Guitaronomics: Have Guitars Become More Expensive Over Time?

“$1,300 for a new Strat?! I bought mine for $150 at a pawn shop in 1965. Wish I would’ve kept it.”

Ah, yes. The common refrain of American baby boomers repeated in guitar shops and online forums everywhere. At face value, this ubiquitous lament makes the answer to our question seem obvious: Of course guitars have become more expensive over time.

Yes, the raw numbers on the price tags have gone up. But that doesn’t take into account inflation and the shifting buying power of the U.S. dollar. So let’s investigate a more precise question: As household incomes and the economy have shifted over time, have guitars become more financially out of reach?

Like so many answers to really general questions, it’s complicated. After many hours of pricelist scouring and number crunching, here are some concrete takeaways.

Entry-Level Guitars Are More Affordable Today

Our recent article on the true cost of producing a T-style guitar pulled back the curtain on why guitar prices vary by country of manufacture and the labor and marketing involved. Say what you want about producing guitars abroad, but it has significantly brought down consumer prices for solid, playable electric guitars. Working teenagers and parents looking for that first two-pickup, solid-body electric guitar can get a new Squier Affinity Telecaster for under $200.

In 1960, one of the most popular and affordable entry-level, two-pickup solid-body electric guitars was the Silvertone Stratotone, aka the Harmony H-46. At the time, it cost $54.95 brand new without a case. In 2016 buying power, determined using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online inflation calculator, that would be $442.07, more than double what some entry-level electric guitars cost today.

Granted, it was made in the United States. At the time, China was in the midst of Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward. It would be decades before modern Plek machines would help Chinese workers crank out low-cost guitar bodies and necks.

The simple math is clear, though. You can buy a decent entry-level electric guitar today for half of what it would cost you in 1960.”

The simple math is clear, though. You can buy a decent entry-level electric guitar today for half of what it would cost you in 1960. Swap in modern boutique pickups and U.S.-made wiring, and it would still be more affordable than buying a Harmony H-46 in 1960.

High-volume, overseas production has lowered prices for budget and mid-level models over the decades. So what happened to the prices of iconic American guitars?

The Gibson Les Paul and ES-335 Are More Expensive Today

The Gibson Les Paul may not be older than the Fender Telecaster, but its production history is certainly more interesting. Whereas the Tele has been in near-continuous production for 65 years with the same fundamental design, the Les Paul has gone through several major design changes, a multi-year stop in production, and significant model creep.

In 1952, there was simply the Gibson Les Paul. No Custom, no Junior, no Special, no Studio or Traditional. If we want to track how the MSRP of the Gibson Les Paul has changed over time, we need to track a single germ line within the Les Paul family.

Here’s the lineage tracked in the graph below: the Les Paul model from 1952 to 1963, including the body change in 1961, the reissues in 1968 and 1969, the Les Paul Deluxe from 1970 to 1975, the Les Paul Standard from 1976 to 2007, the Les Paul Traditional, which maintained the same features, from 2008 to 2013, and again the Les Paul Standard from 2014 to the present. Whether this is truly the “standard” lineage is a debate for another article.

This is an incomplete data set due to the relative scarcity of easily accessible price lists from the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s enough to paint a clear picture. Adjusted for inflation, the core Gibson Les Paul model has become substantially more expensive over time.

Some readers may see this and immediately shake their fists at Gibson for raising prices. If this is you, consider the dozens of fantastic Epiphone, Tribute and Studio models produced by Gibson that are way more affordable today than anything players could have dreamed to get from the company in the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s. Let’s not forget the main headline here: electric guitars in general are more accessible today. Gibson has had a big hand in making that happen.

Other readers may instead get mad at me for making an unfair apples-to-oranges comparison. And they would be right. The production landscape has changed. Demand has changed. Through 1986, the core Les Paul model was the most affordable way to get two humbuckers in that beautiful, classic body (from Gibson at least). That’s not true anymore.

Once the Gibson Les Paul Studio and Epiphone Les Paul models entered the market, the Les Paul Standard occupied a different strata in the company’s lineup. When a product or brand starts to take on a perceived premium status or exclusive authenticity (i.e. “I’ll only buy a real Les Paul”), companies start exploring the durability of that demand by raising prices. Things got even more complicated with the introduction of the Classic, Tribute and Traditional models.

In the same way the Honda Civic crept from its scrappy 1973 debut as an entry-level subcompact, a spot now occupied by the Honda Fit, to something more akin to what the Honda Accord used to be, the original Gibson Les Paul has crept from being the only solid-body electric guitar Gibson made to a prestige model sitting several thousand-dollar rungs above the spot it used to occupy in the lineup.

Pick any industry with branded products. A model becomes successful and gains a following. It begins to drive the brand’s reputation. A budget model takes its spot while it becomes more luxurious and expensive. People continue to pay for it because they like it.

The same thing happened with the Gibson ES-335. When the Epiphone Dot, Sheraton II, Gibson ES-335 Studio, the short-lived Gibson ES-333 and later Faded models entered the mix, the Memphis-made ES-335 began to occupy a more prestigious spot in the lineup. Keep in mind that you can get a mint condition ES-335 from the early 2010s for about what a new one cost in 1958. The scale of increase here isn’t as much because the 335 family tree hasn’t diversified as much as that of the Les Paul.

The Fender Telecaster Is (Slightly) More Affordable Today

The Tele has been around even longer than the original Les Paul, so it would be reasonable to expect the same “premium-izing” and price inflation. However, the price of an American-made Telecaster has come down over the decades.

The graph below tracks inflation-adjusted MSRP of the solid-body, made-in-U.S.A. Fender Telecaster with a standard finish and single coil pickups through 1985, including the early Broadcaster and Nocaster years, and the American Standard (or American Series) Telecaster from 1988 to present.

Why doesn’t the Telecaster show the same model inflation that occurred with the Les Paul? Part of the reason is that as models diversified within the Fender lineup, they all occurred at higher price points than the original Telecaster. The Bigsby option, the Custom, Deluxe and Thinline were all more expensive versions of the Tele. Most of the diversification within Gibson occurred below the standard Les Paul (think Special, Junior, SG, Les Paul Recording).

The simple plank of wood with two single coil pickups remained Fender’s base-level full-size electric guitar through the 1980s, when Squier and later made-in-Mexico models started offering more affordable options.

The trend towards greater affordability would be even more drastic if we tracked the MSRP of the lowest priced made-in-U.S.A. Telecaster over time, including the Highway 1 and current American Special ($999 MSRP) models. Even with a made-in-U.S.A. model available for $200 less, the current American Standard Telecaster is more affordable today than ever before.

The Fender Stratocaster Is Much More Affordable Today

The Stratocaster originally debuted as a step up from the Telecaster, a distinction that Fender intentionally maintained via pricing for decades. In 1956, a Tele had an MSRP of $1,746.59 (in today’s dollars), while a Strat carried a $2,403.21 price tag.

It wasn’t really until the 1990s that the price tags of Teles and Strats started to converge. Younger players began to see them as fraternal twins, two different takes on the same solid-body, single coil Fender paradigm. In 1954, though, the Stratocaster was a spaceship, a wildly more advanced guitar with new technology (synchronized tremolo bridge).

Legions of derivative models from Kramer, Jackson and Ibanez (among others) have since shifted the Stratocaster’s design from groundbreaking to universal, a conceptual shorthand conjured whenever the words “electric guitar” are uttered.

Increased competition drives prices down. It’s no surprise, then, that we see the MSRPs of made-in-U.S.A. Stratocasters decrease even more dramatically over time than they do for Telecasters.

