Sunday, November 06, 2005

Stratocasters - Mexican-made vs. American-made

Among guitar players, there has long been the controversy of whether or not Fender Stratocasters made in Mexico, or Japan, or Korea, are as good as the ones made in the US. In fact, in some guitarist's minds, they may doubt that Strats made anywhere but in the USA qualify as a 'real' strat at all.

As a result, this has become a somewhat emotional issue for some. Let's start at the beginning and work through it methodically.

Back in the 1950's, the decade that spawned the solidbody electric guitar, the main, most popular brand names were Fender and Gibson. This was still true when I started playing in the late 1960's as well.

In the early years, Fenders and Gibsons were not unreasonably priced, and most guitarists could easily afford them. In fact, that was Leo Fender's whole idea - to have a very affordable solidbody electric guitar. Leo was not a guitar player, or an engineer. By training, he was an accountant. He had an idea for a business to build and sell guitars cheaper than the others like Gibson and undersell the competition. For him, the Telecaster and Stratocaster were all about finding ways to save money and manufacture a workable guitar for less money. The biggest innovation toward that end was a bolt-on neck. Everyone else laughed because it looked ridiculously cheap to them considering the traditional methods, but it did make it cheaper. To industry people at the time, it was like seeing a suit with sleeves attached by velcro instead of being sewn together properly.

But the Fender guitars were accepted and became popular. And over the years, demand increased, and the prices of both Gibsons and Fenders rose.
When Japanese and Korean-made guitars made their entre onto the scene, companies like Ibanez started selling exact replicas of Fender Strats, and Gibson Les Pauls, etc. for much less money - and they were actually quite good! In some cases, even better than the originals.

At one point, I sold my Gibson ES-335 Dot and replaced it with the Ibanez version. The Ibanez was less money and MUCH easier to play. (Ironically, I later sold the Ibanez and replaced THAT with the Washburn version. Although this time it was more money, it was much nicer again. That is still in my collection today, which you can see here: http://www.valserrie.com)

These imports were taking business away from Fender and Gibson, and so they needed a lower price point for their products, but if they simply lowered their prices to match the imports, then the existing owners that paid the higher prices woud be up-in-arms, and complain loudly that if Fender & Gibson could manufacture and sell them so much cheaper, then why had they been price-gouging before?

Also, Fender & Gibson did not want to lose the potential sales at the higher price point for those that would still be willing to pay it, so the solution they came up with was to manufacture their OWN cheaper versions of their own guitars in overseas factories where the labor was less expensive, and then price THOSE products to compete head-to-head with the other imports from Ibanez and the others from Japan and Korea.

So Fender opened up factories in Japan, and Mexico, and sub-contracted (outsourced) to Samick in Korea, and they sold under the name Fender (and also Squier, for a still lower price point to capture the lowest end of the market). And so did Gibson outsource their import manuacturing of many models to Samick in Korea, but they sold their less expensive models under the Epiphone name brand which they already owned.

Samick today actually manufactures most of the guitars in the world. I have read both 65% and "over 80%" of all guitars in the world, in different places. Brand names such as Ibanez, Fender, Squier, Schecter, Washburn, BC Rich, ESP, Breedlove, Ovation Celebrity, Applause, and many more, are all outsourced to, and manufactured by, Samick. However, with the growth in Korea, Samick has now moved the factory to Indonesia. And Gibson took back the Epiphone manufacturing and they opened a factory in Qingdao, China. They have some beautiful guitars coming out of that factory. And Ibanez has some amazing deals on great guitars. Now, you can get their spectacular new Art Core jazz guitars like their ES-335 model for under $300. It's incredible value for the money. And you could never manufacture guitars in the US and sell them at those prices. The Gibson Lucille, which is pretty much exactly the same thing, is usually around $2500.

But other than Epiphone, basically, all the less expensive brands, and also the less expensive models of the normally expensive brands, are all mostly made by Samick in either China or Indonesia. From a quality perspective, if you look at them fairly, without bias or prejudice, they usually make excellent products, very consistently, and at very competitive prices. They have the high-volumes required to justify purchasing the equipment that gives them the precision of laser-guided, automated machinery. You would be hard-pressed to make a better product for the same money here in the US, Canada, or in Europe. This is why they took over all the outsourcing / manufacturing business from all the other guitar manufacturers. Those manufacturers cannot do it that well for that low cost themselves.

But for Fender, they also have a factory in Mexico, and the Mexican-made strats compete for market share here in the US. Both the Mexican-made and US-made models sell side-by-side off the shelves of guitar stores across the country.
But the prices are vastly different. Typically, the standard US strat is around $800, and the US Custom Shop strat is around $1300, whereas the standard Mex strat is around $350 and the Mex custom shop models are around $550. And yet they look identical. At first glance, the only difference is the price and the tiny little "Made In..." sticker on the headstock.

So, predictably, the inevitable controversy begins. How alike are they really? Is the US version truly worth more than twice the price? What is the real difference? These are the questions that many guitarists have.

And the answers you get are largely emotional. Some will be pragmatic, but many guitarists are fiercely loyal to the concept of Fenders made in the US, because that is what they have been told and sold for decades. Some are fiercely loyal to ANY product made in the US for more patriotic reasons. Some just want to get the best value for the money. And some just honestly want to know the REAL differences, and they want to know if those differences are significant enough to warrant paying twice the price.

There are other prejudices besides brand-loyalty that come into play here as well. There are some people who feel that, somehow, American factory workers are much more likely to produce better quality products than Mexican factory workers.

Let's start our analysis there.

One thing to consider is that here in the southwestern US, pretty much all the factory jobs are staffed with Mexicans anyway. I would be VERY surprised if the Fender factory in Corona, California didn't have Mexican workers building the guitars - just like their Mexican factory. So if the same people are making the same product from the same spec in a different building, it's hard to draw a quality gap from that.

In fact, here is the actual racial breakdown of the town of Corona, California where the so-called "American" Strats are made:

White Non-Hispanic (47.0%)
Hispanic (35.7%)
Other race (17.5%)
Black (6.4%)
Two or more races (5.3%)
Filipino (2.7%)
American Indian (1.6%)
Vietnamese (1.2%)
Asian Indian (1.2%)
Other Asian (0.8%)
Korean (0.7%)
Chinese (0.7%)
(Total can be greater than 100% because Hispanics could be counted in other races)

Also, I found these facts listed for Corona:
Hispanic race population percentage significantly above state average. Median age below state average. Foreign-born population percentage above state average. Length of stay since moving in significantly below state average. ~

The logical implication here then, is that the population of Corona,California, consists to a high degree - of young, itinerant Mexicans recently from Mexico. Moreso than the state average. I found these statistics and many others here:
http://www.city-data.com/city/Corona-California.html

Corona is south of L.A. between L.A. and San Diego - close to the Mexican border. If Hispanics represent more than 35% of the mix in the town, then there is an excellent chance that they are the bulk of the workers in the manufacturing jobs. If manufacturing jobs are 10% of all jobs in the community, then it is reasonable to assume the Hispanic population probably has them pretty much taken care of. Especially if they are mostly young, recently in from Mexico, and are relatively temporary residents.

This is not a bias or a prejudice, it is a realistic, logical assumption,based on the facts, and the given trends of the southwest and the population make-up in that town. Please note that I do NOT imply that Hispanics are any better or any worse than anybody else at making guitars (or at anything else for that matter). I am merely pointing out the statistical likelihood that Hispanics are probably staffing the factories in both Mexico AND the US locations. I am using this to hopefully REMOVE considerations of different people working on the guitars in different places.

By the way, so-called "Mexican" strats are actually made in a factory inEnsenada, Baja. It is actually considered a part of the city of San Diego,though, technically, it is on the Mexican side of the river. In border towns such as these, the lines of distinction are somewhat blurred. The Fender, Mexico factory in San Diego is literally only about 96 miles from the Fender USA factory in Corona. (roughly) Hopefully that puts some of this in perspective.

For my part, among my small strat collection, I have a Mex strat and an American Strat, And a Korean strat, and a US Custom Shop strat, so I can compare in an unbiased way. In fact, I have taken all my strats apart and rebuilt them and changed parts, etc., so I know them all pretty well inside and out. In fact, I am currently building a new strat-based guitar under my own label, the Serrie StratMaster. Because of these things, I think it's fair to consider my opinion on this subject to be a reasonably informed and unbiased one then.

The Mex strat is SLIGHTLY different from an American strat, but the differences are subtle, and frankly it's not entirely clear that the American model is better - it's just a little different. If you have a clear head about it, an unemotional approach, and an unbiased opinion, you might see the few differences as merely choices rather than quality differences. For instance, on the American strats, the polyurethane/lacquer finish on the neck was usually a gloss finish. On the Mexican strat, it's a satin finish.
Have you ever bought this stuff in a hardware store? It's the same price. It's the same quality - it's just a slightly different choice for a slightly different feel. One is not better than the other. And now, the newest American Strats also have the satin finish anyway, so even that difference has been removed.
In fact, in the case of the necks (where most of the 'feel' is on a guitar), both the American and Mex necks are all made in the American factory in Corona, California. They ARE exactly the same necks made in the same place by the same people. Apparently the truss rod has a slightly different adjustment on the American model, but I haven't had to adjust a truss rod in 32 years, so the point is rendered virtually moot.

Also, the bodies themselves are all made in the Corona factory. Some are used for US production and some are shipped to the Mexican factory for finishing and assembly. The wood used is just slightly different. In Mex strats, they used to use poplar wood, but now, like the US models, they use Alder. In the US models, they use Alder or Ash, depending on whether it's standard or custom shop. In US models, if it's an Ash body, it's 2-pieces. If it's an Alder body, it's three pieces. If it's a Mexican body, it is solid Alder in several pieces, and an Alder one-piece laminate over top for finish.

All of the American and Mexican made Fender guitars start at the factory in Corona, CA. The lumber for the bodies and necks are shipped to the Corona factory where they are cut, fretted and inspected. At this time it is determined whether a guitar body will be painted a solid color or if the wood is nice enough to have a natural or transparent finish. Extremely nice pieces of wood are set aside for the Custom Shop.
The Corona factory manufactures pickups, pickguards, bridges, metal chassis for amplifiers, neck plates, metal bridge covers and metal pickup covers. The pickguards are stamped out by a machine and the bevel is added by hand with a router.

The bridge used on each model is slightly different. The Mex has the so-called "vintage"bridge from the American strats - it's the 6-screw bridge instead of the 2-screw bridge. But that's what all the older American strats that everyone loves used anyway! Well, the newer American saddle pieces look a little cooler to me, but other than that, does the difference MEAN anything in terms of sound or performance? I doubt it.
As for electronics, after 1997, the Mex strats have been using CTS Pots and a Grigsby switch - as used on U.S. models. So they use exactly the same parts. Here is a detailed comparison:
http://38.118.142.213/cgi-bin/sqwebmail?redirect=http%3A%2F%2Fallthingsguitar.com%2Fmimvsmia%2Fstrattable.htm×tamp=1105568021&md5=HRRaKIHBebDRfeDBsPALtw%3D%3D

The Bottom line:
The Mex strats are fine guitars. The only REAL material difference (besides bragging rights) as far as I'm concerned, is the fact that the American strat will probably appreciate in value over time as it becomes a vintage guitar, whereas the Mex strat may not.

I think the Mex strat starts out as an excellent value in a guitar, and becomes an even better value for someone to buy as it depreciates while aging. A perfect case to illustrate my point is my friend's Mex strat he bought from his pawn shop for $115. What a fantastic value!

Put simply, American-made guitars go up in value as they age, while guitars made elsewhere tend not to. At least that's how it has been in the past. Though that's not a guarantee that it will always be so. It's certainly not fair, but it is a function of the emotional bias of most guitarists.

In life, there will always be some forces too big to control. For these, don't try to control them. Instead, strive to understand them and then act accordingly.

11 Comments:

At 12/26/2005 9:32 AM, Blogger carlos said...

Hi I am a guitar freak, (I consider myself freak because even though I don’t play as good I enjoy collecting electric guitars)
This article helped me understand better the current discrepancies about American Strats vs. Mexis.
The only part on the article I did not fully understand was the paragraph that talks about the body (Mexis have several pieces of wood??) How that reflects on the sound? I also wish the article would have discussed more about pickups.
Over all I think this article is great, helped me a lot.
I am considering getting a Mexi strat 70’s reissue
Thanks
Carlos
csentain@yahoo.fr

 
At 3/05/2006 1:25 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Hi Carlos,
Sorry I didn't see your question earlier. I don't get notified when there is a comment on one of my articles, so it's only by accident that I might go back and see a comment like this.
But here are my comments on your questions:
As for the multiple blocks of wood and how that affects sound, most people have the assumption that a single piece of wood would transmit the sound vibrations better than several pieces glued together. But a strat already breaks this connection by having a detachable bolt-on neck. Therefore some might argue that that breaks the resonance more than the difference between having one piece of wood or several pieces tightly glued together or laminated.
Sound is made by vibrations that propagate through the material like ripples on the surface of a pond when a stone is thrown in. Any disconnect or anything that breaks the surface of the water disturbs the ripple from getting all the way to the shore. Same with wood.
The more dense and solid the wood, the more vinrations of the strings will resonate the length of the guitar, and therefore the more sustain you will get. With the maximum sustain, it will ring and sustain almost like a piano. I have a Les Paul Custom like that. It sustains forever, but it also weighs 13 lbs. The density does the trick, but you pay for it with the weight. And of course, the Gibson has a glued neck. They don't do 'bolt-ons'.

