Smoke And Mirrors The Guitar Industry Guide To Getting Your Money

It has been brought to my attention that there is a recurring theme that runs throughout my blog articles. Some have suggested that there is a constant undertone that defames the sincerity of major guitar manufacturers and unabashedly devalues their products and questions their integrity. If you have noticed this motif in my other blog articles then it means that you have indeed been paying attention because that is my point.

My entire guitar business has been built on the fact that major conglomerates have crept into the guitar industry rather craftily and have shifted the focus from making great products to making great profits.

Now don’t get me wrong I have no problem with a business making a profit and I have no problem paying for a great guitar. My problem starts when a sub-par product is made with inferior materials and sold for a premium price based on the “reputation” of the name brand company that made it.  I have spent too much time of my life “fixing” the mistakes made by major manufacturers or replacing the sub-par quality bridges and pickups that come with their guitars. Compromise after compromise is made in order to increase the profit margins for the corporation with little thought given to the resulting product that is sold to the end user.  This epidemic has just gotten worse over the course of the last decade to the point where I can’t even go to a guitar store without getting frustrated. 

Now you’re probably asking yourself what companies I’m talking about. I mean if their products were so “inferior” the company would just go out of business right? Wrong! Just like a sleazy car salesman pulling the old “bait and switch” routine these companies use a similar “smoke and mirrors” routine to let you lead yourself into thinking the product you are buying is better than it is.

This successful marketing tactic has been employed by ever major manufacturer for at least the last 25 years. It is aimed at getting your money one way or another and is so smooth and so subtle that most times you don’t even know it is happening. Let me explain how it works and you ask yourself if any of this sounds familiar.


 First, they start off with a “Signature Artist Series” guitar. It makes no difference who the artist is, or what style of music they play or which generation the music is aimed at, it all starts with the “Artist Series”. Insert the Artist of your choice and see if these rules don’t apply. This “Artist” is usually a popular selling musician with a huge following and has a large draw appeal. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement between the Artist and the company because the company gets the draw and appeal of the artists’ fan base and the artist usually gets all the free gear he wants and if his draw is big enough then he gets a percentage of all the sales of his “brand”.

So far there is nothing wrong with this arrangement. Usually the Artist will bring his own preferences into the design phase of his or her Signature Model and quite often some very cool improvements are brought to the guitar industry.

For example, if you currently play a guitar with a “floating” tremolo you can thank Steve Vai for this innovation.  Steve stated in Guitar Player magazine in 1986 that he removed the wood from behind the bridge of his Floyd Rose Tremolo that was on his Charvel guitar so that he could spin the bar backwards and push up on it to make it go sharp. This is a very simple concept that we take for granted today but it was unheard of in 1986 and largely looked down upon for fear that the Floyd Rose wouldn’t stay in tune. Steve brought this innovative idea to Ibanez guitars and they incorporated it into his Signature Jem Line of guitars in 1989. Today it is so common that we don’t even think about it.  Kudos to Steve and to Ibanez for bringing something new to the market.

So far so good, we now have a new Signature Series guitar going to market with a mutually beneficial arrangement that ultimately will better the guitar industry.

Now here is where the problems begin. If you remember we already mentioned the fact that the Artist gets free gear as well as a percentage of the sales of his “brand”. 

Most musicians do not make their money selling albums anymore. You can thank Napster and the internet for that. As it turns out Lars Ulrich was right when Metallica brought a lawsuit against Napster because the internet has changed the way music is made, bought and sold. Most musicians make their money today touring and selling merchandise. Touring is the “day job” part of the music business that seems great to young musicians who just want to play and not get real jobs but to the seasoned musician it can become a tedious chore that sometimes barely allows you to break even. So the focus shifts to merchandising the brand of the musician. Therefore their Signature Series of guitars comes with a hefty price tag because a large percentage of that goes right to the Artist.  Their guitars sell for around $3500 to $4000 and in most cases they are actually worth $3500- $4000 because they are made and set-up to the artist exact specifications.

I remember back in the early 90’s when Eddie Van Halen parted ways with Kramer Guitars and launched his Signature Line with Ernie Ball/Music Man Guitars. He wanted every guitar to be made and set-up exactly the same so that if any of his guitars got stolen on tour he could go to a local music store anywhere that carried Ernie Ball guitars and get a new one for that nights show. What a great sales pitch. Not only does it make you want to buy one because you would know exactly what it was like to play Eddies guitar but if you own a music store it makes you want to carry Ernie Ball guitars just for the fact that Eddie might actually show up at your store. (By the way there are no reports that that ever happened.)

Anyway the point is that the Artist Series guitars are usually expensive and they are usually worth it. The difficulty comes when the manufacturer attempts to squeeze money out of those who cannot afford the Signature Guitar.


Here is the first “Smoke and Mirrors” move. They offer an “Import” line of Signature Guitars. These guitars usually look exactly like the Artist Signature Guitars with the same graphics and hardware but are made overseas usually in Korea, Malaysia or Indonesia in a huge bulk mass production shop. Sometimes they are assembled there and sometimes they are sent in pieces back to the United States to be assembled in the states so they can bear the proud stamp “Made in USA”. These guitars usually cost about $2500 and are not set up to the specs of the Artist.

