by Tommy Ring
For the past twenty years, I've spend a lot of my free time buying guitars.
Okay, cheap, electric guitars.
And, when they didn't feel right, sound right, whatever, I'd sell them.
My reasons varied – they look cool, I want to restore them, I'm trying to find my dream guitar, etc. Any guitarist or collector scouring Craigslist or ebay can relate to this obsession. During my search, one underlying consideration has always been there: what name is printed on the headstock?
Since the introduction of the solid-body guitar in 1949, there are two brands that have stood the test of time - Gibson and Fender.
Even today, many guitars (regardless of brand) are some derivation of the Gibson or Fender platform.
And many guitars continue to be manufactured in Japan, Korea, Indonesia, India and Mexico. Like most manufacturers, “the big two” build their budget guitars overseas; Gibson with their Epiphone line and Fender with their Squier line. With a limited budget (and perception) for guitar acquisition, most of the guitars I've purchased have been either Epiphone or Squier.
Now, here's the problem.
There has historically been a perception or stigma associated with buying and playing one of these budget brands. To the professional performing musician, it screams “I can't afford the real thing so I'm playing this wannabe guitar”. For the musician who may be insecure or cares too much about what other people think, this poses a problem. True, when these budget guitars appeared on the market in the 70's and 80's, the foreign guitar builders didn't have it quite right. The quality control and materials were inconsistent, the instruments were poorly set up, didn't stay in tune and generally made it difficult for a beginner to stick with playing. (In terms of setup and tuning, this is a problem to this day and is one of the great ironies with entry-level guitars – although the price of entry is affordable, if the instrument is difficult to play or won't stay in tune, who's going to stick with learning how to play?) While the U.S. has faltered with quality control and rested on their “buy American” laurels, several talented craftsman from overseas have pulled into the lead creating works of art that rival the instruments from the good ol' days (1950-60).
But it's 2014 and manufacturing overseas has changed dramatically. In the case of Epiphone with their “Masterbuilt” line and Squier with their “Classic Vibe” series, these guitars are now arguably on par with their American-made cousins. Gone are the days of “cheap” overseas guitars. Yes, the price of entry may still be cheap but the “bang for the buck” is tremendous! These guitars can now sit proudly on stage or be strummed loudly during your stadium anthem. But, here's the rub. There is still a stigma associated with any guitar that doesn't say “Gibson” or “Fender” on the headstock.
Which brings me to the main point of this article. If you truly want to find the instrument that speaks to you, that you connect with, that feels perfect in your hands, you need to ignore the headstock. Ignore all perceptions about “brand” and “who plays what” and decide for yourself. Ideally, we could test each new guitar blindfolded and simply rely on the three most important reasons I've discovered for choosing a guitar:
In my quest for the perfect guitar and the perfect sound, I'm slowly learning that I may have to look beyond what's printed on the headstock. What I've also discovered in life is that sometimes you have more success when you do the opposite of what you normally do. Case in point: I've purchased at least six different Strats in my lifetime and no matter how hard I try, Strats just don't work for me. I know I “should” like them because everyone and their sister plays one but they just don't speak to me. I haven't been able to put my finger on it. Teles, on the other hand, I love! Go figure.
After 30 years of playing, I discovered Heritage guitars.
Heritage is located in Kalamazoo, Michigan and was started by former Gibson employees when Gibson moved to Nashville in the early 80's. Many of the employees at that time decided to stay in Michigan and continue on in the old plant and Heritage was born. The great thing about Heritage is they still “make 'em like they used to”. They make Les Paul and 335-style guitars but they do it by hand with the original equipment like Gibson used to do in the 50's and 60's.
When I played my first Heritage, I fell in love.
I found my perfect guitar!
It felt right, resonated and sustained for days (yes, i came back a week later and it was still vibrating), sounded amazing unplugged and even more amazing wound up through a Fender Deluxe. And it played like butter. You know, salty, slippery and... yellow?
My friend Martin asked me, "Why did you buy and sell ten Epiphones when you could have bought one Heritage and been done with it?"
I didn't have an answer.
But, it still doesn't say “Gibson” on the headstock. Why is this a problem? Should I pass on the Heritage in favor of a Gibson so I will be accepted into the guitar community? Or if Leo Fender was still alive, would I be more inclined to buy a G&L and pass on the Fender this time?
So, the moral of this story - try every guitar in the store.
Regardless of price or brand. Start with the one that is the opposite of what you would normally grab. Close your eyes and start with the feel and sound. Then, and only then, take a good look at it. And, if that means the hot pink Charvel/Jackson from the 80's is the guitar for you and you play it and love it, jump up on stage and wail away with pride!
Tommy Ring is a creative force living in Southern California. When not pretending to be a marketing manager, he's living his dream being a musician.