The Difference Between Expensive and Cheaper Guitars

From G&L's Instagram

From G&L’s Instagram

Once again it’s time to address common, beginner questions that often come up on guitar forums. What are the differences between a high end guitar and a cheap one?

This question used to be much easier to answer until about twenty years ago. When I was 15 I wanted to buy my own guitar. I began learning at age 14, but I used my uncle’s Fender Mustang. So with my savings I purchased a Washburn Mercury which was designed by Grover Jackson, so it shared many qualities with a Jackson Dinky. The differences between my Korean-built, mid-90s Washburn and that old, American-made Fender were stark, and that’s ignoring obvious differences like pickup type. My Washburn had a plywood body, plastic nut, veneer top, plastic dot inlays, pot metal tremolo block, and whatever potentiometers were in the parts bin that day. The Fender, albeit a CBS era model, had solid wood construction, a sturdy maple neck, and was built in the Fullerton, California factory. This was 1995 so telling these guitars apart was much simpler.

From ESP's Instagram

From ESP’s Instagram

Today it’s gotten harder to tell, because features which used to be walled off for American-built or even custom shop level guitars are available for 500 USD or less. If you want a flame or quilt top – as in a real one and not a veneer – Schecter has made them for years. Budget priced guitars can feature actual, Seymour Duncan pickups from the factory. Some have locking tuners, a feature Fender charges a premium to have on your American Standard guitar (Gibson of course has G-Force on its new lines.).

This forces us to go by rules of thumb. Usually if you are guitar shopping and wondering the difference between a 900 USD or higher guitar and something lower, go by these:

Import/Budget-priced guitars

Multi-piece or plywood bodies

Woods usually limited to poplar, alder, mahogany, paulownia, or basswood

Polyurethane lacquer finish

Solid color coating or 2-tone sunburst

Limited finish colors and options (Red, black, and white are the most common)

Chrome or black hardware only

OEM electronics, including preamps (acoustics), pots, pickups, and switches

Plastic nut

Veneer top for see-through finishes

(For acoustics) Laminated tops

OEM tuning keys

Licensed Floyd Rose tremolos or copies

Generic tremolos or unbranded bridge and tail pieces

No binding or basic, one color/layer binding (Usually white)

Fretboards usually limited to maple or rosewood

Pickguards limited to black, white, or red tortoise shell

USA made, high end, or custom shop guitars

Solid wood bodies, swamp ash becomes more common

Chambered bodies for weight reduction, particularly in mahogany

(For acoustics) Solid wood tops

High grade (eg. AAA, AAAA) maple caps

More finish options, including color, opaque or translucent

Nitrocellulose or polyurethane finish

Binding is more common and comes in more colors/styles

Name brand tuning keys, pickups, and other parts.

Genuine Floyd Rose and other name brand tremolos

Inclusion of name brand parts (eg. Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio) as factory standard, depending on model

(Acoustics) Brand name preamps, on-board tuners, XLR outs built into the guitar

Signature models

Advertised as hand-crafted, or with hand-wound pickups

Gold hardware in addition to chrome and black

Bone or graphite nuts

Miscellaneous touches like Graph-Tech saddles, TUSQ nuts, roller nuts, locking tuners

Clay dot, mother of pearl, abalone, or custom fretboard inlays

Fretboard options including ebony, zebrawood, maple, birdseye maple, rosewood, and others

Pickguard options include the standard plus pearloid, mirror, cream, and other colors

Exotic body woods like black limba, walnut, koa, bubinga, and others

Advanced options like MIDI or stereo outs

Alternative materials like graphite, carbon fiber, and aluminum

NOTE: This is not comprehensive, and there are many exceptions.

Creation vs. Evolution: The Tonewood Controversy

I profess ignorance about how the tonewood controversy among guitarists began. My theory is because woods – due to variances in hardness and density – affect the timbre of acoustic instruments, people assumed this transferred over to electric guitars. Early ones which had microphonic, unpotted pickups, so if you stick what is basically a microphone on your guitar, it will pick up acoustic waves. There’s far more to pickup design though, especially potted pickups and what the solidbody was designed to do (Namely, inhibit resonance). Fortunately Youtube has people more knowledgeable about physics than I, and I can share their explanations here.

