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

The Pixies – Cape Town, March 2017

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Lovering, Lenchantin, Santiago, and Black img src: pretoria.getitonline.co.za

Young people, here’s a sad truth: that tribe you inhabit that seems to own the streets and the night-spots, that defines what’s hip and what the issues are? They’ll one day retreat into cars and offices, homes and restaurants, and they’ll mysteriously disappear from view and be replaced by another tribe that despises all yours stood for. But just occasionally they may re-emerge, blinking in the light.

The crowd for The Pixies at Kirstenbosch constituted an informal reunion of Cape Town’s Generation X. We had the experience, all but forgotten, of recognising many faces (usually a little greyer and a little stouter) in the crowd without necessarily knowing names or even where we’d seen each other before.

And there on a wide stage were the alleged best bands of our generation. In the local case, The Springbok Nude Girls, opening for the internationally beloved Pixies. Named for the cover girls on a series of compilation records put out by Springbok Radio in the ’70s, and ’80s, Stellenbosch’s Nude Girls seemed improbably original with machine gun vocals, a trumpet that danced over the grunge guitar chords, and the echoing whoops that made square-jawed frontman Arno Carstens into an almost credible South African equivalent of a celebrity.

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The Springbok Nude Girls img src: thebioscope.co.za

This time Carstens looked in his skinny jeans like a rugby player shyly enjoying his first adult ballet class. His total contempt for his audience had gone and with it much of his fuck-the-rules power. While guitar player, Theo Crous, laid into his Telecaster with every ounce of his ’90s vim, and the new (I presume) drummer was giving it hell, Carstens and bass player, Arno Blumer, seemed to be phoning it in. He could no longer reach those iconic whoops, which had to be filled in by Adriaan Brandt on the trumpet.

That’s not to say that the audience wasn’t loving it, which may tell you that I may not have been in entirely the right headspace. They roared along with the well-loved tunes and called out for more. I was dead centre, about three metres from the stage, and was probably getting most of my sound from the stage amps and monitor speakers. I’m pretty sure the sound was a lot better a few metres back catching the convergence of the main speaker towers. But I couldn’t help thinking, unfairly or not, that this being the greatest South African band of the ’90s says more about the ’90s than about them.

South Africans are so starved of international musicians that women behind us were yelling at The Pixies’ guitar tech* to take his pants off. Jason was naturally quick to join them. The band came on in darkness and opened without a word in a blaze of light and much improved sound. If I was still only getting stage sound, it was a lot louder and a lot clearer.

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Our view of The Pixies pic by Jason Coetzee

The wordless opening was no mere device. As the band went through a careful mix of well-worn classics and songs from their recent record, Head Carrier, with hardly a pause between any of them, the Alfred Hitchcockesque figure of Frank Black (who still goes by his given Charles Thompson in private) said not a word to the audience. Neither did slender, well-preserved guitar player Joe Santiago. In fact, neither of these two remaining primary icons of The Pixies seemed to even look at, or take in the audience at all. It was new bass-player, Paz Lenchantin, and drummer, David Lovering, who gave signs of being present in Cape Town.

Their performance though, was faultless. They hit all of their best loved numbers (besides former bass-player, Kim Deal’s, signature piece, Gigantic) with energy and conviction. Black never shied away from the screaming choruses that electrified us in the band’s glory days of the late ’80s and early ’90s and, despite not being a technical guitar player, Joe Santiago nailed every fiercely original part he ever wrote.

The crowd surged ecstatically for their biggest numbers, with the youngsters hopping onto the stage and being hurled off again by stagehands like kittens. I loved hearing numbers like This Monkey’s Going to Heaven, and Debaser. But some of their biggest numbers I’ve so over-played that they left me a bit cold. I actually found myself bored by their best-known tune, Where Is My Mind–waiting for it to end.

Where I lost myself completely was in the new numbers like Tenement Song and especially Magdalena–songs which prove that Black’s song-writing has only matured and refined over 30 years–the dreamy Bossanova numbers, Velouria and Havalina, and their cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On.

After they’d blasted through about twenty five tunes, they acknowledged the audience for the first time, still wordlessly, took some bows, did a single encore, and then it was done. I don’t wish to suggest that my experience was universal, but I found the professional but impersonal style of Black and Santiago a barrier to immersing myself fully in experiencing the performance of a band I’ve adored for two and a half decades. They gave no indication that they had any investment in playing to this audience in this city, and I think many of us want that illusion from our artistic heroes. They literally did not speak a single word to the crowd. Lovering though, who never flagged in what must have been a truly gruelling performance, was beaming during the bows, which counted for something.

I’ll avoid saying too much about the behaviour of my generation. I shouted at one old fool who was trying to relive his youth at the expense of everyone around him. “Moshing,” was one of the shittiest, whitest, notions of the ’90s. It’s even worse if it’s not kept to the front of the stage where participation can be considered consensual.

*Guitar nerd note: I love a band with great taste in guitars, and The Pixies have that. Even a non guitar nerd friend was impressed by Joey Santiago’s black and gold, Bigsby’d Les Paul Custom (you see guitar folks? People do notice). A cherry ’60s Bigsby’d ES345 and a pick-guardless dark-back ’57 reissue goldtop rounded out his choices. Black played a well-worn blonde Telecaster. Bass player, Paz Lenchantin, used a covetable, well-worn, off-white Precision, with a red/tortoiseshell guard (with a scarlet flower attached to the headstock), that may have been an original or some kind of distressed reissue. Joey played through a master volume JCM800 and a Fender Princeton or Deluxe Reverb. Black played through a small pile of AC30s. It’s a good example of how to get tonal separation between two guitars.