How much difference do construction methods make to the sound of an electric guitar?

Do you remember that scene from Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” where Brian goes up to a group of people at the gladiatorial games and asks:

Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?”

If you’ve seen the film (and if not, why not?) then you’ll remember the reply…

F*%K OFF! We’re the People’s Front of Judea, mate!”

What this illustrates is that there is no difference too trivial for folks to get upset with each other about. The same is true in guitar circles. Simply Google the term “tone wood” and you will, in all likelihood, be directed to any one of dozens of sites where the debate rages… swamp ash makes the best strat bodies, and basswood sounds like crap… a Les Paul with an ebony fretboard MUST sound different from one with a rosewood board… etc. etc.

Some say that a guitar made from plywood will/will not sound totally different to one made from kiln dried Honduran mahogany, or that a coat of lacquer on a guitar does/doesn’t kill the sound (pick a side). These disagreements often happen in the most vociferous manner. Name calling ensues, forum admin get involved and people who SHOULD share a common interest (the guitar) end up making enemies of each other. How VERY sad.

Bearing all that in mind, I thought I’d join the debate. One of my favourite guitars is a cheap & cheerful Les Paul copy by Harley Benton. Now, I HAVE owned a “real” Les Paul or two in my time, so I DO have a benchmark to judge it against. This little Chinese made knock off is as good as any USA built Gibson. And I am 100% right about that! I can say this because whether ANY musical instrument sounds good or not is a matter of personal taste. Unless there is scientific evidence (and we’ll return to that point later), it all comes down to one question: Do I like the sound this guitar makes and is it comfortable to play? If the answer is “yes” then you have a good guitar on your hands, even if it’s a cheap knock-off. If the answer is “no” then you don’t… even if it cost you the same as a small car.

When you look at the construction methods employed by the “boutique” guitar makers and how they differ from the instruments made in the far east you’ll begin to see why anything with “Made In The USA” stamped on it costs so much more:

Methods Of Guitar Construction

The question is, though, does any of this make a difference to the sound? Well, in my experience, I just don’t think it does. As I say, my little £120 Harley Benton sounds (to my ears) just as “Les-Paul” like as either of my Gibsons ever did. Judge for yourself here (I’ll tell you which guitar was which at the end of this post):

http://geetarjohnny.fileburst.com/blog/LP%20comparison.mp3

This is my Harley Benton in a direct comparison with a USA Les Paul. Sure there ARE differences in the sound, but no more so than you would expect between even two “identical” guitars from the same company – certainly not the kind of difference that would suggest nearly a £1000 difference in price.

So, here’s an idea… let’s prove it one way or t’other. Here’s how it could be done:

  • Get a statistically significant group of guitarists in a big venue… say 500 or so in a theatre.

  • On the stage, behind a curtain, have a guitarist who will play the sample guitars.

  • Blindfold the guitarist and get them to play, in turn, a selection of guitars from “boutique” makers and a similar selection of “cheap knock-offs”.

  • Poll the audience of guitarists to see how many correctly identified the expensive guitars.

  • If a clear majority of the listeners (more than would be likely to do so simply by guessing) get it right, it proves the case for expensive guitars.

The reason for blindfolding the guitarist is to make this a proper “double blind” trial. If someone knows they are playing a top shelf guitar, this may influence how they play.

OK, you might say… but surely the guitarist will be able to tell by the feel. Well, yes, maybe. But in my experience even a cheap guitar (if properly set up) can play like a million dollars, so we’ll just make sure we’re using instruments that are correctly adjusted & set up for optimum performance, admittedly an area often lacking in budget guitars – so we’ll take that out of the equation.

And yes… I have seen the “Squier vs Custom Shop Fender” and “Epiphone vs Gibson” “blindfold tests” on YouTube by Rob Chapman & Lee Anderton (Chappers & The Captain). But they’re hardly conducted under proper scientific conditions & crucially, the audience (ie the viewer) can SEE what guitar is being used, which kind of makes the result null & void, to my mind.

So… here’s a challenge. Companies like Gibson & PRS easily have the resources to set up this kind of trial and settle the matter once and for all. I can’t believe I’m the first person to come up with this idea, so why hasn’t it been done? Maybe it would prove them right and me wrong… and I will have learned something. But maybe… just maybe they’re nervous that the result might not back up their marketing claims. Expensive guitars being made using expensive processes with expensive materials sound better? Prove it!

