The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Electric Fog Factory On YouTube!

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Friday, July 18, 2014

My Guitar Hall Of Shame: Guitars I sold cheap that later could have funded my retirement

Any guitar player who started playing in the 60s or 70s should be able to relate to the list of guitars below. I know that for a fact because at various guitar stores, I've stood there at the counter exchanging SOB stories about the guitars that got away with other musicians, like two drunks comforting each other at a bar over some heartbreak.

In reality there are some regrets, but they tend to be colored more with black humor and dismissed with a shrug that says, we simply had no way of knowing that the guitars that we sold and traded back then would eventually escalate in value to ridiculous levels.

The guitars seemed pretty costly even back then, but sometime in the 80s or 90s, a sort of perfect storm of Guitar collecting occurred. Both baby boomers who wanted to buy the same guitar as their music heroes, Japanese investor/collectors, and more than a few millionaires got into the act. Guitars that used to cost a few hundred dollars could go for over a million if it was played by the right musician, or a sizable percentage of that if it was the right type.

My very first guitar was a late 50s Gibson gold top Les Paul, with the white "soap bar" pickups. It's peak value I think was in the late 90s (keep in mind this is a blog and not an authoritive article), and I believe the figure was about a quarter million.

I bought it for $400, and in the early 70s that took just about every cent I had. I enjoyed it for a bit, but found that the neck was so thick I had a hard time playing with my small hands.

I took it down to Dean Markley's music store (before he became a string manufacturer), and he told me it was worth when I could get for it.

Back then the main people who bought guitars were other musicians, which was another way of saying that I wasn't going to get anything more than what I paid for it, and most of the offers came in at around 60% of its price.

So I went to another music store, and traded it in for an early model Gibson ES 330, plus no charge on the $150 in repairs it needed. That one was a relative cheapie, maybe worth a few thousand now.

I was also doing acoustic music at that time and wanted to upgrade the guitar I had. Since I had more electrics than acoustics, I traded the Gibson for their acoustic "country and western" model guitar plus $200. I later sold it to a friend for a decent Yamaha guitar and 150 cash as a favor. The remorse factor is relatively low on that one, as I think the highest I've ever seen that model go is maybe 2500 or so. Peanuts.

I finally settled on a 1972 Fender telecaster, bought for $250, which was stock except for a rewound front pick up. I later sold for 850.00, which was less than it was worth by then. I had been in the Midwest for couple years, and hadn't realized that the guitar collecting boom had begun. I just simply thought the guy was just some really well off dude that was willing to pay way more than the guitar was worth.

During this time I put a cheapie Buck Owens guitar on layaway, but shifted the funds to another purchase. Decades later it became known that Buck Owens wanted the guitar to be inexpensive, but a few higher end companies wanted to be associated with the product and were willing to subcontract it. The company that ended up doing it was Gibson, and of course now that guitar is worth over thousand dollars.

The reason I ended up not buying it was simple, once I got past the cool red white and blue striping, it simply didn't sound that good. The fact that the subcontractor was Gibson has escalated the price drastically, but there's $200 acoustic guitars out there on the market that sound three times as good.

I do have to admit that because of that cool American flag coloring, it is one of the few regrets I have in my guitar buying life.

In the middle 70s I added a bell shaped Danelectro electric 12 string guitar to my collection for $100. Nowadays you can probably easily get at least 800 for it, but for the life of me I can't remember what happened to it.

As the more expensive Gibsons skyrocketed in value, it increased the cost of some of the lower line models. I've owned two student model ES-125's, one in mint condition. They were cool guitars, but frankly not very good unless you played blue slide, so those were traded off for various other guitars. The one in mint condition could probably get at least 1800 now, maybe more.

The escalation in price for many of the guitar that used to be economy or beginner models is an interesting subject in itself. I'll definitely cover it in the future blog.

A few years back I bought a 1920s Gibson mandolin that was in pieces for about $200. It turned out to be easy to repair, and the neck was in perfect condition (rare for that era now). It was an economy model back them, and since it didn't quite have the sound I wanted it was sold off for a few hundred dollars. I've since been told I should've sold it for at least 800, it's top value more like 1200, but I figure once you've lost out on a quarter million dollars, what's a few hundred now?

