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

Advertisements

An Interesting Comparison

After years of being a dyed-in-the-wool strat player, just before Christmas last year, I got a hankering for something a bit more “Gibson-y”. I’ve owned Les Pauls in the past but never really got on with them, however we all change as we grow older & suddenly my strat was starting to seem a bit “thin” sounding – even with a hot-rails in the bridge position. I wanted that rich, deep, set-neck, mahogany & humbuckers tone that only a Les Paul style guitar can deliver. Not having a fortune to spend, I trawled the net looking for a suitable LP style guitar that would fit my budget. I almost pushed the button on a Vintage V100 “Lemon Drop” guitar on eBay, but someone beat me to it.

Having read many great reviews, I settled on a Harley Benton SC450 Plus. A great LP style instrument from Thomman:

HBSC450Plus

You can watch a full review of this guitar, recorded on the day it arrived by clicking HERE

Anyway, as you can tell if you’ve watched that review, I was pretty damn impressed with the guitar. Without having a genuine Les Paul to compare it to, it gave a really good account of itself. But… there was always that nagging doubt in my mind: “Can a £120 guitar REALLY be a substitute for a REAL Les Paul?” I mean… sure, it sounds convincing & this is exactly how I remember my old Les Paul sounding, but what would happen if I put it up against “the real thing”?

Well, today I got the chance to find out. One of my students rolled up with a band new Gibson USA 2016 Les Paul Studio T. Check it out HERE

As you can see, this is a £1000 guitar. OK, so it’s not the Les Paul you want – that would be the LP Standard, complete with book-matched, figured maple top, edge binding, and about a ton & a half of street-cred. However, this is a genuine made in the USA, Gibson Les Paul, albeit the entry-level model. How does my cheap & cheerful Harley Benton £120 “knock off” measure up?

Well, at the end of the lesson, I borrowed the guitar from my student (Cheers Stuart!) and recorded a quick demo – some clean chords, a crunchy rock rhythm part, and some bluesy-rock lead with a higher gain setting. After the lesson, I recorded pretty much the same thing again on my Harley Benton. Here are those recordings just referred to as “Guitar 1” & “Guitar 2”. Just ask yourself, which guitar is the one that cost a grand & which one is the £120 copy?

Click HERE to listen. Both guitars were recorded through a VOX Tonelab ST with a “Dumble” amp model for the clean sounds & a “Soldano” model for the overdriven tones.

I received quite a bit of flak from the “Label Snobs” when I posted the initial video review of the Harley Benton… “Oh, if you ever play a REAL Les Paul, you’ll know the difference straight away…” that kind of thing. The assumption seemed to be that I am wet behind the ears & have never experienced the joy of playing a guitar as good as the one they paid a fortune for (not true, by the way  – I’ve owned two Gibson Les Paul guitars in my career). Well, as far as I’m concerned, the matter is now settled: My Harley Benton…

  • Is built from the same materials as a Gibson
  • Is finished to the same standard as a Gibson
  • Feels like a Gibson
  • Sounds like a Gibson
  • Has the adornments of Gibson’s “flagship” model (edge binding & figured maple)
  • Costs approximately 90% less than even an entry level Gibson

Looking at that list, if you still yearn for something with the “G-word” on the headstock, ask yourself why… are you interested in owning a superb musical instrument, or do you just care about the “brand attributes” & image that goes along with owning a “boutique” guitar? Me? I choose a guitar based on it’s performance as a musical instrument, not as some kind of “trophy”.

Oh… and by the way:

  • Guitar 1 = Gibson USA Les Paul Studio T
  • Guitar 2 = Harley Benton SC450 Plus

Listen again & see which (if either) you prefer.

Until next time… Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

 

 

“Standard” Guitars… Why Does No-One Still Play Them?

It struck me the other day that you don’t find many high profile guitarists these days who play instruments from the “standard” range in most companies catalogues. The guitars played by the great & the good these days always seem to have the phrases “Custom Shop” and/or “Signature Model” associated with them. This hasn’t always been the case & to illustrate this here is a quick, randomly chosen list of some of the most iconic guitarists in the pantheon of rock n roll and the guitars they are best known for playing…

