Free Trade

Elizabeth Warren Hates Your Cheap Foreign-Made Electric Guitar

The Mexican factories Warren loves to attack are putting damn good guitars in the hands of America's young and cash-strapped musicians.

|

The cheapest new Stratocaster guitar you can buy from Fender's home factory in Corona, California, costs $1,099. The cheapest Stratocaster you can buy made in Fender's plant in Ensenada, Mexico costs $499. Too much? The cheapest Stratocaster you can buy from Fender's Squier factory in Indonesia costs $349.99, and the cheapest one you can buy from Fender's Squier Affinity factory in China is $199. There are differences across the range in the woodwork, the electronics, and the metal parts, but the consensus among even the snobbiest gear nerds is that Fender guitars of every price can play remarkably well out of the box.

I thought about the Ensenada factory last night while listening to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) decry Mexican factories during the Democratic primary debate in Detroit. 

"You know, for decades, we have had a trade policy that has been written by giant multinational corporations to help giant multinational corporations," she said. "They have no loyalty to America. They have no patriotism. If they can save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico, they'll do it in a heartbeat. If they can continue a polluting plant by moving it to Vietnam, they'll do it in a heartbeat….I have put out a new comprehensive plan that says we're not going to do it that way."

While Fender is an iconic American company whose instruments played a major role in developing some of America's most iconic musicians—Jimi Hendrix, Dick Dale, Chrissie Hynde, Eddie Hazel, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Merle Haggard, Albert Collins, Bonnie Raitt—it is, in fact, exactly the kind of company Warren decried as having no loyalty and no patriotism because it is a "multinational corporation" that uses foreign factory labor to make money. And thank God for that, because if making guitars outside America was not a profitable venture for Fender, their guitars would not be affordable to the vast majority of Americans who play. 

No mass-market American guitar company exclusively sells American-made guitars because American musicians can't and won't pay for them. "Regulations and the general cost of doing business make it nearly impossible to do an affordable 'working man's' guitar" in California, Schecter Guitar Research President Michael Ciravolo said in a 2017 interview. While Schecter does manufacture higher-end guitars in California, "95 percent of our artists play our Korean-built Diamond Series guitars. These are guitars that most players can afford and walk into any store around the world and get the EXACT guitar or bass that Syn Gates or Nikki Sixx play."

Gibson, America's other iconic electric guitar powerhouse and the biggest American market share owner after Fender, makes its Epiphone guitars in Qingdao, China. The same foreign factory model is used by the other guitar brands Fender owns, and all of America's smaller mass-market electric guitar companies. From PRS to Ernie Ball Music Man, to G&L, Schecter, and ESP. Every last one uses overseas factories to offer tiered pricing and "save a nickel," as Warren would say. As a result, the parents of a teenage St. Vincent fan who can't afford her American-made signature model from Ernie Ball Music Man, which retails for $2,249, might be able to swing the $539 St. Vincent model expertly crafted in Indonesia by the company's Sterling subsidiary. Still too much? The used market for instruments made overseas is a buyer's market, which means American musicians who can't afford a brand new $539 Sterling St. Vincent can find it used for a hundred (or more!) less. 

Consider, again, that $1,099 is the price of Fender's cheapest American Strat, and that's before sales tax. If the company were to shift all of its production capacity back to the U.S., it would likely employ many fewer people than it does now, because labor and regulatory compliance cost more in American than they do in Mexico, China, and Indonesia. This is why Fender's current American guitars cost the most, and why the cheapest Fender guitar in an "America only" scenario would likely cost more than $1,099, assuming Fender could survive the transition. Imagine being 13 and watching John Frusciante or Bilinda Butcher on YouTube and not being able to find a cheapie Squier Strat or Jazzmaster on Craigslist. "American only" means fewer players, which means less music, which would suck. 

We should instead be celebrating the business model used by guitar companies. Having played guitars from all three of Fender's factories, as well as foreign-made guitars from Yamaha, Epiphone, and PRS, I am happy to report that the men and women of Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China produce guitars that rival those made in America and Japan, once the only two countries considered capable of consistently producing quality electric guitars at mass-market scale. Again, there are real differences, and American and Japenese instruments are generally the nicest of the bunch. But those differences are impressively and delightfully inconsequential to all but the most discerning players, and many foreign-made guitar shortcomings can be addressed with a little elbow grease (and, to be quite honest, a little practice on the instrument). I love the heck out of my Ensenada guitar, and I have deep respect and gratitude for the people who work in that plant. They are skilled and prodigious and I'm sorry that one of my country's presidential candidates suggested that they should be out of work simply because their bosses are American and they are not.

