How Do We Value Musical Equipment

Value, Quality, Price, and Branding

Recently, a friend of mine excitedly shared photos of their newest guitar purchase; an attractively restored Fender Telecaster. As we chatted, my friend elaborated that it was a Mexican model and that the staff in the shop had cheekily encouraged her to try the American-made alternatives (priced much higher). I reminisced about snobby attitudes I’d also encountered over the last ten happy years with my vintage strat, and started thinking how do we value a brand’s reputation, quality, and price point when it comes to musical instruments and equipment? I wondered if the criteria might be more relevant than ever before, following the financial uncertainty of the pandemic era and its effect on those in the Arts.

In pre-Covid times I’d noted the pleasant surprise that peers and friends would take from a quick dabble or closer inspection of my old strat, and conversely, those who would instantly disregard it when finding out its origins. While urban legend continues to hold onto the narrative that the American models play better, sound better, are built better and are priced accordingly, the definitive truth is less clear. Kyle Smitchens from Guitar-Muse spoke with Fender to pose these questions and find out. He explains:

  • The wood is the same for both, although the finish is different – Mexican guitars have polyester whereas the American models have a tougher polyurethane finish.
  • The hardware and electronics are where the main differences occur: as various manufacturers provide parts for different models depending on where the guitars are built, some parts are interchangeable. This is the biggest variable as there are so many possible permutations.
  • The manufacturing process itself shows neither guitar is more hand-built or machine built than the other: there is a strict, set criteria of QA for both countries when guitars leave en route to the main distribution centre in California, and all guitars are then put through a second round of QA when they arrive.
  • It seems that the cost of labour is actually the main reason the costs are so different.

While the electric guitar is absolutely not my area of expertise, I’d experienced the same issues and debates in the classical guitar world. As a student of the instrument, it was taught as gospel that Spanish-made guitars were of the highest quality and price, and Chinese-made guitars were to be avoided at all costs: rumours of badly manufactured, mass production factory lines with no QA prevailed. Unbelievably, it wasn’t until I’d been working for several years that I actually encountered a guitar shop that stocked a Chinese-made classical guitar for me to try out myself – and I loved it.

In music, these attitudes seem to span across the board – from music notation software to DAWs, and everything in between, many believe only the most expensive and well-used brand names are the real industry standard. We know the psychology of selling makes people skeptical in general of anything that seems under-priced or ‘too good to be true’, and are wary of the ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ philosophy, but we also trust that word of mouth is the most effective method of sharing good products. We ask one another what gear we are using, source recommendations, and share with our friends our latest finds and surprising bargains. There have been various ‘unbranded’ and reasonably priced products over the years that nowadays I couldn’t live without thanks to peers, friends, and knowledgeable internet strangers.

Behringer came to exist because the founder, Uli Behringer was a struggling musician and sound engineer back in 1989 – at this time, he couldn’t afford the necessary equipment for his own studio. He started by creating products for himself, but this soon grew into a business. Behringer’s philosophy is “to deliver life-changing products at prices everyone can afford.”

I’ve sadly witnessed a large number of my peers selling instruments, musical equipment, and gear throughout the last year since coronavirus took hold. It’s highlighted the financial struggles that were present before the industry shut down, that of course musicians and engineers will always need the right equipment to be able to work, and the cost quickly adds up. As well as being expensive, musical instruments and setups are often judged, so there is a distinct need for gear that’s reputable, reliable, sounds great, that also leaves enough change to grab some chips on the way home from the gig. While nobody wants substandard, cheap, nasty gear that doesn’t perform, the questions have to be asked: Is it not somewhat paradoxical to respect the Fender brand and reputation, yet view a huge number of their products as inferior? Shouldn’t Behringer be a little more celebrated for putting their philosophy into practice? Does a reasonably priced product automatically equate to a substandard performance? And shouldn’t instruments be judged by how they feel, play, and sound rather than where they were manufactured?

I hope as the world emerges from a gig-less and financially tough year, that we will be able to openly share the best bargains in our kit more freely, with a little less stigma than before. If something performs to a high level (or the adequate level we require and can afford), then surely we should enjoy that. Returning to work is likely to be an adjustment for those across the music and entertainment industry. If we can lighten the financial strain of replacing or upgrading necessary equipment by researching our product needs differently, perhaps this will help us all get back to working, creating and making noise once again, without breaking the bank.

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