A Gig Ready Rig For Less Than Five Hundred Quid – Can It Be Done?

One of my students is about to make the leap from “bedroom” guitarist to gigging musician. The only problem is that his gear isn’t really up to the task. He’s playing a Squier Bullet Strat, plugged into a 15W Line 6 Spider amp. In this week’s lesson he asked me what equipment I would recommend he invest in. His budget is £500 for a guitar, amp and all the necessary pedals. He’s playing in a pop/rock covers band doing material by the likes of Oasis, The 1975, Kings Of Leon, The Kinks and Green Day, so he needs a good range of clean & moderately overdriven sounds with all the usual chorus, delay & reverb effects at his disposal.

Can you actually buy an entire rig, including all the necessary pedals, capable of handling semi-pro gigs, for this kind of money? Well, let’s find out…

Firstly we’ll look at the guitar. Having cut his teeth on an S-type instrument, it would seem natural to go with something that feels familiar. Obviously, with a total budget of only £500, for the whole set up, getting something with the word “Fender” written on the headstock just isn’t an option. How about a step up the Squier ladder then?

Well, the next logical step from the Bullet Strat would be the Affinity Strat. Trouble is, these aren’t really that much better than what he already has. A good guitar in the Squier range would be the Squier Standard Stratocaster… it sports decent hardware, including a set of three alnico magnet single coil pickups. This is something to watch out for, by the way: Alnico magnets are generally more desirable than their cheaper ceramic equivalents due to their warmer, sweeter sound. Ceramic magnet pickups tend to sound harsh & brittle by comparison. One of the conundrums of Fender’s pricing structure is the fact that £240 will buy you a Squier Standard Strat with alnico units, but pay £507 for a “genuine” Fender Standard Stratocaster (what used to be called the “Made In Mexico” model), and you get the inferior ceramic pickups… just goes to show that you DON’T always get what you pay for.

squier-std-strat

The Squier Standard Stratocaster

Anyway… £240 will buy you a great little S-type guitar with decent pickups and a pretty good fit & finish. Let’s have a look at the amp side of the equation…

If you’re going to be playing pub gigs where nothing is mic’d up, you’re going to be relying on your amp’s output to do all the heavy lifting in terms of volume. A high end valve amp of 30W or so would fit the bill (the venerable Vox AC30 springs to mind). But the thing is whilst a valve amp of this output would do the job, the cost would be prohibitive and as the old saying goes “valve watts ARE louder”. Or put another way, for whatever reason, a solid state amp never seems to be as loud as it’s valve counterpart for the same stated output. As many a gigging guitarist will attest, a 30W solid state (transistor) combo is unlikely to be heard over the top of an enthusiastic rock drummer at gig volumes. I’d say you’d need 50W at the very least if you’re looking at gigging a solid state amp.

Given that the guy in question already uses a Line 6 amp, and is happy with the sounds he gets, it would make sense to look at something a little more powerful from the Spider range. As luck would have it, there is a 60W version of the amp he already uses. It also has all of the effects he’d need already built in, so no need for pedals, patch leads & a power supply to drive them all. There is a catch though… the price.

A 60W Line 6 Spider amp costs £280. And that’s WITHOUT the floor controller needed to switch sounds (essential for live work). The cheapest such unit would be the FVB2 which costs about another £30. This unit will only allow you to switch between four different sounds on the amp, but still, that should be enough:

  • A clean sound with a bit of chorus, reverb & delay for general accompaniment.
  • A crunchy mild overdrive sound with a bit of delay for power chords & bluesy lead work.
  • A big fat lead sound for those “rock god” moments.
  • That “special” sound with unusual effects like octave shift, trippy delays or auto-wah that you only need for one song. Every band has one of these songs in their set… unless you’re U2 where EVERY song fits this description.
line-6-spider-v-60

The Line 6 Spider V60

Still, we’re over budget, though, so we’re going to need to re-visit the guitar side of the rig to see if there’s any money to be saved.

I have recently become a convert to Harley Benton guitars, owning an excellent LP-style instrument by them, and a dreadnought style acoustic. Both of these guitars were ridiculously low in price & are proper, full-on, excellent, pro-standard instruments. Let’s have a look at their S-type guitars then…

We’re in luck: according to Thomann’s website, you can buy a Harley Benton ST-62 MN SB Vintage Series S-type guitar for £100 (I told you they were great value, didn’t I?) It has a basswood body (perfectly fine – many boutique guitar builders favour this timber for it’s balanced tonal characteristics); a Canadian maple neck & (drum roll, please…) Wilkinson ALNICO MAGNET pickups! Even if you have to factor in the price of a set-up, that still gives you a stonking good guitar for around £150-£160. If my experience with Harley Benton guitars is anything to go by though, it’ll be pretty much perfectly set-up out of the box, anyway.

hb-s-type

Harley Benton S-type

I think we’re about there… we have the guitar; we have the amp; we have the effects (built into the amp) and we have the foot controller. Let’s have a look at what we’ve spent:

Harley Benton ST-62 MN SB Vintage Series:

Line 6 Spider V60:

Line 6 FBV2 Foot Controller:

5.6m Whirlwind Guitar Cable:

Total:

£100-07

£281-00

£29-00

£22.99

 

£433-06

There’s even enough in the budget for a gig bag (if he didn’t already have one) or a bit of a set-up for the guitar (if it needs one). And there you have it… a giggable rig for less than £500.

