Guitars are made in almost every country in the world today. Handmade custom designs come out from garages, shops, factories, and more to help musicians express themselves in unique ways.
It’s not a secret that the build quality of an instrument depends on its luthier, designer, or craftsperson. Someone with 40 years of experience in the business can put together something with unmatched expertise compared to someone who decides one day to create a guitar from scratch.
Anyone can come up with some brilliant or terrible at any level of expertise. Although small operations are often seen as being better, some of the best guitars have come from mass-produced ideas.
Which Country Makes the Best Guitars?
The country that makes the best guitars today is the United States, followed closely by Japan. Many brands and manufacturers use advanced CNC machining to make quick work of the best woods to produce instruments with consistency. Luthiers finish each one to add a touch of love to the final product.
When looking at what country makes the best guitars, the comparison is often between boutique manufacturers in eastern and southern Asia that keep costs low with the European, Japanese, and American production lines that can make thousands of guitars per week with streamlined assembly processes.
To look at the overall build quality of a guitar, we must take a look at five specific information points to determine a result.
- Labor costs in relation to what customers are willing to pay for an instrument.
- The availability of skilled or trained luthiers in the art of making a guitar.
- Quality control regulations, political support, and local subsidies that encourage more employment options.
- Equipment and resource availability for the manufacturer and the brand.
- The strength of production focus for the individual, manager, and executive team.
Each key point provides more information about what country is currently making the best guitars in the marketplace. Here’s a closer look at the metrics.
Labor Availability and Luthier Skill
Guitar brands and manufacturers must employ a skilled workforce to produce fantastic instruments for musicians to play. When someone with more experience works on a project, you can expect to pay more for the eventual product.
Many guitar companies, especially in Japan and the United States, offer custom shops where customers can order a specific instrument. The most skilled (and often highest paid) workers begin the build after the transaction is initiated. Those without as much experience operate the production lines to create the different lines and series instruments.
When you look at the price of a guitar today, it’s usually a reflection of three components: custom vs. production, luthier skill, and labor. That’s why the retail price tag is often referred to as a reflection of the builder’s abilities.
Many of today’s classically trained luthiers work in America, Japan, and Europe. A growing movement is also establishing itself in Australia. Part of the reason for these experience hubs is the fact that more training programs are available.
Since labor costs are cheaper in countries like China, Vietnam, Mexico, and Indonesia, many guitar companies try to take advantage of those economic structures to keep price points lower.
Quality Control and Resource Availability
The quality of a guitar depends on the company’s operations in any specific country. If Gibson hires American workers with zero instrument-building experience, the final product would likely be worse than a group of experienced factory workers in China putting together something to play.
When looking at the best guitars produced today, the biggest sticking point involves the budget offered for machinery, materials, and quality control. It’s not unusual to see compromises made to achieve a specific price at the retail level.
Most of today’s successful guitar brands have established production lines in Indonesia, China, and Southeast Asia. Since factory upkeep costs are less there, the materials reserved for each mass-produced line are also reduced.
Most Japanese and American factories focus on making guitars at the $2,500 price point or higher. Since advanced CNC machining won’t create as many waste materials with the best woods, the process becomes a budget-friendly way to earn profits while producing a premium instrument.
Quality control tends to be more thorough in Japan than in the United States, especially with experienced luthiers overseeing operations. Many instruments receive hand-finishing work, even on mass-production lines, on the intricate details like the finish or the frets.
Import Restrictions on Instrument Materials
When building a guitar, a brand needs access to the specific materials they want for the instrument’s design and build. Some woods react differently than others, which means you can alter how someone plays the strings by shifting from ash to alder for the body.
It’s really that critical to find the correct materials for a guitar. That means international politics and local regulations must find ways to harmonize to support brands, builders, and manufacturers.
Since 2018, rosewood has been the focus of this issue. Trade rules implemented that year required documentation for any instrument containing the material. That led to long delays in obtaining permits, causing American exports to fall by 28% in the acoustic market.
Although guitar brands are switching to options like Macassar Ebony, Ziricote, Bubinga, and Granadillo, each one has a unique tone that lessens the predictability of the instrument for the musician. On the upside, no one will try to stop you from carrying your guitar when traveling the world for gigs.
Where Are the Best Countries to Buy a Guitar?
1. United States
American luthiers helped to establish the industry that we all enjoy today. This country was the birthplace of numerous iconic brands, including Gibson, Fender, Music Man, and PRS. Although not every instrument will make you want to buy it, the history of building something with the best products and skills is not yet comparable anywhere else.
Many of today’s best luthiers reside in the United States, working or consulting for companies that send guitars to the rest of the world.
That fact also means that you can find more repair options available in the USA than in other countries. Even mom-and-pop shops in small towns offer maintenance and restoration work. That’s how prevalent the guitar culture is in America.
