5 Questions to Answer Before Buying Your Next Guitar
Assuming that you’re on the cusp of another guitar purchase (because really, when aren’t we?) I give you the 5 questions you should ask yourself before pulling the trigger.
Let’s hop into the wayback machine this month and recall the experience of buying your first guitar. My story starts KISS, and Ace Frehley in particular. For several years I looked at every picture in Circus, Creem, and Hit Parader, scanned endlessly over the Alive and Alive II album covers and pored over the Sears catalog (this was during the Marlboro-era of Gibson Les Paul copies). As a kid who hadn’t even gotten his first paper route, it was tough to come up with real money. A Gibson was out of the question, but that Sears catalog was offering up some seriously close-looking Les Paul copies for around $100.
Fast forward to the trips to the local and slightly out of the way music stores, and there they were: rows and rows of real Gibson Les Pauls. Of course, these were still totally out of my price range so I moved onto the row with Memphis and Seville LP copies. With my newly acquired paper route gig it looked like the wine red Seville with crap pickups, bolt-on neck, and no case was going to be the ticket. For the next 4-5 months I delivered newspapers, cut lawns, asked my folks to give me chores for extra cash and slowly piled up my wad of guitar money. The time came and I plunked down the coin for my LP copy and was about to leave when I realized I didn’t have an amp…
We’ll leave the rest of the story for another article. The reason I’m writing about buying that guitar this month is that there was a serious energy around that purchase. It meant everything to me. Fast forward to 2011—does it still feel that way for you? Assuming that you’re on the cusp of another guitar purchase (because really, when aren’t we?) I give you the 5 questions you should ask yourself before pulling the trigger. Are you ready? Let’s go.
1. Can I afford it?
Great question! We live in a “gotta have it now” society. Credit cards, gear trades, selling off other stuff to buy it… these methods can all work but you need to ask yourself if it is prudent to be spending your hard earned money on this guitar right now. Can you afford it? Be honest.
2. Is there a purpose for the purchase, or is it gear lust?
Is this a trophy guitar or a tool? It doesn’t necessarily matter if you love to collect guitars for art or if you play them for work or fun. The question is important because without having a defined purpose, you may just be doing it because you’ve got GAS or you’ve been visiting the forums too much lately. We’ve all been victims of gear lust before, but it’s dangerous—you might quickly find yourself with more guitars than you can handle.
3. Is this redundant, and if so, is redundant necessary?
Redundancy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to call off the purchase—for some people redundancy is necessary. Much like computer servers at a company, sometimes you need a backup. If you’re in a band you probably don’t want to do the entire gig on one guitar. What if you break a string? In my case, redundancy is good in the studio because it saves time. It all depends on your needs, but again you need to be honest. How many Les Pauls or Teles do you need before you’ve gone overboard?
4. How long will you keep this? Is this an impulse?
I have a rule that I live by. If something hasn’t been played in six months, it’s out the door. Make room for what you will play and let that instrument that’s collecting dust go to somebody who will love it like I loved that first Seville Les Paul. Try to look ahead beforehand to determine if this is going to be a long-term relationship before you end up losing money or, at the very least, going through the hassle of selling. This does not apply to collectibles. See, I’m practical!
5. How am I going to tell my spouse?
Make no mistake. For most married people this is the king daddy of all questions, which is why I left it for last. Unless you are married to the coolest person in the world (lucky me) this is tricky. An entire column could be devoted to how to carefully word the opening line of how you’ll explain that beautiful git box that arrived today that he or she signed for. In this case more than any other it’s best to just be honest—and if your honest answer doesn’t cut it, perhaps it’s time to pass on the purchase.
If you’ve gone through the first four questions, the last question shouldn’t be hard to answer at all. Why? Because you’re about to buy a guitar you can afford (1) that will be used to enhance your life (2), has a completely justified set of tones and features (3), and will be around for a long time (4). Happy guitar hunting and I’ll see you next month.
Giving to Get: Donate Your Gear
Not worth Craigslist or eBay? Donate it!
Last week I did something that never would have crossed my mind a few years ago. I gave away perfectly good sounding and working gear! While looking at my collection of amps, pedals, and instruments recently, I did what most of us gear hoarders do...I made a list of everything that needed to go so I could reinvest in more gear. This time around, the main objective was to clear away things that weren’t getting used so I could put that money into acoustic treatment and better monitoring for my studio. In the process of inventorying the gear, it ended up that I had a lot of redundancy in every aspect of gear including guitars, amps, and pedals. It was actually pretty amazing to see it all laid out in the room, especially since there were pieces that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. Brand new, quality instruments that just weren’t getting played and needed to move on to a good home. It also felt a little sinful knowing how much overkill was going on. Two of this, three of that…redundant. You could easily have assembled many gigging or recording rigs out of extras.
