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

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The Power Of The Clave

The clave is a percussion instrument used widely in Latin forms of music. The rhythm it is often tasked with playing also makes a good starting point for constructing cool sounding riffs, phrases and melodies. Many great sounding lead guitar parts can be at your fingertips once you know this simple trick. To begin with you’ll need to meticulously plan the phrases you’ll be constructing using this technique, but before long you should find that you can do it on the fly, whilst improvising.

Here, then, is what is at the core of this immensely useful phrasing template. Begin by counting a two bar rhythm of quavers as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.

Next, place an emphasis on the “1” of the 1st bar, then the “&”of the “2” and on the downbeat of the “4”. Then, in the 2nd bar, emphasize the “2” and the “3”. This will give a pattern of emphasized beats, or “accents” which looks like this:

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &… and sounds like THIS.

Sounds quite “Bo Diddley” doesn’t it? For that very reason, this rhythmic pattern is often known as a “Bo Diddley beat”. Its “text-book” name, however, is the Son Clave 3-2 rhythm. For the purpose of the examples we’re going to deal with here, we’ll be concentrating on the 1st bar of the two bar sequence as this will help prevent everything you use it for sounding like a Bo Diddley song.

On to our 1st example then. This is a rock riff which could easily be developed into a song. All I’ve done here, as far as note choices go, is to spell out the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G) along the length of the 5th string, placing power chords based on these notes on all of the accented parts of the rhythm. Please refer to the TAB for more details & click HERE to hear the riff being played. If this sounds familiar, like you’ve heard it being used before, then you’d be right… this basic “template” has been used by many bands to conjure up cool sounding riffs. Now you know the secret, you can do it, too!

Rock Riff Based on 1st Bar of Son Clave 3-2 Rhythm:

rock-riff

The next example is a basic melody idea. Here, I’ve used only the accented notes for the melody – just the “1”, the “&” of the 2, and the “4”. I’ve also omitted the 2nd of these notes in every alternate bar, just to add a little variety. The chord sequence I’m playing over here is:

C / / / D / / / G / / / Em / / /

C / / / G / / / Am / F / D / / / (end on G)

Scale choice is the G major pentatonic (G A B D E ) with a few additional chord notes thrown in. For more details on how to make note choices for an effective melody, please see my earlier post on this topic HERE. Look at the TAB below to see the melody written out & click HERE to hear it played.

Melody Based on 1st Bar of Son Clave 3-2 Rhythm:

melody

For the final example, I’ve improvised a typical 12 bar blues solo, using the A minor pentatonic scale. Throughout, I was using the phrasing template from the previous example to generate my licks and, once again we end up with a cool sounding lead guitar part. The TAB shows the solo & to hear what it sounds like, click HERE.

12 Bar Blues Solo Based on 1st Bar of Son Clave 3-2 Rhythm:

bliues-solo

What you should see is that this incredibly versatile rhythm can be used to deliver a whole host of great, and diverse, sounding guitar parts. Why not try it for yourself? You’ll soon be able to instinctively conjure the rhythm and drop it into your playing any time you want.

Until next time, have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

The John Robson Jazz Project

Music Theory… Don’t be scared!

Apologies for the extended sabbatical, but the blog is back in town. Let’s begin with a question…

“What’s you opinion of music theory” seems to be a strange question to ask. At least is does to me. If you define “music theory” as having an understanding of what you’re doing on your instrument, then (to me, anyway) it seems bizarre that any musician would be less than enthusiastic about it.

It does seem to be a view that isn’t universally shared, though. Time & again, I read interviews with musicians, or see forum posts where people express suspicion of any form of understanding of the mechanics of music. Usually it’s couched in terms of “If I know the rules, I’ll be scared to break them…” or “I don’t want a text book telling me how to write a song…” or even “If I analyse what I play and understand it, it’ll rob my music of any feel or emotion…”

To make a couple of comparisons with branches of the arts other than music, let’s imagine a novelist saying “But if I understand grammar & spelling, it will hinder my ability to tell a good story…” Another parallel would be with a hobby of mine, watercolour painting: imagine setting out to paint a landscape without understanding that if you mix blue & yellow, you’ll get green, then if you add some red, you get brown, or that the way to make something seem distant is to make it smaller and more faint. Does knowing these rudiments rob an artist of their ability to be creative? Of course it doesn’t. Why, then, is this so often thought to be the case in music?

I get so exasperated when I encounter talented musicians, intelligent people, who glaze over when even the most rudimentary theory-speak enters the conversation. I might say “play the relative minor…” or something equally innocuous, and the shutters come down, metaphorically speaking. Even when I leave the jargon out & explain it in layman’s terms the response often veers between complete dis-interest and outright hostility. Here’s an example…

A few years ago, I was in a blues band & we were rehearsing a version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Need Your Love So Bad”. Anyone who’s ever played this song will know there is a diminished chord in the middle of the verse. The other guitarist in the band started by playing it as a minor chord, & when I pointed out that instead of Dm he should be playing D# diminished, his response was to play a D# power chord. Again, I pointed out that a power chord isn’t going to work as it contains a perfect 5th, and a diminished chord has a flattened 5th – although I phrased it as “Your chord has an A# in it, and it should be an A…” His response? “Well it’s still just an A isn’t it?”

So… a talented, capable musician with several years gigging under his belt, who is generally a nice guy and whose day job is as a software engineer – a profession which requires a logical mindset – who not only cannot tell the difference between A and A#, but is openly hostile to even being made aware of the difference! If I’d gone at it in some condescending way and tried to make the bloke feel small in front of the rest of the band, I could understand the belligerence. But all I did was have a quiet word when we took a coffee break & offered to show him how easy it would be to play the right fingering in return for him helping me with my backing vocals (I’m not a great singer & need all the advice I can get). In short, I approached him in a spirit of mutual assistance & I was accused of being “elitist”.

What do you do when confronted with that? What I did was quit the band. Not just because of this one incident, but because I was increasingly vilified for wanting to take a pride in the music we were playing and get it right – if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, basically. It amazes me that there are people who care about music & who claim that music is the most important thing in their lives and don’t share that opinion.

I’m not trying to say that music should be sterile, or that we should remove all the rough edges – I play jazz, for goodness sake! It’s a genre of music that celebrates the inclusion of “wrong” notes and taking an unorthodox attitude towards the “rules”. If no-one had ever broken the accepted norms of what is permissible, then we’d all still be listening to Gregorian Chant & Plainsong. All I’m saying is that if you understand what you’re doing, you can do it to order – you can create something which sounds angry & dissonant, or tuneful & melodic, or soothing & chilled out, or any other emotion you wish to express. You won’t have to rely on happen-stance & serendipity to land on the right notes or put the right chords into the right order to allow the emotions you feel inside find a voice through your music.

You may have noticed that whenever I’ve used the word “rules” throughout this little (or not so little) rant that I’ve put the word in inverted commas (“ “). This is because there are no “rules”… there is just an understanding of how things work. If something sounds odd & dissonant it doesn’t mean it’s “wrong” it just means it sounds odd & dissonant – which may just be the feel you’re looking for at that particular moment in the song. Where would Van Morrison’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” be without that guitar riff ? Or the first couple of bars of “Purple Haze”… or “Black Sabbath” or Gutav Holst’s “Mars – The Bringer of War”. All of these iconic pieces of music contain a flattened 5th interval – the biggest “no-no” in all of music. One thing you can be certain of though is that the people who wrote all of those tunes included that sound on purpose because it suited their needs and they did so out of an understanding of what they were doing.

Theory… it’s your friend. Don’t be scared of it!

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