Thursday, August 09, 2007

SLAVE LABOR GUITAR VERSUS EDDIE VAN HALEN RELIC: Both stomach-turning but for different reasons

While Americans focus on stuff from China that can hurt you -- antifreeze-spiked toothpaste, poisoned pet food, toys with lead paint, neurotoxin-contaminated puffer fish repackaged as freezer-case fish -- there are many consumer goods to consider, equally cheap, which can't kill and maim so easily.

In the business drive to squeeze every last bit of profit out of a market over the past decade or so, American guitar manufacturers outsourced their manufacturing to slave labor countries. (It's not the entire business model for sales of electric guitars but it is enough of it to put a signifcant stain upon the industry.)

Most notable among these is China, followed by Indonesia.

Today you can walk into BestBuy or a K-Mart and buy a $125.00 guitar in a cardboard box.

Cheap guitars existed when DD was a kid, too. However, in real dollar terms they weren't nearly as cheap as today's rock bottom prices.

Many, many people who play guitar today picked up their first chords on inexpensive pieces of relative crap.

One of DD's first guitars was a Kent, a rebranded-for-the-American-market copy of a Gibson Les Paul. It was made by Guyatone, a Japanese company.

In Japan, Guyatone and much more prominently, Teisco, made many inexpensive guitars for American teenagers. Because they were relatively cheap and often quite odd-looking they received a somewhat undeserved rap as worthless instruments. People no longer feel this way and a variety of scrabblers and electronic bazaarmen can always be found selling them on eBay for more than they were originally worth.

The reputation of these instruments was not entirely deserved. Circa 1972, my Kent cost around $150 USD, still much more than the pieces of Chinese kit in BestBuy in 2007. While the Kent was not a good guitar, neither was it perfectly awful. And with a used Fender Vibrolux amplifier for $110, I was in the business of rock 'n' roll.

Hardware on the Kent was plated with cheap gold paint. Over the course of a year it rubbed off. And one of its pickups died, something which has never happened with any of the brandname instruments I've owned.

However, it was an easy instrument to play, didn't hurt your hands and stayed in tune for at least forty-five minutes when you were in front of an audience.

Guitars stopped coming cheap from Japan by the mid-to-late 70's, I'm guessing as a result of labor costs becoming equal to or more than those in the United States. When this happened, Japanese guitar manufacturers -- notably Yamaha and Tokai, actually began making knock-offs of American-made Gibson guitars which were superior to the originals. I have a Yamaha SBG -- a Les Paul-mimic cut like a Gibson SG -- which falls into this category.

These were instruments very different from my Guyatone Kent.

They were made of fine wood, had craftsman finishes and the most robust hardware and electronics.

Slave labor guitars sold in BestBuy or other similar stores are an entirely different kettle of fish.

They're made for the idiot or dilettante who comes into the establishment as a browser and gets taken with the idea of walking out with an instrument in a cardboard box under his arm.

You can't make a slave labor axe without being ethically and morally bankrupt. You'll never convince DD it's possible for anyone to earn a reasonable living (except for the retailer) making one hundred dollar guitars from plywood to be shipped around the world and sold at a profit. (A Scottish newspaper noted last week that Chinese factory laborers, on a six-day, 11 hour-a-day work week will earn "1,000 yuan a month." That's 132.03, American.)

If you buy something like this, and many do, you're contributing to human misery and the destruction of the environment wherever the plant is located in China.

DD was curious about the quality of BestBuy slave labor guitars, which are made under the Gibson-Baldwin brand name, and tried to play one which had foolishly been left out of its box as a display item.

The guitar was difficult to play. Its frets were not sanded and it wouldn't be easily tuned. This meant it would hurt the hands of a beginner, a real discouragement when all you can make is a clumsy and painful noise.

On the musical instrument site, Harmony Central, one frequently reads the comments of beginners and dabblers who've bought slave labor guitars.

Of a Gibson-Baldwin Les Paul knock-off, one person reports:
There is no set up. In fact I believe those Chinamen are over there laughing at us stupid Americans every time one of these leaves the assembly line. And I believe they purposly raise the action as high as they can get it and leave the ends of the frets sharp to cut OUR rockin' American fingers ... "

Another introductory player (one who has fruitlessly diddled with the instrument for a couple decades) "recommends" a different slave labor Les Paul copy, this one under the Alba brandname:
I have played guitar on and off for a little over twenty years and have never spent an awful lot of money. The set-up from the factory was quite poor ... Although the hardware is so obviously cheap, the build quality is amazing for the price (I paid 46 pounds for it on Ebay). I never have and never will play live so cannot comment on the guitar's suitability for live performance. I would imagine that the sound would cut it but could foresee the instrument going out of tune periodically.

