Local Music Gear Feature Story
Written By: Jac Harrison
Recently, I have noticed an influx of new guitar players on social media in the groups and pages I manage, and few of others that I’m a spectator in. Everyone seems so eager to learn about buying their first guitar or are looking for advice on buying a guitar on a budget. To me, it is exciting to see so many new faces playing what I consider the best musical instrument, but at the same time I feel bad for the novice today due to the over abundance of misleading information in regards to price-vs-value because of the fuc*ing know-it-alls on the interwebs. Thirty plus years ago when my father gave me my first guitar, he didn’t ask 40,000 people (that he never met) what they thought would be the best guitar for a beginner. We took a trip to Hi - Way Music on rt 18 in East Brunswick, NJ where I was given the choice of the ugly one I played with humbuckers or the ugly one I played with single-coils (I went with the buckers). Knowing that not everyone has access to someone that can explain to them what to look for like my father did for me, this month's editorial will be based on the some of knowledge I have gained while buying, selling and trading guitars over the last 20 years. So for all the social media know-it-all as*hats and the keyboard wizards of knowledge, please stop reading this and go Google something so you can continue your "awesomeness". This is meant for the guitarist that wants to learn buying techniques that will allow he/she to make an educated decision at the point of sale to obtain the highest quality guitar on a budget.
To start, get the name brands out of you head when buying on a budget. Gibson/Epiphone, Fender/Squrie, Ibanez or 99.9% of the "budget guitars" you can buy at one of the big box stores are all the same. Most of the over seas or low end models from the "name brands" are all made in the same factory and the only real difference is the logo. A basswood body or any leftover tone-wood runs from their main builds will sounds the same regardless if it is a T-style, S-style, flat top LP -style or any of the other body styles offered. The only reason the name brand companies offer a budget guitar is in hopes of gaining your brand loyalty. So to get the biggest bang for your buck or what I like to call "tone," look at the build materials and the playability aspects of the guitar, and not the name on the headstock. This includes scale length, neck and body shape, hardware, fingerboard radios and of course pickup style. When buying a budget guitar you do not need to take into consideration the tone woods as much as you would otherwise. Your main focus should be on the type of pickups offered in that model, and if you like they way it plays. If you do not know what the different types of pickups sound like, go spend a few hours at your local music store and try them all -- or look up what your favorite artist uses and go with that, but playing them will work out better for you. For example, my all time favorite artist is SRV who played traditional single-coils, but I play fat P90's. You will refine your tone and preference over time, but it is important that you like your tone from the start or you will not enjoy playing as much.
Now that you have an idea of what you are looking to buy -- you can start your search. I would try your local independent music stores first and stay as far away from the bog box chains as you can. If you need to buy online, Rondo Music is the only place on the interwebs I would ever buy a budget guitar from. When I need a budget guitar to donate to a school or hospital, Rondo Music is my go to when my local shop does not have what I need. One of my many beefs with the "big box" super stores is that they DO NOT setup any of their guitars properly, especially the ones they refer to as the "cheep guitars." I have personally spent $800 for a 1976 Gibson Les Paul Custom with HSC in 2006 at a big box store because they were convinced that the neck was warped when all the guitar needed was a proper setup. After I had a local shop do a full setup for $45, I was able to resell the guitar three weeks later for $2,180 back to the same chain store at a different location. My point is this; even one of the most desirable guitar can be unplayable if not setup correctly and make any guitar impossible to learn on for the novice. When buying a budget guitar from an independent retail shop or from Rondo Music online, you get a full setup included in the price. This will insure that you will learn to play your new guitar correctly, and that every out-of-tune note is player error -- not from poor intonation.
So now you have had this wonderful budget guitar that makes you happy in all the right places for a few weeks, you start to want more of out it... (this will happen even when you spend a months salary on a guitar). Thankfully there are many inexpensive fixes for all guitar styles. Besides changing pickups (this will give you the most dramatic difference in tone), you can also change what I refer to as the "points" on the guitar. What I call a point is any place that the string touches the guitar, and the crap hardware that comes on most guitars (including the expensive ones) will suck the tone right out of the string. If you are unaware of how an electric guitar works, it is not magic, but to sum it up -- it is the reaction between string vibration and the magnetic pull of the pickups. The more vibration = longer note sustain with the truest tone to the instrument. By replacing the nut, saddles, bridge and block (on your tremolo style guitars); you can obtain professional quality tone with individual note clarity and rolling sustain -- even on a budget guitar. Now I’m not saying that your $49 Hondo LP copy will sound like a 1959 Les Paul, but it will no longer sound like a cat farting on a tin can. Below are some of the places I shop for upgrades excluding pickups. When it comes to pickups, they are as personal to a guitar player as the guitar is -- so if you have questions and would like help finding that perfect pickup, you can email me for advice.
For upgrades I shop at the following (in no particular order):
It is amazing that you have read this far, give yourself a high five and a half from me. I truly hope that this editorial was helpful. Buying a guitar can change your life for the better by offering you a new creative outlet for recreational purposes, or it can lead to a rewarding carrier. Make sure that you have the same tools as you would when learning -- when you are buying.
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