In the past, where guitars are made was a point of contention for most buyers. But technology has come a long way, and this controversial subject has seen some blurred lines over the last decade.
Where Guitars Are Made: The Past…
If you started playing guitar in the 80s or 90s, you are probably very familiar with off-brand Chinese copies. Back then, the internet was is its early stages, and it was much harder to track these copy-cat companies.
You saw several Chinese knock-off companies emerge like Lotus, and E&P Guitars. These guitars were usually modeled after popular styles by Fender, since a bolt on Strat-style guitar is so easy to make. I had a Lotus Strat as a kid, and it was unplayable. Total garbage.
But back then, it was tough to find a good deal on an electric guitar. When you moved on to Squier and Epiphone, the prices were drastically higher than a $99 knock-off. My spending money was definitely limited as a teen, even though I worked a weekend job.
Of course, I eventually got a nicer guitar and amp, and moved on to name brand products. But this left a bad taste in the mouths of consumers that grew up in this era. Cheap Chinese rip-offs left us thinking that everything from China was awful.
This is an attitude that you still see all the time on guitar forums when it comes to where guitars are made. Some guitarists will only play American or Japanese guitars, and put down most of the other brands. hey, if “Made In The USA” means something to you, then that’s your preference, and there is nothing wrong with that.
But there has been a huge surge of interest in guitar over the last 10 years or so. More people are picking up the guitar for the first time, than any other point in history. This is because budget guitars aren’t bound to being useless firewood anymore.
So finding out where guitars are made was an important aspect back in the day. You wouldn’t want to settle for a guitar that was subpar on every level. Budget guitars just… really didn’t exist back then. I wish I had today’s options back in 1993.
Where Guitars Are Made: The Present…
But this is 2022! Things have definitely changed when it comes to where guitars are made. The addition of CNC machines really changed the manufacturing process, and made it much more affordable to make a consistent guitar.
Most of these CNC machines can get the details right down to millimeters with laser-focused tolerances. This takes the human element out of making guitars, which saves on labor costs. These savings are then passed down to the consumer. This is why budget guitars have been in so style lately. They’re cheap, and they play well!
Budget guitars are just made better now, and a few hundred bucks can get you a great beginner rig. Years ago, this would have been impossible. Or maybe you would get lucky at a pawn shop. Maybe…
No matter where guitars are made, there has to be a human element at some point when it comes to assembly. The more people that are involved in making a guitar, the higher the price is going to be. You don’t have to pay a CNC machine an hourly wage!
So where guitars are made might matter a little less these days, but it still matters on some levels. I would never expect a $100 guitar to be comparable to a Custom Shop instrument. But the gap has definitely become smaller and smaller between quality, and price.
So today we are going to take a look at the different guitar brands that we have covered a little bit already in out budget guitar section, and the more expensive models as well. We are also going to look at some major brands, and which factories actually produce these guitars.
Does where a guitar is made matter in 2022? Well, let’s find out!
Where Guitars Are Made: Brands And Factories
Most of us have a favorite guitar, or two (or ten). The type of guitar we play depends on a lot of different factors, but we all have preferences. When buying a guitar, most players that have experience like to stick to a brand or style of guitar.
The thing is, one brand may come from several different sources! This is most prevalent with budget guitars, but it also applies to higher end models from companies like LTD and Schecter. In fact, we see a lot of guitars that come from the Far East in every company.
There are some guitarists that prefer to buy USA made guitars ONLY. There is nothing wrong with that mentality, but we have explored companies like Fender in detail and showed that it really didn’t matter as much as we originally thought. Made in Mexico Fenders are awfully close to their USA cousins when it comes to quality!
Almost every brand has some sort of price tier, and this is where the differences really start to add up. It isn’t just about where guitars are made, it is also be about the quality of features and components. The lower end guitars are usually made with lesser quality materials, and have less features.
All of the larger companies have a low, medium, and high tier when it comes to price AND quality. We are going to break a few of these down today, and talk about the different factories that these brands use. Most major companies have several tiers to fit every budget, and where they come from factors into that.
So let’s take a look at a few major companies, and see which factories they use. Then we will talk about the benefits of each origin, and why some brands are a better value than you might have thought, previously.
Where Guitars Are Made: Fender/Charvel
Fender is an absolutely iconic brand that has been around for decades. Leo Fender created the first mass produced, solid body guitar…way back in the 1950s. Fender may have began in the USA, but has been made in several different places over the years.
