Friday, September 24, 2010

Cheaper by the dozen

How much have you paid for strings lately?

$6.99? $12.50?

How much for bass strings? $20? $40?

How about $1.99? Yeah... $1.99.

First Act is having a blowout sale and clearancing their strings for $1.99. Even the bass strings.
Check the below link:,193.aspx

Now, First Act may not be your first thought when it comes to strings, but how many times have you had an instrument that just needs to be strung? Maybe you picked up a guitar at a garage sale or from CL and after a setup you are trying to flip it. You may want to grab a few sets just to have them in case of emergency.

In all honesty, that is why I started using First Act strings, but I have to say that they are OK. I have no problems using them versus more expensive brands. Of course I only buy them when they are on sale, because I am so darned ¢heap, but that's OK.

Myself, I picked up 8 sets of bass strings.... for about $25 including shipping.

Now that is ¢heapo.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Testing the Prime Directive, or Patience, Grasshopper

Yesterday I was at a local shop, and saw that they had the new Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar bass. I was have heard good things about it, so I tried it out. The bass was well put together, and was well balanced. Compared to other basses, it was rather light, but not too light. Once I plugged it in, and played it a few minutes, I was impressed with the varying tones I could achieve. It felt right too. I really WANTED this bass. It was a good deal at $299. I even had the cash in my pocket to get it right then and there. Not credit, but cold hard cash. 

So why didn't I buy it? Because it would have violated the Prime Directive of ¢heapo guitars: Never, EVER buy a new guitar. Why? Because once you buy a new guitar, it is USED. Even if it is in perfect, flawless shape. Even if you babied it and polished it every time you played it. Even if you stored it in the best conditions possible, and never even played it. A USED guitar is worth about 30% less than a new one, simply because it is used. So, why would you pay an extra 30%?

A few pegs down from the Squier Jag bass was a great case in point: a USED Classic Vibe 50's Precision bass. I took it down and tried it out. The first thing I noticed was that the bass was perfectly set up, with nice, low action and no buzz. It was "Like New" with no dings, bings, scratches or, well, anything. It looked new. When new, this bass has a list price of $549, and is available for $349 nationwide. The "Like New", well set up but USED bass I held in my hands was marked $199. This is actually 43% less than the new price. No one ever actually pays list price, but why would anyone pay $349 when you could just buy a used one and pay $199?

The answer is simply a lack of patience. In order to get the best value when buying guitars, it is important to not succumb to GAS or hype about the newest model. If you are patient, someone else will get bored with their new toy, and you will be able to snap it up for a fraction of the original cost.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

bored to ¢heapness?

I haunt my local guitar shops quite frequently and my face is well known as the guy that "Likes those ¢heap guitars."  Last week, I was in a local shop, and saw this bass. It was blue, which I liked, but otherwise it was very generic.

The tag said $199. It also said that this was a Washburn XB200.  Any guitar or bass with an X or Z in its name must be good right? So I took it down and tried it out. My first impression is that this bass had been on a diet. I mean, it was THIN, and light. Like Paris Hilton thin. Unappealingly thin. The neck was thin, the body was thin, even the tone was thin.

I mean, it played well, and despite the thin small body had no neck dive.
The sound was OK, nothing spectacular. 

It was simply boring. I mean, just look at it.

I have found that the original list price was in the $450 range back in the early 00's, and online sources indicate that actual sales prices were $220. 

So I am asking, "Why is this bass $200"? Based in its boring-ness, lack of a real heavyweight name, and an orignal sales prices of $220 only 5 yrs ago, this should be $100-150.00. I would buy a used Squier P or Jazz any day instead of this one. Even though it has an X in its name.

The verdict: a cheap bass, but not ¢heapo.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don't hesitate when ¢heapness knocks

Well, I am back from my little vacation, and posting again.

While away, I took my Mom to an antique shop. I was bored with old glassware, tables and chairs, stuff like that. What's that? In the corner, behind a table, I spied a guitar case. One of those hardboard, faux alligator skin, guitar shaped cases from the 60's/70's. I asked the owner about it, and she said that there was an electric guitar inside. I opened it up, and saw a wonderful thing:

I was not sure what it was.... I knew it was Japanese made (the major clue being the words "Made in Japan,") but I was not familiar with Japanese made Epiphones.

The guitar was complete, with the tremelo arm and bridge cover that is missing from the one in the above photo. The condition was really, really great for a 1970's import guitar. The neck was straight, action pretty low, and: wonder of wonders, the guitar was in tune! The body had no knocks , scratches, dents or chips. It was in very nice shape. I really liked this guitar but did my best to hide the fact.

The asking price was $300, and I flatly said that was too much. The dealer knocked 25% off right away ($225). When I made a face at that, she dropped it another 10% to $202.50. I said I would think about it and left. Boy, I sure am ¢heap.

