Music Gear part 1

Hey all – welcome back to Fast Fingers Guitar Lessons. The holidays are approaching like an invading army and you might be tempted to ask for new music gear or get new music gear for that shredder in your family.

Before rushing into your local Guitar Center (or not-so-local amazon online) let’s cover some basics in order not to break the bank. This post will be centered on guitars. Next post will be on amplifiers.

As we look at the whole “signal chain” – guitar -> effects -> amp nothing is more intimate to a guitar player than the guitar itself. That would be the building block I would start with if I was going to try for a new sound.

Acoustic guitars – these actually get pretty pricey pretty quick. The wood here is very important, as well as the craftsmanship. From my observation, $250 doesn’t take you as far in the acoustic world as it does in the electric world.

Well known names like Martin are like the Les Paul in electrics. Unless you want to pay starting around $500, I would look for the Japanese brands – such as Yamaha and Ibanez. You’ll also need to decide if you’re going to go with the Classical style (nylon strings) or Standard (Steel strings). I would recommend Classical only if you plan to play classical music. The nylon strings are not as loud and it’s difficult to bend them if you plan to play rock or pop.

I will say you typically should not order a guitar like this online unless you picked it out in a local store and there’s a better price break on line. Even then, give your friendly salesman a heads up and they might just cut a deal with you there. I’ve seen it. And this way you don’t have to wait for UPS.

Electric guitars – there are several econo-entries in the guitar world. Fender Squires and Ibanez value packs that come with a gig bag and practice amp are really quite affordable (typically around $250) for the beginning shredder. If you’re beginning, this should give you a guitar to grow into.

Some things to avoid on an entry – level guitar: stay away from fancy electronics. Stay away from vibrato bars (aka Whammy bars or tremolo bars). Why? This hardware needs to be of decent quality to stay in tune. I would look in a more expensive model of guitar for something like that.

If you’re getting out of the entry level position, I would greatly encourage you to try out guitars. There is no one perfect guitar except for what YOU say it is. If you need an amp at the same time, start with a guitar that is “playable” that feels good to your hands. For the heck of it, try some guitars out of your price range too – nothing wrong with that. It will help give you perspective.

And remember, the fancier the paint job on the guitar, the higher the price is. If you don’t care about color, go for something solid.

Things to look for:

Neck – rosewood or maplewood? Most guitars are rosewood. There is a bit of a difference in feel. If you’re a Fender man (think Stratocaster or Telecaster) most likely it’s going to have a Maple fretboard and be brighter sounding. Rosewood is a darker sound. Neither is right or wrong. Close your eyes and see if you can hear the difference. If you’re a Stevie Ray Vaughn fan you’ll probably love the sound. If you’re a Slash fan, you’ll want something thicker sounding.

Frets – If you love strats, you get 21 frets. Most other guitars have 22. If you want to shred with the best of them, you might want 24 (2 octaves from the open string). You may want “Jumbo” frets but don’t get caught up in the hype. I play plenty of guitars with standard height frets.

Tuners – In my opinion, I haven’t had a problem with tuners. Grover is the gold Cadillac of tuners and I’ve never owned a set. Maybe I don’t now what I’m missing? If you go with a lock nut system, it doesn’t matter too much.

Nut / Bridge – now you’ll need to decide if you want a whammy bar or not. Standard guitars come with a standard nut and fixed bridge of various types. Strats come with a Tremolo bridge but with no locking nut (unless you pay to have one put on). I have a strat and I do not use the trem bar.

For Trem Bridges, Floyd Rose is gold standard, although I’ve had my issues with them in the past. Ibanez makes their own kind of trem which I believe is superior (less wobble in the neutral position). Kahler makes trem bridges but on the one guitar I have with a Kahler it doesn’t stay in tune. I’d stick with Floyd or Ibanez. But if you just have to try it, try it.

Pickups – This, like everything else, is a very personal topic. There are single coil (think Strat), humbucker (think Les Paul), active (EMG – requires a battery) or passive (any pickup that doesn’t require a battery).

Single coil are great for that thin, snappy sound. They can be noisy – thus the “hum” that is “bucked” by the humbucker. That can be addressed to some degree with a compressor, but that’s in effects.

Humbucker, or double coil pickups, are a bit hotter than single coil. This is a huge market. Most guitar manufacturers make their own, celebrities market their own, and some just have a great reputation. This is very individual again. I got to play my Ibanez Steve Vai 7 string model live once and it has DImarzios – and they sang. They were beautiful. It’s difficult to know what a pickup is going to sound like until you give it some volume.

EMG’s (and there are others) are considered active pickups and have a 9volt battery in them – they boost the output. These are common in guitars suited for metal playing.

If you are the do-it-yourself type, you might like to experiment – buy a couple of pickups, drop them into your guitar, and play them loud – band practice or at a gig. Check the return policy first though.

Honorable mention: Modeling guitars. As things get more and more digital, we have modeling guitars that can simulate (or try to simulate) strats, les pauls, Jazz guitars, acoustic 12 strings, and a knob for changing the tuning (need Drop D tuning? Hold that dial!). I have one – a Line 6 Variax and have gigged with it for years because it is a playable guitar.

I left out one more type, but these are among the most expensive. So for the guitarist that has everything, there are Signature guitars. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Randy Rhodes, Dime Bag Darrell, Synister, Rusty Cooley, Steve Vai, Joe Satrianni, etc., etc., etc. all have sig guitars. You don’t even have to be alive to have one.

I own 2 signature guitars, both are 7 string. One is the Steve Vai JEM 7v7 and the other is the Rusty Cooley Dean RC7. The reason why I bought them is after trying all the 7 strings I could lay my hands on, I didn’t like any of them. I figure if someone is going to hang their rep on a guitar it should be decent. But I paid for it. The Vai guitar was over $2k. The Dean – more like $900 and it is less than perfect.

So once you have your sweaty little hands all over your new precious axe, it’s time to go amp shopping.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving on 11!!!

Spencer