I remember my first guitar vividly. It was a steel string acoustic made by KAY, and it was the best guitar in the whole world… because it was mine! It didn’t matter that you could cut your left hand to ribbons on the sharp fret-ends, or that you could (and I’m not joking here) fit a Bic biro between the strings and the fingerboard at the first fret! It was my guitar & I could play a D and an A7 chord on it and make a musical sound. Suddenly I was a musician: I was participating in music, not just an observer. Even when one of the machine heads snapped off meaning I had to tune it by turning the stump with a pair of pliers, it was still my most treasured possession simply because it allowed me to be what I wanted to be – a guitarist. It cost me £1.50 per week over twenty weeks from my dear old mum’s Great Universal catalogue. The year was 1978.
I then graduated to a Woolworths Top Twenty – an electric guitar that few today would believe the largest retailer in the country actually sold, it was so crudely out together. But it was mine! And I loved it! It could be made to go LOUD… and it had a tremolo arm and it was red-ish in colour (being a Hank Marvin fan, this was vital to me). The thrill of plugging it into my Amstrad TS40 stereo (or “music centre” as we called them back then), with my curly guitar lead, and playing a chord “over here” and hearing the sound come out “over there” was more exciting than anything I’d known in all my twelve years alive. In 1979, this guitar cost me £25 from the classified ads. I paid my parents back out of my Saturday-job income for the next few weeks. I was now an electric guitarist. Surely, fame and fortune were only a heartbeat away.
Christmas 1980… my first gig – playing in the school carol concert. I had to play “Once In Royal David’s City”, “Mary’s Boy Child” and various other seasonal tunes. I even had a guitar solo in one song! I was now a bona-fide guitar hero & was expecting the groupies that surely went with this new-found status. Also, the PA system that the school were using had no monitors (not that I knew what they were back then), but I knew I wanted “…one of them speakers at the front of the stage to put my foot on while I play the solo bit! – Like that bloke out of the Stray Cats.”
Sadly, the groupies from the 6th form never materialised and my stage-speaker demand was turned down – I blame my agent. I did, however, get a new guitar for the occasion. Out went the old faithful Top20, and in its place was the brand new Satellite Les Paul copy. Made of the finest bolted-together plywood and plastic that money could buy, this guitar saw me through the next few years of my guitar playing career. In 1980 it cost £80 (once again, from Great Universal Stores via my Ma).
I’ve lost count of the guitars I’ve owned since those halcyon days, but I’ve never lost the joy of picking up a piece of wood with some wires stretched over it and making music for myself, just like the people I was trying to emulate when I was twelve years old burning out the speakers in the family radiogram with Townshend-style feedback.
Nowadays, after having owned a real Les Paul or two and several Fender Stratocasters, I find myself, thanks to a load of merchant bankers (a profession which is it’s own rhyming slang), back playing budget guitars once again. My current favourite squeeze is a JHS Vintage brand strat copy which cost me £200. Coming back to the cheap end of the guitar market after soaring the giddy heights of custom-shop fayre, I’m struck by the sheer quality on offer. My £200 guitar is in the same ball park in today’s money as my old Woollies plank from ’79.
The difference is that the new breed of cheap guitars are made from the same materials, to the same kind of spec as the “proper” branded guitars they seek to copy. The plywood of yesteryear has given way to American alder, maple, rosewood & other genuine “tonewoods”. I would happily play a professional engagement with my “cheap knock-off” without a second thought… it’s a reliable, well made professional instrument. As are most of the other guitars available in the same price bracket.
I would have given my right arm (ok, maybe not quite) for an instrument of this quality back when I was playing “Mary’s Boy Child” to the assembled masses of Hustler Comprehensive (yes, that was the name of the school… “Hustler” – a school with the same name as a tits & bum magazine. Still, that was the ‘70s for you). My plywood Satellite Les Paul copy cost £80 back then, and adjusted for inflation, that works out at around £350 in today’s money. I doubt if you could even buy a plywood guitar nowadays but if you could, I doubt if it would cost well over three hundred quid. You can buy a proper guitar for that now!
It’s tempting to always look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but even with the current state of the economy, it’s hard to deny that we’re (in some ways, at least) much better off now.
As Monty Python said… “And if you told that to young people today…”
- Slash Seeks Assistance in Recovering Old Les Paul Goldtop Guitar (loudwire.com)
- Les Paul exhibit to open in Wisconsin hometown (sacbee.com)
- Charitable guitar project expands in Waukesha (nbc15.com)
- The Strat They Don’t Make (jrobsonguitar.wordpress.com)
- A Bad Case of GAS (mrmaxwellrocks.wordpress.com)