Boutique vs big business guitars



The true age-old question of man: do I need a Fender or a Marshall? Do I need that $3,000 Gibson Les Paul made in Indonesia? Players often wonder what their next purchase is going to be, and what brand of gear best suits their situation. Big-name means big business guitar and amp manufacturing, which results in gear made by an automated process from cheap materials in an outsourced factory. So, why are guitarists paying absurd amounts of money for cheap instruments? Like with many industries, consumers are paying for the name and what once made that name. Let’s take a closer look at where it all started.

Orville Gibson, c. 1890s
Gibson A Model mandolin

One of the biggest names in guitar history, the Gibson Guitar Corporation (Gibson Brands Inc. as of 2013), started long ago by a man named Orville Gibson in 1902. They started in Kalamazoo, Michigan making mandolins. When the 1930s rolled around, they began to make archtop guitars typically used for blues, and later the genre’s descendants, such as rockabilly. This was a time where the instruments weren’t made on conveyor belts, but rather from a creative mind and passionate soul. In the year 1952, the guitar industry saw Gibson’s historical introduction of its first solid-body electric guitar: the Les Paul. To this day, the Les Paul remains Gibson’s most popular model, certainly earning itself a status as a household name guitar.

1954 Gibson Les Paul

While booming with success, Gibson hit a bump in the road just years after the release of the Les Paul. In the 1950’s it was a struggle for the majority of people to pay for this guitar, as their market price was around $350 upon release. To put it into perspective, that’s about $3,000 in today’s money. So what were the aspiring guitar players among the less fortunate to do? In 1954, Leo Fender had the answer. That year, the Fender Stratocaster was introduced to the world of music. This model, Fender’s third successful model following the Telecaster and Precision Bass, was made to be a quality instrument at a relatively cheaper price, coming in at $200, roughly $1,200 in 2019 USD.

1957 Fender Stratocaster

The Stratocaster or more commonly referred to as the “Strat” was made from more cost-aware materials. For example, the neck and body are way thinner compared to the anchor that is the Les Paul. The electronics see the economy treatment as well with three single-coil pickups instead of the two humbuckers, giving the Strat a thinner sound compared to the beefy tone of the Les Paul.

After seeing how Fender and Gibson quickly became competitive with one another over instrument quality and price, other craftsmen decided to step their foot in the door of the industry. They realized these models were selling well, but still wanted to see heart and soul put into their production, so these individuals or companies typically made copycat models of the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul, and Gibson SG. 

This boutique music industry, while successful on a smaller scale shortly after its birth, saw its first widespread attention during what was known as the “Lawsuit Era.” The Lawsuit Era was a period of time from the late 1970s through the 1990s where Fender and Gibson were ready to sue pretty much anybody who created a guitar resembling their famous models. However, up until this point in time, no thought was ever before given to copyrighting the style of guitars. Because of this, there were many court cases with the end results as sneaky as the copycats’ conceptions in the first place: boutique guitar companies could not copy these models directly, but any stylistic difference as small as changing the shape of the headstock or bridge would get these smaller businesses off the hook. So now these “lawsuit guitars” had to stop being produced unless they found a creative loophole, or else they would be sued for every penny in their bank account.

Lawsuit Era Ibanez Les Paul copy

Fast forward a good 20-30 years, and now the boutique industry is booming. The quality of Gibson has been under fire over the past decade since more than half of its inventory is Chinese conveyor-belt nonsense sold at the price of a boutique and a half. Some releases of these Gibson guitars are seeing prices upward of $3,000, a price that is killing the pockets of those suckered into their deceiving branding. Fender, though they have their “Squier” economy line of their famous makes – giving new, aspiring musicians a break from burning holes in their wallet – still sees ludicrous pricing on guitars not always guaranteed to be built in the U.S.A. or Mexico, both places of production which are sought after by amateurs and professionals alike.

Unlike these brand name “quality” guitars, the boutique industry is killing the competition over big business as a whole. I’ll give you some advice from my first-hand experience. Once I was at Music-Go-Round, a local music shop, looking at Stratocasters. I picked up many new Fender American and Mexican made Strats, but they were way out of my price range. Some going for upwards of $1,200. So I walked away and went further down towards the end of the rack and found a Hard Luck Kings Bombshell strat for $150. That Strat played better than any of Fender’s. Instead of spending all the money I don’t have on a Fender that day, I walked out of there with a better sounding, higher quality guitar for $650 less. 

Now off to another first-hand experience with Gibson. At one point in my life, I had two Gibson Les Pauls, but that was until I decided to play a boutique Les Paul. Now I only have one Gibson and a boutique Les Paul. My All In One Les Paul is one of the best sounding instruments I’ve ever had the privilege to play. Yet again, it is also a fraction of the cost, this one coming in at $430. This guitar manages to look and sound expensive while still going easy on the bank account. Take notes, Gibson.

Are boutique guitars really worth your time? Well, that’s up to you to decide now; however, don’t turn away from a great instrument just because it doesn’t say Gibson or Fender. You never know until you try one, and if you do like it, you won’t feel cheated when you put your hard-earned cash towards it. Going boutique will leave you with no regrets, and your wallet will certainly thank you.

Click here for more information on the featured image.