In 2002, Fender bought Charvel Guitars and several other famous brands that had fallen to the wayside in sales. This was a big move, and Fender has acquired all kinds of brands in an attempt to breathe new life into them. In fact, there are probably some that you didn’t even know about:
Fender had record sales over the last two years, and its easy to see why! The company literally owns a good portion of the entire guitar market. But Fender applies different price tiers to each brand, based on features and origin. Where guitars are made by Fender is shown in the different price tiers, with USA always being the most expensive.
Fender Price Tiers And Country Of Origin: Lowest To Highest
- China: Squier, and entry level Jacksons/Gretsch
- Indonesia: Squier, Jackson Standards, Gretsch
- Korea: Gretsch, some past Squier models
- Mexico: Fender, Charvel, Jackson
- USA: Fender, Custom Shop, Charvel, Jackson Artist, EVH
Over the years, Fender also used Korean factories like Samick and Cort for Squier. But for the most part, the budget models are all made in China or Indonesia. The Indonesian guitars have some better features, and overall are just better quality than their Chinese counterparts.
The Fender shop in Mexico is where all of the “core” models are made. This is where the Player Series, and most of the production Charvel guitars are made. The Ensenada, Mexico factory is known for producing some really high quality guitars, with great features and specs.
The Fender USA factory is reserved for the top of the line models. This also includes the EVH lineup, that makes replicas of Eddie Van Halen’s famous guitars. The Custom Shop is on a whole different level or quality, and the guitars that are produced there are all built by hand.
So while Fender may be known for starting as an American company, you can see that instruments are made all over the world for the different brands under the Fender umbrella. Most of the Chinese guitars are meant for beginners, while the Indonesian models I have played have been really nice!
Fender is probably the best example of why it doesn’t matter where guitars are made. I have played some amazing Mexican Fenders, some outstanding Squier guitars, and some great USA models. I have also played some poorly constructed models when it comes to all of the above.
I always tell people to try a Fender before they buy it, because the Squier hanging next to the one you want might actually play better. Fender’s QC is a little bit all over the place. So does it matter where guitars are made with Fender?
I honestly don’t know. I feel like Fender is a “case by case” basis. The Squier Classic Vibe Series is the perfect example of being way more than just a “beginner” guitar. But sometimes, you just get a dud.
Where Guitars Are Made: Gibson Guitars
When it comes to where guitars are made, Gibson Guitars has a very similar model to Fender. Gibson is known as an American brand by default, but Gibson also owns Epiphone. Gibson was in stiff competition with Epiphone, until the Epiphone brand was bought in 1957.
I suppose that’s one way to beat the competition. Buy them out! Gibson also owns quite a lot of other brands:
- Kramer Guitars
- Mesa Boogie
- Steinberger Guitars
Unlike Fender, Gibson really only has two places that produce guitars. Gibson guitars are always made in the USA, while most Epiphone and Kramer guitars are made in China. There have been a few exceptions over the years with Epiphone, as some were made in Korea.
So when it comes to where guitars are made, the American companies usually follow very similar business models. But don’t let the subject of where guitars are made fool you. There are some very nice Epiphone guitars that we have reviewed, that I would totally gig with!
If a guitar is well made, and sounds great…I don’t think it matters where it was made. Epiphone is the best example of this that I can think of when it comes to this point. LOTS of pro guitarists have used Epiphone, like The Beatles and Trivium! Some pro guitarists have no problem playing a guitar built overseas.
But there is one factory in the Far East that makes some outstanding guitars, that stand above the rest. South Korea has a factory that has been highly sought after by many guitar brands over the years. So much so, that there is a waiting list if you want your guitars crafted there!
Where Guitars Are Made: South Korea (WMIC)
WMIC or “World Music Instruments” is located in South Korea, and they are one of the last “big” Korean guitar companies. You will find that a variety of brands are made at WMIC, and you probably have owned one at some point!
WMIC comes up a lot when people discuss where guitars are made. The factory is synonymous with quality craftsmanship, and attention to detail. WMIC uses quality woods, and has an excellent QC department. In fact, some people would compare the high end WMIC guitars to “Made in The USA” guitars!
One of the main concerns of where guitars are made is the price, and this is where Korean guitars differ from the American companies. WMIC makes so many brands because these are contract guitars. WMIC is not a brand, itself. This means that the brand approaches WMIC, provides the specs, and WMIC makes the guitars to the specs that the brand provides.
