “I play a Martin but would have no problem being seen playing a Blueridge.”
As Logan attests, buying a guitar can be a matter of weighing several factors, including not just price, playability, and overall feel, but also image. On that score, the “made in the U.S.A.” label still has clout. A 2012 survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, for instance, found that just more than 80 percent of American consumers, as well as 60 percent of Chinese buyers, were willing to pay a premium to purchase American-made goods, even though, when it comes to guitars, the hard financial reality is that many simply can’t afford it. That’s why putting a premium on quality is central to a foreign-made instrument’s success.
Of course, it’s no secret why so many U.S. guitar companies have set up shop in China: Workers there earn far less than their American counterparts, drastically improving profit margins on instruments made there. “The labor cost is by far the biggest difference,” Atz says. “I know some people decry that disparity, but at the same time, I think it’s important to recognize the disparity in the cost of living. Whereas people here go to a store and buy a T-shirt for $7, in Shanghai they can buy it for less than a dollar. The folks that we employ get some of the best wages in the instrument-making industry because we’re in Shanghai, where the labor expectations and regulations are so much higher.”
Low labor costs directly translate to less expensive prices for consumers, even when brands like Blueridge, Eastman, and the Loar factor in the higher cost of importing quality spruce, mahogany, rosewood, and the like all the way to China. “Most of the stuff that we’re trying to do still requires the same woods that are used by any great guitar factory, whether they’re in the U.S. or Germany or wherever,” Atz says. “We import from the same mills that higher-end factories use.”
The combination of cost savings, quality wood, and attention to manufacturing detail can result in an impressive final product—so much so that companies like Martin, as well as many American boutique makers, have taken note. “Lately, I’ve noticed some nice Chinese-made guitars, notably by Eastman, Blueridge, and Recording King,” independent luthier Dana Bourgeois says. “These brands do not yet rival the best Japanese imports, such as Takamine and D’Angelico, but seem like a step up from anything we used to get from Korea.”
Santa Cruz luthier Rick Turner doesn’t hesitate to recommend instruments made offshore, and recently partnered with Michael Kelly Guitars to produce budget models of his Renaissance line in Korea. “I think the higher-quality offshore guitars are a very, very good value. They are not the same as your Martins and Collings and Taylors, but some of them are awfully good,” Kelly says. “The Eastman stuff is obviously very good, and then there’s a hybrid, like Goldtone, who do a lot of parts manufacturing overseas and then a final assembly in the United States. And there are other companies like Music Link, with the Recording King line and the Loars and so on. Their stuff is amazingly good.”
While the quality of Chinese-made instruments continues to rise, many of the American companies producing there still readily acknowledge that their guitars don’t quite stack up to the best American-made models. “Is there a difference? Yes, there certainly still is between even the very best of what’s made in China and the U.S.,” Atz says. “When you’re into getting that last sound advantage out of an instrument, the final 5 percent of detailed work is totally crucial and totally difficult. Where I would say without question that final set of details that can push something into the category of great is still primarily a U.S. thing.”
For buyers who don’t have $3,000 or more to drop on a guitar, however, the made-in-China option has proved appealing, especially of late. After all, Atz points out, “the Chinese have been making instruments for thousands of years, though just maybe not a steel-string dreadnought guitar. We’ve now been working with many of the same people for 10 years, and their dedication to the craft is every bit as strong as someone here in the U.S.”
The future of offshore guitar making will likely include more hybrid domestic and foreign models, as well as acoustics produced entirely in emerging markets like Vietnam. But for now, China is receiving its due as a country where more and more quality beginner and mid-range guitars are being built—and being bought in the United States.
“As more people take a moment to play one,” Gartland says, “that’s usually all it takes to convert even the most skeptical player.”
As China’s economy continues its astonishing growth rate and its guitar industry matures, so, too, does the price of doing business there.
“The cost of Chinese- and Korean-made instruments is now going up a little bit faster than the cost of American instruments,” luthier Rick Turner says, “so there’s coming to be an interesting overlap area in the list price of, say, $1,000 to $2,000, where you can get import stuff, you can get U.S.-made stuff, you can get U.S.-assembled stuff that may have foreign-made parts.”
In such a dynamic market, assumptions linking a given country with standards of quality have become woefully out of date. With more Chinese luthiers being trained every year, the overall quality of the guitars will continue to rise, and not just at American-owned factories. In other words, it might not be long before China becomes associated with truly high-end guitars—and not merely affordable ones.
Jonathan Marshall Guitars, a classical guitar dealer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sells Yulong Guo’s $5,000 double-top nylon-string models, which he says rival the quality of their Spanish-made forerunners.
“There are three things I look for from a guitar: the sound, the setup, and the appearance,” Marshall says. “If you have all three of them, you’re sitting pretty good, and the Chinese company we found has all three of those.”