What Makes A Guitar Expensive?

Price Differences for Guitars

On occasion I have customers that ask about the price difference between guitar models. If you’ve studied the market you’ll see that guitars start at $150 and rise to $3000-$4000 and up. For the most part, you can look at a guitar and it's clear to see the difference between an expensive model and a budget model. But it's not always that obvious. For instance, if you compare a Squire Stratocaster and a similar looking American Made Fender Stratocaster it can be hard to see the difference of $2000. But believe me, when you look beneath the surface there is a huge difference in tone, quality, craftsmanship, and looks. Is it is $2000 difference? Well that's debatable, but there is at least a significant difference. So, let’s take a closer look of what drives the cost to make a guitar.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Comparing two different models. Figure 1 is a $199.99 Affinity Stratocaster. Figure 2 is a Fender Eric Johnson Signature worth over $2000.00. Can you see $2000 difference just looking?


For this article we focus on electric guitar models. We’ll check acoustic guitars in a future post.

Quality of Woods

Let’s start with the foundation; wood. The body, neck, and fretboard, are the fundamental parts of the guitar and all made of wood. Not all wood is priced the same and not all woods make a great quality guitar. In the past it was not uncommon to see a cheap guitar made of plywood…the Glory Days eh? Thankfully quality control and design has improved tremendously, even on budget models. 

For a body, many budget guitars use poplar or basswood. Mahogany and alder are upgraded options as well as swamp ash. Certain types of maple are used as a cap on the body and found on higher end models too. Of course there are different reasons to use different types of woods, such as weight and density. But often you’ll find the nicer types of woods on high end models. Guitars like Gibson Les Paul, and PRS Custom 24 have a mahogany body with a maple top. A balance of tone, perfection, and beauty. Most of the time the maples have a flame top or quilt top, which describes the figure and pattern of the wood grain. Wood also has a grade system. Not all maple tops are created equal. High end PRS models feature a 10-Top Maple or other high quality tone wood which feature an elegant look and are highly coveted. Gibson uses AAA Flame Maple for some of their Les Paul Standard models. Notice the Les Paul Studios don't feature the same flame maple top, which is one of the factors for the lower price. Of course the higher quality cuts are reserved for the higher end models and this is reflective of their price tags.

Shown above is a USA Made PRS Custom 24. Notice the nice flame maple pattern compared to the Imported PRS SE Custom 24 shown below.

Woods for the guitar neck are also important. Maple is pretty much the standard for necks. The latest rage over the last couple of years is roasted maple. This is a combination of wood and manufacturing process, which we will discuss later. But for the most part you’ll see maple necks for most models of guitars, of course the quality of maple is important to consider too. 

Fretboards vary a little more. For decades, it was standard to have a rosewood fretboard or maple fretboard. But, in 2017 the world experienced unexpected restrictions on rosewood and that made it extremely difficult to get rosewood imported into the US. Because of this many manufacturers had to pursue alternatives to keep production going. Even though rosewood is currently back to being in normal production many manufactures kept their alternatives. You’ll find options of laurel, pao farrow, and even walnut. Some of these options look just as good as rosewood. However, rosewood is still favored and found on more expensive and traditional models of guitars. Black ebony is also a more expensive wood that you’ll see on high end models. 

OEM vs. Third Party Components

As we move from the wood to other components, you’ll find that a lot of pieces and parts are required to complete a guitar. From pickups, to wiring components, to the nut material, to hardware. The quality of these components and where they come from all factor into the cost.

On budget models you’ll find guitars loaded with generic hardware and parts. Any time you see a part without a name stamped or any identification you can guess that a manufacturer chose to save money and create parts in their own factory, in full effort to save money. Let’s face it, I’d feel more confident in playing a guitar loaded with humbuckers with Seymour Duncan scripted on the bottom. OEM parts tend to lack the quality and performance of Third Party vendors. A generic locking tremolo system may look the same as a Floyd Rose, but for those players who have played on a true Floyd Rose brand tremolo system know there is a difference. Graphtech nuts provide better harmonics and greater tuning stability than a cheap plastic nut.

Third party upgrades provide a boost in performance and quality, but also ups the price.  Common third party brands are: Fishman, Seymour Duncan, Dimzario, Graphtech, Grover, Gotoh, Floyd Rose, Bigsby, and much more. There are some exceptions. Gibson, Fender, and PRS all make their own pickups and hardware. These brands do sell these parts as upgrades to the general public, you'll find the more expensive models loaded with these prestigious parts. 

Jackson Pro Series Guitar featuring Seymour Duncan Humbuckers and Official Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo


Labor Cost

This one is pretty obvious but the greatest factor that affects the cost of the guitar is labor. While most manufacturers use a great deal of automated process there is still a significant amount of hands on labor that is involved in making a guitar. From installing electronics, to sanding, to installing the strings and setup, lots of love goes into making a brand new guitar its best. We all know that USA labor exponentially makes a guitar cost more. Import guitars typically come from China, Indonesia, or Korea, which brings the labor cost down significantly. Just because a guitar is made in a different country doesn’t mean it's in any way inferior. Many brands such as Ibanez, and Jackson feature guitars made in those aforementioned countries that feature the finest hardware and components and their performance rival USA made instruments. But cost of labor to built the same guitar in the USA compared to Indonesia is quite a bit more. 

Production Methods

EVH Wolfgang Model with baked maple neck.

As we all know, not all guitars are made equally. We’ve all played guitars that have a series case of fret sprouts, slicing your hand as you move up the fretboard. It’s not like they shipped the guitar out of the factory this way, but as the guitar travels from one climate system to the other it negatively affects the guitar. There are a couple of different ways manufactures use to eliminate issues like fret sprouts. One of the new methods that has caught on is roasted maple necks. The quality of wood is not necessarily an upgrade but the drying process produces many benefits, one of them being elimination of fret sprouts. Another manufacturing process that affects cost is Gloss Finish versus Satin or Matte Finish. You’ll find a cost difference between models that offer a thinner more natural finish as opposed to a heavy gloss. Most satin models are slightly less expensive than gloss models. Many companies offer upgraded processes that vastly improve the quality and longevity of the instrument, but it also drive up the cost. 

After we consider these factors and add them all together it’s clear to see the cost differences. Developing a keen eye for quality helps you to spot a great quality guitar and also find the posers(just because a guitar is expensive doesn’t mean it’s automatically great). So, the next time you are perusing at your local music store you’ll spot the differences in guitar models. Maybe if you look closely at a cheap Partscaster you’ll see those brand name parts and find a bargain. Or perhaps you’ll pass on a $1500 model when it lacks the upgrade features.

Thanks for reading. 

Chad Daniels