Until next time,

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

Twitter: @JrobsonGuitar

P.S. Guitar 1 = Gibson Les Paul/Guitar 2 = Harley Benton copy

Bizarro World

For those unacquainted with early 1960s DC comics, I’d better explain what Bizarro World is…

In short it is a cube shaped planed called Htrae (“Earth” spelled backwards) that featured in a series of Superman comics. In this world, everything was topsy-turvy and back to front. Beauty was despised and ugliness celebrated; stupidity was regarded as a positive attribute, and to be called intelligent was a grievous insult; creating anything deemed to be perfect was a crime. You get the picture.

Imagine if we had a similar culture here and now. What would it mean? Here are a few possible examples…

  • Katie Price would have a trophy cabinet full of literary awards for her erm… “novels”.
  • Every McDonalds “restaurant” (do they know how ironic they’re being by describing their fast food outlets with that word by the way?) would be awarded the coveted Michelin star for culinary excellence.
  • The Daily Star “newspaper” (another unintentionally ironic description) would have a string of Pulitzer Prizes to it’s name.
  • The head of Volkswagen’s diesel car division would be the recipient of a Nobel prize for outstanding contributions to combating climate change.
  • Donald Trump would be declared sane.
  • Tony Blair would be made a Middle East Peace Envoy (oh… hang on, that actually happened, didn’t it?)

All of these things, including the last one, all seem too ridiculous to be true don’t they? But we DO live in a world where things just as absurd are happening. Allow me to explain…

Out of all branches of the arts, the music industry seems to be the one most populated by critics and awards panels who, frankly, couldn’t find their own arse even if you drew them a map. Witness the recent Grammy awards. The young lady who swept the board (I’m not going to name her because she has quite enough publicity already, thank you very much) is considered by many to be a supremely talented singer/songwriter. Such is the adulation she receives you would imagine, if you’d never heard a single note of her music, that her use of chord progressions was ground-breakingly original; that her voice was the type that only came along once in a generation; that her gift for lyrical & poetic expression was on a par with Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth; that her skills as a writer of melodies set her apart from her contemporaries much like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Someone who possessed all of these attributes would, surely, deserve the critical acclaim she has received in recent times? Right? Well, it is at this point that we leave planet Earth and head directly for Bizarro World. The recordings inflicted on us by many award recipients these days (including those by the heroine of this tale) are full of the tell-tale digital artefact that is evidence of a performance which has been enhanced by pitch correction software. Can’t hit the difficult notes? Don’t worry… we can just use auto-tune to fix that & you’ll still get the Grammy (we can even do this for your “live” shows too these days). Stuck for ideas for your new song? Never mind, just use the same formula you used on the last one, churn out another big power ballad & the award can still be yours. Scared you might fluff a big, important performance, even WITH auto-tune? Fear not… It’s OK to just mime nowadays.

Let’s not ignore the phenomenon of plagiarism either. Another recent Grammy & Brit awardee was found to have directly lifted the melody from someone else’s song & had to give them a credit (and, presumably a royalty cheque) as a co-writer for the ditty which won him his gong. Was he stripped of his award? Of course not… he was considered to be “cool” and that, ladies & gentlemen, trumps everything in the music industry equivalent of planet Htrae.

What can be done? Well, how about instituting the same system as in other fields when it comes to giving out awards? Which chef gets a Michelin Star (for example) isn’t decided by ordinary punters who can simply tell if something is tasty or not; these awards are adjudicated by people who know their way around a recipe and can tell if a dish is truly original in it’s use of ingredients and preparation… as well as being scrumptious. The Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival has NEVER been won by a superhero blockbuster franchise, no matter how “cool” or commercially successful it proved to be. And you don’t award Olympic Gold to the “coolest” athlete… it goes to the person who crosses the finishing line ahead of the others. If they are found to have cheated, they have to give their medal back. Seems fair to me.

Imagine if Brits & Grammys were given out by a panel who actually looked at the sheet music for a song, and rejected those nominees who were just churning out yet another 70BPM, Aeolian Mode woeful dirge documenting a failed relationship. Imagine if musical awards were distributed on the basis of actual musical talent (can you or can’t you hit those high register notes without the sound engineer’s laptop giving your voice a leg-up?)… and not just doled out to whoever had shifted the most product that year or whose publicity machine had managed to get them the most coverage in the popular press. If that were to be the case, then these awards might actually be worth something. Now there’s a thought!