This is Will from WillsEasyGuitar. In several videos he goes in depth about harmonics, timbre, and wave propagation.

I recommend you check those out. He does a great job explaining how sound propagates, and uses clear terms used in the scientific and technical community. He also illustrates the point I’m about to make, which I’m getting to, but first here’s DKG Custom.

In one video, a “Tonewood Road Map,” Duncan of DKG lays out the tonewood debate as it’s progressed on Youtube. When guitarists argue on forums, they often videos like these. So the YT vids up above are quite significant here. I think Duncan’s point is prescient, and he makes my point for me. Nonetheless I’ll articulate in my own words.

When it comes to the tonewood controversy, there’s a huge gap in how each camp presents its arguments. The anti-tonewood proponents argue from science. They attempt experiments, albeit crude ones at times, but some of the vloggers are rather eloquent. They also focus on how sound works, how it travels, how pickups work, and they are educational in a way.

Even Scott Grove took the effort to make rudimentary demonstrations to support his point. He also explained his view in a cohesive sense: pickups are potted, they aren’t microphonic if they are, potentiometers have variances, solid bodies were intended to block resonance, and all that comes out of your electric guitar anyway is an electric signal or wave. A transverse wave, in fact.

As for the pro-tonewood arguers, Rob Chapman’s video is the most cited but it’s not a very good sample. Neither Captain Lee nor Rob used any scientific viewpoint. They play two very similar guitars through one amp, and insist what they heard was different. When I watched I found the more I listened, the more I thought I heard differences, but I couldn’t separate what I was hearing from confirmation bias. I just couldn’t, because in the next passage the guitars sounded the same to me. To me that’s unhelpful if you can’t separate the two.

It sums up my view about pro-tonewood arguments though. This side insists on arguments from tradition, appeals to authority, and many philosophical and anecdotal arguments, but none have used science. A guy beating on a guitar with a pencil isn’t helpful either, and trust me, I have seen those videos too. In my perspective, pro-tonewood folks seem to insist it’s there and want to reinforce their confirmation bias. Thus I’m not convinced that electric guitars are affected much, if at all, by their body wood. One side is demonstrating their point through experiments and science, while the other is arguing from confirmation bias and logical fallacies. So I think the onus falls on pro-tonewood believers to support their claims.

I know this one’s going to be a firestorm. I welcome your comments, but while I embedded Youtube videos, this isn’t Youtube. Be nice.

New Coke: Gibson’s Controversial 2015 Lineup

WildWoodGuitars.com

WildWoodGuitars.com

Weeks ago several, canny guitarists discovered Gibson Guitars’ upcoming 2015 line. Numerous changes were in store for the #1 guitar maker in the world, and the response has been excited, to understate things.

The first issue is cost. A Gibson Les Paul Standard today starts at 2,999 USD. The 2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard will start at 3,879 USD. That’s a 23% increase according to Reverb. If Musicians Friend is any indication, Gibson has committed to making its guitars a high end brand again.

The changes don’t stop there, though. Gibson also discontinued its faded satin finish, and all Gibsons will be finished in nitrocellulose. This means no more 999 USD and below Gibsons. Gone is the old, bone nut and in its place, a brass “zero-fret” nut. The neck is wider, although string spacing is the same as previous years. The last change is the one which has received the most attention. The Min-etune machines which were installed on some 2014 Gibsons is now called the G-Force. It permits automatic tuning, push-button alternate tunings, and tuning adjustments on the fly. The Min-etune had mixed reception because it couldn’t be removed from the guitar without damaging it. The G-Force was improved to resolve this.

People’s complaints focus on the price increase and the G-Force. The first factor effectively walls off a Gibson-branded instrument from working class and budget-conscious guitarists. Secondhand Gibsons will be their first option for some of them, and the price increase also reinforces Gibson’s negative, “Doctor and Lawyer clientèle” image. As for the G-Force, it’s facing the guitar community’s traditionalist, conservative mindset – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Gibson is especially beholden to, even limited at times by, purists among the guitarist community. So these factors have really brought out the anti-Gibson knives.

