“$500 for a new Fender Strat? I bought mine new for $100 in college!”
For readers now introducing their children to the beauty of guitars, the cost of entry-level models might surprise you. A quick Google search turns up thousands of results from forums and blog posts lamenting price rises.
But have guitars really become more expensive over time? Yes, the numbers on the price tags have increased, as they’ve also done on almost all other consumer goods. The same is (probably) true of our salaries. Inflation, the rate at which the general level of prices for goods and services, can easily be overlooked as the comparative time calculations become harder to perform.
In this post, I’ll put on my economist hat (brushing the dust off it first) to identify if guitars really are getting more expensive. As you’ll already know from our price database of over 10,000 guitar models, the amount of model variations has skyrocketed (there have been almost 500 Gibson Les Paul variations since 1952).
Given this, for all the calculations in this post I’ve tried to include like-for-like models when analysing prices. I admit the calculations are not 100% accurate due to missing price data and slight model variations, but they are pretty close.
Gibson Les Paul Standard
One of the most sought-after Gibson models that has held its sex appeal for over 60 years, the Les Paul Standard, has increased in price by 75% in real terms from $2000 - $3500. Ouch!
It is important to note the change in price is, in large part, due to the way Gibson has marketed the Les Paul in its lineup. The production landscape has changed. Demand has changed. Until 1986, the Les Paul Standard was the most affordable way to get two humbuckers in that beautiful, classic body (from Gibson at least). That’s not true anymore.
As Gibson increased their offerings, specifically the Les Paul Studio and Epiphone Les Paul models, the Standard was elevated as a more prestigious position in the company’s offerings where it was once a great entry level option.
Some good news, used Les Paul Standard models between 2000 - 2010 can be bought for 1950’s prices (around $2000).
Like the Les Paul Standard, the Gibson ES-335 has become more prestigious over time as cheaper models like the Gibson ES-335 Studio were introduced and as such has seen a significant price rise in real-terms from 1950 – by almost 100%, or $1750. If you’re willing to consider a used model, you can pick up a late 2000 ES-335 for 1980’s prices (around $3000).
Yes, you are reading the graph correctly – the Fender Telecaster has decreased by $250 in real-terms over the last 66 years!
The solid-body, made-in-USA Fender Telecaster has held its place as Fender’s base-level full-size electric guitar as more models were introduced by the company.
As demand for guitars has increased and mass-production methods have improved, Fender has been able to reduce production costs and keep the Fender Telecaster an affordable option and a particularly popular one for those just starting out.
Like the Telecaster, Fender’s Stratocaster has fallen in real-terms, costing around $1450 for standard models in 2016 compared to $2450 in the 1950’s – that’s a drop of over $1000!
Again, changes to the Stratocaster including cheaper materials and production costs have allowed Fender to reduce the cost of the guitar to consumer. Unlike Gibson, Fender have not sought a premium price-tag for most variations of the company’s most popular model.
Vintage models to avoid inflation?
As we’ve shown, especially with the two Gibson models covered, the Les Paul Standard and ES-335, buying a mint condition ten year-old guitar can alleviate the effects of inflation and manufacturer price increases.
You’ve got to be quick though! As collectors start eying up models as vintage and collectible because fewer of them exist (and even fewer exist in mint-condition) prices eventually start to rise. For example, some early versions of the models above can sell for tens-of-thousands of dollars (like a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard that can change hands from almost $500k).