Monday, June 22, 2009

Guitar Manufacture -- China As The New Korea And Beyond

In the mid to late '70s, if the price of a US-made guitar was out of our reach, Japanese companies like Ibanez, Greco, Aria, Hondo et al offered the next best thing at a fraction of the cost. These Japanese instruments were aethetically identical copies, and they were well-made.

By the 1980's, the Japanese guitar companies had embarked on innovative and original designs that expanded and improved upon the tried and tested iconic American instruments. The country was in a technological and manufacturing renaissance and guitar-making was at its peak -- long forgotten were the connotations of inferiority associated with the words 'Made In Japan'.

By the early to mid-90's, rising labour costs in Japan meant that many Japanese brands began to outsource their mid to low-end models to factories in Korea. High-end US guitar companies like Hamer also moved production lock, stock and barrel to Korea while maintaining only a small custom facility Stateside. Gibson resurrected their once-flagship Epiphone brand in a new incarnation as a budget line of guitars and started making high-quality renditions of their Les Paul and Sheraton models in Korea.

And it always amazed me that Epiphone Korea could offer such amazingly figured flame-maple tops on their Les Pauls.

Korea soon also began manufacturing their own household guitar brands, most notably, Cort, probably with new-found guitar manufacturing technologies borrowed from Gibson's Epiphone.

By the early 2000's, low to middle-end guitar manufacture had nearly all but moved to China. China is now where Korea stood a decade before as the go-to place to set up a guitar factory. Even Yamaha who has had a guitar manufacturing plant in Kaoshiung, Taiwan since 1970, has moved operations to the mainland.

With China's burgeoning economy and rising labour costs, it could be less than a decade or so when guitar brands seek out other shores for lower-cost production -- and already we're seeing glimmers of Indonesian-made instruments making their appearance.

And Indonesia may well be the next force to be reckoned in the world of musical instrument manufacture, given their long cultural history in woodworking.

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