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The Qualitative Rise of Inexpensive Acoustics


strayGoat
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Howdy fellers and fellerettes.

 

In my web noodlin', I recently came across the Fender Paramount line - specifically, the PM-1 all mahogany. I have to say that I'm impressed with the specs, particularly at about $600 retail. Has anyone had a chance to play one? I'm not experiencing GAS for one - just curious to know if it plays and sounds as great as it seems it should.

 

Also, while helping a friend in his search for a beginner guitar, I'd suggested the Yamaha FG730S (I own one myself), and noticed that the model has now been replaced by the FG830 - essentially identical, but now with scalloped braces. Amazingly, the price has not changed in the few years since I purchased my 730S.

 

The overall observation is that wow, inexpensive acoustics really seem to have taken a leap forward in quality. At the same time, Martin and Gibson prices (the former in particular) appear to have skyrocketed over the last few years, which seems counterintuitive given the availability of high quality but less expensive gits. It was once possible to count on being able to buy a Martin at 40% off list; those days are gone.

 

Is it just me? Or was there kind of a huge boom in the array of both high-end boutique offerings and emerging low-end but very good models until about 2008, when the recession hit? Is it my imagination that a lot at both ends of the spectrum have disappeared since? Or have I just lost touch? What *appears* to have happened is that the brands that were at the top to begin with ultimately emerged on top in the end after a period of major competition from competition at both ends of the pricing spectrum. Admittedly, though, I no longer spend the hours I once did obsessively scouring the web for anything related to acoustic guitars.

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Once upon a time...

 

Demand skyrocketed for quality tweeners, was duly met, and then the okay now what syndrome followed.

 

Market tweaking (new-and-improved) focusing on changes that are cheaply incorporated yet give the perception of a truly quality-oriented company will remain in effect until new product launches. Those are the 101's. I wouldn't buy anything but a Yamaha these days. That's largely due to my Bert Jansch-like revelation of not being able to find anything else that is better, that isn't merely an expensive leap of faith, than eyeball purchases by people hoping their ears heard correctly about their precious opening up *one day*.

 

I'm also off the curiosity stump.

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I played a couple PM-2 at a store when I was looking for a parlor. To me it sounded like a fender acoustic, which is to say not great. Thin sound no sustain and the Alvarez put it to shame at half the price. I went in really wanting to like the fender and specifically going to play that. After some A/Bing I found the Alvarez far better. Then the damn man put a Martin 0017s in my hands....

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I think it really is getting to be that way. As someone who is still hacking away at making guitars in a spare bedroom, I'm not quite sure how to take all of this. Fortunately for me, I don't really hold out aspirations to someday make my fortune cranking out boutique guitars - given the overhead and labor-intensity/time required to make a good guitar by hand, I've never understood how the hell any small builder even makes a living. I'm happy to continue with it as a hobby and lose money doing it, but I have to say I prefer a world with more rather than less people making guitars in it.

 

On the third hand, the formula for excellent tone is not more costly to apply than the formula for bland tone. Much of the cost of expensive guitars seems to be concentrated in branding, aesthetics, mystique.

 

I still think handmade guitars are true works of art, and I have a huge amount of respect for people who do it well. It would just be very difficult for me to argue that there is much *tonally* that can be achieved with a $20k guitar that cannot be well matched in a guitar retailing for under $1k.

 

Will that stop me from buying more expensive guitars? No. I still like 'em purty.

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I've always wondered the same thing about Fender. Would never have given one of their acoustics a second glance, and couldn't figure out their excuse. But this all-hog P-1 has caught my attention and made me wonder if perhaps they've finally figured something out.

 

They may still suck, for all I know, but the specs are still much more impressive than anything I've seen previously from Fender acoustics.

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There have always been good inexpensive guitars. My old Sakura 12-string is an example. But these days thanks to cheap labor they're especially good. Solid wood guitars are less pricey than they used to be and touches like bone nuts and wood binding are reasonably common. I'm not a huge Fender fan but neither am I a huge Yamaha fan. To me, the name on the headstock is less important than the quality of the guitar and how it plays and sounds.

