The Cheapest Good Guitar or Bass is the One You Already Have
What do I mean by that? I’ll tell you. Although the wood and construction of a guitar or bass do play a part in the overall tone equation, a HUGE percentage of what an instrument sounds like is determined by the electronics. Simple things like upgrading the pickups, pots and other electrical components can make an incredible difference in your guitar’s tone. Luckily, this is also relatively inexpensive, at least when compared to buying a new guitar!
The initial quality of entry-level guitars and basses has never been higher. 25 years ago, a $200 instrument was pretty much unplayable. These days, with advances in CNC technology and the proliferation of automated instrument factories overseas, you can get a pretty decent instrument for not a lot of cash, and for a small additional investment in parts and labor, your budget guitar can play as well as an instrument that costs 5 times as much! The areas that usually can stand to be improved on are tone, tuning stability, and playability.
Making sure that your instrument reliably stays in tune is dependent on two things: quality tuning keys and a perfectly cut and installed nut. 99% of all tuning problems originate at these two often-overlooked locations (and of the two, 90% of tuning problems happen at the nut). Again, these are relatively inexpensive upgrades that will make your instrument infinitely better.
Once you have purchased your upgraded pickups and electronics, quality tuners, and a properly sized nut blank, remember these words:
TAKE YOUR INSTRUMENT TO A REPUTABLE REPAIR TECH, AND HAVE THEM DO ALL THE INSTALLATION WORK, INCLUDING A FULL SET-UP AND FRET-DRESS. DO NOT SKIP THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Leave this to the pros, or put in the time and effort to become a pro yourself. This part, unfortunately, isn’t so cheap. However, when you play your perfectly set-up guitar for the first time, you’ll know it was money well spent.
A set-up includes setting the intonation (adjusting the bridge saddles so each string plays in tune up and down the fretboard), adjusting the truss rod (the metal rod inside the guitar neck that counteracts the tension from the strings and keeps your neck from warping), setting the guitar’s action (the height of each string from the fretboard), and a general check up of the electronics. This should be done every few months on guitars that get played often.
A fret-dress (also known as crowning or leveling) isn’t necessary every time you get a set-up, but should be done at least once a year on guitars that see a lot of action. As you press the strings on the fretboard (hundreds of thousands of times throughout the course of a year), the strings start to make small impressions in the frets. We all have our favorite chords and keys, and you’ll notice that certain areas become more worn than others (if you have never had a fret-dress on your guitar, take a minute now to really look at your frets and be horrified). When this fretwear goes unchecked long enough, it will be very difficult to get your guitar to intonate properly and play in tune in certain spots. A fret-dress shaves a microscopic amount of metal from each fret and reshapes it so every fret is perfectly level with the rest. There are only so many times frets can be leveled and crowned before they are just worn out, in which case you’ll need a re-fret.
www.guitarfetish.com: a full line of quality replacement parts of all kinds for guitars and basses. GFS pickups are an excellent value.
www.callahamguitars.com: Super high end stuff. This is the place for upgrade CTS pots, switchcraft jacks and switches, high quality capacitors and vintage style cloth covered wire.
www.seymourduncan.com: The gold standard in replacement pickups.
www.rsguitarworks.net: Pre-wired electronics upgrade kits for most guitars, as well as individual parts
www.tonepros.com: The best in replacement parts for Gibson-style guitars
Buying Used: The ONLY way to go!!!
In all honesty, you’re going to need to sink some money into any used OR new piece of gear that you buy in order to make it play and sound its best. Just remember to factor that into your decision making. It’s better to pay for better quality used gear that has depreciated a little than to buy less expensive stuff new. Musical instruments are relatively simple things, and with proper care and maintenance they will be useful for a long, long time. While there is definitely good, inexpensive gear that can be purchased new, remember the most sought after gear is VINTAGE gear, because it has stood the test of time.
There are lots of places around Vancouver and Portland that specialize in quality used gear at fair prices. Here are a few…
Briz Loan and Guitar: 506 Washington St., Downtown Vancouver. AWESOME shop. I always find the weirdest, coolest stuff here. The guys that work there are always listening to Sleep or Neurosis, and they have cute shop dogs.
Trade-Up Music: 47th and Division and 19th and Alberta in Portland. Cool people, tons of cool gear.
Centaur Guitar: 28th and Sandy in Portland. Lots of great used stuff, and the best selection of boutique pedals in town. Kelly and Jason are awesome dudes.
Old Town Guitars: 55 SE 11th Ave. in Portland, around the corner from the Doug Fir. Specializing in vintage guitars, pedals and amps. Hank is the man.
Buying Used: Craigslist and Ebay, and Reverb
Vancouver and Portland have thriving music scenes, and our local Craigslist is TEEMING with great deals. I’ll admit it, I’m a Craigslist junkie. I check it 20 times a day at least, whether I need gear or not. I always find killer deals, and I’ve bought and sold thousands of dollars worth of gear over the years.
- If you are underage, ALWAYS have your parents make the deal. There are creeps out there!
- Know what you’re looking at, and test it thoroughly before you buy it. Once the cash changes hands, it’s YOURS.
- HAGGLE. ALWAYS. You might not get the person to come down in price, but it never hurts to ask!
Ebay is a different story. There are auctions and Buy it Now listings, and it takes a little while to get the hang of it. I suggest just lurking on there for a while until you kind of get the lay of the land. I do tons of research on Ebay to know what the going price of used gear is looking like at any given time. You can literally find almost anything on Ebay. It’s much more involved once you actually want to buy something, however. You need a PayPal account, and there is shipping involved, plus you never actually get to check out the gear before you buy it. It has its risks, but overall it usually works out great.
Reverb.com is the newest entry into the online used gear market, and it’s pretty awesome. It’s kind of like Ebay, but strictly for musical instruments. Both private sellers and music stores around the country sell on Reverb, and you can find a LOT of cool stuff. The site also features great articles on gear and interviews with all kinds of musicians. Highly recommended!