Many people feel that foreign made guitars are inferior quality and should be avoided, but that may be based on outdated factors.
A brief history of foreign made guitars
American guitar makers began to favor offshore manufacturing starting in the mid 1960’s. At this point, foreign made guitars were often of shoddy quality. This is the root of the “all foreign guitars are crap” mindset. In the 1970’s, the trend reversed and Asian made guitars (Yamaha, Ibanez, Tokai, and Aria) were seen as superior quality. Fender didn’t help themselves any here after they were purchased by CBS and CBS implemented numerous cost cutting measures that ultimately negatively affected quality.
Flash forward to today and modern manufacturing techniques and quality control practices mean that the quality is much more consistent.
Why are foreign made guitars cheaper?
You may be wondering if the cheaper price tag on foreign guitars is indicative of cheaper parts or construction. That’s not necessarily true. Much of the cost difference has to do with labor costs, which is the result of regulations and ultimately the standard of living. This is seen in the move from Japanese manufacturing in the 70’s and 80’s to other, less wealthy Asian countries. As Japan experienced a manufacturing boom, wages rose and so did related costs. This made countries like Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and China more affordable, so production expanded to them.
Aside from labor, there are certain material differences between domestic and foreign guitar models. These sorts of differences are individual to each guitar brand. Gibson for instance reserves certain body finish styles and colors for its American Made Gibson line, while Fender reserves its upgraded electronics for its American Made lines.
In general, the foreign made models usually contain the more standard, or stock, pickups and pots while the American Made models usually sport the premium electronics.
This is actually not a bad thing if you’re willing to swap pickups and pots yourself. If you’re handy with a soldering iron, you can pick up a Mexican made Fender for half the price of an American one and swap the pots and pickups with upgrades from the custom shop and have a close approximation to an American Made Fender at about 2/3 the price. The price difference is much larger for Gibson, but technically you can’t really get a non-American made Gibson. All of Gibson’s foreign made models are under different brand names, Epiphone for example. But the quality is not that much different in the core of the product (i.e.: minus the bells and whistles).
In the end, I think Dave Hunter, writing for Guitar Player magazine,says it best:
The upshot: choose your instrument according to the specs and features and prices that suit you—and most importantly, its feel in your hands and its sound to your own ears—rather than approaching with any bias related to where it was made. We are truly spoiled for choices in the 21st century, and it’s a great time to be alive as a guitarist!