From The Epiphone Custom Shop to The PRS S2 with USA Pickups, What's Going on in the Mid-Priced Gear Market?

From The Epiphone Custom Shop to The PRS S2 with USA Pickups, What's Going on in the Mid-Priced Gear Market?

For years, Fender was the only one of the big 3 guitar companies in the world that offered a very close version of the real thing in the mid-price market. Indeed, what we know today as Fender’s made-in-Mexico Player line is every bit a Fender guitar as its USA-made bigger sisters.

Well, the competition in the mid-price market is fierce because every penny counts when it comes to the cost/features balance.

PRS and Gibson decided to end the ruling of the Player series delivering a competitive version of their mid-priced guitars.

The three giants are fighting for a single spot, but who will win the pole position? And, more importantly, why are we, the players, the overall winners of the race?
Read on and find out!

Some Numbers from 2023

Reverb is one of the biggest online stores for musical instruments in the world. Moreover, it’s not only a platform that sells brand-new items but also used ones and rarities.

Well, this retail giant has published the final numbers of the best-selling gear in 2023. Let’s break down the information into the numbers we need to see.

• The best-selling guitars in the overall ranking (new and used) is the PRS SE Silver Sky followed closely by the Fender Player Stratocaster and Telecaster. In the fourth position, we find the Fender American Professional II Stratocaster, and the fifth and sixth positions are occupied by Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘60s and ‘50s guitars.

• The best-selling brand-new guitar ranking is topped by the PRS SE Silver Sky. The following positions are filled by 4 Fender models and another PRS SE before you reach Gibson in the 8th and 9th places.

• The best-selling guitar in the used guitars ranking for 2023 was the Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘60s. It was followed by the Fender Player Stratocaster and the PRS SE Silver Sky.

Data source: Reverb

The Gibson Problem

What’s the problem Gibson faces that’s evident with the information above? Their flagship guitar, the Les Paul, is too expensive for the average player’s budget. This might explain why it comes 1st in the used market but 8th in the new guitar market.

The guitar is the one that players want but the price tag scares them away.

But that’s not all, because there are two more things to say about this ranking. Firstly, the used guitar market represents zero income for the manufacturer. Secondly, the competition is beating Gibson with mid-priced guitars made in overseas facilities.

In this scenario, it’s safe to say Gibson is missing a big part of the guitar market today.

The Epiphone Custom Shop Formula

Gibson tried for decades to offer stripped-down, affordable versions of their flagship instruments (the unornamented Studio line, for example). They also tried making them under the Epiphone brand building the guitars in China.

Well, none of those formulas worked so far because consumers want the real deal at a price they can afford.

What Gibson did to fill the gap and solve the problem was to create a guitar line that could compete with the PRS SE and Fender Player Series while retaining the Gibson Mojo. In other words, overhauling the pricier section of the Epiphone catalog, bringing it closer to the real deal modifying even the headstock to make it close to Gibson’s historical open-book shape.

In this vein, Gibson announced the inclusion of 14 new guitars in their Custom Shop lineup. These are guitars that cover all the Gibson Classics and bring you, for example, the Holy Grail (AKA ’59 Les Paul) at a fraction of the price a Gibson costs.

Guitars announced include ES-335, 3-pickup SG custom, Firebirds, and more.

PRS, Overhauling the S2 Series and Discounting the SE Series

But Gibson isn’t the only company trying to outdo the rest in the tight and utterly competitive mid-price guitar niche. On the contrary, they’ve taken two initiatives that proved to be fruitful for Paul’s company.

The first one is that, as announced by Reverb in their 2023 ranking, PRS discounted the entire SE line by 20%. This translated into a big push in sales.

The second one is that the company updated the electronics and pickups in their S2 series of made-in-USA guitars to be the same as their core series.

In case you’re not familiar with the PRS line, it all starts with the Asian-made SE series (comparable to Epiphone and Squier). Then follow the S2 guitars made in Maryland which cost half of what the Core Series (the real deal) costs.

So, in other words, PRS invested in overhauling their mid-price series of guitars (S2) rather than their more affordable alternative (SE).

Fender, The Player Series Formula

Fender guitars have an advantage over Gibsons and PRS; they’re cheaper to manufacture. Indeed, the production cost of a Stratocaster is very different from that of a Les Paul or a Custom 24. There’s no mahogany or expensive maple tops involved.

That said, Fender opened their Ensenada facilities in Mexico in 1987. This means they have been working on improving the quality of their mid-priced instruments for decades. Furthermore, the Squier series went from Mexico to Japan to China and Indonesia making room for the Player Series to emerge from Mexico.

What’s the difference between the PRS SE and Epiphone guitars with Fender Mexico? That Fender’s version is as close to the real thing as it gets outside the US. Epiphones and PRS SE guitars fail to recreate the real deal in your hands.

For example, they use veneers instead of real maple tops and alternative woods with no bindings and look like a stripped-down version of the real deal.

The Bottom End, this is The Best Moment for Buyers

Now that we’ve come this far, it’s time to address why all these numbers and models’ mumbo jumbo are relevant to you, fellow guitar player. Well, because while the big companies keep fighting for that tight spot in this competitive niche, we receive better guitars.

Yes, all efforts made by these companies to compete with each other have us, the players, as the winners in the race. In other words, it’s the best time to pick up your mid-priced guitar from any of these giants because they’ve been overhauled and improved to outdo the competition.

There’s never been a better moment for that S2 or Epiphone to finally be in your hands.

Happy (mid-priced guitar) playing!

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