5 Myths Electric Guitar Players Can’t Let Go

Myth 1: Tube amps are expensive kit for experts*

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A loud, expensive tube amp img src: 515musicservices.com

When electric guitar really became a mainstream hobby in the mid ’70s, “solid state,” transistor amplifiers were already available, and had a reputation for being more reliable and less expensive that amps using vacuum tubes, as all the older amps had been. So from around then until around the mid 2000s, they were the cheap amps that all beginners had to learn on. Eventually you’d scrimp and save, and buy yourself a tube amp that was way too loud to play in your house.

This has all changed. There’s large range of low-cost tube amps that are affordable for beginners–especially used–and that are either very low powered, or have a low power setting, that allows you to play them at home with having to hover the volume between 0 and 1.

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The new Kong TubeFifteen with 1W setting. Retails at 340 Euros img src: session.de

Beginners should be getting these amps. Not only do they allow new players to learn about guitar tones with the gold standard of tone, but their low wattage allows players to learn about power amp distortion that you hear on those old rock records–because many are quiet enough to turn up far enough to begin driving the power section of the amp. Many owners of high wattage tube amps have never heard their power amp drive because they daren’t turn them up loud enough. If a beginner needs an amp, recommend tube amps. Every time.

Myth 2: The Stratocaster is the default, do-anything electric guitar

The Stratocaster guitar, designed way back in 1954 by Leo Fender with consultation from various country guitar players is undoubtedly the most popular electric guitar design in the world. They’re used in every context of playing, and stages are positively lousy with them.

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This is wrong img src: et.wikipedia.com

But the Stratocaster has a really particular sound. It’s far from generic. It can be described as ‘quacky,’ (as Strat fans may describe my opinions). Many players, who pick it up for its great ergonomics and toughness, sound much better with other styles of guitar.

While a Telecaster can genuinely be used in any context, from jazz to heavy rock, there’s a short list of players whose sound was actually enhanced by using a Stratocaster–and that list doesn’t go much further than Dick Dale, Buddy Holly, and Hank Marvin. David Gilmour sounds way better whenever he straps on a Les Paul.

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This is right img src: mentalfloss.com

Myth 3: Guitars don’t stay in tune with Bigsby tailpieces

I suspect that this myth started with players in the ’60s before it became common for players to have their guitars set-up. Players would lightly use their Bigsby or Gibson Maestro vibrato arm and the guitar just wouldn’t return to pitch properly.

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OMG! Sum1 tell him it’ll never stay in tune! img src: neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.com

Guess what? 99% of the time it’s because the nut (the bit at the headstock end of the fretboard with slots cut in it to guide the strings back to the headstock) is badly cut and the strings are sticking in it–and hence not returning to pitch.

The nut is not an easy thing for a beginner to get right DIY style. But take it to a competent guitar repair person and nothing short of constant whammy dive bombs will knock it out of pitch.

You do not need special bridge saddles like nylon or teflon. And you especially don’t need roller saddles that can ruin the tone of your guitar. Any decently cut saddles will do. Lots of guitar players who’ve known this have used these tailpieces for years in live settings. Someone like Brian Setzer, or Neil Young, wouldn’t keep shaking that bar if it was impossible to set them up to stay in tune.

Myth 4: Certain brands of guitars have better resale value over time

It’s so common to see this said that it’s become frustrating. You buy a guitar for R10,000 (US$777). Ten years later you successfully sell it for R11,000. You congratulate yourself that you chose the right brand and made R1,000 on the deal. I’m sure some of you can see what’s wrong here already.

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“When I retire, I’ll sell my LP Studio and buy a house, lol!” img src: gak.co.uk

In real terms (adjusting for inflation), very few instruments, and certainly no entire brands, ever reach the new retail value over time. But people make these claims as a justification for choosing some brands over others. What they usually really mean is that their more expensive brand has more real value after the 40% drop after taking it out of the shop (you can look at the used prices of guitars that are still available new in the stores to confirm that this is roughly true) than a cheaper one. But of course the 40% they’ve lost is much more cash too.

Example: You buy two guitars, brand A, and brand B. Brand A is super prestigious American guitar. Brand B is a less prized Asian guitar. A costs R20,000, while B costs R10,000. You try to sell them 6 months later, and you can get R12,000 for A, and R6,000 for B. So A is still worth more, but you’ve also lost more money than on B. Ten years later, at inflation of 5% per year, A costs R31,000 in the store, while B costs R15,500.

But when you try to sell your 10 year old guitars, A sells for R18,600, and B sells for R9,300. They’ve nearly reached the figure that you payed for them. But they’re still worth 40% less than the item in the store. They haven’t increased in value at all and A hasn’t gained in resale value over B. Even in terms of the speed of the sale, the greater desirability of A is offset by the higher price–people will more easily part with a smaller sum of money.

Guitars aren’t particularly good investments (very few increase in real value) but used guitars can are pretty easy purchases as they tend to maintain their value over time (unlike cars, for example), whether the brand is prestigious or not.

Myth 5: You need to jack up the action to use a guitar for slide

This one’s bewildering and walks hand in hand with the clear fact that, while everyone tries slide guitar, only a handful of people, “get it.” There is an, “it,” to get, but it’s not about jacking up the string height. I can only presume people get this idea from lap and pedal-steel players, or at least seeing those instruments.

