Guitar and Bass

Guitars come as both six string and twelve string voicing (which makes a chorus or harmony type sound when played), in either acoustic or electric models. The primary considerations common to all are: machine heads or tuning pegs -- the little gismo that changes the pitch of the string. Any good guitar should have either Grover or Schaller machines, the sealed type (unless you are buying a nylon string classical guitar). Accept no substitutes or you'll find yourself upgrading to a set of Grover's at an additional $100+ very quickly! The tuning pegs on your axe need to be smooth, accurate with no slippage.

Another factor that make a guitar more or less expensive is the wood from which it is made. Actually that's woods, plural, as several types of wood go into making most guitars and these are glued together. When I watch luthier Rod Fong working on an electric guitar he brought in a piece of African Ebony for the finger board that was about ½” thick, 2” wide and 36” long. The one piece of wood cost him close to $200. He later bought a similar size piece of Rosewood for another finger board and it was about the half the price. Personally I thought the Rosewood looked more impressive but the Ebony was a rare, higher quality wood.

These prices were just for the fret board, so you can image what a Maple neck or Oak top will cost. It should also be noted that on electric guitars with painted bodies the wood may have serious visual flaws such as knots or dark spots. This occurs even on the most expensive of guitars! Only the most visually attractive, pristine woods are used in the so called sunburst natural wood finishes! Those blocks of wood for the bodies that are not great looking get thrown into to stack of bodies to receive spray paint.

After the wood costs come the bridge and nut, which on a low cost acoustic guitar, can be made out of plastic. Craved bone makes for the best nut. On some older instruments you might discover the nut was made from ivory (as once were piano keys). The inlays on the fretboard can again be plastic or mother of pearl. The binding between the neck and fingerboard will also increase the cost (some people avoid instruments with bindings because these can make fret replacement difficult and more expensive). Finally for an electric guitar there is the adjustable bridge, pick-ups, volume controls and connectors. The ¼” input jack, as an example, can cost as little as a few cents for one mass produced in the People Republic of China to several dollars for an American made Switchcraft connector which tends to be more durable.

In acoustic guitars, lower priced units are often spray lacquered just like all electric guitars, but a hand crafted acoustic guitar is done best by brushing on a thin coat of the lacquer (you want to hear the sound of the wood, not the varnish).

Electric Guitars and Basses

Most guitarists will agree that a good electric guitar is either an American made Fender, Gibson or Guild and the higher priced Ibanez models. A few people also like Gretch, Rickenbacher and Shekter electric’s. The price of these varies from about $900 to $2,500 new, but what you are buying is a high quality instrument made from fine woods, with excellent craftsmanship and great sounding pick-up.

The pick-up is the heart of the electric guitar which senses motion of nearby steel strings and translates this vibration into an electronic voltage which is then sent to a recording or amplification device for further electronic processing.

In the Fender line the Stratocaster priced around $2,000 for a classic, American made guitar (vintage pre-CBS Strats can cover over $5,000 used -- these were made before around or before 1961) is probably the most widely used instrument. It has three single coil pick-up that render a higher tone (more treble and mid range tones), but because of the single coil design it will pick up radio waves like a TV set. RF or radio frequences can be broadcast by household currents or your amplifier. So expect that the Strat will hiss and hum with the proximity of this noise changing as you swing the guitar around in relation to your amp. I find this particular guitar to have a slim, fast neck -- which, by the way, is detachable, so if your neck ever cracks you can go out and buy a new one for a few hundred dollars. The fret board wood is either blonde oak or dark brown rosewood. It has an excellent, fully adjustable bridge, offers three click tone setting rocker switch that also allow you to use in-between settings (giving you 5 possible pick-up configurations).

Some country, rockabilly and golden oldies rockers also like the lower price Telescaster, which has an even higher tonal range than the Strat (because one of the pick-ups is very close to the neck -- Rod Fong made a test rig that allowed him to shift the pick-up freely on a mock guitar body for audio tests and we found that the closer the pick-ups get to the neck or the bridge the thinner the sound), but only has two pick-ups and comes with a horrible stock bridge that needs immediate replacing with a Tune-o-matic or equivalent.

Fender also puts out a lower cost version of these guitars manufactured in Japan and Mexico, priced roughly half the cost of the American made versions. These instruments are essentially on par with brands like Ibanez. And there is also the very low cost Squire line which is a good entry level guitar for a young person just starting out.

