Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Some Guitars

I've been playing guitar on and off -- mostly off -- since I was about 17 years old, when I got my first garage-sale acoustic and a hand-me-down Fender Mustang. I believe this was a 1968 "competition" Mustang; it had the "racing stripe." I wish I had that Mustang now -- they have appreciated in value considerably! Although as an adolescent tinkering without any adult supervision I didn't quite know what to do with it, and beat it up pretty badly, dropping it onto concrete garage floors and messing with the truss rod trying to get perfect action. It actually held up to all that abuse pretty well -- the hardware was quite tough, and had a "fit and finish" (including fret dressing) to it that, I have since learned, tends to no longer exist outside the realm of high-end guitars. I eventually sold it at some point while I was in college, which was a uniquely stupid thing to do. But so says the comic collector who laments the loss of his millions when his mom threw his Superman comics away.

The Mustang is so prized in part because it has a wonderful thin, short neck, especially good for guitarists like me with small hands. I learned to play scales, barre chords, and However, the stock Mustang has relatively weak and puny-sounding pickups. I was constantly struggling to try to get hard rock and heavy metal sounds out of that guitar. It wasn't just my technique or my amplifier. Newer, inexpensive Peavey guitars simply produced tones that were much louder and more harmonically rich, because they had stronger pickups. I also did not realize at the time that a heavier string gauge would have helped; I was always using sets starting with nines, to try and make the fingerings a little easier on my hands.

The Mustang also had what was at the time a somewhat innovative whammy bar arrangement, although this gave it rather poor tuning stability. Touch the whammy bar and you were almost guaranteed to go out of tune.

I've gone through a couple of other guitars. One was an Aria Pro II, a Japanese Stratocaster copy built with reasonably good fit and finish, but which eventually became pretty unplayable because of a warped neck. I also had a black Yamaha Pacifica with a fixed bridge, an inexpensive guitar which I now consider an extremely good student guitar giving excellent value for the money, although all the parts are relatively cheap and the whole thing lacked hand-polish.

I've owned a couple of acoustics. My first was a Yamaha acoustic with a warped neck that my mom found at a garage sale. That guitar almost turned me off guitar altogether; it went into the shop a couple of times, but could never be completely straightened out. I have a vague memory of eventually attempting to smash it, and finding out that it is a lot harder to smash a guitar than certain rock stars have made it look. I owned an inexpensive Fender acoustic that might have been an earlier incarnation of the Malibu; it had an electric neck with a strat-like headstock. I owned an Epiphone 12-string acoustic that I was largely unable to play well; 12-string acoustics are just a little too hard on my hands, although it had a nice tone. That guitar also got damaged in a fall when another student knocked it off my bed onto a hard floor. I was surprised to find that my friend Bill Louth still owns that guitar and at some point it was repaired!

At some point I purchased a used (and somewhat battered) Ovation acoustic because I needed an acoustic guitar i could plug in. This guitar has a nice, light body and a punchy sound. The electronics sound pretty good. I used it, along with an electric, for nearly all of my playing with the St. Francis church band. The neck is buzzy, though, and it needs a little bit of setup and fret work.

My current electric guitar is a Fender Jag-Stang. This falls into the category of things that "seemed like a good idea at the time." I bought it at a guitar show. The Jag-Stang is a bit of a white elephant. Rushed into production, it feels like a cheaply made Mustang with a Jaguar body -- which it pretty much is. It lacks the body contouring of my old Mustang, which makes it less comfortable to play. The hardware has a cheap feel to it, the color is orangish instead of Mustang red, and the fretwork is mediocre. However, it does have the Mustang-shaped neck, which I like. I originally tried to do my own rewiring job, with some Seymour-Duncan pickups. Having screwed up some guitars in my teens, I thought I could probably get one right this time. But wiring a guitar was more difficult than I thought it would be, especially since I wanted to configure the switches to bypass volume and tone, which involved a lot of extra wires. The result didn't work out very well -- the ground wasn't quite right, and the finished guitar had a tendency to pick up radio stations -- just like the Air Force base concert in This is Spinal Tap! So I eventually ripped the guts out, stuck them in a plastic bag, printed out a wiring diagram for the setup I wanted, and paid Elderly Instruments in Lansing to put it back together for me, gritting my teeth and nodding politely when the tech gave me his "what kind of an idiot could even _do_ this to a guitar?" look.