Again, this tracks the base level made-in-U.S.A. Stratocaster with a standard finish, rosewood fingerboard and tremolo bridge from 1954 to 1985, and the American Standard (and Series) Stratocaster with those same specs from 1988 to present.

Like the Telecaster, there has been a Highway 1 and American Special Stratocaster offered since the early 2000s, calling into question what the base Stratocaster model truly is. If they were included here, the trend towards affordability would be even stronger.

The Martin D-28 Has Doubled In Price

The continuity that runs throughout the C.F. Martin company — from its family leadership to its single unbroken line of serial numbers to its nearly uninterrupted production of core models — makes it tempting to think that scale and consistency would bring down prices as they did with the Stratocaster and Telecaster. Not so.

This is the most complete data set of any included in this article, and the trend is undeniable. The MSRP of the Martin D-28 sharply increased from 1950 through the late 1970s before leveling off somewhat after 1980. Did the cost of American labor really spike that much?

There is a plateau from 1963 to 1971 before prices took off again. Could the switch from Brazilian to Indian rosewood in 1969 have affected production cost and thus MSRP?

Did the “death of the guitar” in the synth-soaked ‘80s curb price increases? Did the introduction of Sigma and Shenandoah models in the ‘80s produce a similar model creep for the D-28?

More than likely there’s another explanation…

Culture And History Have Changed The Guitar Market

Guitars themselves haven’t changed that much since the 1950s. The place certain guitars occupy within American culture, however, has changed immensely.

Imagine it’s 1958.

There are only a handful of solid-body electric guitar models available, and all of them are brimming with new technology: tremolo bridges, Seth Lover’s humbuckers, new single coils, incredibly feedback-resistant bodies. The guitarists you see playing these new instruments grew up playing flattop or archtop acoustics. It’s an exciting time. Some players are quick to explore new sonic territory. Others dismiss the electric boom as a fad.

There is no older generation with fond memories of attending concerts or seeing TV shows with their favorite players wielding iconic axes. Rock is still an embryonic form of music. There are no films, books or magazines lionizing the history of certain guitar models. Retirees with disposable income are not buying electric guitars and turning old bedrooms into music rooms.

Feelings about the new models tend either towards heady excitement or cautious skepticism — not sentimentality and nostalgia. Manufacturers are not producing icons yet. They are simply experimenting and trying to establish themselves in a new ballgame.

Now bring yourself back to 2016.

“Too expensive” is a blurry line when the dream guitar of your youth is finally within reach and the only thing stopping you is principle.”

Decades of recordings, concerts, media coverage and advertising campaigns have created cult followings around certain guitar models. Millions of teenagers from the ‘60s are now in their sixties. Most could not afford a Les Paul or D-28 in their youth, but now many of them have more money. Much more money. “Too expensive” is a blurry line when the dream guitar of your youth is finally within reach and the only thing stopping you is principle.

At the same time, electric guitar sales have stagnated. Increasingly segmented fan bases fostered by streaming services like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music have replaced the radio-and-MTV-fueled rock oligarchies that propelled certain players and guitar models to legendary status. It’s unclear who the torchbearers of guitar-centric platinum records are, and the candidates for that title play models made by companies that don’t exist anymore (here’s looking at you, Jack White and Dan Auerbach).

Nonetheless, there’s a bloom of boutique guitar offerings, both at the high end (Fano, Kauer, Koll,Relish, Nash, Bilt, Knaggs, etc.) and low end (Michael Kelly, Eastwood) of price ranges. Modern scanning and manufacturing techniques make it possible to build nearly anything a customer wants. As some have argued, it’s the golden age of guitar building.

Now imagine you’re an executive in charge of one of the biggest and oldest guitar companies.

You have the entire cultural legacy of your most popular models to leverage. Many loyal customers demand that you change nothing about them. Others cry out for reform. There’s as much tempting opportunity as uncertainty. On the other hand, there’s also a haunting suspicion that demand for your oldest models may nosedive in twenty years.

What do you do?