A Candid View of Value, Prices, and Guitar Lust
The question of why some guitars cost a lot more than others (which look pretty much the same in size and shape as others, and are made of similar materials, and sound roughly the same) gets asked often in one form or another. The answer, I think, is usually any of the dozen clichés you’ve ever heard of or thought of:
- the quality [workmanship, artistry, materials, or whatever] is better
- it sounds better
- it’s one of a limited number; it’s one of a kind; it’s exclusive
- there’s more labor in it; it took longer to make
- it’s special: it’s made by someone renown; you’re buying a piece of history
- it’s really worth the price. Or, better yet: it’s a good deal; it’s cheap considering how good it is
- this guy really knows what he’s doing; his stuff is really good
- the better people all own one
- everybody wants one of these and they’re going fast
- it’s beautiful; it’s truly artistic
- you’ll become desirable or interesting or superior if you buy this; it separates the men from the boys and the average Joe from the Players, and
- it’s what the market can bear.
Any or all of these things may well be ‘true’, but we’ve all heard them so often that I don’t think I need to go over any of this again. However, I do think this is the wrong question to be fascinated by. I mean: do you really care why something costs a lot, other than academically? A much better question is: what is the reason you would/should buy anything significantly expensive? Let me explain my thinking.
A PEEK BEHIND THE MARKETPLACE CURTAIN
Let’s first look at the proposition that something is ‘of higher quality’ than something else. This can sound plausible. However, quality means quite different things to different people. For the buyer, it is greater functionality, durability, and satisfactoriness. For the manufacturer it generally means problem-free production, consistency of product (minimal number of rejects/seconds), and a good bottom line. For the seller it means sellable, and no complaints or returns.
While the fine print to these points, if I may put it like that, is never mentioned out loud it is essential to understanding the Dance Of The Purchase-And-Sale. This fine print is: (1) The salesman is undoubtedly a nice person, but isn’t really interested in your happiness; he needs to make the sale; the friendlier he can do this the better. (2) The manufacturer, very likely your average guy who is trying to make a living, doesn’t care about your personal happiness nor the salesman’s; he needs to make and ship his product out and keep his own people happy. (3) You, likewise, are a good person but don’t really care how many problems the manufacturer or salesman have: you want to get a good deal and be happy. This isn’t cynicism, by the way; it’s just that when money is involved you are operating exactly within this territory — along with these other people who happen to be on temporarily intersecting paths. Moreover, everybody concerned (including you) has their own [and rarely mentioned] overhead, however it may be calculated.
THE LAWS OF PRICING
Aside from quality, however it may be defined, there are three main factors that affect the price of anything. They are pretty common-sensical and shouldn’t mystify anyone. The first of these is: the market has its own rules for setting prices. These rules have nothing to do with you other than statistically. Furthermore, nothing exists at only one level of price and quality. You can buy a toaster for $29.95 or $229.95, or a car for $10,000 or $300,000; monkeys, bananas, and everything else in between all follow this general rule. Guitars won’t be any different.
The second factor has to do with Supply and Demand, although this is disguised as quality and spoken about in terms of rarity, stylishness/workmanship of design, uniqueness, the time, effort, and skill involved, and, not least, marketing and cost of doing business. But these still come under the heading of “supply and demand”.
The third factor is the most interesting because it is entirely irrational: it has to do with whether something speaks to one or has personal appeal — as though we were talking about matters of Art or Religion. It doesn’t matter whether this is based in personal greed, passion, obsession, spirituality, taste, altruism, competitiveness, lust, fantasy, reality, or ego. The brain’s Pleasure Center gets a definite jolt from some purchases. This is not good, bad, smart, stupid, or greedy: it’s simply how things work. And as long as one has the money it takes, the thornier aspects of decoding the quality of something may be happily ignored. Don’t get me wrong: there really is such as thing as Essential Quality; it’s just that you’re not going to hear about it from anyone who has a vested interest in selling you something; you have to talk with an informed and neutral party to get to that.
The most powerful single component of this irrational factor is that things produced or associated with well-known people or entities command higher prices. This is an immutable law. Note that I’m not saying this is bad; it is merely not rational. Any famous artist’s work commands higher prices, regardless of how weird his art is. The value of such things resides in a tangle of true worth or merit, ‘brand loyalty’, current popular opinion or faddism, “owning a piece of… “, canny-to-unscrupulous marketing, nostalgia, being “ahead of its time” or “vintage”, or any of the feelings listed in the second sentence of the preceding paragraph.
What do these things mean, for us? I think they mean two things. For starters, it means that we should consider admitting that it is the least rational part of buying something that makes the experience the most thrilling. Second, it means that the more expensive the thing is that the buyer is in the market for the more The Iron Rule of Buying (known in the old days as the Caveat Emptor clause) needs to be obeyed. In buying horses you should be able to tell the difference between a race horse and a painted nag with a nice saddle; the same goes for guitars.
