Saturday, January 22, 2011

My guitars

Over the last 25 years I must have owned at least ten computers, whereas over 41 years I have owned only seven guitars. This probably says more about the rapid technical advances in the computer world than anything about guitars.

The first guitar which I owned was a typical Spanish nylon strung acoustic guitar which I bought second or third hand from a small shop on Christmas Steps, Bristol in 1970. I have a very dim memory of my mother bringing home an f-hole archtop guitar at around the same time, but there must have been something very wrong with it - probably the neck was warped and the action extremely high. After a while, someone gave me a battered steel string acoustic, so I bartered the nylon acoustic for a noname electric guitar. Suffice it to say, my first three guitars were dogs.

After leaving school and prior to going to Israel for a gap year, someone suggested that I buy a proper guitar. I was working as a temp in my father's office and earning a little money, so I could afford something. One evening I was strolling around the rather non-descript residential/small shop district where my parents lived when I chanced upon a guitar shop. I may not have been aware of this at the time, but now it seems a peculiar location for such a shop. Maybe the rents were cheap. Anyway, I saw hanging on a wall the most beautiful acoustic guitar that I had ever seen and vowed to buy it. I paid a deposit, but the shop wouldn't let me have the guitar until I paid the full price - somewhere around 25 GBP, if I remember correctly. This was in 1973, when pounds were pounds and before we had heard of the word 'inflation'.

I enjoyed that guitar over the years but had to retire it about ten years ago. It was nearly unplayable as the bridge had started to pull away from the body. I showed the guitar to a luthier but he said it was too late to correct the problem. The guitar is now hanging on the wall behind me as I write these lines. The fretboard is dull, the back and sides still look wonderful and the body is somewhere in-between, in terms of appearance.

In the spring of 1976, when my little rock group got underway, I bought a Gibson SG copy from a shop on the Kilburn High Road. I played this guitar for many years, whenever an electric was needed, but slowly my usage decreased. After all, I am an acoustic guitar player. There was also a problem with the bridge which was causing intonation problems; I had this corrected, but never really used the guitar after that. The guitar is lying under my bed, untouched for several years.

When I had to retire my venerable acoustic, I thought it time to buy a professional guitar which would last me until I would be unable to play, and so bought an Ovation Applause guitar. 

This is everything that I could want from a guitar and I am very happy with it. Its amplified sound is clear and the electronics are simple, which is a boon whenever I play in public (no more having to poke a microphone at the sound hole). The only real problem with the guitar is its back, which juts out asymmetrically, making the guitar difficult to hold when sitting down (and presumably when standing up). The late Trevor Lucas (Sandy Denny's husband, and one-time Fairporter) used to play an Ovation, and I have seen pictures of him playing the guitar with the neck pointing down to the ground. Mind you, he was very tall.

That's six guitars so far; what about the seventh? I'm glad you asked. As of two days ago, I am the proud owner of a Washburn HB30-TS semi-acoustic guitar (the TS stands for Tobacco Sunrise). For unknown reasons, it has always been one of my dreams to own a semi-acoustic, and my wife has been egging me to fulfill that dream (I never had a middle aged crisis). Unfortunately, the shop from which I bought the guitar had a minimal selection of semi-acoustics so to paraphrase Hamlet, "to buy or not to buy, that is the question."

The other semi-acoustic which they had was a semi-acoustic Telecaster copy (I can't find a picture at the moment, but something like the Asat classic custom semi-hollow); this guitar was lighter, had a narrow neck, had none of the aesthetic appeal of the Washburn and was twice as expensive!

I was slightly disappointed with the guitar's unplugged sound; I had naively assumed that a semi-acoustic would sound like an acoustic when not plugged in and like an electric when plugged in. Not true. So I had to buy an amplifier; I had prepared for this eventually and noticed that the shop sold various small Roland amplifiers. In the shop, I tried some of these Roland cubes as well as a small Marshall. I innocently asked about reverb, only to be told that the Marshall didn't have this effect, but the Roland did. Not only reverb but also chorus/flange/phase and delay; the amplifier can even run on batteries! I can see myself busking in the local train station with the semi-acoustic (or maybe the Ovation) plugged into this little amplifier (little in size, big in sound) which is running on batteries.

When I got home and started playing around with the amp, I discovered that there have been rapid improvements in solid state amplifiers similar to the technological advances of computers. There is one selector knob on the amp which allows one to choose one of seven amplifier types:
  1. acoustic - "a dynamic acoustic guitar sound using a standard electric guitar"
  2. JC clean - "a model of Roland's famous JC-120 Jazz Chorus amplifier"
  3. Black Panel - "modeled on the class Fender Twin Reverb amplifier"
  4. Brit Combo - "modeled on the VOX AC-40TB, the rock amplifier that created the Liverpool sound of the '60s"
  5. Classic stack - "modeled on the sound and response of a Marshall JMP1987"
  6. r-fier stack - "modeled on the MESA/Boogie Rectifier"
  7. Mic - "select this position when [a] microphone is connected.
There are huge differences in output between each of the various settings, but presumably the average player uses one setting on an almost permanent basic. I imagine that my permanent setting will be the Black Panel.

The amplifier even comes with a button which when pressed produces an A (440Hz) tone for tuning purposes; no more playing sharp or flat. Maybe this is common amongst modern amplifiers, but the Marshall didn't have it, nor did my original 25Watt (50W with an extension speaker) guitar amp which I bought in 1976. On the downside, the speaker is only 5" in diameter, as opposed to a more powerful 12" (no heavy bass sounds for this amp). Of course, the amp isn't meant for a gigging bassist in a rock group.

I imagine that my full enthusiasm for the amp as opposed to the luke-warm response to the guitar comes through. No doubt the guitar will grow on me as an instrument and not just a pretty piece of wood.

The guitar came with a soft case with very poor zippers - I broke one immediately when trying to open it. Fortunately, there are two length-wise zippers, so I can open and close with the other zipper (until I break that). One pocket on the bag held a cord so that I could plug the guitar into the amplifier; the zipper on this pocket doesn't work at all. Unfortunately I can't store the guitar in the hard case belonging to the SG copy - the Washburn's body is much wider than the SG (I think that it's even wider than the Ovation). The website of the shop from which I bought the guitar lists a suitable hard case for 625 NIS; I'll wait until I finish paying off the guitar before buying such a case.

The guitar was listed at just over 1,600NIS and the amplifier at around 700NIS, making a total cost of 2,300NIS (I think that I got a rounding small discount),  including 16% VAT; this works out at just under 400GBP (with the VAT).  Maybe a lot of money to satisfy a whim, but a good investment. The site which I linked to above gives a list price of $900 for the guitar, meaning that the price I paid was about 50% less! 

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