What's The Difference Between a Cheap Guitar and an Expensive Guitar?

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 9 March 2015 |

It’s a really good question. Why does a budget guitar cost so little, whilst a range-topper, which may well ostensibly look the same, cost so much? Just how different are the two extremes, and is it worth paying, say, ten times the price of a budget guitar, for a high-end piece?

Above: a Fender AVRI ’57 Reissue Stratocaster. High quality woods, hardware, electrics, finish, etc – with precision build and a good setup off the shelf. One of the typical hallmarks of a more expensive guitar is that there’s nothing to think about except the enjoyment of playing. Cheaper guitars tend to come with distracting flaws which take the player’s mind off the playing.

The reasons behind the general trend of price difference between low-end and high-end instruments are pretty simple. Budget guitars cost a lot less to make in terms of raw materials and hardware, they’re built with quicker production methods so the labour hours per unit are fewer, and the cost of the labour per hour is usually less because manufacture is carried out in regions where labour is by nature cheaper. With low-end guitars, post-production processes are heavily skimped on or omitted entirely, meaning instruments can easily be shipped badly adjusted, and with flaws in the finish. With the budget so tight, the priority will inevitably centre around minimising the time and expenditure per unit. That’s not a recipe for reliable quality.

But if the guitar only needs a bit of adjustment, perhaps things aren’t so bad afterall? Well, this has been one of the notions which suppliers of cheap guitars have been happy to perpetuate. But it’s a notion professionals have strongly contested through the years.


A Chinese Squier Strat up at £129.99 in a
secondhand shop. In very good condition,
but that price seems high. At the budget
end of the market, buyer ignorance can
be higher, and you can't blame sellers
for aiming for the best return. The onus
is on the buyer, so sticking to brand
new products may be the safest option.
Back in the 1980s, noted British guitarist Brinsley Schwarz took vehement exception to comments made by the UK’s pioneer importer of Korean guitars, George Osztreicher, about the then best-selling Marlin Sidewinder (a budget MIK Strat copy). Osztreicher, whose company distributed the Sidewinder in the UK, had extolled the virtues of Korean guitar manufacture to the point where he gave the impression that Far Eastern guitar handcrafting skills were world-leading. In a long response, Schwarz called upon his experience in professional guitar tech work to express the reality of what consumers were getting with a Sidewinder. In particular he focused on the setup, and the guitar as it would reach its owner. He said that the Marlin guitars had numerous limitations, and cited from experience that they were not reaching the customer well set up for playing.

Schwarz explained in a letter to Guitarist magazine: “…The skills are in the setting up, the fret dressing, adjustments and fine tuning.”, then pointed out that all this costs money, and that it was not economically viable to spend such money on budget guitars either from the manufacturer’s end of the chain, or the distribution/retail end. Hence (and this is my summary, not Brinsley's), the customer should expect a relatively low standard of playability, even before taking into account the quality of materials or hardware.

Schwarz concluded: “At best, I’d describe the Marlin Sidewinder as a reasonable basic or beginner’s electric guitar – what you’d expect for just over £100. I’d say the reasons for its success are the price, advertising and marketing, and the immense popularity of the famous guitar of which it’s a direct copy; but it’s certainly not down to the British guitar player’s growing awareness of what constitutes a good guitar.

Above: a Gibson Les Paul Classic almost having the effect of a piece of fine jewellery in terms of its visual appeal. But genuine Gibson guitars are not just superior to cheap copies in aesthetic terms – traditional construction and finishing methods have also made the guitars extremely difficult to convincingly duplicate on the cheap. And it’s not just spec. It’s something you can feel when you pick up and play the instruments.


Cheap guitars have to compromise in order to hit budget. Here are some of the primary issues you may encounter on a budget guitar, due to the necessary cutting of corners.