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I read a review of the Yamaha LL16 A.R.E. and was intrigued enough to look for one in a guitar shop.

 

When I found one, I was so impressed I ended up buying it. For under $1K I got a guitar that sounds as good or better than some of the $5K instruments that were in the store.

 

I also have a Yamaha F-310 which was the bottom of the line acoustic at the time (less than $200). I bought it to be a beater/beach guitar but ended up using it for everything.

 

I have always been impressed by the near perfect intonation on all of the Yamaha guitars that I have played.

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I think I've pandered to all the hype, some of my own making, and agree that tone is not found in the wallet or the reputation of a builder because there isn't any such thing as a mutually standardized tone. I've heard some pretty nice sounding guitars but they simply can't keep up with me. They're the ones that drone on forever at the touch of a string. That's really nice to hear but in up-tempo work it's pretty useless. What does keep up are the coincidentally cheapo instruments that give a decently balanced register and don't respond with a slow oration on the history of the Earth. Those are the products people buy and then play music I can sleep faster than. It's exactly what they're looking for but I can't be more bored by it. So, of course, I bought one and then found out that Luke was right. He was right.

 

So, I've regrouped and focused on matching guitars to me instead of the hype.

 

Sans the moment's humility check, Gibson and Fender acoustics still suck in their latest iterations.

Edited by Idunno
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I agree that there have always been good inexpensive guitars. But I think that overall, the quality gap has been closed even more in the last few years. The Yamaha FG800 and FG830 are probably the best examples that come to mind - IMHO, of course. Yamaha acoustics have been great for decades. But at this point, they've been at it for SO long that I think they have really honed their manufacturing to perfection. I read a few years back that more than 90% of the guitars (I think it may have been even higher) purchased worldwide are under $300.

 

For some idiotic reason, until the last few years it was virtually unheard-of to find scalloped bracing on guitars in the $300 ballpark. Given that there is no labor-cost difference involved in scalloped vs. non-scalloped bracing, I never could figure that out (unless manufacturers were concerned about an increase in bellying complaints). The thing that amazes me in particular about the FG830 is the fact that Yamaha has made significant improvements without raising the price literally one penny in several years. IMHO, that is a pretty phenomenal achievement.

 

Unlike you, I am a tremendous Yamaha fan - just from my own subjective experience having owned three of them now (still have one), all of which were just ridiculously good (again, IMHO).

 

I do think the name on the headstock is important, but not as a matter of status. There are just certain brands that I have come to trust, like, etc. YMMV. Of course I'm with you on playability and sound being paramount.

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I used to own a Yamaha LL6 (laminate rose b/s), back when they had an ebony bridge & f/b (maybe they still do, IDK). I LOVED that guitar. I think it was about $500 when I bought it, and I could not believe how well it was constructed, how great it played & sounded - regardless of price, it was just a great guitar. I ended up giving that one to a friend (I had too many guitars, at the time).

 

Your post got me curious, so I looked up the LL16 just to see the current specs & price. WOW! At barely under $800 for the rosewood b/s version, that model is just a ridiculously fantastic deal. It's a beautiful guitar to boot, with several nice finish options, and it comes with a HSC. Insane!

 

I do kind of wish they'd scallop the braces on that model - if they did, I probably couldn't resist buying one right now, although I do not need another guitar. What an incredible deal.

 

I also have to say that in general, I am always very impressed by Yamaha's fit and finish. My $300 FG730S still looks absolutely perfect (I'm not opposed to dings or scratches, but my naturally OCD nature about guitar handling means I tend to avoid such things by default). By contrast, while I am a huge fan of Gibson acoustics as well, I don't think I've ever seen a single one with out some kind of obvious sloppy finish element.

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I've never played a Fender acoustic that I'd describe as good myself, but on the other hand I haven't tried any of their new Paramount guitars.

 

I'm sure you're right that most companies do their best to offer guitars at the lowest possible [profitable] price point, and surely many of them cut corners to do so and end up producing junk. Very unfortunate, because I think crappy guitars being sold to beginners who don't know any better is one of the primary reasons, if not THE primary reason, that most beginners tend to quit. Bad, uncomfortable guitars that feel and sound like poo. Noobs quit because they think it's their fault the guitar is unplayable.

