The Guys Who Sell Rolls-Royces For Next To Nothing

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 25 March 2015 |

Okay, so the title is a metaphor, but this is an issue which needs a lot more attention than a conventional title would likely bring. I’m using a motor vehicle analogy, but this is really a piece about the Internet, and the people who are slowly strangling it. It’s a piece about legitimised theft, and the impact that legitimised theft has on our long-term experience of the Web.



Above, I’ve uploaded a site-branded, lowish-res photo of a Rolls-Royce. I could have taken 50 Rolls-Royce pics and created a ‘gallery’ on a photo site, with each image unbranded, and available at high resolution. You could have clicked a link, browsed that gallery, and, if you’re interested in the cars, had a great Web experience downloading a feast of images to peruse at your convenience. Afterall, a picture is worth a thousand words. So why didn’t I do that? Well, because for me, as the producer of the content, it would mean a lot of work, and within a short time, ‘content aggregators’ would have plundered my mine of hi-res images and made them available elsewhere.

They’d be all over the UGC sites, and very possibly also in use for commercial or nefarious purposes. And with every re-post, there’d be less reason for people to visit this original page, and click my gallery link. I, the original uploader, would be losing increasing amounts of Web traffic to the re-posters. Why would I do all that work, for the benefit of other people’s online status or success?

But more importantly, why should you care about this? Well, precisely because I didn't create a gallery, and I never create galleries, and the Internet is discouraging me from creating galleries, and it's the same for most other producers of Web content. You may think there are masses of photos on the Internet, but for every one that does get posted, there are many more that don’t. That's an enormous problem, which dampens the educational value of the Internet, and it's going to get worse.

As someone who administrates blogs, I get to see the search terms some visitors have used to reach my posts via Google and other search engines. With one site in particular, “gallery” is a common keyword within those incoming search terms. The site in question does have individual, lo-res images, but it doesn’t have galleries, and it doesn’t even mention the word “gallery”. Given that Google is pretty good at finding what people ask for, the fact that Web-surfers are landing on my site, and not another which actually does have a gallery, suggests the galleries of images they want are just not out there to be found. That’s no surprise.

In fact, it’s actually better for original content creators like me to minimise all image content. Not only to skimp on the number of images, but also to make the images smaller. Why’s that? Well, because as long as I make my images searchable, Google will by default give them away for free to people who don’t visit my sites. People go on Google Images, find my work, and download it. I get nothing – not even a page visit. And some downloaders will then go on Twitter or similarly 'copyright-blind' sights, and use my work to inflate their profile and status. So what’s the point? But if I make my images small (like 500px across), some surfers will think they’ve found the lo-res version, and that they might be able to get a larger version by visiting my site. If people want those pictures in larger sizes, I then get page visits, but third parties tend to consider the pics too small for re-posting, so I additionally cut down on unwanted re-distribution.

I haven’t implemented that idea on this blog, because the articles are information-based, and that gives people an impetus to click through to my pages from Google Images. But on another site, whose average visitor is much more likely to only want the pictures, I’ve rigidly maintained a maximum image size of 500px, and it works. People click through from Google Images, trying to find a larger image size. They don’t actually get a larger size, because if I uploaded a larger size, Google would just index that instead of the smaller size, and give it directly to the surfer, so I’d get less traffic. On that site, I HAVE to make my images 'too small', and make sure there’s no larger option, in order to get any search traffic from Google at all. I know I’m pissing people off, but that’s preferable to the alternative, which is to let a cyber power cut me out of my own content delivery interface. Next time you find a picture that’s too small (and they always tend to be the ones you want most), and there’s no larger option, remember whose fault that is.

So, the way Google Images works actually makes it more beneficial for content providers NOT to give Web surfers what they really want. It’s lunacy, but it’s true. And more and more photographers are realising this. The result, over time, is not only fewer new images (because content providers only need one pic to make an article show up in Google Images, and any more is just a platter for aggregators), but also smaller images, for the reasons I gave above.

THE ‘AGGREGATORS’ ARE WINNING

‘Content aggregators’, in case you're still wondering, are people who re-post existing material on the Internet, in a conveniently cherry-picked manner. In real terms, they’re content thieves, committing copyright infringement on a grand scale. They don’t ask before taking, and they certainly don’t have permission. They just take, and because they’re so often posting anonymously, on platforms purpose-built to loophole copyright law, they don’t have to worry about being sued. There are unthinkable numbers of them. They’re everywhere.

But aggregators are not just everywhere – they’re winning. If you produce your own material for online consumption, you’re at a massive disadvantage when competing against aggregators, because simply, you have to work to create everything you post. The only work aggregators have to do is to copy and paste, or download/re-upload. Some even have automation to do that for them. Thus, they can work much, much faster than someone who’s producing their own content, and that means they can achieve 40 or 50 times the output. They can stay in the audience’s face with an intensity most original creatives could never come close to matching, and in the bite-sized, micro-attention-span world of Web 2.0, staying in people’s faces equals success. And because aggregators cherry-pick from literally the best of the best, using childishly simple resources like Google Images, the quality of their feeds is staggeringly high.

