Axeman on the ampage (GAS slight return)

Those of you who have been to this neck of the internet woods before may remember that I concluded my post about my acquisition of a used Ibanez Artcore with the words “what I need next is an amp”.  So here we go. What kind of amp should I get?

I get my musical kicks messing about with GarageBand and trying to improve myself as a player by studying books, or working out how to play songs I like. I am the quintessential bedroom guitarist. Right now, if I want to play amplified (using either the new Artcore or my trusty Traveler Speedster that I brought with me to the US), I have to crack open the Mac, connect my M-Audio USB interface and fire up GarageBand. I then have to connect headphones and the guitar. Cables everywhere. Not convenient. The tones available from GB are also frankly a bit pants and it’s very fiddly to mess about with little pictures of stomp boxes, visual EQ, all that malarcky.

I’d really like to be able to just switch an amp on and begin playing without all those extra cables. It doesn’t have to be loud, in fact it would be better if it were quiet. I’m only looking to play at typical home volumes. 15-20W should be plenty.

Back when I first started playing electric guitar, selecting an amplifier was a simple business; you  bought the loudest one you could afford. My first amp, was a 5W solid-state practice amp purchased new from Rushworths in Chester (the kind of music shop where the salesmen used to wear Man at C&A suits and demo guitars with Nile Rogers disco licks). I do not remember the brand. I’m not even sure it had a tone control. It was not very powerful even for bedroom use and I managed to completely wreck it by overdriving it all the time, so after a few weeks it was incapable of clean tones.

My second amp, bought used, again before I was 16, was a huge thing with two 12” Celestion speakers and made by a company called Intermusic (amazingly I just found one tthe same on eBay for 68 quid — see photo!).

Part guitar combo, part domestic appliance, all Beast!It was100W and came in its own flight case with wheels. When it was time to play, you just took the front off. It weighed a ton. It was like lugging a washing machine to rehearsals and gigs. If I recall correctly, it didn’t have any distortion channel, but it did have reverb, which at the time was a major wow for me. The band I was in at the time christened it The Beast and as it had multiple inputs, we ran absolutely everything through it simultaneously; guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards. At our first gig we built a Frankenstein’s monster of a sound system out of the school PA, some speakers borrowed from a pub and other stuff borrowed from the singer’s cousin’s metal band– and The Beast. Sadly, it began farting after about 3 or 4 songs and died shortly thereafter. I can still remember our keyboard player looking panicked, running around mid song twiddling the knobs trying to revive it, then shrugging and grabbing a tambourine for the rest of the set. The speaker transducers had ripped out of the cones and then, without load, the coils had melted and short circuited. It needed two new speakers. I believe I traded as part of a deal for a bass or PA head a year or so later.

My third amp was a 65W Peavey Bandit. It was super nice, but I ended up selling it while at uni and short of cash. I currently have a Trace Elliott Supertramp combo (in British racing green colours), bought in 1994, in storage back home in Finland. At 80W It’s a big green beast, but not with a capital ‘B’. I’ve never had it turned up much more than the number three position though.

Since the last time I bought an amp, things have changed however. In the 1980s, the only mainstream options available were all analog solid-state amplifiers, such as the ones listed above. But since then things have got much more complex.

There are three broad categories of amp now available in addition to basic solid-state.

Tube amplifiers use pre-transistor ‘valve’ technology and have enjoyed a renaissance during the last 10-15 years, as players search for the classic tones from the 1960s and 70s. Tubes distort differently to solid-state transistors, leading to richer and warmer tone. However, they take time to warm up and are less reliable than transistor amps. They also rely on over-driving the tubes in order to achieve distorted tones. This means that the tone is volume dependent. You need to turn them up high to hear the tubes start to crunch. This is a disadvantage (in a practice amp at least) that some manufacturers get around by creating specifically low-power designs and/or adding output attenuators to bleed off power before it hits the speaker. You can get some pretty interesting looking simple tube amps for not much more than $100, but they tend not to include the volume reducing tricks that would make them appealing to someone like me (a father of two young kids who doesn’t want to get divorced over playing dodgy blues guitar at 1 am).