Are these viable criticisms though? On one hand, these changes necessitated new suppliers, retooling and recalibrating CNC machines, more expensive paint, and the G-Force’s manufacturing costs. It’s natural to assume some increase would be involved. On the other did Gibson’s commitment to G-Force require forcing it onto their entire line? Personally I think limiting its roll-out might’ve soothed the shock. Gibson has run nontraditional lines before. A few models featuring the G-Force like the 2014’s, and some without, might’ve gradually won appeal. As of now though customers are skeptical, but in fairness what they know is Min-etune, and G-Force is supposed to be a step up from that version.

Regardless of the changes, which might go unappreciated at first, I think Gibson essentially rolled out New Coke Les Pauls. That means people will desire the old ones and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Coke Classic make a triumphant return in 2016.

What’s your thought on Gibson Guitars 2015 changes? Offer your thoughts in the comment section below.

RobChapman.tv

The Guitarists of Youtube

Youtube has become a default method for guitarists to record and display their talent, stories, knowledge, and even asshattery with the world. Since then the medium has produced several, notable guitarists who’ve created followings not from countless tours and hit singles, but from sharing everything from gear reviews, to lessons, to rants. Here are some of the best-known Youtube guitarists going today.

Rob Chapman

Chapman-Guitars-690x359Alias: Rob Chappers

Channel: Youtube.com/robchappers

Primary Youtube Role: Pitchman (Anderton’s, Chapman Guitars)

Secondary Roles: Teacher, Vlogger

Chappers has been a major fixture on Youtube for guitarists. He’s become popular due to his sunny personality, ripping guitar skills, enthusiasm, and light-hearted gear reviews. His compatriot is Captain Lee Anderton of Anderton’s in Guildford, UK. Chappers’ fame enabled him to start Chapman Guitars, which crowdsources designs that are manufactured in South Korea, then available through licensed dealers. Chapman Guitars have quickly gained a sterling reputation for quality, and their availability is improving. Chappers also feaures friends and bandmates often, especially guitarist Rabea Masaad and vocalist/Rob’s fiancee, Natassja Saliba.

What you’ll like: Chappers’ lessons, gear reviews with the Cap’n, bandmate Rabea Assad’s eloquent playing, Dorje music videos (“Aeromancer” is a good one), tour diaries.

What you won’t: Chappers noodles a lot, his hairstyle is controversial (Or you might hate the controversy over his hair), he believes wood affects tone (Or you just hate the tonewood debate), and some people don’t like that he uses HIS channel to sell HIS products. Yes, that last one was sarcastic.

Phil Xenidis

PhilXAlias: PHIL X!!!

Channel: Youtube.com/frettedamericana

Primary Youtube role: Pitchman (Fretted Americana)

Secondary Roles: Celebrity, Session Guitarist, Hired Gun, Songwriter, Bandleader

Phil X is possibly the most famous Youtubing guitarist, because he began his career with the major label rock group Triumph. Following this he became an on-call session guitarist for numerous acts, which remains his main income source. Fretted Americana recruited him to demonstrate their vintage guitar collection, which is how he became a household name. Phil X is also known for his infectious, childlike energy and enthusiasm. He is not afraid to pick up a 50 year old guitar, plug it into a wall of amps, and make it howl.

What you’ll like: All the vintage guitars, Phil’s jukebox knowledge of songs, The Drills, his tour diaries with Rob Chappers, all the vintage amplifiers.

What you won’t: Phil’s numerous absences to tour with this little band called “Bon Jovi.” He plays “Free Ride” A LOT. He really, really likes Edgar Winter.

Scott Grove

ScottGroveAlias: Doctor Groovy

Channel: Youtube.com/groovydjs

Primary Youtube Role: Critic

Secondary Roles: Teacher, Contrarian

If Chappers and Phil X are the most popular YT guitarists, then Scott Grove has to be the most infamous. Grove has used his channel mainly to review his vast, personal guitar collection. The collection itself is ever-changing, but he’s favored Gibson, of which he’s highly critical, and Fender – in particular Japanese-made Fenders. Grove also has particular tastes, opinions, and beliefs about the guitar. Many of these challenge what is accepted among other guitarists.

