Demanding Quality Guitar Gear

(C) 2010 Hank Wallace

You’re playing a gig, in the middle of a song, and all of a sudden you find yourself playing air guitar. It is not your intention to play air guitar, but there you are, with the instrument, amp and all the accessories, looking really cool but making no sound.

Man, that sucks.

So you start wiggling cords, shaking your pedalboard, plugging and unplugging this and that, powering your amp off and back on, just trying to see where the problem is. Drunk chicks in the crowd are giggling, hopefully not at you. You realize that it could be any part of your rig, from your old amplifier or guitar, to any of the pedals on your pedalboard, to the cables or the power supply that runs the whole thing. No fun.

Being an electronics geek since high school, I have helped many musicians with such problems. I have fixed so much cheap guitar gear that I stopped doing it for other people some years ago. There is an endless supply of broken gear to occupy the time of anyone willing to rake in $1 per hour. Endless.

Why is this?

My folks had a Western Electric phone hanging on the wall of their house, a phone installed circa 1957, and it was still working in 2003 when we sold the place. Zero service calls. That phone was what my friends called me on when their guitar gear quit working. Why can’t my guitar gear be that reliable?

The answer, of course, is cost.

Fast, Cheap, Good

Have you heard this old maxim? “Fast, cheap, or good, pick any two.”

Think about it. Go to a hair stylist and tell her, “I need a haircut, but I only have 60 seconds. Get to work.” You might get it fast, and with a discount for it taking so little time, but will you have a good looking haircut?

If you buy a Mercedes off the lot, you will get it fast, and the car will be of good quality, but it will not be cheap.

If you buy a TV off the retail shelf, you are getting it fast, but you can only choose cheap or good, not both.

I planted a garden to grow tax free food. The food is good, and cheap, but I have waited months for it. (Anyone need zucchini?)

This illustrates there is a trade-off between price, quality, and delivery time. We can see this in action so clearly in the music industry.

Take these examples:

  • Guitars of the 1970’s and 1980’s Gibson and Fender were the big boys in electric guitars. But they stumbled during this period, and guitarists got tired of low quality, poorly playing guitars. This bred the vintage guitar market, where players preferred instruments from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The big manufacturers were concentrating on fast and cheap, and not good.The reaction to that mediocrity is the boutique guitar industry, where you cannot necessarily get the instruments cheap, but there are many high quality (good) instruments in stock (fast). Even after Gibson and Fender ‘got religion’ about guitar building, the boutique builders ran so far ahead that the big boys will likely never catch up, in terms of quality.
  • Coated Strings I have started using poly coated strings on my guitars. I always hated the rust that formed on my strings. With the coated strings, they sound good until they break, but they cost about double what an uncoated set sells for. However, they last perhaps a year, which reduces the average cost per set. Another benefit is that the lack of rust causes my frets to last longer. So I am choosing good over cheap, and they are usually in stock at my local music stores.
  • Effects Pedals I have repaired every effects pedal I have ever owned. This got so bad that I dumped the whole lot of them and now use rack mount effects. Commodity pedals are the very incarnation of fast and cheap, not good. The jacks break, the power connectors come loose from the single sided circuit board foils, the circuit boards crack, the pots fail, etc.

    In reaction, there is now a boutique pedal industry, and they concentrate on fast and good, at the expense of cheap. Those guys are making some worthy products for sure, and guitarists are paying real money for them.

    Pedal Spring Picture

    You’ll love this. I have an inexpensive everything-to-everybody guitar pedal that I don’t use any more, so I loaned it to a friend. It has three plastic pedals for selecting patches. He returned it complaining that one of the plastic pedals lost its springiness, making it stick in the down position. I took the back cover off thinking that the spring came unseated, and that’s exactly what happened. I pushed the black leaf spring into place and the pedal started working again. No big deal.

    Then I took a closer look at the spring, a rectangular black piece of bent up spring steel. It looked very familiar. Then it hit me: I pulled open my desk drawer and scrounged through the paper clip bin and sure enough, I found the spring! It is a standard black paper clip. See the picture (click for larger view).