While one might want to applaud the feat of getting a slave labor guitar into the hands of every American who wants one, if only to further the love of music, it's not a radical thought to accept the alternative idea that no one needs such a service. And it's not a noticeable improvement over the 1972 way of doing things.

Mid-priced guitars that aren't made by slave labor are also plentiful.

Gibson knock-offs, made as Epiphones -- an old American name in guitar manufacturing, come from Korea. Because proper Gibsons have almost entirely priced themselves out of the hands of many working musicians, guitar trade mags now review replicas made under license from the originals side-by-side with their much more expensive custom American-made models.

Which brings us to the extreme high-end of the American custom market, where often mediocre instruments attain intelligence-insulting pricing, indicating the total extinction of common sense and the middle class.

American relic guitar luthiers could give Eddie van Halen a precise replica of his 1977 axe, complete with cigarette burn marks, ugly sticky tape, lousy but freakishly unique paint job and power drill holes. However, surgeons could not give Eddie back his youth -- only new dentures, a haircut, two surgical steel hip joints and a radical physiognomy-erasing facelift.

In the Summer edition of DD's Guitar Center catalog it is said, "Ed has partnered with Fender to bring you the Edward van Halen Frankenstein replica guitar -- a faithful reproduction of one of the world's most recognizable instruments. The red, black and white body ... has been put through an aging process to replicate the original, down to every last scratch, ding and cigarette burn."

List price: $25,000.

New guitars allegedly "worth" $25,000 dollars are never played where other people hear them. And DD never wants to meet someone who would pay such money. Neither does he wish to meet scary Eddie van Halen, who probably wouldn't have even paid one thousand dollars in the late-Seventies for any electric guitar.

Instead of saving to send your layabout parasite of a kid to college, get a Gibson Jimmy Page Doubleneck relic reissue, cheap at $8,000. Or splurge for a Paul Reed Smith Doubleneck Dragon, $32,000. You know you deserve it.

"The image of Jimmy Page and his Gibson doubleneck is synonymous with the epic power of rock 'n' roll," reads the ad copy for the pic above.

"Now that power can be yours!"

If this article tickled your fancy, you'll surely enjoy Slave Labor Blues Harp.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of fair points raised here. Unfortunately, people will buy cheap knock-off gear because the big brands are prohibitively expensive. A case in point is the Vai Jem, three grand for a bolt-on neck superstrat when they can do a through neck in the Japanese RG range using high quality hardware for half that. The Korean Range is cheaper again, although Ibanez reduces the quality by fitting lower quality bridges and pick ups. The difference in cost price to Ibanez for this type of hardware is $20-30 but they don't want pro players to buy the Korean stuff, hence the slightly lower spec. And if anyone is dumb enough to splash out thousands on "reliced" name guitars then they are fools.

9:37 AM  
Anonymous Hometown Boy Done Good said...

To be quite honest, I got started on one of those knock-off, cheap guitars. I have absolutely no problem with that kind of marketing strategy. I began playing at the age of six. I am now 19 and fresh out of high school just got signed to a contract to record my bands first album. I am getting a quarter of a mil. and I'm not even old enough to drink yet. I started out on a pack squire strat. and now I have a Gibson Byrdland, a Goya Rangemaster, and a Gibson firebird. It was that old squire that started it all. Even once and a while I still get it out. It actually does sound good on the Marshall JCM2000 I have at the studio and the Fender SuperSonic I keep at the house. I love how the paint is wearing off and I always get too much feedback. It's like a good old friend to me. So making music more accessible allows more people to have the opportunity to truly enjoy playing the guitar.

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone bragging about their record company advance, guitars and amps without actually mentioning the name of their band...well, let's just say you'll be crying about not being able to afford to buy back your master tapes when the label declines to release it or it tanks immediately after hitting stores.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

C'mon.Give the kid a break.Hope he does good.If not,well 1/4 mil. buys a lotta zit cream & nose rot,seeing he can't drink.
Anyways,GUITARS! I love 'em all.Any colour,any size.Ugly or purdy. Half the fun is seeing what you can squeeze out of the bitch. After all;it's just wire & wood...

3:14 AM  

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