As for pickups, yes, I believe the Mex ones are different from the US-made ones. Not terribly different in quality, but slightly different in sound, I find. But frankly, the standard US ones are not great anyway. They are thin, weak, and noisy. You might want to invest in some upgraded pickups. I have used the Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups (about $150 per set of 3 including pots for volume and tone controls, caps, etc.) It's a whole electronic set for your strat. That improves both a mex strat OR a USA strat immeasurably.
I have also used Fender Lace Sensor pickups, and they are quite good too - very good for slide work especially, I find.

Fender is certainly capable of making some fine pickups, but the standard ones on the off-the-shelf guitars are not their best effort, regardless of which factory they are made in.

Yes, Carlos, I think a mex-made 70's re-issue loaded with Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups would be a terrific guitar. I love the large curvy headstock of that era. I have a US-made 1979 25th Silver Anniversary model myself.

One thing to watch out for: Some of the 70's strats had only 3 screws on a triangular back plate holding the neck on. Some people say that is not a strong enough, tight enough connection. I can't say myself since I haven't had one, but 4 screws is better if you can find it. My 1979 has 4 screws.

Good luck, Carlos!

Val

 
At 3/06/2006 8:42 PM, Anonymous Learn To Play Guitar said...

Hi there! Glad I found this place with like minded people. Doing a good job looks like.
All the best, Free Guitar Lesson

 
At 12/09/2009 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice honest info Val- Thanks!

DCW

 
At 8/08/2010 10:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mia strats have an extra fret and a fingerboard that hangs over the neck. mia strats are also weight relieved and have thinner finishes with less/no ripples. necks and string spacing is a little wider too. pickups have real pole pieces in the mia. shape of body in mia is a bit thinner and less glued together pieces. bridge is two point trem vs chrome vintage. tuning pegs also higher quality.

 
At 10/26/2010 2:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really, The fact is that the majority of these guitars made in america and all the ones outsourced are well made guitars. If you buy a cheaper guitar thats not made in america, thats perfectly fine. When you do that, you are supporting the company in terms of their market. But When you buy american made, your supporting the market and also your country economically and ethically. That's why I think people argue about a non american strat being a legitimate strat. Deal wise and sound wise, there aren't any disadvantages to buying these outsourced guitars, other than screwing over your country. And that's what fender, and many other large companies care about. They take priority of sales over the quality and meaning of their guitars. Of course Fender would never completely outsource, they still have to offer their american guitars. But really It's only the customers who wildy embrace the quality aspect of american made instruments. Personally, when I get to buying guitars when I actually have decent money, I'd go for the american made. But at the moment, there's no avoiding outsourced guitars.

 
At 12/08/2010 4:53 AM, Blogger admin said...

Great, objective, and well written article. I owned an excellent '86 Japanese strat (the years when Jap strats were probably superior), and I couldn't sell it for more than $250 (it had a humbucker too!).

That said, also just wanted to note that Bill Frisell (Jazz guitar legend) swears by his Mexican Telecaster (see post at http://guitarbites.tv/2010/11/30/top-14-influential-fender-telecaster-players/)

 
At 6/16/2011 4:48 PM, Blogger Fabian said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6/16/2011 4:54 PM, Blogger Fabian said...

This article is hilarious. It assumes people will make better or worse guitars based on their race ?!, At least that's what I understood when I got to the part where it started discussing California's demographics. No mean to offend anyone, by what a joke. What really matters is the training the worker receives. A well trained worker will kick ass no matter what race they are. This is hilarious and almost racist I would say.
I'm sure the article discusses some real differences between the mim us mia strats later on but I stopped reading there. Cheers

 
At 3/03/2012 12:47 PM, Anonymous MIM-Man said...

Fabian: the author states that SOME people try to argue that MIA strats are superior because they are made by American workers. He's simply pointing out that this argument fails because it's very likely that the US factory is staffed by Mexicans anyway.

He specifically states that it's not his assumption that US workers are superior to Mexican workers, but rather that those who try to make this argument don't even realize that the manufacturing workforce bewteen the two locations (which are only 30 miles apart) is probably more or less the same.

 
At 10/28/2014 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article says 96 miles apart, then last comment says 30! Neither are close. It's 177 miles.

 

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