What REALLY makes a guitar "gig-able"? January 04 2023, 0 Comments

After 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!