Hybrid amplifiers use a tube within a largely solid-state design in order to try and get some of that valve warmth, but benefit from solid-state reliability, flexibility and cost.

Modeling amps take the guitar’s analog signal and convert it to digital format before processing in a DSP to simulate a wide variety of different amp models, including tube distortion and classic speaker combinations. The tones produced are meant to be pretty good, depending on the model you pick. Purists of course will always prefer tube tone, but for the bedroom hobbyist these seem to be a pretty good option

Tah-dah!

Whenever I spend more than about $25 on anything, I always do a pretty large amount of research and whenever I’m looking at guitar gear I even see this as part of the fun. So here it is, a comparison of a few practice amp options. In table form. Yay!

I’m really not interested in the plain vanilla solid-state options, so I’m limiting the search to modeling, hybrid and pure tube types. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that have caught my eye.

Brand Model Type Output Power (W) Headphone Out? List Price ($)
Fender Mustang I Modelling 20 Yes 109
Roland CUBE-20XL Modelling 20 Yes 160
Fender G-DEC 3 Fifteen Modelling 15 Yes 200
Bugera BC15 Hybrid 15 Yes 109
Vox Valvetronix VT20+ Hybrid 20 Yes 170
Epiphone Valve Junior Simple Tube 5 No 160
Fender Champion 600 Simple Tube 5 No 170
Bugera V5 Advanced Tube 5 Yes 197
Blackstar HT-1 Advanced Tube 1 Yes 250
Blackstar HT-1R Advanced Tube 1 Yes 300

In terms of tone then the Epiphone Valve Junior and Fender Champ 600 look just tons of fun, but the lack of headphone socket rules them out. Plus these are the kind where the tone will be volume dependent. They could be great if I had a shed in a garden to play in, but all I have is a spare room in an apartment.

If money were no object, an ‘advanced’ tube amp such as those from the British company Blackstar might be great, but that’s a lot of cash. The hybrid amps by Bugera and Vox look very interesting. Especially the Bugera based on price.

In terms of modelling amps, Fender has some interesting options. GDEC stands for ‘Guitar Digital Entertainment Center’ apparently and means that you can load backing tracks and guitar lessons onto the amp via an SD Memory Card slot. This doesn’t really appeal to me as I can use an iPod with an aux line in to achieve the same and with so much content available (often free), I don’t want to be locked into buying Fender-branded SD cards. But another feature of the GDEC really does appeal to me – the ability to use Fender’s FUSE software on a Mac or PC to craft tones and then load them onto the amp. You can even apparently download tones from the FUSE user community. Luckily the Fender Mustang I also has the FUSE software capability and seemingly all the GDEC features (presumably the same or very similar processing engine) and with an extra 5W of power, this seems like the better deal.

The Roland Cube series is an alternative modelling amp, but they’re more expensive and lack any FUSE type functionality. Online reviews are also meh compared to the Fender amps.

So logically, the most interesting options appear to be the Bugera BC15 hybrid amp or the Fender Mustang I modelling amp. Really at this point I should go and try these ones out and work out which one I like the best in real life. But I’m suffering for Gear Acquisition Syndrome and I’d really like to have something as soon as possible. There’s nothing interesting on Craigslist and Guitar Center have a $20 coupon right now.

I am going to negotiate with The Authorities with the aim of getting a Fender Mustang I. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Fender IPO

Fender Musical Instruments Co filed a document with US financial regulators last Thursday announcing they plan on selling off a stake in the company worth about $200 million in an Initial Public Offering (IPO). They plan to use around half of the proceeds to pay off debt and the other half as ‘working capital’ (putting the money to work in the business). As yet, I’ve seen no reports on how much of the equity will be made available (and hence the implied valuation of the entire company), how many shares this will be or how they will be priced. But it seems clear that based on circa $700 million annual sales, this will be a minority stake.