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This is a different thing from slide guitar img src: makingmusicmag.com

The thing about those two instruments though, is that they don’t have frets and aren’t designed to have their strings pushed down onto the board. But a cursory glance at almost any electric slide guitar player will make it obvious that players fret notes, play fretted chords (although the players who play with the slide on the middle, or index finger may be unable to do so very effectively), and, in many cases, switch between slide playing and fretted playing mid-phrase.

Having the strings hovering at a dizzying height would not make that very feasible. In fact, slide guitar players use medium to low action. Their touch with the slide is so light as to avoid accidentally fretting out with the slide, but the low action still makes it very easy to fret and bend with the fingers. The one aid they will tend to use is a heavier string gauge so that the strings are less easily pushed down onto the frets by the touch of the slide. .11s and .12s on the high E are not unusual on electric guitars used predominantly for slide.

It was brought to my attention that some may think I’m dissing solid-state amps. There are fantastic SS amps out their for pro players who love that sound–such as the Roland Jazz Chorus. But for learning to play electric guitar, they’re less versatile than tube amps. And my main point is that, among budget beginners’ amps, solid state amps are not the only option. Not even a good option, in my opinion.

A South African Guitar Maker: Hayward Guitars

Graeme Hayward begged to be retrenched. The corporation in which he’d worked for years had been purchased and was down-sizing. But Graeme was easily offered one of the remaining jobs. He’d had enough. He convinced them to pull the offer and give him a severance package instead. Stepping out of the rat-race, he rented a Salt River workshop, filled it with industrial power tools and began making guitars.

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Graeme Hayward’s Salt River guitar workshop

Graeme is no novice builder; he’d built guitars in his spare time before. He completed several of what has to be the gold-standard for electric guitar makers–exact replicas of the 1959 Les Paul. With its carved maple top, glued-in (rather than bolted on) mahogany neck and its legendary scatter-wound pickup coils, the ’59 Les Paul is possibly the greatest challenge for any guitar maker to get right.

And he did it. I know. I’ve played it. I know way too many details about the original guitars, and the only thing I could find on his Les Pauls that wasn’t identical to the ’50s originals was the little plastic cover that hides the access to the truss rod that adjusts the guitar’s neck tension. But now Graeme is taking that hard-won skill and using it to build guitars full time during the longest recession since The Great Depression and with our president pointing the SA economy at the waterfall and rowing with all his might.

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The unfinished flamed maple top of a bound, semi-hollow T-style guitar

If he succeeds, it’ll be a triumph of craftsmanship over widget-making. I went down to visit Graeme at his workshop at 9 Friend Street, Salt River. Hollering through the gate got Graeme to open up for me. It’s not just a workshop, it’s a place for people who love guitars to come and hang out. The hall is decked with pictures of iconic guitars, and the men and women who made us worship them. Couches make it a great place to talk about our beloved bundles of wood and wire. Graeme tells me he’s going to build a fake fur-lined case for finished guitars for players to paw at, and possibly a feature wall of stand out instruments to ogle.

The main workshop contains an array of very large and serious machines that transform raw timber into objects of desire. Guitars in various states of completion are everywhere. The South African guitar expo is coming up next week, and Graeme is working non-stop to get his projects ready to show off. Chief among them is a series that marks a return for South Africa–resonator guitars.

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Two styles of resonator guitar bodies at an early stage

Resonators were designed in the era of big bands, before amplified electric guitars, to make guitars loud enough to be heard alongside brass instruments. Since then they’ve become synonymous with blues, thanks to great players like Bukka White, Son House, and Tampa Red. They were also very popular during the Hawaiian music craze, which is why many were decorated with palm trees and other island scenes. Made of steel, these guitars are known for being polished to a mirror finish. Paul Simon sang, “The Mississippi Delta, was shining like a National guitar,” on his song, Graceland. And it’s here that Graeme’s route departs.

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The laser cut top-plate of a chemically distressed resonator body

Computerised machines have made producing perfect guitars trivial, he says. Even some budget guitars, like the LTD line made by Japanese guitar legends, ESP, are in many ways better made than electrics that were largely handmade, and might cost two months’ salary, back in the 1950s. But the downside is the decreasing individuality in each instrument. Those of us who adore guitars think of them almost as friends or pets. It’s not pleasant to think that our guitar may be pretty much indistinguishable from another. Graeme wants each of his guitars to be beautifully playable, but still unique. So a laser-cut cover plate has a bridge plate mounted on it that Graeme carefully hammered out himself over a mould. The neck shapes are shaped to different specifications using a range of cutting jigs, but the final finishing is done by hand.

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A luxurious, flamed sapele, T-style fat neck with a buffed cocobolo fretboard

He’s turned to alchemy, experimenting with dangerous concoctions of chemicals, to distress the bodies of the guitars. No mirror-shine for him. Each guitar looks like it’s been discovered in an attic after 70 years, but with its playability and voice intact. He’s cooking the character into his guitars to make something completely unique and unavailable elsewhere.

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Details count: a vintage punch makes deliberately uneven serial numbers

And hence, South Africa’s economic ailments may prove beneficial. With the exchange rate of the Rand with the dollar, Yen, and Euro weakening, Graeme’s handmade guitars and hand-wound pickups may become increasingly affordable even to working musicians overseas. But he’s not leaving it up to luck. He’s also going to have guitar building workshops in which local players can pay a sum, and then spend several days building their guitar from scratch in his workshop–using premium woods and hardware–and take home an exceptional electric guitar that they’ve built with their own hands under Graeme’s guidance. And on Saturday mornings he’s going to welcome players who want help getting their guitars set up to play better–so that we come in, talk guitars, and walk away with an instrument that plays and sounds its best.

