If you were picking up guitar in the ‘90s, chances are you had a whole bunch of mediocre budget instruments to choose from. Or, you could chop an arm and leg off for one of the more established brand names. But is that still the case in 2020?
Like many other people of my generation, I started out on a cheap Squier. It was red and had a maple fretboard. After damaging about every part of it (in trying to figure out how it functioned), I traded it in for another guitar. And so carried on the trading before I landed on my first ‘good’ guitar, a ’62 American Vintage Reissue Fender Stratocaster.
The 62 AVRI was the most expensive thing I had purchased up to that point. And so, much research went into the purchase. In truth, based on the guitar-based music that I had heard up to that point, it had to be either a Strat, Tele, or Les Paul. I didn’t like Teles, I found them uncomfortable, and the Les Pauls I’d played were either too expensive, or not very nice to play. Sure, companies like Ibanez and Jackson had started cementing themselves in the market, but they were relative newcomers, and by the late ‘90s, their angular designs and bright neon colours were already getting dated. But even so, these ‘newer’ brands still used the earlier models as a benchmark, and were often referred to as ‘super’ Strats.
Even when PRS guitars arrived on the scene, they were usually marketed as being able to offer the best of both Gibson and Fender worlds. I also distinctly remember the Parker Fly showing up in magazine ads, being touted as the new industry standard, something that would finally bring in a new evolution of the guitar, and break the hold the afore-mentioned guitar-giants had on the industry. It failed to do that.
Not just guitars
It was the same with amplifiers and effects. As technology became more accessible, and production methods got simplified and cheaper, several products started showing up in the market as alternatives to large, cumbersome and unreliable tube amplifiers, or effects pedals. Does anyone remember the V-Amp, or the first iteration of the POD? But these devices didn’t really hit the mark, and professionals were still shying away from them, if they could. You had to have at least one Fender or Marshall amp if you wanted to be taken seriously.
The general notion was that, if it was made in the USA by an established brand, it was legit, and if it was made in the far-east, it was rubbish.
Evolution of gear
Fast-forward twenty years deep into the 21st century, and the landscape is completely different. Technology has come a long way, and production methods have drastically reduced both time and cost. Instruments and effects manufactured in the far-east no longer carry the stigma that they used to.
Epiphone and Squier, the budget divisions of Gibson and Fender respectively, have expanded their catalogues to include a wide range of instruments at several different price points. The PRS SE range is widely considered one of the best budget models available from the far-east. And several modern players are lending their names to these budget models. Brent Hinds and Lee Malia have their Epiphone signature models, Jim Root and John 5 have their Squier models, and Zach Myers and Mark Holcomb have PRS SE models. Even players like Bernie Marsden, whose Les Paul ‘the Beast’ is as famous as him, has a PRS SE signature model, and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien has a Mexican-made Strat model (ok, so not manufactured in Asia, but still squarely in the ‘budget’ range).
Budget used to mean bad
And although I’m using the term ‘budget’, it in no way implies that these instruments are of inferior quality. Twenty years ago, a budget guitar meant it would have finishing flaws, gaps, sloppy workmanship, bad materials and parts, and so on. You could be assured the instrument, if used regularly, would promptly fall apart within a few years, during which time it would be struggling to perform optimally. In my opinion, this is no longer the case.
Harley Benton is a very good example. Because Thomann is the sole distributor for Harley Benton, the brand is able to keep costs considerably low, while still being able to provide a certain level of standard. It’s astonishing to me to see the staggering amount of options available on Harley Benton instruments. The brand offers several different styles of not only electric guitars, but other stringed instruments as well. And it’s clear that the design team took care when coming up with the models. Their use of correct woods and relevant hardware and pickups is very commendable, especially given their price points. And this includes the company’s other equipment, like effects pedals.
Not only budget
The PODs and V-Amps have evolved into the Helix, Axe FX, and Kemper Profiling amps. I wouldn’t say these are budget pieces of gear, but they essentially do what those early PODS and V-Amps were trying to, only much, much better. It’s not that big names like Marshall and Fender have been completely forgotten, but even these big brands have had to branch out into other segments of the audio entertainment industry, like bluetooth speakers and headphones.
We recently ran a post on Les Paul Alternatives. It was definitely not an exhaustive one, it couldn’t be. And the comments section reflected that. There are so many alternatives now for certain instruments and pieces of gear, that the ‘big names’ don’t carry that much weight anymore, at least not in ‘real world’ applications.
Musicians I would meet 20 years ago were more brand oriented, and the name on the headstock appeared to reflect one’s skill level, somehow. Nowadays, players seem to be more concerned in how their gear functions for them. It’s quite refreshing.
Picking up a guitar today
If you were to pick up a guitar today, you’d be spoilt for choice. A reasonable budget will get you everything you need to start off. And if you’re really strapped for cash, you could buy used and download an amp-simulation app on your phone.
As guitar-based music, and the guitar itself continues to evolve, newer players don’t seem, to me, to be hung up on brand names. The instrument has evolved so much, that players are picking up instruments that work for them, and the brand seems to be an after-thought. Especially when it comes to modern, multi-scale instruments, or guitars with 7 strings or more…the big names have no points of reference here at all. And other designs, like the headless guitars, are also no longer synonymous with brands like Steinberger.
That’s not to say there isn’t brand loyalty. But that’s a different debate. However, even in that respect, browsing through forums of budget brands like Epiphone, Squier, PRS SE, Harley Benton and the like will show that these brands have very strong support from their fans.
A final thought
After I’d had the 62 AVRI Strat a while, and started becoming nerdy about it, I decided that I might have payed a whole lot for that Fender logo. I realized, that I could have put together a similar Strat, for less, had I obtained the parts from reputable manufacturers like, for instance, Warmoth. In fact, since then, all the hardware and electronics of the Strat have been replaced. Did I have to replace them? Probably not. But the changes brought it closer to how I wanted it to sound and feel. If I wasn’t so hung up then on the headstock logo, I could have probably saved myself a few hundred pounds.