Elderly did a great job with the wiring, and permanently installed my Roland guitar synth pickup. The pickups sound quite decent now, but there was only so much they could do for the setup.

So, there's not all that much that can be done for the Jag-Stang. They are quirky instruments, loved by some but not really well-built. The pickguard is coming apart. The whammy will never really be functional. I switched to heavier strings -- starting with 11, for more tone, and the guitar then sat upstairs while we had months of problems with our heat. Now the neck needs adjustment; the action is terrible. I'm assuming it can be straightened again, which may be a false assumption. To do that on this guitar, you've got to take the neck off, and possibly the pickguard. I could try to do that myself, or I could take it back to Elderly. But in either case, even assuming I can get the action to a good point again, it's still always going to be a mediocre guitar with a comfortably familiar neck. I've been contemplating trying to build up a new Jag-Stang pretty much from scratch, with a neck and body by Washburn, trying to retain my customized electronics. But I'm not a luthier, and I'm not going to be a luthier, at least not with so little free time available at this point in my life.

So, I'm at a bit of a turning point. I've recently, after watching some concert DVDs, felt the urge again to work on my playing. My fingers still work pretty well. While it is often a beginner's excuse, at some point it becomes true that a poor instrument can prevent you from progressing further. It occurs to me as I approach my fortieth birthday that I've never actually owned a truly fine guitar. So I find myself wondering whether it would be possible and reasonable to get one, or if I'm just approaching a midlife crisis.

So what would I consider a "truly fine" guitar?

There is a Fender Mustang reissue, but I really doubt whether it measures up in the fit-and-finish department, and I'm not really all that interested in all the customization I'd need to do in order to make it sound like a modern guitar.

Right now, the guitar I admire the most -- having never actually played one, mind you -- is the PRS Custom 24 in "whale blue" on flame maple: Elderly instruments site.

I am in love with that subdued blue color. I'd like the opportunity to try out this instrument and determine if my hands can handle the neck. I'm interested in trying out a 24-fret neck, at least in principle, for soloing. The buzz on the parts quality of recent PRS instruments seems to be mixed, though. I don't want to pay an extra thousand bucks when accountants, not luthiers, are choosing to include cheap Korean tuning machines.

There is a used 24-fret bolt-on PRS at Elderly also. The color is a little garish for my taste, although it isn't fair to judge the color via the web site, but it is a little more affordable and could be a good compromise between cheap and "the hype is included in the price." There's a 22-fret Swamp Ash Special that costs even less. It's had the stock pickups changed out, which interests me, and it is black -- it is hard to go wrong with black -- but I have my heart set on at least trying a 24-fret instrument.

There are also some Ernie Ball Music Man models with 24-fret necks, but Elderly doesn't have any in stock at the moment.

While this isn't my preferred color, I also really like the body contouring on this Ibanez instrument available at Sweetwater.

This Peavey also looks pretty fine, although it also isn't my preferred color, also available from Sweetwater.

Here's a Valley Arts model that is probably a fine guitar, with that lovely faded blue color, although it isn't a 24-fret model.

Some of the Parker Fly guitars are 24-fret designs, in particular the Parker Fly Mojo, but I have not studied them much. So my choice of scale length and number of frets will have to pretty much come down to playability. And, of course, I won't really have money available for this kind of purchase for some time, if indeed I can ever actually prioritize such a purchase high enough to actually do it.

I used to get Carvin catalogs, and the prospect of ordering a custom-made Carvin guitar seems interesting.

Do you own any of these guitars? Like them? Recommend something else? I'm trying to avoid getting hung up on brand names; I don't want to be sold on something crappy. How about for someone with small hands who gravitates towards the Mustang neck but a hotter-pickup sound? Comments welcome.

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