Although you’ll find plenty of kudos offered for Gibson and Fender instruments, the Washburn Heritage Series acoustic 12-string could be one of the best instruments you’ll ever play. It delivers a beautiful sound with a rosewood and mahogany bracing pattern to create excellent note shaping and tone options.
ESP and Ibanez have put Japan on the map as one of the best countries for making guitars today. With the brand’s offering their standard series of Prestige and E-II instruments from here, the pricing is close to what you’ll find in the United States.
You can also find entry-level and affordable guitars in the marketplace that come from Japan. They’re made from solid woods, providing fantastic weight and sustain while keeping a nice feeling to each one.
The caveat here is that the guitars from Japan before the 1970s can be hit-or-miss with their quality. You’ll want to proceed with caution there because older models tend to be a little unpredictable.
You’ll appreciate the consistency of the ESP LTD EC-1000 Evertune. You can get it in a few different finishes, but the dark brown sunburst is what blows people away. Your playing will sound as stunning as the instrument looks.
3. South Korea
When you examine a Korean-made guitar today, you’ll notice a significant step up in the quality control protections that happen in the factories. Additional regulations work to support a consistent process.
Brands like Martin, PRS, Schecter, and Steinberger have found some great opportunities outsourcing some work to South Korea. The number of luthiers who have studied in the United States and returned home to improve their craft is enormous.
It would not be unreasonable to see South Korea surge into the No. 2 spot in the next few years as more artists start experimenting with their guitar-making craft.
The Schecter SYNYSTER GATES custom guitar build is your best option for an instrument built in this country. It uses the brand’s Sustainiac pickup and control system to push out notes that seem to last forever. The carbon fiber neck reinforcement rods ensure strength, while the humbuckers push out a gritty noise that works for almost any musical genre.
You’ll find the most affordable models from Fender (including Squier) get built in Mexico. If you’re looking for an instrument that can handle daily gigs without breaking down, you’ll find a pretty good deal shopping with the brands that work here.
The best way to find a great Mexican-built guitar is to look at the production figures for each factory. When the numbers are down, that often means more time is spent on quality control.
If the production numbers seem unreasonably high, there won’t be as much time to deliver a high-quality product.
Your best option for a Mexican-made guitar is something from the Fender Player Series. These instruments deliver a look and feel like their more expensive counterparts while letting musicians explore different tones and sounds. The quality is excellent, especially when choosing from the upper end of this model.
Brands like Jackson, Gretsch, Chapman, and Faith have moved to Indonesia to produce their production guitars. Although forums discuss comparisons to Chinese or Korean guitars, you’ll find that some excellent are options are made here.
Samick is one of the best brands coming out of Indonesia today, but several companies use multiple factories to produce instruments in this country. That crossover is why the ranking is lower.
Since you have different factories following similar procedures for multiple brands, many of the instruments end up sounding the same.
If you want an instrument that delivers an incredible sound from Indonesia, the Gretsch Electromatic Double Cutaway with f-stop designs delivers a beautiful hollow-body sound.
Although Chinese factories have started to improve the quality of their manufacturing processes in recent years, they’re still far behind the other countries with mass-production capabilities.
If you purchase a Chinese guitar from before 2005, you might end up rebuilding it from the ground up to meet your needs.
Epiphone has an established factory in China that that makes exceptional instruments today. You can also find boutique brands that personally supervise operations in Vietnam and India to produce excellent guitars.
When you start shopping for a Chinese guitar, you’ll want to look at the factory’s ability to access different tonewoods. If they pass that first observational test, see what kind of hardware quality control statutes they have available.
If you can find something acceptable, you’ll get a chance to grab an affordable guitar.
The Epiphone LE Les Paul Special is a great example of what a Chinese guitar can be. It uses a D-shaped profile with a basswood body and a bolt-on mahogany neck to produce a fun playing experience. The tone feels authentic, whether you pick or strum.
How to Find a Great Guitar to Play
The best guitar feels good to play, sounds fantastic, and has a look that makes you want to pick it up. It should be a fun experience, even for musicians who earn a living by playing. Most guitarists upgrade the pickups, strings, and electronics from the stock products, which means anything with good bones will work.
The first time I walked into a guitar store, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was interested in learning how to play the bass guitar, but I had no idea what to look for or what I wanted.
I wanted to talk to the guy at the shop, but he apparently thought I knew what I was doing. “Play whatever ones you want,” he said. “Just put them back when you’re done. If you want to buy something, come flag me down.”
I messed around in the shop for about 15 minutes. When it became clear no one was going to help, I started experimenting with different guitars.
That’s when I came across a beautiful Ibanez. It had f-stops in the body, pearl inlay, gold trim, and a lot of different adornments. I ended up purchasing that one instead of a bass that day because it looked incredible.
I signed my first deal with that guitar. It’s still the only instrument I trust during the initial composition phase for a new song.
Some guitars let you fall in love at first sight. Others take a little longer to show their magic. When you buy an instrument from one of the best countries, you’ll have confidence in the outcome. From there, it’s up to you to make and reach your goals.