The guitar industry is a massive industry with many different sides to the business, and it only gets bigger if you include the gear and accessories that are made specifically for guitarists. And if you’re looking into getting your first guitar without much knowledge of what’s out there, it can seem confusing. There’s no reason to be confused though.
The fact of the matter is that a guitar is still a guitar, at the end of the day, and while people might say to you that you need a certain kind, you can almost always make do with what you’ve got. If that’s true though, why are some guitars $4000+ and others less than $500? Why is one a beginner guitar and the other one not?
A beginner guitar is a guitar made with cheaper electronics, hardware, and wood, and they’ve usually been factory-produced as part of a large collection, compared to a custom shop model where there was only one produced. The result of this is lower labor costs and a cheaper price for the consumer.
That said, there are many other things that separate a professional and entry-level guitar even though many of those differences aren’t quite as pronounced as the difference between where the guitar is made, who made it, and how much time was put into its production, but I digress. Let’s talk about what makes a guitar a “beginner” or an entry-level guitar.
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What Makes A Beginner Guitar A ‘Beginner’ Guitar
1) Factory Assembled And Not Custom-Made By A Small Team
If you want to know the hard truth about the difference between guitar models, it’s that the electronics, wood, hardware, knobs, dials, tuners, bridge, and saddles are not that much different to the point where the instrument costs 10x as much.
What really spikes the cost of an instrument – other than the market demand for it – is whether it was produced in a custom shop or in a factory which drives the manufacturing cost way down, making it much cheaper for the average consumer.
An entry-level or a beginner guitar will almost never be custom-made because having a custom-built guitar takes a lot of time, devotion, and work from either one person or a relatively small group of people. Building a guitar from scratch takes hours and hours of time, and a luthier would have to charge at least several thousand dollars to pay for the time and effort that was put into it (obviously the raw materials cost money too).
2) A Beginner Guitar Model Is Usually Mass Produced
Another absolutely critical part of the manufacturing process is for what purpose the factory is made. ESP guitars has a great page where they talk about some of the similarities and differences between their various brands and they explain in detail what I mean by the previous comment.
Custom shop models, for instance, are guitars where the instrument has been ordered by a client and the company has produced only ONE of that instrument. This means the guitar is not manufactured in an assembly-line fashion and there haven’t been dozens, hundreds, or thousands of that very same guitar reproduced in the same way.
3) They’re Often Made In Countries With Low Labor Costs
Another major difference between a custom shop and beginner (entry-level) guitar is that beginner guitars are often reproduced in a factory where the cost of labor is significantly lower. For instance, my ESP Eclipse II is made in Japan whereas my PRS SE Custom 24 was made in Korea during a time when labor costs were lower.
My Epiphone Les Paul Custom which is over twenty years old at this point was made in China or Indonesia (if I recall correctly). My Les Paul Custom is a beautifully made instrument by the way.
One thing I’d like to point out is that sometimes you’ll run into a guitar that’s cheaply made but miraculously it winds up being much better than a guitar that’s produced in a more expensive country and in a supposedly “superior” factory with better craftsmanship.
Another commonplace to produce guitars is in China, where the price of labor is notoriously much lower than what you would find in a country like the United States or in Japan where there are unions and other organizations who demand their employees be paid more for their work. Things like taxes and tariffs play a role in a product’s price too.
4) Beginner Guitars Commonly Have Less Hours Put Into Them
A by-product of where the guitar is made and how it’s made is also how much time and attention has been devoted to the instrument’s production. For instance, it’s not hard to imagine that a guitar that’s custom-built has a lot more time and attention paid to it than a guitar that’s assembled in a factory where mass reproduction is the goal.
I often think of acoustic guitars and harp guitars when I envision a custom shop because I believe it’s more common to find acoustic guitar luthiers than electric guitar creators although I can’t confirm that. Either way, it could take several weeks for a luthier to make an acoustic guitar from scratch, with many hours put into it.
And you best believe that you’re going to pay good money for that time and energy. This isn’t the case for a beginner guitar which is produced as part of a massive group, in the cheapest fashion possible and with the least amount of work put into it.
5) Entry-Level Guitars Often Have Slightly Cheaper Hardware
What people won’t tell you about guitar manufacturing is what I’ve said in the paragraphs above this. The fact of the matter is that the primary difference between an expensive and a cheap guitar is the location of the factory, the cost of labor, the market demand, and how much time has been put into the instrument.
Hardware and electronics – which we’ll talk about now – aren’t so different that they’ll push up the cost of the instrument by thousands of dollars. Allegedly, cheaper manufacturers are purchasing their materials often from the same place as the more expensive manufacturers.
It’s not like the plastic that EMG Pickups uses is 10x the price of other kinds of plastic, for instance, and the same thing can be said for the quality of the metal that the bridge and saddles are made out of. I think a better way of explaining it is the following:
while the electronics, hardware, and materials are important factors in the price of a guitar, the cost of the labor and the demand for the brand are far more significant when determining its price
Buying a more expensive guitar, in theory, is supposed to ensure that you don’t run into simple design flaws, a few of which we’ll mention now including the nut. The nut, while it seems insignificant, is integral to the instrument because it has to be cut perfectly.
The Nut Of A Beginner Guitar May Be Crafted Imperfectly
The part of the guitar between the headstock and the neck where the strings sit, which is called the “nut,” is often described as one of the most important aspects of the guitar. It’s commonly stated by guitarists and others that the nut plays a crucial role in the guitar’s sound and its price, but the truth is that even the most expensive nut doesn’t cost that much money.
That said, the nut definitely has to be constructed properly otherwise you’ll run into problems like unwanted buzzing and other issues at the open, 1st, and 2nd frets. That said, a $4000 guitar doesn’t have that much of a difference in nut than a $400 guitar.