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Three glue in necks with their cut mother-of-pearl logos in holly wood veneers await finishing

Tape Hiss & Sparkle At The Armchair – April 2017

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the whole band and have been good friends with bass player, Helen Westcott for many years. Hopefully I won’t give you a biased perspective. Also I hopefully won’t have to say anything that’ll will make them hate me forever.

One of the big advantages of living in Observatory, as my cellist friend, Nicola, said last night, is that you can decide late in the afternoon to go and see a music show, and then just amble over there. The Armchair, which used to be a bank and has a vault door behind the bar, has been hosting gigs since at least 2001. I can remember gigging there with Krakatoa in its first couple of years.

Now though, the creeping death of gentrification has severely restricted the volume at which you can play there. So the room has wooden covers over all the windows like they’re expecting a tornado. It makes it hot. Very, very hot.

So it’s a good thing to be there for bands that need you to sit still and listen carefully as the sweat drips down your neck. The opening act was Martinique, a young woman who markets herself under the name Matinino. She faced us seated at an electric piano in a broad-brimmed black hat and black dress, and sang personal stories through story-book lyrics. She blended her clear high voice with itself through simple use of a looper pedal, complementing these harmonies with a confidently played grand piano sound.

It just so happens that she completely had my number. I’ve just been gorging myself on psychedelic folk bands of the early ’70s. Pentangle, Bröselmaschine, Vashti Bunyan, and, particularly, Trees, whose song, The Garden of Jane Delawney was very much in the same vein as Martinique’s story-book, dream lyrics.

Nicola said that she’d like to see her behind a real grand piano, even though she agreed with me that the deep reverb on the voices and the piano blended very well–at the expense, perhaps, of not sounding very ‘live.’ And I didn’t like hearing about looper pedals during a show. To me it always sounds like the musician is trying to draw attention to something exciting and new, while actually loopers have become something of a scourge as musicians understandably try to get a bigger slice of the pitiful performance money while still sounding like multi-piece bands.

But she used it well, and these minor pet-hates in no way stopped me being utterly enchanted by her songs. She’s definitely on my to-see-again list.

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Simon Tamblyn img src: alexanderbar.co.za

I saw Tape Hiss and Sparkle in an earlier line-up and was not impressed. Simon Tamblyn, the singer, song-writer, and guitar player was in an irritable mood and managed to put me into one before the end of his set. This time was completely different. The whole band were enjoying themselves immensely. Their friendship and rapport was obvious. As the band traded jokes over the course of the show, Simon’s laconic, understated humour was enjoyed by the audience too, which laughed harder at each successive quip.

Simon has an comfortable eccentricity. He married a black kilt and red boots to a casual black t-shirt. Helen elegantly carried off a kind of pirate chic in appearance and playing style–her mist-blue Precision bass growling with a picking motion that looks like she’s sewing a seam at speed. Drummer (and published science fiction author, as I quite recently discovered), Mandisi Nkomo–who’d guested briefly with Martinique–looked incongruously prim in a high buttoned shirt and a high-seated, delicate touch on the drums.

Simon’s songs carry an early 2000s vulnerability that’s mirrored in his very inviting performance. I remember seeing him as lead singer in the alt-rock outfit, The Sleepers, where he seemed out-of-place among the Tool-obsessed rockers. Singing confessional songs, like he’s admitting his secret fears at the end of a garden party tête-à-tête, he felt far more convincing. I have a limited basis for comparison of his singing style since I missed much of the music which likely influenced him. The vocals remind me a bit of The Decembrists.

The songs are lyrically coherent in a venue like The Armchair in which you can hear them. And they’re full of hooks. But in a stripped-down band like this, doing these kinds of songs, I felt strongly that I’d enjoy the songs more and more as I became more familiar with them. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that they were songs that could easily grow to love, but I didn’t love them yet.

The band worked well. The powerful sound of Helen’s bass provided a solid, indie body to what might otherwise have come off as a light, folk sound. The drums were necessarily light due to the noise restrictions, and only the bass drum was miked up. But Mandisi’s playing is excellent. When I see them again, I’d like to hear the whole kit amplified.

My biggest gripe is with the guitar sound. Simon was playing what looked like a vintage Epiphone concert guitar which I’m sure sounds excellent acoustically. But plugged in it has that typically nauseating quack of an unmodified piezo pickup. I’d like to see him either switch to an electric like a Telecaster, or get a more sophisticated direct-input box that either equalises the sound better, or something like an Aura Spectrum DI that puts the acoustic sound back in.

But if the piezo sound is my bugbear, I must admit that I hardly noticed it by the end of the show. And that sharp attack does cut through the band nicely when strumming. It was in the solo guitar parts that it got my goat.

My Yamaha Pacifica

I was playing in a surf guitar band, looking for something to replace a truly awful Squier Stratocaster.  My thought was to get a Strat.  But I was a bit put off by the extortionate prices the shops were asking for them – double the US prices (I didn’t realise then that this is an old story).

So I walked into MusicFest SA in Parrow, Cape Town – an exceptional store that made you feel welcome. They’d always try to make a plan to accommodate you.  There was this vintage styled Yamaha Pacifica on the wall.  My buddy had bought a reverse headstock, floyd-rose bridge PAC721 second-hand as his first serious guitar.  It was a wise investment.  So wise that it’s still his main guitar today – and he’s a great player (I’ve seen kids do the “I am not worthy” genuflection when he solos at his shows).

