Commercially successful guitarists, like Chris Isaak, are able to play budget instruments and sound good. Classical musicians aren’t as fortunate when it comes to instrument price tags. Photo by Sheryl Louis

Chris Isaak—the pompadoured crooner of hits like “Wicked Game” and “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”—used to come into a vintage guitar store where I worked. He would look at a guitar’s price and joke, “For that much money, I don’t want to play it—I want to drive it!” These instruments were between $5,000 and $15,000. Though Isaak was still a bargain hunter, he’d achieved considerable commercial success and wasn’t what you’d call a cheapskate. But his thinking reflected that of countless players of the time.

And this was well before the incredible rise in quality control and bang-for-buck value we’ve seen in both American and imported guitars over the last decade or so. Back then you really didn’t need a guitar that cost as much as a car—and you definitely don’t now. Many great players get gigs with top acts—from Paul McCartney to Nine Inch Nails—playing quality instruments that don’t even come close to maxing-out a $5,000 credit card.

The truth is, when it comes to buying instruments, electric guitarists are spoiled—especially compared to players of many other instruments. Granted, we have to purchase at least one amp, and most of us will also use pedals or rack effects. But even if you go a little nuts at your local guitar shop and spend 10 grand on a reliable touring rig, it’s nothing compared to how much, say, a symphony orchestra harpist has to plunk down for her dream instrument.

Even if you go a little nuts at your local guitar shop and spend 10 grand on a reliable touring rig, it’s nothing compared to how much, say, a symphony orchestra harpist has to plunk
down for her dream instrument.

“I paid $25,000 for my harp in 2001. The same model purchased new today would be $37,000,” says Allegra Lilly, principal harpist for the St. Louis Symphony. “You could easily get a great concert grand for $20,000–$25,000, though I would guess that the most popular model goes for $33,000.”

Or suppose you played double bass. Freelance classical bassist Ali Cook says she paid $17k for hers. “Colleagues of mine have basses that range from $10,000 to $50,000. Once we, hopefully, win a permanent [symphonic] position, we would generally upgrade to an instrument that could cost up to $200,000.”

If you play traditional jazz guitar, you might pay as much as $30,000 for a custom instrument like a Benedetto. Yet you could just as easily gig with an Eastman, Ibanez, Godin, Epiphone, or Gretsch archtop and come in at under a grand. It’s interesting, though, that new instruments for traditional jazz players are the ones that reach into the range of those earmarked for classical players.

Classical bassists might use a double bass ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, but those playing permanently in an orchestra would likely spend more than $200k on a premier instrument. Photo by Andrew Kepert.
Are classical and jazz musicians dedicated to their craft in some deeper way than pop musicians, and thus willing to spend more money for their instrument?

Not necessarily. More likely it’s because they have no choice. A high-end jazz box has more in common with a violin than with a Telecaster. The relationship between archtops and classical instruments becomes apparent when you hear Cook describe why symphonic quality instruments are so pricey—and why orchestral players need them.

“The instruments are acoustic, so the wood used, the measurements, and even the varnish can affect the resulting sound,” she explains. “They can takes months or longer to make.” A similar construction process is used to make a hand-built archtop guitar, and explains why they too can be so costly.

More expensive instruments offer sonic advantages as well. “When you’re auditioning for one spot in an orchestra against dozens of competitors, having an instrument that projects sound half as far as the next guy’s can seriously hurt your chances,” Cook continues. “Everyone’s technique and musicality being equal, the quality of instrument has noticeable advantages.”

Jazz guitarists who use amplifiers don’t have to worry about projection, but many traditional players work with transparent amps, often at relatively low volume where the acoustic properties of the guitar are audible. But traditional jazz guitarists also resemble classical players in that they can ply their craft with a single instrument, whereas guitarists engaged in popular music usually need a variety of axes to be competitive.