Guest Post from a gear enthusiast:
Why you don’t need a guitar made by hipsters to get amazing tone
Boutique sound for pawn shop bucks- why you don’t need a guitar made by hipsters to get amazing tone
Things this post assumes:
-you know about different types of guitars
-you are familiar with the different kinds of pickups
-you have experience in or are willing to learn good negotiation practices and basic soldering
-you own or have access to a small screwdriver and wire cutters/wire strippers.
All right; you did it. You bought a beginner guitar and have been practicing and growing your skills. Slowly, you’re starting to get interested in what makes your favorite guitar heroes sound different. Your heart begins to sink when you inevitably go and look at the axes they respectively wield.
Vintage this; hand made that, master built so and so. You love your beginner guitar, but now you may be wondering if it is inadequate to go on the tonal journey you’ve begun. Fear not! Hope shines on the horizon in the form of a craigslist as a Guitar Center used posting or perhaps even in your beginner guitar (provided you like the way it plays and has been set up).
If you want the high-end boutique sound, but don’t want to wait until your first platinum record to get it, this article is for you.
Where to start:
There has been an explosion of small music instrument companies with the advent of the internet. That guy whom you used to have to know someone who knew someone to know who makes amazing pickups in a tiny town in Virginia or Kansas is now instantly accessible via the internet.
Not only are the makers very accessible (often directly), but the community is vast, and it’s not hard to find user content about any part of a guitar you can buy. What this means for you is that there has never been a better time for frankenstiening a guitar.
To start, you have to answer these two questions for your self:
-what kind of guitar do I like aesthetically or sonically
-is that my current guitar
If you are sticking with your current guitar, the next step is selecting pickups and possibly additional hardware you’d like to upgrade on your instrument. It’s quite common to be able to find most flavors of a pickup in almost any format you need (for example, a humbucker pickup that fits in a small Stratocaster pickup slot).
Other things you can upgrade are the guitar’s bridge, tuners, tone/volume wiring, and slotted nut. The best instrument is often the one you already have.
If you are purchasing a new instrument, your top two resources will be guitar center used and Craigslist. Buying online is a possibility, but the optimal scenario when purchasing a guitar is that you can sit down with it in person and feel what it plays like.
Buying used guitars online (Reverb, eBay and the Guitar Center used sites are all great resources) requires some trust on your part. If you go the online route, be sure to get in touch with the seller and do your due diligence in asking what it plays like, what the condition is, and if you deem it appropriate, attempting to negotiate the price.
Whether buying online or locally, best practices for negotiation are important. Be clear and concise in communication and do not low ball.
Recommendations for instruments:
Most Mexican made Fender instruments are very high quality, and many of them play as nicely as their American counterparts. It is not uncommon to find them in your local guitar center used section for around +/- $300.
Old no-name guitars are another great way sometimes to find hidden gems. Silver-tone, Airline, Kay and about a million other tiny companies that cropped up when the electric guitar first became popular are what you will be looking for. All it takes is one hipster to buy one and make a cool record with it for the prices to shoot way up- and that could be you!
“Partscasters” are another option that can often be found on the cheap side but are more common online than local classified ads. A partscaster is when someone makes a guitar out of parts from multiple pre-existing guitars- maybe a neck from an American start, a body from a Mexican Telecaster.
Occasionally there also crop up partscasters which are made with vintage necks; these should be highly regarded as they provide a large part of the feel of an expensive vintage guitar.
When looking at any of these, you can mostly ignore the pickups that come in the guitar (unless you like the ones installed) as you will be selecting your own pickups.
This is where you will get your boutique sound. Popular boutique pickup makers include Lollar, Lindey Frailin, Curtis Novak, Kinnman, McNelly, and many others. You have to search around, use your ears and find pickups that:
1. Suit your sonic taste and
2. Can be made to fit into your guitar
Once you have the pickups you are faced with two options: you can have someone install them and set the guitar up or, you can install them your self. What route you take depends on your inclinations.
Buying a soldering iron, solder and finding wire snips is more cost effective than paying a guitar tech. It also will most likely not be very near if it is your first time or you are inexperienced with electrical work. That said, most pickups are very simple to install, and there are a wealth of resources on how to do so.
If you want to be fancy, you can also get into wiring kits and different pickup routing options (cool tapping, phase flipping, etc,)- but this is not a must.
A final caution: if you have or buy an instrument that plays poorly, no amount of electronics or money spent will make it play the way you want it to. It would be best if you started with an instrument that is already good (ish).
It might even be good to go to your local music shop and play some of the higher end guitars to get s feel for the direction you want to go in, to know what you’re looking for