The hype around vintage guitars has made them more expensive than ever before—but arguably, you can find all that you need in “cheaper” gear.
It’s official: We are living in the most expensive time ever. According to the United Texas Credit Union, “Since 1970, the Consumer Price Index saw a 500-percent-plus increase.” Even after adjusting for inflation, the numbers prove that 2023 dollars buy a whole lot less than they did 25 or 50 years ago.
Go grocery shopping, or look at real estate. It’s shocking and frankly depressing how expensive it is just to live today. Along with all that madness, there’s a weird paradox in the guitar world: Old guitars have never been more expensive—but there has never been a better selection of affordable brand new guitars and amps.
When I was a kid during the late ’70s and early ’80s, most cheap guitars were, well, cheap. They played rough, sounded bad, looked odd, and pretty much disintegrated quickly. They were at times built by children in sweatshops with inferior materials, so you got what you paid for. Brand-new, well-built guitars were expensive, but you could find pawnshop or yard-sale bargains on used Gibson, Fender, Martin, Gretsch, or other popular models in “Anytown, USA.”
But we are in a different world today. Firstly, builders today are expanding on the work of all the golden-age builders from the past, constantly tweaking and often improving on old designs. A few trained employees working with the now omnipresent CNC machines can flawlessly cut bodies and necks day and night, bringing the price point way down. I have played new guitars for under $200 that were shockingly good. If a fire destroyed everything I own and I needed to gig that night, I would be totally fine gigging with any of the guitars mentioned in this PG column: “10 Rock-Solid Guitars Under $600.”
I could plug one into a $250 dollar Boss Katana amp and pretty much sound like me for as little as $600, all in. If I looked for used or Black Friday sale items, I could probably cobble together a complete gig rig for as little as $400. And yet in spite of the many solid options for affordable, great new gear, vintage gear has never been more overpriced. I recently considered buying a 1962 patent sticker Gibson humbucker for a staggering $1,450. For the record, I bought my first PAF pickups in 1988 for $400 and they came attached to an all-stock 1961 Les Paul with the original hardshell case. (Sadly, those days and that guitar are gone.)
I considered this overpriced pickup because I was seduced by the hype. Logical me knows that there are way better options. I’ve conducted private shootouts comparing original PAFs to new Burstbuckers, DiMarzio’s PAF Masters, and pickups from Stocktone Custom Shop, OX4, Pete A. Flynn, and others, and honestly, they are all so close that I’m not sure which is better, or if “better” is even a thing. They all have their own personal magic. But when you are chasing vintage gear, it’s not really about the sound; it’s about desire and the seduction of consumerism. The stupid heart wants what it wants.
“But when you are chasing vintage gear, it’s not really about the sound; it’s about desire and the seduction of consumerism.”
I have a Ross Gray Compressor that I purchased for $50 in junior high (a king’s ransom at the time). Now they sell for $600 and up. I like the old Gray, partly for sentimental reasons, but honestly, I have four compressors that are just as good if not better. (Keeley Compressor Plus, Homebrew Electronics CPR, Origin Effects Cali76, and a Boss CS-1 that I bought for $35 in a pawnshop 15 years ago.)
I recently hung out with Richie Faulkner, the incredible guitarist in Judas Priest and Elegant Weapons. We were talking about the insanity of the vintage market when Richie told me that he is not swayed by the vintage guitar hype. He maintains that modern builds are mostly better. Granted, Richie still tours with his old friend, a 1974 Gibson LP Custom 20th Anniversary model, but in designing his signature guitars with Gibson and Epiphone, he was able to create a modern guitar that does everything he needs that vintage guitars don’t do. I’ve played his Epiphone sig, listed for $999, and it is an inspiring rock ’n’ roll tone machine.
For me, the biggest problem with expensive gear is that it’s a lot of pressure to live up to the hype. Personal experience has proven that I can sound just as bad on a ’59 Les Paul as I can on a cheap guitar…. I may sound even worse on the ’59 because I get psyched out.