As an original producer of Internet content, you’re like a legitimate car dealer trying to compete with a dealer who not only steals all their cars, but is GIVEN THE KEYS to steal all their cars by the powers that be. While you struggle to negotiate distributors’ discounts on your Fiats and Toyotas, your rivals are knocking out nicked Rolls-Royces and Ferraris for next to nothing. What hope do you have of getting a look-in? Remember, there isn’t just one ‘car-thief’ out there. There are millions. And the total is set to rise, because in many areas of Internet 2015, it's the now only way to compete.

I hate aggregators and I won't support them. When many people see a Twitter account called "World's Best Art Images" or whatever, they think: "Great! I'm going to see lots of spectacular pictures!", and they follow the account. But I just think: "What gives this parasite the right to steal other people's work and use it, without even an attribution, to build a huge fanbase on social media?". I'm not actually against regular people sharing odds and ends of third party matter on Twitter for reasons of personal interest, especially when they acknowledge the source. But I am against parasitic status-building - calculatingly and deliberately setting out to build huge followings entirely off the back of stolen premium content.

However, as I documented in my Don't Blame The Content Thief post over on Twirpz, the crux of the problem is not the ‘aggregator’ per se, but the cyber powers who make it easy to ‘aggregate’. These big powers could make it exceptionally difficult for Web users to re-post images without permission, but they choose not to. So the guys who sell other people's Rolls-Royces for for next to nothing are not really the individuals who pick up a photo from one place, and re-post it somewhere else. They’re just the sales assistants. The bosses of the next-to-nothing Rolls-Royce dealership are the Googles, the Twitters – the sites that, hand in hand, encourage users to take what’s not theirs, and proliferate it to the detriment of the original content provider. And ultimately, to the detriment of online education.
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Why Stock Guitar Pickups Could Be Best

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 24 March 2015 |

If the title of this piece was based purely on anecdotal evidence, I wouldn’t need to write another word. The number of guitarists who’ve switched a full set of stock pickups for expensive replacements, then sheepishly pulled out the replacements and replaced them with the originals, is staggering.



Even before the aftermarket pickup business was born, guitarists were refusing to accept the supposed laws of pickup superiority. Take Eric Clapton for example. In 1970 when he built his famous partscaster ‘Blackie’, he selected a 1950s Strat body and neck, and had a wealth of highly-lauded pre-CBS Fender pickups at his disposal. So, he put the best three pre-CBS pickups in the guitar, right? Wrong. He fitted two pre-CBS pickups, and a brand new CBS job, from 1970. And what’s more, that CBS unit, from what came to be considered an unpopular period of Fender pickup manufacture, survived throughout the guitar’s working life. So, whilst we all know what we’re supposed to like, and what’s supposed to be best, what’s actually right for our personal needs can be a very different matter.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PICKUP SUPERIORITY

Psychology is critical in the sale of aftermarket pickups. At the pre-sale stage, physical sound has little real-terms bearing. Let’s face it, there’s nothing the manufacturers can play us which really tells us what their pickups are going to do in our guitars. So many factors govern how a pickup performs, that any audio demonstration is virtually meaningless. Guitars can have significantly different sonic characteristics from one to the next – even within a single brand and model. And elements such as the amp, the effects, the mic, other components of the recording process, and not least, the player, have a marked impact on what we end up hearing. In a chain of sound production subject to a multitude of defining factors, knowing how much of the tonal appeal is down to the guitar pickup is next to impossible.

And of course in the old days (1970s and 1980s), there was typically no way of even hearing a pickup demo. There was no Internet, and guitar magazine cover CDs didn’t appear until the 1990s. So the sellers sought to paint an evocative picture, which was as much about how the pickups looked and were presented as how they sounded. It was about history, technology, celeb association, building the musician’s dream – anything guitarists were likely to be swept away by. I won’t use the expression “snake oil”, because the leading edge of the pickups business has always, in my view, delivered, and has not sought to mislead. But whilst all those choice, premium pickups were being eulogised and hyped to the hilt, the stock units they were there to replace had no one to gift wrap them in pathos. Largely, that’s remained the case.

So how good are stock electric guitar pickups? Well, it’s pretty widely accepted that if you buy a high-end guitar, you probably won’t need to worry about changing the electrical components. Indeed, many high-end guitars feature pickups which themselves are available as part of the proprietary replacement market. In the mid and upper budget areas of guitar production, however, stock pickups tend not only to be far less drenched in hype, but also to be far less well documented in terms of precise spec. No one is shouting about them, so we really don’t know much about them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no good, but it does mean they’re unlikely to evoke the same levels of excitement in the guitarist’s mind.



AN UNUSUAL COMPARISON

Across the sphere of electric guitar pickups, it’s vintage and premium aftermarket units which command the attention. The appeal of these artefacts centres around a manufactured imbalance in our perception. I’m going to explore that imbalance with two separate guitar pickup appraisals. One is a budget pickup, and the other is a genuine vintage pickup from the 1960s. Read these appraisals carefully, as there’s a surprise waiting at the end…
  1. This unit had the kind of characteristics you’d expect in a guitar costing around £130. The tone wasn’t bad, if you don’t mind a rather weak signal and an absence of the top end bite for which this type of guitar is renowned. The microphonic squeal at rehearsal volume, however, was bad. It made the pickup unusable in certain musical contexts, and showed what happens when a manufacturer is too pushed for time, is not paying attention to quality control, and is cutting corners in the manufacturing process.