The company offers a less expensive guitar to those who can’t afford the expensive one. This is usually done by the company using inferior wood and allowing sub-par products that should be tossed out to be sold. Keep in mind that at this point in the game the company is still using quality hardware because you can’t hide that under a paint job.

This is a significant cost savings to the buyer but remember that the company makes the same amount of profit and the same percentage of sales still has to go to the Artist. You are paying  about $1500 less but the company and the artist are still making the same profit so you are getting significantly less guitar for your money but you still have the illusion of getting a Signature Guitar.


Next up in our Smoke and Mirrors game is the Economy Model or the Student Edition. These guitars look exactly like the Artist Signature Series Guitars but are made to be available to anyone.

They are particularly aimed the 12-15 year old kid who wants the new Signature Series Guitar for Christmas but knows that Mommy and Daddy aren’t going to pony up $2500 for junior’s new hobby. They also fall into the category of the guitar collector and enthusiast who wants the latest model to improve his playing and inspire him but doesn’t want to sink down $2500. These guitars sell between $400-$900 and are actually worth about $150.

 They are usually made in the same factory as the Import Line of guitars with the left over unusable wood from the Import Line of guitars. However any quality hardware or pickups has been replaced with the cheapest possible materials that the company can get away with. Remember that the profit percentages for the Artist and the company remain the same. The only way to increase profit while bringing down costs is to decrease the expense of the materials.

At this point in the game the buyer is no longer under the illusion that they are getting a Signature Guitar, at least they shouldn’t be. But the buyer has every reason to believe that they are getting a good guitar and they usually are not. I know this because these are the main guitars that show up in my shop to get “fixed”.

 Now don’t get me wrong, I get paid well to fix the problems with these guitars but I am so disappointed in my industry for misleading guitar enthusiasts this way.  The guitar is an object of passion and desire. People want to play to express themselves and to let the instrument and the music take them someplace they have never been. How many people learning to play the guitar or trying to improve their playing are misled into believing that they are the problem when actually it’s their guitar that won’t stay in tune or has been intonated and set-up improperly?


After the Economy Model /Student Edition of the guitar is made comes the Combo Pack.  This is a convenient little package that offers Mommy and Daddy everything they need to get little junior to stop bugging them for a guitar while spending as little money as possible. It’s a nice little bundle of a guitar and amp combo complete with strap, pick, gig bag and a cable all tucked into one neat little cardboard box that can be neatly wrapped and stuck under a Christmas Tree.

These usually sell for about $199 and are worth about as much as a bundle of firewood, sometimes less. Although to be fair, in recent years Guitar Center has started to offer the Laguna Guitar Combo Pack with a Line 6 Spider IV amp for about $399 and it is actually a decent beginner guitar and a great practice amp but so far that is the only exception in this category.



So there you have it the complete business model for every major guitar manufacturer that is out there. The trail from the top of the line Artist model down to the entry level Combo Pack.  A financial journey from $4000 down to $199.  All aimed at some way of getting a portion of your money. Insert any Artist and any guitar company into this format and see for yourself

Keep in mind that this scheme is still around because it works. For the most part everybody is happy.

The Artist gets his own Signature Guitar and he gets paid for his brand.  (By the way the Artist is not at fault here. He has earned the right to market his brand.)

 The consumer has the option of saving their money to buy the Artist Series or saving a few bucks and buying the Import Version (which I have done several times).

The Beginner/Student has the option of getting a guitar like their hero for a minimal investment in case things don’t work out like they plan.

And finally Mommy, Daddy and Grandma have the option of buying little junior a complete guitar package for Christmas in the hopes that somehow they’ve spawned another Edward Van Halen.

Although a lot of crappy guitars were made in this process, no one was hurt, no laws were broken and if it weren’t for these crappy guitars I wouldn’t be in business. For the most part everyone is satisfied. Well not quite everyone.

 There is that small percentage of player that wants more from a guitar. These players admire the Artist listed above but don’t want to be limited by them. They have played all the guitars available and while they can respect them they are not satisfied by them. Sometimes these players know exactly what they want sometimes they only know what they don’t want. These are the kind of players who will scour the internet looking for new options in guitar builders. These are the kind of players who will read entire blogs that can relate to their dissatisfaction. These are the players my guitars are aimed at and these are they players I build for.

After years of doing set-up and repair work on these types of guitars I started doing builds from scratch and I realized that it is easier to fix a problem before it becomes a problem. It was much easier to build a guitar correctly than to take it all apart and fix it later. This eventually led to my own original design templates and the concept of creating totally custom guitars.

My Signature Series Guitars are my own original concepts on the best way to improve the modern and classic guitars of today. My Custom Guitar Series is 100% totally customized to the uniqueness of the player. From the woods to the shape to the hardware and the contour of the neck everything can be dialed into the exact details of the player.  This is where my passion is and this is what makes Pasquale Custom Guitars better.

Contact Pasquale USA Custom

Phone: 312-912-7533

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