Maybe the vintage market dies with my generation as kids learn that an SE plugged into a Line 6 Helix does everything they need without the hassle, expense, and cartage. Maybe my generation is drawn to vintage gear because we are sentimental. That’s why we stage elaborate gear photoshoots and love the scratches and dings on old guitars. That being said, when that market crashes, I’m buying a 1957 goldtop, hopefully with a 5-speed.
How I’ll always remember Edward.
One memory often triggers another, so, while writing about my experiences with Metallica over a crucial decade in their career for this issue, I kept flashing back on my sole encounter with Van Halen—the man and the band. It was during 1988’s Monsters of Rock, and I was on assignment for the tour’s two-day stand in Akron’s Rubber Bowl, a decrepit concrete pit turned convection oven by the summer heat, to interview all the guitarists on the tour: Kingdom Come’s Danny Stag, Dokken’s George Lynch, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica, Rudolf Schenker and Matthias Jabs of Scorpions, and, of course, Edward.
For the first day I was there, Van Halen’s publicist kept nudging me aside. Nonetheless, I enjoyed their headlining set, save for the perplexing choice of a Sammy Hagar ballad about burying the placenta from the birth of one of his children under a tree. (If you know what that song is called, please let me know so I can more purposefully continue to avoid it.) Edward was especially brilliant, of course.
I was literally and anxiously sweating it out as Van Halen’s second-night performance neared, when the publicist finally ushered me back into the band’s dressing room, in the distressed bowels of the Rubber Bowl. Their green room was actually a casbah created within the area’s grim concrete walls. There were hanging tapestries, plush furniture, floor lamps, and other homey appointments, all cooled by giant fans at its edges. But the most impressive sight was Edward, Sammy Hagar, and Michael Anthony plugged into a vertical-standing road case packed with practice amps, jamming out some blues. Alex had a practice pad atop the case, and pounded so hard he cut through the astonishing web of sound. They tossed me a few nods, and I sat on the couch next to a table with a bowl of M&M’s on it—I did not check the colors—and watched them wail on for a good 10 minutes. Edward, plugged into what I think was a Fender Champ, still sounded every bit like himself. I thought, “Well, even if I don’t get to ask a single question, this is worth the trip.”
But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees. They all raced toward me and piled onto the arms and back of the couch. I was surprised and surrounded. They answered my questions, but Eddie kept playing his unplugged 6-string, and nearly every reply came with a silly joke or a pun that left them in stitches. They all talked at the same time, sometimes completing each other’s sentences—always answering me but spinning off into all kinds of wild digressions. At one point, Sammy did a decidedly un-PC Ray Charles impersonation that put Edward, Alex, and Michael on the floor. And when I asked a guitar-centric question, Edward slid off the back of the couch and landed next to me to reply.
“But they did unplug, and suddenly I felt like I was in the middle of a cartoon—or maybe an episode of The Monkees.”
It was hilarious—almost sketch comedy. But it was also beautiful, because it was obvious that at this point they were deeply connected by friendship and the joy of still discovering what this line up of the band, which had released OU812 a month earlier, could do. There was a tangible, open-hearted purity to them—at least about this music they were making and the experience of making it—and it wasn’t drugs, because Edward had recently been through rehab and not even beer was allowed in their green room. They were, in June 1988, truly a band of brothers.
Somehow, amidst all the crosstalk and antics, I managed to get all my questions answered, and spent a few more minutes hanging out with them, enjoying a cold cola and avoiding the near-100-degree outside temperature, as they bantered with each other and prepped for the stage. Then it was time for the publicist to reappear and throw my butt out, and for them to hustle theirs into the spotlights.
There were more troubles to come for Edward—struggles with addictions, divorce, and cancers—and a lot more music to be made, until he died, too young, in 2020 at age 65. But because of that day, I always think of him as happy-go-lucky, practically exploding with positivity and elation. And I’m very glad for that. Seeing somebody at their best and happiest is always a gift, and when it’s somebody like Edward Van Halen, it’s a treasure.
The Foo Fighters’ frontman once took my Les Paul at a Halloween gig and played it onstage, with glee, for 90 minutes. But his new autobiography is full of better stories and plenty of wisdom.