Given close to almost 4 decades of my faithless attitude towards guitars and other instruments, I could easily add a dozen more examples to the list.

The reason I don't have any remorse about any of those sales and trades is twofold.

One, I wised up and got smart about my guitar buying and trading, and because I've become reasonably competent at basic repair, my collection may not be as big as it used to be, but every one was obtained at a good price, and in some cases were a bargain.

Second, after a few years, most of the major guitar companies wised up and began to work harder at finding ways of providing guitars that were reasonably priced.

The guitar industry had done better than that. It's gotten to the point were at every price range you have a choice of several guitars that are all beautifully made. In fact, given what was available as entry-level guitars back in the 60s and 70s, more than one writer has wished that these modern guitars had been available back then.

America is a unique guitar market. If you read the discussion boards on the Internet, you'll find a lot of opinions and ideas that to people in other countries would think rather strange.

For example, many seem to think that each guitar has a basic sound, and even if the guitar is versatile, it's basically built for a narrow range of music. That means to play a wide variety of music, it's considered best to have a few guitars that can get you each of those special sounds.

Also we assume that the more expensive the guitar is the better it is. In the case of blues music, that's totally out of step with the history of recorded blues. A lot of the early blues in the 20s was recorded on cheap instruments like the old Sears catalog guitars and Stellas. The idea that you need a $5000 Martin guitar to reproduce that sound is a tribute to consumerism.

That 1972 telecaster that I had was my only electric guitar for 20 years. It's image is that it's basically a country guitar that can also play blues and certain types of rock. However it's also a guitar that's been used as a serious jazz instrument.

In the 60s and early 70s the idea that a guitar like the Les Paul could only play certain types of music was probably true. The reason was amp technology wasn't as far along.

These days amps are so sophisticated that even the cheap $100 ones have the option to do a competent imitation of at least two or three other brands of amps at the flick if a switch. Guitar design hasn't changed all that much since the 60s, whereas amp technology has made huge advances every decade.

Which is why I could just play one electric guitar for 20 years. As the amps got better, I found my guitar was capable of more and more.

What the smartest guitar players know is that skill and talent is what brings out the best in the guitar, or can make the sound they want. Ted Nugent and George Thorogood, for example, play Gibson hollow body jazz guitars, and neither could be accused of being a jazz musician.

Of course certain guitar designs bring out certain types of sounds that are unique. But I would say a majority of the guitars sound more similar than different.

The whole collecting boom has subsided a bit, if for no other reason that most of the rare guitars are already owned by collectors, beat up copies of the same model have become overpriced and way too many of the ones out for sale are counterfeits. 

There's a lot of 50s Fender stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls on the market that were actually made in the Philippines or China. Many of these counterfeits are so good, at least in terms of appearance, even the best experts can't always tell.

The ironic thing is it's not illegal to sell a counterfeit, as long as you identify it as one. There's companies that make replica 50s strats, complete with nicks and scratches, that are eagerly bought by guitar players for up to a few thousand.

Being somebody who prefers to keep guitars in nice condition, the idea of deliberately scratching and wearing out the paint on the guitar (called "relicing") seems pretty weird. But it's their money, and if it makes them happy, well shoot, that makes me happy for them.

So the second point was the longest to explain, or at least led to the most digressions, but the fact is the collector boom had a positive affect on the mainstream guitar industry.

From entry-level to advanced, for those who want a top quality replica of a vintage model, or super cheap copy of a vintage model looks at least 90% accurate, there's a guitar for you.

As far as that gold top Les Paul, I actually have a more modern version, and it's neck is slim and easy to play. Taking away the issue of money, if given a choice of the two I would still definitely take the one I have now.

The reason is that guitars are for playing and enjoying, not for investment to be put in a glass case and never played again.

An instrument that isn't being used to create music, and treated like some museum exhibit, is basically a gift of life turned into a joyless object. I'm very lukewarm on the "work of art" argument.

There's a lot of incredibly expensive Stradivarius violins out there in the classical world, and most are being played, and the music world is richer for it.

Maybe someday the guitar world will catch up with the classical world and how it treats valuable instruments.

 One can only hope.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Are American made guitars really better?

As a general rule, American-made guitars, particularly electrics, are better made and of higher quality.

The reason isn't because Americans are better at making guitars.

