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

Music… Who Cares If It’s Cool?

A curious thing happened the other day. Well, I thought it was curious, anyway. I was having a cuppa with a mate who’d popped round for a natter & I had my mp3 player plugged into the speaker system in the living room. I had it set to random shuffle, so my entire music collection of 500 or so albums was being regurgitated in a manner which paid no heed to age, genre or artist. A little Metallica followed by some Frank Sinatra or Beethoven, then Nina Simone or Status Quo leading into Green Day… that sort of thing.

Anyway, there we were, two middle aged blokes bemoaning the state of the world (as you do), when he suddenly stopped mid-sentence. It seems that the track which had suddenly burst forth from the speakers had put him off his stroke a little. The song in question was an old Euro-pop hit from the ’70s – “Movie Star” by Harpo. “Oh my God” he said (neither of us are of the generation that would actually say “OMG”). “I remember this tune! This brings back some memories, doesn’t it?” And it’s true, it’s one of many tracks which take me back to the long hot halcyon summer days of my childhood when it never rained, there was endless fun to be had from riding a Raleigh Chopper & climbing trees and the most you had to worry about was whether to spend your pocket money on a bag of sweets or The Beano. This is why I have an entire compilation of about a hundred tunes from the mid-70s permanently loaded onto my mp3 player. Nostalgia, pure & simple… one of the joys of hitting of middle age.

What’s curious about any of that then? Well, what shocked me was his next reaction when I’d told him about my 70s compilation. “Oh, that sounds brilliant, can you do me a copy? I can listen to it when there’s no-one else around.” When I enquired about his plans to enjoy the soundtrack to his childhood with the curtains drawn & the doors locked, he told me that whilst he would get much pleasure from reminiscing along to this music, he wouldn’t want anyone to know of his “guilty pleasure” as he called it. What’s more, the way he put it was as if he thought it was obvious… “Well, you wouldn’t want anybody to catch you listening to that kind of stuff would you?

His reticence puzzled me but without making a bigger deal of this than I wanted to, I couldn’t pick at it any more. However when the She-Boss got home, I told her about the exchange & she looked at me as if I were enquiring about why someone would not want to be caught sleepwalking naked down the High Street. “Well, perhaps he’d be embarrassed.” She said. “Maybe he doesn’t want people to know that he listens to all that old stuff”. It was at that point that I realised there was an entire phenomenon that I’d managed to live nearly 50 years without knowledge of… the aforementioned “guilty pleasure” of enjoying music which would somehow embarrass you if people found out you enjoyed it. Seriously, I’ve bumbled along throughout my entire adult life blissfully unaware that music could have this effect. How many times has someone cast an eye over my music collection and had a little snigger to themselves & thought “Oh… Really? You forgot you’d left THAT one on show hadn’t you?” Has the world always been this way? Or did I blink and miss the moment when it stopped being OK to just like what you like and not worry what people thought?

Maybe I genuinely don’t give a hoot about what other folks think of my tastes, but I find it truly bizarre that a person’s taste in music should be a source of red-faced embarrassment to them. Granted, I would find it a bit odd to come across a middle aged person listening to One Dimension or some other teenybopper act – let’s face it, once you’re past 24 years of age, you’re not part of the target demographic for that kind of stuff. However, the cheesy pop that was in the hit parade (as it was called in those days) when I was a callow youth made a big impression of me and every now and then I enjoy a trip down memory lane. This does not cause me any sense of shame whatsoever. Why should it? Will the teenagers of today be mortified in twenty-five years time to be caught listening to the likes of Katy Perry? They will have all sorts of happy memories associated with this kind of music so why should they deny themselves that pleasure in years to come. Likewise, why should I feel any sense of discomfiture when I enjoy a hit of Showaddywaddy every now & then?

Perhaps the biggest chart act of my formative years was ABBA. Upon investigation (ie asking a few mates) they all admitted to loving ABBA songs when they were growing up but were a bit cagey about whether or not any ABBA songs resided on their iPods these days. Take any ABBA song apart & you will find well crafted, clever chord progressions; stunning production values; memorable hooks; rhyming schemes which manage to avoid tired cliches; and superb vocal harmonies. Why aren’t these songs judged on these merits? Especially when they may hold all sorts of happy memories for the person listening? Why is it that many people who spent their childhood in the 1970s will be uneasy at having an ABBA track blasting from their car window, and will only listen to it one headphones? It seems the answer is that ABBA, along with many other bands I love listening to (Dire Straits spring to mind) are simply not “cool” now.

