by Matt Day

A lot of people assume that expensive guitars by the larger guitar manufacturers are easier to play than cheaper models.  I’ve played literally hundreds of guitars over the past two decades, and have found some commonalities between cost and ease of playing, but I’ve also asked around to find out if other seasoned guitar players think that expensive guitars are easier to play.

So, are expensive guitars easier to play?  Expensive guitars tend to be built with higher quality components and have fewer manufacturing flaws, which make them easier to play than very low end guitars.  However, due to advances in manufacturing and other factors, differences between mid-level and high-level guitars are often unnoticable to most guitar players.

Let’s take a look at the factors that make expensive guitars so expensive, and how much those factors convert into a guitar that is easier to play.

Why Are Expensive Guitars So Expensive?

If you’ve ever taken a person who doesn’t play guitar to a music store and showed them the prices on the high end guitars, you’ve seen their response.  Most non-guitar players are shocked to learn that some very well known and popular guitars cost several thousand dollars or more. What is also difficult for many people to understand is why some guitars are so expensive when a guitar that looks the same to the untrained eye costs so much less.

The important question here is if this extra cost converts into higher quality and better playability.  Is all of that expense buying us a guitar that plays better? Let’s review the common reasons that expensive guitars cost so much.

Guitar Cost Factor #1:  Labor. The number one factor in why some guitars cost so much is the labor cost that goes into the instrument, and this is almost always because the guitar was built in the United States.  Most other instruments are manufactured in Mexico, China, Japan or South Korea, which have much lower labor rates.  Manufacturing workers in the United States cost employers much more in wages, benefits and overhead costs, which goes directly into the cost of an American made guitar.  This tends to the primary factor of why an American made Fender guitar, for example, costs so much more than the same model crafted in Mexico.

Guitar Cost Factor #2:  Markup.  Several of the American manufacturers have engaged in heavy price markups at some point in recent years, with most guitar players and music store employees not knowing why.  A guitar that before cost $1,700 jumped to $2,300 from one model year to the next, with little change to the apparent build of the instrument. Many people assumed that this was the manufacturers trying to inflate or right-size the market and had nothing to do with production costs of their guitars.

Guitar Cost Factor #3:  Quality Materials and Parts.  To a lesser extent than the first two factors, some higher cost guitars do have higher quality parts, most notably the wood they are crafted from.  An acoustic guitar made with with solid wood sells for far more than a guitar made of laminate, even though the laminate may retain 90% of the tonal properties of the solid wood variant.  

Wood that happens to have interesting qualities, such as heavy quilting in the wood grain, give the manufacturer an opportunity for a price markup, but also wood that tends to have better tonal properties, such as rosewood, can command a higher price too.

Perhaps most important for the guitar player are the quality of the components themselves, such as the tuners or pickups.  A higher quality guitar is expected to have superior components that increase playability and tonal quality.

Guitar Cost Factor #4:  Craftsmanship.  For some models, guitar manufacturers will focus more heavily on craftsmanship, especially on their specialized models or instruments that are produced in their custom shops.  This extra craftsmanship takes time and translates to a higher cost, so a guitar player should expect that someone at the factory with a great deal of skill took extensive care into building and testing the instrument before it was shipped.

Does This Expense Make Guitars Easier To Play?

Many of the factors that make an expensive guitar so expensive actually have little effect on playability, especially since the labor cost and the price markups on an instrument do not translate into any real difference in what the instrument becomes.  However, the quality of the parts do have an impact on the sound and the playability, and the craftsmanship on a higher end guitar should translate into an instrument that was carefully crafted for maximum playability by a master builder. Let’s take a look at what about a higher end guitar should have better playability.

Playability Test #1:  Does the Guitar Hold Tuning?  Very low end guitars are notorious for being unable to hold their tuning for very long, or at all, and this if often because of using inferior tuning heads or an improper setup at the factory.  An expensive guitar should have no problem staying in tune during and after substantial playing, assuming the strings are new and the guitar is not being exposed to the elements.

Playability Test #2:  Are there any manufacturing flaws?  A high end guitar should be virtually flawless, with no manufacturing issues or errors that were able to get past their quality control processes.  Besides the visual aspects of the guitar, the frets should be properly set with no sharp ends, the action should be correctly set, and any electronics should be fully functioning.

I have seen some new guitars right from the factory that have had paint overspray (which should have resulted in a reject of the instrument), but have also had new guitars with faulty electronics that would cut out or play intermittently.  Some of these issues may be hard for a quality control process to spot, but in some cases it seems that the manufacturer just prefers to ship than maintain a standard of expected excellence.

many years ago, a music store manager had told me that he had to reject and return a large portion of guitars from a major manufacturer do to setup and build flaws that should never have been shipped.  

Playability Test #3:  How is the guitar’s sustain?  Assessing how long an instrument can hold a note uninterrupted is a sign of a good guitar that is well built and will sound good too.  Check the guitar’s sustainability when trying out an instrument.

Playability Test #4:  Does the guitar feel good in your hands?  If you have a well built, functional guitar with quality components that will stay in tune, the next factor is how the guitar feels when you’re playing it.  This intuitive process is something that seasoned guitar players enjoy about testing out guitars.

Any expensive guitar with high quality should feel good in your hands and work with you to make music instead of against you in any way.  The guitar should almost want to be played, and it should in a sense make you a better guitar player.

What About Mid Level Guitars?

Given the advances in manufacturing worldwide and the consolidation of manufacturers and manufacturing locations (primarily to China), the general quality of mid level instruments is not far removed from most very expensive guitars.  While most lifelong players will choose to not stay with a mid grade guitar for a long period of time, many mid level guitars will serve the average player well until they choose to invest in a life-long instrument.

Mid level guitars from the major manufacturers retain many of the same qualities of their higher level siblings, which translate into solid playability.  What this means for most players is that any well built guitar will be a suitable guitar except for the very low end introductory models that are less than a few hundred dollars, or are not sold at a traditional music store.

Related Questions

What aspects of a guitar cost more to manufacture?  Guitars with glued-in set necks, slanted headstocks, carved tops or binding on the body, such as on some Gibson and Paul Reed Smith models, require more time and craftsmanship to assemble, and can cause the price of these guitars to be higher.

Are Mexican-made fender guitars of good quality?  Many guitars made in Mexico by the Fender Music Company that retain the Fender brand name are of good quality and playability in comparison to similar guitars made in the United States.  Fender labels their entry level guitars with the Squier brand name, and these guitars are generally lower in quality and playability.

About the author 

Matt Day

Matt Day has been playing the guitar for over twenty-five years, and also plays the bass guitar and mandolin.