Beijing Beat blog with Mark Godfrey

Beijing Beat

China's Cheap Guitars

Mar 14

Written by:
3/14/2008 4:59 PM  RssIcon

Local companies make instruments cheaply, but struggle at coming up with a decent design, sound

A phone-around of a half dozen of the hundreds of companies making musical instruments here yesterday suggests that while China may be the world's top maker of guitars and pianos it hasn't managed to come up with any decent brands of its own. Companies doing guitars here lack the tradition of the likes of Gibson and Steinway struggle going above cheapo entry level instruments for OEM clients like Wallmart. They sound awful.

Korean companies (subcontracting for Japanese clients like Yamaha) tend to dominate China's mass market musical instruments manufacturing - they make a Yamaha acoustic for US$50, compared to US$300 at a Japanese workshop. Some Chinese owned companies are getting out and going into boat making because there's not much of a domestic market and rising RMB and materials costs make exports dearer.

The domestic market is almost negligible. I did a walk-around recently of musical instrument shops in Beijing. “Guitars made in Japan, Europe and U.S have a much more pedigree temperament,” gushes Wu Ligen, a technician at the maintenance department at GAid, a guitar maintenance store sandwiched between a clothes shop and a tea vendor in Beijing’s grey-stone Gulou district.
 
Nine G-Aid employees brandish pliars, screw drivers and bottles of wood varnish as they labour over foreign and locally-made guitars. Two trainees cram around worktops to hear Wu’s expert explanation of the circuit boards on a cherry-coloured Gibson Les Paul model, cut open for the purposes of explanation.
 
“Materials and sound quality are both better in foreign-made guitars than in Chinese guitars,” professes Wu. “They’re more exquisite… and the timbre is much better, you can tell that easily by listening to a Chinese and then a Western or Japanese made guitar.” Wu learned most of his trade from foreign guitar magazines he bought online.
 
The image of cheap entry level guitars is proving hard to shift for China, which has fast become the workshop of the world’s guitar makers. Many guitar makers here have drifted into the business – unlike Western brands such as Gibson which developed guitars for and by particular accomplished musicians such as 1960s blues star Les Paul.

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