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Choosing an Axe on the Cheap, Part 1

Where do you look for the best deals and budget brands?

No doubt, this is the column we’ve all been waiting for (especially my editor, thanks to a hard drive crash), and it's the one that needs your input most of all. We're talking guitars now—the very thing to which we've dedicated our lives, knowing our spouses and kids only exist to tell us what awesome shreddies we are (before we respond, "Uh, it's called shredding, honey.")

Last time, we talked lessons. But the next, most important, piece of our arsenal, besides our fingers and dedication, is our axe—our weapon(s)-of-choice, our babies, our sidekicks, alter egos, our go-to reason for avoiding sports and social functions. After all, everything else is just gear. This is an instrument.

For Leo Fender, accessibility was always the endgame, and thanks to a butterfly that flapped its wings in the Far East not long ago, the entire landscape at your local music retailer has changed for the better, i.e., the cheaper. I mean, come on, when you can get a Fender at COSCO, it's safe to say the “Cheapskates” are in command of the demand. And we can score big—but only if we know where to look, and most of all, what to look out for.

You’ve got three choices:
1) Get a crap guitar for real cheap.
2) Get a good axe at a great price.
3) Get a great guitar for the cost of a new liver.

Most of us tend to search the middle ground, and so this is where most manufacturers are now staking their claim, offering Asian-made axes obfuscated by heavy doses of American style and hype.

Let’s kick this off with a look at that market and delve into some sources for these steals. As always, let’s make this a discussion! Add your favorite places to find a bargain in the comments or by emailing, and watch for our list of your contributions in the next column.

Guitar Center
Love 'em or hate 'em, being a giant, dispassionate box store has its advantages because they incorporate losses into their business strategies, and, as a result, we win. The first thing you see at my local Guitar Center is the “Used” section of guitars and amps, and you can find some weekly gems that rival anything on eBay. You can also go online and have a guitar delivered to your local store. Some of the guitars are set up quite nicely, too, making it tough to pass up. I recently bought a Michael Kelly Patriot Special with an ebony board and EMGs for $200, and it was set up to play beautifully. Grover tuners, too!
Yep, I've found solid deals on Amazon, and one tends to forget that they sell a whole lot more than books. It's not uncommon to locate previous-year models or discontinued items, too. When AXL stopped making the Badwater Heavy Relic Strat, I found several left on Amazon, brand new, for less than the cost of a used one on eBay. Because Amazon aggregates all kinds of hole-in-the-wall retailers and sellers, you never know what you'll run across, which makes it a go-to place right off the bat.
As China strives to become the next Korea in the world of good 'n' cheap gear, Korea has become the next Japan. The quality and craftsmanship emerging from Seoul is really starting to chop away at the stigma of having MIK stamped on your headstock, thanks to the use of real tonewoods like alder, mahogany and ebony, along with excellent finishes and options normally reserved for the Custom Shop.

One of the most loved online sources for MIK and top-notch MIC is Rondo Music, exclusive distributor of the Agile and SX brands. As of this writing, I have yet to find a retailer selling, for example, a Strat-style with an alder body, a straight neck with vintage finish and jumbo frets, plus a vibrato with a decent tone block for under $200 (except for, see below). Scroll through Rondo’s extensive menu and you’ll notice the usual suspects—Kramer-like Vs, Ibanez-like shredders with Floyds, PRS wannabes, some SG and Explorer copies, and, of course, the obligatory clones of Strats and Les Pauls. Sure, Strat copies are expected. But it's not so common to find well-made, set-neck single-cutaways like we see at Rondo Music. We're talking mahogany bodies, flamed-maple tops, ebony fretboards for well under $500—most for the cost of a begrudging Gibson Melody Maker with cheap tuners and balsa wood neck.

But that's not all. You can also find some weird, original MIK designs—half retro, half post-modern, and totally cool, sporting the likes of triple P-90s, toaster pups, and floating Jazzmaster-type vibratos, all for under $200. Take a closer look at the Fender-style models for some nifty mix-and-match features like the semi-hollow Tele copy with the open-coil humbucker at the bridge, a closed-coil minibucker at the neck, and a Wilkinson vibrato to boot. Why? Who cares?! It’s damn cool—especially at $165, thank you very much. This is taking the spirit of Leo Fender and dressing it in a kimono. It's all about more, extra, bonus, added value. Sometimes it’s smart. Sometimes it’s goofy. But it’s always more.
If you’re into cool electronic mods, good guitars, pedals, and parts for less, is a must. I stumbled across these guys while searching for some on-board effects, and discovered a whole wealth of inspirations for my inner Frankenstein. Now, GFS is putting it all together with their Xaviere line, best described as the sum of quality parts, designed by players rather than marketers. Of the Xaviere line, the piece de resistance has to be the XV-870. On specs alone, this Strat copy can go head-to-head with any Mexican-made Strat (and some American ones, too) at, wait for it ... $174. I plan on owning one very soon.

Here’s how they do it: Instead of simply distributing foreign-designed knock-offs, Guitar Fetish design the Xavieres with GFS components and then has them assembled overseas using their proprietary parts. The completed axes are then offered online for a killer price and everybody wins. Just like Rondo, all the popular guitar models are represented here including hollowbodies, thinlines, and shredders built for speed, starting around $160. They also offer a very cool line of travel guitars that are nearly 24” scale, downsized physically, but upsized tonally with bonus features like alder wood and a serious neck almost 10” wide. For under $120, you could collect all five colors for less than the price of an American Strat. I haven’t personally played an Xaviere, but little touches like graphite nuts and GFS custom-wound pickups are details you won’t find from big manufacturers at the big box stores. So, if the devil is in the details, Xaviere promises to burn while leaving your bank account unscathed.

This completes our first look into finding deals and steals. Let me know in the comments or via email where you find the best deals, and we’ll compile your answers in the next column. Until then, happy shopping.