As the inevitable photo taking and pricing of gear commenced, there were items that were going to fall into the category of “too cheap for eBay, too painful to put on Craigslist.” These are items where you know the fees are too high to justify an auction and shipping on eBay, but you’ll get way too many creeps and tire-kickers/scammers on Craigslist that you don’t want coming to your home. What to do? After watching several episodes of Animal Hoarders and other similar shows it came to me that maybe, just maybe, I could do something charitable. How about helping out a little rather than try to make a quick buck. And who ever said there wasn’t something rewarding about giving?
So here I was looking at a perfectly good amp (Epiphone Valve Jr.) and while it was only fired up once and stored away as a project for the future, I faced the facts that it never was going to get used. New for $99 at Guitar Center means most likely $50 on Craigslist. Hmmm, what about Goodwill?
Right next to the amp was a set of drums I’d bought a couple years back in hopes of bringing back the old days of being a drummer before all this virtual instrument stuff started happening. Sure, they needed new heads but it was a nice 4-piece kit. Put them in the truck too! Back in the studio closet there was a nice electric guitar. Nothing too fancy, but back when I started playing I would have killed to have something that played and sounded this good…new strings, fresh setup, and a hardshell case. In the front seat of the truck it went. Next up was a Crown 1000-watt poweramp and 100’ cables that I used for the rehearsal setup with my old band. Next to it was a crate of cables for guitars, mics, speakers, etc. Once those were loaded in the truck, it was time to make the trip to Goodwill.
I backed up my truck at the local Goodwill and the guys came out to unload for me (how convenient!). They get donations every day, but they must have been musicians because both of the workers' eyes lit up when they opened up the back and saw all the gear (there was also an unopened Guitar Hero game with drumset and guitar controller). As they unloaded, they actually asked me if I really wanted to donate all of the gear. That’s when I knew I was doing the right thing. How many times have we gone into a pawn shop, Salvation Army, or similar store just hoping to find a guitar or amp? It made me feel really good to know that I was helping out the cause of a young kid with more hopes and dreams than money.
Now I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back, I’m bringing it up because it felt amazing! This is gear that clearly wasn’t getting used but was perfectly good stuff that should be doing a lot more than wasting away in a closet or garage. Yes, Goodwill is going to put a price tag on the donations, but it won’t be used music store prices from what I’ve experienced. Next time I will donate to the schools, since they aren’t nearly getting the funding they need. Heck, maybe the kid across the street could use one of my pedals.
We’re getting into the holiday season now and it’s a time for giving. These days money is tight with just about everyone, but I’ll bet there are more than a few of us that have collected more than our share. Next time you start thinking about funding your G.A.S. with the sale of more gear, perhaps you could look into giving some away to the less fortunate. I’m not saying you need to drop your vintage Les Paul on some unsuspecting recipient but wouldn’t that be a serious act of grace?
Have fun, be abundant and keep the cycle rolling. What comes around definitely goes around for all of us. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll see the kids in the band down the street making great use of your gear and having the time of their life.
Now vs. Then: Was it Really Better?
Is "then" necessarily better than "now"?
As we get older, a natural measure of nostalgia tends to find its way into our lives. The good old days of high school and endless summers when we had nothing more important to do than hang out with friends and have a good time without worry can sound pretty remarkable. But with all things in the past we also tend to see them a little differently than perhaps they really were…life through rose-colored glasses if you will. I have more than a few friends who wax rhapsodic on music, gear, and just how much better everything was “back in the day” before all this “interweb” technological baloney came about. It also dawned on me that most of the people I know that feel this way are also stuck in a time warp and are waiting for the return of the ‘80s (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but progress people!), or earlier! With the spirit of Now vs. Then, I proudly present progress. Was it in fact better back in the day?
THEN: Back when I started recording in studios in the late ‘80s, we didn’t have digital recording in the mainstream. ADATs were years away, as was the DAW, and the standard was 2”, 24-track analog tape. Nothing like going to Guitar Center and dropping $150 on Ampex 356 and getting less than 15 minutes of recording time at 30ips, less than that with the test tones. If you had a good machine you could do “gapless punch-ins.” If you didn’t, there could be up to 75ms of a gap. Not great for punching in that one note in an otherwise perfect solo.