“Life is just too damn short to let someone else’s opinion steer the wheel.”
—Dave Grohl, The Storyteller
In 2013, I was playing a Halloween party at Paul Allen’s Beverly Hills home/studio. It was a surreal gig, playing “Season of the Witch” with Donovan while supermodels, musicians, titans of industry, and celebrities like Sacha Baron Cohen, Dan Aykroyd, and Gina Gershon weaved around the packed yet spacious and spooky dance floor. Right in front of me, dressed like an Amish farmer, was Dave Grohl bobbing his head to the music. I held out my guitar to him and shouted, “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY?” He shrugged his shoulders like, “why not,” jumped onstage, took my Les Paul, and proceeded to play for 90 minutes, pretty much nailing every cover song requested by the crowd.
It was an impromptu jam at a party, but Grohl turned it into an epic performance, putting everything into every song, hitting the high notes by screaming like his life depended on it while beating my guitar like it owed him money. I remember thinking, “Man, no wonder this guy is a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. He gets it.”
I hadn’t thought about that for years until last week, when Dave Grohl told me his life story over the course of 10.5 hours as he read the audio version of his autobiography, The Storyteller.
Right in front of me, dressed like an Amish farmer, was Dave Grohl bobbing his head to the music. I held out my guitar to him and shouted, “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY?”
If you’re a musician, you know people like the young, pre-Nirvana Grohl: the seemingly misguided who dropped out of high school to tour with a bunch of grown men in a dodgy van, sleep in abandoned squats, and survive on a diet of gas station corn dogs, generic cigarettes, and whatever else a $7 per diem can get you. Most professional musicians go through a similar rite of passage when they first forsake all common sense, security, and comfort to play music full time. Check back with those friends 10 to 30 years later and you’ll hear a lot of stories—some sad, some triumphant, but few more inspiring than Grohl’s. Consider these differences between Grohl’s experience and other sadder versions of parallel musicians’ lives.
Grohl put in the work.
Before he had drums, Grohl learned to play by hitting pillows in his small childhood home and making drumbeats with his mouth when no kit or pillows were available. He played and listened all the time, learning every song by his favorite bands. So, when Scream auditioned drummers, he already knew the entire catalog, proving that success is when preparedness and opportunity intersect.
Grohl had the humility to listen and learn along the way.
Like many young drummers, Grohl was shoehorning fills into every space, thinking he was killing it. One day, Scream bassist Skeeter Thompson forced Grohl to get very high and play one simple groove without any fills for 30 minutes. Grohl described it as “breaking a wild pony.” I know a lot of young drummers who could not or would not do this. Consequently, they never get to the next level.
Grohl puts everything into every performance.
When Nirvana saw this skinny kid playing the shit out of his drums for the tiny crowd at a Scream show, they knew he was the guy. I see guys onstage checking their texts between songs or looking bored. If you’re going to play, be in it. Every gig is not just a performance. It’s an audition for the next gig.
Grohl said, “It’s hard to put into words the belief I have in music. To me, it is God. A divine mystery in whose power I will forever hold an unconditional trust.” We’ve all met wild-eyed Law of Attraction zealots who look at the universe as a divine vending machine, where you say the magic words, believe with all your might, and then get the shining prize you crave. It’s not about the prize; it’s about the journey: the rejection, embarrassment, discomfort, and lessons you learn along the way. The reward is that you become the person you’re supposed to be. I suspect the trick to manifesting your destiny is to move forward trusting that what’s happening to you is happening for you. Big dreams remain an empty distraction from real life unless you put in the work, sacrifice, and hustle to make it happen.
Honestly, if, like Grohl, you steadfastly work, keep your mind/soul open, say yes, be grateful, and put your whole heart into it, eventually, amazing things will happen to you. It will be a wild ride full of soul-crushing and soul-expanding experiences that will lead you where you’re supposed to be. That may be rich and famous or poor and anonymous, but if you can find happiness in one, you will have it in the other as well.
One of my recent gigs was playing pedal steel with country artist Brooke Eden on live TV in front of millions of eyeballs. Here’s how it went.
