Somewhat north-east of Java lies Korea, new-found source of fine electric guitars. Our crack investigation team pays a visit
So you think your guitar was made in Japan ? Chances are, you're wrong. Eastern instrument manufacturers are moving off mainland Japan to cut costs. Tony Bacon and Jerry Uwins find out where the new factories are, why they moved, and what's made there.
MOST OF the popular electric guitars sold in Britain today are made in Korea or Taiwan. They also happen to be among the cheapest guitars around.
So when you gaze at the guitars on show in your local music shop, you are — perhaps without realising it — witnessing strong evidence of the burgeoning importance of Korea and Taiwan as major guitar producers. In fact, it's quite possible that you already play one of their instruments. Perhaps you wondered how they made such a good guitar for the price?
It didn't happen overnight.
Oriental guitars have been with us since the 1950s. But it wasn't until the early to mid 1970s that eastern makers made an impact on the UK guitar market, when "Japanese Copies" of famous American guitars like the Gibson Les Paul began to appear in large numbers. The Jap copies' major disadvantage was their questionable quality; their advantage was that, compared to the instruments they were copying, they were extremely cheap.
Some of the brand names from this period have disappeared with the passing of time: Shaftesbury, Avon, and Jedson, for example. Others are still with us, though these days in greatly improved guise, such as Yamaha, Aria and Ibanez.
Japanese instruments were inexpensive to begin with because they were made from cheap materials, assembled by low-paid workers, and exported with the advantage of favourable foreign exchange rates.
Gradually, as the Japanese companies became more skilled at guitar making and began to move away from copying and into original-design instruments, their production costs began to increase. However, and lucidly for the Japanese, at the dawn of the 1980s the US dollar ($) soared in value against the pound (£), thus making Gibsons, Fenders and the like exorbitantly expensive in the UK.
For the next few years, Japanese-built instruments dominated the market and these makers intelligently reinvested their profits to give them the lead in design, electronics and manufacturing processes — even if many of the results resembled the Fender Stratocaster, which at the time was enjoying renewed popularity.
Then things began to go wrong for the Japs, largely due to a huge hike in the value of the yen. For instance, in the last four or five years, and purely in terms of exchange rates, the cost of importing a Japanese guitar into the UK has increased by some 50%. And that's ignoring inflation, which has hit Japan as much as any other industrialised nation.
As a consequence of this, it was logical that the Japanese should look elsewhere for economical sources of production. They didn't have to look far: Korea is around 100 miles from the southern tip of Japan, and Taiwan some 500 miles further south (about the same distance as Inverness to London, carefully ignoring the East China Sea).
Both these countries offer the cheap production facilities that Japan itself enjoyed back in the 1970s. There are significant differences, too: for example, humidity is the biggest problem to overcome for guitar factory designers in Taiwan, and Yamaha have claimed that their new Kaoshiung plant has the most sophisticated humidity control system in the country. Korea, on the other hand, began industrialisation later than Taiwan. Judging by the predominance of Korean-sourced brands, we suspect the Koreans are providing Japanese companies and other guitar importers with an even better deal.
In moving to these new off-shore sites, the traditional Japanese companies ran the risk of compromising their existing reputations for quality by losing direct control over production. So they've made great efforts to achieve reasonable quality standards in these Korean and Taiwanese factories, sometimes by installing their own management and engineering teams, or at the least by providing technical guidance and by insisting on acceptable levels of quality control.
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