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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Desert Island Discs

As I sit here wondering what to write about in this weeks blog, I’ve got BBC Radio 4 on in the background. The show which is playing at the moment is Desert Island Discs. If you’re not familiar with this venerable UK institution which has been on air continuously since 1942, allow me to give you some background…

The premise of the show is that you can tell a lot about someone by looking at their musical tastes. It’s basically a talk show where, each week, a guest tells their life story by discussing the eight songs they would choose to take with them should they ever be marooned on a desert island.

In it’s illustrious history, many world leaders, cultural icons and celebrities have shared their treasured memories and events which have shaped their lives on the show. It’s true to say that, in the UK at least, you’ve not really “made it” until you’ve made an appearance on the show – much like having your likeness on display at Madame Toussards in London.

As it’s unlikely I’ll ever be invited onto the show (unless grumpy middle aged men playing instrumental guitar jazz suddenly become big box office), I thought I’d indulge myself here by sharing my eight favourite tunes with my loyal reader. These are not necessarily my current favourite pieces of music – I think it probably takes a few years for any tune to find its place in the scheme of things. It is often only with a degree of hindsight that you realise that a particular work has had an effect on you.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my choices with a couple of lines explaining the significance of each one…

1) Rock Around The Clock – Bill Haley & The Comets. This song is one of my earliest memories. It was always on in the house, playing on an old Dansette record player, as I was growing up. It is without doubt the very first piece of music I remember giving me that sense of joy that only music can impart.

2) In The Mood – Glenn Miller. Another childhood memory. The Glenn Miller Story with James Stewart always seemed to be on the television at Christmas in the ’70s. That iconic scene where the band keeps playing as a V2 doodlebug flies overhead is probably pure Hollywood myth, but who cares? A great feel-good tune with oodles of happy childhood, rose-tinted reminiscences for me.

3) Daddy Cool/The Girl Can’t Help It – The Darts. This band have sort of been airbrushed out of the the nostalgia industry’s version of the late ’70s. For some reason, this song just stopped me in my tracks when I was ten years old. It was also the first song I remember hearing and thinking “I want to be able to do that!” Within a year or so, I had my first guitar.

4) Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits. Nothing remotely like this had been in the charts when it came out in 1979. Mark Knopfler’s laid back, but virtuosic guitar playing was what made me realise that the guitar was capable of so much more than just being an accompaniment to sing along with. The way he echoes the lyrics with little guitar licks… “Check out Guitar George, he knows all the chords” and “… as the time bell rings” is the musical equivalent of an illustrator bringing a text to life with beautifully executed drawings. It wasn’t long before I was learning my first scales to try and emulate this way of playing.

5) Key To The Highway – Derek & The Dominoes. I discovered Eric Clapton via the song Layla, which was used as the theme tune to a local current affairs TV show in the Tyne Tees region. I bought the album and this extended blues jam showcasing EC & Duane Allman gave me goosebumps from the first time I heard it. It was the first time I’d heard something called “blues” and I was hooked.

6) So What – Miles Davis. It’s fair to say that (like many people) I just didn’t get jazz at all. A lot of dissonant, tuneless caterwauling. It baffled me, frankly. Then I heard this and it was a revelation! The way that the riff just emerges from the mist and solidifies, then Jimmy Cobb’s drums kick in and the insistent, but chilled out, momentum carries you along through some of the finest, most musical improvisation you’ll ever hear. Distilled essence of musical perfection, and my initiation into the world of jazz.

7) Nimrod (from Elgar’s Enigma Variations). This is the piece of music which gets played every year at the service of remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Even without this association, it is one of the most evocative, poignant tunes ever written. It conjures up misty eyed nostalgic images of an idealised English-ness that stir something in me I find difficult to put into words. It’s not so much nationalism, more a sense of heritage. More than any other work, this was my introduction to the joys of “classical” music.

8) Jungle Land – Bruce Springsteen. One of the first songs I ever heard by “The Boss”. In the early ’80s I became aware that someone called Bruce Springsteen was was due to release a new album. At that age, I was desperate to find out as much as I could about anyone who was generally regarded as musically “important”. The buzz in the media about the upcoming new album release led me to go out & buy the first Springsteen album I could find, just to see what the fuss was about. The LP I purchased with my hard-earned Saturday job wages was Born To Run. Jungle Land is the final track on that album, and it is a masterpiece. It best sums up Bruce’s ability as a wordsmith – the picture he paints, and the story he so effortlessly tells, is testament to his status as one of the most influential lyricists of the 20th century.

So there you have it. These are the eight songs I would take with me to my lonely desert island. What this says about me as a person, I can’t begin to imagine. Ask me again tomorrow & you’d probably get a different selection, though. Along with the music, castaways are allowed a book and a luxury item & my choices in these categories would be “In Pale Battalions” by Robert Goddard, a wonderful historic novel, set mostly during the 1914-18 war, which I never tire of reading, and a luxury? Well… it has to be a guitar, doesn’t it.

Got your own line up of eight tracks, should you ever become a latter-day Robinson Crusoe? I’d love to know what they are.

Until next time… have fun 🙂