What you’ll love: His personality (If you love it), his alternative point of view, his knack for finding underrated guitars, his deep love and knowledge of country music.

What you won’t: His personality, his alternative point of view, his off-color jokes and rants, and country music.

L.M.S. Jr.

TheToneKingAlias: The Tone King, Louie

Channel: Youtube.com/user/lmsjr

Primary Youtube Role: Critic

Secondary Roles: Enthusiast, Vlogger, Collector

The Tone King loves gear. Loves it. He dedicates his channel and website (TheToneKing.com) to reviewing loads upon loads of gear. Find out about something new, but not sure if it’s good? Google the Tone King, he’s probably reviewed it or done a shoot-out with similar gear.

What you’ll love: Gear, gear, and more gear. Shoot-outs. NAMM diaries. New gear unboxings. Old school metal fandom.

What you won’t: His penchant for high-gain amps and distortion (For all the gear he reviews, he tends to prefer one “tone”), his playing style – he’s a decent guitarist, but no fret wizard.

Justin Sandercroe

justinguitarAlias: Justin Guitar

Channel: Youtube.com/user/JustinSandercroe

Primary Youtube Role: Teacher

Secondary Roles: Host, Coach

Justin Sandercroe has become a sought-out figure for online guitar learning, which has exploded from Youtube’s rise. He’s amiable, patient, and covers a lot of ground. His lessons suits both beginners and those wanting to pick up new techniques.

What you’ll love: Lessons, helpful guides, lots of choices.

What you won’t: Knowing where to start, online learning might not suit you, or perhaps you swear by Mel Bay and Hal Leonard books.

Pickups

Why Install Replacement Pickups?

A new guitarist recently asked on Reddit why one would install replacement pickups? Before going further, I advise any guitarists unfamiliar with how pickups work to go to this site, and learn the basics. Changing your guitar’s tone is of course the usual reason we install new pickups these days, but they actually sprang from a different need, one of necessity, not just desire.

In the 1950s and 60s, it was hard to replace your pickups if they failed for some reason. Replacement parts weren’t nearly as common as they are today. Usually it required ordering them straight from the company, but if you purchased from one of many off-brands which existed back then, chances are you were out of luck. Numerous broke-down guitars wound up in pawn shops this way.

Broken pickups affected great change in some cases. In Tony Iommi’s instance, he began his career with Black Sabbath playing a Fender Stratocaster. When that guitar’s pickups died during recording, he swapped out with a Gibson SG. Now the SG defines his sound. Had Seymour Duncan’s business existed at the time, with the scope it possesses today, we would have heard very different Black Sabbath records.

In the 1970s though things changed. The aforementioned Duncan along with Larry DiMarzio, Bill Lawrence, and others began modifying stock pickups. They learned you could both duplicate existing models, thus creating suitable replacements, and you could also enhance them. The latter revealed gateways to new and different tones. In one example DiMarzio created the Super Distortion, a modification to the PAF humbucker design that permitted stronger clipping, and thus greater sustain and saturation. It was a hit among the hard rock set, including Ace Frehley of Kiss, whom installed the Super Distortion into many of his Gibson Les Pauls.

From there the aftermarket pickup market took off. Today it’s common for artists to have signature pickups, along with boutique makers like Lollar, Joe Barden, Bareknuckle, Rio Grande, and countless others. Price is sometimes a barrier to modifying your guitar, but pickups tend to be much cheaper secondhand. Plus generic, off-brand, and importers like Guitar Fetish permit guitarists to purchase soundalikes for much less than the name brands. This means the question is no longer, “Can I?” it’s “Should I?” The answer to the latter is it’s up to you and what you wish for your sound. Unless your pickups die. Then the answer is quite obvious.

