Getting Your Gear

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Getting Your Gear

Guitars and drums and other equipment can be purchased new or used. There is a lot to be said for the value of older ( vintage ) equipment. Some guitarists feel that there's nothing like a pre-CBS Fender. (The CBS corporation bought the company from Leo Fender in 1965, and many say that the quality went downhill.) Some say that these attitudes are just appreciation of American workmanship from back when it was good. Others say it's simply snobbery. I'm not going to weigh in on that fray; I'll just point out that it exists.

Off-the-shelf new guitars are mass produced and may lack the charm of the older models, but improvements in technology have made them better in other ways. In the same way that new cars get better mileage than the bitchin' older models, newer guitars generally play well, sound good, and stay in tune, and some are quite reasonably priced.

I would just say that when you get an instrument, you should get the best damn stuff that money can buy, new or used. With simple equipment like guitars and basses and drums, a warranty doesn't mean as much as with a keyboardsomething with a lot more electronics and parts that can fail. A guitar that is in good condition is likely to stay that way for a while.

NOTE

These guidelines are for acoustic as well as electric guitars, but the references to electrical aspects of the guitar will not apply unless the acoustic has a built-in pickup or microphone of some kind.

Figure 3.2. Acoustic six-string guitar.

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Figure 3.3. Acoustic twelve-string guitar.

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If you are a beginner, you should take someone more experienced with you when you buy an instrument. They will know what to look for and be better able to interpret the things I present here. Some of my advice requires an ability to play a bit already and the good ear that one develops from playing.

Just make sure that the guitar has a good sound, stays in tune, and isn't stolen. (Buying stolen equipment is bad Juju and will harm you more than help you.) With a guitar or bass (unless I specify otherwise , when I say guitar in this chapter, I am referring to both guitars and bass guitars), I usually tune it up, play a bit, and then apply the Dean Tune Test when the salesman isn't looking: Turn the volume down on the guitar and smack the back of the headstock with the heal of my hand very hard. Then I turn the guitar back up. If it's still in tune, then I'm still considering buying it. If not, I try another one.

Check to make sure the neck isn't warped. Eye down the neck from the pickup end, looking down with the headstock end away from you. Make sure that it isn't warped or bowed.

The guitar or bass should have a good tone and sound good through an amp ( amplifier ) at a low volume, a high volume, and with both clean and distorted settings.

NOTE

Acoustic guitars are a lot more fragile (as well as sensitive to variations in heat and humidity) than electric guitars. All guitars should be treated as well as possible. Keep guitars out of direct sun, keep them dry, and don't let them get too cold. When you take your guitar out of the car on a cold day and bring it inside, opening the case abruptly, especially near a heater or fireplace, can crack the finish, or worse yet, the inside struts in the case of an electric guitar. You should open the case away from heat and fan the case lid for a moment to make the heat change more gradual. Then leave it in the case for about ten minutes to acclimate it to room temperature.

The guitar should have sustain when played with or without an amp. That is, the note should not die quickly after plucking it on both open (no finger on the neck) and fretted (finger on the neck) notes.

Check the intonation . Intonation is how in tune the guitar plays up and down the neck. Hit a harmonic on each string over the 12th fret. Then finger the note behind the 12th fret. They should be exactly the same.

Play some arpeggiated chords at both ends of the neck. They should sound in tune no matter where you play them up and down the neck.

Look for cracks in the finish. Small cracks in the finish of an electric guitar usually only make a cosmetic difference. On an acoustic guitar, cracks in the finish can make a difference in the sound, so consider buying a different one if they are present.

The electrical system of the guitar should be intact. There should be very little buzz in the sound of the amp. Electric guitars are grounded. There is a wire inside going from the pickup to the bridge, which actually deadens the annoying 60-cycle hum of the amp by dissipating it through the capacity of the player's body. Note that the hum will get a little louder when you take your fingers off the strings. But it should not get a lot louder.

Equipment should be UL listed. It should have the yellow Underwriters Laboratory sticker on the equipment or box somewhere.

