August 2020 – Even More Whazzup at CRAVE Guitars

posted in: News, Observations, Opinion | 0

Prelude

GREETINGS GREAT GUITAR people and welcome back to some ‘even more whazzup at CRAVE Guitars’, herein the third and final part of the triptych of guitar‑related ‘current affairs’ articles. You may be pleased to know that this one is a wee bit shorter than usual. You might well conclude that I pad out these monologues because I revel in writing voluble blurb for the sake of it. If there isn’t much to say, I won’t… or will I?

For the record, at the time of writing, current COVID‑19 statistics indicate that there are now over 25 million confirmed cases and 843,000 deaths recorded globally and still rising. These are scary and truly staggering statistics for a health pandemic during the modern era. Like every other responsible adult, CRAVE Guitars is not only weary of the enforced constraints of living through coronageddon but also aghast at the sheer arrogant stupidity of selfish covidiots who ignore the threat and risk prolonging the danger for the rest of us. GGggrrrr. Right, got that out of my system, now back to business.

While I cannot promise oodles of delightful entertainment, I can at least deliver on what I said that I would do two months ago which is to bring you all bang up‑to‑date with what else has been happening down here in the south west of the UK during 2020. As a rapid recap, the first slice of this recent 3-parter was to cover last year’s (2019) purchases in some detail, the second was to cover the on‑going vintage guitar repatriation project, and this third part is basically a ‘what’s new in at CRAVE Guitars’ in 2020 so far. So, getting right to the point, what shiny new old stuff has come CRAVE Guitars’ way?

New in at CRAVE Guitars in 2020, so far

Well, for starters, it has been a very quiet time for guitars recently. This is primarily because a) I’m trying futilely to save funds for the much‑vaunted but little‑actioned cellar conversion, and b) actually finding the 5 guitar Rs – the right instruments at the right time in the right place in the right condition at the right price. Then there is the COVID‑19 situation triggering the worst recession in living memory going on in the background, which is affecting the fundamental economics of supply and demand.

CRAVE Amps has been equally quiet but more eventful than last year. While there has been only one purchase, it is a doozy and one I’ve been after for a couple of years. Amps take up a lot of space and demand a lot of attention, as well as resources, so buying a whole bunch of them isn’t exactly a high‑priority large‑scale exercise.

It is CRAVE Effects where I’ve been most active this year; I’ve been a very busy boy (for me). Effect pedals have a number of advantages; they generally require less capital outlay per item (but not always!) and most take a lot less space to accommodate. There also seems to be a plethora of choice (unlike guitars at the moment). Under current circumstances, and with another deep economic downturn looming, effect pedals have proved less financially risky all round, which is a good thing as funds are very limited. Having said that, a couple of these pedals cost nearly as much (or more!) than an ‘affordable vintage’ guitar, so perhaps I need to have a rethink. Effect pedals also make a great complement to the guitars and amps and they can be great fun to amass. So… here is the shortlist of what has actually come this way in the last 8 months.

CRAVE Guitars (2)

  • 1984 Gibson Flying V Designer Series
  • 1979 Peavey T-60

CRAVE Amps (1)

  • 1973 Fender Princeton Reverb

CRAVE Effects (11)

  • 1986 BOSS DD‑2 Digital Delay
  • 1984 BOSS DM‑3 Delay
  • 1980 Electro‑Harmonix Bad Stone Phase Shifter
  • 1981 Electro‑Harmonix EH4600 Small Clone Mini‑Chorus
  • 1982 Ibanez CP9 Compressor/Limiter
  • 1981 Ibanez PT‑909 Phase Tone
  • 1978 MXR Analog Delay
  • 1982 MXR Micro Flanger
  • 1982 MXR Phase 100
  • 1982 MXR Stereo Chorus
  • 1976 Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz

Plus 3 replacements for existing pedals:

  • 1982 BOSS DM-2 Delay
  • 1975 MXR Phase 90
  • 1980 MXR Dyna Comp (compressor)

The whys and wherefores

Just sharing a list of gear doesn’t give any sense about the rationale behind searching them out or how they fit into the overall CRAVE Guitars strategy. Although unforeseen opportunities cannot be ignored, there is generally some rhyme and reason to purchasing decisions. In order to give some insight to what the heck I’m doing, it’s worth a little bit of exposition in each case.

