“Standard” Guitars… Why Does No-One Still Play Them?

It struck me the other day that you don’t find many high profile guitarists these days who play instruments from the “standard” range in most companies catalogues. The guitars played by the great & the good these days always seem to have the phrases “Custom Shop” and/or “Signature Model” associated with them. This hasn’t always been the case & to illustrate this here is a quick, randomly chosen list of some of the most iconic guitarists in the pantheon of rock n roll and the guitars they are best known for playing…

  1. Hank Marvin: Fender Stratocaster. This was the first ever strat imported into the UK. Bought for Hank by Cliff Richard, this straight-off-the-production-line guitar defined the sound of the early Shadows hits.
  2. Francis Rossi: Fender Telecaster. Although much modified with G&L parts over the decades, Rossi’s famous green guitar (originally sunburst until it got a coat of paint in 1970) began life as a stock telecaster & was used as such during Status Quo’s ’70s heyday.
  3. Jimi Hendrix: Fender Stratocaster: Hendrix didn’t really have a single “special” guitar & certainly didn’t give Fender a list of his unique requirements. He seemed to like pretty much any strat he bought straight “off the peg”.
  4. Rory Gallagher: Fender Stratocaster. Although Fender now produce a Rory Gallagher signature model, complete with knackered finish & aged parts, Rory’s own guitar was a stock 1961 strat bought brand new, un-modified & fresh from the factory.
  5. Paul Kossoff: Gibson Les Paul Standard. This was a 1959 model – from the much lauded ’58 to ’60 period of Les Paul production. The whole “vintage” thing is very much a modern perspective though – at the time Kossoff bought the guitar, it would have been nothing more than a “second hand” Les Paul. Again, an entirely standard instrument.
  6. Chuck Berry: Gibson ES355. Chuck doesn’t seem to form any emotional attachment to his guitars. He likes the 355 model so he buys one, plays it until it’s depreciated enough in value to be written off against tax, then buys another. No special requirements, just go to the nearest Gibson dealer, take one off the rack & buy it.
  7. Angus Young: Gibson SG. Angus has had many SGs over the years & Gibson now produce a signature model based on his original one, purchased (once again) completely standard in the early days of AC/DC’s career.

I could go on further… Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Richie Blackmore, John Lennon, David Gilmour, Neil Young, Joe Walsh and Keith Richards (to name but a few) all created rock history on mass-produced guitars that were entirely stock. My point is that all of these guitarists all played, for large chunks of their careers, instruments that weren’t created especially with them in mind. It’s also arguable that these were the guitars on which these players produced their best work. So here’s a challenge for you: can you name a similar list of guitarists from the current music scene who are just as identifiable with the Fender American Standard Stratocaster, the 2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard, the PRS Custom 22, the Fender American Special Telecaster, or any other “off the peg” guitar?

It’s a struggle isn’t it? Nowadays, it almost seems that as soon as you have an album out, you get your own signature model of guitar & leave the “standard” models for the rest of us – those of us who don’t go out and buy the signature guitar associated with our favourite player, that is. And isn’t that the equivalent of buying a suit which was made to measure for someone else, anyway? And yes, I DO realise that Gibson produced the Les Paul model as a “signature” guitar for Les himself, but crucially, it wasn’t a slightly tweaked version of an existing guitar, as is the case with the current slew of artist endorsed instruments – it was a brand new innovative instrument design which advanced the industry on by a large degree. Can the same be said for a modern signature guitar where the only differences between it and a “standard” model may be a different set of pickups, an autograph on the headstock & a custom paint job?

What about the inflated prices asked for these types of guitars? Here’s an example… The David Gilmour Signature Stratocaster… I had a good play around with one of these recently and my impression is this: what you’ve got is a pretty plain looking, run of the mill strat – not a bad instrument, but nothing earth-shattering, either. It’s been given a black finish (painting over the original sunburst) which has had some faux ageing applied (this, in itself, is a pretty divisive issue, but we’ll save that debate for another time). Now add a few tweaks like a slightly shorter tremolo arm & a subtly different neck profile harking back to yesteryear, along with “custom wound” pickups (in truth, the specs of these pickups are nothing special – Alnico V magnets & a DC resistance of between 5.6Kohms to 6.3Kohms: you can easily find pickups of this type online for less than £100 for a set of three) as well as a “tele” switch allowing the bridge & neck pickups to be selected simultaneously.

Is this guitar really worth almost three times the price you’d pay for the non-modified version? Does it represent a great leap forward in guitar design? Does it guarantee you’ll sound like the Pink Floyd main man? Ultimately does it feel like you’re playing nearly three grands worth of guitar? No… on all counts. The reason Mr. Gilmour plays this guitar is because it’s HIS guitar! Bought years ago (once again) as a stock stratocaster, it’s had all the knocks & scratches that any working guitar would pick up over a few decades of use, along with the kind of modifications that many of us apply to our own guitars as our playing style evolves. It wasn’t conceived & designed from scratch as the only guitar that would fit the needs of the player whose name it bears – the fact that Gilmour didn’t play this guitar for a almost two decades, relying instead on a candy apple red strat fitted with EMG pickups, demonstrates this to a large extent.

If you purchase a DG signature strat, then the only reason I can think of for doing so is as an act of hero-worship – you’re certainly not investing your money in a genuinely superior musical instrument. You could get an equivalent guitar for a fraction of the price, which would sound pretty much identical straight out of the box. You could then (if you felt the need to) add the “tele” switch, replace the stock pickups & tremolo arm. As for the neck profile… well have you ever played an uncomfortable modern stratocaster? No, me neither – the neck profile thing is irrelevant, frankly. If you’re determined to get close to the Pink Floyd guitar sound, you don’t need to spend a huge wedge of cash on the David Gilmour strat. I might even go so far as to call it a cynical money making exercise on the part of all involved… but that’s just my opinion. Feel free to disagree, especially if you’ve actually bought one.

See you next time,

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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