Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Cavalcade of Guitars, Part 1

I've acquired quite a few guitars lately, and gotten rid of a few as well. Here's an update that isn't really up-to-date, since I started writing it several months ago.

My Peavey Limited's frets are now in gorgeous, like-new condition, thanks to the expert luthiers at Elderly Instruments in Lansing. It's a player's guitar, not (yet) considered vintage or rare or terribly valuable, but I love playing it.

I sold the black/orange sunburst finish Epiphone Les Paul Special II that I was using as my "I don't care if the babies get their hands on it" guitar in the living room. I really like the handsome design, but those instruments are made in Indonesia out of plywood and cheap parts and will just never sound and feel very good. I could have put some money into getting the frets leveled, but the neck just wouldn't get into proper alignment. I wouldn't even particularly recommend one to a beginner student on a budget, since a student could find something far better used, for just a bit more money. Someday maybe I'll find a Gibson Les Paul Special that I like, although I have a whole separate set of gripes about heavy, fragile Gibson designs.

I traded in my old Ovation Ultra acoustic for a newer used Ovation Elite with purple flame graphics. Well, it wasn't exactly a trade in, but I got a little back out of the old one. The flame graphics were not my first choice, but there are certain compensations -- it has an ebony fingerboard and bridge, and a fantastic matte finish maple neck with a very nice soft "V" profile. It has an interesting bridge modification: the bass strings are slightly higher, which means that the overall action can be lower while preventing buzz on the wound strings. This feels slightly odd at first but sounds great. The acoustic (unplugged) tone is altogether better than my old Ovation, and indeed better than any of the dozen Ovations I tried out with the exception of a couple of high-end graphite-top Adamas models. Some day I'd like to own an Adamas, and perhaps a Martin too, but not today.

There's a slight issue with getting the battery compartment open; it's difficult; in the store, it was jammed completely, and I had to get one of the Elderly repair techs to help me with it. But on the up side, apparently one rarely needs to change the batteries in these things. (But when one does, one wants to do it in a hurry).

The only other thing I'd really consider changing are the tuners, since the ones on the instrument are OK but don't feel quite as good as the Schaller tuners on my old Ovation. I think I could drop new black Schaller tuners right into the existing holes in the headstock for an inexpensive upgrade that wouldn't negatively affect the resale value. But I'll probably just leave them alone for now, since the existing ones are not terrible. And the top makes it a conversation piece -- you might call it cool or you might call it hideous, but at least it is a conversation starter!

I also purchased a Music Man 4-string fretted ash and maple bass. It was a wholly excellent instrument, and I got it for a pretty good price. But after finding a lightly used Steinberger Synapse 5-string fretless bass for sale at Elderly, I decided that I just am not that interested in playing a traditional bass at the moment, especially one I purchased new, so I returned it.

The Gibson Steinberger instruments have a poor reputation in comparison to the originals, but I think this reputation is only partially justified. The "Spirit by Steinberger" line doesn't have much to offer in the way of design, but the bass is a member of the newer Synapse family, and it really is an intriguing package, with a fully "designed" feel and tone that tells me Ned Steinberger was heavily involved in the instrument's development. Some of the details, though, just aren't as clean and polished as I'd like. With the piezo pickup engaged, it sounds remarkably like an acoustic upright bass. It's definitely the thing for someone like me interested in some more unusual sounds.

Besides, having actually played a few original Steinbergers recently, I can say that although I like them quite a bit, when I find one that I can afford, it is in poor condition. And when I find one that is in good condition, I can't afford it. By "poor condition" I don't just mean that there are some scratches or dings, I mean there are serious playability issues that affect the sound.

Original Steinbergers are considered "vintage" and I have made a semi-solemn vow that I will never pay the "vintage" instrument appreciation tax. I guess it stems from my basic disagreement with the "law" of supply and demand that says that if something is in demand, a seller can and should price it almost entirely out of the market, keeping it on a high shelf or in a locked case until that one even greedier buyer comes along, believing that he or she can make even more money off the future appreciation of the instrument, sell it to that buyer for as big a profit as possible. It has never seemed appropriate to enshrine greed as some kind of fundamental economic principle, any more than it seems appropriate to consider all the human factors and environmental factors that go into manufacturing and selling a product as "externalities." But I guess I'm some kind of tree-hugger and I'd probably do really badly if I tried to run a guitar store.

Besides, I don't believe most instruments really "appreciate" in value in any meaningful sense. While a chunk of wood will get drier and develop more tonal character over time, just about everything else on the guitar will deteriorate and need restoration. Some aspects of guitar-building were done better in the old days -- the "fit and finish" on the neck of my 1972 Fender Competition Mustang was amazing -- and some weren't -- the bridge and pickups were never really very good, and most vintage wiring and shielding is actually worse than its modern equivalents. It's heartbreaking to see the way so many older instruments warp and become unplayable even without severe mistreatment. And original Steinberger parts are becoming scarce, and they are harder and more expensive to repair than wood.

I played several original Steinbergers at Ed Roman's guitar shop in Las Vegas, and I was somewhat disgusted that he had priced these instruments at four or five thousand dollars, but had not even bothered to have his shop clean them up. It set off my alarm bells to hear a store salesperson explaining that if I bought it, then they would fix the broken switches, crackling pots, wiring problems, etc. That didn't really help convince me to shell out the money. What is the motivation for the shop to get it cleaned up after I've swiped my credit card?

Not to mention that Steinberger never released a fretless bass.

But buying a Synapse meant compromising another one of my semi-solemn vows, to only buy American-made instruments. The "Made in USA" labeling is conspicuously absent from the Synapse line. But I like it anyway.

I also picked up a Parker Fly Classic -- a used one in excellent shape. I've wanted for at least ten or fifteen years to have a Parker Fly. There is only one minor issue with this instrument: the battery compartment door latch is cracked, and should be replaced. What is it with battery compartiments? But these things are amazing.

I'm also fixing up the old Jag-Stang. It now has a new Warmoth neck with stainless-steel frets. I've put a new pickguard on it. The fit of the neck in the neck pocket is not quite as precise as I'd like. The next time I go up to Lansing, I'm going to take it with me and ask them to mount the locking tuners (so I don't screw it up) and see if they can turn it into a playable instrument again.

Finally, a Godin nylon-string solid-body, with piezo pickups and 13-pin synth out. The triggering with my guitar synth is fantastic!