More sales of overseas guitars mean more guitar lessons and more guitar repairs. It also means more guitar music. Those opportunities do not exist at today's scale in a world where "multinational corporations" are forced to build all their guitars in America. 

NEXT: A Dodgeball Game in Michigan Ends in Assault Charges for 10-Year-Old

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. In Lizzie’s economic model, a guitar will be made in the USA by happy workers making above-average wages (but working below-average hours). And then the guitar will be sold to happy buyers who will pay a tiny fraction of their coffee house wages, or maybe a handful of home-grown tomatoes or a creepy faux-Indian dream catcher.

    See?

    1. LOL. A good laugh in the morning. Thanks.

    2. Good comment, E.S. Since Warren lied about having American Indian ancestry, how could ANYONE EVER believe a single word she said or says? Answer, you can’t. The rest of the Democratic runners up are similarly crude liars, and everyone knows it.

      1. Actually, her DNA test showed she didn’t lie. You just don’t understand the lie the Republicans ran with on her. And, if you’re trashing Democrats for lying, for god’s sake, don’t pretend the Republicans (esp trump) aren’t ridiculous liars.
        This article is the epitome of stupid. I work for a music distributor and the price you pay for any of these guitars is so much more expensive than what they cost to make. The wholesale prices I pay for a music man and a fender are so cheap, and that’s not even what my company pays to get the guitars from the manufacturers. It’s so simple – supply & demand. If these companies were forced to move their factories out of other countries, they’d be forced to lower the retail prices to be more affordable. The cheaper versions of their guitars are so mass produced, they could absolutely make them in this country and still sell them for a profit.
        Where’s the proof? When your favorite guitarists from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s weren’t “guitar gods”, the prices of the most iconic guitars were very affordable. But, the guys at Fender & Gibson know Americans are fools and think if they buy the more expensive strat, they might sound more like Hendrix. Suckers! Most of you aren’t smart enough to check out pawn shops and online used sellers. I’ve bought nice guitars at pawn shops for cheap, cleaned them up, sold them for 3x what I paid.

        1. Wow. In the words of Luke Skywalker, everything you just said is completely wrong. First, Warren’s DNA test showed she had less Native American DNA than the average American which is why it was a problem for her. Second, the difference in the guitars is the components used to make them. I am a musician, not a distributor. The type of wood used to make a guitar has a huge impact on its tone and play. Second the bridge, pickup, neck and other components also impact how it plays. The assembly and finishing do as well. An US Strat uses better components than a Mexican Strat or a Squire. Every maker has their high end and low end so more people can play. The reason electric guitars were so “cheap” in the 50s and 60s is they were a new thing. 99% of musicians used acoustic guitars and basses. As for buying guitars at pawn shops, I have done the same thing. You can get them cheap because 90% of time, the pawn broker has no idea what he has. Every heard of a Big Block Precision bass? Neither has pawn shop I bought mine at which is why I got a $1200 bass for $300. HA!!

    3. Guitars should be free to all not restricted to those who can afford them.

    4. Warren’s critics are right. But only under the current economic model. Our problem is not the cost of US-made goods but the unfair income disparity in the US. Once this issue is resolved, an average US family will be able to afford the $1099 American made Strat. Tax the rich!

  2. I have been playing guitar, including electric guitars, for nearly fifty years. While, technically, I COULD afford a top-line, American-made, Gibson or Fender, since I play primarily acoustic guitar (Martin Herringbone D-28), there is simply no way I would shell out the money for a Strat which I might play a couple times a month.

    I guess Martin is equally to blame, since they manufacture a line of guitars in Mexico. SO un-American! (by they way, they aren’t too bad, either, I bought one for my wife).

    I guess Warren also thinks that I should be limited in my choice of mandocellos, too? Or ampifiers? Or, perhaps… toothpaste? Is there a more stupid politician in America? Unfortunately, there probably is. Lots of them, too.

    1. Yeah, Dems always love to lie about how buying goods from countries other than the U.S. is a boost for U.S. workers, which, of course, it is not. And let us be real. As a teacher of Law at Harvard, she isn’t anyone’s idea of a friend of the working folks.

    2. Yea, I hate your guitar too – but it has nothing to do with where it’s made

      1. LOL. What did my guitar ever do to you?

        1. It wept gently.

        2. Killed fascists?

          1. Drove old Dixie down? (okay, a non sequitur, but what the heck)

              1. “Trouble.” My middle name lol

      2. My guitar wants to kill your mama.

    3. She’s right there with that herd, but given the veneer of her “academic” credentials and her utter cluelessness about reality it’s amazing people ae not more skeptical regarding her and the rest of these clowns.