Most people are familiar with entry-level Pacificas like the PAC112. These have a reputation for being amazingly well built guitars that, with a couple of upgrades, can be serious, pro-level instruments. But this one was clearly better spec’d than the US Stratocasters I’d seen in the shops–Made-in-Japan, swamp ash top, alder back, Warmoth neck (with recessed and beautifully finished bolts), Sperzel locking tuners, a two screw vibrato tailpiece, etc., etc..

I just kept coming back and playing it over and over.  Finally they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Looking online it was less than half the cheapest price I could find it anywhere in the world, and a whole lot less than I’d have spent on a Fender Strat with less sterling specifications.  I’ve never regretted it.  It’s all the “Strat” I’ll ever need. I used it for surf for years until I got a Jazzmaster. Recently I’ve been playing it again and just marvelling at its versatility (I also scraped 13 years of gunge off the fretboard).

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My Yamaha Pacifica 904

And I’m not the only person who thought so. I found an old Guitar Player in which the PAC904 was reviewed along with 36 other solid-body guitars, including a few American and Japanese Fender Strats and Teles (some of which caught serious flak).  This is what the huge review panel – including guitar tech guru Dan Erlewine – thought:

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Yamaha Pacifica 904 ($1,249; case $150)

This classy-looking Strat-style guitar has an absolutely sensuous 251/2” -scale Warmoth maple neck and rosewood fingerboard, as well as a rounded four-bolt neck joint.  The neck is smooth and blemish-free, and the wide, low frets are beautifully dressed and finished.  They’re so highly polished you can see yourself in ’em.  Likewise, the hard white nut is the best in this lineup.
The 904’s flawless tobacco-sunburst finish looks like some ’30s-era Gibson flat-tops, and it really enhances the highly figured ash top over the alder body.  The mint-colored pickguard adds a hip vintage vibe.  Nice modern touches include a satin-nickel Yamaha steel fulcrum bridge, Sperzel locking tuners, and a truss rod that’s adjustable from the body end.
The Yamaha pickup scheme consists of an Alnico V single-coil neck, single-coil middle, and double single-coil at the bridge.  The controls include volume, tone, 5-way selector, and a push-on/push-off tone-knob function that cuts the rear coil of the bridge humbucker.  The switch was dodgy and would not stay reliably in its “in” humbucker position.  The 904 is very nicely built and finished right down to the graphite-paint-shielded interior and the neat shielded wiring.  The back of its cover plate is also foil-shielded.
The Pacifica 904 delivers an array of superbly balanced clean and distorted textures.  It plays very nicely too; like we said, this neck is mighty good.  The trem feels like a classic Strat and gave us no tuning guff whatsoever.  The neck and middle pickups retain good clarity in the high-gain modes, offering excellent harmonic overtones.  The bridge humbucker is especially fat and clear.  The 904 also offers great Strat cluck in the in-between positions (one editor preferred them to those on his ’63 Strat), and the coil-cut position delivers yet another lovely clean sound.  The Pacifica deserves an A+ for tonal balance, but its sophisticated voices are cooler for clean shimmer than field-clearing macho shred.

– Guitar Player, February 1995

 

One thing they don’t make clear is that the guitar doesn’t have the usual splittable humbucker. Instead it has two single coils at the bridge of varying strength. This means you get a full power single-coil pickup (think Hendrix or Dick Dale tones) and a full power humbucker sound when you hit the push-push volume knob. I don’t know why more guitars don’t offer this, and I don’t know why Yamaha are the only company that seems to be able to make a decent push-push knob (mine, unlike the review model, was not dodgy at all and still works perfectly).

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Original ad showing colour options img src: flickr.com

Most Pacificas are out of production.  But I strongly recommend people look out for the higher end used models. Like most Japanese guitars, the model numbers reflect the specs–higher number means more good stuff. There’s a pacifica for every need, from the very rare solid flame top, set-neck, shred monsters, to totally basic vintage style hard tail guitars. Confusion among guitar players that they’re all budget guitars means that people often sell high-end Pacificas for stupidly little money–making them a great way to put top-notch guitars into the hands of a beginner.

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A solid flame-top PAC1412 img src: flickr.com

Why Tokai?

Ever since Tokai electric guitars were reintroduced to South Africa, they have been controversial. I’m going to outline that controversy and give my take as a fan. There is little chance that this piece will convert those who loathe them. But for the fence-sitters, I’d like to bust some myths, and answer some criticisms.

What is Tokai?

Tokai is a Japanese stringed-instrument making company, still producing instruments in the same factory that the family has owned since shortly after WWII. Along with several other Japanese makers, such as Fujigen, they dramatically improved the quality of their electric guitars at the end of the seventies. Along with other brands, they also began to make clones of classic American electric guitars at that time. Why?

Japanese players felt that the quality of the American guitars had fallen since the end of the 1960s. Those pre-1970 instruments now commanded large premiums and were out of the budget of most players. To meet the need, Japanese guitar makers began making the best reproductions they could of the coveted 1950s and 1960s electric guitars. Tokai began making clones around 1978, and the guitars they produced until 1985 are considered classics, sometimes selling for huge prices.

The quality of these instruments was such that some makers threatened lawsuits, fearing the impact of better-made versions of their guitars being available in stores. But they then rapidly began making use of those companies to produce their instruments. Gibson guitars began contracting Fujigen, and then Terada, to make “Orville by Gibson” versions of its guitars (later Epiphone Japan) for the Japanese market, while Fender Japan had guitars (now classics) made in Fujigen in the ’80s, and later Dyna-gakki and Tokai in the ’90s. They also began improving their quality to try to match the Japanese makers.

