Premier Guitar

Tuning Up: What Was I Thinking?

March 15, 2011
Life is full of too many “What was I thinking?” moments to chronicle on a single magazine page—and, doubtless, they’d be far too personal and/or incriminating for mass consumption. But tales of guitar-gear regret? I think we could all go on for hours about those.

I’ve recently been thinking about my own gear goofs over the years. In some cases, the screwups were pretty innocuous—I was new to guitardom and didn’t know any better—but some are pretty cringe-inducing and depressing. As you’ll see, left to my own devices growing up in a town with practically no music scene, I didn’t always make the greatest choices. Here are some of the lowlights.

Tubes? Cut the crap, Mr. Salesman.
I was 13, I’d been playing for a year, and I’d saved enough money to buy my first electric. Not knowing anyone else who played guitar (except my classically trained nazi of an instructor, who practically spat in my face when he learned of my plans to buy a solidbody), I was at the mercy of my mom and the salesman at the big annual sale at Herger Music in Provo, Utah. I settled on a sunburst 1983 Fender Strat. Naturally, I needed an amp, too, but when the salesperson said a lot of players prefer amps with vacuum tubes, mom saw red flags and her mother-bear instincts kicked in: How dare that weasel try to pass off yesterday’s technology on her innocent little son?! We’ll take the solid-state Peavey Backstage Plus, thank you. In the end, I couldn’t complain too much:—I won the door prize at the end of the sale: a Marshall Master Lead Combo, which I kept in lieu of the Peavey. Mom must’ve breathed two sighs of relief. A) It was free, and B) it didn’t have any of those pesky glowing bottles.

Homemade Guitar Spandex.
By age 15, I’d read enough about Eddie Van Halen to be convinced I’d never be happy without a bridge-position humbucker and a Floyd Rose. I saved up and bought a top-of-the-line Kramer Stagemaster Custom with a Floyd and Duncan pickups—a JB and two Vintage Staggered single-coils. It was “flip-flop red,” and I was stoked. But within a year or so, some odd mix of inspiration from Steve Vai’s adventurous use of solder, coins, and denim, as well as Jennifer Batten’s green Axesak—basically, guitar spandex —inspired me to buy a psychedelic polyester shirt from a thrift store and try to figure out how to fit it around my guitar. Fortunately, I never did.

Dry-Ice Dumbassery.
Fifteen-year-olds . . . band practice . . . dry ice in a bowl of water for some Spinal Tap-style fun . . . not a good mix. I spilled some into my DigiTech PDS 1550 Programmable Distortion pedal and then nearly pooped my pants trying to figure out how I’d explain that one to mom. Luckily, it worked again after drying out for a couple of days.

ADA MP-1 into a JC-120.
I eventually graduated from the PDS 1550 and solid-state Marshall to a 128-preset rackmount unit plugged into the squeaky-cleanest amp on earth. I thought those little 12AX7s were magical at the time. I had a lot to learn about tubes.

Refinishing? How Hard Could That Be?
By college, I’d gotten over my Floyd addiction and lusted after Eric Johnson’s vintage Strats and plexi Marshall (I’d already replaced my JC-120 with a ’65 Twin Reverb reissue—half of EJ’s Ah Via Musicom-era amp rig). But I had zero money for another guitar. Eager to tame the Kramer’s iridescence, I decided a quick trip to Home Depot was the key to giving the guitar a more classic look. Sandpaper? Check. Blue tape? Check. Orange-ish-brown stain? Check. Horribly botched finish? Check. Fortunately, a couple years later I found a guy online who was willing to trade for a VHT Pittbull combo. Poor guy.

StrapLok Horror.
A bit after the botched finish job, I lined up enough cash for a PRS Custom 24. Intent on protecting my $2200, black-cherry 10 top, I purchased a set of StrapLoks. The instructions said something about drilling out the holes, but I figured, “Hey, it already has holes—just screw ’em in.” I ended up with a stripped screw head and a half-tightened StrapLok that spun around its axis. No big deal, right? Just hacksaw it, unscrew the stripped part with pliers, drill out the hole, and start over. Yeah, that worked, but the hacksaw scrape on the upper horn wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned.

Twin-Reverb Overdrive.
Long ago, I’d read a lot about the tonal juju imparted by power tubes, which is why I got my reissue Twin. But I still had a thing or two to learn. For example, a cranked Twin does not produce that legendary power-tube overdrive. It blows 6L6s.

Selling a Rare Matchless.
Burned by my cranked-Twin experience, I set my sights on acquiring an EL84- driven Matchless. By sheer luck, I found a very rare Skyliner Reverb combo on musiciansfriend.com and bought it. According to Matchless reps, fewer than 10 of these partial PC-board amps were made before the company went out of business for a bit. Despite what purist snobs may say, the amp ruled—and I finally owned something that could give me that power-tube glory. I’m still kicking myself for selling it a couple of years later to finance a hard-disk recording setup that is probably now rotting in a pawnshop somewhere.

I could go on, of course, but I’m out of space. I have to admit, this trip down bad-memory lane was pretty fun, though. If there’s a single lesson here, I’d say it’s that you should always find an experienced mentor to guide you into unfamiliar gear territory. Good guitar journalism like what PG strives to offer is a start, but you should also supplement that with real-time dialogue with a trusted mentor.

We’d love to hear your tales of guitar-gear regret. So send them via email to me at shawn@premierguitar.com or comment on this article below.