    So some hardware designer was looking for a spring for the pedal, kind of like that spring he found in his desk drawer. He sent a picture of the spring to the Chinese contract manufacturer, and guess what was delivered?

    Unfortunately, no one took the time to design a retainer for the spring! It works loose over time. (But I know where you can get surplus chrome plated paper clip handles by the thousands.)

  • Guitar Cables When my folks bought my first guitar way back when, a Les Paul copy, they bought a coiled cord to go with the teeny transistorized amplifier. That cord lasted about two months, and then I chopped off the molded connectors and installed metal plugs. The cable was an afterthought to my mother. As a teenager with a soldering iron, I did the repair.

    I learned early to stabilize connections with insulating materials, and to take care of my cables with the same care I do my instrument.

    As a result, I prefer ‘good’ cables and avoid ‘cheap’ like the plague. If you are reading this site, you know that we make cables, our ZEROCAP line of products. Having been the victim of involuntary air guitar syndrome, I refuse to use or build a cable that is anything less than excellent. They are in stock for rapid delivery, though they are not the least expensive cables available. Thus, I have chosen ‘fast’ and ‘good’ for the cables that we build. ‘Cheap’ is poison to me.

Unfortunately, determining what is good and not cheap is clouded by marketing hype. But I covered that in another article, The Guitar Gear Hype Machine.

The Wal-Mart Effect

I have witnessed the decay of the retail industry in the USA. Don’t expect me to start whining about the loss of manufacturing jobs, but I will make some points about the negative effect that the Wal-Mart mentality has had on guitar gear.

“What? The Wal-Mart mentality has affected guitar gear?” You bet. The same guys who are buying $10 cables for their $2000 Les Pauls are also demanding $50 gas grills at Wal-Mart for their next barbecue. Grills that last two seasons.

Today, it is rare to find a music store that stocks anything more than the most basic instruments, at the lowest prices. Mom is not going to pop for a new boutique instrument for her 16-year old star, but she will easily drop $200 for a Squier Strat, and $10 for a cheap cable.

This affects the price and quality of everything in the shop and on the market. If the Chinese can deliver a cheap cable that lasts a year, that’s what will be sold. Welcome to Wal-Mart, USA.

Green Considerations

In recent years, the Europeans and Asians have enacted laws to mandate recycling of electronic devices, such as cell phones. Apparently, there were millions of cell phones being dumped in landfills annually. Why?

Because the Chinese and their American and European handlers demanded ‘cheap’ and ‘fast’, and totally ignored ‘good’. Imagine having a cell phone that lasted from 1957 to 2003! My folks’ phone did. How old is your cell phone? If it’s more than 2 years old, it is the exception.

In fact, I received a text message yesterday from my service provider telling me I qualify for a new phone of any type with a new 2 year service agreement. They are encouraging me to dump my cell phone in the trash.

Can you see that concentrating on ‘good’ rather than ‘cheap’ is the green option? Filling garbage dumps with cheap product is plain stupid.

I recently hauled a defective dishwasher to the dump. Two years old it was. Just below the Western Electric phone in the kitchen of my folks’ house was a dishwasher that lasted from 1967 to 2003. Imagine if every household had appliances that lasted 36 years.

Imagine if your guitar cable lasted that long!

Relationships Based on Quality

It’s obvious that I should want quality gear in my rig. Air guitar sucks. But it goes further than that.

Understand that quality products are produced by quality people. I don’t work with the people I work with for the money. I work with them because they produce a quality product, and they are proud of it. It is a horror to them to have a product fail in the field. It is a joy to them to hear from a customer who says, “I bought one of these tuners for my guitar 5 years ago, and I just bought another one for my new guitar.”

It’s also a joy to hear, “Your band sounds great! Can you play next week?”

That’s success.

I encourage you to concentrate on ‘good’, not just in guitar gear purchases, but in every area of life.

Our landfills will love you.