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An Orville by Gibson Les Paul Custom – img src: www.12fret.com

Tokai in South Africa

Tokai Strats and Teles were briefly available in the early 1980s in South Africa, but then imports ceased. For a while Tokai did not make any Fender-style guitars while it was under contract to make guitars for Fender Japan. In 2010, a Johannesburg businessman, who’d long been impressed with the quality of Japanese guitars, began importing them. I’d heard of the reputation of Tokai guitars and had been trying to figure out how to get my hands on one. I own two beautiful Gibson guitars, but wanted a classic 1950s style Les Paul as played by Eric Clapton on the “Beano” record, and Jimmy Page–who’d first made me aware of the Les Paul on The Song Remains The Same concert film.

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Eric Clapton’s “Beano” Les Paul – img src: mylespaul.com

My Tokai

I went to collect my Tokai LS150 from Paul Bothner’s music store in Plumstead, Cape Town. When I arrived at the store, I found the 1950s style brown guitar case with pink lining empty on the counter. In the glass demo room I found one of the salespeople, a very experienced progressive rock guitarist, playing the instrument. He looked up at me and said, “This is the best Les Paul I’ve played in my life.” I agree.

My guitar is built to be nearly identical to how they were in the 1950s. It has a solid, one piece mahogany body, a one piece mahogany neck with long tenon, a two piece solid, heavily carved maple top, vintage style electronics, traditional nickel-plated hardware (including a lightweight aluminium tailpiece and slim ABR1 bridge), celluloid inlays, etc., etc.. Despite being completely solid it’s lighter than my 1983 Les Paul Deluxe (which has large, concealed holes drilled into the body to reduce weight), and it has magnificent resonance and sustain.

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My LS150 when brand new

Better still, it looks just like the one Clapton played in 1965. And the attention to detail was impressive. No paint spots, tool marks, sloppy wiring, or any signs of rush that you can find on even high-end American guitars.

Since then I have played a lot of Tokais. My friend owns three, all wonderfully made guitars that sound superb. I’ve also had a chance to compare them to the American equivalents. Not just my own, but those owned by others or in music stores. Except for one Tokai with a neck that didn’t suit me, and one that was resonantly dead, they’ve all been good, and a few have been extraordinary guitars.

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One of my buddy EZ’s 3 Tokais. “Big Red”

The Controversy

So, really nice guitars. What’s the problem? It turns out that, now, no one can mention Tokais or their American equivalents online in South Africa without a huge flame-war breaking out. Opponents see their existence as offensive, while proponents sometimes claim you’d be mad to buy anything else. I’m going to break down the core arguments against them as someone who owns and loves both my Tokai, and guitars from both of the biggest US manufacturers.

“They’re fakes”

This one doesn’t get far out of the gate. A fake is designed to deceive. Tokai puts it’s logo right up on the headstock so it’s impossible to misrepresent them. No one will think a Tokai is made by anyone besides Tokai.

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img src: offsetguitars.com

“They’re unethical”

Western society tends to believe strongly that, if someone is allowed to copy your product, it won’t be worthwhile making it. This is a very convenient idea for copyright holders–who frequently lobby Western governments to extend copyright again and again, even after the original creators are long dead. But Japan, where these guitars are made, is hardly a creatively moribund nation, never having given rise to any innovations. The opposite is true. Japan and China are ferociously innovative despite having a much less rigid approach to copying.

Leo Fender, the designer of Fender’s most popular guitars, has been dead for decades, as has Ted McCarty, who led the teams that designed Gibson’s most popular guitars. For all the Western approach to copyright, neither modern incarnation of those companies has managed to produce new designs that have been as successful as its ’50s and ’60s guitars. Arguably, their ‘monopoly’ on those designs led to the deteriorating quality during the ’70s.

And yet, despite that, Japanese clone guitars never challenged their market dominance, even in Japan. Because people still have an emotional attachment to the brand. They also don’t usually compete at the same price points. If I couldn’t have got a 1950s style guitar for R16,000 (in 2010), I’d have bought nothing. I could not have afforded the Gibson equivalent (a 1958 reissue Les Paul), even second hand. And the cheap and cheerful Epiphone brand, which cost about R8,000 at the time, would not have been an adequate substitute.

I feel that some people are angered by the thought, if they dislike the idea of getting a Tokai, that others are getting a similar guitar for much less money–or are able to afford that guitar when they cannot while they hold out for the name brand guitar. But I feel that this is foolish. You still get bragging rights to your name-brand guitar. A Toyota Land-Cruiser may even be a more reliable off-road vehicle than a Land Rover, but it doesn’t have nearly the same cultural cachet. Certainly bedroom players come and gawk at my Gibsons when I play them live. I never get that reaction to the Tokai. For me, that’s fine. I’m not up there to impress people with the brand of guitar I play. But certainly the name-brand guitars get their money’s worth with envy.

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A Gibson ’58. Lovely, but I can’t spend 80 grand on a guitar. img src: www.guitarjames.co.uk

“They’re cheap knock offs”

This one is a bit of a joke. True haters will come up with some weird issues with some or other aspect of the guitars. Trouble is, the name-brand guitars often and easily fall very short when it comes to specs. While the high-end reissues from the big brands do offer some features that are more correct to the ’50s and ’60s originals, they also sometimes have features that are less accurate. And when it comes to their main guitar lines, the comparison is stark. Tokais are, generally speaking, much more vintage-correct than the modern name-brand guitars.

