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.

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John Robson… Guitarist

Music… What is it’s place in our culture?

Let’s get this out if the way before we go any further… I am not a sports fan. Never have been, never will be. For those of a similar persuasion to me, this summer is shaping up to be a pretty grim affair. TV schedules disrupted left right & centre to make room the FIFA World Ball Kicking Championships in Brazil, then The All England Bats & Balls Tournament at Wimbledon, and to cap it all off, The Not-Quite-The-Olympic Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

It’s not just that all the interesting TV has been shelved until the autumn, it’s not even that we could be invaded by three-headed lizard aliens from the back end of Alpha-Centauri and it would struggle to make the 10 o’clock news, lest it interrupt the sports coverage. No, it’s the all-pervading “we need to get kids involved in sport” hype that gets trotted out at every opportunity that already has me shouting at the telly.

Perhaps encouraging children to take up a sport does teach them valuable life skills. I’ll concede that just because I have no interest in something, doesn’t mean it’s without merit. What gets my blood up is the implicit suggestion that ONLY sport has the power to shape young lives in a positive way.

Every news bulletin over the next couple of months will be almost guaranteed to carry a puff-piece about some youth who turned their life around & avoided a descent into delinquency by taking up some form of competitive, sporting pastime. You literally cannot watch more than a few minutes of “news” coverage at the moment without seeing a former athlete or footballer banging on about the latest government initiative they’re involved in. Usually the aim is “to make sport more accessible to kids at a grass roots level” or “build on the current national interest in sport” or something similar. All very commendable, but it does beg the question: “What about music & the arts?”

We have the equivalent of the music Olympics in this country every year. It’s called The Glastonbury Festival. Oh, and don’t forget The Isle of Wight Festival, The Lunar Festival, The Hop Farm festival, British Summer Time, T in the Park, High Voltage, Download (or Monsters of Rock as it used to be called), and The Reading & Leeds Festivals. We also have Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, The Cambridge Folk Festival, Glyndebourne for opera fans, the BBC Prom concerts, and The Hay Literary Festival. These are just a tiny selection of the music and arts events the are happening this summer in the UK. Each of these will bring world renowned, world class, top flight musicians and performers from across the globe to our little island this, and every, summer. Seen any mention of them on the news? Nope, me neither.

Given the cultural & musical summer we have in store, why do we not see those involved being invited onto current affairs programmes or breakfast TV to talk about it all? Surely you’d expect to see musicians & creative types enthusing about how kids should be encouraged to learn an instrument or join a band, and the benefits this would bring to both them and the country. Where are the Mercury Prize winners and Grammy Award nominees who should be fronting government schemes to promote music in schools? When was the last time you saw the media track down and interview someone who coached and mentored a now famous musician when they were a novice?

All of this (and more) should be happening if we wish to produce as many world class performers and musicians for the future as the number of sports stars we aspire to have. This is to say nothing of the benefits to society we gain by showing young people we value artistic and musical creativity in the same way we value sporting prowess.

There are many valuable life skills that being a musician can teach. Being in a band taught me more about teamwork than chasing a ball around a wind-bitten school field ever did, for example. Every musician who picks up a phone to try and get gigs for his/her band is a budding entrepreneur; every song that needs to be learned in time for the next gig is an exercise in time management & self discipline; mastering that difficult passage in a solo demonstrates the value of persistence & tenacity; seeing how practice and dedication lead directly to progress and achievement is the best way I’ve found of fostering a strong work ethic. The list goes on and on, yet the creative arts are seldom, if ever, mentioned or covered in this light. Why?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that music and the arts are criminally undervalued in this country. When music, in particular, is covered at all it tends to be in the context of Saturday night TV talent shows. Let’s face it, these contests hardly have a track record for producing ground-breaking & original new talent. If all you want from your music is familiar sounding, generic, power ballad warblers & the odd catchy ditty then you are well enough catered for. If, however, you want thought-provoking, mould-breaking new music which challenges you and enriches your life then it’s pretty slim pickings.

I understand that the music business is much more “the music BUSINESS” than “the MUSIC business”, and making money from populist, mass market, lowest-common-denominator, disposable pop fodder is the order of the day. But yet again, sport seems to play by a different set of rules, as it were. The free market philosophy which keeps original, different new music relegated to the margins of our culture because it doesn’t generate massive profits, doesn’t seem to apply to those who don a football strip or running shoes instead of a guitar.

It is a well established fact that it is unusual for the host nation of any major sporting tournament to make a profit from it – many countries will find themselves still paying off the cost of hosting an Olympiad decades later. Countless top-flight football clubs make little or no profit & could not survive without large injections of cash from their billionaire, sugar-daddy owners. Success on the field may not be reflected on the balance sheet, but no-one refers to the league champions as unsuccessful because their like-for-like profits are down. Bringing home the trophies, it is generally accepted, sometimes requires a financial sponsor. When it comes to public funding, we accept that even mass-participation sports should get taxpayer subsidies. It’s regarded as a price well worth paying as a way of bolstering a sense of national pride. Yet music has to pay it’s own way to a much greater extent.

Should we not feel a sense of collective pride when a British performer gains worldwide recognition? I’m not a huge fan of James Blunt, for example, but he is a singer, songwriter and lyricist who has become an international phenomenon and look at the way he is routinely pilloried in the national press. How badly does a footballer have to behave to get the same degree of sustained vitriol directed at him from the media? Wayne Rooney can behave like a yob, but before long, all is forgiven because of his talent on the football pitch. He is even regarded as a role model in some quarters. What about a rock star who may act in a similar manner? Is Liam Gallagher anyone’s shining example to the youth of the nation, for instance? See my point?