Yesterday, I played The Today Show with country artist Brooke Eden. I’ve played Today and/or Good Morning America seven or eight times over the past 28 years: a few times on guitar, four or five on steel, and once on banjo (I’m terrible at banjo but can play a simple part under pressure). Here’s an inside look at the gig while the memory is still fresh.
Last week, Brooke Eden’s musical director, Miles Aubrey, texted to ask if I was available. I jumped on it. The band was Miles on guitar, Megan Jane on drums, Carl Fields on bass, and me on pedal steel with Brooke singing. The steel part was prominent yet somewhat simple, but the song had some keypads and a second guitar part that I tried to cover with a dotted delay trick to fill out the sound. We had one quick rehearsal at Brooke’s home, and although the five of us had never played together, it sounded great on the first run-through. We played it once more then planned to meet in New York on Sunday night.
The next day, Miles texted everyone that he was sick and should bow out. Our drummer Megan brought in guitarist Gabe Burdulis, who she was touring with, to fill in for Miles.
I tried to re-find that sweet spot between deafening and inaudible, but erred on the side of volume, as my personal motto is “better too loud than too quiet.”
Today has a 4:30 a.m. call time, allowing bands to soundcheck before the guests and hosts arrive, which means you fly in the night before. I checked my steel (a Show Pro single-neck E9 10-string), a duffle bag with show clothes, a volume pedal, some cables, and a small steel-specific pedalboard with a Peterson tuner, Keeley Compressor Mini, Keeley Red Dirt Mini Overdrive, Ibanez Echo Shifter for weird analog delay, and an Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 for a second digital delay or ’verb, tremolo, etc. Both delays have a tap tempo: I used a dotted delay on the Oceans 11 running into a trippy quarter-note delay on the Ibanez to cover a lot of space.
I checked into the hotel by 5 p.m. and then spent Sunday night walking around Times Square people watching, eating, and dreading my 4:15 a.m. lobby call. Today requested that Brooke play a second song as a teaser, so I listened to the new song and the single“Left You for Me” on a loop on my phone as I walked around, hoping to solidify my parts. We hadn’t ever played the second song together, so I was a bit nervous about remembering it under the pressure of TV.
I was so deliriously tired when we arrived at 30 Rock that I literally had trouble putting my steel together. (I miss having a tech.) Because Today’s studio is fairly small, I requested a Fender Deluxe but instead they had a massive ’90s-era, 100-watt Fender Tone-Master with a matching 4x12 cabinet. With the volume on 1, I could hear nothing but the hum of electronics. At 1.5 it was so loud it was peeling paint off the stage. I found a sweet spot just one hair over 1 that worked.
Today’ssound team are total pros—they dialed in a high-fidelity mix very quickly. We ran the song twice, then were released to wait in the green room until our performance. Brooke’s team wanted to go with a summery wardrobe of light blues, gray, and white. Gabe, who left straight from tour, didn’t have time to grab extra clothes and had only black jeans. Megan, our drummer, had some white jeans. When Brooke’s manager noticed that Gabe and Megan were roughly the same size, he suggested that Gabe wear Megan’s pants, so Gabe would be in white out front while the black jeans would be hidden behind Megan’s drum kit. They did the switch and, although not a perfect fit, those tighty-whitey pants looked hip on Gabe, who is handsome enough that it would be impossible for him to look bad.
The talent wrangler brought us on deck at 9:30 a.m. The volume had been turned down on my amp, so I tried to re-find that sweet spot between deafening and inaudible, but erred on the side of volume, as my personal motto is “better too loud than too quiet."
We ran the teaser song twice. I was thinking this was another soundcheck/rehearsal, but they filmed it and used it as a teaser. It was literally the first time these five people had played that song together, but it sounded great. After the teaser, Today host Craig Melvin walked over to me and said, “I love pedal steel. I’m a big Robert Randolph fan.”
They called quiet on the set, and we went live. The hosts did an interview with Brooke and then we played “Left You for Me” live. I thought I was a bit flat on the first bend in my turnaround solo, but other than that, it felt good going down. Brooke’s vocal performance was killer, and the band served the song well. What more could you want?