Not everyone wants the vintage style guitars (although the prices on the reissues strongly suggest that they’re the most desirable). But to pretend that Tokais are physically inferior products is laughable, and easily dismissed by any comparison of specifications or investigations of build-quality. It’s unfortunate that a lot of the “brand-name or die!” crowd don’t seem to have a good working knowledge of the brands they fiercely defend.

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A Tokai LC200. Not a budget guitar – img src: kemper-amps.com

“Name-brand guitars have better resale value”

This is supposed to be the big gotcha for the Tokai haters. A Tokai is not a cheap guitar. So when you see one that sold new for R18,000 on sale for R11,000, and sit there for a few weeks, it looks like their resale is disastrous. But for this myth to stick, make sure you don’t look at the name-brand guitars.

A Gibson Les Paul Standard now sells for about R38,000 in the store. I know someone who bought one recently, used, for R22,000. This is the vaunted resale value of the name-brand guitars. A loss of R16,000 as compared to a loss of R9,000. People also get confused by the vintage instruments that have increased in value. But these are a specific era of guitars, and unlikely to be repeated. In real terms (adjusting for inflation), the used price of a mint name-brand guitar from 1985 still doesn’t match the new price, similarly adjusted.

When you take either a name-brand guitar, or a Tokai out of the shop, it’s value plummets. After that, the value is maintained pretty well against inflation. If you buy only used guitars, you are likely to sell them for what you paid for them plus inflation. Yes, naturally Tokais sometimes take longer to sell. They are less well-known and understood. For all that they cost much less than name-brand guitars, they are not budget instruments, and the economy is weak. But ultimately buyer and seller come together, just like for name brand guitars.

“The Tokai model numbers make no sense”

You got me there people. In Japan, it is typical to give a model number reflecting their list price. My LS150 had a list price of just under 150,000 Yen. Now, it’s a Tokai LS173. Same guitar. Same specs. All that’s changed is that the list price is now 173,000 Yen. ESP does the same thing (this well-respected company also makes clone guitars under three different brands at different pricing tiers: luxury Navigators, that cost the same as American custom shop guitars, and are essentially hand-made, mid-range Edwards, and budget Grassroots).

Navigator54
A sweat-inducingly pricy Navigator ’54 style guitar by ESP – img src japanguitars.com

Japan is the second biggest guitar market in the world, and only a handful of Tokai’s sales come from beyond its borders. It works for them, so they don’t care.

“They’re just not the same”

This is the most legitimate argument, in my view. Some people just don’t feel like they’re getting the guitar they want without it being made by the iconic company. I respect that. If owning a Tokai is going to make you feel like you’re always missing out on a Fender whenever you pick it up, then they’re not for you. I’m happy with both. For me, but not for some others, it’s the particular details of the guitar that matters, not its provenance.

But saying that, let’s not kid ourselves. It is in our heads. I said I have one Tokai. Technically, I have two. My Fender Jazzmaster was made in Japan in the Tokai factory, by the same craftspeople who made my LS150. It’s a ’90s, “crafted-in-Japan,” Fender, made by Tokai under contract. Made by the same people, in the same factory, how is it somehow more special because a different decal was legally placed on the headstock?

MyJM
My Tokai-made Fender Jazzmaster

And then there’s the player who revived Gibson’s fortunes in the 1980s: Slash. Many fans who want a Gibson because he played one don’t realise that his iconic Les Paul was a replica (you might even cruelly say it was a fake, since the maker put the Gibson logo on the headstock). Was Slash’s iconic Les Paul playing, “not the real thing?”

Tokai make wonderful guitars that put previously out-of-reach vintage versions of classic designs in players’ hands–once you negotiate their awful model numbers.The only big-name company that seems to be bothered by their existence is the one that is notorious for a fifteen year string of appalling management decisions. They are professional quality instruments, with pros and cons when compared against the big-name products spec for spec. They resell for less, but then they also cost less in the first place. They’re not for everyone. They may never give you the glow of owning the icon. But for players who want the playability, tone, and vintage good looks of ’50s and ’60s guitars, they hit a very sweet spot.

modded-5347_zpsibd6wgid
My LS150 after years of hard knocks on stage, and some boutique pickups

Afterthought:

There is a suburb called Tokai in Cape Town, apparently named after some hills in Hungary. Tokai means: “East Sea” in Japanese–the region of the country where the Tokai-gakki factory is located and from which it gets its name.

How To Buy Your First Electric Guitar

I wrote this in 2012 on the South African Guitar Forum. I’ve had very good responses to this piece and thought it worth sharing here. I also wanted to make some edits and updates, as I’m not able to edit the original. While it’s slanted towards the equipment available in South Africa, I feel that the general advice will steer you straight in any context.

You’re about to buy your first electric guitar.  You want to be smart about it.  You do not want to look back in 15 years time on facepalm-worthy mistakes.  Most of us veterans have done this–wondered why we bought some totally inappropriate piece of gear when far better options were available.  This guide is an approach to avoiding that moment, no matter your interests or what direction guitar playing takes you.

The guitar:

This is the best time there’s ever been to buy a first guitar.  In recent years a great number of guitars have been made that, while modestly priced, are of top quality.  Sometimes they save money by using cheaper components that can be swapped out as you go.  Buying a guitar like this means that even if you get your dream Gibson in ten years, you will never need to get rid of your first guitar.  It’ll be a useful second guitar even if your band is touring the stadia of the world.