  1. Hank Marvin: Fender Stratocaster. This was the first ever strat imported into the UK. Bought for Hank by Cliff Richard, this straight-off-the-production-line guitar defined the sound of the early Shadows hits.
  2. Francis Rossi: Fender Telecaster. Although much modified with G&L parts over the decades, Rossi’s famous green guitar (originally sunburst until it got a coat of paint in 1970) began life as a stock telecaster & was used as such during Status Quo’s ’70s heyday.
  3. Jimi Hendrix: Fender Stratocaster: Hendrix didn’t really have a single “special” guitar & certainly didn’t give Fender a list of his unique requirements. He seemed to like pretty much any strat he bought straight “off the peg”.
  4. Rory Gallagher: Fender Stratocaster. Although Fender now produce a Rory Gallagher signature model, complete with knackered finish & aged parts, Rory’s own guitar was a stock 1961 strat bought brand new, un-modified & fresh from the factory.
  5. Paul Kossoff: Gibson Les Paul Standard. This was a 1959 model – from the much lauded ’58 to ’60 period of Les Paul production. The whole “vintage” thing is very much a modern perspective though – at the time Kossoff bought the guitar, it would have been nothing more than a “second hand” Les Paul. Again, an entirely standard instrument.
  6. Chuck Berry: Gibson ES355. Chuck doesn’t seem to form any emotional attachment to his guitars. He likes the 355 model so he buys one, plays it until it’s depreciated enough in value to be written off against tax, then buys another. No special requirements, just go to the nearest Gibson dealer, take one off the rack & buy it.
  7. Angus Young: Gibson SG. Angus has had many SGs over the years & Gibson now produce a signature model based on his original one, purchased (once again) completely standard in the early days of AC/DC’s career.

I could go on further… Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Richie Blackmore, John Lennon, David Gilmour, Neil Young, Joe Walsh and Keith Richards (to name but a few) all created rock history on mass-produced guitars that were entirely stock. My point is that all of these guitarists all played, for large chunks of their careers, instruments that weren’t created especially with them in mind. It’s also arguable that these were the guitars on which these players produced their best work. So here’s a challenge for you: can you name a similar list of guitarists from the current music scene who are just as identifiable with the Fender American Standard Stratocaster, the 2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard, the PRS Custom 22, the Fender American Special Telecaster, or any other “off the peg” guitar?

It’s a struggle isn’t it? Nowadays, it almost seems that as soon as you have an album out, you get your own signature model of guitar & leave the “standard” models for the rest of us – those of us who don’t go out and buy the signature guitar associated with our favourite player, that is. And isn’t that the equivalent of buying a suit which was made to measure for someone else, anyway? And yes, I DO realise that Gibson produced the Les Paul model as a “signature” guitar for Les himself, but crucially, it wasn’t a slightly tweaked version of an existing guitar, as is the case with the current slew of artist endorsed instruments – it was a brand new innovative instrument design which advanced the industry on by a large degree. Can the same be said for a modern signature guitar where the only differences between it and a “standard” model may be a different set of pickups, an autograph on the headstock & a custom paint job?

What about the inflated prices asked for these types of guitars? Here’s an example… The David Gilmour Signature Stratocaster… I had a good play around with one of these recently and my impression is this: what you’ve got is a pretty plain looking, run of the mill strat – not a bad instrument, but nothing earth-shattering, either. It’s been given a black finish (painting over the original sunburst) which has had some faux ageing applied (this, in itself, is a pretty divisive issue, but we’ll save that debate for another time). Now add a few tweaks like a slightly shorter tremolo arm & a subtly different neck profile harking back to yesteryear, along with “custom wound” pickups (in truth, the specs of these pickups are nothing special – Alnico V magnets & a DC resistance of between 5.6Kohms to 6.3Kohms: you can easily find pickups of this type online for less than £100 for a set of three) as well as a “tele” switch allowing the bridge & neck pickups to be selected simultaneously.

Is this guitar really worth almost three times the price you’d pay for the non-modified version? Does it represent a great leap forward in guitar design? Does it guarantee you’ll sound like the Pink Floyd main man? Ultimately does it feel like you’re playing nearly three grands worth of guitar? No… on all counts. The reason Mr. Gilmour plays this guitar is because it’s HIS guitar! Bought years ago (once again) as a stock stratocaster, it’s had all the knocks & scratches that any working guitar would pick up over a few decades of use, along with the kind of modifications that many of us apply to our own guitars as our playing style evolves. It wasn’t conceived & designed from scratch as the only guitar that would fit the needs of the player whose name it bears – the fact that Gilmour didn’t play this guitar for a almost two decades, relying instead on a candy apple red strat fitted with EMG pickups, demonstrates this to a large extent.

If you purchase a DG signature strat, then the only reason I can think of for doing so is as an act of hero-worship – you’re certainly not investing your money in a genuinely superior musical instrument. You could get an equivalent guitar for a fraction of the price, which would sound pretty much identical straight out of the box. You could then (if you felt the need to) add the “tele” switch, replace the stock pickups & tremolo arm. As for the neck profile… well have you ever played an uncomfortable modern stratocaster? No, me neither – the neck profile thing is irrelevant, frankly. If you’re determined to get close to the Pink Floyd guitar sound, you don’t need to spend a huge wedge of cash on the David Gilmour strat. I might even go so far as to call it a cynical money making exercise on the part of all involved… but that’s just my opinion. Feel free to disagree, especially if you’ve actually bought one.