    4. A D-28 is a high end guitar. That is one of Martin’s best. It any company only made guitars in the US, 99% of the people who play could not. Think about the days before the internet in the 70s and 80s when if you wanted an affordable guitar, you had to buy a Japanese guitar because US axes were too expensive. My 1st bass was a Ventura

  3. Consider, again, that $1,099 is the price of Fender’s cheapest American Strat, and that’s before sales tax.

    Only because they want it that way. Until recently they offered the American Special line, which were nearly identical to the Mexican models, except they were manufactured in the US. They were priced only slightly higher than the Mexican versions, and are generally considered to be of superior build quality.

    The difference in price is mostly accounted for in the quality of the wood used, not where the instrument was built.

    No mass-market American guitar company exclusively sells American-made guitars because American musicians can’t and won’t pay for them.

    So what’s Rickenbacker, chopped liver?

    1. LOL. Rickenbacker’s are just fine. Another thing Warren misses out on is that there are a whole bunch of other, from small, to almost “boutique” manufacturers, who build guitars and other instruments overseas to help expand and stabilize their companies, and their American factories. It is quite possible that companies like Fender might not even be able to keep their doors open at all without foreign manufacturing.

    2. I bought a Seagull. Made in Canada. Lovely sound, well made.

      1. I also own Yamaha and a Vowinkle classical guitars. Both very nice.

      2. I bought a Seagull for my step-dad many years ago. Very nice guitar, and price-wise, very competitive with any guitar made anywhere.

      3. I have a Norman acoustic-electric, also made in Canada. It’s my favorite acoustic, I even like it better than my Guild.

      4. Oh yea?
        Well why don’t you just go back to Canada then eh

    3. One might some that the markup on the higher priced models might offset some of the regulatory costs on the lower priced models. I’ve heard GM makes more on trucks than they lose on cars so they can afford to sell both

      1. That’s not possible! According to Warren’s General Theory of Economics, all choices by companies must always be towards saving every lost cent at the bottom of every last barrel, therefore GM can’t sell cars at a loss because it means they lose some money! See?? SEE????? They would close the car production down so they could further save money by screwing the factory workers out of a job. What you say is LUDICROUS!
        Warren knows!

    4. Are you arguing Ricks are cheap? yes, the guitars are cheaper because they are not popular, but what about the basses? Find a 4003 for less than $1200. You cant. Look for a 4001 and you are talking $2500-3000 minimum.

    5. I only know what’s going on with Fenders. It’s not just the wood quality, but the hardware/electronics and build quality.

      For whatever reason, the Mexican Fender factory is known for having excellent build quality, while their other foreign factories not so much. Have no idea if it’s because Fender planned it that way, or they just happen to have good management at the Mexican factory, or ???

  4. Worth noting that Donald Trump thinks exactly the same way about foreign-manufactured goods as Elizabeth Warren does. It’s not happening because it’s what American customers want, it’s happening because the people doing it “have no loyalty to America.”

    1. And their solutions always tend to hurt the little guys they so desperately wish to protect.

    2. Americans want affordable products.

      But Americans want to have jobs to afford products.

      Solution: make it cheaper to manufacture here. Roll back regulation.

      1. Yep that would certainly be a better solution than, say, tariffs.

      2. That would certainly help.

  5. “” she said. “They have no loyalty to America. They have no patriotism.”‘

    Is Trump writing for Warren now?

    1. LOL. Some birds sing the same song no matter what flock they are in.

    2. When it comes to trade, Trump is pretty much a Democrat and always has been.

      1. He’s basically Bill Clinton with better hoochie.

  6. My Mexican Fender Baja Telecaster is an excellent guitar, and my Japanese-made Gretsch 6120T is a thing of beauty.

    1. My Martin HD 28 is also beautiful, as is my Eastman mandocello (made in China).
      When I played classical guitar, the “top of the line” instruments were generally from Spain and Japan. But yeah, “dem un-Amurican foreigners” are just ripping us off, and “we knows they can’t make good guitars.”

  7. Why won’t all of you jerks just let Liz and the Left tell you want to do and how to live your life? Your refusal to let them have power is ruining the chance to create a Utopia on Earth for all of us. To shame!

