What REALLY makes a guitar "gig-able"? January 04 2023, 0 CommentsAfter writing up that review of the Harley Benton TE-52, I started thinking about a phrase that I had seen thrown about when people discuss the merits of Harley Benton. A lot of people that take a more critical stance toward budget brands do so on the basis that the instruments are not "gigable" in a performance setting. That got me thinking, what does gigable mean? What are the elements someone should look for in a gigable guitar? What should be avoided? Can you easily turn an un-gigable guitar into one that can be gigable? To answer these questions, I thought it would be beneficial to define what gigable means to me in the context of guitars (I'll come back to other gear later).
When I think of what makes a guitar worthy of gigging, or using to play in a live setting on a regular basis, we need to think about the variables of the guitar and the variables of the setting where you would be playing. Based on that, I think these are some of the baseline elements (garnered from my past experiences playing live)...
- Electronics - pots and switches should be reliable and not have any dead play or scratchiness / static. Additionally, and maybe more importantly, the electronics (pickups, controls, etc.) should be well shielded and reasonably free from picking up excessive interference (i play mostly single coils or a blend of single coils and humbuckers, so my tolerance for interference may differ). Additionally, microphonic pickups should be avoided if possible. Even the pickguard should be considered when it comes to static noise (fix can be as simple as shielding tape and fabric softener sheets on the road and humidifiers at home in winter).
- Pickups (tone) - the pickups and tone controls should be capable of delivering the variety of tones you need for the songs you are playing. I've had guitars where the pickups were way too hot and didn't have a good solution for padding the signal without drastically reducing treble and introducing mud. That's probably my least favorite pickup - the ones that are somehow too hot and too muddy at the same time. Someone should have their ass kicked for putting out pickups that sound like that. They should have to be called put-downs instead. It makes me mad (if you can't tell), because often it absolutely cripples an otherwise great guitar.
- Tuning stability - the guitar should be able to maintain tune under typical use. That means a stable neck that won't freak out with the slightest humidity or temperature change, a well cut and lubed nut that won't result in string bind, stable tuners with minimal free play, a two way truss rod at minimum that works and is easy to adjust with a minimal of tools, and a bridge and saddles that intonate easily (again, with a minimum of tools) and hold intonation. If the bridge is a vibrato, then you need a bar that will stay in place, and you need the system to return to tune after using.
- Body feel - the guitar should have a body that is comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. That means well balanced so you are not fighting neck dive, not weighing too much for your body frame, having comfort carves if preferred, being cut so that you don't feel like you are fighting for fret access, having a body geometry that works well with your body (arm length, figure, etc.) and having strap buttons in the right places. You're going to be holding the guitar a lot, so you might as well enjoy it.
- Body / neck material - this is probably the most controversial thing I'll say, and it also is one of the most important factors to a guitar being considered gigable to me. You need a guitar that can take the abuse of going back and forth to gigs, practices, in and out of cars, in and out of heat, falling off of stands, deflecting beer bottles...you get the idea. I'm going to be blunt here, you'd have to go a long way to convince me that Basswood guitars are gigable. Many that I've had over the years will dent if you give them a stern look, and I'm pretty precious with my guitars. I'll say that Poplar CAN be gigable, depending on the cut of wood, but it's more of a crapshoot. I've got a G&L Legacy with a Poplar body that is very nice and weighs similar to Alder. I've also had Poplar guitars that felt just like Basswood. When it comes to necks, I prefer hard Maple. I personally don't like tilt back headstocks without some extra wood around the tilt to reinforce that area near the truss rod. One of the biggest guitar brands I like to call Snappy McHeadstock because of their tendency to crack or break in that part of the neck. My personal preference for body wood is Alder, Ash and Sassafras, Mahogany, and varieties of those woods. I typically put Alder at the top due to it's hardness, consistency and medium weight, followed by Ash varieties. The trouble with Ash, it can be heavy as a rock, so you have to be careful. In addition to the body wood, the finish is important too if you're wanting to avoid dings. Not a deal breaker, but more something to be aware of in the event of a ding or scratch. I have had several Schecter PT Special guitars, and the black ones seem to have a very thin paint layer, so I keep a black paint pen around in the event of scuffs or dings. I think the scuff-able paint there is a deliberate aesthetic and tone choice, so I give it a pass (kind of like the Guitar Fetish Earl Slick guitars that are designed to naturally relic with use). The body should resonate nicely but not be prone to feedback.
