Updated January, 2016
The solid body electric guitar is a uniquely American invention, but as most people know, very few of them are made in the USA anymore. As with many consumer products, the lure of low cost labor has drawn most manufacturing offshore. The first imports in the 60’s were from Japan, and then as costs rose there, manufacturing shifted to South Korea, then China, and now there is a growing industry in Indonesia. China is still the big dog in terms of guitar production, but as Chinese manufacturing costs continue to increase, more manufacturing will likely shift to Indonesia, and after that, who knows where? Most players would be surprised to learn that South Korea accounts for only about 5% of electric guitar production, with the USA a couple points below that.
In practical terms, the average guitar player benefits from lower prices for musical instruments and gear. Given the combination of low labor costs and improved manufacturing technology, the bang-for-the-buck on guitars has never been better. About 44% of electric guitars purchased in 2011 cost less than $200. That’s just an astounding number, and even more astounding when you figure that these products are generally something you can actually play and that will stay in tune. Fully 80% of electric guitars purchased in 2011 cost less than $600. While I can’t be certain, I’ll wager that virtually none of these guitars were manufactured in the USA.
But what if you want to purchase something made in the USA, and you are on a budget? There are several options available, and if you are willing to head north of the border, the selection expands considerably. This is not meant to be a totally comprehensive list, but just some of the options out there for guitarists that want a good quality instrument and also support American manufacturing.
G&L – Barring a special release model, the days of a $1000 street price G&L are over. With new dealer and list pricing implemented in July 2015, your not going to see a 2015 G&L at this price; short of a desperate and/or math-challenged dealer blowing them out. There are still quite a few new 2014 models out there, and a base Legacy or SC-2 still might be had for around a grand. G&L continues to offer a unique value in terms of fit, finish, and the ability to special order. If you are willing to stretch your budget, you will be well rewarded.
Godin – Godin gets an honorable mention because while they don’t manufacture complete guitars in the USA, they assemble a variety of models in their New Hampshire facility from Canadian-made parts. Godin also uses a lot of locally sourced and sustainable woods like Maple, Basswood, and Cherry for their guitars. The Session and Progression and Core lines are examples of guitars assembled in the USA, and with a street price of around $500 the Session is a particularly good value. If you consider Canada as the 51st state, the all-Canadian Godin Core is our favorite both in P-90 and Humbucker trim. These street price for around $800, and there is just nothing not to like about them. They even use Seymour Duncan P-90 and bridge Humbucker pickups. Now for a $500 North American guitar don’t expect vintage Alnico pickups, and Godin does use PCB-mounted controls rather than hand-wired pots, but the setup and playability are first rate. All Godin guitars included a gig bag in the price.
Fender – One thing is for certain about Fender, and it’s that they offer a dizzying array of products that is both extensive, confusing, and often unnecessary. But mixed in there is an assortment of Highway One and American Special guitars that offer good values and prices right at around $1000. Models seem to come and go in the Fender line with little or no warning, so what’s available at any given moment is hard to predict. The pickups in these guitars are decent if not awe inspiring, but overall these guitars are perfectly gig-worthy instruments and great platforms for hot-rodding. Keep in mind the price of these guitars either include no case, or a gig bag.
Gibson – Like Fender, Gibson suffers somewhat from product line schizophrenia. If you are browsing the major online retailers, models tend to come and go, at least from a standpoint of what’s being promoted at the moment. Gibson offers “faded” Les Paul and SG models with prices below $1000. There are also satin finish guitars both with flat and carved tops that come in under $1000. Gibson also offers Melody Maker and Les Paul Junior models, again with satin or aged finishes. We’ve tried the Les Paul Junior, and it’s pretty nifty with lots of bite out of the single dog-ear P-90, and good playing qualities. LP Juniors are fun guitars, and for a for pure elemental rock machine you can’t really go wrong. Gibson fit and finish can sometimes be a little variable, and if you want to mod the pickups or controls, you’ll likely be dealing with a printed circuit board (even if you spend thousands). As with Fender, gig bags may not be in the price, so consider that when you are shopping.
Carvin – By eliminating the retailer and going strictly direct, Carvin has been putting out a broad variety of attractively priced USA guitars for many years. Having never played their guitars I can’t say a wh0le lot, but my personal experience with their pro-audio and bass amplifiers tells me that they do deliver above average performance at a very competitive price. Provided you don’t option them up too much, their ST300, DC127, DC134/5, DC600 and Bolt-On series guitars can all be had for under $1000. Carvin guitars can be custom built to order, and the array of options available from Carvin is pretty mind-boggling. For under $1000, your going to be looking at a fairly basic guitar — no quilt maple tops or Koa wood — but there is still a lot to choose from. Part of the option list is the case, and essentially you have to buy some sort of case, but the case pricing is very reasonable.
Summary – There is a good feeling about buying something made in the USA, and supporting American manufacturing. After all, the solid body electric guitar was born here, so why not buy one made in the USA? In this global world, made in USA is also subject to interpretation. For many product categories there are specific regulations that control whether a product can be labeled “made in USA” or “assembled in USA” etc. There is likely some amount of foreign content in any USA guitar, most notably electronic components, and of course certain woods like rosewood just don’t exist in the USA. Also, chances of finding a gig bag not made in China is pretty tough. So made in USA can sometimes be a fuzzy term, and certain components just cannot be sourced domestically. With that in mind, you can find a guitar in which the majority of the parts and labor come from domestic sources, and not break the bank doing so.
To see some of the American made guitars carried by UpFront Guitars for around $500 – $1200: www.upfrontguitars.com