Cheap cheap cheap.

The phrase redwingCheap Chinese made , harken back to the 50’s when Japanese  goods were the scorn and ridicule of the American market. Made in Japan was a running joke with stamped metal toys.  Now it’s cheap Pakistani made, before that it was cheap Korean made. It’s easy to be derisive of these products that come from abroad but let’s look at the perception of quality: Nobody complains about their cheap Chinese made Ipod, or their cheap Chinese made Iphone. Comes from Apple , must be above reproach isn’t that right? Nokia / Erikson phones, sounds Nordic doesn’t it? made in China. Cheap Japanese radios?  Sony changed that didn’t they?

Quite frankly I get pretty annoyed when I hear how people say that we should boycott Chinese goods because Chinese made goods are cheap and poorly made. They used to say the same about Japanese Goods until Honda and Toyota ate the Big3’s  lunch.  Of course then it became unAmerican to buy Japanese , because it undermined the US auto workers. So is it patriotic to buy shitty American cars like the fabled AMC  Pacer and Gremlin?  I don’t know about you , but I actually had a chance to drive a Pacer. It was something, it looked like a Jetsons space car and drove like a slug on amphetamines.  Maybe it could’ve made Ralph Nader’s  love to hate list but Ford got that  honor with  the exploding gas tank Pinto another hallmark of American innovation.  But speaking of cheap cars of that era, there was also the Datsun B210 Honey Bee, a Japanese  import that was the cheapest of the cheap. It was cheap, it looked like the worst limitation of a Detroit muscle car with its oversize black racing stripe, but it actually drove quite well and got very good gas mileage.  It wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t a BMW, it wasn’t sexy , it couldn’t pull 0 to 60 in  7 seconds , It didn’t have carpetting,  armrests,  moldings,  reclining seats but it got you there in reasonable comfort , at 39 mile per gallon.

All of the above brings me back to an on going  Early Guitars NING discussion about the Thomann Baroque Guitar.  Cheap, cheap, cheap, it seems to be the favorite perjorative for the early music message board crowd.The subject was the Thomann Baroque guitar ; see http://earlyguitar.ning.com/forum/topics/thomann-baroque-guitar-uk . For those of you who don’t know; this is a Baroque guitar offered up by Thomann at about $700. You can find these on Ebay and various Web offerings. It has the same lineage as the famous Paki Lutes.

The readers reaction to Rob McKillop’s video were varied: I found it interesting that some readers decried that it was a job killer for luthiers, inferring that the low price would drive shopmakers out of business.  A second series of remarks questioned whether it was ethical to buy such a thing because no one could possibly make such an instrument at such a low price without exploiting the workers in terms of wages and hours and possibly child labor (  inferring that such things happen in Southeastern countries and Asia) .  A few said it’s a lousy cheap instrument a waste of resources and money ;save your money and buy a real baroque guitar. And rest said it cheap, it may not be the cat’s meow but will do .

The first point: It’s a job killer . Maybe,  if you’re in the business of making inexpensive baroque guitars. Honestly, how many people know the difference between a baroque guitar and a Fender guitar?  How many people really, really ,really want a baroque guitar?  Very few , it’s an esoteric market.  For those who make the silly things the clientele is small and a paying customer is as rare as hen’s teeth. I could make a dozen of them and list them for $799 and it would take me years to sell them.  How many people in the world have a sign or business declaration ” Just baroque Guitars ?” . A quick search on Google : none.  You can’t kill an occupation that really doesn’t exist.

A quote from the American Guitar Society from a citation about Jack Sanders and his Strad baroque guitar copy:

Baroque guitars are just becoming popular again,” he says. “Thirty years ago, it was rare to hear this music played on period instruments, and few luthiers were making the instruments. Now, it is becoming commonplace for classical guitarists to perform on vihuela and Baroque guitar, as well as 19th century Romantic guitars.”

Beg to differ Jack.  Most classical guitars stick to the classical guitar. I have yet to see a concert this year with a featured classical guitar player who would  whip out his Baroque guitar and say ” lemme play some Sanz and Corbetta  for you on the authentic Baroque guitar!”. The last person I saw do that was Michael Lorimer and that was 1975.  That was thirty five years ago. Few Luthiers , very few.

Ethical? It’s a slippery slope. You pay some one money for a product and it seems as if you were paying them a pittance.  But look at it this way: The average wage in China / India is about $5 a day. Granted $5 will buy you lunch and some change ( maybe…) in the US but in China a native lunch is probably about 75 cents ( mind you we’re not talking about going out to the Beijing MacDonald’s)  and probably even less in India. They don’t pay $1500 a month for a flat , they don’t have to pay $15 for a haircut.  Child labor? We can fool ourselves and say we only buy from makers who don’t use child labor, but in countries where destitution is rampant that’s what they do to survive. Making parts for cheap guitars and lutes is probably a lot more merciful than loading clay bricks or scavenging through dumps for a living  I don’t like it but it’s a fact of life in some countries even in the US. Think twice the next time you eat lettuce or strawberries.