 

On the other hand, I don't think it's always the case that manufacturers compromise quality deliberately. The reason I started this thread was that I'm very impressed by the fact that Yamaha has actually improved the quality of some of their models significantly while not raising the prices of those models. I'm sure there are others, but I don't have all the prices and specs memorized like I used to before my brain fried. :)

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Still have the Goodall? :)

 

I don't know what it is about Gibson. I've owned two of their acoustics, and both were among the best-sounding acoustics I have ever encountered (bearing in mind that I consider myself to have at best a mediocre ear, and my exposure to truly high-end guitars is incredibly limited). At the same time, there is a very curious inconsistency in their output, and I have been frustrated by their inability or unwillingness to really nail down their QC in some areas.

 

I wonder if part of their problem is just the too-wide array of models and specs they offer. It's like restaurants. When I look at a restaurant's menu and there's a massive array of offerings there, I immediately think that everything is going to be crappy - simply because you only get great at doing something by practicing it over and over, and no one can be an expert at everything. You gots to focus. So creatively and qualitatively, maybe they just spread themselves out too thin. Maybe.

 

But I really do think that when they get one right, it tends to be pretty magical.

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No, it is true. The gap between the midrange and the top of the crop has narrowed. The bottom feeders have become better, too. The main difference between the bottom feeders and most midrange guitars is the lack of QC with the former. QC costs a lot of money. But as QC got less and less expensive, due to CNC and better construction and so the bottom feeders got better. At the top, there is not much you can do to get better still and still produce guitars in numbers like Martin or Taylor need to do to keep the cash coming in.

In regards to Fender: Fender outsourced the built (and possibly construction) of their acoustics, whereas Yamaha kept their own construction AND production all the time.

Fender had the guitars built to a price point whereas Yamaha tried to get the best guitar for a price point.

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Last September, I bought a Walden Supranatura G2070, 2nd hand, for €330. New, I think they were around €600. Walden has gone under, unfortunately. I would say that my G2070 is the best sub-€1,000 guitar that I've played, which includes A few Masterbilts, Seagulls, and Guild GADs. This guitar is really, really good, and sits beside my Martins and Lakewoods without shame. If I didn't already have my collection down, I'd look for a couple more of them, but I'm happy now with what I have. It really is a shame Walden went under, and I can only speculate as to why. I expect it had something to do with corruption within the Chinese bureaucracy, as it paid its workers a living wage, had good quality control, and used woods from certified renewable sources. Must've annoyed someone.

 

For the most part, though, <€1,000 guitars don't do it for me. There's tone, there's playability, the 'feel' of the guitar, and though all those aspects are subjective, the only guitar I have found to be a 'keeper' within this range is the Walden. I got a great deal on it, and I don't intend to sell it (wouldn't get much for it if I did, anyways).

 

My first experience with a Fender acoustic was around 1977, or so. First I saw it, I thought 'cool! this should be a good guitar!' It wasn't. Action sucked, and the sound was thin and lifeless. I've tried a few over the years since, and they all sucked.

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I've never cared much what the headstocks say. I've owned Martin, Guild, Epiphone, Yamaha, Alvarez, Seagull and Tanglewood. Worst sounding were two Martins - a 1965 D28 and an all mahogany 000. Best sounding was the Alvarez all solid spruce and rosewood 000 style. Best combo of quality control and sound- Yamaha. That's my take. None of them made me play any better though. :p

 

Big Al

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I thought the Walden line was an example of the great value beginning to appear around the 2005 time-line and bought one. Turned out it was pretty quiet for a dread so I relegated it to a mag-pup equipped plug-in guitar. It sounded okay in the dealer's basement store where you could hear a pin drop. At home it was a completely different sounding guitar. Anyway, fit and finish, it was a superb example of craftsmanship and economy (including sound, unfortunately) that I thought the brand was going to be huge. The line never took off and I'm guessing the sound was sacrificed to quality (over-built).

