The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Do you need an expensive instrument to become a star?

The answer to that question is obvious.

There isn't an expensive instrument on this planet that will make you a star unless you have talent, or have an expensive guitar that can play itself.

You'd be surprised how many musicians became stars using cheap instruments.

For example, a lot of the old blues classics in the 20s were recorded using cheap guitars. Back then most of the inexpensive guitars were called "catalog guitars" sold by Sears and other companies.

In fact to this day, many guitar players talking about this or that old inexpensive guitar will say that it's not a very good instrument, but still worth keeping around to play blues and slide.

There were companies like Stella that made cheap six and 12 string guitars, and the wider availability of these instruments was one of the major factors in moving the fiddle and banjo out of the mainstream.

Stella does have some historical importance. If it wasn't for Leadbelly and his famous Stella 12 string, and Pete Seger's use of that type of guitar for some numbers, some historians have said that the 12 string was actually an instrument that was in danger of dying out at that time.

Other now famous companies that manufactured inexpensive instruments included Kay, Harmony, and a host of others too numerous to list here.

There were of course premium and economy (relatively speaking) instruments made by companies line Gibson and Martin, but most blues musicians moved up to those instruments after achieving some sort of success.

By the 50s and 60s, musicians did tend to use the best they could afford. Particularly with the advent of Fender and it's assembly-line approach to making guitars.

The name brand instrument still tended to be out of the reach of the average musician or beginner, so a host of inexpensive electric guitars were created by Japanese companies like Teisco, and American companies like Harmony that were still going strong at the time.

Besides quality of construction, the most important factor in a guitar's value was who used it.

Fender tried to follow up on the success of its telecaster and Stratocaster by creating two additional models called the Jaguar and Jazzmaster. Both were rather complex models with all sorts of buttons and switches, and were commercial failures, though both developed a cult following in the surf guitar scene.

By the late 70s either model could be had pretty cheaply, and often found in pawnshops, etc.

With the advent of the Punk or new wave explosion, artists like Elvis Costello, Tom Verlaine of Television, and groups like Sonic Youth found that the Jazzmaster was an inexpensive way to get a quality Fender guitar. Which they were, the jazz master and Jaguar were at one time the top of the line Fender guitar.

One very inexpensive Fender guitar, the Duo Sonic, went from being a cheap beginner guitar to a collectors item thanks to artists like Patti Smith who preferred to use the smaller, easier to play guitar.

In the blue scene in the 70s, Hound Dog Taylor became famous using a cheap Japanese Kawai brand guitar. It was a guitar he bought from places like Sears for maybe $100, now if you can find a seller willing to sell one, the price is over a thousand. Same guitar, but you can see why guitar companies value celebrity endorsements so much.

Two more recent examples would include Oasis and Jack White of the White stripes.

Oasis started off their career with the guitar called the Epiphone Dot, a very cheap imitation of the Gibson ES 335. The Dot's were import guitars, and had a sound that most experts considered adequate for beginners.

Jack White was famous for using the Sears Airline brand guitar, that was made in the 60s and earlier, and at the time not valued very highly by players, and could be had quite cheaply.

Both benefited from the popularity of punk and alternative music, which created an audience that didn't need to hear the classic Gibson or Fender sound, and the emergence of grunge rock in the 90s.

Grunge rock came along at a very important time in terms guitar history. By the time grunge came around two large segments of guitar collectors entered the market, the Japanese and baby boomers.

It caused the price of many classic Gibsons and Fender to skyrocket. For example when I was younger I bought a gold top 50s Les Paul for $400, that later became priced as high as $150,000 at the peak of the collecting boom.

It also made the price of modern versions of those guitars more expensive, and for a couple of years there was no real middle middle ground in terms of American-made guitars until a new generation of low and mid-priced guitar companies emerged.

One good example of public perception is Led Zeppelin. The perception was if you wanted to play music like them you had to own a Les Paul. Which was sort of true, Jimmy Page generally used a Les Paul for live performances.

The ironic thing is that in the studio he rarely used a Les Paul. His favorite guitar for recording was an old Fender Broadcaster he got from Jeff Beck, which was essentially a Telecaster with only one pick up. In other words an economy model. 

Another famous user of the Broadcaster, at least in his early career, was Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs.

That still didn't stop guitar players from making Les Paul one the most popular and expensive guitars. That also created an entire industry of copy guitars in the 80s that's now known as the "lawsuit" era, but that's a highly detailed story and best saved for another blog entry.

So when grunge rock came along, making classic rock had become an expensive proposition, and the raw, loud, and what experts would call the cheap sound made inexpensive guitars popular again and the basis of more than a few hits. Although the raw sound of early electric Neil Young is credited with being the godfather of this movement, it's arguable that it goes even earlier with the trash-rock sound of Link Wray.

The most famous groups that came out of that movement were Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but their guitar story doesn't really apply here. They used guitars that were no longer considered cheap.

Oasis with their hand-painted Union Jack painted Epiphone Dots were definitely a group whose guitar sound was based on a dirt cheap guitar run through amps that cranked to the max, creating a din that would've made a Gibson lover wince.

One interesting fact, despite the fame Oasid achieved, the Epiphone still remains an inexpensive guitar, and I should add, a decent value for the money.

Jack White was a slightly different case. He used the cheap Airline and other cheapo guitars pretty much the same way an early 50s blues musician would have, particularly on his slide Blues numbers, but at punk rock volume and distortion.

Of course like countless musicians before them, they moved up to better guitars as soon as they could afford it, but the fact remains that their early success wasn't due to using expensive guitars.

So the type and price of guitar doesn't always make a difference in whether you make good.

But talent, that always makes a difference.

Note: the story of cheap guitars and their role in music is actually more detailed than I've explained here. To keep it to the length of a blog entry I had to oversimplify.

One point I'm going to cover in a future blog is how a famous user can affect the popularity and price of an instrument. It's a fascinating story in itself,