When you think about playing in front of 3 to 5 million people live, that can get in your head. The trick is to just play, don’t think. In fact, that may be the secret to life.
Here’s a story about the most interesting man in the world.
“The guitar is my first love, my partner in life. We grew up together and we’ll most likely die together.” —Thom Bresh
One of the best benefits of being a musician is that musicians know musicians, and musicians are the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Georgia O’Keeffe, the Marx Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Juliette Lewis, Jack Black, and Zooey Deschanel are or were musicians, albeit not full-time.
Maybe interesting people are interesting because they’re interested. If you live a life driven by curiosity, it’s going to be a wild ride. Musicians are driven by curiosity. Pretty much everybody likes music, but musicians aren’t satisfied just passively listening. They need to figure out how to do it themselves. That curiosity goes way beyond music, turning life into one big art/science project. Of the many musicians I’ve know, there’s nobody more interesting than Thom Bresh. His life was that project.
I met Thom Bresh at Johnny Hiland’s Birthday Jam at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley about five years ago. I had the worst imaginable performance slot for a guitarist: following Bresh, preceding Brent Mason. I stood side stage watching Thom play impossibly complex guitar, hearing his engaging stories, laughing at his hilarious jokes, and dreading my set. Bresh was so calm onstage, you forgot he was onstage. It was like the entire audience were his best friends and they were sitting in his living room, hanging on every word.
After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girl.
I watched to the end, then sheepishly walked onstage to play. After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girl. Bresh had the charm turned up to 10 and was regaling her with stories and songs, while shamelessly flirting … through my entire set. Years later when I gave him shit about trying to seduce my girl, Thom laughed and said, “I’m like a dog chasing a car tire. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I ever caught it.” His smile was inscrutable.
Bresh’s life felt like a movie. He was born out of wedlock in L.A. in 1948, the biological son of musician Merle Travis and his mother, Ruth Johnson, who later married renowned Hollywood photographer Bud Bresh. Bud and Ruth raised Thom as their son in Southern California. As a young man, Thom learned that Travis was his biological father, but he vowed out of respect to not speak of it until after Bud Bresh’s death (in 1987). On the surface, Merle Travis was a family friend who taught Thom guitar, but the connection went a lot deeper. That had to be tough on a kid, particularly in the conservative ’50s and ’60s. But where it really gets difficult is to be the son of a legend working in the same field you’re trying to break into. But like every superhero, that weird origin story may have motivated him to excel in so many things.
The Breshman was a Grammy-nominated recording artist. He was also a performer, actor, comedian, and the world’s youngest stuntman, working regularly from age 3 to 17 at the Corriganville Movie Ranch (referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Bresh was a comedian, TV show host, top-tier impersonator, an engineer, music and film producer, photographer, and songwriter. As a singer, Bresh had a Top 10 hit, “Home Made Love,” that garnered a nomination for the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist. He was also nominated for an Academy Award. On top of all that, Thom was the only person given the honor of “Wine Lord” by the Bordeaux World Wine Counsel and the Mediterranean Wine Growers. In addition to everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells out of reach by us mere mortals.
In addition to everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells out of reach by us mere mortals.
Thom was surrounded by greatness. He grew up watching Roy Lanham, Speedy West, Thumbs Carllile, Jimmy Bryant, Joe Maphis, Les Paul, and, of course, Merle Travis play guitar in living rooms. When you see your dad and his friends do remarkable things every day, remarkable things seem normal, or at least within reach. Bresh was fearless.
The last time I talked to Bresh, he said, “I can’t believe it, but I can’t get booked.” He was as shocked as I was. It bummed me out, but looking at it now, it seems like the right ending for this movie. Bresh was so talented that he never knew the struggle of a normal musician. At age 15, he replaced Roy Clark in Hank Penny’s band, then went on to tick every box a guitarist could hope for. The only thing he’d never done during his 27,000-ish days on this planet was not be able to get booked. By the end, he truly had experienced everything.
Thom Bresh was buried June 2, 2022, in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, next to Travis.