The primary reason is because America only uses the foreign factories to make the lower priced economy models. Countries like Japan, when making first-line guitars for their own market, make guitars as good as American.

One example is Stevie Ray Vaughn. He was playing Japanese Stratocasters before he signed an endorsement deal with Fender. There's one famous photograph out there where he's playing a Strat in a Fender ad, but it was really his Japanese guitar with a Fender logo airbrushed over the headstock.

The reason for that was that for a decade or so, Fender wasn't producing guitars in United States. It was after the infamous "CBS era"when that company bought Fender in the early 70s.

During the 80s Gibson was owned by company called Norlin, and that era was considered a low point also.

During that era both brands were at the receiving end of a lot of critical comments by American buyers (that's miraculously changed now thanks to the vintage market), and Japanese companies like Tokai, Burney, and Ibanez flooded the market with lower-cost high quality (and low quality) copies of Gibsons and Fenders, the best examples of which have become collectors items today.

That was known as the "lawsuit era," where overseas companies had to stop copying the Gibson headstock. It's since become an era that's developed a whole set of myths, where every Japanese guitar made then was superior and of legendary quality.

I won't go into it now, as it's a subject that really should be discussed in a separate blog.

The fact is an overseas made guitar will be as good as the contractor/customer wants it to be. The guitars are made to a certain specification and budget, not because somebody wants to make the guitar inferior to an American-made.

All things being equal in terms of materials and craftsmanship, one of the primary reasons an American guitar is more expensive is labor cost.

One good example was a special limited-edition budget guitar line Gibson came out with a couple of years ago at around $500 each. The guitars were crudely cut, the paint job cheaply applied, the fretboard was baked maple instead of Rosewood, and the only sign that it was a real Gibson was that each had a single stock pick up, and the distinctive headstock shape Gibson has patented.

You could've simply removed that stock pick up and wiring, and put it in a Korean made Epiphone of the same body shape, and you would have had a better guitar for $200 less (or more).

It was sort of funny reading the various reviews for that line of Gibson guitars. The reviewers stressed the simplicity, that it was for players, not collectors, and that it was a Gibson. In other words, they walked a very fine line between telling the truth, and not saying something that would cause Gibson to pull ads from their pubs.

The guitar forums were more entertaining. The opinion split between those who were just happy to have a Gibson at a cheap price, those who saw that if it could be had cheaper (like when Gibson reduced the price to 300 when it closed out the line) that it wasn't a bad "fun" guitar, and those who brutally pointed out all the production shortcuts that the company had made to produce a guitar that was a worse value than their cheaper Epiphone line.

I should add that I did briefly own one at the 300.00 price, but gratefully took advantage of the store's 30 day return policy.

Fender was one of the first major American companies, at least one that most American guitar players care about, that was willing to put out a foreign guitar under its own logo.

Their cheaper Squier line already came from overseas, but somewhere around the 90s the first Mexican made fenders appeared. Those guitars were made cheaply, and didn't sound as good. But the price was certainly right, particularly for those who knew how to upgrade a guitar.

There was some of the usual contempt, some of it borderline racist, but as a whole Fender not only continually improved the process, but has created several lower line Fenders and Squires that all but the most hardline have accepted as exceptional values in each price range. In fact, they've made the mid-range price market competitive with models that cost more.

Fender could do this because it's owners have a different culture than those who own Gibsons. Fenders were intended to be a quality affordable assembly-line guitar, that was screwed and bolted together, thus allowing users to mix-and-match parts.

The Gibson culture values a guitar that is supposed to be the top quality American guitar that has no equals. That would be disputed by companies like PRS and Fender, but there's no denying that Gibsons are like Harleys. It doesn't even have to be better, the name has that much cachet in United States.

In the 60s you could definitely say that an Asian made guitar was inferior to an American one. Most of the Japanese makers didn't even try to be better, as the idea was to capture the low-end market (though the vintage market has changed that).

As Japanese guitar makers got better, they got more expensive. So the next generation of Asian made guitars came from Korea, and the usual denigration of guitars made there began all over again.

The ironic thing is when production began to shift Indonesia and China, guitar players began to value Korean guitars as if those were the good old days, and the perception of Japanese craftsmanship rose even higher.

