By Fred Badlissi
With a cigarette in one hand, Tao Lei navigated a playlist on his laptop with the other. Sporting black jeans and a T-shirt with the logo of the Finnish metal band HIM, the 20-something shop owner sat surrounded by guitars in his 9 by 15 foot slice of Beijing’s Xinjieko musical instrument district.
Many of his guitars – some 60 percent of Tao’s inventory – are Chinese-made, representing the growth of the country’s guitar output. Today, China’s 118 manufacturers produce 20 million guitars annually, according to a speech given by manufacturer Alan Liu to the China Music Instrument Association in May 2010.
“Ten years ago, you might have found only one or two Chinese-branded guitars,” said Tao, noting that supply outweighs demand by a wide margin. The reason, he says, is authenticity. China can build the guitar body, but it’s having trouble mass-producing the soul.
Persuading the world of China’s quality is the main issue, as less expensive and often inferior guitars make up 90 percent of all Chinese guitars produced, according to Liu. And that contributes to perceptions abroad about made-in-China guitars, notes Pat Skrovan of Quincy’s Guitars in Austin, Texas.
“The Chinese have a knack for copying guitars made by quality builders in looks,” Skrovan said in an email, “but [they] do not have the expertise to build instruments that are of high quality both in structure and sound.”
Tao said he believes not all Chinese guitars are created equal. To illustrate his point, he compared a Fender Squier guitar, which is produced under the company’s license in China and sells for 900 RMB ($138), to an identical Chinese brand selling for 1,600 RMB ($247).
“Most people want the Squier name, and the cheaper price,” he said. “But the Chinese brand has better wood and built-in frets, and is a better guitar. Most consumers don’t know this, and will buy the Squier.”
As evidenced by guitar customer Chao Lu Guang, who visited Tao’s shop on a Monday to look at an American Les Paul model. Why a Les Paul, instead of a Chinese brand?
“It looks good,” Chao said, adding, “The sound quality is good, too.”