 

I went on a little exploration trip a few years back looking to find a so-called boutique guitar that swooped all the rest. I took a Goodall RCJC with me to A/B. If I said I could remember the signature sound of that guitar 5 minutes after playing it the only person who would not be fooled is me. So, I dragged it around as my sonic litmus paper. I found that all the guitars I sampled did not come close to the Goodall for my idea of a quality sound. Several of the people (private and commercial sellers) tried to buy the Goodall from me and most agreed that it met or surpassed the guitars they had for sale. So, I came home with the Goodall and a pretty good idea of the sound quality of many popular names in the private building practice.

 

Then, I went to GC and did the same thing with some Yamahas, Takamines, and other brands my own idea of middle-ground sound had to offer. No doubt the Goodall trounced them but only in the slower paced, resonance aspect with a clear edge in tonal quality in the first position only. That changed going up the neck where it began to level. I play a lot up there so it's an important aspect for me. At an up-tempo the Goodall simply rings out too long. Damping technique can be used but that shifts my hand to a position that greatly impinges fluidity, and it sounds muffled. The only real cure for that is a feedback buster or a hand towel inside the guitar. I prefer to play up-tempo instrumentals with a meter like Classical Gas and the Goodall can't do that well.

 

So, still trying to get the Goodall to meet my needs, I installed a K&K PWM with their Pure Preamp system and a feedback buster. Plugged it in and, nope, I'd turned it into a duck call (Piezo). So, the K&K was a waste of buckeroos. The hand towel did a better job.

 

Not wanting a dollar store hand towel the only thing between me and divesting myself of an expensive non-contender, the Goodall went on the auction block as I coincidentally found the Yamaha nylon string electric acoustic I'd had for years winking at me. With a loss of spirit I played it for a while and found it to be fundamentally what I was leaning towards. So, I plugged it in and immediately knew it to be the closest thing to a sound that was waiting for me to discover.

 

I don't buy the hi-end stories about better sound anymore. I've played them, most of them, and the Goodall out shone them. Name me a hi-end private build of similar construction to the Goodall RCJC and I've probably played it. Granted, the RCJC is a jumbo concert guitar few builders offer but the sound I was looking for was not the Goodall sound. I didn't find it but did come away with perceptions of the other makes and none of them enticed me.

 

So, what sound works for me? I can't describe that. I only know it does not find it's source in the weight of a buyer's wallet and his eyeball's decision making power. I'm happy with the sound I have and it isn't acoustic. That's a verdict I'm okay with.

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I suggest you get your hands on an LL16 and do so with no expectations. You might not even miss the scalloped bracing.

 

I've played several of them since I bought mine and, as usual, I find Yamaha is very consistent in their production.

 

As for the finish, I believe Gibson uses lacquer and Yamaha uses urethane.

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I have a Martin, a Gibson, and a Recording King. I love them all. The Recording King was $200 used - the others were about 10x that much. That said, they are all well built, but they don't sound the same and they aren't built the same, and they are made from different materials. I truly believe you can get a great guitar at any price point, but the "little things" add up in terms of labor and materials, overall quality, costs, etc. I'm not a "brand snob" in either direction - I don't believe that a cheap guitar brand can't be great - my Recording King proves that, and I actually played a Fender acoustic about a year or so ago at a local Music Go Round that was to DIE for - I even went back to buy it - just to have in the stable, and it was priced at like $200. When I searched the racks for it, it was gone. I started to ask the sales person about it and he said, "you looking for that Fender acoustic?"

"Yeah," I said. "You know the one?"

"Oh, yeah," he said - everyone in the store played that one constantly - it was fantastic."