But like I said, when these countries decide to build a good guitar, they're certainly capable of it. One good example is jazz great George Benson who uses an Ibanez.

America is a richer country than most, so we have strange ideas about guitars and guitar making. Most American guitar players seem to assume a certain superiority in American craftsmanship, and I'm sure our attitude that a $400 guitar is only adequate for beginners would make many musicians around the world roll their eyes.

We're definitely one of the few countries that think if you buy a guitar at a certain price, it will make you that good. Even if some of the most legendary music England and America ever produced was made on cheap or catalogue quality instruments.

The fact is the world can make Instruments just fine.

Any good flamenco guitarist worth his salt will want one made in Spain. There are probably plenty of good luthiers in the United States that can make a flamenco guitar, but if they opened up shop in Spain they'll find that there's centuries of subtleties in the craftsmanship that they don't know.

Guitarists who look down on Chinese guitar makers are simply forgetting that the Japanese had the same learning curve in the 60s, and are making excellent guitars now.

The Chinese are already making very nice guitars for the price, which shouldn't be surprising, given that their culture made vases centuries ago that are now worth millions. A markup that would turn any red blooded American capitalist green with envy, and make computer software makers nod their heads in approval.

The primary value in an American guitar is that it was in fact made better and with better materials. If you gave the same budget and materials to a Japanese maker, i'm sure most guitar players these days would admit that they just might come out with an instrument that is just as good and cheaper.

Our guitar market is actually somewhat of a rigged game, because we're dealing with a product with a basic design that simply hasn't changed much for half a century. Making a guitar that's as good as a Gibson and for less really isn't difficult.

One of the reasons the Asian guitar companies haven't tried to take on Gibson is that as a rule they don't want to. The idea that the average American wants to pay $2000 for a first-line guitar is a philosophy that would put most guitar makers out of business fast. The meat of the industry is in the 300 to 1000 range.

Plus not all Gibsons are 100% American anymore. A lot of their acoustic line is actually made in Canada, where good quality wood is still cheap. I'm sure the reasons why a Canadian made guitar seems perfectly fine with the Gibson crowd run the garment from the obvious quality to stereotypes about Asian factories compared to ones in the Western Hemisphere.

One instructive thing an aspiring Gibson Les Paul owner can do is check out the various guitar forums about that type, and not just the ones dealing with or hosted by Gibson.

A Gibson Les Paul's isn't a complicated guitar to make. In fact except for the fact of the neck is glued on, and the top requires some shaping, it's really as simple as any Fender. Which is why it's probably the most imitated and counterfeited guitar in the world.

You'll find that the majority opinion is that if you find a Les Paul copy that's made with the same craftsmanship and materials, and stick Gibson pickups in it, you probably have a guitar that's as good as Gibson makes. Plus more than a few Gibson owners don't like the stock pickups either and replace those as soon as possible.

Craftsmanship does count. A lower line Epiphone copy that is made will often play better than a Gibson that was made by worker that might've been at less than top efficiency that day, or was passed and approved by careless QA inspector. That goes for guitars as much as tables or anything made of wood.

Even in a lot of the machine made guitars, care in the assembly and manufacturer is a factor. Plus not all pieces of wood are the same, some are excellent quality and resonate sound well, and some don't. If you get a guitar made from the latter, it won't matter if it has a Gibson logo on it, as more than a few Les Paul buyers have found out.

The answer to the question in the title is actually pretty simple, it was just a good vehicle to ramble a bit about guitar quality.

The answer that I stated at the beginning of the blog was obvious (to me anyway), but a lot of the feeling about the quality of American guitars is very emotional, and about supporting American workers.

My general point of view in guitar reviews is that whether it was American-made is only one of the factors. It's certainly an important one, as there's no denying that an American guitar has a certain aura about it that can't always be quantified in price.

As a matter of disclosure, I do own some American-made instruments. Two electric guitars, a 12 string, and a banjo to be exact. The banjo was made in the 30s, but two are modern American electric guitars.

My personal view on buying an American guitar is that if it gives you what you want, then it's worth it. Paying more simply because it was American-made is certainly valid, but I wouldn't pay more simply because it's an American guitar.

Paying 200 or 300 more because it was made in America is patriotic, paying a thousand or more is just a crass exercise in capitalism.