Budget-Conscious Buys: Why NOW is the Time to Get the Best Guitar for your Buck

I think a perception still exists among many guitarists that in order to have the best tone, you need to spend a lot of money. In fact I’ve written about my own, personal decision to buy expensive guitars (The short version: because I never could before, and I finally had the cash). The attraction remains because it’s still alluring to own a “real” Gibson, Fender, or PRS. That appeal won’t ever disappear either, because it’s ingrained into our psyche to desire lucrative things which condone higher status. As for the real, day-to-day work involved with being a musician though, something extraordinary has occurred to the guitar world. We live in an age where a quality, stage or studio ready guitar is available for less than 300 USD.

There’s some of you scoffing at this notion. Do the homework. On Amazon, Squier and Epiphone consistently garner 4-5 star reviews. Guitar magazines consistently rate their goods as quality purchases. Not to mention the plethora of Youtube videos demonstrating and reviewing these instruments. Furthermore brands like PRS SE, ESP LTD, Ibanez, Schecter, Washburn, and others have churned out fantastic instruments at low prices for decades – yes, that’s decades. Improvement among the budget axe lot took time to get here, but it’s here. It’s today. The results are in: consumers are satisfied with these guitars.

Even with this consensus, there remain guitarists thinking, “Well yeah, this Epiphone is good, but it could be so much better with <Insert aftermarket part>.” True to a point, upgrading or “modding” your guitar can be fun and make a midpriced instrument magnificent to you. That’s the important qualifier there. Wiring Seymour Duncan pickups into your guitar doesn’t essentially make it better than a factory stock one. Consider though with Duncan Designed guitars being a norm, and with companies rolling out cheaper yet equivalent products to their main lines, your stock Asian-built guitar might be just fine the way it is. Never forget that many aftermarket parts makers trade on tone-chasing, promising you can sound just like ____ without actually getting better at your instrument.

Another consideration is that maybe your Schecter Diamond series doesn’t have to be just a workhorse, a placeholder until you can afford something “better,” maybe it can be your pride and joy? Think of the miles you’ve walked together, the songs you’ve played on it, the gigs where you coated it in sweat and spilled beer on it. In the end shouldn’t that matter more than its price or stock parts? Memories might be the most priceless factor of any guitar you own.

Lace Hemi Pickup Demonstration.

I did this recording a while ago on my Samsung Galaxy Tab 2. Note: the video quality SUCKS. It’s bad. So please don’t judge that. The sound though came out quite good. For those interested, here are the gear specs:

Guitar: 2010 DBZ Bolero FM

Amp: Fender Mustang II v. 1, clean setting

Tuning: Standard

Pickups: Lace Hemi humbuckers, 4-conductor, coil-splittable w/ chrome covers.

My take – Lace Hemis are a mid-output humbucker designed to be clear and even. They are Lace Music’s attempt at the classic PAF sound, except these pickups are potted and non-microphonic. I installed these in 2012, and have been quite satisfied with them. They are clean and clear, just as advertised, but I have played heavy metal on this guitar before and was impressed with the taut bass response and “ka-chunk” coming from palm muting riffs. The video above of course is a clean sound. Hemis are quite versatile and handy for just about any situation, and they handle high volumes well.

If you want to know more about Lace products, go to www.lacemusic.com. If you have any questions or comments, please add them below.

I Changed My Mind – You Gotta Outline

The last time I talked about outlines, I was ambivalent. “Do ‘em if you want,” I said. Some writers like to “pants it” by writing with no outline. I suppose some – like Lee Childs, allegedly – can get away with this. What have I discovered? Not I, said the cat. Not one bit. I need to outline. So do you. Own up to it now, and save yourself the pain later.

If you are going to attempt a novel or novella, it’s quite helpful to possess a roadmap detailing just where you’re going with this whole thing. For instance I basically pantsed my NaNoWriMo 2013 novel. I cranked that first draft out in under a month, beamed at those 50,000+ words and filed it away for future revisions. I won’t say that first draft was bad but I realized on the whole, the story was lightweight. Not to give too much away, it’s a supernatural, modern fantasy tale with magic, gods, witches, and that stuff. Little of that occurs in the first draft and instead I went way into character study. I am not saying character studies are bad, but I also know readers need to be engaged. They want some sizzle and steak. If you promise magic, then you better give them Harry Potter business. If there’s a god in your story, she better be godly and awesome.