  8. Warren wants all the Mexican guitar workers to illegally immigrate and make the instruments here.

    1. How else will she raise enough tax money to fund crappy health care?

  9. But, but, don’t we want Mexicans to have jobs so they won’t come here? Or does Warren have another plan in mind?

    1. She wants to move the jobs from Mexico back to U.S. and then import the unemployed Mexicans to fill the jobs now in the U.S. and they will all vote Democrat because they are so grateful for having to uproot and move here. Then those who are left in Mexico will have a greater shithole of a country, and Warren and her ilk can then have a field day when a Republican points this fact out. This is a win-win-win all around for the Dems (or so they think).

  10. Crazy Aunt Lizzie can sneer at people trying to “save a nickel” because she’s rich. And if people who sell guitars, strings, books, lessons, etc. and provide service and repairs all end up unemployed, she won’t feel it.

    1. Next, Liz will suggest a federal subsidy for those who can’t afford an american-made guitar.

    2. It’s such an odd way of thinking about business. As if reducing costs is just something they do to be mean. Saving a nickel on each item produced can be the difference between success and failure for a company. If they fail then all the jobs everywhere are lost.

  11. “If they can save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico, they’ll do it in a heartbeat.”

    Pocahontas hates Mexicans. Mexi-phobe!

  12. “You’ll have to pay a little more for your burger, but…” — Bernie Sanders.

    1. Everyone will have to pay more for everything. How does he figure this stuff makes any difference except making everyone poorer and money worth less?

      1. No… you see… everyone gets a couple of dollars more per hour. So they have extra cash.

        Now, sure, they have to pay a lot more for everything. Like, food is definitely going up by multiple digit percentages. But you can just cut back on food.

        I mean, sure, people will end up having to spend a lot more money for a lower standard of living… but that’s just because of greedy corporations. We’ll fix that by confiscating their stolen profits and redistributing them to the people who earned it. (yeah, that’s a quote)

        Ok, so it doesn’t sound like getting a slightly larger salary is going to balance out making literally everything much more expensive – but you gotta understand how these things work. We make it up in volume.

    2. But there’s a line over there where you can get a bun for free* and that’s a good thing.

      *while supplies last, some restrictions apply

      1. Isn’t it funny how to the left all guns are evil, yet in all their attempts at utopia there has never been a shortage of arms and ammo to be used against the masses while toilet paper is literally non-existent?

        1. That’s really just the comfy contemporary left. People who are serious about socialism know you need lots of weapons in the “right” hands for the revolution to succeed.

          1. Yep, despots, from Hitler to Lenin, always made sure that the “right” people had plenty of guns.

      2. “Free beer tomorrow”.

  13. Warren is right.
    Only the ruling elites should tell what guitar you should be playing.
    They know so much more about guitars than the musicians who play them.
    Just look at all the hit records our beloved ruling elites have produced down through the years.

  14. So, I bought my daughter one of those inexpensive foreign-made LTD guitars and an inexpensive, made-in-china version of a British amplifier. The dual humbuckers and programmable amp do a really good job of bringing some high-end metal sound to a low-budget setup. And the whole thing cost about the same as a cheap used single-pickup electric guitar back in 1982. And that’s in adjusted dollars.

    This hasn’t just been a minor change to the music business. These days you can get a setup that would have been unobtainable for anyone other than a serious professional back in the 70’s/80’s on a fast food worker’s salary.

    1. Oops. That was supposed to be “unadjusted dollars.”

      I remember looking at guitars back in high school and the cheapest piece of junk was over a hundred bucks. A decent cheap guitar was maybe $300, while a good one was several hundred more – maybe a thousand.

      That setup set me back under $300 for a guitar and amp that you could easily play at a professional gig, as long as you were hooking up to a sound system line-in. The only thing that would hold you back is the lack of foot pedals for the computer generated effects pedals, so you’d have to switch with a knob or the keyboard.

    2. And what you got her is great for sitting in your room practicing along with a record but it is not anything you can use for gigging because it will not last. The reality is, if there were not guitars at all levels she would likely not be playing. What parent is gonna shell out $1500-2000 for a setup on the chance their kid might actually stick with it. Lots of people want to play instruments, until the discover the work required to be really good at it.

  15. Our problem is not the cost of US-made goods but the unfair income disparity in the US. Once this issue is resolved, an average US family will be able to afford the $1099 American made Strat. Warren is right: tax the rich!

  16. How long does it take to make a guitar? A week? Is making $12 more an hour really justify a $500 increase in price?

    1. There’s a lot more to it than that. You aren’t going to get a full time employee for much less than $60k per year – including all costs like healthcare, taxes, retirement contributions, HR and accounting costs, etc. And a skilled worker like a guitar maker is probably going to be double that, all-in, at a minimum.

