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

Portraits, A New Album by The John Robson Jazz Project

 

A few years ago I decided it was time to explore some new musical territory, both as a listener and as a player. You can read the back story leading to this decision here. One of the new courses I set out on was a journey into the world of that much maligned genre, jazz.

Having cut my teeth as a musician playing blues, it wasn’t a great stretch to adapt to the requirements of this new style of playing. I leaned a few jazz standards, and even recorded some of these tunes. It didn’t scratch the itch properly, though, until I’d written something in this vein. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was half way through a set of tunes which looked like they could just be a complete album. Here, then, is the story of that album as I recorded it track by track:

 

This is the tune which kicked it all off. As is often the case with my music, the chord progression came first. When it came to the melody, I wanted something which sounded “warm” and “welcoming”. I improvised a few different ideas over a rough version of the chord progression, and amalgamated the best parts into the finished melody you hear. Throw in a few key changes as the tune progresses and it was finished in under a day. The title is a dedication to my wife, Jackie, who has been through a lot in recent years. This tune is my way of thanking her for everything and letting her know I love her more than ever.

 

One of the artists I discovered when I first got curious about jazz was Kenny Burrell. His 1963 album “Midnight Blue” is utterly superb, and well worth checking out. When I started this album I knew I had to include something “Burrell-esque”, so I did what I often do when I want to write a tune reminiscent of another piece… purposefully not listen to the reference material (in this case the title track of Midnight Blue) for a good few weeks. This ensures that I have only a sketchy memory to work from, and (hopefully) prevents me plagiarising. As it turns out, my memory was sketchier than I thought, as my tune is considerably slower in tempo than Kenny’s. Still, I’m happy enough with the end product.

 

This was just an experiment. I’d never played anything remotely “Latin” in flavour before, and wanted to see if I could pull it off. I did some research on how this kind of music worked, rhythmically, and came up with the drum pattern you hear at the start of the track. From there, it was just a collection on blues ideas (fans of Freddie King may recognise the 16 bar verse chord sequence I “borrowed” from “The Stumble”) and a melody based, once again, on improvising my way around the notes present in the chords. The title is a reference to Palace FM, a radio station I used to work at & have many happy memories of.

 

Every Friday morning I set out to do the weeks grocery shopping. This involves a walk through town along a main thoroughfare called West Dyke Road. This particular Friday I was just finishing the final mix to Palace Mambo, and as I headed out to the supermarket I was contemplating what sort of tune would I’d be doing next. A car drove past with the windows open and music playing. I only caught a couple of bars of whatever song was being played, but the melody (or that part of it that I heard, anyway) stuck in my head and I developed it, mentally as I walked along. I even used the voice recorder on my phone to record myself humming a basic outline. As soon as I got home I listened to what I’d got & tried my best to find the melody I had in me head with my fingers on the guitar. The resulting tune is what you hear. One of the few occasions where the melody came before I had a chord sequence.

 

I don’t know if I succeeded with this, but my aim here was to do something in the vein of John Coltrane, especially when he would play a beautiful, lyrical ballad. As I set about recording this, I was thinking about tunes like “Naima”, “I’m Old Fashioned”, and “Blue Train”. Wonderful, heart-wrenching melodic playing which transcends any genre classification in my book. This is my humble attempt to tap into that same rich seam of melodic jazz.

 

One of my favourite George Benson albums is his 1966 work “The George Benson Cookbook”. For me, his playing has never surpassed what he did on this album. It was this whole collection of tunes I had in mind when I set about writing this tune. Again, I purposefully didn’t listen to anything from this record while working on the tune. I wanted to create something reminiscent of what George did without copying him in any way. Musically the tune is basically a 12 bar blues with a few twists and turns.

 

I wanted a tune with a big riff at the beginning. My inspirations were tunes like Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song” and Art Blakey’s “Moanin’”. I also wanted something up-tempo which wasn’t just another walking bass-line swing tune. Hence the funky feel on this one. Plenty of dominant 7th chord bluesiness here too – see if you can spot the little Chuck Berry reference in the solo. The final addition to this were the tubular bells in the chorus section. I tried piano, Hammond organ & a string section, but nothing I tried gave it the “lift” I felt it needed when coming out of the verse. I don’t know what made me think of tubular bells… actually, I had been listening to a lot of Mike Oldfield so maybe that sparked something in my sub-conscious. Whatever the reason, I added them to the mix & it worked (to my mind, any way) perfectly.

 

Again, a chord sequence that had been knocking around in my head for many a year. I tried doing this as a chord-melody piece, much like Tal Farlow or Joe Pass, but it became apparent that my guitar skills in this style weren’t anywhere near either of those two giants. I then tried a rhythm guitar plus lead guitar part, which was closer to what I wanted, I knew I didn’t want a “full band” track here, so I scrubbed the accompaniment guitar part and replaced it with a piano. After a few tweaks, including giving the piano a solo of it’s own, the track was complete.

 

All of the tunes up to this point had been driven to some extent by a chord progression, and here I wanted to do something more modal. I suppose the best example of a tune in this vein is Miles Davis’s “So What”. I also wanted a looser feel on this with much more improvisation and an overall feel of a band jamming on a groove. Most of the solos on this track are first takes, which inevitably makes me wish I’d done “this bit differently” or “if only I’d played that part a bit cleaner”, but overall, I’m happy with the sense of spontaneity.

 

So there you have it, a track by track run down of my new album “Portraits”. If you like the tracks you’ve heard, the album is available from my Bandcamp page.

 

Thanks for listening & until next time, have fun 🙂

The John Robson Jazz Project

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