The reverse of this approach is to go with bad guitars that look like good guitars.  I’m talking about guitars that are made by one of the big manufacturers and trade on that name, rather than on quality.

So here’s my list:

Low budget:

The Yamaha Pacifica 112.  This guitar is superbly made.  There was nothing close to this when I started playing.  In 20 years time, having swapped out pickups and bridge and electronics, this guitar will still do whatever is asked of it.

Pac112
img src: guitar-museum.com

I’m very hesitant about talking about Cort guitars.  While they offer amazing quality for price, their grotesque abuse of their Korean workers means I’d recommend other brands first.

cort-m520bks
img src: jam.ua

Higher budget:

The Paul Reed Smith SE range.  Amazing quality and fantastic looks.  These guitars have their quality checked in the USA and as such, with a pickup change, are professional quality instruments going for very little.

PRSSE
img src: prsguitars.com

Made in Mexico Fenders.  Forget Squiers (Fender’s budget brand).  They’re mostly rubbish.  Rather save a bit extra and get a Mexican-made Fender.  These are good guitars.  2nd hand they’re going (in July 2016) for about R7,000 (US$470).  Again, a few upgrades and you can use it until they pry it from your cold, dead hands.

MexJM
img src: intl.fender.com

Made-in-Japan Tokai copies of Fender and Gibson guitars.  I love Tokai to the point that some people have assumed I have a financial relationship with them.  I don’t.   They just offer such incredible bang for buck and quality that I can’t get over it.  Their copies give nothing away to the original Fenders and Gibsons.  With luck, a second hand example will be well within a generous beginner’s budget, as will some of the more affordable made-in-japan copies of Fender designs new. They are widely available, in South Africa, Europe, and Asia, but only available 2nd hand in the USA, and quite rare.

MyTokai

The trick is: get the best quality guitar you can afford before anything else.  This is key.  A high quality guitar allows you to learn without hindrance, and will not require replacement when the time comes to gig.  You may get rid of it because you need the money for something, or because it’s not the style for you.  But you shouldn’t need another guitar, as so many of us have needed one, because the first one isn’t up to snuff.  You don’t need an amplifier to learn, and you certainly don’t need effects units.  You need a good guitar.  Spend everything on the guitar, and save up for the amplifier later, or buy the crappiest little amp just to be able to hear yourself for R350 (US$25) 2nd hand.

Second hand is always better with guitars because, (a) after the initial hit taking them out of the stores they don’t depreciate like cars or laptops – which means if you buy second hand, you can sell for as much as you bought it for. (b) you can get higher quality instruments for the same money. A good rule of thumb is that a 2nd hand instrument will sell for 60% of the retail price.

Always get an experienced guitar player to check the guitar with you and see if it needs to be set up by a technician.  This set up is a small expense that can make many practically unplayable guitars play like a dream. A poorly set up guitar that’s hard to play is probably the no.1 reason that beginners quit.

Amplification

Once you have the guitar and you are able to spend again, it’s time to get an amplifier.  Now I’m going to urge you to do something very different from what many people, including the sales people will suggest.  Get a valve amplifier.

Valve amplifiers (also called tube amplifiers) are the absolute gold standard for guitar tone quality.  They amplify the tiny signal from your pickups with antique vacuum tubes, rather than modern transistors. They are not hi-fi and it’s what gives electric guitars their distinctive sound – including the lush warm distortion we’re used to hearing.  All the non valve options seek to emulate this sound.

Now it was true for a long time that valve amplifiers were expensive and/or ludicrously loud.  But, as I mentioned, we are now living in a golden age.  You have the opportunity to start with a phenomenal sounding valve amplifier.  Forget the “modelling” amps with built in effects.  They will become obsolete with new technology, you’ll want to replace them and find out at the same time that their value has plummeted.  They will also never give you that gold standard tone.  Rather develop your ear for a good amplifier sound with your first amp which you will have no reason to ever get rid of even if you get a bigger one, or one optimised for playing in a particular style.

To be more specific, in South Africa get a Laney Cub12R.  This amplifier is all valve, cheap as old boots, and I’ve heard it deliver classic guitar tone with massive response to picking (gets more distorted the harder you pick or when you turn the guitar volume up) in live settings played by players you could only wish to be.  It’s a joke that these things are so cheap.  They sound amazing.  There are other cheap valve amps now, but none that I’ve heard sound as good as the cub.  Seriously, it sounds better, even with the stock speaker, than many R20,000 plus amplifiers I’ve heard people use live.  If I wasn’t lucky enough to have one of the few amps I know that does sound better (at a much higher cost), I’d get one myself.

laney_cub12
img src: accordo.it

They’re also only 15 Watts – that’s frankly unbearably loud in your bedroom at full blast, and loud enough for many small club gigs (at bigger venues they put a microphone in front of the amplifier anyway).  Luckily, this amp also switches to 1W to get an acceptable sound at bedroom volumes. Bigger amps are so loud that you can’t get a certain kind of classic distortion out of them: power tube distortion.

Distortion can happen either in the initial part of an amplifier – the pre amp – or at the point where the amplifier drives the loudspeaker – the power section.  Most guitarists have never heard power amp distortion except on classic records.  This is because they, unlike the players of yor, can’t run their huge 50W or 100Watt tube amps loud enough.  Ever.  Pre-amp distortion sounds very different.  With a little 15W amp, you can learn to use both.