I can’t imagine how complicated it must be to have to live your life by factoring the “cool” element into everything you do. I mean I know it applies to clothes (not that I take any notice), and now I learn that it applies to the music you’re “allowed” to enjoy too. Does it also come into any decision you make about what to eat? I imagine it probably does… “Oh, I love a cottage pie… but that’s SO last year, isn’t it?” There are undoubtedly people out there who think like this – if they regard their musical tastes in this manner why would they be any different with their other likes & dislikes including food, after all?

Well, stuff it. I’m not cool and I don’t try to be. I like what I like and I don’t care a tuppeny damn what the fashion police think. So there! To round off, here are the 1st ten tracks that came up when I shuffled my mp3 player & I’m not ashamed of a single one of them:

  1. Every Time You Go Away – Paul Young
  2. Patricia – Art Pepper
  3. The Beatles – Love Me Do
  4. The Feeling – Never Be Lonely
  5. The Jarrow Song – Alan Price
  6. Positively 4th Street – Bob Dylan
  7. Some Girls – Racey
  8. Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor – Beethoven
  9. Hysteria – Muse
  10. Blues To Elvin – John Coltrane

Until next time, have fun!

John

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Fish Fingers, Showaddywaddy & Crackerjack…

When I was 10 years old, my favourite meal was fish fingers with instant mashed potato covered in a well known brand of instant cheese sauce. I would usually be served this on a Friday evening whilst watching Crackerjack on the telly. If you’re not old enough to remember this programme, it was essentially a game show for kids – various rounds of games hosted by (in my era) Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, interspersed with comedy sketches featuring Peter Glaze and Don Maclean (no, not the bloke who sang American Pie). Contestants would battle it out to get to the final round where the prize was often a coveted Raleigh Chopper bike, and runners up got the legendary Crackerjack pencil as a souvenir of their appearance on the show. When I was ten, this was the best thing on TV. The only thing I loved more than Crackerjack was to see my favourite band, Showaddywaddy on Top Of The Pops.

 

By the time I was in my mid 20s, all of this had changed, Crackerjack ended in 1984, Showaddywaddy were relegated to the Butlins summer season cabaret circuit, and I’d acquired a taste for chicken jalfrezi in place of my fish fingers, mash & cheese sauce combo of the 70s. By then, the music I was into had changed too… I didn’t miss the music of my youth – Showaddywaddy weren’t around and I didn’t care. As a 25 year old I was listening to Pink Floyd, Boston, a little bit of jazz and lots of blues. My taste in TV shows was different, too… I’d developed in interest in current affairs by then so would regularly watch the news (something no normal 10 year old would ever do), and shows like Spitting Image & Auf Wiedersehen Pet would regularly be underlined in my copy of the Radio Times.

 

Recently I had my 40th birthday… and even more recently, I had my 47th. And guess what…? My taste in TV, food and music has changed again… I watch more documentaries now, eat less spicy food in favour of good old fashioned British cuisine (mince & dumplings… yes please!), and as for music, it’s all about Frank Zappa, progressive rock, cool jazz and symphonies for the most part nowadays.

 
Where am I going with all this, you ask? Well, I recently caught the end of a TV show about a well known boy-band. The lead singer was surprising one of his fans by singing at her wedding. This lady was in her mid-late 20s, and her favourite music was the same sort of adolescent pop stuff she’d listened to when she was 10 years old. Yes, I know we all have the nostalgia thing from time to time (I dip into my childhood reminiscences as much as any other middle aged old fart), but this was a grown woman whose musical tastes had not matured, or changed, since childhood!

 
It really shocked me that adults like this existed in (apparently) such large numbers. Once upon a time, parents listened to “grown up” music like (in my day) Dire Straits & Fleetwood Mac, and left the Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue stuff for their teenybopper offspring. These days you’re just as likely to be a Kylie fan at the age of 40 as you are at the age of 14. Is it not natural for our tastes in all things to alter over time? Can you imagine, for example, a grown adult who lists their favourite TV channel as CBeebies or The Cartoon Network? Or how about a 27-year-old going out for a meal to a smart restaurant and ordering Alphabetti Spaghetti because it had been their favourite meal since they were a kid? Why is the idea of someone’s musical taste being so frozen in time in exactly the same way any less discordant to us, I wonder? And what does it say for the future of music as an art form when music industry’s main source of revenue seems to be from promoting children’s entertainment to children and adults alike? Makes you think, doesn’t it?