A common argument on guitar forums all across the web revolves around American electric guitars. Are they really better than guitars made in other countries?
Usually there are a few soapbox standers with a favorite Squier or Epiphone that proves Asian-made guitars are superior.
The truth is that American guitars are better … but not for the reasons you might think.
American guitars like Fender and Gibson tend to have better quality control and use higher-quality components and woods than other mass-produced instruments made in countries like Mexico, Japan, Korea, China, or Indonesia. Better parts don’t make them “better” per se, but your odds of getting a great instrument straight from the factory are much higher.
I know what some of you are saying: “Gibson? Fender? Quality control? What a joke!”
Even within the “American made” label, there are so many variables that it’s not uncommon common to find expensive American guitars that pale in comparison with a cheaper Korean or Indonesian instrument.
Another point is that every guitar manufacturer has good years and bad years in terms of quality control. The bad years tend to happen when demand is really high (lots of pressure to produce guitars FAST) or when the company is struggling financially.
Adding to the confusion, many of the pricier import instruments now include the same high quality components as American guitars. Things like name-brand electronics, upgraded pickups, and premium hardware are no longer reserved for American companies.
So here are the four big areas where American guitars are more likely—but not guaranteed—to be superior.
Electric guitars made in the U.S.A. tend to use CTS potentiometers, Switchcraft output jacks and switches, and name-brand capacitors (maybe you’ve heard of Sprague Orange Drops or Mallory “mustard” capacitors).
These name-brand components are typically made with materials that are more reliable and last longer. The biggest difference that separates them from generic Chinese parts is something called “tolerance.”
Tolerance refers to how closely the component matches the intended values. It might surprise you that most 500k pots don’t measure exactly 500 kilo-Ohms. CTS pots, for instance, are available at three different tolerance levels: 10 percent, 15 percent, and 20 percent.
A 500k pot (typically found in guitars with humbucking pickups or high-output single coils) with a 20 percent tolerance could have an actual value of anywhere between 400k and 600k.
Some companies actually buy pots in bulk and sort them for tolerances as low as 5 to 7 percent.
Lower pot values allow treble frequencies to more easily pass through to the ground (outside of the audible part of the circuit). Conversely, a higher-resistance pot resists this loss of treble. That means the same guitar could sound darker or brighter depending on the tolerance of the pots.
The same is true for capacitors. Gibson guitars typically use 0.022 µf (microfarad) capacitors. Fender guitars with single-coil pickups have 0.047 µf capacitors. The bigger the number, the more treble your tone controls will roll off.
As with pots, brand name capacitors like Sprague Orange Drops, Mallory, or boutique brands like Emerson will also offer tighter tolerances. Orange Drops can have tolerances as low as 5 percent. Meanwhile, unbranded disc capacitors can be closer to 20 percent. That could mean the difference between your tone control rolling off too much or too little treble.
American guitars also tend to use Switchcraft toggle switches and output jacks. Unlike some of the unbranded switches and jacks that may only indicate their country of origin, Switchcraft parts are built to higher standards. These “better” components tend to last longer and can usually be fixed with a bit of contact cleaner.
Believe it or not, trees were never intended to become guitars. Human ingenuity is responsible for bolting strings to a piece of wood and using it to play “Stairway to Heaven.”
Some types of wood can tolerate being under constant tension. A typical set of guitar strings exerts more than 100 pounds of tension. There is a reason why hard rock maple is one of the most common woods for electric guitar necks.
All wood is not created equal. A piece of maple that is too flexible, or has a particularly figured grain pattern, can bend back and forth under tension no matter how you adjust the truss rod.
A notorious example of this fact is the Fender Geddy Lee Signature Jazz Bass, made in Japan from 1999-2014. The bass featured a thin, flat neck profile inspired by ’70s Jazz Basses. A common complaint about thse instruments centers around the maple used by Fender Japan, which frequently was not strong enough to stay straight under tension.
While non-American instruments tend to use sturdier woods, it’s still possible to get a guitar with a twisted or warped neck. American Fender basses (except for vintage reissues) use graphite rods to reinforce the already sturdy maple necks.
But we can’t forget that Gibson guitars have long had a nasty reputation for having their headstocks break off. So American guitars aren’t always the best.
This is more of a “cheap guitar” versus “expensive guitar” category. If a guitar maker wants to build a guitar that looks good and doesn’t cost a lot, the hardware is one of the first places they cut corners.
American guitars usually come with high quality hardware. The bridges are solid with plenty of room for adjustment. The tuning keys are stable. The frets aren’t dented after a few months of playing. The nut is made of bone or synthetic bone.
One of the first thing many players will do when they get an import guitar is to change the hardware (and possibly the electronics). They take an affordable guitar and put hundreds of dollars worth of parts into it.
Back in 2021, there was an article about Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford favoring Squier Bullet Stratocasters. Rutherford’s guitar tech, Steve Prior, said he makes the guitars “more reliable” for touring by changing the bridge, saddles, and tuning keys. Prior said he also recuts the nuts, dresses the frets, and replaces the electronics with CTS and Switchcraft parts.
An American guitar would already have most of those upgrades. Mike Rutherford’s guitar tech probably does better fret and nut work than a production line American Fender would have. Which leads us to the final reason American guitars tend to be better.
Finally, we come to craftsmanship. High-quality electronics, woods and hardware don’t matter a whole lot if they are poorly configured.
Frets with high spots. Razor-sharp fret ends. Nut slots that are too tight or too loose around the strings. Bad neck geometry that makes it impossible to set the action at a reasonable level. Any of these things can relegate an otherwise good guitar to the “bad” pile.
This is the area where quality control gets dicey, even for American guitars.
Changes in humidity and temperature can cause “fret sprout,” where the neck wood dries out enough to let the fret ends poke out. This can happen regardless of price or how stellar the fretwork is.
Sometimes, however, it’s obvious the fret ends were never properly dressed. The ends are rough. The fret surface is scratchy instead of mirror polished. The nut has gouges or isn’t shaped right.
Most American guitars have decent nut and fret work. Not perfect, but decent. A quality retailer can often catch the duds before they end up in the hands of an unsuspecting buyer.
American guitars also tend to have decent factory setups. Maybe not the best setup, but good enough that you could grab any guitar in a shop and it would be playable.
Again, there are always exceptions.
I’ve owned a lot of different guitars. And I’ve played hundreds if not thousands of others. Some have been American. Others have been Korean, Japanese, Mexican, or assembled from a multinational mish-mash of parts.
All guitar manufacturers try to sell their instruments at certain price points that will maximize sales and profit. That can mean cutting corners in places where customers might not even notice. Slightly cheaper pots. Slightly cheaper pickups. Lower-grade woods.
Saving a few dollars on each guitar may seem trivial, but multiply those savings over a couple hundred thousand—perhaps millions—of instruments. It starts to add up fast.
You might ask, “Why not just raise the price a few dollars?” Because these companies know what prices they can sell a guitar for and stay competitive.
You can always upgrade hardware and electronics if you don’t like them (or if they break). A skilled tech can fix a bad setup. Upgrading wood is not so easy, especially with a set-neck guitar.
Unless you’re indifferent about wood stability or you want a particular combination of custom hardware and electronics, it might be worth considering an American-made instrument.