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To Buy American Or Not - That is the Question

     For those of us who live in the United States, this is a question of nearly-endless debate.  There are those who believe American-made guitars are always better; and, conversely, that guitars made in China are invariably inferior.  Others believe one should choose a guitar based on sound and price alone, ignoring where it's made.  Some folks are virtually married to a particular manufacturer and wouldn't consider buying anything else.  To still others it's an ideological thing; they typically think either a) that buying American shows one's patriotism and should be invariable, or b) that buying products from emerging markets helps the world's poor.  My view doesn't fit neatly into any of these categories, and yours may not, either - but as a general outline of the arguments for and against, this seems to suffice.

     I buy a lot of things made outside my country's borders, sometimes by choice but most of the time because there is no choice.  As an example of the former, I like wine, and in addition to California and Washington State wines, I'm partial to those from Australia, Spain, and Italy (most French wines just don't do it for me).  On the other hand, when we buy clothes in the United States today there really is no choice - I don't think there is a single textile plant left in the US, and the vast majority of our clothing (other than, perhaps, the uber-expensive kind) comes from elsewhere.  I read recently about a guy who started a company to produce high-end men's shoes, and planned to manufacture in the United States - but found out the hard way that there is no one left here who can service the complex machines required for shoe making.  I would say that the majority of what we buy in the US today is manufactured somewhere else.  Even the old bastion - American cars - are made from parts produced all over the world, with final assembly often in Canada or Mexico.  I recently chose a Toyota, because it was at least assembled in a plant in Kentucky that employs American workers

     With all that as a backdrop, guitars are the exception in today's world.  The United States probably produces more guitars than any other country, and the best guitars in the world are produced here.  That's not to say that every guitar made in America is automatically better than every guitar made anywhere else.  Still, I don't think there is any comparison between the best guitars produced here and the best produced anywhere else.  Just think of the incredible guitars made in the US by Martin, Gibson, Fender, Taylor, Guild, Collings, and Santa Cruz, to name just a few - not to mention the countless independent luthiers out there making custom instruments.  Some of these companies (most notably Martin, Gibson, and Fender) make the standards by which all other guitars are judged.  

     In most cases I don't have the option to buy products made in my home country, so guitars are kind of my line in the sand.  I have a strong preference for American-made guitars - which is not to say that I would never buy a guitar made outside the US.  After I've collected everything on my wish list (which is, admittedly, probably too long to get through in my lifetime), Takamine makes fine guitars, the Epiphone Masterbilt series is pretty good too, and I'd like to have a Taylor GS Mini, which is made in Mexico.  And this is a personal decision - I harbor no ill will for those whose preferences lead them in other directions.  

     On the other hand, I'm not fond of hypocrites.  For example, Toby Keith makes a show of being pro-American (worker, soldier, etc).; but he plays Takamine guitars.  I saw a televised stage performance of his recently, and he was playing a Takamine with a top painted like an American flag.  Toby, if you prefer Takamine that's fine with me - but don't then try to convince me of your solidarity with the American worker, when there are outstanding American made guitars available and you have the money to buy any guitar you want.  Glenn Frey plays Takamines too, and I have absolutely no problem with that because the hypocrisy is missing.

     So, my bottom line is, buy whatever you like, and I'll do the same - but don't try to have it both ways like Mr. Keith.  I prefer American-made guitars, but that doesn't mean you have to.  At the end of the discussion, the point is to make music and have fun doing it.

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Comment by Maurice Condie on May 9, 2012 at 1:15am

I agree Cameron. My coment about Sobell guitars was purly a personal oppinion. One of the best guitars I ever played was a Collings but, for me Sobells work better ( if unforgiving at times).

Comment by cameron on May 8, 2012 at 9:00pm

The Alvarez Yari  are some of the best factory made acoustic guitars, even the far east have the quality shops. The lower cost of labor and production just draw in a lot of the lower end economy guitar makers , even the top american factorys have lower end foreign models. Custom hand made guitars have and always will be of the best quality and materials, and so will sound better. And  Maurice no offense but america has some truly gifted builders that would disagree that the best guitars in the world come from england.

Comment by Maurice Condie on May 8, 2012 at 8:37am

"the best guitars in the world are produced here" I might contest this point. My view is that Stefan Sobell makes the best guitars in the world, and he does it 30 miles from my house in the norh east of England.

However I agree with your sentiments and in fairness the best factory made guitars do come from the US.

I would argue that the problems with far east manufacture is failure to ensure quality throughout the building process because this can not be achieved on mass produced instruments.

Comment by Mark Baker on May 1, 2012 at 1:51pm

I understand that completely, Richard.  I don't play gigs so it's not a concern for me - but if I did I wouldn't be using my $3400 J-40.  I have a '91 Guild D25 that I bought for $700 a couple of years ago that I would probably use; however, if I didn't have that I would buy whatever sounded best for the least damage risk.

Comment by Richard Rambler on April 30, 2012 at 9:42pm

I, too prefer American made guitars, ESPECIALLY Gibson. But 3 years ago I shelled out 2600.00 !!!!! for a new j45 rosewood. As a result, I am terrified to bring this guitar out of the house. The alternative for me Is a Blueridge j45 copy that only cost $900.00. Solid spruce top, solid rosewood back & sides, sounds as good as the gibson, but made in China. Is it built as well as the Gibson? Naaaahh. But worth every penny I paid for it. I also have 2 Seagulls (Canadian at least) but this way I wont need a grief counsellor if one gets dinged at a gig.

Comment by cameron on April 30, 2012 at 7:26am

I have Martin, Fender, Alvarez .  Fender electric American made. but I like my alvarez guitars, does the martin sound better, different but i don't think better.

Comment by FloridaGull on April 28, 2012 at 6:56pm
As does Walden - with their Madera line...www.waldenguitars.com
Comment by Jim McHie on April 28, 2012 at 4:17pm

I also own a guitar from a Canadian manufacturer -- Art & Lutherie (who I think is a sub of Godin).  I wouldn't shy away from purchasing foreign-made guitars, although for my next guitar I will probably look for something that is produced form sustainable wood manufacturing.  Both Martin and Seagull have product lines that reflect those preferences.

Comment by FloridaGull on April 26, 2012 at 3:17pm

I have 2 Canadian guitars (Seagull and Godin), one Brazilian (Giannini), and one Portuguese (Cordoba C5 - yes, mine was built in Portugal - they are built in China now...).  I bought my daughter a Walden T550 for her birthday - dimensionally equivalent to a Taylor GS Mini, but more than $200 less...and made in China.  But...

Walden has their own, dedicated factory in Lilan, China - and takes care of their workers better than typical for a Chinese plant.  Check out this interview: http://www.waldenguitars.com/news_2011_Mixdown_Interview.html - it was good for me to know that there are some companies that try...

Walden and Eastman seem to be better at treating their workers, and they have their own, dedicated facilities.  If I had the money for the American guitars, I'd probably go that way - but, since cost is an issue, I'll buy outside of America if I must - as long as no one is being abused...

Interesting thoughts!  Keep them coming...

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