- Fretwork and fret board - you shouldn't have unaddressed fret issues (high or low frets, unaddressed fret sprout) on a gigable guitar. A lot of people don't have the tools or expertise to confidently tackle fret leveling and crowning, so I'd be wary if you judge those types of issues on a new guitar. Frets should all be seated well to the fret board. Fret board shouldn't show any signs of warping or cracking. Finish on the neck should be consistent, meaning that there isn't any sticky spots, etc.
- Aesthetics - the guitar should be pleasant or interesting for the audience to look at during your performance, and should be an extension of your stage personality. Think of this as an extension of your wardrobe on stage.
- Investment - here's another hot take from me on this topic. I think that to be gigable, a guitar should be one that can be used. That means it can't be a heirloom item that costs as much as a mortgage. Also, ask yourself, "what would I do if this guitar was stolen?" I hate to even mention it, but it happens so often, it must be a consideration when choosing a gigable guitar. You need a tool that does the job well, but isn't so flashy that it makes you a target for robbery.
So in summary, if you're looking for a reliable, gigable guitar, there's a few things you need that constitute "good bones" and a few things that can be improved after the fact if you want. Let's be fair, if the guitar needs anything beyond simple hardware swaps to be considered gigable, it's not a gigable guitar until those shortcomings are addressed (and knowing that a beginning guitarist won't have the expertise to address them in many cases).
In the "good bones" category, I'd say body and neck wood should be sturdy enough to handle the abuses of the road, fret work should be good to go or have issues addressed, truss rod and bridge should work properly, electronics should work and be of reliable quality (especially the solder joints and the jack), and pickups should give you the tone you're wanting. Yes, you can swap pickups, and it's a super fun way to get different tones without getting a whole new guitar, but if you have to swap pickups before the guitar is in a state to go on the road, then it's not gigable. Also keep in mind, any money sunk into pickups should be considered a vanity project and not adding to the resale value of a guitar. Trust me, I know this lesson all too well.
Things that I think are reasonable to upgrade after the fact are a good set up including fret polishing, swapping tuners (again, be mindful of the cost and consider it a lost expense), swapping bridge hardware (same), and it should go without saying, but new strings. A lot of established players enjoy getting guitars and upgrading them (myself included), but it shouldn't be an expectation to make the guitar gigable for everyone.
Here's a few budget (sub $400 when new) guitars that I've played that I think fall into the "gigable" category, and some that got there after mods and upgrades...
- Harley Benton TE-52 - my specific guitar would fall into the gigable category, but I've seen others online complain that it's too heavy for them, so I think this one would really depend on the player
- Harley Benton Fusion T Roasted - If you like the humbuckers that come stock, these are very good guitars for the money. Personally, I would swap the humbuckers for something a little less hot, but that's a personal preference thing. Everything else on the guitar is *chef's kiss*
- Peavey Riptide (discontinued, and I'm cheating here because they were more than $400 new when they first came out) - the only issues out of the box I've had with these were fret sprout on the b-stock ones I got direct from Peavey. Pickups were some of my favorites in a tele at any price point. Gigable.
- Squier Affinity Jazzmaster and Telecaster- I've played a few of these that were pretty good, but I'd definitely try it in store first and not get one sight unseen if you are new to guitars. Also, the tone is pretty specific, so make sure it's what you are looking for tone-wise. I'm conflicted on this choice to be honest.
- Ibanez AZES - Similar to the Squier, try it in person. If Ibanez came out with a roasted maple neck one of these to be somewhere between this low end model and the Prestige line, OMG that would be a real winner
- Yamaha PAC112V - I know it's not too sexy, but this might be THE BEST gigable budget guitar in this list that costs less than $400 brand new. Consistent from guitar to guitar, a reliable (if maybe a little boring) choice. A guitar this versatile may suffer from not having enough personality for your liking, but it'll hang with you as long as you want it.
- Gretsch G2210 Junior Jet Club - I've played some of these that are pretty nice for the price
- Gretsch G2215 P90 Junior Jet Club - If you can spend the $399 instead, get this one, it's a really good guitar
- Sire S3 and T3 - I'm cheating here too because they've just came out and I've not played one in person, but I've been so impressed with other Sire models I've played that I'm going to go out on a limb and recommend them anyway
- Ibanez S561 and S521 - If you're wanting the super-slim S style Ibanez body, these are killer gigable guitars
Unfortunately, right over the $400 price point there's a TON of gigable guitars. That seems to be the breakpoint where most of the major brands start offering more models that are gigable out of the box. Notice I don't have many Squier on here? Most of their real gigable models are over $400 now. It freaking kills me, but notice I don't have Sterling on here? It's two fold - their sub $400 models don't have the amenities that make more expensive models a good choice, and they all have the crap wood bodies that strip out on screws and cause issues down the road. I can't in good conscious recommend any of those.