There are many kinds of nuts too, including bone nuts, ivory nuts, plastic nuts, ebony nuts, brass nuts, and the list goes on and on in this article that I’ve written for the site. Supposedly, bone nuts are supposed to be the best nuts on the market, but there have been other companies to spring up in recent years who use synthetic nuts that are supposed to be better including Graph-Tech (check them out here).
The Fretwork Probably Won’t Be As Good
The fretwork is probably the one aspect of the guitar that actually is incredibly important compared to some of the other aspects like the tuners, the bridge, the saddle, and the knobs, dials, and switches. The reason for this is that if a high degree of craftsmanship and time has been devoted to the fretwork, including making sure the frets are completely level everywhere, the guitar will play, sound, and feel much better.
This will make the guitar so that you can set it up in almost any way that you want without there being a ton of fret buzz. There’s often a limit to how straight and low an action can go, and the better the fretwork, the lower the action can be without unwanted buzzing (here’s my guide to setting up a guitar by the way).
But again, this all comes down to some of the factors that I mentioned earlier including the time that has been put into the guitar’s construction, rather than the materials. Again, it’s worth stating that there are guitars out there that don’t cost that much money but they could actually be much better than a guitar that’s 5-10x the price.
This is why it’s so important to actually set up a guitar, sit down with it, and then play it for a while with it plugged in so you can judge for yourself whether it’s a nice instrument. A brand is supposed to be a guarantee of quality but it’s not always the case.
Like I said in the image above, one brand that supposedly has amazing fretwork is Suhr, but I can’t say that because I’ve actually never played a Suhr.
An Entry Level Guitar Won’t Have A Premium Tremolo System
The bridge and the saddle are other parts of the guitar, like the nut, where it has to be constructed properly in order for the guitar to function the way that it has to for it to sound good. However, again, the guitar’s price isn’t going to fluctuate massively just because you’re using a Gotoh bridge instead of a no-name brand.
For instance, my ESP Eclipse has a Gotoh bridge and you can easily find one of these bridges on Amazon for a very cheap price. In other words, the bridge isn’t the reason why my guitar is worth around $2000 even though the bridge and the saddles are important and they have to be made right.
Tuners May Be Less Smooth – Usually Not Locking Tuners
And really the same thing can be said about the tuners, although, it’s important that they’re not garbage either. Using my ESP Eclipse as an example, it has Sperzel locking tuners and they’re slightly more expensive than regular tuners, but not to a degree where it’s absurd.
The reason why Sperzels are more money is that they have a little rod inside them that jams into the string and the inside of the tuner which locks them in place. This makes it so that you can very quickly change the strings because you don’t have to wind them around and around.
Sperzels (like these from Amazon) are awesome and I usually make sure to put them on every guitar I have. If you choose to do the same thing, just make sure that you get staggered or in-line tuners depending on whether you have a Strat or Les Paul-style headstock.
Knobs, Dials, & Switches Are Cheap Or Poorly Positioned
The same principle applies to the knobs, dials, bridge pins, and switches on a guitar (more on bridge pins in my guide). For instance, my ESP Eclipse which is 3x the price as my PRS SE Custom 24 has much smoother and better functioning knobs and dials on it, however, again, these aren’t the reason why the guitar is so much more money.
One thing I will say about the PRS SE Custom 24 is that the volume knob is actually too close to the bridge because it gets in your way while you’re playing the guitar. The same thing cannot be said for the ESP Eclipse which is created perfectly in that regard (they go for a good price on Sam Ash too btw).
When you get a premium guitar, you’re supposed to be protecting yourself from imperfections like this, although, they can suffer the same problems at times too so keep that in mind.
6) Electronics Will Be Less Expensive (Usually Passive & Not Active)
The electronics, on the other hand, is one place where the quality of them can vary quite a bit and they will drive up the price of your instrument. Cheaper brand name pickups are significantly less money than a premium brand like Bareknuckle, Seymour Duncan, or EMG. And they make a big difference in how your guitar sounds as well.
In other words, the electronics on your guitar (the pickups) actually will make a big difference not only in the way the guitar sounds but in the cost too. This is one of the reasons why it’s often a great idea to put premium electronics on your mid-range-priced guitar.
I have EMGs in my Epiphone Les Paul Custom, for instance, and this alteration to the guitar made it a significantly better instrument. If your guitar is worth $200 though, it probably won’t make much of an improvement to it on the whole.
7) A Beginner Guitar Will Probably Use Cheaper Wood Types
The wood type is another difference where the difference is only small because most guitars are made out of maple, mahogany, ebony, spruce, rosewood, and other woods similar to this. Even the most premium guitar manufacturers aren’t making their guitars out of super rare and expensive woods because there are often regulations that determine what type of wood can be harvested and used.
In other words, it isn’t the wood that’s determining the massive increase in price. Although it is a small factor because companies will use better quality woods for their custom shop and premium models. When I reached out to Fender, they confirmed that their premium models had better woods.
Important Things to Note About Beginner and Premium Guitars
1) Labor Costs Are Probably The Biggest Factor When Determining Price
While your guitar can have better hardware, better electronics, a nut made out of bone, and slightly higher quality wood, these aren’t the main things that determine its price. Because, as I’ve said, these don’t account for 2x, 3x, or even 4x the price. The rest of the differences like the electronics and the fretwork are more subtle and less obvious to a beginner player.
2) The Demand For The Guitar Plays A Huge Role In Its Price
Another massive factor in how expensive a guitar is the demand for it. If the guitar is really popular because it has been marketed well, that could also be driving up the price. In simple terms, how a guitar has been marketed can often play a role in whether it’s perceived as a professional or beginner model.
2) Sperzel Locking Tuners (also from Amazon)