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

What’s Your Favourite “Unknown” Album?

Before I begin, let me define what I mean by “unknown”… I’m not talking about new material by an unsigned band or artist. I’m not referring to some niche-market, obscure release by a band who never made the charts either. No… by “unknown” I mean an album (or even a whole body of work) by a band who were pretty much household names at the time, but have subsequently been collectively forgotten.

This kind of thing happens all the time it seems. Not only in music, but there have been some fantastic TV shows & films which were pretty well known when they were “current” but people nowadays seem never to have heard of. Most people who were around at the time, (or even those who weren’t) recall 70s TV shows like “Blake’s 7”, “When The Boat Comes In” or “The Six Million Dollar Man”.

I would wager that most folks who gave a nod of recognition to those titles would scratch their head in a bemused fashion at the mention of “The Fantastic Journey”. No, I don’t mean that film where a bunch of scientists, including Raquel Welch, get shrunk to microscopic proportions and get sent on a mission inside the body of a cold war defector to foil an assassination attempt. That was called “Fantastic Voyage”. Nor do I mean the Disney tale about a bunch of domestic pets who cross the wilderness to be reunited with their owners – that was called “The Incredible Journey”. No, “The Fantastic Journey” was a US sci-fi series, shown on Friday evenings, getting huge prime time ratings in the UK in the mid-late 70s. Here’s the premise of the show, courtesy of Wikipedia…

“The series concerns a family and their associates who charter a boat out into the Caribbean for a scientific expedition. After an encounter in the area of the Bermuda Triangle with an unnatural green cloud the group find themselves shipwrecked on a mysterious uncharted island from which they are unable to escape.”

The point is that this was a pretty popular show at the time, getting audiences as big as many shows which are remembered to this day, but for some reason, this show dropped out of the collective consciousness.

As I said, the same thing happens with music too. The mid-late 70s (very much my era, as you may have gathered by now) was responsible for many musical trends which endured… punk, disco, the beginnings of synth-pop, the resurgence of ska to name but a few. Anyone remember the ‘50s rock ‘n roll revival from that era too? OK, so you do. Fair enough, which band was at the vanguard of that movement? I bet you’re thinking of Showaddywaddy, aren’t you? And it’s true, they were a massively popular band back then, but I bet you didn’t think of these guys…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtsvuPOh4_M 

They were huge back then & even now still play to happy doo-wop loving audiences all over the country, albeit with one or two line-up changes since those heady days. They even counted a certain Mr “Rotten”, John Lydon among their fans. However nowadays, I’d all but guarantee they’d fail to appear on any 70s compilation CD or even an entire box-set of music from that era. For some reason, they have been airbrushed out of the “official” collective memory of the 70s music scene, as defined by the nostalgia industry. As much as I love this band, they aren’t responsible for MY personal favourite “unknown” album (they were very much a singles act, anyway). No, the honour of being the huge selling album no-one has heard of (at least when I mention it) goes to… (drum roll)…

“The Snow Goose” by Camel.

See, I told you that you wouldn’t have heard have heard of it didn’t I? I won’t go through the whole Wikipedia entry here, as I’m sure you’re capable of doing so yourself if you’re interested. Suffice to say it’s a good old fashioned bit of indulgent ‘70s prog rock. An entirely instrumental rock band-meets-orchestra work based on the novella of the same name by American author Paul Gallico. It is an utterly beautiful piece of music from beginning to end (in the best prog tradition, each track morphs into the next). It attained a respectable chart position in the UK, reaching the top 20 in the album sales chart, so it’s hardly “an underground classic” qualifying for “cult status”, to coin a couple of clichés. No, this was pretty much mainstream stuff at the time. Here’s the band themselves from an Old Grey Whistle Test session playing excerpts from the album:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTVnCyDoQlQ 

The only time I’ve heard any of this album in the media recently was, of all places, on Top Gear. The Stig often listens to odd choices of music when doing fast laps in whatever supercar is being tested that week. I caught an old repeat on Dave (a UK TV channel) the other week & he was listening to a track from The Snow Goose as he blasted round the track. Jeremy Clarkson explained that The Stig was going through a “Prog Rock Phase” which would explain it. It comes to something when the only other person who seems to have heard of your favourite album is a mute anonymous, “tame racing driver”. Still, such is life, I guess. Do feel free to post your own much-loved but largely forgotten albums in the comments section. I’d love to know I’m not the only person this has happened to.

John Robson Guitar Tuition & Musicianship Coaching