Fender was founded by Leo Fender in 1946, but he went on to sell the company to the broadcaster CBS in 1965. This period lasted until 1985, when a group of senior Fender execs put together a Management Buyout (MBO). Right now the company is owned by a group of private investors, including some of those who participated in the MBO and a private equity firm (Western Presidio). So this IPO, which will see the company’s stock listed on the NASDAQ exchange, will be the first time that Fender shares will be freely traded and available for non-insiders to purchase.

Apart from the opportunity to own a stake in one of the iconic rock’n’roll companies, this is interesting, because it means after Fender float the shares on the market, they’re going to have to start disclosing a lot more information about their business to investors. So we’ll see quarterly and annual results published, 10k filings etc.

So if you are interested in business, which I am, then maybe it will be possible not only to start evaluating Fender’s performance, but also the guitar and musical instrument industry as a whole. But I’m looking forward to seeing Fender get more transparent and seeing what their filings look like. I may even blog about it

Hello Music Telecaster Today

As I said when I was geeking out, the absolute cheapest way to get a new Tele seems to be via Hello Music. Just looked at their deal of the day. Fender American Standard Tele in black finish with maple fretboard. Guitar Center list price of $999. which means $926 after 15% coupon and tax.

Hello Music offering it for $800 plus $9 shipping. If I had the cash I would jump all over this. Especially as you regularly see chancers on Craigslist asking $850 and up for used models.

You need a Hello Music login to see the actual price. But here’s some proof.

Middle-Aged British Male Succumbs to Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) in Scottsdale AZ

I’ve spent the last few weeks obsessing about Telecasters ad nauseum. Analyzing the Fender/Squier lineup. Thinking about tonewoods, finishes, construction, pick-up options and pricing. Writing overlong and far too complicated geek out blog posts on these topics that went on and on and on. Posts that I know not even my wife has read. Posts with tables of data. Utter bollocks most of it I’m sure.

I’ve also spent far more time blogging than playing. That is— as my three year old daughter will shortly learn to say –  “whack”.

As part of my geek out Project Telecaster research I started frequenting the excellent TDPRI forums last week. Asking questions, seeking answers from the Casterati. As well as getting some very useful technical advice, I received some deeper words of wisdom from several posters there. This quote from a poster with the handle boris bubbanov sums up what a few people were saying:

….this (research) process is incidental, or it should be. I discover things while I play and that’s not really research. I’m too busy playing (or posting!) to do research.

A person with over 20,000 posts on a Telecaster fan forum was telling me to get a life. Amen to that!

So I decided I needed to get in the game. I made up my mind that I would go and buy the cheapest Tele I could find that wasn’t a complete dog. My mouth dried and my palms began to sweat. I knew what was happening. I was entering  the initial stages of Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). By George, I would have my Hammer of The Honky Tonk Gods!

Cautiously, while trying not to betray my growing mania, I began floating the idea to my wife. I tried to pick the best moment I could. I believe one kid was asleep, the other glued to Caillou on Netflix. I’d  just done the dishes. All was calm. I cleared my throat and broached the subject as casually as I could, but my voice may have squeaked, just a little.

After a brief interrogation I got the go ahead to spend “around $200”, provided I made sure I got a good deal. I cackled inwardly to myself and the GAS fever grew.  Lightheaded and with a dry mouth, I hit Craigslist.

But as usual, there were few used Teles available on-line in my area and I still had the GAS gnawing at my bones. It was late Saturday night and I was GASing bad. I continued to scour the listings.

And then I saw it. A good looking guitar according to the pictures. Out of production for a a couple of years, but sold for  $429 when new, with recent eBay auctions closing at $369, $399 and forum posters talking about the $225 – $295 range from Craigslist without a case.

And here was one listed on Craigslist for $275 in “excellent condition” and with a hardshell case included. It seemed very promising.

Only one problem. It wasn’t a Tele, not even close. Instead it was one of these:

 

That’s right. A jazz box. A really jazzy jazz box at that, with a spruce top and a rosewood bridge for an extra-warm, extra-jazzy, Wes Montgomery sitting-by-his-fireplace-on-Christmas-Eve sound, man. A fully hollow-bodied archtop acoustic-electric with humbuckers.

In a word; “Nice.”

The next evening I visited the seller, inspected the goods, liked what I found and bought the guitar, getting the whole package for $225 (price reduction due to some intonation problems that I was later able to work out how to fix). It’s a Chinese-made Ibanez Artcore AK85 DVS and I think it’s just  great. It plays as a nice low volume acoustic (won’t wake the family) and those humbuckers should make it nice and quiet for GarageBand sessions. Overall the quality seems better than the Epiphone Dots and Dot Studios I’ve played in stores and on par with the Sheratons and Casinos. Although of course this guitar lacks the resonance block inside that makes those guitars ‘semi’ hollow. It seems to be based more on the Gibson ES175.

I have done little research or comparison to other guitars. Between finding it on Craigslist and taking it home there was less than 24 hours. There has been no geek-out post on jazz boxes (yet). I plan on playing it a lot. I may even need to dust off my 7th chords and start trying to figure out modal harmony for the umpteenth time. To start off with I will keep it in stock condition, but in the future I could look at changing the bridge and tailpiece for something with more of a blues bite. I could even put on a Bigsby-type vibrato unit.

So there you go. I was looking for a Telecaster, but ended up filling that Gibson ES335 guitarchetype hole in my collection instead. Life really is a (jazz) box of chocolates.

The GAS has subsided, at least for now, but I haven’t given up on the Tele, I’ll come back to that project later in the year.

What I really need next is an amp…

Geekageddon II: Ramblings on buying a used Tele

In the last major-geek out 93 Types of Telecaster post, I tried to work out, based on specs, what are the best value guitars in the Squier/Fender Telecaster range. After reviewing that post I created a new category for the blog called ‘geek out’. If you’re not in the throes of a mid-life crisis that sees you spending those last moments before you go to sleep at night obsessing about guitars, you’re likely to find this boring. Even if you do you might find this boring. I don’t promise anything! But I just have to get this stuff off my chest.

But if you’re still with me (fellow guitar geeks) and you’re sitting comfortably, let’s proceed.

In the analysis of the new Telecaster options, my conclusions were (for those that fell asleep at the back):

–          I don’t place particular value on country of origin, although it may well be that the better guitars may be produced in the more ‘expensive’ countries

–          I don’t think I should pay more for ‘better’ pickups. It seems impossible to judge the relative value of Fender stock pickups and it seems that they are easy and relatively inexpensive to upgrade[1]

–          I believe the biggest drivers of value are the body material (needs to be ash/alder) and possibly finish (ideally nitro)

–          Based on the above, the Squiers appear to be poor choices, as do the more expensive Fender USA models

–         Conclusion: On paper at least, the best value guitars seem to be the Fender MIM Standard and the Fender USA Highway One

The above comes with the caveat that I am on a ‘journey of discovery’ (i.e. I don’t really know what I am talking about) and that I know that in the end  I’ll base my choice on buying the guitar I like most within budget.

But in the meantime I’m going to get my geek on.

Used price must in some way be related to new

The last geek out post listed the ‘list’ or ‘street’ price for the guitars in the table and this warrants some explanation as this is neither the manufacturer’s recommended price nor what you should actually pay for a new guitar.

There appear to be three levels of pricing for guitars bought from regular on-line or bricks’n’mortar retailers, at least here in US.

  • MSRP: Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price. As quoted on the manufacturer’s website. Always looks really stupidly high. Its function seems to be to allow retailers to quote a lower ‘discounted’ price.
  • List or ‘Street’ Price. This is what a guitar store will put on the hang tag and quote on its website. Always substantially below MSRP. Hey you’re getting a huge discount!
  • What you actually pay. Guitar Center very regularly have coupons which they send out by email which usually give a 15% discount off of list. Of course, on top of that you have to pay sales tax. Where I live that is 9%. So the out-of-the-door price on a guitar is probably about 7% below list. However, you might be able to do better than this, especially on high ticket items[2].

Discount Sites

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s possible to get a new guitar even cheaper. A site called Hello Music buys bulk quantities of musical gear and then offers them as daily deals. They don’t appear to charge sales tax[3] and the charge for shipping is nominal or free. Last year one day they had a Fender American Standard Tele for about $800 if I recall correctly – at least a 20% discount below typical list price. This must be the cheapest way possible to get a new instrument. However, the downsides are that I have no idea when they will next promote a Tele again and when they do they will only offer one type (no choice of options or even colour) plus I won’t be able to play it before I get it.

Used Value

Like anything else, used guitars are worth what the market decides – what people in general are prepared to pay for them. If you buy and sell guitars on a regular basis, you can come to a good understanding of market prices. But what if you’re a noob like me who has never bought a used guitar before[4]?

I don’t want to be a sucker, so I want to try and work out fair value is for a used guitar.

Clearly a used guitar (not vintage!) is worth less than the equivalent new. Even for a guitar in good condition, the manufacturer’s warranty is usually not transferable, the body and neck will collect (hopefully minor) nicks and dings, connections come lose, hardware can corrode, a setup or more drastic repair work may be necessary.

There is also additional risk in buying used. I can’t be 100% sure it’s not a fake or stolen or that critical components or hardware have been swapped out, or that there is some major flaw or damage that will only reveal itself after I get it home.

All of these things reduce the value of the guitar relative to new – but by how much? Looking on Craigslist is not much help as different sellers will have different initial pricing strategies. I could track auctions of used guitars on eBay and may yet still do that, but I don’t have that info to hand right now.

One good reference I do have however is that Guitar Center seems to discount their shopworn guitars (those with a visible ding) by about 20%. Last time I was in, they had a Fender MIM Tele (I forget which type) reduced from $499 to $399. It had a deep ding in the body finish about the size of half a Coke bottle cap. So I’d expect  a used guitar, exhibiting some cosmetic ware (but otherwise in good shape and with all original components and accessories) to be no more expensive than this – 20% below list, i.e. having the same price discount as shop-worn Guitar Center instruments. But then I would also expect the used guitar to be discounted a little further to account for the increased risk relative to buying new. I’m going to use this as a guide to an initial assessment of fair value should be.

I’m going to say 30% below list for a guitar in good condition, with only minor cosmetic ware and no major issues.

So this allows me to update the table with all of this pricing info. Tah-dah!

New vs Used Tele Pricing

Model

List Price (new)[5]

GC out-of-the-door (new)[6]

Hello Music (new)[7]

Fair Value (used)[8]

Squier Affinity

179

166

153

116

Squier Vintage Modified Special

299

277

249

194

Squier Classic Vibe 50s

349

323

289

226

Fender Standard (MIM)

449

416

369

291

Fender FSR Standard (MIM)

499

462

409

324

Fender Classic Series ’50s (MIM)

699

648

569

453

Fender Highway One

729

675

593

473

Fender Classic Series Baja

799

740

649

518

Fender American Standard (cheapest)

999

926

809

648

Fender American Standard (most expensive)

1149

1065

929

745


[1] This hunch has been corroborated by a quick discussion on the excellent Telecaster forum http://www.tdpri.com

[2] I bought a relatively high end acoustic from Guitar Center last year. I got the 15% coupon and also got them to sweeten the deal still further with some ‘case candy’; spare strings, a stand, a capo, a Snark tuner

[3] You should of course declare that on your tax return to the IRS

[4] This is not strictly true. I bought a used bass in about 1988 and sold it while at university a few years later. I don’t remember how I did on the deal

[5] Guitar Center website

[6] With 15% coupon and 9% tax

[7] Estimate of Hello Music pricing – if and when they offer a Tele as a daily deal. Includes $9 shipping

[8] 30% below list