Waste of resources? It’s relative to your perspective. As a waste of your personal resources ( meaning your money…) Personally I cringe when I see the thousands of guitars being made year after year and turned over as unwanted  junk. Prove it to yourself, go look at craigslist in the musical instrument listings and see how many cheap guitars are up for sale. Why do we keep buying this stuff? Because it’s cheap in our eyes and represents little economic harm to us if we decide it wasn’t the right decision. Making guitars that nobody wants is a real waste period. Thomann guitars may not be such a waste. Priced at under a thousand US dollars that’s still a lot of money certainly not $59.95 cheap. People who are economically challenged will have a realistic chance of playing a Baroque guitar without having to take a second mortgage.  From the perspective of wasting natural resources , it’s not so bad, they don’t use expensive endangered speices of lumber, it’s not decorated in Elephant Ivory, and I don’t know if the Nylo from which their strings are derived from are in any danger. Unless there’s absolutely no market for these things ,it’s  not such a terrible use of resources .  I’ve seen worse waste: Brazilian Rosewood guitars made by amatuers who really weren’t skilled enough to use the material,  Solid Honduras mahogany stair framing because a silicon valley tycoon could afford it.

The latest spin is that no one in the west could make one for less than a thousand dollars.  I could debate that and I have ( see Lute NING  under ask the builders )  . But that gets back to my initial question why would anyone build such a  thing in the first place?  There’s that movie quote ( Field of Dreams)  ” build it and they will come …”  But that’s  Hollywood.

When we talk about cost and perceived  quality basically it boils down to this:  As in the car market and the beer market and everything else we percieve quality and status through pricing.  Calvin Klein jeans must be better than Kmart jeans because  they cost more . Mercedes Benz must be better than KIA , why else would it cost more?  Gibson Guitars must be better than Epiphone even though it’s the same corporation.   Why else would the most most economically challenged class of people always strive for Mercedes and Designer jeans?

To end this rant, what’s  so wrong about driving a B210?

Addendum: Shortly after I posted this , the following message board topic came up : In a nutshell  the writer says he wants to study the lute and the responses are get a cheap starter and save your money for a real one and capping it so far , Cheap to you but expensive for me nonetheless. This topic comes up about every six months on the Dartmouth site as well.

http://lutegroup.ning.com/forum/topics/hello-advice-sought-from-a?xg_source=activity

To wit : the favorite topics on any lute discussion board  are:   Why gut strings are better than fake gut strings,  Thumb in or thumb out , Why aren’t there any cheap good  lutes, how do I tie my frets, and why Sting is or isn’t good for the Early Music Movement.

3 Responses to “Cheap cheap cheap.”


  • I live in Detroit and am married to a native-born Chinese so I find myself defending China and Chinese workers all the time. I have one the Pakistani lutes. It’s really not that bad. I did work to it, but I’m left-handed. I always have to do work to any string instrument I buy. If you would have done your experiment earlier I would have bought one of your lutes (not to say I still won’t in the future). I too remember when “made in Japan” meant cheap junk. It didn’t take them long to equal, then eventually surpass American made quality. Given time, I have no doubt “made in China” will be the same thing. Then, China like Japan will be too expensive and American CEO’s will close up shop and look to another developing nation to build factories and eliminate Chinese jobs!
    I think when certain kinds of people spend a lot of money on something, especially something as esoteric as a lute or Baroque guitar, they want bragging rights. There are admittedly not a lot of genuine would-be lutenists who, like me, are just financially challenged and want to play these instruments, but have to keep the rent paid and food on the table first, but we do exist. It blows my mind that you offered these “Chinese-made” lutes and people thought they were too cheap to be any good. Unbelievable!

  • People buy things for different reasons. Psychologists have studied this for years. Part of the buying experience is the lure of the “hunt”. The anticipation and expectation make for the the buying experience. Another part of buying things is that the things that we buy become a manifestation of being part of us , hence if you buy cheap and supposedly inferior goods that becomes an extension of your persona. When I was much younger and the classical guitar craze was in full bloom people would buy all manner of expensive guitars on name and pricing. Sad to say a lot of mediocre expensive guitars were made and sold in those days.

  • Well put article,Mel.There is a huge bias against the Mid East lutes.One guy in Italy,who’s name I won’t give said that no one would go far with a $600 lute and would reluctant to suggest a lute for under $2000.Huh? I really wonder if these people in the
    lute community have ever been poor?

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