For the longest time, it seemed like the only type of guitars that people knew of were electrics, acoustics, and maybe nylons, in fact, a lot of people recommend nylons for beginners (like me), but with the popularity of YouTube and the subsequent explosion of social media, other types of guitarists grew in notoriety, including those who use the percussive style like Andy McKee, Don Ross, and Antoine Dufour.
It’s not uncommon to see players like them with harp guitars – a special kind of guitar that has bass strings on top. Typically, these are expensive instruments, but a lot of people are curious about the average price.
The average price of a harp guitar that is custom-made by a luthier is around US$10,000 to $US12,000, although, according to Gregg Miner from HarpGuitars, Timberline Guitars produces a harp guitar that is between $1000 and $3000.
I asked a representative for Beardsell Guitars as well, and they told me that their guitars went for at least US$12,000 minimum. After asking around, I discovered that when buying a harp guitar that isn’t made by Timberline, you’ll be paying a price from anywhere between $US6000 and US$20,000, although, it appears that $10,000 is kind of the bare minimum expectation for what you would pay for a custom harp guitar.
Why Do Harp Guitars Cost So Much?
There are a couple of different reasons why harp guitars tend to cost a lot of money, and it has a lot more to do with the market itself, where they’re built, who makes them, and who they’re made for, rather than just the materials that they’re made out of, although the construction and time that goes into them are certainly a big factor as well.
One big reason why harp guitars are so expensive has to do with the fact no major guitar manufacturer is actually making harp guitars on a mass scale, which means the amount of people around the world who can build them is fairly small. And this also means that the people who do make them are independent or part of just a small guitar making business, in other words, their work is handmade which is another factor we’ll explore down below.
Explained more simply, electric guitars, for example, have a huge market of people who want to pay $5000 for a guitar; players who just want to drop $2500 or $1000, and then all the way down to the beginner who doesn’t want to spend more than $300. Some people don’t even want to spend $300 for a guitar.
1) The Harp Guitar Market is Small but the Demand is High Within it
Harp guitars, on the other hand, are a different beast. These are guitars that the average consumer doesn’t even know about. In fact, most guitarists aren’t even aware that harp guitars exist either, simply because they’re so rare. You probably won’t find a harp guitar in Guitar Center or at Long and McQuade (Canada’s Guitar Center), although, there may be the odd one. I’ve certainly never seen a harp guitar in an average shop.
I believe the first time I ever saw a harp guitar was on Candy Rat’s YouTube channel featuring Andy McKee playing his song “Into the Ocean.” This video now has about 11,000,000 views and it was uploaded in 2006, right in the beginning of the YouTube era.
The type of guitarist who knows about harp guitars tends to be the kind of person who’s really into acoustics, many of which who are probably involved in the scene as well, which, nowadays, seems to include a lot of the percussive style (more on that in my other article).
Explained in another way, harp guitars are made for a very specific type of guitarist, and the market isn’t very big. There isn’t enough of a demand for harp guitars to be completely mainstream or manufactured on that level, (although, Timberline Guitars just started making a model like this one – which you can see on eBay – over the last few years that is mass-produced).
But in front of the already-fairly small group of guitarists who are aware of them, there is an even smaller group of luthiers around the world who make them. In other words, the demand is higher than the supply among this small group, even though it is still a small group. The price increases when you take into account that they’re also handmade as well.
2) Harp Guitars are Handmade
Harp guitars are not mass-produced in the same way that electric guitars are, which means that if you’re going to get one, there is a good chance that it is completely handmade by a luthier with skills specifically in that area. For example, if you take a look at Gregg Miner’s website, HarpGuitar.net, he has compiled a huge list of luthiers from all around the world who make harp guitars.
The implication of this list is that there aren’t a lot of luthiers around the world who produce them. It should go without saying that most products that are hand-crafted by the person by themselves or via their small team are very expensive because you’re paying for the time, attention, detail, and materials of a small group of people, and in many cases, probably just one person.
It’s like the difference between a Custom Shop Les Paul from Gibson or a standard Gibson Les Paul. The Custom Shop Les Paul receives a bit more time and attention from the people who make it than the standard Les Paul, or so we’re led to believe anyway. And the last – and probably the most important point – has to do with who makes harp guitars and who buys them.
3) They’re Produced in Nations with Higher Wages
Another thing that you’ll notice about harp guitars is the location in which they’re built, and this obviously has huge ramifications on the price of the instruments. Most luthiers come from Western nations with high standards of living, labor laws, and other regulations that ensure that people are paid a relatively higher wage on average.
Harp guitar luthiers live in places like Canada, France, the United States, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and other nations where there is a high cost of living. They aren’t produced in countries such as Indonesia, China, Mexico, etc, where there aren’t as many laws and regulations and the average price of labor is much lower. Perhaps the most important aspect of this has to do with the cost of paying people in developing nations.
For example, someone who works at Gibson USA might be making between US$20 and $150US an hour, maybe more or maybe less. According to PayScale.com, Gibson employees on average make $46,000 per year, whereas the average woodworker in the shop makes between $30,000 and $70,000. Workers in managerial or marketing positions make a bit more.
Compare that to someone in Indonesia who may be getting paid quite a bit less. When you think of this scenario, it’s not hard to imagine and understand why a guitar made in a country like this would be way less expensive.
Comparing Harp Guitars to Expensive Brands like Gibson and Suhr
Harp guitars definitely cost a lot of money, significantly more than other acoustic and electric guitars on the market. A Gibson Les Paul Standard, like this one on ZZounds for example, goes for about $2500 on average, and that’s considered one of the better electric guitar models that you could buy. These days, PRS and similar companies like Suhr are charging even more, usually between $3500 and $5000 for their instruments.
However, these are the most expensive electric guitars you could possibly buy, and truthfully, you could get your hands on a really nice guitar for around $800, and in some cases, even $500 would be enough to have a real quality instrument. The odd person might get lucky and buy a $350 guitar that’s amazing, but those will be hard to come by.
All of this goes to say that electric guitars have an extremely wide and profitable market, and it makes sense for the manufacturers to want to hit every side of the market: from the area where people like to pay $5000 for an instrument all the way down to the beginners who won’t want to spend any more than $350 for their first instrument. An electric guitar is quite a bit different from the harp guitar in that regard.