In the $400 to $500 range, the market just opens absolutely wide when it comes to gigable options, but there's just not that much in the budget range anymore. It's INSANE the guitars you can get between $400 and $500, from the Yamaha Revstar RSE20 to Squiers, G&L, Ibanez, Schecter, and on and on. There for a little while in the earlier 2000s, there were awesome cheap options like Squier Standard series, Ibanez Roadcore, Ibanez Talman, Hofner, Danelectro, etc. that were very solid gigable guitars. Oh man, that Roadcore, such an awesome guitar. You have to look a bit harder now days, but there's still gems to be found. There really is a barrier to that gigable instrument level in that you have to provide "good bones", and many companies just aren't willing to invest in that type of instrument.
I'll do a separate article on gigable amps and effects, there's just too much to go into here. Good luck on your quest to build a gigable rig!
So I tried out my first Harley Benton... January 03 2023, 0 Comments
Over the years, I've tried a lot of "budget" guitar brands. I always love the thrill of the hunt when trying to find the best deal on guitars, and nothing is better than taking a cheap guitar with good bones, putting a little bit of elbow grease into it, and coming away with a great playing instrument that shocks your friends when they try it out. Off the top of my head, I've tried these budget brands and can share my in-depth thoughts on them at some point...
- Squier - hit or miss, I still have a Vintage Modified Jazzmaster with a Dano-style bridge, but got rid of all the others over the years
- LTD - absolutely wonderful, wish they'd take a page from Schecter and do some more varied models instead of leaning so hard into "metal" guitars
- Xaviere - hit or miss from a quality department. Some are great, some are real dogs
- SX - had a few tele models with alder bodies and maple necks. Great players.
- Jay Turser - some really wacky designs, fit and finish was a little inconsistent
- G&L Tribute - one of the loves of my life
- Michael Kelly - some really great guitars hampered by bad / dull pickups, spotty tuners (easy enough fix, but add to the purchase price)
- Ibanez - when they're good, some really great instruments. Play first to be sure
- Peavey - I have several Riptides, great guitars once you address sharp fret ends
- Cort - I've had a few over the years, always impressive
- Yamaha - one of the best "bang for the buck" guitars
- Sterling - best designs, love the neck shapes and headstocks, HATE the cheap woods for the bodies and lackluster pickups
I list all that out to say that I've got a pretty good idea of what is out there and what to expect or look for in a cheap guitar at this point. I've got my guitar collection fairly well settled at this point (after going through several purges to get down to just the ones I love), but I've been donating guitars to charity about every year for several years now and I got the idea to purchase a cheap guitar, put it through the set up paces to make it shine, and then send it on to a good cause. When I learned that Harley Benton had set up a US distribution location, I decided to bite the bullet and see what all the fuss / hate was about. (This picture is a little washed out, but I wanted to show the grain on the body. In person, it's darker, closer to the lower pictures)
After looking at available models and specs, I decided to try the current version of the TE-52, a natural tele-style black guard guitar with an American Ash body and roasted Maple neck and board. For $199, I figured it would at least be a good platform for a new guitarist to learn on given the woods. I searched out reviews and saw some complain about heavy body weight, some complained about the pickups, and others raved, so I didn't know what to expect when it arrived.
It showed up quickly and was well packed and double boxed. When I got the guitar out of the packaging, I literally stopped and said aloud, "Oh shit." The quality was much better than I expected, which left me with a new problem. If I add it to the collection, what do I get rid of in its place? Let's run through the guitar top to tail, and I'll try to set the scene for why I was so impressed...
- Body - the TE-52 has a nice 3 piece Ash body, and the trans finish looked nice. The weight was similar to some of the G&L ASATs I have in my collection that weigh around 8.5 to 8.75 lbs., so I'd guess that it's in the ballpark of 8.75.
- Neck - This is the STAR of the show. The TE-52 comes with what they describe as a caramelized Canadian Maple neck with a Roseacre skunk stripe. If we were talking coffee, this would be like a medium roast, where as their flame maple roasted necks are more dark roast. It's a beautiful color, and pairs nicely with the natural body finish. The shape of the neck is perfect for my hands, and the matte finish makes it very comfortable to play. The nut looks like a Graphtech, but I'm not certain if it is or plastic. Mine was cut fine, no real concerns. In case you were wondering, it is truly roasted (I took some super fine sandpaper to the back of the neck due to my personal preference and applied some Birchwood Casey Gunstock Wax, and the roast is down in the wood). No high frets, and I didn't see much issue with fret sprout.