  2. Sometimes, a guitar pickup transcends the barriers of genre, and slips with ease into any musical style like it was tailor made. This unit offered a noticeably thicker and warmer sound than I’d expect from a brand new American Standard equivalent, and generated a creamy overdrive which really made the instrument purr. But the midrange body creating that creamy drive, did not come at the expense of crisp definition. This truly was an object lesson in versatility and tonal balance.
Pretty straightforward, you might think. A budget pickup, and a vintage pickup. Did those appraisals tie in with your expectations? Well, maybe. But there’s something I have to confess, which is probably going to change your mind. In fact, the vintage pickup was number 1, and the budget pickup was number 2.

Pickup number 1 was the ‘vintage classic’ from a 1960s Fender Jaguar I once owned – built after the company ceased wax potting, causing vibration in the coil windings, which in turn created microphonic squeal. A fairly high level of demagnetisation over the years had both weakened the output signal, and diminished the top end bite. Despite the generally eminent status of vintage Fender pickups, this one did indeed have at least some of the characteristics you’d expect in a guitar costing around £130.

Pickup number 2 was the stock pickup from a 1990s Squier Silver Series Strat. I wouldn’t rank that pickup as the best I’ve ever used, or anything like it, and there were drawbacks I didn’t mention. But everything I wrote was true. It does have a nice, balanced basic tone, and it’s perfectly competent in a technical sense.

And that’s the point. When you talk up many stock pickups in the way replacement and vintage vendors talk up their more illustrious wares, you find that actually, there’s no shortage of positive elements to focus on. As I did in the little trick above, you can make an expensive pickup sound like the absolute pits, and a cheapish pickup sound like the dog’s doofers. Which one actually is better, for you, will come down to many factors, but here are some of the things you should consider…



POINTS TO CONSIDER
  • A lot of the shortfall in tonal attractiveness which guitarists attribute to the pickups, is actually the fault of the guitar – and this is particularly true with new or newer instruments. Because the pickup replacement business is so big, convenient, and full of promise, guitarists run to it as a first resort. But the quality and maturity of the wood, and the compatibility of the hardware and setup, are likely to have a much bigger impact on a guitar’s perceived tonal beauty than the pickups. With virtually all the guitars I bought new in the ’80s or ’90s, playing them in for twenty years plus and just generally letting the wood mature has improved the sound in a much more substantial manner than qualitative pickup upgrades could.
  • Aftermarket pickups can be priced to recover big R&D, tooling/retooling, obsessive visual detailing, hand production or marketing costs. It doesn’t necessarily follow that those factors will translate into a sound that’s more compatible with your tastes. As long as a stock pickup doesn’t have technical flaws, it’s a straight matter of personal taste between the sound it produces, and the sound a replacement might produce.
  • Vintage pickups lose top-end definition as part of the ageing process, and aftermarket simulations of vintage pickups often have that characteristic engineered into them for reasons of authenticity. If you want a mellower tone, then that’s fine, but if you prefer or need maximum high-end definition, the stock pickup(s) could suit you better.
  • Stock pickups may sometimes be basic, but they’re at least vaguely matched to the guitar at the design stage. If you’re replacing the original units with something dramatically different, will the new sound still suit that design of instrument? And if you’re just ‘upgrading’ with something broadly the same, will there be enough difference to warrant the change?
  • Stock pickups are part of the guitar, so if your interest is driven in any way by historical appeal, replacing them could, particularly in years to come, be detrimental to your experience. No matter how much hype there is surrounding the ‘vintage’ accuracy or authenticity of a replacement pickup, it’s never going to be more authentic, on your guitar, than the original equipment. That’s the great irony of replacement manufacturers marketing on historical interest. The more time that passes, the stronger the sense is likely to be that your guitar should have its original pickups. That’s almost certain to reflect in its resale value too.
  • When you bought into your guitar, you also bought into its stock pickups. So if you try before you buy, there’s more than a hint that your stock pickups might suit you best. If you didn’t like the sound of those pickups in the first place, you probably wouldn’t have bought the instrument. Your stock pickups are a known quantity which appealed to you enough to drive through your purchase of the guitar. But replacement pickups are always an unknown quantity. Even if you’ve used an exact model of replacement unit before, it may still sound different in a different guitar. Replacing pickups you were initially happy with is always a gamble, and with any gamble, you may lose just as you may win.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this piece has not been to cast aspersions on replacement pickups. I’ve bought loads and I’ve very rarely been disappointed. It should also be stressed that some pickups found in cheap guitars definitely do have serious technical flaws – flaws which to all intents and purposes just don’t exist at the top end of the replacement market. BUT, if your stock pickups already give you a tone you like, and operate in a technically sound manner, £100 plus is a lot of money to spend for a result you may not like as much. And in the end, if Jimi Hendrix, with his brand new, bog-standard and rather buzz-ridden CBS stock pickups, could become the most influential guitarist in the world, then the argument that feeble and technically suspect stock pickups can hinder a musician’s progress really doesn’t hold much water.
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A Brief Guide To 1950s Stratocasters

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 20 March 2015 |

The Fender Stratocaster is the world’s most popular guitar design, but how did it all begin? This piece looks, in a broad sense, at the Stratocaster of the 1950s. It’s not meant to document every minute detail. Rather, it’s an overview for anyone unfamiliar with this early period in the Strat’s life.