So as I started hacking and slashing through another draft, I did the insane thing: the same thing while expecting different results. Three aborted drafts later, I removed my head from the imprint made into a convenient brick wall, whipped out a looseleaf sheet and Ticonderoga, and I outlined the crap outta that sucker. Then I liked it so I did some more. That alt-history steampunk adventure trilogy? Outlined. That modern fantasy story where an evil wizard rules a tiny town? You betcha that was outlined.

Here I am now with several books mapped out, ready to go for first, second, and further drafts. While I’m about to become a dad, and my time will be strictly budgeted, I don’t worry because I’ve got those outlines. When I set down to erode what’s left of my keyboard letters, I’ll know where to go and how to get there. Might things change? Yes. I won’t even qualify it with a “probably.” You will always change your story as you go. That’s for a post about editing though. Outlining makes you both tracker and cartographer, but you don’t get anywhere with no map at all.

More New-First Guitar Help

Ain’t it purty? From Music Radar.

It’s around here somewhere, but a ways back I talked about buying your first guitar. I still get occasional questions about that, so here goes, some actual recommendations. These guitars are well built, easy to find, easy to use, and often cheap secondhand. They don’t often cost much brand new either.

Anyway if you or your kid are starting out, first may I advise you to just get the kid some turntables, a sequencer, FL Studio, and a drum machine, because it’s 2014 and they probably like electropop and hip hop anyway. j/k, kinda. Alright so the guitars you should look at are:

[Electric]
Peavey Predator
Yamaha Pacifica
Squier Classic Vibe Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, Telecaster, or Mustang
Epiphone Les Paul
Washburn HB (These are semi-hollowbodies. They look like BB King’s guitar. They’re pretty rad.)
Ibanez GIO and Artcore (Artcores are semi-hollowbody guitars)

[Acoustic]
Takamine
Yamaha
Washburn
Ibanez
Alvarez

I didn’t note any acoustic models because they’re always alphanumeric names and kind of forgettable. Just find one that’s comfortable to play and sounds good. Solid spruce tops are nice too. Great resonance.

Does that help?

Outline or No Lines?

Outlining. It’s right there in the writer’s toolbox next to the coffee mug, cigarette lighter, and corkscrew. The practice always starts so well too. You draft your main characters, supporting cast, draw up some internal and external conflicts, a setting, and away you go. The first chapter rolls through okay, then the second and third, but right about chapter five you think, “Hmm, something’s missing. Better consult my outline.” Your outline tells your MC to take fork A but clearly fork B is superior for this story. This outline just won’t do. You resolve to throw it out altogether and wing the next 45,000+ words.

I think I just heard a bunch of writers scream at me.

Calm down, friends, have some dip.

I go back and forth on outlining myself. In the end I must do the responsible thing and advise you to continue outlining. After all you’re drafting in G-Drive, Word, or Scrivener most likely, and not a typewriter or notebook. Hence it’s easy to backspace or press the insert key, change the outline, save it, then move onward.

Yet that urge to play dangerous and go without one is enticing, isn’t it? It’s just the first draft, you’re going to change this thing fifty times before trying to publish, so what’s wrong with some fun?

Consider your writing habits before you step out into untrod fields. If you are a disorganized person, then yep, you need an outline. Prepare to change that as much as the manuscript while you go. It’s the way of things. If you crave order and disdain chaos, you’ll use one anyway. On the opposite end there live daring writers who can work without nets. They somehow draft coherent first manuscripts with minimal, if any outlining. There are so many grades of in-between though, and no single tip can encapsulate them all.

Since it’s responsible of me to recommend outlining instead of not, I propose something that is adjustable for all degrees on the organizational scale: a skeletal outline, one where the characters, setting, central conflicts, and story arc are plotted but not elaborated upon. At least take the time to notate where action should rise and fall, where the climax should be, and give yourself an idea where and how this story should end. Even the crudest map is tolerable to those who prefer nothing but a compass and the stars to navigate. So if all you do is look at your outline for casual reference, have it upon you regardless.

Sally forth, friends, and write.