See you next time,

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

“Designer” Guitars… Does Anyone Actually Play Them?

Every now and then, I indulge myself with a bit of fantasy guitar shopping. I’m sure all guitarists have done it at some point or other… You set an imaginary budget and trawl the internet looking at the guitars you could afford if you had the wherewithal to buy them. Sooner or later you settle on the “perfect” instrument for you & start wondering just how much cash you could raise by selling a kidney.

Last week I found myself looking at some of the more exotic Gibson Les Pauls currently available. I’ve been a habitual strat player for many a year, but as I get older I’m beginning to hanker after that iconic single-cut design more & more. Whilst perusing the guitars on offer at a well known online music retailer, I came across this guitar, the Gibson Custom Shop Billy F. Gibbons Les Paul Goldtop Aged:

lespaul

This guitar costs over six and a half grand (in UK Sterling). I’m sure it is a fantastically built instrument, and the phoney wear & tear is really convincing (if you like that sort of thing). But one question keeps niggling away at me every time I look at it: Who would buy such an instrument? And Why?

Would any jobbing musician who, like me, relies on their guitar as a professional tool spend £6K+ on a guitar which lacks a pickup selector, and individual tone controls? Also, would you dare take it out and gig it? You heart would be in your mouth every time some staggering inebriate tottered toward the stage. And you can bet that if it got damaged or stolen, even if it happened when the guitar was in your home, the insurance company would raise an eyebrow or two at the claim you put in. Then the next years premium would be like being robbed all over again, in all probability.

So if this kind of guitar is unlikely to be bought by working a working musician, then you begin to realise just who it is who buys this kind of expensive trinket. I would bet that the guitar in the photo will end up either in a bank vault as an investment, or having ham-fisted open-position chords bashed out on it by some hedge-fund manager from one of the big merchant banks, his bonus burning a hole in his pocket. He always wanted to play the guitar as a teenager, but never got round to it. Now he’s indulging his mid-life crisis by buying a Harley-Davidson, getting a tattoo and learning the guitar. Even if he doesn’t master the F chord, and eventually gives up, it’ll still look pretty cool in a glass display case in his chic loft apartment in the Isle Of Dogs.

You also have to ask, where has the money been spent? How do Gibson justify this kind of asking price? In terms of supply and demand, I suppose they can say it’s worth whatever someone is prepared to pay. But the trouble is, they don’t actually say that. Any expensive guitar manufacturer will bang on at length about craftsmanship… painstaking attention to detail… only the finest timbers etc. etc. Really? Well, if we’re talking about master craftsmen building something out of the best possible raw materials, then what about a comparable piece of furniture?

A quick Google search for “handmade furniture” reveals the following: You can buy a bespoke dining room set, consisting of an oak table (yes… OAK!) and six oak chairs, hand crafted in the UK for under fifteen hundred quid. Consider the workmanship involved in…

Each chair or table leg being carved into the requisite curve by hand; each mortise and tenon join between every piece of wood being expertly executed by a skilled artisan; the sheer amount of high quality timber used; the number of hours required to sand and finish the whole thing. The list goes on & the longer it gets the more you realise that the Gibson guitar in question is one piece of mahogany for the neck, a strip of rosewood for the fingerboard, more mahogany for the body, and a maple cap to sit on top the body slab. So, nowhere near the amount of timber, and nowhere near the amount of effort involved in the build, yet it costs over four times as much & I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why. Sure, an electric guitar is more than just wood… there’s the pickups, frets & wiring too, but that isn’t going to make up the price difference, surely?

Looked at purely in the terms that Gibson (and to be fair all boutique guitar manufacturers) use – craftsmanship & quality of materials – to justify the eye-watering price tag of such instruments, you cannot escape the conclusion that such guitars are ridiculously over-priced. Especially when compared to other items manufactured using much the same skills & raw materials. But then again, who cares? These guitars, even though they undoubtedly are fine instruments capable of being used as serious professional tools, will be unlikely to ever see a stage. They will be bought mostly by collectors and rich wannabe musos more interested in buying “a genuine piece of rock ‘n roll heritage” than anyone who would actually use them as the pro-quality musical instruments they are. I find that a little bit sad, to be honest.

Anyway, back to my fantasy guitar shopping… In my quest for the ultimate single-cut, twin-humbucker, set neck, mahogany guitar, I settled on the Indie ILP523, a stunning single-cut for less than a tenth of the Gibbo asking price and just look at the review (click here). Maybe I won’t have to put a kidney on ebay, after all…

Until next time, have fun!

John

 

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project