- Pickups - These are also very nice and were a pleasant surprise. Often in budget tele-style guitars, the neck pickup can be quite muddy, and for me to be satisfied, the neck should have a clear, bell-like tone. The two pickups should be balanced nicely, with the bridge being bright but not brittle. I can say that these are better than expected, and I saw no reason to change them.
- Electronics - Switch and pots are fine so far, but I think I might upgrade both, as well as the jack, if I were going to play live with it consistently. I'll know with certainty after some more time with it, but no concerns for now.
- Tuners - This was the only part that I had any issues with out of the box. The first two (Low E and A) had a little too much play, and there's no excuse to live with that when you can get a nice direct drop in set for $30 or less. I didn't have any sets in stock of this Kluson style, so I quickly popped in an order for some and will swap them out this week.
- Bridge - Bridge is a 3 saddle style ashtray, which I really like. I already have some spare sets of Wilkinson compensated brass saddles, so I may swap those in to help with intonation and just to look awesome.
So there you have it. I think this guitar is one of the best options out there for someone looking for a great telecaster without breaking the bank. Most "budget" guitars I wouldn't feel comfortable recommending to a beginner trying to get started on guitar, but I would recommend this one without hesitation. The only problem will be, they will get spoiled and possibly let down by more expensive guitars in the sub-$500 range (pickups, hardware, etc.). The neck is nicer on this guitar than my Fender Player series tele. This is actually my first guitar with a roasted Maple neck, and I think I'm a convert now. I don't know if I was just lucky or what, but this one was awesome. Much better than the roasted maple necks I've tried on the Sterling Cutlass models. I've had a Charvel on my short list for a while, but I'm not a big humbucker player, so I may have to dip my toes in the Harley Benton Fusion T series in the meantime. Dammit, looks like I'm going to be facing some hard decisions in the near future to make some room in the collection.
One last note, when I think of the obvious competitors for this guitar, I'm thinking of the Xaviere tele, SX (maybe), Squier Classic Vibe 50's. I'd say that the 50's Classic Vibe is the most obvious competitor. When comparing the two, I'd say that both have nice pickups, but I'd give the win to the TE-52 on the neck (absolutely no contest) and body (I like the Ash better than Pine) and price, though to be honest resale will be better on the Squier (sad and unfair but true). I recently traded in a mint Cort Sunset TC guitar and was honestly kind of offended at the low ball offer on it, but name brand matters soooo much in resale markets these days. I think this guitar will stay in the collection for quite some time.
Building a better (G&L Tribute) Fallout April 05 2022, 0 Comments
Look at that thing! Isn't it a work of beauty? The surf green finish, the curves of the pickguard, saddle-lock bridge, small SC-2 style body paired with a 25.5" scale neck. These are such great guitars that only suffer in a few spots out of the box, but one of those spots is kindof a big deal. I've owned a lot of these Tribute Fallouts. I mean A LOT. Played them live and in-studio. One of my two "every day" players in my office is a Tribute Fallout. I've tried a lot of different pickup configurations in them. I've bought trashed ones and fixed them up. I can say that I know these guitars very well. As a result, this post will be a little shorter-winded than my typical review (maybe).
For Tribute Fallouts, try to find one pre-2019-ish, or at least make sure you're getting one with a mahogany body. These will most likely come with a gloss neck. Tape off the body and surrounding neck parts you don't play (headstock) and lightly sand the back of the neck with some 1200 grit wet dry, followed by 3000 to go from a gloss to matte finish. Don't sand through the finish, we're just controlling the gloss. Follow up with a little Birchwood Casey gunstock wax if you wish (not necessary strictly speaking). These typically come with a small neck shim (usually a little piece of cloth sanding belt material). It helps keep you from having to crank the saddle height. Not a big deal, just be aware if you take off the neck.
Saddle block bridge is great, and the top loading style gives this guitar a special sound and feel. Resonant yet slinky and bouncy. Sustain is wonderful, and the guitar is lively even unplugged. Tuners are fine. Nut has been a mixed bag on mine. Had to replace a few where they stuck the wrong nut on the guitar.