Above: This type of black, maple-necked Stratocaster is now perhaps best associated with Eric Clapton, whose (former) predominantly 1950s partscaster ‘Blackie’ is additionally cool because it has an early custom colour body. But Gene Vincent’s band used factory original Strats in non-standard colours during the 1950s, including an even earlier black model than Clapton’s.

The vintage design Fender Stratocaster has one of the best recognised basic feature sets in guitar history, so I’m not going to be covering obvious ground explaining the rudiments. The pictures show what the instrument looks like, and I’m sure you’ll in any case know what a Stratocaster is and does. My aim is, in general, to express what sets apart the 1950s Stratocaster from later models, but I’ve added some other historical detail along the way. Here’s a set of notable ‘50s Strat characteristics to set the ball rolling. A 1950s Strat will have…
  • A very heavily contoured ash (until 1956, then alder) body with maximum amounts of wood removed in the chest and forearm areas. Countours would steadily get shallower through the years, until the late 1970s, afterwhich Fender's Standard Strats moved back towards deeper curves again (although not as deep as in the ‘50s).
  • A single-ply white plastic scratchplate with eight fitting screws.
  • Erratically-wound pickups with compressed fibre top and bottom plates, staggered-height alnico magnets, and coils subject to ‘human error’. It’s impossible to specify an exact coil resistance because the winding process was so hit and miss. The classic Strat pickup resistance is around 6K ohms, and some ‘50s pickups do conform to that. But some have less resistance, and are thus weaker and brighter, whilst others have higher resistance, making them hotter and tonally fatter. It’s just the luck of the draw, and naturally the resistances can vary within one guitar, as well as from one guitar to the next. 1950s coils vary in thickness and shape, and the windings are not uniformly wrapped. The rough, hand-guided pickup winding is acknowledged by many to add character to the sound.
  • Three-way pickup selector switch, with settings for each pickup alone, but no stop-notches for the in-between combination selections.
  • Nickel-plated Kluson tuners. Single round string tree until 1956, then a single rectangular ‘butterfly’ tree.
I’ll look at the other key details separately.

1953

A lot of guitarists know the Stratocaster was introduced in 1954, but the specifics regarding the pre-launch and launch period are less widely circulated. In fact, development work started in earnest in the spring of 1953 with the body contouring and shape being interactively determined. The body shape and size apparently started out similar to that of a Telecaster, but changed progressively as the development team sought to maintain balance in the face of the contours’ impact on weight distribution.


Above: An impression of how the first 1953 Strat prototype might have looked, with a bare wood body, a roller bridge and separate vibrato tailpiece. The white scratchplate and plastic knob sets were a late refinement, so the black plate and metal Telecaster knobs would be accurate. In order to highlight some of the issues the team would have been considering at the outset of the guitar’s development, I’ve given this example two, rather than three pickups, and a Telecaster-style headstock. And I’ve highlighted another important element of Strat design by omitting the recessed jack socket from the front face of the body. It should be noted that due to the lack of images and concrete documentation, there's a lot of speculation surrounding early Strat prototypes and their exact spec. The above image should be considered highly speculative.

Prototypes were already being handed to local musicians by summer 1953. But developing the Strat to a market-ready state (in terms of both spec and promotional groundwork) took about a year and a half, so whilst the Strat was officially introduced to the public in April ’54, it was autumn ’54 before the first real user batch of non-promotional guitars was shipped. The final months of this drawn-out period were probably a nod to Fender’s financial situation at the time, which did not allow for lavish and risky introductions. Building masses of Strats and chucking them onto the market before the then highly futuristic concept was known to be meeting with musicians' general desires, would not have been an option.

There are thought to have been a couple of fully built prototypes for interactive test purposes in summer 1953, which were described by key ideas man Bill Carson as “breadboard models”. The visual and aesthetic refinements to the instrument were not implemented until the end of 1953, with the catastrophic performance of the original vibrato system having delayed progress by literally months.

The mid ‘53 testbed Strats are acknowledged to have had black scratchplates made of compressed fibre, plus metal volume/tone knobs, and a completely different design of trem system. It’s known that the original prototype arrangement had the bridge saddle adjustment screws mounted the opposite way around so they were accessed from the scratchplate side of the bridge, and the saddles carried the strings on rollers so as to eliminate friction from the vibrato action. On the original, prototype Strat trem, the bridge unit itself was completely static – the strings were simply stretched and slackened across it, as with the Bigsby vibrato which inspired it. Fender ran with this design until the latter part of 1953, at which point it was realised that the original trem design was fundamentally flawed and a complete redesign was required. The original vibrato system was scrapped, and apparently very quickly Leo Fender came up with the concept for the Strat trem roughly as we know it today.

One of the most fascinating points regarding the early test period with the guitar as originally conceived, is that although it was never preserved in a visual sense, it was said to have been used on recording sessions of the day. I wonder if any of those recordings survived?

The period between late ’53 and spring ’54 would have seen the second version of the vibrato system and the general appointments being refined, the specifics of the finish finalised, etc. Even after the Strat began to appear publicly, small details were changing. At least one extremely early sunburst Strat has been found with white pickup covers, but metal tone and volume knobs.

COLOURS


Above: This compilation pic shows replica guitars sporting a range of finishes known to have appeared on 1950s Strats. They are, left to right, top to bottom: two-tone sunburst, Fiesta red, white (in this case with an anodised scratchplate mimicking the 0001 serial number Stratocaster owned by David Gilmour), and Shoreline gold.

This is a commonly misunderstood area of early Strat manufacture. The multi-coloured American and Japanese reissues built forward from the 1980s probably helped fuel the notion that ‘50s Strats were listed in a range of finishes. But in fact, there was only one standard finish for the 1950s Stratocaster: two-tone sunburst, black-edged, with a golden yellow centre. And in 1954 when the Strat was introduced, it wasn’t even a published fact that non-standard finishes could be obtained. Therefore, almost all mid 1950s Strats were outshopped in two-tone sunburst.

However, the kind of people buying early Stratocasters could be very ostentatious and forward-thinking artists, and a small number did request non-standard finishes regardless of what Fender documented as being available. This resulted in a very small number of mid ‘50s Strats with solid colour finishes – starting in '54. There was no real system to it. The artist simply specified a colour, Fender quoted a price, and the instrument was finished to order.


Above: The standard finish for a 1950s Strat - two-tone sunburst.

In 1956, Fender finally did publish a catalogue footnote stating that Stratocasters could be bought with custom finishes, subject to a surcharge. But there was still no listing for the actual colours. Whilst Fender did start to settle on a set range of shades through the course of the late 1950s, the only non-sunburst option ever officially referred to in promo literature before the turn of the decade, was blonde (or blond, as it was then written). The first list of named, identifiable solid finishes, was not catalogued until the beginning of the 1960s. Even though it was obvious from the images of guitars in promotional literature and elsewhere that Fender were producing solid-coloured Strats in the late ‘50s, the vast majority of customers stuck with the standard sunburst model, and therefore solid finishes were not produced in any significant quantity until the following decade.

NECK


Above: The headstock and 'spaghetti' Fender logo in the characteristic 1956 to 1959 style. Up until the second half of 1956 the string tree would have been round, and after mid 1959 the neck construction changed, losing the walnut truss channel filler 'teardrop' above the nut, and gaining a rosewood fretboard .

Another assumption often made by those new to Strat history, is that the maple/rosewood fingerboard choice always existed. But in the mid 1950s, if you wanted a guitar with a rosewood fingerboard, Fender couldn’t help you. All Strats from the year of introduction until mid 1959 came with a maple neck, whether you liked it or not. From mid ’59 the maple neck was completely dropped, and the Stratocaster’s spec was switched wholesale to a rosewood fingerboard.

The fingerboard radius was a prominently curved seven inches.

The first neck profile was bulky and rounded, but this evolved, around 1955, to the rather ‘Marmite-esque’ V-shaped profile which some really love, and others totally hate. From 1957, the V-neck evolved towards a rounder and shallower profile, getting progressively shallower through to the end of the decade.

Truss rod adjustments were always made from the body end of the neck.

With regard to the neck, and some other details, it would be worth reading the Fender Japan '57 Reissue article.

OTHER MAIN POINTS IN BRIEF

1954: The Stratocaster gets its preliminary launch in early spring after a long period of tinkering with the design. A trickle of supply, mainly for promotional purposes, is shipped from the second half of May until mid autumn, when full scale production and shipping commence. The body wood is ash, and the finish is nitro-cellulose lacquered.

The original Strat has an eight-screw, single-ply scratchplate – nearly always made of white plastic, but an exceptionally small number of very early models have either gold or silver-grey metal plates or, according to Andre Duchossoir (author of The Fender Stratocaster - the original 'Bible' on this stuff), see-through lucite plates with gold coloured backs. Small detail changes during 1954 include the repositioning of the serial number from the rear vibrato cover plate to the neck plate, and the almost immediate cessation of white bakelite pickup covers and Tone/Volume knob sets.

Finally, the 1954 Strat is not sold with a bridge cover, and perhaps most fascinatingly of all, it’s more expensive than a Gibson Les Paul Gold Top!


Above: The obsession with vintage Strats went crazy in the ‘eighties, and as the battle between Fender and its copyists intensified, 1950s replicas appeared in a staggeringly wide array of colours. This gave quite a false impression of the proportion of real ‘50s Strats produced in solid colours, and indeed some of the finishes in which the replicas appeared were never used on real 1950s Strats at all.

1955: The impractically small round string access holes in rear vibrato cover plate are elongated so as to facilitate easier restringing without removing the plate. A detachable metal ‘ash tray’ top plate is supplied to cover the bridge saddles. V-profiled necks begin to appear, although nothing is really set in stone, and the V-shaping is more of a trend than an exact spec.

1956: The default body wood switches from ash to alder, and the circular string tree is replaced with the rectangular ‘butterfly’ version.

1957: A more aesthetically lavish model, which became popular in professional circles the previous year, is publicised as a generally available option. The instrument has a semi-translucent blonde finish and gold-plated hardware, and it retains the ash body, which has been discontinued on the standard Stratocaster. Today, this model is known as the Mary Kaye Strat, after its synonymous high profile user of the day. The V-neck trend shifts towards a shallower, less bulky and rounder profile.

1958: The standard two-tone sunburst finish is replaced with a three-tone sunburst, featuring a red band between the black and yellow. Two-tone sunbursts have, however, been found on later Strats, even overlapping into the 1960s - although it's known that Fender had teething troubles with their red dye, and it's considered by some that all post-'58 pre-CBS Strats with two-tone sunbursts are actually three-tones with 'permanence failure' in the red dye. This is not a universal view though. If the red faded out in daylight as Fender stated, it should still show some evidence under the scratchplate. My mid '60s Fender Jaguar has a red dye failure, and despite being finished in three-tone sunburst it looks like it has a two-tone finish. Remove the scratchplate, however, and the red areas shielded from daylight are still vivid.

1959: The maple neck bites the dust (for the foreseeable future) and the rosewood fretboard design becomes the new staple spec. The scratchplate evolves over a very short period from single-ply white plastic with 8 mounting screws, to 3-ply off-white/greenish celluloid with 11 mounting screws (other permutations existed in the transition). Even though it’s still, just about, the 1950s, the Strat has evolved into its classic early ‘60s appearance.

Whilst all of the text and images in this post are the original intellectual property of Planet Botch, information source acknowledgements are made to A.R. Duchossoir, Tony Bacon, Paul Day and Tom Wheeler for their excellent publications relating to the Stratocaster and other Fender guitars.
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10 Free or Dirt Cheap Ways To Freshen Up Your Guitar Playing

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 11 March 2015 |

We all get stuck in a rut at some time or other, and let’s face it, there’s a lot of advice on how to dig yourself out. Unfortunately though, many of the people giving out this advice are essentially in the business of selling, so they commonly include expensive (and for some people impractical) suggestions like: “Buy a new effect”, “Buy new pickups”, “Buy a new guitar”… Easy to suggest. Not always so easy to do. This post, then, offers suggestions to those who want a change, but who would prefer not to blow a load of cash on new equipment…



Play to the radio. Find a radio station that’s roughly in keeping with your tastes, balance the volume with your guitar, and challenge yourself to play along to everything you hear. It’s amazing how quickly this can take you out of your usual noodling zone, make you think, prompt you to learn things and encourage new ideas. Having no control over what’s coming next makes the challenge much greater than playing along to selected tracks from your own collection.

Alternative tunings. This can be almost like starting again from scratch, in that it prevents you from regurgitating deeply ingrained habits. You more or less have to think differently when the tuning changes. And in fact, even if you do lapse back into patterns you’re used to, they won’t sound the same. Try some set piece, widely-acknowledged alternative tunings, but don’t be afraid to make up your own too. Some of the most distinctive guitar work on record has been the result of newly invented or accidentally misinterpreted tunings. You can even try out some ‘detuning’ effects by tuning a pair (or more than one pair) of strings to the same pitch, but with a little ‘drift’ in the accuracy, creating a sort of 12-string-type ‘ring’ on a 6-string instrument.

Use a significantly different string gauge. Much thicker strings will give a fuller and more substantial tone, as well as encouraging you to be more selective and basic with your playing. Sometimes, we noodle away at 100mph because we can. When we can’t, we start to think more musically, melodically or expressively. If thick strings prove too tough a proposition as is, tune them down a semitone or a full tone to slacken the aggressive feel. Conversely, switching from thick strings to a much lighter gauge can prompt more ambitious playing and encourage technical flashiness. That can be a useful, surprise ingredient if it’s something you’re not known for.

Add space. It’s tempting to play each track ‘wall-to-wall’, filling every space with guitar. But an extraordinarily high number of successful guitarists heavily punctuate their work with spaces – often long ones where they drop right out of the track for a while. So don't feel obliged to fill every beat of every bar with sound. Even if you’re a solo artist, limited silent gaps, vocal only bars, deliberately missed beats or stabs can capture the listener’s imagination. The maxim "absence makes the heart grow fond" has endured for a reason.

Use your gear more fully. The vast majority of guitarists buy their gear, arrive at settings they’re happy with, and then never change anything or explore any further. Have you really experimented with your FX processor lately? Have you used the other channel on your amp, re-imagined the EQ, reduced the reverb, cut out the reverb altogether? Have you even backed off the tone or volume on your guitar itself? Don’t ditch a great sound, obviously, but equally, don’t assume it’s the ONLY great sound. There are bound to be untapped delights in even the simplest of setups.

Try using a capo. A capo allows open chords to be played further up the neck than usual, which creates a rich and quite different sound. It also facilitates the integration of higher pitched open strings into lead or picked patterns, which, again, takes the output away from the norm and refreshes your style.

Employ a custom setup. A ‘custom setup’ is best suited to a spare guitar, if you have one, as it typically limits the instrument’s versatility or ease of use. The idea is to move away from the convention of low action, optimised pickup heights and such like, to create a different feel and orientate the guitar towards a different type of performance. The classic example of a ‘custom setup’ put to good use would be slide playing, where the action is raised up higher than would normally be tolerated, and it’s the slide rather than the frets which creates the notes. But raising the action in itself changes the tone and feel, even with conventional fretted playing. And you can create unusual imbalances by setting the pickups to drastically diferrent heights and then using them combined. With many guitars, if you're prepared to go 'under the hood' you can also reverse the hookup wires or the magnet for one of the pickups (only do this if you know what you're doing,  as the components are easily damaged). This throws combination selections out of phase and creates an unusual tone. As is, out of phase sounds can be thin, but you can compensate with EQ settings and/or by adjusting the pickup heights.

Use fewer strings. This is not as silly as it sounds. Some guitar-like instruments (like a ukulele) only have four strings, and that simplifies the structure of chords for a lighter aura. Particularly in combination with alternative tunings and use of a capo to drastically shorten the active area of the strings, this can make your guitar sound like a totally different instrument. You don’t have to have four strings either. Lots of guitarists have used five strings, and three strings have been used to great effect too. Don’t rule anything out, and next time you break a string, consider it an opportunity.

Right hand changes (or left hand, if you play left handed). A lot of guitarists get sucked into a routine of strumming or picking and don’t consider the changes they can make with their hand of attack. Dramatically changing the thickness of a plectrum, or losing the plectrum and using the fingers, or changing the hand position… All of these simple ideas and more can not only significantly change the sound of the guitar’s output, but also encourage different ways of playing.

Use your mouth. I’m not suggesting here that you start plucking strings with your teeth, a la Hendrix. What I’m suggesting is that instead of letting your fingers dictate what you’re going to play, you sing your ideas first. The influence of habit on guitar playing, especially with solos, is exceptionally high – and it’s habit that pushes us into a rut. Creating ideas in your head, without the guitar, and working on them vocally until they sound good, should sidestep the mechanical force of habit. Try to put the guitar completely out of mind until your idea is finished. Then pick up the guitar and translate your idea to the fretboard. Don’t be tempted to change anything so it feels more comfortable – that’s exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Stick with what came out of your mouth.
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What's The Difference Between a Cheap Guitar and an Expensive Guitar?

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 9 March 2015 |

It’s a really good question. Why does a budget guitar cost so little, whilst a range-topper, which may well ostensibly look the same, cost so much? Just how different are the two extremes, and is it worth paying, say, ten times the price of a budget guitar, for a high-end piece?


Above: a Fender AVRI ’57 Reissue Stratocaster. High quality woods, hardware, electrics, finish, etc – with precision build and a good setup off the shelf. One of the typical hallmarks of a more expensive guitar is that there’s nothing to think about except the enjoyment of playing. Cheaper guitars tend to come with distracting flaws which take the player’s mind off the playing.

The reasons behind the general trend of price difference between low-end and high-end instruments are pretty simple. Budget guitars cost a lot less to make in terms of raw materials and hardware, they’re built with quicker production methods so the labour hours per unit are fewer, and the cost of the labour per hour is usually less because manufacture is carried out in regions where labour is by nature cheaper. With low-end guitars, post-production processes are heavily skimped on or omitted entirely, meaning instruments can easily be shipped badly adjusted, and with flaws in the finish. With the budget so tight, the priority will inevitably centre around minimising the time and expenditure per unit. That’s not a recipe for reliable quality.

But if the guitar only needs a bit of adjustment, perhaps things aren’t so bad afterall? Well, this has been one of the notions which suppliers of cheap guitars have been happy to perpetuate. But it’s a notion professionals have strongly contested through the years.

SCHWARZ VS OSZTREICHER…

A Chinese Squier Strat up at £129.99 in a
secondhand shop. In very good condition,
but that price seems high. At the budget
end of the market, buyer ignorance can
be higher, and you can't blame sellers
for aiming for the best return. The onus
is on the buyer, so sticking to brand
new products may be the safest option.
Back in the 1980s, noted British guitarist Brinsley Schwarz took vehement exception to comments made by the UK’s pioneer importer of Korean guitars, George Osztreicher, about the then best-selling Marlin Sidewinder (a budget MIK Strat copy). Osztreicher, whose company distributed the Sidewinder in the UK, had extolled the virtues of Korean guitar manufacture to the point where he gave the impression that Far Eastern guitar handcrafting skills were world-leading. In a long response, Schwarz called upon his experience in professional guitar tech work to express the reality of what consumers were getting with a Sidewinder. In particular he focused on the setup, and the guitar as it would reach its owner. He said that the Marlin guitars had numerous limitations, and cited from experience that they were not reaching the customer well set up for playing.

Schwarz explained in a letter to Guitarist magazine: “…The skills are in the setting up, the fret dressing, adjustments and fine tuning.”, then pointed out that all this costs money, and that it was not economically viable to spend such money on budget guitars either from the manufacturer’s end of the chain, or the distribution/retail end. Hence (and this is my summary, not Brinsley's), the customer should expect a relatively low standard of playability, even before taking into account the quality of materials or hardware.

Schwarz concluded: “At best, I’d describe the Marlin Sidewinder as a reasonable basic or beginner’s electric guitar – what you’d expect for just over £100. I’d say the reasons for its success are the price, advertising and marketing, and the immense popularity of the famous guitar of which it’s a direct copy; but it’s certainly not down to the British guitar player’s growing awareness of what constitutes a good guitar.


Above: a Gibson Les Paul Classic almost having the effect of a piece of fine jewellery in terms of its visual appeal. But genuine Gibson guitars are not just superior to cheap copies in aesthetic terms – traditional construction and finishing methods have also made the guitars extremely difficult to convincingly duplicate on the cheap. And it’s not just spec. It’s something you can feel when you pick up and play the instruments.