You can also learn to control distortion from your guitars volume controls – again, something that guitar players from the ’60s and ’70s knew about which few modern players do.  Even if you choose to do things differently, you’ll have learned this amazing skill.

There is a version with a 10 inch loudspeaker, the Laney cub10.  Don’t get that one.  10″ speakers are fine if you have a bunch of them.  But a single one will not be heard in a club gig.  You may also find Laney Cub12s without the reverb (the R in the Laney Cub12R).  Reverb creates a spaciness (like how sounds are in the bathroom, big cathedral, or cave) which is really great to have built into your amp.  But its not a deal breaker if it doesn’t have it.  In fact, reverb, like all effects can hide whether you’re playing badly and inhibit your learning. Another bonus with this little amp is that it comes with an effects loop which allows for cleaner use of effects than with a vintage style amp.

Tuner:

This is the only box you absolutely must have between your guitar and the amplifier.  The box that convinced me that a tuner could be fun was the Korg Pitchblack tuner.  It’s also cheap as chips.

korgpitchblack
img src: amazon.com

 

Effects:

Oooh effects! So cool….

Actually they’re a huge distraction from learning guitar and should only be used by people who can already play.  But I’m not going to convince you of that.  What I’ll say is this.  Multi effects units, like modelling amps, depreciate to paperweights at lightning speed.  Do not spend money on a multi fx unit unless you really know what you’re doing (ie, you should probably be a pro or regularly gigging musician to justify doing this).  Since you’ll want to learn about effects, get a cheap, obsolete unit like a 2nd hand Boss ME25 or one of the ghastly Zoom units.  These are easily good enough to learn about the effects without you having wasted your money when your fancy unit hits zero value before you even have enough experience to use effects effectively, or to tell a good effect from a bad one.

Boss-ME-25-Multi-Effect-Unit-side-.jpg
img src: guitar-galleries.co.uk

Once you are ready to use effects, it’s better for many people to choose the specific ones you want in the form of a pedal (also known as a stomp box).  In this way, you can get one that’s optimised to your particular taste (it’s impossible for every effect in a multi fx unit to be the best of its type).  Also, if the pedal is not digital, it will retain its value.  All multi fx units are digital so all eventually become worthless as newer digital units come to the market.  I’d say spend no more than R800 on a 2nd hand multi fx unit.  The one advantage it will have is that it will have a built in tuner.  It won’t, however, be a fun-to-use tuner like the pitchblack

Note, if you’re a metal player, you’re going to want to find a great metal stomp box to get that kind of tone from the amp I’ve suggested.  Don’t rush for the most famous unit (the Boss Metalzone) listen and try various other options.  Many are better.  A metal distortion unit running into the cub12 will still sound better for metal than the usual beginners options of modelling amps and other rubbish – even if you ultimately must have a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier (around R30,000 (US$2,100) I think) when your band, Children of Yog Sothoth, goes on tour.

Picks:

Don’t use a sharkfin.  Ever.  They are an abomination.  A blasphemy against God and nature.  It makes experienced guitar players want to slit their wrists to see beginners struggling with these horrors.

sharkfin
img src: stringsdirect.co.uk

Use a reasonably stiff pick (usually around 1mm thick) which gives you more control – even for strumming – of the size and material you prefer.  Many players find as they get more skilled they prefer smaller picks.  I’d recommend starting off with a small pick like the Dunlop Jazz IIIs, available in a variety of materials.

TortexJazzIIIXL-11
img src: jimdunlop.com

Next steps:

This basic set up – great guitar -> great tuner -> great amplifier can be further improved with some simple mods.  The most important improvement you can make is to change the loudspeaker on the amplifier.  The Cub12 may be a great amp, but they do take some shortcuts to get it so cheap.  One is to use a very cheap loudspeaker.

After the amp itself, the loudspeaker has the greatest effect on the final sound – more than the guitar, the pickups or anything.  To take the amp from great to amazing, replace the speaker with a Celestion G12H30, if you want more volume, or you want a punchier, more modern rock sound, or a Celestion G12M “Greenback” if you want the amp quieter or you want a more classic rock sound.  Do not put a Celestion Vintage30 in the cub (a very popular loudspeaker) because it will be too bright and cutting. There are many other options, but just remember: loudspeakers vary in style and sensitivity. If your amp is too loud, you may want a less sensitive speaker, and if it’s too soft, a more sensitive speaker is an easy way to get more volume.

After this, you can replace the guitar’s pickups.  Cheap guitars use cheap pickups.  Change them for affordable after-market options that match the style you’re after. As always, the biggest names don’t necessarily make the best pickups.  Do the change yourself.  Part of the advantage of a cheaper instrument is that you don’t need to fear mucking it up which puts us off doing our own mods even though they ultimately prove to be very easy.  Get started on this now. Soldering irons are cheap.

At this point you have a rig that most famous guitar players would be more than satisfied with if they were handed it on stage. It will sound phenomenally better than other beginners’ rigs and you will still have all this stuff in 40 years time while other gear has come and gone.

A final note:  This advice will mean you will have an amazing sounding rig to learn on that is good enough for professional playing.  It does not mean that this alone will satisfy everything you want to do with your guitar playing.  People end up wanting a specific guitar (usually based on looks if we’re honest with ourselves) for a specific purpose.  Or it winds up suiting you more not to use an amplifier at all.  That’s all fine and well.  However, all of those things take a lot of experience.  While learning it’s best to have an affordable rig that sounds amazing no matter what, and that will always be a versatile option for taking to jams, playing at home, or learning new styles of playing, no matter how far you go.