      Plus there’s a lot of restrictions on stuff here. Like importing the wood for the guitar. Things you don’t have to worry about in Mexico.

      A high-end guitar is probably mostly hand-built. So labor is going to be a big part of the cost, as is the exotic wood.

      Getting those two items for a fraction of the US cost is going to have a big impact on the price.

      The high end stuff is still made here because the price is high enough to allow for more labor and regulatory costs. But there’s no way they could meet the $250 price point of their introductory guitar lines using US labor.

      I’m gonna guess that their cost on that $1000 guitar is maybe $400 bucks? That would allow for a markup to the distributor and retailer as well as their own profit. Changing out the wood might save a hundred bucks. Maybe you squeeze another $50 by cutting a few corners to make it easier to build. But you still would be upside down at the bottom price points.

      And of course the thousand dollar guitar isn’t their high end. That’s the starter model for the high line. They go into the many thousands for custom models.

        1. Nice libertarian side note – the guitar center website helpfully lists the taxes on the purchase of that $35k guitar – $4,200. Talk about wetting your beak…

    2. not about the wages, but the components and construction is what changes the price. I neck through construction bass is way more expensive than a bolt on for a very good reason, sustain and playability.

  17. Zildjian cymbals changed music. If you can find one of the Turkish K rides I am interested in buying.

    They are all made in US now.

    Musical instruments have not much to do with nation.

    Well art is art isn’t it? Then east is east and west is west… Groucho

    1. “” If you can find one of the Turkish K rides “‘

      Yeah, good luck.

  18. Wow they scream about Trump and his foreign policy, and then say the same damn thing in their campaigns. Not that I like Trump. Just goes to show that in the end they are ALL the same, Democrat or Republican, Republican or Democrat. Makes not a bit of difference in the end. They just like to keep the masses riled up, and most of the masses are too stupid to realize what is going on.

  19. Is that the guitar company that got raided and ass fucked by the Feds over the wood they bought to make guitars from?
    That sort of thing is sure to make you want to continue to build guitars in USA.

    1. Gibson. Not Fender.

      Gibson got hosed by the feds. Something crap about illegal wood.

      1. They were using Indian Rosewood for the necks which is illegal to import. The Feds charged them with importing prohibited materials since they are endangered and protected by global law. However, players want rosewood and Indian is the best looking and smoothest to play on, so Gibson thought is was worth the risk.

  20. The article is well-intentioned but unfortunately looks at the issue backwards. If it highlighted the difference in cost of MAKING the guitar, and then the guitars sold here for identical prices, that would make the intended point. Retail sales prices are set based on how much customers are willing to pay – the much higher Made in USA price suggests that the quality of the foreign made guitars is lower, and for all we know, the cost of production is not mentioned – for all we know, it costs the same amount.

  21. BTW, looking at that picture, the only thing “Squire” about the guitar is the name on the head. I can look at it an see many of the parts are upgrades (pickups, bridge, etc). Lots of people buy low end guitars and over time upgrade them so they end up with a fairly decent guitar. In the end, the cost is about the same as buying a higher level guitar but they do not have to shell out all the money at once.

  22. Relatively few people buy new guitars anyway; they might be the least profitable product if made solely in the U.S., because the designs are all at least 50 years old, they will never become obsolete, and there are probably more Fenders and Gibsons on the used market than there are people on this planet. Rickenbacker’s business is much more stable because they never made an overseas off-brand, whereas to most people, there is no discernible difference between an American Standard and a MIM Standard, or a Gibson and an Epiphone.

  23. The biggest producer and user of coal is China. The biggest all-time polluter was the Soviet Union until now. Stop blaming USA for pollution.

  24. I’ve actually always been a fan of the guitar model of outsourcing… IE making your shitty stuff overseas, but still making your good products here. You have options! What I hate is the companies that have the markup and the market dominance to make all their stuff here highly profitably, OR do what the guitar companies do… But make all their shit overseas.

    Levi’s dumped all US manufacturing in the 90s IIRC. I would have gladly paid more for American made Levi’s. Carhartt does exactly this, although I wish their American line were bigger. Levi’s recently did start making some boutique jeans back in the US, but for obscene amounts of money purely based on the name and thinking they can get away with it… Like as in going from $50 to $300. Carhartt stuff is like $5-10 more for the USA made items.

    I wish every company that could get away with it did this honestly. I think they would find they’d end up selling an awful lot of their American made products here, and a lot fewer of their foreign made products.

Please to post comments