For whatever reason, sport seems to be regarded as more important to our national identity than music, and therefore deserving of more media coverage and prestige. Once upon a time, there were two ways for any kid from the back streets to make it to the big time: sport and rock & roll. If you choose sport, over music, as your path to stardom, you’ll have far more support from those who control the purse strings and dictate the media agenda. As a musician, I find this alarming and sad in equal measure. If we don’t do something to redress the balance, music is in danger of ending up as the minority interest that some already seem to think it is.

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Which Album to Stick On?

If you’re over forty, in the “prime of life” as it were, and are into music in a big way, then I bet you any money you’ll identify with this…

About ten years ago, I found myself going through my CD rack (I wasn’t fully mp3’d up at that point) and was unable to find a single thing I wanted to listen to. Led Zep IV? Nah… Still Got the Blues? Hmmm… not what I fancy just now. How about some Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon? Well… maybe later. And so it went on. Every album I pulled off the rack just didn’t excite me at the prospect of a listen.

This happened more & more frequently and I was beginning to think I was falling out of love with music – an alarming prospect for a musician. Even when I got my first mp3 player and had the novelty factor of being able to carry a suitcase full of CDs around in my pocket on a device no larger than a bar of chocolate, the same basic problem soon resurfaced: I was bored with all the albums I owned…

I’d heard the guitar solo in Sultans of Swing too many times for Mark Knopfler’s laid back, lyrical fretwork to move me any more; the acerbic wit of Frank Zappa had lost it’s razor edge; that breathtaking long high “E” note in the middle of Parisienne Walkways, which once would have turned my knees to jelly, now left me cold; albums that I’d queued in the rain outside HMV to buy on the day they came out felt like they belonged to a part of my life that was no longer connected to me. What was I to do?

The answer was quite obvious… listen to some new stuff. There was a whole world of music out there that I’d spent my whole life ignoring. On a whim, I sent off for a cheap compilation box-set of classical music. It was a bargain price and I was curious to see if the music I’d been force fed at school, and as a result had ignored ever since, had any merit to me as an adult. The answer was yes, it did. Not all of it by any stretch, to this day I suffer from what I call a “Baroque Block” (something to do with all the overly regimented sounding twiddly bits, I think). But give me a bit of Elgar or Holst or Debussy, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like they used to when I first heard Gary Moore play The Loner all those years ago.

It wasn’t just classical music I explored. I took the same approach to jazz, and found there was a whole world of great, expressive, tuneful (yes… tuneful jazz – it does exist) music just waiting to be discovered. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley & John Coltrane are all on regular rotation on my ipod now. None of these artists would have occurred to me if it weren’t for my fatigue with the classic rock stuff I’d listened to for decades.

Thinking back to my 17yr old self, part of the joy of listening to Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple was the sense of discovery involved – “the piecing it all together”, if you like. Figuring out that Led Zep were born out of the ashes of The Yardbirds, and that Rainbow & Whitesnake were branches off the Deep Purple family tree, or that David Bowie played the sax break on Walk on the Wild Side, to say nothing of the finishing school that was John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (alumni including Eric Clapton, Peter Green & John McVie, the nucleus of Fleetwood Mac to name but a few)… it allowed me to put the music these, and other, bands/artists made into some sort of context and helped me understand it all the better. I now find myself on a similar journey of discovery… Understanding that Debussy was influenced by Javanese Gamelan music; Getting my head around the difference between a concerto & a symphony; Learning that Miles Davis & Cannonball Adderley played on each other’s albums etc. etc.

To some this may not seem relevant to whether the music is appealing or not. And to an extent I’d agree, but knowing the background to the artists, bands & composers who appeal to you can definitely help you better appreciate the music you like anyway. Plus, this kind of insight can spark that sense of curiosity to find out about even more “new” music (even stuff that’s been around for years, that you’ve never taken any notice of).

An the best bit is that I now I DO get excited about going and listening to my “old faithful” classic rock & blues again. I just needed some time away from it to discover something which provides a little contrast, that’s all. Music is a bit like food to me: For example, I love a good pizza (ham & mushroom, please). But just imagine how jaded you’d get with pizza if that was all you ate for 20+ years, steadfastly ignoring all other food stuffs on the grounds that “they’re not what I’m into”.

I now enjoy a rich and varied musical diet and I have no difficulty nowadays finding an album to stick on. I also make a point of trying to discover at least one new thing to listen to each month, be it jazz, rock, orchestral, folk, blues or anything else which defies classification.

So if you’re feeling a little out of sorts, musically, then try doing what I did. Go off on a tangent; check out that band everyone raved about years ago, but just seemed to pass you by; take a gamble on a musical genre you’ve never listened to before – even if you don’t like it, at least you’ll be able to say you’re making an INFORMED choice. I guarantee that sooner or later you’ll find something to re-ignite your musical fire. Also, you’ll find some wonderful juxtapositions every time you put your mp3 player on random shuffle: as I was typing this post I’ve been treated to Sweet Home Alabama segued with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, into Bobby Darrin’s wonderful version of Beyond the Sea which has just given way to Iron Man by Black Sabbath. Who could possibly get bored when there’s that kind of variety on offer?

 

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