Thursday, May 24, 2007

On Acquiring a Guitar

Presented herein: a few guidelines for buying a decent guitar. (With a nod to Ed Roman of Ed Roman guitars of Las Vegas; the rants on his web site have inspired some of this thinking).

Before I start throwing out specific tips, I would like to say that finding a decent-playing, decent-sounding guitar has never been easier. People like to romanticize the old days and "vintage" instruments but the truth is that a lot of original vintage instruments were not actually constructed very well. They were hard to play, hard to keep in tune, had noisy pickups, and were in general a big pain. Instruments have improved immeasurably and it is possible to find guitars that are far better constructed than some of the old classics at extremely low prices. By "extremely low," I mean that you can find a playable electric guitar with decent tone in the $100 range. I realize that even that amount might be too high for some people with very limited income, but just about anyone else should be able to stash away enough money to afford an instrument like that. For example, if you can afford cable TV, you could shut it off, save up the money you put towards cable for a few months, and buy a guitar instead.

First, avoid the chains. Places like Guitar Center will generally never stock anything exceptional. The instruments they sell are carefully chosen for one reason and one reason only: to maximize profit. Their salespeople are on commission (this is why they ask "was someone else helping you?") They may occasionally get a decent used instrument in, but it is likely they will price it too high, and they will not steer you towards a guitar that is actually best for you.

Second, avoid hyped guitars at all costs. Guitars tend to gain name recognition and then they start offshoring all their production and ramping up for volume. The guitars then become homogenous, built mostly by machine. The hyped company trades for a while on the reputation established with the hand-built instruments, but begins compromising on parts quality, and very little careful human attention goes into the instruments under construction any more. (Right now, Paul Reed Smith instruments are the archetypical hyped guitar).

Third, if you can, avoid buying a new instrument. Guitars, especially electric guitars, are pretty rugged these days. It is hard to truly damage the instrument even if you do scuff it up a bit, assuming you don't take it apart or try to smash it on stage. Any guitar you play heavily is going to get a scratch or a ding; you may as well buy it with that inevitable scratch or ding already there. You'll be less nervous about really using the instrument, and you don't want to pay the new-car price for a guitar any more than you do for a car.

Fourth, avoid "starter packs." The instruments in these kits are likely to be absolute crap.

Fifth, avoid anything considered "vintage" or "classic." There is a big price premium associated with that perception. A lot of crap gets labeled "vintage" by unscrupulous sellers. And a lot of the "vintage" instruments for sale may in fact be fake.

Don't get caught up in the "collecting" thing. Some people may be able to buy guitars and keep them for a while, maybe even a long while, and then re-sell them at a profit, but this requires a big investment in climate-controlled storage and regular string-changing and maintenance. More importantly, it seems to me that this activity is not really compatible with being a guitar player. Guitars made to play, and if you are buying them as investments it seems to me that you are doing something slightly perverted with them, wasting the work of the craftsmen who put the instruments together. It seems a bit analogous to marrying a trophy wife or husband instead of forming a real life-long partnership with another person and living your lives together. Instruments that are played regularly develop character and individuality. And the person that plays them does, too.

A few more miscellaneous guidelines:

I'd stay away from anything "replica" or beat up in the manufacturing process to look old. That strikes me like buying jeans with the knees already blown out.

You might be willing to buy Mexican or Korean or Japanese instruments, but I personally am on a quest to find decent American-made instruments. There are vanishingly few guitars still made in the continental United States. There are many, many skilled craftspeople here in the United States who can't find work. Some makers, like Ernie Ball/Music Man, are instituting living wage policies in their shops. I want to support those companies.

I'm a bit skittish about buying guitars on eBay, especially expensive guitars. A low-cost guitar might be a very good deal; the seller has less incentive to cheat you. But I still grit my teeth a little bit at the idea of buying a guitar that I haven't actually been able to hold and play. And sellers are often quite deceptive. I personally have seen many sellers mis-representing their instruments. Even if they don't mean to be deceptive, they may just not know anything about what they are selling.