NOW: My laptop, iPad, iPhone or portable, digital multitrack have few or no restrictions on track count, come with built-in amp simulators, virtual drummers, and models of every cool piece of outboard gear you can remember, and a million that never existed. There is no cost for tape because there is no tape. Recording time is limited only to hard drive space or memory and you can comp away until your solo sounds just like you wanted it to. Oh yeah, and the prices are lower and lower…and lower than ever before.
THEN: There was mystery shrouding tube amps and we searched high and low for that magic one that encapsulated everything we ever wanted in a tone. A few of the lucky hooked up with amp gurus and were able to tweak, hone-in and achieve tonal bliss. Amps were heavy, parts were hard to find if you weren’t near a major city and they all weighed a ton. Sure the tones could be fantastic, but the knowledge was much more scarce.
NOW: Bedroom players can now achieve incredible tones without the volume. Amp modeling has made insane strides to where many hardcore tube amp lovers in double-blind tests cannot pick out the “fake” one. Companies like Fractal Audio with their Axe-FX are giving guitarists tools and tones that were unachievable until recently at any price. Due to the shrinking world via the internet, information is exchanged and people now have access to the amp gurus, and more of them are coming out of the woodwork every day because of this information sharing. Companies like MetroAmp and Ceriatone offer parts, kits, schematics, iron, and knowledge to help players create their own tone or recreate a classic with exacting specs. Amps can still be heavy and loud, or light and loud, or light and quiet. The choices are endless.
THEN: Pickups came with the guitar. If you were lucky enough to have a ‘50s or ‘60s Les Paul or Strat, you were set! If your guitar was newer you might consider hotrodding it with one of the newer companies’ replacement pickups (thanks DiMarzio and Duncan!). If not, you might just live with it and wonder why your tone wasn’t all it could be.
NOW: Aside from the massive amounts of pickups offered by the good folks mentioned above there is now a small army of builders that create works of art for every walk of a guitarist’s life. Scatterwound, choice of magnets, vintage recreations, color choices, aged to match an older guitar, and on and on and on.
THEN: Digital came around in the ‘80s and with it came the rack effects units. Not sure I can remember the last time I plugged my Digitech DSP-128 multi-effects rack into the effects loop of any amp. You see, vintage digital is a lot like vintage computer technology…rarely is it any better because it’s older. Still waiting for my Atari 800 to be worth more than $25 on EBay. Nothing like 128 presets and all of them sounding like ass. Why did we all have these refrigerator racks and yet the guy with the best tone just had a Marshall half stack? Because for all the things these effects did, they instantly sabotaged the original tone of the amp. It’s no wonder why there was an entire cottage industry of other effects to make up for the losses of the ones we plugged in.
NOW: Boutique manufacturers abound! Vintage reissues of the best analog effects are back in spades and have updated features, lower noise and better compatibility with other pedals. Multi-effects units are clean and offer the best of both analog and digital with better switching available. True bypass is standard and pedalboard companies are creating loop-switching systems to better manage the massive setups. While there is still a vintage market, you don’t have to scour through the Recycler (remember the newspaper?!) to find a rare pedal because somebody has probably reissued it!
THEN: Four quads of power with mammoth speakers, receiver, turntable and poweramps! 8-tracks, vinyl, cassettes, and reel-to-reel. Entire rooms dedicated to albums and music stored on giant, heavy shelves. Waiting for the day when the new record would be released and you could ride your bike to Tower Records and spend your allowance on it, bring it back home and wear it out! Those were the days…and music meant everything. I won’t fight this one too much, but let’s look at the technology for a minute.
NOW: iPod, iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon, LastFM, Pandora. Your stereo is no longer a boom box but a tiny device that holds thousands of songs. If you’re using a program like Rhapsody that stores music “in the cloud” you have millions—yes, millions—of songs available to you at any given time. Plug the player into your car stereo and never need the radio again. Turn on Pandora and have a radio station tuned to exactly what you want to hear from the choices you make over time. It’s instant and it’s always available. Try carrying all those CDs around now…yep, CDs are even passé.
I’m bringing this up because it’s absolutely amazing how much progress we’ve made. Is everything better than before? Not necessarily, but it is pretty incredible what we have available to us. Nothing will replace a ’59 Les Paul, but then again, not all of us will be able to afford one anyway. Were amps better in the past? I love my old Marshalls as much or more than anyone I know, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t amazing stuff out there now! Pickups? Forget it. I’ll take today any day. And tape vs. digital…well, my buddy Eric Valentine will always fight for tape, and there’s no denying the beauty of what it does, but it comes at a price. And finally the way we have access to music now versus then. I’ll take my iPod for when I’m in the car or working out or just enjoying time with my friends. The big speakers and high-end stereo are now in my studio and everything is coming out of Pro Tools, and that’s the way I like it.