Who made your guitar? OEM Guitar Makers

Do you know who made your guitar? It’s easy to tell, right? Just look at the name on the headstock. Maybe it says Epiphone or Fender. But does that mean your guitar was made in the “Epiphone” or “Fender” factory? Actually, it doesn’t.

There’s a fairly long history of one company making a line of guitars with someone else’s name on the guitar. A famous example is the original Dreadnought guitar made for the Oliver Ditson Company but made by the C.F. Martin & Company. In the language of manufacturing, Martin was an OEM provider of the Dreadnought guitar to Ditson. OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer.

OEM Guitar Makers history (approximately to 1950s – 1960s)

Silvertone Guitar / Amp Case - OEM DanelectroWhen I was a teen, Sears and Wards, the two largest mail order department stores, were famous for their inexpensive Silvertone and Airline guitars. Silvertone and Airline were the house brands for musical instruments from Sears and Wards. There was no Silvertone guitar company making guitars for Sears. Sears had OEM arrangements with other companies to supply the instruments. Those companies, at different times, included Danelectro, National, Harmony, Kay and Teisco. Airline guitars were made for Wards by Valco.

Kay Barney Kessel ProThe other way to look at OEM guitar companies from the past is who these companies made guitars for. For example, according to Wikipedia, Kay not only made Kay guitars but made Silvertone guitars for Sears, Airline guitars for Wards, Old Kraftsman guitars for Spiegel (another mail order catalog company), Custom Kraft for St. Louis Music, Truetone for Western Auto and Penncrest for J.C. Penney.

It should be clear that all of these OEM arrangements were about mass producing guitars that would be widely distributed through a variety of channels. There were not luthier made quality instruments for professionals. But it met a need for beginners to find affordable instruments.

The East and West in OEM Guitars – through the present

American companies began making their own designs overseas after Japanese companies started flooding the American market with low cost guitars. They either made wild and crazy designs or near perfect copies of American guitars which led to some lawsuits. Now American guitar companies make fine, low cost lines of guitars overseas and their better professional guitars here in the USA. Examples are Fender American and Custom guitars (USA) and Squire and less expensive standard Fender models. Gibson uses Epiphone as it’s overseas brand of less expensive instruments.

During my life we have entered a new golden era of guitar making with probably more small independent luthiers creating quality instruments than at any time in the past. But at the same time, we are in another period of OEM guitar making where guitars with well known names are made overseas by any of an increasing number of guitar builders. The quality of these OEM guitars is in general much higher than in the past.

OEM Quality

Overseas OEM guitar makers are capable of making excellent quality guitars. But because many big guitar companies are using these OEM makers as a source for lower cost instruments – sometimes with the same basic designs as the high end, made in the USA guitars from the same company – you can expect some differences in the OEM versions of the guitars. The woods are often more abundant, lower cost and less common. Thus you may see nato necks instead of mahogany and Sapele instead of mahogany for backs and sides. You may see Ovangkol instead of rosewood. The finish is more likely to be Urethane instead of Nitrocellulose Lacquer. The hardware is less likely to be top of the line.

It should be noted that not all OEM agreements are the same. In some instances the guitar bodies may be made overseas then shipped to the USA where they are finished and hardware added.

Who and Where

You may have heard of some of these overseas OEM’s. Samick and Peerless are two of the companies who eventually released guitars under their own names after making guitars for Epiphone and others.

Epiphone has had their guitars built at a number of factories in several countries. Here are the country and factory codes for Epiphone OEMs 1 .

I = Saein
U = Unsung
S = Samick
P or R = Peerless
K or MR = Korea

DW = DaeWon
EA or EE = Gibson/QingDao
MC = Muse
SJ = SaeJung
Z = Zaozhuang Saehan
BW = China

No letter or F = FujiGen
J or T = Terada

Czech Republic
B = Bohêmia Musico-Delicia

SI = Samick Indonesia

Susan Tedeschi playing D'Angelico guitar (XasDSC05194)Many of the old names in guitars have been resurrected by companies that have purchased the rights to the name and re-issues classic guitar designs. These are built by OEM companies such as those above, to the specifications provided by this new virtual company. Stromberg and D’Angelico jazz guitars both have done this. So has Harmony, Danelectro and Washburn. The Silvertone name is now owned by Samick who started as an OEM and now makes guitars under the Silvertone name.

So who makes your guitar? I can use the codes above to determine that my Epiphone Casino was made in Korea at the Peerless factory. But sometimes it’s difficult to tell. If you own a guitar that cost under a thousand dollars from an American company or from some overseas companies such as Ibanez, chances are it is an OEM instrument made at a factory that doesn’t have the same name as that on your guitar.

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  1. taken from Wikipedia

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