The guitar was stuck in my head, so I did some research when I got home. A half hour later, I knew that this was an Epiphone ET-270, retail cost $159.50 in 1971. It had two pickups, a tremelo and a bass boost switch. Ebay research showed that $175-$225 was the going price for one in good shape, and this specimen sure was. To top it off, I learned that Kurt Cobain played an ET-270 during the bleach era, and that it was used in the original "In Bloom" video. He later smashed it onstage.

So, now, I knew what I was looking at: A neat, playable 70's Japanese ¢heapo guitar with decent sound, playability, and a guitar hero association. 

Two days later, I went back to the shop. I opened the door, and looked behind the table. The owner saw recognized me and said: "It sold yesterday."

Grrrr... I should have trusted my instincts, and bought it when I had the chance.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

¢heapo parts

So you have a ¢heapo guitar, and you like it, but want to make it a bit better. Maybe you want to replace the super ¢heapo tuners, or swap out the pickups for a vintage tone or to add a humbucker. Maybe you want to redo the entire guitar and build a custom instrument into something you have always wanted.

Let's say you have a Strat. If you wanted to replace the pickups, brand F would cost about $120 a set. Brand SD runs around $150. Brand D would run about $180. Boutique hand wound pickups are even more expensive. Since the whole idea here is to be ¢heap, these high prices just won't fit the bill.

Enter Most know them simply as GFS. These guys are a web only, bare bones operation that sells replacement and upgrade parts for guitars and basses. There is no retail store, and no fancy showroom. The website lists a wide array of guitar and bass pickups and parts at good prices. They even sell whole ¢heapo guitars.

For example, a full set of vintage tone, alnico Strat pickups can be had for less then $50! Their most expensive set of "Boston Blues" alnico pickups are "only" $73. That sure beats just about everyone else. What about the quality? Everyone has their own opinion, but IMHO, you would have to buy boutique, hand wound pickups for a ton more cash to beat GFS pickups. In fact, I buy almost all of my parts from GFS. I have always been pleased with the quality, and it only takes a few days before the parts are at my door. 

GFS is the ¢heapo guitarist's best friend.

 Note: I have no connections with GFS. I do not know who owns the place, nor do I know anyone whe works there. I am simply a customer who is really glad hatthey exist!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Just like Jimi's

My nephew received a Squier Affinity Strat for Christmas a few years ago. It looks like a Fender Stratocaster, and has all the feautires of one: 6 inline tuners, contoured body, three single coil pickups, 5 way switch, and a 6 point vibrato. But is this really a Strat?

The guitar played reasonably well out of the box. It needed a bit of tweaking of the intonation and the string height, but every guitar does. The frets were decently dressed with no sharp ends, or buzzing. The sounds was a bit shrill, but given the fact that the pickups do not have seperate magnetized poles, but are iron poles with a ceramic bar magnet underneath, that was understandable. The major difference I found was that the body was thinner than a stock Fender Stratocaster. All in all, the guitar played rather well, and considering the $179 price tag, it was rather impressive.

But it could be improved, and for very little cash.

About a month ago, he and I replaced the tuners with GFS gotoh style tuners, and replaced the pickups and electronics with a GFS pre-wired pickguard. This made the swap a breeze, as only the bridge ground wire and the jack wires needed top be soldered. The change in tone was truly noticable, and he is very happy with the guitar. Soon we will also replace the stock vibrato (Fender called them Tremelos in error) with a GFS replacement that has a full steel block, and that should help more with tone, as well as increase the sustain .

For someone starting out, the Affinity Squier Strat is a great way to go. They are still available for $179.00 at many major guitar retailers. If you are really ¢heap like me, check Craigslist. I have seen some go for as little as $50, although $75-$125 is more common.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The one that got away

So about a month ago I was looking at the used basses in a local shop. I saw a bass that with all of its bare wood, brass knobs and brass nut just screamed 1980 at me so I took it down to try it out. I was expecting a chunky, cheesy feel and a weak or mushy sound. What I got instead was a well fitted, comfortable and easy feel to the neck, and a surprising amount of tone response. All this for $199.

The instrument I was playing was a Electra Phoenix 630N Bass. I was right, these basses were produced Japan in the early 1980's. Electra was known as a producer of import copy guitars, and the 630 bass was one of their first post lawsuit designs.

Operationally, this is a P-bass, with a differently shaped body and headstock.
There is a very P-like neck, with a split P-style pickup. The natural wood and brass fittings were just a reflection of (godawful) design styles at the time and this bass would be right at home in what was then known as a "Fern bar" decorated in Oak, polished brass, and potted ferns. Wearing slacks might even be a requirement while playing it.

