'Cheap' Electric Guitars

'Cheap' Electric Guitars

Time was when there existed a huge disparity between the ‘name brand’ guitars and the ‘cheap’ guitars. Lately, that gap appears to be narrowing quite a bit. Cheap guitars used to be built with the junkiest hardware, Lauan plywood bodies, and the weakest pickups ever made. Many of them weren’t even considered playable by experienced players, and in their opinions, couldn’t even be made playable due to the poor workmanship and low quality standards. It was easy in those days to distinguish between the low-end of an American company’s product and the best of the Asian offerings. Nowadays, though, we’re seeing some good stuff coming out of the upstart brands from Asia, while the American companies’ import lines still seem stuck in that old mindset.

A case in point is Gibson’s Epiphone imports, such as the SG Special, LP Special II, ‘Junior’, and such, in the under-$200 range. These guitars, while generally quite playable once set up right, still use laminated wood for the bodies and the cheapest tuning machines they can find. The bodies are often very inconsistent in density, and thus inconsistent in sustain and tone, even among the same models produced in the same lot. If one is careful to choose between several units on display in a store, he can often find ‘the good one’ from among the lot, and be satisfied with what he got for his money. My Epi ‘Junior’ is such a one. There were about 10 of them in the store that day, and I spent a good hour playing them all, unplugged and plugged, and walked out with the best one for my $100. I’m still happy with it. The same can be said of the low-end Fender ‘Squier’ brand. Both these brands’ low-end guitars are produced in Asia or Indonesia, and the quality is inconsistent to say the least.

Then along come some relatively new independent brands such as SX, Agile, and another brand new to me, Spectrum, which are produced mostly in China, but in Asia generally. I now own two SX brand instruments and one Spectrum Strat-copy, and all three were list-priced at under $150. All three are also far, far better than the Epiphone or Squier offerings in the same price range. For starters, they all have solid wood bodies rather than laminated. They’re not one-piece, being two or three pieces edge-joined (same as many standard-line Gibsons & Fenders), but they are at least not plywood. The tuning machines used on these guitars have sealed, cast housings, and are fairly smooth and precise, especially as compared to the ‘economy’ stamped tuners on the Epi’s & Squiers. I can’t really say that they pay much more attention to details like finishing the fret ends or making sure that all the frets are perfectly level with each other. You still have to deal with that on these guitars, but at least your starting point, i.e., the overall quality, is several notches better.

Now, I’m all for the idea of ‘Buying American’ and thus keeping our American money in the American economy rather than spending it on products made by overseas companies. But when you buy the low-end Epiphones and Squiers, you’re buying Asian-made goods anyway. So why not buy a much better-made Asian instrument in the same price range?

After buying several of these instruments myself and having handled and played a bunch more of them, I feel that they’re a much better value. The quality is such that they’re not simply ‘good enough for a beginning player’, but plenty good for the intermediate player. And after a little setup work and perhaps some fret work, I don’t hesitate to play them right out in front of real people without any shame at all. In fact, I do so with the pride of knowing that I paid a fraction of the cost of some guitars, but am still able to make viable music with them. Once I have spent a little time getting them in shape setup-wise, they play (to me) as well as almost anything I’ve ever played. So, as my daughter might text…’WTH?”

I’ll try to add some perspective on this as regards the ‘bang-for-the-buck’. I have an SX bass guitar (model SJMB) that I spent just under $150 for, and I’d not hesitate to put it up against any Fender Squier Jazz Bass (its closest analogue) that sells for almost twice that much. Any. Day. In features, quality, tone, & playability, it’s an easy equal (or better) to the Squier.

This is not to be construed as a tirade against Epiphone or Squier, but rather, for these independent-branded Asian instruments that are coming into their own in recent times. 'Cheap' electric guitars . . . They’re really getting to be quite good!