OTHER PROBLEMS WITH CHEAPIES

Cheap guitars have to compromise in order to hit budget. Here are some of the primary issues you may encounter on a budget guitar, due to the necessary cutting of corners.

  • Poor quality wood typically means an insubstantial tone, light on bass and often ‘hollow’ or ‘empty’ in the important areas of the midrange. Lack of resonance or sustain capability is also a common problem.
  • Pickups are commonly poorly made, underwound and/or loosely wound, meaning a weak signal and unmanageable microphonic squeal at rehearsal/gig volume.
  • Other cheap electrical components can mean nasty, extraneous noise such as scratchy tone and volume controls and/or intermittent behaviour from switches.
  • Grim machineheads, coupled with imprecise build, frequently leads to tuning nightmares. Some instruments won’t hold their tuning through a single track.
  • Necks can be very inconsistent, with uneven fretting and/or improper truss adjustment causing persistent fretboard buzz, string-bend ‘choking’, etc. Frets on cheap guitars can also protrude at the edges of the fretboard, causing discomfort or even injury to the player. And tolerances on neck profile can be less rigid than with more expensive instruments, which may exacerbate problems with discomfort further.
  • Inferior durability – sometimes grossly inferior – can mean a cheap guitar just won’t stand up to heavy use. General tolerances can be slack too, creating anything from severe playing disruptions to maintenance issues. For instance, screw holes may be drilled too wide, causing screws to strip their threads when tightened, and eventually resulting in loose or unstable fittings.



You might think that vintage budget guitars, built long before the days of plywood and Korean/Chinese manufacture, would be immune from cheapie pitfalls. But they often had money saving compromises. The 1960s Gibson Melody Maker above is made of decent wood, but the hardware was cheaper than on higher end models, and the bridge didn’t have adjustable saddles, meaning that whilst the intonation would be okay with typical ‘60s strings, the significantly thinner strings of today (without a wound third) can’t be made to play in tune. You can change the bridge, but then you’re no longer using a vintage original.

PRICE PREMIUMS

Whilst, up to a point, spending more money on a guitar can be justified, it should be recognised that not all price premiums are paying for better quality. Some of the reasons you might be paying more money could include…


  • Brand status. Brand advertising in the guitar world is more uniform than in other areas of commerce, so you don’t so often get the disparity found in other fields where the ‘name brand’ costs two and a half times as much as the ‘own brand’, purely because the ‘name brand’ spends £billions constantly pushing the product into everyone’s face. But that isn’t to say that certain brands of guitar do not have brand premiums attached to them. Usually, price differences are centrally based on product/manufacturing criteria, and marketing hot air is not accounting for the bulk of the cost. But watch what the brands are spending on hype or putting into endorsees’ pockets, and if something looks overpriced, don’t try to convince yourself that you’re wrong.
  • Limited editions. A limited run often has proportionally higher advertising costs per unit, and producing something a little different over a relatively short period has a negative effect on the overall economics of production. Limited editions therefore frequently cost more, but may not be superior in quality to a regular model.
  • Custom builds. Anything built as a one-off to an exact spec is likely to have extra cost attached. A standard production model may be just as good, but less expensive.
  • Aesthetic spectacles. A highly figured wood might make a guitar look better, but it won’t inherently make a guitar sound, feel or play better than plainer looking wood of a good standard. Snazzy finishes, gold hardware, binding/purfling, etc, don’t make for a better musical instrument either. At the very top end of some ranges, you may be paying for aesthetics, which is fine if that’s what you want. But be aware that the money is being spent on visuals, and recognise that a much plainer looking and much cheaper instrument may do just as good a practical job – perhaps better.
  • R&D. Older designs are tried, tested, and a safe bet, but when someone introduces a new design with innovative features, some of the cost might be there to recouperate the research and development investment. This applies to hardware and electrical components as well as the broader design of the guitar, so take a close look at what you’re buying to see if you’re paying an ‘early adopter’s premium’.
  • Snob value. This applies both to secondhand (vintage) and new guitars, and can push up prices to some order without any gain in actual quality. Anything exclusively associated with a star (like ‘signature model’ guitars), or considered to be rare, or to be on trend in influential circles, is highly likely to be exploited for extra cash. Vintage guitars are exceptionally highly prone to snob value premiums, and are in no way guaranteed to outperform newer instruments. Factors such as supply and demand or celebrity endorsement can inflate prices, but they have nothing to do with quality, so if you like to get your money’s worth, stick with high quality, but standard products with a favourable supply/demand ratio.



The Tokai TST60 of the early 1980s (pictured above) was unusual in that it could be bought for about half the price of the USA Fender Stratocaster upon which it was modelled, but was considered by many guitarists at the time to be better. Part of the Tokai saving was achieved through Japanese manufacture (cheaper than American manufacture, and something Fender was forced to meet like for like in order to compete). But the quality was exceptionally high, and because Tokai replicated the old Fender spec, which guitarists generally preferred to the then current Fender spec, the Tokai shook up the market and gained huge momentum. The Tokai wasn't really a budget guitar as we consider them today - it was a professional quality instrument at an unusually low price. But it triggered the launch of one of the most successful and widely recognised budget guitar brands of all time - Squier.
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