How U2 Can Buy Guitars without Worrying
18 December 2015
Show all

10,000,000 Perfect Guitars (Or None at All)

All tuned up and ready to go

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.

Bye now,

 

Marcus signature

 

 

Call to Action

  • Answer my first question and let me know who you are. I mean it: just say who you are, where you live, which instrument and what kind of music you play.

  • If you have any idea of the number of guitar and bass players in the world, or if you’ve come up with an original or maybe even hilarious way to estimate it (question number 2): share your thoughts.

  • Do you believe in “perfect guitars”? Did you ever own one?

  • What’s the situation with stores in YOUR country? What are your experiences? (with stores, manufacturers, expensive guitars, cheap ones?)

  • And finally, not unimportant: what did you think of this post? Was it too long, too short, just right? Was it interesting or were you bored (hope not)? Looking forward to next time? If you are, help me out and share this blog with your friends so it can truly lift off. It’s much appreciated.

6 Comments

  1. Steve says:

    Hey Marc,
    Loving the new blog. As you well know, I play both guitar and bass (blues, rock and metal. I figure that there’s probably between 20 and 100 million of us from hobbyists that “play a little” to pros. I’ve never owned a perfect guitar but the one you built is probably as close as I’ll get ?I’ve had cheap guitars and expensive ones over the last 27 years and have come to one conclusion: if it plays, feels and sounds good, then it’s a good guitar and it doesn’t matter how much it costs or where it was built. And as I started so I finish. Love the blog. I wish I had access to something like this 20 years ago.

  2. Well, as many won’t know, is that I have 2 magnificent basses built by Marcus in my house (on retirement leave, sort of speak), only coming out their shells out of sheer nostalgia or for the specific sound/timbre when recording for somebody.

    To me, perfect guitars are either non existant in a shop, (can/dare I say) or not even by the most renowned luthier. This means no disrespect at all for Marcus and any other luthier bringing out their most beautiful pieces of art around the globe. My perfect bass (bassplayer after all) is currently the 1 I’ve assembled myself (again no disrespect to all luthiers around) but even that might not be the perfect bass for another day/song/mood I’m in when doing my weekly rehearsals, practicing, gigs…

    For the mandatory questionnaire:
    ** If you have any idea of the number of guitar and bass players in the world, or if you’ve come up with an original or maybe even hilarious way to estimate it (question number 2): share your thoughts. –> the correct answer is in fact easy as pie. The current amount of bassplayers/guitarsplayer + 1 as there will always be kids who pick up the drumsticks, guitar, bass and/or keys or any other instrument.

    ** Do you believe in “perfect guitars”? Did you ever own one? –> I have 2, but they were perfect in the period of time that I actively used them. Tastes change, priorities change. Currently, my “perfect” bass is the one that suits me the best for the time being. Fender body, Fender Squier neck, all active EMG electronica, all hashed together. The other “perfect” bass is still being build. However, when they’ve reached the end of their use or when they’ve reached any other goal, they’ll be handed out to be somebody elses perfect bass. What is perfect for somebody, is pure crap for somebody else.

    ** What’s the situation with stores in YOUR country? What are your experiences? (with stores, manufacturers, expensive guitars, cheap ones?) –> while living in Belgium, I usually resort to Chinese, German, American and/or British, … webstores for parts but I don’t think I’ll buy a bass of the shelf again, unless it consists of more than 80% parts that I need for the next perfect bass.
    Maybe if things settle down and I have money to spare and I know what I’ll need for the rest of my bassplaying days, I’ll probably give Marc another call ;).

    ** And finally, not unimportant: what did you think of this post? Was it too long, too short, just right? Was it interesting or were you bored (hope not)? Looking forward to next time? If you are, help me out and share this blog with your friends so it can truly lift off. It’s much appreciated. –> As I try to learn as much on basses, bass assembly and bass-playing, I’m pretty sure this blog will answer many question I’ll have.

    • Marcus says:

      Thanks for your feedback, D. I think you’re right. Our idea of “the perfect guitar” changes over time. It follows the evolution of our musical tastes. Moreover, when we play different genres, we might need different instruments for each of them as well. This sure keeps the industry going 😉

      Keep ’em vibrating,

      Marcus

  3. Dieter Vancraeynest says:

    Marc, your post is spot on. I especially liked the part about internet stores and the fact that it’s ‘us’ that cause poorly set up guitars by always looking for the lowest price. I read stories of people buying online, being disappointed at arrival, sending back the guitar to trade it for another one, and so on… leading to heaps of ‘scrap’ guitars that are just circulating in DHL or UPS vans from disappointed customer to disappointed customer. We’re also shooting ourselves in the foot with buying online: in the future, we’ll have to drive hundreds of kilometers to be able to test an instrument, because we killed all local shops. ‘Play before you pay’ remains a wise piece of advice.
    By coincidence, I went to a guitar shop over the weekend as I am looking for a lighter bass. I tested 4 basses. Only one was properly set up, in my humble opinion (reading about your airplane comments… the one with proper set up was German so probably no airplane transport for that one). The one with the best sound – which was an inexpensive Asian built instrument – had awful set up: fretbuzz all over etcetera. My frustration: how could I be sure that the one with the best sound could be ‘saved’ and properly set up? Question to you: can all guitars be set up properly?

    Great initiative by the way, this blog! My only remark would be to try and make the lay out cleaner – there’s lots of ads popping up now.

    • Marcus says:

      Hi Dieter, thanks very much for your comment. And congratulations on being the very first to respond!

      You have spoken wisely, my friend. And what about the ecological footprint we’re responsible for, with all those circulating guitars?

      Your question was: can all guitars be set up properly? The answer, I’m afraid, is NO. The neck’s condition is a VERY crucial factor. And the design of some bridges doesn’t allow for “perfect” intonation. Now, that bridge thing may not necessarily be a big issue for everyone, but a twisted or insufficiently adjustable neck is either beyond repair, or can only be fixed at great expense! Luckily for you, as I announced in the article, my next postwill be about buying a new guitar (or a used one, for that matter), and how to examine it. So help is on its way…

      In the mean time: keep ’em vibrating,

      Marcus

      PS: sorry about those ads, but as you can imagine it takes a lot of time and effort to keep this blog going. The ads are what hopefully might compensate for that a little, one day. But you know what? I’ll remove the one that’s inside the article. It bothered me too, a bit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *