Low End as the new High End - the Second Golden Era

Low End as the new High End - the Second Golden Era

Back in the early ‘80s, when I briefly managed the electronics department of a local retail chain, I was a regular follower of Sam Tellig’s magazine column entitled The Audio Cheapskate. In those final halcyon days of high-end audio for its own sake - before the advent of all-digital, multichannel, multimedia home systems, when the tubes vs. transistors controversy wasn't confined solely to guitarists (and good quality tubes could still be had at fair prices), and dropping a grand or more (in 1980 dollars) on a top-shelf turntable got you a platter, a drive motor, an on-off switch, and precious little else - the good Mr. Tellig made it his business to seek out those components that offered esoteric-quality sound at a workingman’s price, often debunking the pretentious snobbery of the so-called “golden ears” (and platinum wallets) in the process... For the truly discerning guitarist, a similar situation exists today; no longer is it necessary to spend massive amounts of money when - except in a very few cases - comparable (and occasionally superior) tone can be had for far less outlay within most manufacturers’ bread-and-butter lines. For better or worse, advances in technology (CNC/CAD-CAM, etc.) have permitted a greater portion of each production dollar to be channeled into superior materials and attention to detail in the final setup; even beginners’ instruments (which in today’s market I would consider anything in the <$500 bracket) routinely have a quality of fit, finish, materials, playability, and tone that would have been unthinkable for those of us who learned to play on the trainwreck low-end guitars of the ‘50s and ‘60s... The ever-increasing internationalization of production - again, for better or worse - has also been a significant factor. Within the NAFTA sphere relatively new companies like Larrivee and Godin have become major players, while Fender and (to a lesser extent) Martin have anchored their lower-end operations in Mexico; along the Pacific Rim, mega-producers Japan and Korea now find themselves contending with the loss of their decades-long low- and mid-range dominance to the recent emergence of China as a market power. As the price of MIJ Takamines and Alvarez-Yairis routinely tops two grand - well into traditional Martin/Gibson/USA-Guild territory (not to mention a number of smaller makers) - Blueridge cranks out killer prewar -18, -28, and -45-style Martin copies for one-third to one-half that; if you want a fully hand-carved archtop for anything less then the four grand or so Mark Campellone is charging for his basic 17-incher - extremely reasonable by any standard - The Loar and Eastman are the only real game in town... My point...? Over the last fifteen years or so, nearly all of my new acquisitions have been what would be considered low- to mid-line pieces; I’ve played all the usual low-production items, as well as the high-four- and five-figure “snob boxes” - the mere mention of whose names sets off Category-5 GAS attacks among most hard-core gearheads - and quite frankly, I’ve been underwhelmed by the great majority. In the absolute they are all unquestionably very well-made, very fine-sounding instruments - but when the prevailing standard has become so high that 95+% of the tone and all of the visual vibe can be had for as little as one-tenth the cost, one needs to seriously question the old wisdom that more money automatically buys more guitar. CFM & Co. did and, not surprisingly, chose in favor of the almighty dollar, as the long list of discontinued, "too much guitar for the money" lower-line models - D-1/D-1R, 000-1/000-1R, D-2R, D-3R, 5-15, J/J12-15, D-15S, 5-16, 000-16RGT/SGT/SRGT, CEO-5, just to name a few - will readily attest... So I ask: are there any others whose collections consist primarily of high value-per-dollar pieces, who live for those moments when your carefully-tweaked bargain box drops jaws (and furrows brows) among owners of more rarefied fare...? Let’s swap tales/tips/ideas/recommendations for the uninitiated, as well as all those beginners who deserve to learn on a real instrument and (with all due respect to Bob Taylor's pallet guitar) not some recycled packing crate...

Posted 2 years ago by Steve DeRosa - 9 replies

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Very true. A good example is my early 90's Seagull. I paid $250 used for it about 12 years ago, and I have turned down offers of $1000 more than once. The guitar just sounds & plays so well that I would rather have it than any other I have played. I'm sure that an old D-28 or a nice Taylor would be a better axe, but at a cost of thousands. I have a lot of other similar stories with the electrics in my inventory. You mention Godin as an example of companies who have made the most of this trend. I have 3 of their guitars, including the Seagull. All are top-notch. I am glad that companies from North America are still able to offer quality products at prices that many folks can afford.

Reply posted 2 years ago by Roger Hill

Big Al

Well, 'Ive owned a couple of Larrivees, a Taylor, and a Yairi. They were all very nice guitars, albeit not the models up in the acoustic stratosphere . . . but they are all with new owners. Right now, I've settled on a couple of Alvarez Artist Series Jumbos . . . with solid spruce tops and laminated maple backs. Why? They have very good tone, perhaps not as nuanced as some more expensive instuments, but very good. They are attractively done, with tasteful inlay and a mirror finish. One of them is made of a avery attractive spalted tiger maple. They are loud and have lots of headroom. I don't have to beat them to be heard and when I do dig in, they speak loudly without getting muddy or breaking up. They play evenly all over the neck and have no dead spots or odd sounding notes. The neck profile is very comfortable and the fretwork is well done. I have them set up with buttery-low action and they still can be played hard. With the addition of the optional internal condenser mic blended with the stock UST, they give me the best plugged-in sound I have ever experienced . . . and I have tried a lot of pickups in my 35 years of playing. The best part? I picked them up (used) with nice cases for less than $300 each. I can take them anywhere without stress. What's not to like?

Reply posted 2 years ago by Big Al

Patrick Dodd

This is a cool thread to go down. I tell young cats that come up to me asking about my ride (which is one of those snob pieces you speak of - a Breed OM-M Revival) that yeah at my end the money is indeed worth it for that complexity that Big Al spoke of, however, now that I have my concert recording axe my future goodies will investigate what I call the 2nd Golden Age which we will someday call the mid price explosion. You can find out just how far you want to go down the rabbit hole for much less now than you could when I started in the early 60's. I loved the article in last month that broke down OM style in the 500 to 800 range I have already passed it on to more than one picker. I think having pro's and addicts discuss the best beasts for the mid price ticket is very helpful. I have found some great guitars on the used market that started out as deals and ended up as steals. One of my favorite is the Guild all Ma. OM very serviceable axe that should hold up well for a roudy young player.

Reply posted 2 years ago by Patrick Dodd


I agree. I have found all the acoustic guitars from Godin (Seagull, Simon & Patrick, Norman, Art & Lutherie, LaPatrie, and even the Godin Kingpin hollowbody archtop) to offer superb value for the money, excellent construction quality, and high-quality materials. Also, they are North American made!
IMHO, Walden, Eastman, Crafter, and Wechter also offer excellent value for the money - and Wechter even runs their instruments through a PLEK machine before they go out!
My Walden G1070 has a solid cedar top, solid mahogany back, laminated mahogany sides, a bone nut and saddle, carbon-fiber reinforcements in the bolt-on neck, a wood rosette, and wood binding, bridgepins, and endpin - all for well under $1000 ($740 street). To get all that in a Taylor, you are well over $2000...

Reply posted 2 years ago by FloridaGull

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