Until next time,

Have fun.

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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

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

We Live In An Age Of Magic

A good friend of mine & I were talking a while ago about the demise of the small independent record shop. It seems that from the early ’90s onwards they have been closing at an alarming rate as the record buying public were lured away, first by the big music retailing chains, then in recent years by online music sales. Most of my early record collection came from the Teesside institution that was Alan Fearnley Records in Middlesbrough. Alan finally pulled down the shutters for the last time in 2004, and it felt like the end of an era.

Shops like Alan’s were more than just the place you went to buy a copy of your favourite band’s new album. They were an essential part of a Saturday morning. The whole weekend stretched ahead of you, and what better way to start than at the record shop? A place where you knew you’d run into your mates; where you might see that girl you fancied (and what better way to impress her than make sure she saw you browsing through all the “right” records); where you could chat about music with people who were as crazy about it as you were.

Then there was the excitement of sitting on the bus on the way home with your newly purchased 12” long player, reading the sleeve notes, admiring the artwork, looking at the song titles and imagining what wonderful music they were going to reveal once you got that big, black circular vinyl treasure onto the turntable and plugged in your curly-cabled headphones. The anticipation was delicious!

Having said all of that, you might imagine that the rest of this week’s blog will consist of a misty-eyed, rose-tinted nostalgia-fest. A middle-aged man bemoaning the loss of a fondly remembered part of his youth, and it’s all the fault of progress and modernity. Not a bit of it. Bring on the brave new world of downloads, streaming, and online subscription services, I say!

Let’s pretend you could jump into a Tardis and travel back to some point in the late ’70s or early ’80s. You could meet up with your younger self and tell them how the future would shape up. You would find yourself describing a world where the music you want could be had instantly. No more waiting for the shop to order that obscure foreign import you desperately had to have; no more hoping you can find something in the racks by that new band who piqued your curiosity in an article you read; no more getting home from the record shop and discovering the album you’ve been waiting weeks to own skips when you try to play it. No… you can have it NOW, without leaving the house, and it will be superb high quality (much like those new-fangled compact discs that were just coming onto the market back then).

Next, imagine the look of wonder that would cross your young face when you tell yourself about how little this all costs. Here’s how I would describe Spotify to my 19-year-old self…

You can listen to pretty much the whole back catalogue of just about every record label in the world, and all the new releases which come out by all your favourite bands. You have what amounts to unlimited access to every piece of music ever recorded, and it’s FREE… as long as you don’t mind the occasional advert in between songs. You music collection is infinite!”

Can I tape it all and play it on my walkman when I leave the house?” is a question your young counterpart may venture.

Well, not exactly…” you’d reply. You’d then continue with…

But for £9.99 a month you can save it all to a device the size of a single cassette case and take it with you wherever you go. That’s right… for the paltry sum of a tenner every four weeks, you can have, to keep, a CD quality copy of every album you ever wanted, or ever will want and you can listen to it all anywhere you like… at home, on the bus, in the car, or even out walking the dog.”

Just think how someone from the relatively recent world of the 1990s would react to that image of the future. They would, quite rightly, be amazed and impatient for the future to arrive.

I know I will never convince the hard-core vinyl junkies out there. To some folks, the smell of the record sleeve, the ritual of handling the LP by only the edges as they reverently place it on the turntable, and the perceived warmth of the sound are a vital part of the way they appreciate music. That said, I’ve yet to come across a person of this persuasion who will agree to a blind test to see if they can actually distinguish vinyl from digital. Even if they could, I’d wager it would be the surface noise – the inherent imperfections in sound reproduction caused by the needle on the record – that would tell them they were listening to music on technology perfected in the 1950s.

For me, enjoyment of music is all about losing myself in the emotional response created by the interaction of melody, harmony, lyrics and rhythm. I want to hear the music as I would if I’d been in the studio listening while the band were performing it, without anything (like tape-hiss or the sound of a stylus in a groove) colouring it or getting in the way. The medium it is stored on, and the packaging it is sold in matter not one jot. That great visionary, Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.” When it comes to the infinite wonderland of instantaneous music we now have I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s magical.

 

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project