Friday, October 10, 2008

How To Not Suck, Chapter 12: It Breaks My Heart To See Those Stars....

As I said, you shouldn't wait to start playing until you get the guitar of your dreams. You should become as good as you can with your current guitar while you work to make your hands worthy of the Gretsch Duo Jet you dream about.

My first guitar was a Harmony acoustic. It had a zero fret, one set right in front of the nut. I've heard it argued that this allows your open notes to have the same tone as your fretted notes, thus making it a good thing. The Selmers that Django played had zero frets, and they were cannons worthy of the hands of that master. My Harmony was a plywood piece of crud with a ToneSuckRtm ugly metal bridge. My second guitar, given to me after I was sixteen, when I was already over six feet tall, was a 3/4-size "Super"-Strat. Not good instruments, and they didn't help me become a good musician.

My first real guitar was an Ibanez acoustic dreadnaught. It was built around the time of Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive", so it had the familiar Ibanez electric six-on-a-side headstock and a neck to match. I'm not sure it's an actual Wizard neck, but it's thin. Shredder thin. I got it used from a place that otherwise was an appliance store, and it originally had little rose stickers around the side. Laminate top. I'm sure it cost me around $150. But while it was a cheap guitar, it wasn't a bad guitar. It was, in fact, a Perfectly Good Guitar. It had decent tone, and as a lead instrument, it cut through a jam. With that and an electronic tuner, I leaped forward from a horrible beginner to a mediocre guitar player. The instrument no longer held me back, so I improved.

Sadly, it developed neck problems, meaning the truss rod wants to pop out the back of the neck. There's divots in the fretboard that were not there when I bought it, meaning they're my divots, carved in by my playing. I'd almost like to have someone replace the neck, but that work is far above the replacement cost of the instrument. I replaced it with my Fender A/E dreadnaught, but when played next to each other, it was clear that the Ibanez killed the Fender when it came to playing lead. A friend has need for frets on his cigar-box guitar, and I have some interest in trying fretless, so when he has time, he will de-fret it.

My first amplifier, I can't remember the brand name. I do remember my pet name for it. It was "the world's quietest 100-watt amp". And that was when it worked, which wasn't all the time. I replaced it with a Fender Frontman 25R, which might not be the loudest amp possible, but I have never had a practical reason to kick it above 4. At 25 watts, it is a great improvement, and playing through it, I've been getting better.

At some point in the 1990s, or maybe before, there came something called Computer Numerical Control, or CNC. In a practical sense, what CNC means is that guitar makers can stick a board into a machine and come out with, variations in wood aside, exactly the same body, exactly the same neck, exactly the same bridge for the acoustic guys, over and over and over again, as long as they have wood to shove into it. So, at some point in the 1990s, there came the ability to churn out thousands of reasonably good stratocopies, or whatever you wanted to play. In general, the elements that are deficient are the fretwork and the electronics. The fretwork is a point where craftsmen still have an advantage, for now, and the cheap guitars will have metal bits hanging off the end to cut your hand. The electronics are usually about as cheap as you can find, but guitar electronics are institutionalized enough that you can swap out mediocre electronics fairly easily.

So, for the last fifteen years or so, we are in the Age of the Perfectly Good Guitar, where the instruments that a beginner can find and afford are decent and playable. You do not have to put up with an instrument that will keep you from improving. I've heard it said many times, "get the best instrument you can afford", and I do believe it, but some really good instruments are really affordable.

There's also the option of setting up, tweaking and modifying your instrument, but that feels like another chapter.


Stratocat said...

My first guitar was a hand-me-down steel string acoustic with Roy Rogers and cowboys on the top. I promptly took pliers and cranked all the tuners until the strings popped. That was fun! Until I got a welt across my face.

With one string left, I began playing lap style with my thumb to records and the radio. For awhile I used a spoon for a pick. The first tune I learned was "Money", not Floyd's but the older one-- y'know " Gimme Money, Ho lotta money! That's what I want!..."

Then my dad bought me a Strat-type Daimaru electric at Woolworths, along with a Teisco(?) amp with an 8" speaker, tremolo & speed. My geek buddy preamped it with a broken cassette recorder for a sweet overdrive, till it fried. We made amps for awhile after that. We made them out of "stuff". Then we sawed off the Daimaru's body horns, hacked a rooster tail out of the top bout, burnt off the finish (filled the house with smoke), stuck some Hendrix pictures on it and coated it with Varethane. Then the neck weighed more than the body, so we screwed a big rot iron hinge to the back of the body. We called it the rooster!

Then I got a Fender Mustang, and the Rooster sat in the corner until it was buried in basement clutter and forgotten.

The Mustang became the MUDstang, after taking it to a music store to get a DiMarzio SDS-1 installed in the bridge position and the idiots installed it between the stock singles instead. That guitar ended up getting burnt too.

It got even worse from there until I finally quit messing with them and now I just pretty much leave 'em they way they are.

Stratocat said...

Correction: The amp was a "Telstar".

Yeah baby!!!