Until next time…

Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):

satellite-lp

It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…

esp-ltd-h-101fm-2016-spec-dbs-349218

Or this…

nighthawk

All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:

hondo-rainbow

This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:

wooliestop20

My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…

kay-lp-fx

Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Smart Phones

A break from the music stuff this time with some observations on the world of technology…

There was a story on the news recently which reported that 66% of people in the UK now own a smart phone. This is an increase from 39% back in 2012. A statistic like this would have us all believe that the Android, iPhone, Blackberry or Windows mobile phone is now an essential part of everyday life… or is it?

My situation is that it makes sense for me to be on a contract with my mobile. The inclusive minutes & texts save me money compared to if I were on pay-as-you-go. However, I do not need a smart phone, and I can’t believe I’m that unusual in this respect. Never the less, walk into any mobile phone shop and try getting a “basic” phone – one which is primarily built for calls & SMS messages – on a pay monthly contract, and you’ll see the problem. This kind of phone just isn’t readily available any more.

How many more people are out there, like me, who don’t need the extra functionality of a smart phone but are forced into owning one because that’s all that’s easily available? Think for a moment if this were the case with any other electrical appliance… say, coffee makers.

Despite being an Englishman to my core, I have no real love for our national drink, tea. Coffee is my favoured beverage & my requirements in a coffee maker are very simple… I just need strong, black filter coffee. I have no need for a machine which can produce cappuccino, frappaccino, mocha, triple-shot skinny Americano or flat white (whatever that is). But if I could only buy a coffee maker which did all this additional stuff, I would be part of the statistics which “prove” we were all becoming addicted to these metropolitan poseur brews. If I’m going to be that trendy, I might as well buy some skinny jeans, start wearing Brylcreem, stop wearing socks & grow a Grizzly Adams beard whilst I’m at it.

And this is how it is with the near ubiquitous smart phone. The lack of an alternative forces many of us into owning a phone which doubles up as a laptop, a telly, a stereo & a Kindle. I don’t need my phone to do any of these things on the grounds that I already own a laptop, a telly, a stereo & a Kindle.

Ah…” I hear you say “But you can’t take your laptop with you when you go out, can you? What about your email?”

Well… that’s true. But in my life, (and I suspect many other people’s), there is no email that is so urgent that it can’t wait until I get back from walking the dog or visiting the supermarket. OK, I work from home & can check my email pretty much any time I want and I realise that this doesn’t apply to everyone. But the point remains, does it really enrich your life to have your phone constantly bonging away to say that Argos have a sale on, or that eBay & Amazon have recommendations for you? How many of the emails which interrupt what you’re doing every day, as they land in your pocket, really need immediate attention?

And if it is an important email – presumably something formal which requires a response, how easy is it to type this kind of correspondence on a keyboard the size of a Rizla packet, often with sunlight obliterating your view of the screen? You see my point? Time & again, I would end up giving up on typing with my thumbs as I walked down the street, preferring instead to wait until I got home when I could compose my message on a “real” computer.

As for being able to watch “content” (as we’re supposed to call television programmes these days) when I’m not sat in front of my telly… Well, I have to tell you that most of the time when I am sat in front of the old gogglebox, I don’t even want to watch it then. Literally hundreds of channels of nothing but repeats, airhead-infested reality TV, the latest cop show/teenage vampires/Tolkien-esque fantasy “box set” we’re all supposed to be in raptures over & a plethora of cooking shows. I’d rather read a book or put some music on to be honest. So I don’t feel impoverished by having to leave the telly behind when I leave the house.

Social media? I don’t use it any more. I used to be all over Facebook & Twitter. At the time, I bought into the idea that it was a great way to drum up new custom. It wasn’t. I even got expert mentoring in using social media for marketing purposes under a government scheme set up to help sole traders like me. So it wasn’t as if I was blundering around making a hash of it – I was doing it right, and the results demonstrated this: I was getting likes, shares & followers. But in over a year of plugging away at it, it didn’t generate a single new paying customer. Not so much as an extra brass farthing in the till… nowt! Added to this was the fact that I just didn’t enjoy it – logging in was just another tiresome admin task to be carried out several times a day. Time I could have been spending with my guitar. Time & effort expended for zero gain. I closed all my accounts.

Then we come to the reliability issue – a mobile phone’s primary task is to be a reliable phone connection, right? Well my various smart phones had other ideas. Apart from the issue of a battery which would go flat if it wasn’t charged twice a day, they thought they were penny-arcade machines.

Here’s what I mean… again & again, after hours of silence, I would get a text message telling me I had numerous new voicemails. Even when I could see 5 bars of a full signal, whatever phone I had at the time would routinely dump calls into voicemail. Why? Often because it was busy performing updates to pre-installed apps that I didn’t use and was not allowed to remove. These were invariably games… “Angry Bejewelled Bubble Pet Candy Witch Farm Birds Saga” and the like. These updated versions of Space Invaders & Asteroids were apparently more important to my phone than letting me know that customers were trying to get in touch to book lessons with me. I actually lost work due to this!

Nowadays my SIM card resides in a reconditioned, second hand, Nokia talk & text phone, bought for pennies on eBay. When I finally gave up on my last smart phone in favour of this “dumb” phone, people looked at me as if I’d traded in an iPod for a wind-up gramophone. But I have a battery life measured in days (not hours), I never miss a call due to my phone being too busy to actually be a telephone, and direct sunlight doesn’t stop me being able to see the keypad I’m trying to dial on. Nor does my phone insist on “correcting” my text messages – Samsung used to think I live in a town called “Reducer” as opposed to “Redcar”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a gadget something which is supposed to make life easier?

And there you have it… my reasons for not being one of the 66% of the population who “need” a smart phone. Or maybe it’s “the 66% who own one because the bloke in the phone shop convinced them they needed one, because that’s all they sell.”

As Mark Twain once said “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

Until next time, have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist