Prince plus Fender Stratocaster (This counts as news in my world II)

I’ve been a Prince fan since I was a teenager, although I have to admit to losing interest in his records during the 1990s, he’s still in my book one of the greatest artists of all time. Back in the days of Parade and Sign O’The Times I was actually a pretty obsessive Prince fan. Those records from Dirty Mind to SOTT (and probably 50% of Lovesexy) were just fantastic.

Was just scanning the news and found this nice article on Prince’s lost gems by The Guardian.

At the top of the article is The Wee Purple Groove Hobbit with a Fender Stratocaster.

Photo hotlinked from The Guardian website

Although Prince is a famous Telecaster player, his classic instrument was actually a  Hohner Madkat Tele copy. So it’s interesting (if you are a guitar geek like me) to see him with a Strat. You can tell it’s a strat because of the pointy angle on the headstock opposite the tuning keys. The Tele headstock is thinner and more rounded. But it could also be he has some kind of partscaster or special edition he had built for him by Fender or a minion luthier.

Anyway. Prince and a Strat. That is all.

Cheapo Les Paul addition — what was I thinking?

So, despite saying I was going to hold back on a Les Paul for the time being, I went and did it. I was perusing Craigslist and a PRS Soapbar 2 SE came up for $175, Although I don’t own one, I am a big fan of PRS guitars and getting a solid mahogany, set neck example for less than $200 just seemed too good a chance to pass up. It’s difficult for me to track down the new price for this guitar as it is no longer made, but a similar PRS Single Cut SE is a $600 guitar when new. So $175 seemed an absolute steal for this one. By the way the ‘Soapbar’ name comes from the fact it has a pair of P90-type ‘hot’ single-coil pickups rather than humbuckers. But it’s quite easy to get ‘buckers that fit those slots. P90s have also been used in Les Pauls since the 1950s and punk rockers such as Mick Jones of The Clash actually preferred these examples to the humbucker versions because of their cutting tone.

I exchanged emails with the owner and he agreed I could come and see it, but didn’t specify when or leave a phone number. Then he went quiet. I assume he found another buyer. Would’ve been nice of him to let me know, but he didn’t.

By this time I was of course GASing bad. After a couple of days I began to scour Craigslist again, looking for Les Paul type guitars. I had two criteria; the guitar had to be mahogany with a set neck and less than $200. Ideally with humbuckers, but OK with P90s (like the Soapbar).

This should put me in Epiphone Les Paul Standard territory, but ownership of these budget, Chinese-made Gibson versions seems to indicate a tenuous grasp of reality. Unlike Telecasters there is always quite a few on sale, but the prices sought are usually unrealistic: “No I am not going to pay you $350 for a used guitar I can get for $400 new, even with a ‘deluxe gig bag’ “.

But I found one interesting option; a dude selling a Chinese-made Les Paul copy for $200 including a hard case. Mahogany, set neck. Checked all the boxes.

From the description in the ad it appeared to be a SVK ELPC400. From some sniffing around the web I found out that these guitars seemed to be highly regarded. They’re also no longer made as the manufacturer had been sued by Gibson for copying the Les Paul design too slavishly. When available then they seemed to sell for $350…$400 without a case. Here’s the spec run down which the seller had clearly copied from the importer’s webpage:

SVK Guitars ELP-C400 Single Cutaway Electric Guitar Features:

Set-Neck 50’s Body shape
Solid African Mahogany Body
Maple Top
Canadian Hardrock Maple Neck
1960’S Neck Profile
Bound Indian Rosewood Fingerboard
24.75 Scale
Thin High 190NS Fretwire Exclusive
Pearl Block Inlays
Bound Top and Back
Bound Head
Two Way Truss Rod
Tune-O-Matic III Die-Cast Bridge Tailpiece
Die-Cast Vintage Tuners
EVJ-Alnico 5800 Humbucker Pickups

The above basically equates to a Les Paul Standard, with the exception of the maple neck. Gibson use mahogony on real LPs. I figured that this would be at least as good as an Epi Standard. Possibly better.

I went to play it, thought it was OK and then tried to haggle. The seller was claiming he had paid over $300 new for the guitar plus another $100 for the case. I was GASing and I caved, giving the guy $200 and took it home.

On opening the case at home I felt sick to  my stomach. I’d made a mistake. Because the ad had said ‘set neck’, I hadn’t even noticed that in fact the neck was bolt-on. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid that I hadn’t noticed. After some research I realized that the guitar was actually the slightly cheaper ELP-C300 like this one but in black. Identical specs to the 400 but with a bolt-on neck.  Man I was pissed. I only blamed the seller slightly (could even have been an honest mistake, copying the wrong specs to his ad) but I was really angry at myself. The only criteria I was really focusing on was that set neck — supposedly essential to true Les Paul tone, but I hadn’t noticed the bolts. Dammit.

I nearly re-listed the guitar on Craigslist immediately. But then I calmed down a bit. It’s a great looking guitar. It’s in good condition. It has a pair of supposedly Alnico humbuckers and perhaps a fair price for what I got would still have been about $150, so I haven’t done too badly. It’s also a nice addition to the arsenal of guitars. It does sound like a Les Paul. It doesn’t feedback like my other humbucker guitar, the Ibanez Artcore hollowbody. I cracked open the can marked Jimmy Page riffs and started to enjoy it. I then put a lead line on a Garageband track I’d been working on and enjoyed it some more.

So now I figure I’ve got a guitar I quite like. I paid more than I should for it, but it’s not going to kill me. I can also use this as a guitar to experiment with doing home setup and modifications without getting too scared I’m going to damage something valuable. I could even swap out the pickups. Put on a Bigsby tremolo. Whatever I feel like.

Also as a bonus, that slot for a ‘real’ Les Paul style, set-neck all-mahogany guitar still remains open in my collection, waiting to be filled at some point down the line…

The Rolling Stones — Live from a Parallel Universe

I love YouTube. Could waste hours just surfing it. I am also (on about the fifth attempt) getting into twitter. (@niilolainen by the way). I have course followed a bunch of guitar/music based folks, including @RollingStones and @OfficialKeef. @OfficialKeef even sent me a private message thanking me for the follow. Wow! A personal message from a Richards staffer who probably has met The Great One, The Human Riff himself!

For the record I’m not the kind of bloke who likes to make Top 10 lists of the greatest this, that and the other as I don’t believe that music should be reduced to a competition with winners and losers. But let’s say that Keith Richards is one of me favorite guitarists. Clearly a genius — a musician of outstanding creativity and incredible taste. I listen to the Stones on weekly basis.

But anyway, I digress. This post is about guitars. From following @RollingStones, I found that they have an officially sanctioned YouTube channel where they post videos such as the one embedded below.

This is the Stones performing Sad Sad Sad live in Tokyo in 1990. It’s not their best performance or even a particularly great song. It’s a little rough around the edges, but has a nice punkish, honky-tonk energy. The camera work is bizarre, mainly consisting of close-ups of Mick and wide angle shots of the stage. Bill gets some camera time and so does Ronnie during his solo. Keith and Charlie don’t feature at all — in fact during Keith’s solo they keep the camera on Ronnie.

But what struck me from a guitar geek perspective is the weird weird instruments they are using. Mick has something which seems to be a Strat body, with Tele pickups, but with the pickguard and pronounced upper horn of a 70s P-Bass. A point on the lower edge of the headstock indicates it is not a Fender.

Ronnie too is playing something a little unusual. It seems to be a Strat-type guitar, but with a humbucker and a slightly off, bulbous body shape. The headstock is also different — with 4 tuning pegs on the top and 2 on the bottom. As I said, we don’t get to see Keith at all, except from a distance, but one shot shows he too is using a guitar with the same headstock.

There are two possibilities

– This is actually transmitted from a parallel universe where Fender and Gibson do not exist

– The Stones had an endorsement deal with Music Man or Peavey

I don’t have time to start geeking out on this. It just struck me as odd and worthy of a quick blog post.

Bass Frustration, Tele Intonation Riddle

As a father of young kids, with a relatively demanding day-job it’s just not possible for me to be part of a band. Maybe in a few years I could commit to rehearsals and gigs, when my daughters are older (right now the younger is 10 months, the older just over 3 years) , but that’s still some way off.

So I’m a bedroom guitarist, or rather a spare-room guitarist, and I devote my playing time to trying to improve myself as a musician and trying to come up with original music that I record on Garageband. The GB projects led me last year to buy an electro-acoustic bass. A Dean EAB, which I managed to get from Guitar Center for about $130 out of the door when they had a coupon. I figured an acoustic bass could be a lot of fun and it has been, at least initially. The day I got it, I came up with a bass groove, which became the basis (bassis?) of a song I’m quite pleased with.

One thing I noticed straight away however is that the output from the passive pickups is totally lacking. So recording using a regular guitar lead straight into my USB interface just doesn’t work. I have to mic up the bass. I’ve been doing this since the beginning, just putting my cheap MXL condenser mic up to the soundhole. However, in the four months I’ve had the bass, the playability has degraded considerably. The strings now buzz and rattle like mad and all of these things get picked up by the mic. It’s now got to the point where I can no longer play grooves or more complex bass lines on it, but instead just have to follow the route of the chord and be extremely careful about how I play, to try and minimize the horrible extra noises. I’m tempted to ditch the thing and go looking for a cheap electric bass on Craigslist, but perhaps I can try raising the action (through introducing more neck relief) and also change the strings to try and fix some of the buzzing and rattling. I might also experiment with an after-market acoustic pickup as an alternative to the onboard electronics. In searching for images I found a nice post on another blog about the EAB. This author also seems to have experienced similar issues.

I’ve also experienced some strange problems with the intonation (‘staying-in-tuneness’) on my new Telecaster. I found I could tune the open strings perfectly but on the lower frets the notes would be out of tune, but then fine again at the 12th fret (where the octave of the open strings can be found). This really bugged me, because this could’ve meant some nasty issues with the lower fret placement and some serious time, $$$ or even a new neck to correct. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t noticed this in the store either. I must’ve been playing higher up the neck all the time.

Fortunately I was lucky. In trying to find out what the problem might be, I discovered a virtual text book on intonation written by luthier Mike Doolin of Doolin Guitars. After reading this I examined the problem with an electronic tuner and discovered that the fretted notes were going consistently sharp and that the degree of sharpness was increasing depending on how much pressure I applied. I figured that the guitar had just been in the store a long time and the strings were past their best. I changed them out last night and the problem, although not totally gone, is much improved and if I focus on fretting lightly I no longer notice it. Phew.

The Headstock Placebo Effect

There’s an excellent podcast I listen to called The Skeptics Guide to The Universe. It’s published every Sunday and is a really great mix of science news, critical thinking, skepticism and geek humour. I discovered them in summer 2005 and have listened to every episode. I also regularly listen to The Guardian’s Football Weekly, Asymco/5by5’s Critical Path (which I listen to for work reasons but also really enjoy), Kevin Smith’s Smodcast output (especially Hollywood Babble On), Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and more latterly The Guitar Podcast. But The SGU is the podcast that I’ve listened to the longest and it’s an indispensable part of my week to get the new episode on a Sunday and  listen to it while doing housework etc.

A few weeks ago they discussed a study that some scientists did on violins. The SGU Host Steven Novella blogs about the study here. He writes

…a researcher had 17 professional violinists try to tell the difference among six violins – two Stradivarius, one Guarneri, and three modern violins. They were literally blinded to which violin they were playing (they were blind-folded). Seven stated they could not tell which one(s) were a Stradivarius, seven guessed incorrectly, and three guessed correctly. This is consistent with random guessing.

Now these were all good violins. The modern ones were worth (if I recall correctly from the podcast) around $10k, but the students could not reliably distinguish them from the Stradivarius (Stradivarii?) that of course are worth close to a million bucks.

This to me has an obvious relevance to Telecasters. Is a Custom Shop $3k guitar really worth more than a $1000 American Standard, a $500 MIM or even a $250 Squier standard? I think this is the viewpoint a lot of my geekier posts have come from. I think I can say with some confidence that an Affinity at $170 is a lot worse than a top line Fender Custom Shop guitar, but at some point on Squier/Fenders bewildering price spectrum I believe you will hit some kind of ceiling where the incremental value gained from spending extra money will be marginal. I just don’t know where that ceiling is. As Novella writes

…subjective experiences can be modulated by suggestion, expectation, and other sensory cues.

… such as, I would argue, the brand on the headstock (Fender/Squier), the country of origin (US, Mexico, China) or even just the price itself.

Project Telecaster: Would a Partscaster make sense?

I’ve built up a bit of a backlog of things I want to blog about. I’ve been too busy working, being a Dad and a husband, and playing my Ibanez jazz box.

So there’s a couple of things I want to dash off. The first one is about the possibility of putting together a decent Telecaster out of parts. A Partscaster. I’ve thought about this before, but started thinking about it seriously again two weeks ago when I spotted an ad on Craiglist: a guy advertising Strat and Tele bodies, unfinished, supposedly returned by Fender to a supplier due to cosmetic defects. They were “solid one piece swamp ash” and “made in the US”. I pinged guitar guru Loren Hunt at The Guitar Podcast for his opinion. Based on the photos he said that they looked like swamp ash and that the $60 asking price was fair enough. But he also cautioned that I should probably take a neck to check fit, which of course I don’t have.

But this led me to thinking. Could such an unfinished swamp ash body be part of a good route to a really high quality guitar at low cost?

So I tried to price out what such a guitar could cost. I tried to pick components that would not require any really special tools or equipment. The Wudtone finishing kit requires no spraying gear, is inexpensive, thin (for good tone) and non-toxic. I’ve also tried to choose components that should on paper at least give a really great guitar.

Body
– Unfinished Swamp Ash per Craiglist ad $60
– Body finish: Wudtone $30
– String ferrules: Amazon $9
– Bridge assembly: Amazon (Chrome American Standard) $36
– Pickguard: eBay $20

Neck
– Neck (with frets, truss rod and nut): eBay Mighty Mite $90
– Tuners: Amazon $30
– Neck plate and bolts: eBay $15

Electronics
– Pickups Amazon Fender Noiseless Tele $93
– Switch-plate, electronics + jack: eBay Sigler $50

Total = $433

This price would put the Partscaster on the same price level as a new Fender MIM Telecaster. So that begs the question, if I built this Frankenstein guitar, would it be better than a MIM Telecaster? If it would only be on par then, I think I’d rather look for a used MIM  (and save some money) or even buy a new one.

I’m going to pose that question on the TDPRI forums and see what the experts think.

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.