But I also don't believe that established brands are always just a name on a headstock - they are a way of doing things, and usually a certain STANDARD of doing things - my Gibson and Martin are definitely a cut above in every way construction-wise and even tone-wise. The woods are nicer, the finish is nicer, the hardware is nicer (I replaced the tuners on the Recording King) The tone of the high end instruments is distinct and not really comparable-not even to each other. Apples and Oranges. But I like the neck on the Recording King most of all, and it falls somewhere in between the Martin bright articulate sound and the Gibson warm sweetness sound, but it is "drier" than both with less overtones and harmonic content - sometimes that is a GOOD thing. But trying to pretend that all things are equal between a higher end guitar and a lower end guitar, or even two higher end guitars, and then trying to ascribe a dollar value to it is pointless - even if it is just the LABOR cost - know that labor costs differently in different countries - if you want an American guitar, it's going to cost more than one made overseas - even if that American guitar SUCKS - -doesn't mean one is "better" than the other - there is no magic formula that prevents makers in other places from making great guitars - but they are DIFFERENT - in some ways good, in some ways not so good. Just be glad that we have so many amazing options from $200-$4000!

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I thought the Walden line was an example of the great value beginning to appear around the 2005 time-line and bought one. Turned out it was pretty quiet for a dread so I relegated it to a mag-pup equipped plug-in guitar. It sounded okay in the dealer's basement store where you could hear a pin drop. At home it was a completely different sounding guitar. Anyway, fit and finish, it was a superb example of craftsmanship and economy (including sound, unfortunately) that I thought the brand was going to be huge. The line never took off and I'm guessing the sound was sacrificed to quality (over-built).

 

 

It is interesting that we have completely different experiences with Walden. My G2070 is very light, certainly in no way over-built, and it gets VERY loud when strummed. And you heard it on the 'Scarborough Fair' demo, with fairly dead strings. My luthier friend, who is very rarely impressed with Chinese gits, was, grudgingly, very impressed. The 'Supranatura' series was their top of the line models for a while, though. I like mine so much that I am selling my Taylor 316 because it is redundant, really. To me, the only issue is longevity, but since I have more days behind me than in front, I ain't too worried.

 

We have different experiences with Martin, too, I think. I love mine. They play well, they sound great, they have that 'Martin sound' that is ubiquitous on the vast majority of acoustic music that I listen to. Even my 000-M I wouldn't sell. Maybe I got lucky, I dunno. I've played a few Martin clunkers, but mine are, definitely, not amongst them.

Edited by Glenn F
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Don't remember whether or not I've ever played a Walden, but I generally agree about Martin. In terms of QC, fit/finish, I find them to be extremely consistent. I've never seen what I would describe as shoddy detailing on a Martin at any price point. Even the HPL Martins I've tried out have all sounded good and played well. I have played a few duds, though whether they were in fact actual duds or just suffering from superficial issues I didn't consider at the time (dead strings, etc.), I don't know.

 

Gibson continues to be more elusive, less consistent. I really don't understand why/how that happens - I don't know anything in particular about Gibson's manufacturing habits. From the few videos I've seen, their production looks impressive, but something clearly is happening. Maybe it's not the factory. Maybe it's a combination of factors: String quality (I don't know what they're using, but Gibson does not has the best reputation for its strings), the atmospheric conditions in the stores where Gibsons are sold, the length of time they may hang dormant before being tried out/purchased (obviously the more expensive a guitar is, the longer it will tend to hang).

 

Having said all of this, I have another Gibson acoustic inbound - ETA Friday, 3/2 (later today, technically). Against my better judgment which would dictate not to continue buying guitars online, or frankly to buy at all, as I certainly do not "need" another guitar right now. But I found myself online at a weak moment (which is to say, any moment), and at that moment happened to find a limited J-45 for a price I couldn't ignore, so here it comes.

 

I don't know what to tell my M-36. Inevitably they will run into each other...

Edited by strayGoat
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If your M-36 needs a new home, I'll be happy to take it off your hands. Will shipping charges be enough?

I've played 1 nice Gibson acoustic, a J-29. The store where I tried it refused to budge on price, so I passed, tried one from another shop, and sent it back. I've played a few J-45s, and have not been impressed. I had bad trouble with an LP I bought in 2008 and ended up selling it for less than half what I paid and put into it (new frets!!!). I am done with guitar buying, so it is all academic for me at this point.

 

I hope your Gibby is all that you want her to be!

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