For these reasons, most important rational corollary to the pricing/buying complex is that you need to have a sense of whether the claims that are made about an expensive object match its actual pluses and minuses. You must do some homework!!! If this means paying someone knowledgeable to give you some useful pointers, then you should consider doing it: otherwise you becomes the seller’s lawful prey (it’s his job, after all, to sell you something) and your thrill will have a short half-life. While this probably sounds a bit overdramatic it is really no different than looking both ways before crossing the street.
Finally, to return to the question I posed at the beginning: why, really, would you buy some thing expensive? Your reasons are your reasons, of course. But be honest with yourself. Some good reasons might be:
- I really want it. The impulse does not go away within a day. I will derive pleasure from this item for a long time to come
- I need one (for this or that plausible reason)
- This [item] is really, really good; I’ve done my homework
- This is better than the one I have now; it’s an appropriate purchase
- I’m serious about this; I collect
Some more questionable reasons might be the following (again, just be honest with yourself; people purchase things for all of these reasons, and more):
- I can afford it
- I want to show off and get admired
- I want to celebrate [something] and this’ll do it
- I don’t have something like this
- I can turn this around quickly and make a few bucks off it
- The salesman intimidated/shamed/pressured/sold/convinced me
- I’ll add it to my hoard
- I believe the hype; the thing has to be good; everybody says so
- Having one will make me feel great
- It’s expected of someone at my level
- I’m bored; it’s time to buy something
- I can’t pass this up
WHY WOULD YOU BUY IT?
At the beginning of this thread I said that the question of why some guitars cost a lot more than others is the wrong question to be fascinated by — other than academically. As a general matter, who really cares? A much better question is the personal one of ‘what is the reason you would/should buy anything significantly expensive?’
There are only two reasons that I can think of for buying an expensive guitar. The first is that one will love it. The second is that it is looked on as an investment. These motives can be combined in any guitar purchase and, with both, it involves doing your homework and paying attention to your own motives, experience, and desires as well as evaluating the guitar on its own merits. Play it. Listen to it. Compare it. Check it out. Would you buy a house without a structural report on it?
Most people have never had the opportunity to listen to a truly good guitar’s sound or to appreciate the fine points of its design. They consequently understand these things about as well as they understand the tax code. Fortunately, as I said, one can pay someone knowledgeable for a few hours’ tutorial; it is well worth the cost. And, I repeat, you owe it to yourself: it’s your job to equip yourself to tell the difference between hype and the real thing. This is no easy thing to do in an environment where we’re all neck-deep in perpetual hype. But the fact remains that if you’re looking for something better than average, and if you can’t tell the difference between something genuinely good and something glitzed up but mediocre, then you have no business thinking about buying an expensive guitar. And simply reading other people’s opinions as posted on internet discussion forums isn’t likely to help much, I’m afraid. On the other hand, if you get taken for a ride, guitar-wise, it isn’t the end of the world: you can learn something from it.
Finally, people are motivated to buy things partly because they feel time pressure; they believe they must act quickly or lose the sale. My wisdom on this matter is that there are mighty few true once-in-a-lifetime opportunities; it’s simply the market’s job to make you think this sale is one of them. Also, some perspective helps: the guitar you are agonizing about is just a guitar; it’s not a kidney.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ultimately, in buying an expensive guitar, you are not dealing with a simple case of ‘like’ or a ‘not like’. It’s an analysis for which any checklist of specific items or qualities is merely a set of guidelines. You’re actually playing and listening and looking for the overall quality of the experience.
Everything should be of top quality: at a top level it has to be so. You’re looking at: ‘is every element technically correct’? And then you’re looking at the creativity, and the little touches. Does it work as a whole? Does the balance of the various elements work? Is the sound rich, full, and expressive? Does any part of the sound fail to compare with any other part? Does the response under any particular left-hand playing position overpower that of any other position? Do different right-hand positions produce full and interesting tones? Does anything in the visual field dominate everything else? Do the curves of the upper bout ‘match’ the curve of the waist and the curves of the lower bout? Is the rosette the right size for that guitar, or is it too emphatic, or underprominent? Do the colors of the various parts and woods match and complement one another? Does the guitar seem put together by one artist, or assembled by a committee? If any one thing grabs your attention more than any other element and doesn’t let go, does that not somehow denote a lack of balance on some level? Any lack of balance denotes some degree deficit, and a five star guitar (to borrow a ranking system from the restaurant business) should be of the highest quality and be ‘right’ in everything. Including the quality of the thrill.