So this little time machine felt pretty good, played nicely, and had a decent sound. But I did not buy it. Why not? I am not really sure. It was a good instrument, but I guess the styling just did not immediately grab me.  

To the left is an Electra Phoenix 630N as pictured on Guitar Hunter's blog. (Thanks for sharing the pic!)

The Guitar Hunter has more details about this bass, as well as info about how Electra became Phoenix and is now Westone/Crate.

I went back and played this bass a few more times over the next week. Each time, it grew on me. Finally, about a full week after I initially saw it, I decided to buy it. When I arrived, and looked up on the wall, it was gone.

So, the lesson here is, as much a patience is a factor in seeking out ¢heapo guitars, it is important to be ready to buy when you do find one or someone else will beat you to the punch.

Oh, and one more thing... The Electra Phoenix 630N, as with most other ¢heapo guitars, are not rare. If you miss one, another will surely come along. It may even be ¢heaper.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How ¢heapo can you really go?

The ultimate question (well for this blog anyway): When is a ¢heapo guitar too cheap?

Case in point: I picked up the below First Act ME301 Strat-like guitar for less then $40, used. Given the quality, I was pretty stunned to see it yesterday at a Stuff-R-Us store for $129.00! Honestly, I bought it for two reasons: I liked the "you cannot sue us" pickguard shape, and I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could get it to play. The guitar was not damaged, but needed a serious truss rod adjustment (as almost any used First Act guitar does), and it was missing the high E string saddle. I called First Act and they sent me one for $2. Once I had the saddle, I strung it up with a set of those .010 Wally World close-out strings that I blogged about last week. You know, the ones that cost me $1. Boy I sure am am ¢heap.

The guitar has all of the usual Strat style features: three pickups, a 5 way switch, 1 volume and two tone controls. The guitar also has an imitation Strat-style tremolo. Oddly enough, the six-inline headstock is angled back like a brand G guitar, so there is no need for a string tree.

After loosely restringing this beastie, I cranked on the truss rod, and tuned it up. The neck was really bowed so I had to adjust the truss rod a few more times, but I was finally able to get it straight under string load. The intonation was off so I set that as well, and then I lowered the string height. After about 30-40 minutes of adjusting and set up, the guitar was ready to play.

As an aside, setup is my real gripe with any imported guitar. These ¢heapies are meant to be a kid's first electric. If the setup is awful, which they almost always are, then that makes the instrument difficult to play. Additionally, most beginners do not know what a setup is or that it is even needed. The last thing they need is a guitar which presents additional hurdles while they are learning. I know that not much can be done about starter guitars sold through major discount chains, but it really bothers me when I pick up any guitar at a shop, and it is not set up. There is just no excuse for that. To me, that is like trying to sell a car that needs a front end alignment.

Back to the ME301: Did it work? Pretty much. I was able to get the action pretty low, and the playability increased from awful, all the way up to not bad. The pickups are super ¢heapo ceramics with that "ice-pick-to-the-ear" sound, and the neck felt sort of unfinished, but for what it cost, I cannot complain. A kid could certainly use this as a first guitar for their first year or so. This little monster looks ¢heap, and sounds cheap, but with a little work, it does play reasonably well. It is not a great guitar, but it does work. With a bit of fine neck sanding, new tuners, and some electronics work, I think I can make even this little troll into something worth playing. GFS here I come.

This is a back burner project, so I will post more once I get a chance to really dig into it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Look before you ¢heap

A word of warning when going the ¢heapo route: Before plunking down your hard earned clams, make sure that the guitar you are interested in is all that you think it is. Last night I stopped into a local shop, and saw what at first glance was a great ¢heapo deal: a new Epiphone LP Junior guitar marked: "Scratch and Dent: $99."  Being someone always interested in a blue light special, I could not resist trying this little sucker out. List price for this pretty basic one 'bucker beginner's Epi is $215.00, so this just might have been worth picking up. 

I sat down at an amp and before I plugged it in I gave her the once over. The front appeared OK, but when I flipped the Jr over there was something like a scratch, or a crack in the finish from the neck area down to the bottom of the bout. OK, I thought to myself, that is the scratch and dent part. Closer examination was still inconclusive as to the depth of the scratch/crack, but that $99 tag was still persuasive.

Just as I was about to plug it in, I saw something on the neck up near the headstock. Is that crack in the neck? Yep. Not was this just a crack, but it was a crack that ran from one side of the nut, around the back of the neck to the other end of the nut. YIKES! Somebody dropped this baby on its noodle and cracked the neck/headstock joint but good. This is not a scratch and dent, it is a repair job that costs more than the value of the guitar. I put this one right back before the headstock came off and I was blamed for the breakage.

So, the moral of this story: Look closely at the gift horse's mouth. You want a ¢heapo guitar, not something that is unplayable garbage.