Consider a maker that isn't quite so well known, such as Peavey or Washburn or Dean or Ernie Ball's Music Man brand.

Keep in mind that you will pay a premium for flashy graphics or anything heavily marketed towards heavy metal players. Similarly, guitars that have a freaky color scheme tend to be much harder to re-sell. (I once had a very nice Yamaha bass, but since it had a hot pink finish, when it was time to pass it on, I had a terrible time selling it, and had to accept an extremely low price. Had it been a more conservative blue or black, I think it would have sold much faster).

Avoid starting out with an oddity like a 7-string guitar or a 6-string bass. Twelve-string guitars are really cool but they are hard to play, and you will really only want to use a twelve-string for particular songs. A twelve-string is a useful third or fourth guitar, but you probably don't want it to be your main instrument, and certainly not your first instrument.

Personally, I'd look for something that is light and comfortable to play. That means avoiding gratuitous spikes and points. (A Flying V is a cool guitar to play live, but it is uncomfortable to play when seated).

For a new player: don't start with an acoustic instrument. Start with an electric, set up with light strings and low action.

You can get amazingly inexpensive effects these days. There's no reason, if you're not actually making money playing, to put a lot of money into expensive vintage effects gear, or even expensive modern effects gear, until you've developed a particular style and know what you're looking for.

Similarly, I'd avoid vintage or boutique tube amps unless you are experienced. Personally, I have been practicing with a $20 plastic "Smokey" battery-powered amp, and it works just fine. This has the fringe benefit of avoiding nasty visits from the neighbors in my apartment complex. You may not even need a pricey amp even if you play with a band such as a church group. You can often get away with going direct into a mixer, especially if you use an effects chain that has effects modeling, and if there is a monitor available, you can use it to hear yourself.

Finally, beginners often use the factory presets on their effects gear, which tend to have the distortion levels cranked way up. Turn your effects down a little bit if you can. Most of the pros who play using these effects don't actually crank the effects as high as you might think. Beginners often hide behind distortion, since it covers up a multitude of playing flaws. This can be a bad thing since you won't hear the details of what you are doing wrong.

Let me give a quick example of what I'd consider to be a good "starter" guitar. My local Music-Go-Round in Ann Arbor stocks mostly new instruments by big Asian manufacturers, but they also occasionally get some used instruments in. Recently I saw an American-made Peavey Detonator there for $100. The Detonator is similar in design to a Stratocaster, and sold new for upwards of $1,000. More importantly, it is, in my not very humble opinion, a better-made instrument than all but the higher-end Stratocasters, with very high-quality components. The instrument in question was a bit beat up, with a plain red finish and some nicks and scratches, but the fundamentals seemed to be in fine shape -- the frets were not excessively worn, the action was low, the tuners were fully functional, and the controls and pickups all worked. There is absolutely no reason a beginner shouldn't pick up an instrument like this instead of some kind of Korean-made "starter pack" that it might cost $200, but which is still over-priced considering the actual quality of the instrument included. Save that other $100 and find a decent-sounding used amplifier. Used music equipment stores are piled waist-deep with such amplifiers. (Picking out a good amplifier is a topic for another day). And if you keep that $100 instrument in decent shape, or even get it cleaned up and set up better than when you bought it, you can probably sell it for the same price if you decide that you aren't going to play it any more.

One final point -- a beginner should always take along a more experienced guitarist friend when shopping for an instrument like this. The experienced guitarist would be able to check out the instrument like the one above, try it out, and determine if it has any fatal flaws, such as a broken truss rod or warped neck or badly worn frets. Minor flaws such as noisy pots can be fixed easily and cheaply, but some problems will be much more expensive, and will mostly just give you a lot of pain and frustraiton. Such a friend can also help you set the intonation and action for maximum playability.