In the Gibson line the Les Paul DeLuxe, at around $2,900, is by far the ultimate choice of many players. It uses double coil "humbucking" pick-up which delivers a richer, blues sound. These pick-ups don't have the nearly the hum and buzz effect of the single coil types, such as those in the Strats. The neck, however, is part of the body wood, so if it ever cracks or breaks it must either be repaired (glued back together) or the whole guitar body must be replaced.

The Les Paul has been a long time favorite with the hard rocker and metal guitarist for the deep, meaty, long amount of sustain -- which also helps with distortion for aggressive rock music! A lot of guitarists often replace the stock humbucking pick-ups with DiMarzzio brand humbucking or distortion pick-ups. The stock pick-ups delivery a very good blues or jazz sound when played clean.

The Gibson 335 and 135 are semi-hollow body guitars favored by jazz and blues artists (pictured at left guitarist B.B. King with his Gibson semi-hollow body electric guitar "Lucille"). The 335 is thinner, while the 175 almost ranks as acoustic guitar, except that "f" holes are used instead of the big, round opening found in most acoustic instruments.

In the moderate or lower priced end, Ibanez has been making a high quality instrument since the 1980's. Originally they made "clone" or "copy" guitars for the entry level guitarist, priced around $200, but their reputation for building a solid instrument turned the company name into a major icon. Now entry level Ibanez guitars are priced around $400 new and the cost goes up over $1,000. The instrument is very close to the Gibson SG or Les Paul in look, feel and sound.

A small company out of the San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles area called James Tyler puts out another good quality instrument in the moderate price range. (Don't confuse the Jim Tyler electrics with Taylor solid wood Acoustic guitars which are made El Cajon, California. They are two different companies and Taylor acoustics, priced from $500 to $10,000, are definately worth looking into!)

Guild electric guitars, in the moderate to expensive price range, are also well liked by a select breed of player.

Rickenbacher guitars are a popular item with collectors and those looking for a 60's pop-rock sound (the Beatles used to play Rickenbacher guitars and basses), although the necks on these guitars and especially the basses are very thin, which does make for fast action but also makes them prone to easy cracking or splitting -- far more so than any of the other brands.

Gretch and Shekter guitars are also coveted by some players.

Remember in all except the Fender line, the necks are an integral part of the body and necks do snap, break or if the trust rod is adjusted too much or too fast the fret board can become detached from the neck! That means a major, expensive repair that will leave your instrument very fragile thereafter...

Some guitarists will replace their standard bridge and tail piece with the Floyd Rose rear tuning bridge. This device hold tuning better than just the standard Grover pegs, especially when you use the "whammy" bar You also get a more precise tuning, but it is a royal pain to change strings as you must also put in a lock nut at the top which means you must open this nut, put the new strings through it, cut off the ball end, do lose tunings with the standard Grover's, then tighten the nut and finishing tuning with the controls in back at the bridge. If you don't have the course tuning within range you must loosen the nut, adjust the course tuning with the Grover's some more, tighten the nut down and go back to the rear tuning controls. Considering that the plain G and high E strings break frequently, this arrangement can be pain, especially at gigs. If you have this type of tuning bridge you must have a second guitar for stage work or be able to continue a whole set with 5 strings!

Bass Guitars

For most bass players the Fender P Bass is considered an industry standard. It's tough enough to drive in railroad spikes! Looking a lot like a very large Stratocaster, the P Bass is rugged, with oversize tuning pegs that stay where you put them and a it has a very good tone. Some people may find, however, the thick neck of the P Bass feels like a baseball bat in your hands. For those people there is also the Fender Jazz Bass which is smaller and lighter, but still roadworthy.

Even though they are quire fragile, a lot of bass players who want fast action really like the Rickenbacher Bass (my personal favorite). Ultra thin neck (mine cracked after a small drop once on stage) with a pair of flat truss rods, this bass plays like good lead guitar.

In the ultra expensive end there is the Alembic Bass which even comes in 5 and 6 string models (I could never get the hang of 6 string bass playing and find those necks way too wide for my hands).

The Gibson SG Bass in the moderate price range is also quite good.

The Steinberger Bass (pictured at right) with rear tuning and graphite neck is light but very expensive. Conn licensed their design and put it out as a lower cost, heavier wood neck and body (instead of graphite), which still makes for a nice lower cost entry level bass in this style.