A great example of this is ESP Guitars, and the lower priced LTD models that are made in the WMIC factory. Most ESP and E-II guitars are crafted in Japan. The entire LTD lineup is made by WMIC, as a contract agreement. But LTD has so many price tiers, how can that be possible?
The price tiers in WMIC are based on labor. For instance, a guitar that does not need the CNC machine to be reset often, and comes with basic hardware, will be much cheaper to produce. Wood choice, features, and labor are all the important aspects of making a guitar at WMIC.
On the other hand, more complicated guitar designs that come with name brand hardware will be more expensive to make. These usually have all kinds of upgrades, and come with name brand pickups like Duncan and EMG. The CNC machine may have to be reset a lot as well, driving up the cost.
This is why you may see some guitars that come out of the WMIC factory that only cost $500. The less expensive models take less labor, and use “on hand” parts. While other guitars made in WMIC may be up to $2000, if the guitar takes more attention to detail and has name brand parts.
A good example of the “higher end” models that come from WMIC would be Schecter. The Keith Merrow models and Schecter SLS designs all cost over $1300 MSRP. All of the high end Schecter models that are mass produced are made in the WMIC factory, while the lower priced Schecter models are made in Indonesia.
So WMIC offers a relatively fair method of producing guitars for different brands. The customer picks out the specs, and CNC machine specifications, and WMIC gives the customer the price for each model produced. You will be surprised to find out just how many guitars are made at WMIC!
Where Guitars Are Made: WMIC Brands List
- BC Rich (Standard line Made in China)
- Brian May Signature Guitars
- Chapman Guitars
- Dean (Standard line is made in China and Indonesia)
- Gretsch (Electromatic models)
- Guild (Newark St. models)
- Line 6
- LTD (By ESP)
- Michael Kelly Guitars
- Ormsby (GTR Standard line)
- PRS SE (Until 2020)
- Schecter Guitar Research (Artist Models, SLS, Banshee, KM, Hellraiser)
- Wylde Audio (sub-brand of Schecter)
Most WMIC guitars go through a rigorous QC check before they ship to the brand. Then, the brand will usually go over the instruments again. You see this on LTD and Schecter guitars, on the back sticker. It usually shows who inspected the guitar, and set it up to company spec.
So WMIC has made some very respectable guitars over the years. Unfortunately, they lost a few companies in 2019. The biggest one is PRS, since the brand wanted to move to Cort, in Indonesia. Cort makes a few brands, but now the main focus is on PRS SE instruments, which means more time and detail can go into the PRS guitars.
Schecter also moved a few models in the mid-range price tier to Cort. Schecter did this for the same reason that PRS moved a few models away from WMIC. The best example is the Schecter Nick Johnston Series, which is under $1000. Don’t let that price fool you though, you can check our review and others. Cort knocked it out of the park with these Schecter NJ models.
If you have ever played any of these brands, you know the quality that WMIC is capable of producing. I own several Schecter guitars from the WMIC factory, and I would choose them over just about any other guitar, any day. I have played Schecter for years now, and I have always been impressed.
So when it comes to where guitars are made, sometimes the obvious American choices aren’t always the best. WMIC makes brands played by the pros! The higher end models easily compare to some of the mass produced American brands.
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Does Where Guitars Are Made Matter Anymore?
I have to admit, it was pretty tough for me to get out of the mindset that import guitars were trash. When you grow up worrying about where guitars are made before you make a purchase, it almost becomes second nature to look at the back of a headstock in the music store.
But over the last two years, I have reviewed and played a LOT of guitars. Even before that, I had played guitars for over two decades. I have owned American PRS guitars, and I have owned $200 used Epiphone guitars. Where guitars are made has much less of an impact on me now.
More and more guitarists are starting to not care so much about where guitars are made. Especially newer guitarists that just need something reliable, and easy to play.
What it comes down to in the end, is how YOU feel about the guitar. Does it play the way you want it to? Does it have the tone you re looking for? Does it make you want to pick it up and play every time you see it?
Paul Reed Smith always talks about “magic” guitars. he describes them as being guitars that feel like they were built just for you. I have been lucky enough to experience this more than once, and those “magic” guitars for me were never a $4000 Gibson. Although, I have played a lot of those too.
In fact, one of the “magic” guitars is my girlfriend’s 2001 Squier Stratocaster. This thing has no upgrades or specials modifications. It is just a great guitar that I enjoy playing. Every time I pick it up, I seem to play something great. So to me, that Squier is a “magic” guitar.
So after 20 something years, does where guitars are made matter to me? No. Not at all.
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Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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