Let's get to the improvement needed. The bridge pickup. Jeez. Stock, it's the poster child for somehow inexplicably too hot and too muddy. I've tried dialing it in a million different ways, and lowered down (a lot) and raising up the pole pieces helps some, but it never seems to get it right. The coil split is wired to switch to the inside coil (toward the neck - who the hell thought that was a good idea?), so that doesn't help much either. The worst part is that the neck p90 is actually quite nice. Here's where the magic comes in. I have found a pickup that is the perfect mate for the neck p90. Best part? It's cheap. I give you...the GFS Surf 180. It's a direct drop in, just need to replace the tone pot. It has the sparkle, clarity, and output level all in the sweet spot to offset the warmth of the neck pup. Just...wow. It's the perfect mate for this guitar. Try it for yourself, see how much this $36 pickup can help. You'll be surprised.
With those little changes, you'll take this guitar from OK to freaking amazing. Satin neck, versatile pickups, amazing sustain and tone, super comfortable to play for long periods on stage. I can't recommend the post-tweaking Fallout enough, just be aware that the little big of investment and time will give you back major dividends. You won't want to put it down. Eagle-eyed shoppers can find these cheap, so the cost of a new bridge pickup is easily absorbed. If you don't want to go through that process, try one out in person and see if you can bond with that bridge pickup first.
2021/2022 G&L Tribute ASAT Classic March 29 2022, 0 Comments
The G&L Tribute series have featured some real winners, and some...not so great options. I'm a firm believer that guitars that have "good bones" can be absolutely great with a little elbow grease and attention, regardless of how they arrive out of the box. By good bones, I mean a few things...
- Well balanced body with a wood that is hard yet resonant
- Neck profile you enjoy
- Neck pocket cut well
- Level frets (mostly) that are seated well
- Serviceable bridge
Most other aspects can be adjusted if you love the bones. New pickups, tuners, saddles, etc.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Only invest in upgrades to make YOU happy. Don't go in thinking you are increasing the resell value with upgrades. IT IS A LOSING PROPOSITION.
While you can do some upgrades fairly easily, it's a great feeling to have a killer guitar at a good price right out of the box. That brings me to the G&L Tribute ASAT Classic. When I say ASAT Classic, I mean the MFD pickup version. The ones that were popping up as MF Stupid Deal of the Day labelled as Limited Edition were not the same level of instrument and lacked the MFD pickups, which are one of the main attractions on this guitar. Add a sassafras body on the trans finishes, comfortable satin neck, and belly cut, and you have a much better instrument. Let's start with the fit and finish from the box.
The sassafras body on the sunburst model is absolutely beautiful. The grain pops with depth, and the burst is attractive. The switch from swamp ash to sassafras seems to help control the weight a little bit (this one clocks in around 8 lbs). Other ASAT Classic models I've owned from previous runs could be around 10.5 lbs! Aiding from both a weight and comfort standpoint is the belly carve added to the model starting in 2021. The neck pocket was clean and has a great fit to the neck. Not too tight, just right. No shims needed on this one.
The neck also features a pretty grain pattern, with the satin stain finish making it great for someone like me that dislikes sticky poly finishes on the neck. This was a change for the 2021-forward models. Let's talk about the bad for a minute. The fret ends were hideous. On this specific guitar, it wasn't just a case of the neck shrinking as it dries over time. Believe it or not, we're talking some barbs from when the fret tangs were cut with the nibbler. That's just sloppy to leave the door like that. Luckily, I have the tools to address the issue (fret end file, fret leveling file, and micro-mesh), but it's still a pain in the ass. On the positive, frets were level, and nut was cut nicely. I have another from this same line, and the nut had to be moved over a little on that one, so YMMV. The satin finish is fast, but to improve it even more I hit it with 3000 grit wet dry paper a little, and it was perfect. On another ASAT I got, the satin finish failed to cover some big open pores that left a spot feeling rough. Again, shouldn't have left in that condition. Luckily this one didn't have that type of issue. The QC folks should up their game a tiny bit on the necks. Up at the headstock, tuners are nice and solid.
The bridge is a classic box style, and the brass saddles with black springs looks super slick. Saddles arre nice and easy to dial in for dead-on intonation. Only weird thing is, the holes for the strings could benefit from being moved a tiny fraction toward the treble side, and that's common from all ASAT Classics I've owned.
Now we come to the star of the show. The MFD ASAT pickups are among my favorites. Superior clarity across all strings, bridge or neck, doesn't matter. Tele spank in the bridge, warmth yet clear bell-like tones in the neck. On top of it all, the design, with adjustable pole pieces and a unique magnet configuration, it super cool. Cannot sing enough praises of these pickups.
For a guitar that retails at $589, this guitar punches well above its weight. Know that you may need to polish frets and file the fret ends possibly, but in the end, you'll have a guitar that's better than a Fender Player, yet significantly cheaper.