You can use the headphone output that comes on some amps to practice without driving your neighbors or parents nuts. (Though I seem to recall that driving my parents nuts was part of the reason I took up the guitar.) You can also buy small amps that come with headphones, and clip onto your belt. These are good for learning or for warming up backstage. I always liked to take walks in the woods at night and play with my headphone amp, strolling about and playing to myself . Something about it felt very intimate like I was playing to the Universe, and she was listening.

The jack where the cable plugs from the guitar out into the amp should be solid. Hold on to the jack sticking out to the guitar and wiggle it a little. There should be no crackling sound.

Some guitars have built-in preamps to improve the tone before sending it to the amplifier. These are called active guitars or guitars with active pickups or guitars with active electronics. ( Pickups are the things under the strings that convert the impulse of the string to the tiny electrical signal that can be boosted by the amplifier.) If the guitar you are considering has active electronics, check that too. Make sure that if your amp has inputs marked Active and Passive , you go into the Active one only if you are using a guitar with active electronics, or you may blow the amp.

Figure 3.4. Replacement jack.

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NOTE

Avoid guitars that try to go beyond simple active electronics and have actual electronic effects built into the guitar. Those things belong on a rack or on the floor. Putting them in the guitar itself is just asking for electronic or mechanical failure.

Whether the guitar has passive or active electronics, when you try it before you buy it, fiddle with the knobs on the guitar and try it on all its different settings and make sure it all works well. Try the top pickups, bottom pickups, and all the settings in between (the tone is different for each).

Active electronics usually entail having a battery in the back of the guitar. Make sure that the battery terminals are not corroded. Keep in mind that the battery should be removed if you ever plan to store one of these guitars, or any electronic equipment with a battery, unused for more than a month.

If you are trying out a guitar with passive electronics and the thing passes all these tests and is a bargain but has electrical crackles or a grounding buzz, you might consider buying it anyway, especially if it is at a greatly reduced price. And especially if you are handy with a soldering iron or have a friend who is. The electrical system on an electric guitar or bass is so simple that repairs are pretty much a no brainer. More on soldering later in this chapter.

Acoustic Pickups

If you're going to be playing acoustic guitar at all live, you must get one with a built-in pickup. It is extremely hard to mike an acoustic live, even solo, let alone with a band , and have it sound good. And even if you do, you'll be a slave to the microphone and be unable to move around. There are plenty of acoustics with built-in pickups or ones you can get at a store to adapt to an existing acoustic.

Whammy Bars

Whammy bars, or tremolo bars, are those things that some electric guitars have that bend all of the strings at once. They can be used very gently, as they are in some country and western music to add a little shimmer to picked chords, or violently like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen did, to turn the guitar into an otherworldly growl. It's your call on how to use them, or whether to use them at all. Keep in mind that using a whammy bar makes it harder to keep a guitar in tune.

Locking Nuts

Some guitars have systems to lock the strings after tuning. You use a Hex Key (a.k.a an Allen wrench) to tighten them down after you stretch the strings and then tune them. They keep the guitar in tune (once the strings have been stretched and played for a day or so), but they also make it harder to replace a broken string quickly.

Hex Keys are also used to adjust the rod inside the neck, but this is only recommended for experts. While you can, in some cases, straighten a bent or warped guitar neck, you can really screw up a guitar this way.

Left-Handed Guitars

They exist. They have the nut and bridge and pickups reversed to allow the strings to be strung the opposite way. A few musicians , like Jimi Hendrix, just flip a right-handed guitar over (and just take a drill and a screwdriver and move the strap button) and play it left-handed.

Jimi Hendrix was from Mars, so if this doesn't work for you, don't worry.

My friend Mike Kelley adds:

"My two bits: Jimi Hendrix would have a left-handed guitar strung for a right-hand play because he liked the control knobs up high rather than down low on the body. This could affect your playing style and sound because you would most likely go for a pickup change after a downstroke, possibly setting up a predictable rhythm. By having the controls up high you could flip or twiddle before the downstroke or come back after an upstroke to pick up switch or volume. Jimi actually played a lot of left-handed guitars, but they were strung normally.

"Also, Jay Stein, my left-handed playing friend, learned how to play right-handed guitars (with the strings upside down) simply because there are way more of them around."

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