What’s the Difference Between Mass-Produced & Custom-Made Instruments?

For as long as there has been music, there have been those who have built the instruments. The first people to do this might have just had a good eye for sticks, or had a talent for preparing hide in just the right way. Over the centuries, though the methods for creating instruments have changed, the job is still around.

For most of that time, instruments have been handmade, for the simple reason that there was no other way to do it. The skills were passed down through the generations, from master to apprentice, and instruments could be custom made, both in how they worked and how they looked, fairly easily. But things changed recently, at least in terms of human history; around the time of the Industrial Revolution instruments could be produced on a mass scale.

As technology has improved and the instrument building process has become more automated, more and more instruments have been produced by machines in amazingly high numbers. But with mass-produced instruments flooding the market, it’s becoming harder and harder to find hand-made and custom instruments.

Naturally, this change from hand-made to mass-produced technique has led to lengthy and continuing arguments over which is better. Of course, like most things in life, there are some important differences between the two, and both carry their own pros and cons. It all comes down to what’s best for you.

Mass-Produced

Consistency

One of the biggest advantages of mass-produced instruments is that, as the process has become better of the years, the final product has become something that can be trusted. By that I mean every instrument that comes off “the assembly line” is nearly exactly the same as the others, ensuring they are all of similarly good quality, both to the eye and the ear.

Custom making any instrument from scratch, even a simple drum, is time-consuming, and people get tired as they work, which can have an impact on the final product. The machines that mass produce instruments can’t get tired, don’t get sick, and never take vacations. What it all comes down to is consistency. Mass-produced instruments have a consistent level of quality, and can be made faster, cleaner, and for less money.

Repair-ability

Another great characteristic of mass-produced instruments is that they’re usually pretty easy to repair. That being said, any skilled instrument repair person should be able to fix most problems with any instrument, no matter how is was made. But if all the instruments made by a company are the same, all their replacement parts are interchangeable, which allows for a lot of predictability in making repairs.

There is one aspect of mass-produced instruments’ “repair-ability” where it falls flat: the finish. In order to save on costs, most mass-produced instruments feature a cheaper and easier finish. The only problem is that if this less expensive finish is damages, it cannot be repaired. In fact, the entire finish would need to be sanded off and reapplied, even to fix a small crack.

Cost

Probably the biggest advantage that mass-produced instruments have over custom made ones, especially for beginner musicians, is the simple fact that the mass-produced ones are a lot more affordable. But if you’re a beginner, why are you looking into a custom instrument anyway?

Custom-Made

Unique Artistry

Of course, if you are a little more experienced, and you know you’ll be sticking with your instrument, and want something meaningful with you, then maybe it is time to consider a custom-made one. Making music is, after all, an incredibly emotional activity, so there are some advantages to the differences a custom-made instrument brings.

One example of this is the relationship you build with your instrument maker, one that may last for years. This is a person who you can consult with, who can give you access to their years of knowledge and experience, and even help you through musical difficulties.

This sort of relationship comes from something that the makers of mass-produced instruments can’t offer: a higher level of craftsmanship, artistry, and pride in the work. Custom-made instruments might take a lot longer to make, and can be subject to the maker’s emotional and physical well-being, but these artists put all their time and effort into the construction of every single instrument. This means everything they produce is unique is some special way, and different from every other instrument of its type in the world. Each instrument is its own work of art.

Customization

It’s called “custom-made” for a reason. Similar to the fact that each custom-made instrument is a unique work of art, they are also created for your own unique needs and desires. The high level of customization with hand-made instruments means that it’s truly yours, that it doesn’t look (or maybe even sound) like anyone else’s. Custom instruments stand out from the crowd, making it easy to understand the emotional connection people make with them.

Repair-ability

Emotions aside, custom-made instruments do have a few shortfalls, and the most glaring comes from their repair-ability. As I said earlier, any skilled repair person should be able to handle most problems, but custom-instrument do have some limitations.

One is their durability. Most mass-produced instruments are designed with a little wear and tear in mind, and are built to last. They also try to take into account the different kinds of musicians and playing styles their instruments will have to stand up to – musicians don’t all treat their instrument the same, and even the environment they live or play in can have an effect on the instrument. Mass-produced instruments need to be able to handle as much as life can throw at them.

Custom-made instruments just can’t be made with the same level of durability for all players. Trying to overbuild all their instruments to be as durable as mass-produced ones would only result in basically the same instrument a factory can make, but with a much higher price tag. What that means is that depending on how you play, or who your instrument-maker is and what they recommend, you’ll likely have to be more careful with you custom-made instrument, or else it may need more costly repairs, more often, than something that was mass-produced.

Cost

The final cost of a custom-made instrument reflect its value in terms of the labour it took to build it, the materials used in the build, and the skill, knowledge, and experience of the builder. This all adds up to a higher cost than most mass-produced instruments. Think about it in these terms: a mass-produced, machine-made instrument may only take between 8 and 36 hours to complete, thanks to repetition and automation. That same factory buys its building materials in huge orders, which cuts down on costs.

However, even a basic custom-made guitar, for example, can take 200 hours or more of devoted time, effort, and skill. Clearly this will drive the cost up. And since most custom builder’s can’t buy their materials in the same kind of bulk, even that is more expensive.

But, like most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Of course, there are brands that do both. For example, Fender offers both mass-produced and custom-made guitars. But they have the skill, reputation, and business savvy to pull it off. Most brands don’t have that kind of ability.