Welcome to the very first edition of Understanding Guitars, the guitar blog that aims to help you separate fact from internet fiction! I’m glad you found your way over.
Now before we actually start beating the baloney, I need to beg you for a little patience. Why? Well, in this introductory edition I’d like to talk about ourselves for a bit – the guitar or bass playing breed of the human species. I’ll also discuss the notion of “the perfect guitar”. And finally, I’ll tell you about the absence of faultlessly set up guitars in most music stores.
My next article will follow through on that last subject: if guitars in shops are poorly set up, how on earth are you going to distinguish a potentially superb instrument (that just needs a proper setup) from one that has hidden defects, that can’t be saved, or would cost you a small fortune to turn into something more or less acceptable? I’ll tell you about the tools to take with you, and the questions you should ask even if you don’t DARE to. Do it anyway: you’ll be glad you did, afterwards.
From there on, we’ll start exposing the baloney.
So let’s get on with it. As you can read elsewhere on these pages, Understanding Guitars addresses active guitarists and bassists all around the globe – regardless whether they’re amateurs or pros. These last few weeks I started asking myself 2 questions. The first one is: who are you all? And the second one: how many of you ARE there? To my knowledge, our number isn’t documented anywhere. Care to make a guess? Let’s try.
We, the players, all know a bunch of colleagues. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we’re in the middle of a scene. But what about Joe Public? Of every 100 adults he knows, how many play our beloved instrument, even occasionally: 1? And that’s just here in Belgium, Western Europe, the UK, the USA, Australia. In some regions of the world, the guitar and its relatives aren’t nearly as popular. What’s more, the majority of the globe’s population doesn’t even have access to luxury products like guitars. So what number are we REALLY talking about? 1 in 500? One in 1,000?
According to the UN’s 2015 World Population Estimates, on July 1st of this year there were 5,040,531,000 people between the ages of 15 and 69 inhabiting our planet. That could mean there are now around 5 or 10 million guitarists on Earth, all of them blessed with their own personalities, all of them playing in various genres, employing different techniques and playing styles, having individual preferences regarding the looks of their instruments, their sound, feel, image, size, brand, construction method, used parts and materials, finish and so on. And last but not least: regarding the way they’re set up.
Okay, let’s forget about that number, from here on. Might as well be 2 million or 25. The point is that there are innumerous versions, intangible ideal images, of that thing, that illusion, we like to call “the perfect guitar”. Most of us never find one. I certainly haven’t, not even in 20 years of repair and setup. I’m afraid it doesn’t exist. Certainly not if it has to be perfect for every imaginable purpose.
It should also be obvious by now that what’s “perfect” for one person may be totally wrong for the other. (Sounds like choosing a life partner, right? Which a guitar sort of is, of course.)
So let’s forget about the subjectivities, like color (duh), preferred neck shape and width, which pickups sound best and all other stuff like that. Let’s focus on what’s measurable for a bit. Accurate fret positioning. Equal (or often NOT very equal) fret height. Is the bridge in the right spot? Are the electronics shielded alright? What about nut groove depth, and so on.
Sometimes people come into my workshop, armed with two guitars: one they want me to set up, and one as reference material because “that one is really perfect”. In a situation like this, I’ll take the measurements I need (neck curvature, bridge height, nut groove depth) and while I’m at it, I’ll take a look at other things as well (fret evenness, pickup height…). Then I’ll share my findings with the customer, and usually end up setting up both guitars he brought in. Then, when he comes back to pick them up, he realizes his “perfect” guitar wasn’t so perfect after all. (If you don’t believe this, just read through the customer comments on my Marcus Guitars website.)
Mind you, I’m not pretending to deliver perfect guitars. I DO try to turn ANY instrument that comes into my shop into the best it can possibly be. Even if it’s a cigar box guitar. Even if it has some little flaws – or PRECISELY then. Why not? Sometimes those “perfect imperfections” are responsible for the sound you were after. They may be what attracted you to that instrument to begin with. Just like that little birthmark, or that tiny scar, that turns otherwise sterile beauty into a fascinating sight.
Okay, back to those customers again. You know, in 20 years they have often come here with brand new guitars, straight from the shop. Some of those instruments had cost €200, others up to 20 times as much. But they were ALL in need of adjusting. Yes, you read that right: ALL! Even the boutique, custom shop guitars. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Part of this can be explained by store owners fighting price battles with each other and with those big internet stores – a relatively new phenomenon. Big stores buy big numbers, and therefore get larger discounts than their competitors. The big ones dictate the prices, and all others have to follow to (barely) stay in business; some lose the fight altogether.
In that sort of climate warming, it’s not difficult to imagine that costs have to be cut where possible. Setting up the instruments that enter the store requires A LOT of labor, and (surprise, surprise!): labor costs. So out goes setup guy, and out goes the quality.
Part of this is our own fault, of course. We DEMAND the lowest possible price. We buy in the shop that offers our dream guitar for €20 less than elsewhere. As a result of that behavior, we nowadays find ourselves spending more than what we’ve just gained, in order to get our guitars in good playing shape!
Now this is bizarre. Would you EVER buy a television set with poor image quality in several portions of the screen? A new car with bad brakes? Not a chance. But we DO buy guitars that may have inferior tuners, high action (masking fret buzz that would otherwise have been obvious), bad intonation, humming electronics and so on. Where did we go wrong?
And another thing: why are guitars in bad shape when they arrive in the stores in the first place? Are manufacturers cutting costs as well? Or is it caused by airplane temperatures and air pressures? Different air humidity? Maybe the factories are overcautious? Maybe they set up their guitars too high, just in case the action would lower during intercontinental flights? But then, if the action DOESN’T change in-flight (or changes in the wrong direction!), the guitar on the shop wall – not having been adjusted by a shop employee – will be hard to play and impossible to tune.
It gets worse still. Sometimes brand new, super-expensive guitars are brought to my shop to cure a problem of uneven frets. Can you imagine that?? I know, because of temperature and humidity changes, frets that have been seated poorly may get loose and uneven. But if you’re paying several thousands, these frets should have been installed properly in the first place, right? Whatever happened to quality control?
The facts are what they are. Guitars, even expensive ones, are not always well made. In stores, guitars are hardly ever set up – and when they are, it’s seldom done right. For that reason, I advise all of my customers: when you’re out buying a new guitar, keep in mind that you’re going to HAVE to have a professional take care of it. Calculate that extra cost beforehand.
And take your measuring tools with you to the store. You need them. We’ll cover that subject, next time.