  • Poor quality wood typically means an insubstantial tone, light on bass and often ‘hollow’ or ‘empty’ in the important areas of the midrange. Lack of resonance or sustain capability is also a common problem.
  • Pickups are commonly poorly made, underwound and/or loosely wound, meaning a weak signal and unmanageable microphonic squeal at rehearsal/gig volume.
  • Other cheap electrical components can mean nasty, extraneous noise such as scratchy tone and volume controls and/or intermittent behaviour from switches.
  • Grim machineheads, coupled with imprecise build, frequently leads to tuning nightmares. Some instruments won’t hold their tuning through a single track.
  • Necks can be very inconsistent, with uneven fretting and/or improper truss adjustment causing persistent fretboard buzz, string-bend ‘choking’, etc. Frets on cheap guitars can also protrude at the edges of the fretboard, causing discomfort or even injury to the player. And tolerances on neck profile can be less rigid than with more expensive instruments, which may exacerbate problems with discomfort further.
  • Inferior durability – sometimes grossly inferior – can mean a cheap guitar just won’t stand up to heavy use. General tolerances can be slack too, creating anything from severe playing disruptions to maintenance issues. For instance, screw holes may be drilled too wide, causing screws to strip their threads when tightened, and eventually resulting in loose or unstable fittings.

You might think that vintage budget guitars, built long before the days of plywood and Korean/Chinese manufacture, would be immune from cheapie pitfalls. But they often had money saving compromises. The 1960s Gibson Melody Maker above is made of decent wood, but the hardware was cheaper than on higher end models, and the bridge didn’t have adjustable saddles, meaning that whilst the intonation would be okay with typical ‘60s strings, the significantly thinner strings of today (without a wound third) can’t be made to play in tune. You can change the bridge, but then you’re no longer using a vintage original.


Whilst, up to a point, spending more money on a guitar can be justified, it should be recognised that not all price premiums are paying for better quality. Some of the reasons you might be paying more money could include…
  • Brand status. Brand advertising in the guitar world is more uniform than in other areas of commerce, so you don’t so often get the disparity found in other fields where the ‘name brand’ costs two and a half times as much as the ‘own brand’, purely because the ‘name brand’ spends £billions constantly pushing the product into everyone’s face. But that isn’t to say that certain brands of guitar do not have brand premiums attached to them. Usually, price differences are centrally based on product/manufacturing criteria, and marketing hot air is not accounting for the bulk of the cost. But watch what the brands are spending on hype or putting into endorsees’ pockets, and if something looks overpriced, don’t try to convince yourself that you’re wrong.
  • Limited editions. A limited run often has proportionally higher advertising costs per unit, and producing something a little different over a relatively short period has a negative effect on the overall economics of production. Limited editions therefore frequently cost more, but may not be superior in quality to a regular model.
  • Custom builds. Anything built as a one-off to an exact spec is likely to have extra cost attached. A standard production model may be just as good, but less expensive.
  • Aesthetic spectacles. A highly figured wood might make a guitar look better, but it won’t inherently make a guitar sound, feel or play better than plainer looking wood of a good standard. Snazzy finishes, gold hardware, binding/purfling, etc, don’t make for a better musical instrument either. At the very top end of some ranges, you may be paying for aesthetics, which is fine if that’s what you want. But be aware that the money is being spent on visuals, and recognise that a much plainer looking and much cheaper instrument may do just as good a practical job – perhaps better.
  • R&D. Older designs are tried, tested, and a safe bet, but when someone introduces a new design with innovative features, some of the cost might be there to recouperate the research and development investment. This applies to hardware and electrical components as well as the broader design of the guitar, so take a close look at what you’re buying to see if you’re paying an ‘early adopter’s premium’.
  • Snob value. This applies both to secondhand (vintage) and new guitars, and can push up prices to some order without any gain in actual quality. Anything exclusively associated with a star (like ‘signature model’ guitars), or considered to be rare, or to be on trend in influential circles, is highly likely to be exploited for extra cash. Vintage guitars are exceptionally highly prone to snob value premiums, and are in no way guaranteed to outperform newer instruments. Factors such as supply and demand or celebrity endorsement can inflate prices, but they have nothing to do with quality, so if you like to get your money’s worth, stick with high quality, but standard products with a favourable supply/demand ratio.

The Tokai TST60 of the early 1980s (pictured above) was unusual in that it could be bought for about half the price of the USA Fender Stratocaster upon which it was modelled, but was considered by many guitarists at the time to be better. Part of the Tokai saving was achieved through Japanese manufacture (cheaper than American manufacture, and something Fender was forced to meet like for like in order to compete). But the quality was exceptionally high, and because Tokai replicated the old Fender spec, which guitarists generally preferred to the then current Fender spec, the Tokai shook up the market and gained huge momentum. The Tokai wasn't really a budget guitar as we consider them today - it was a professional quality instrument at an unusually low price. But it triggered the launch of one of the most successful and widely recognised budget guitar brands of all time - Squier.

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