Lower Price Entry Models

The Hondo line is starting to get a small name among guitars, not quite the prestige of Ibanez, but some select models are quite good instruments.

Fender introduced the Squire line of guitars and basses that are made overseas, much like the Ibanez of 30 years ago or the Hondo of today. They look, act and feel a lot like a Fender Stratocaster but at a fraction of the cost (starting around $200) and made a very good investment for the beginner.

Acoustic Guitars

Of all the brands Martin is still one of the most sought after acoustic instruments. Some are still made in American (these used to be offered with a lifetime warranty) while they also obtain a lower cost line from overseas (these had a much more limited warranty). That American made Martin (especially those made before 1990) -- along with the Taylor and Guild acoutics -- are the closest you will come to a custom, hand made guitar coming from a mass produced company. One of my personal favorites is the small, light Martin ¾ size guitar, aimed at smaller people (like teenagers). I find the action to be superb and the tone, while not as thick as a full size model, to be excellent.

Priced well over $1,000, the standard dreadnought or folk style Martin is generally solid wood front, back and sides. The final cost of their most expensive units probably includes rare, special woods (where the Maple, Rosewood, Ebony, Spruce or Cedar comes from in the world has a bearing on the price).

The woods, as previously mentioned, are the primary cost consideration in most guitars and virtually every guitar priced under $1,000 used veneered plywood for the sides and back. When you get under $500 the top is generally also ply materials. Plywood, while actually stronger and more durable, doesn’t vibrate in the same manner as a solid wood – once again we remind you that for an acoustic instrument it is the wood you want to hear, not the lacquer or the glue holding the plies of wood together. While we’re not quite talking shop grade ply wood you get for $10 a sheet (well, maybe they use that in $80 guitars) we are talking about a similar product with a pristine, wood grain side that is made out of a typical guitar wood (Oak, Spruce, Cedar, Mahogany, etc.).

So when paying over $500 for an instrument start asking about the woods to see if they are solid or ply. When paying more than $1,500 where these woods originate is another factor.

The biggest factor in picking any acoustic guitar, according to guitar maker Rod Fong, is to check the inside of the acoustic instrument to make sure the braces are correct for the type of guitar you are buying (you don’t want fan braces normally found on nylon string classical guitars inside a folk guitar that has steel strings installed, as this will eventually spilt or crack the top at the bridge) and that these are clean, fully sanded with no globs of cement visible inside. If possible, get a little mirror like the dentists use (low cost versions of these are often found at pharmacies) and in good lighting check the inside top, sides and back of the instrument to see how much care was put into the bracing of the instrument!

Most folk or steel string guitars have V type bracing that extends from the bridge past the big sound hole. There should also be braces along the inside back and little cut pieces all the way around the top and bottom attaching it to the sides.

The neck should be fully reinforced with a steel truss rod (cheaper guitars – those priced under $100 – usually have just a small rod between the head and the neck, this is not very good. You want a rod that goes from the middle of the top tuning piece almost all they way to the place where the neck is glued to the body.

All guitars, electric and acoustic, are made from several pieces of wood butted together and glued. Electric guitars are often made from two or three pieces. The back of acoustics are made from two or three pieces. Some head pieces (where the tuning pegs go) are often made of two or three pieces. This is normal.

For all guitars there should be no buzzes when your press any string down on any fret. And when properly intonated the open string and 12th fret harmonic should have virtually the same tone value (not off by more an a cent or two as a general rule). This is especially vital for acoustic guitars as they usually don’t offer fine tuning at the bridge.

The action should be good and the neck should have a small bow or bend around the 12th fret. This, too, is normal. A perfectly straight neck does not, as a generally rule, produce the best "action" or tuning across the scale length.

All guitars should have a case. Hard shell cases are the best for high quality instruments. Soft, foam cases are good secondary choice. The flimsy cardboard case is only good for a low cost instrument kept at home in a corner.

-- Also contributing to this was Rodney Fong and Alan Mayer

Our Music Special continues with these other articles:
Learning Music | Promo Pictures | Booking Agents| Managers | Producers | Pressing CDs
Record Companies | Copyrights | Recording Software | Sound Cards | Guitar and Bass
Multi-Track Recorders | Live Sound Gear | Microphones | Recording Engineer | Bands in Texas
Teen Band: Y@nK | Gigs and Clubs | Music Theory | Radio Airplay

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