1984 Gibson Flying V Designer Series – Believe it or not, up to now I didn’t have a ‘normal’ Flying V. I was actually looking for a vintage Gibson Explorer E2 and got within a hair’s breadth of getting hold of a very nice example but sadly it proved ultimately unsuccessful. This was very disappointing, as it would have been a perfect partner for my groovy Flying V2. Anyway, I’d been holding off on a couple of other vintage guitars while looking into the E2, which were quite tempting. Then I came across this very nice example of a cool and rare all‑original Flying V Designer Series in pinstriped ivory. It was happily residing in restful retirement in sunny Florida, USA, so I took it upon myself to do a ‘Cocoon’ on it and transport it over to a chilly and soggy UK. Basically, I didn’t want to lose out on another guitar, so I bit the bullet and jumped in (darn that FOMO!). The exchange rate, customs duty, VAT and fees made it a highly unprofitable transaction but to heck with it. At least the relaxation in CITES regulations didn’t prevent the rosewood fingerboard from flying (sic!) my way. As it turned out, I think I was lucky to grab it when I did. Thankfully, I am not driven by monetary gain, as I’ll probably never get the full cost back, so I’ll just hang onto it and enjoy it, which is what CRAVE Guitars is all about. Original Flying Vs from the 1960s and now even the 1970s are getting incredibly expensive. I’m sure it won’t be long before the evil profit‑motivated collectorati get their heads around the up‑to‑now not very popular 1980s Flying Vs. Personally, I like them and that’s plenty good enough for me.

1984 Gibson Flying V Designer Series

1979 Peavey T-60 – I’d been interested in the Peavey T‑60 for a while, as it’s a bit of an underground underdog, which often piques my curiosity. The T‑60 was Peavey’s first venture into electric solid body guitars, so it really is the first of its kind. The people who have owned them tend to rave about them but they don’t tend to come anywhere near the top of the list for collectors (a good thing too, if you ask me). I thought I’d satisfy my inquisitiveness and try one out for myself. They are still relatively good value for a vintage guitar, especially when compared to the aforementioned Flying V for instance! The T‑60 is bit of a heavy beast at just under 10lbs (4.4kg), so that particular reputation is on the button but… remember that weight was seen as a ‘good thing’ at the time. It has very 1970s style with its slightly ungainly outline and natural ash finish. On close inspection, it is quite intriguing with its subtle carved top and now‑ever‑so‑trendy thin but tough satin finish. The T‑60’s electrics are unique in that the tone controls blend from single coil to humbucker, a feature that I think remains unique to this day. In addition, a small phase switch adds further flexibility when both pickups are in use, making the T‑60 a very versatile and underrated instrument. It may seem an odd choice for a CRAVE Guitar but, to me, it makes perfect sense – cool, rare, American, vintage and electric. Nuff said.

1979 Peavey T-60

1973 Fender Princeton Reverb – I have been using American valve amps for years and the Fender Princeton Reverb has been top of the ‘wanted’ list for a quite a while. I was fortunate enough to find one in the same county, so off I trundled just before the coronavirus lockdown and brought her home with me. It was just what I was after, a 1973 ‘silverface’ Princeton Reverb in fantastic condition. I am not wealthy or pedantic enough to aspire to a ‘blackface’ or ‘tweed’ Princeton, so this will do very nicely thank you. It is still hand‑wired and true to its origins. My vintage Fender Champ and Vibro Champ have been reliable little home workhorse amps and my Music Man 210 ‘sixty five’ can deliver big noise when needed but I was pining for some valve driven spring reverb in a small package and this is just the ticket. I had been using a BOSS RV‑2 Digital Reverb with the Champs but this brings all the basics together in one neat solution. It has been modified to a 240V UK mains power supply, a very practical mod, which is fine by me. I have to say that it sounds awesome for its diminutive size. The valve tremolo is not as pronounced as other Fender amps but apparently that is quite normal and I can live with it. I am now looking for a vintage ‘silverface’ Fender Deluxe Reverb to compare the Princeton’s 10” speaker with the Deluxe’s 12”. Is that getting greedy?

1973 Fender Princeton Reverb

1986 BOSS DD‑2 Digital Delay – You may already know that I am a huge fan of analogue solid state echo pedals. However, the limited delay time usually tops out at c.300ms and the tails can get a bit mushy. Sometimes, longer delays and crisp clarity are called for. The DD‑2 was Boss’ first digital pedal and the first compact digital delay. It is one of the few digital effects worth having that appeared before my vintage cut‑off year of 1989. Last year, I got hold of a 1980s BOSS RV‑2 Digital Reverb and they go well together, so here they are, now part of the CRAVE Effects family. If nothing else, it shows that I’m not a complete digital‑phobe.

1986 BOSS DD 2 Digital Delay

1984 BOSS DM‑3 Delay – Going back to analogue delays after my digital excursion (see above), the DM‑3 fits that bill. It is remarkably similar to the outgoing DM‑2. The internal circuit was tweaked to improve fidelity and reduce noise but there really isn’t that much between them. The only visible difference is the screen printing and the unique knobs used on this model. Other than that, it is business as usual and it does sound very similar to its predecessor. So, an interesting variation on the classic DM‑2. The DM‑3 was the last analogue delay pedal made by BOSS until they released the DM‑2 Waza Craft in the 2010s.

1984 BOSS DM 3 Delay
[Image: 1984 BOSS DM 3 Delay]

1980 Electro‑Harmonix Bad Stone Phase Shifter – The EHX Bad Stone was another pedal that I had back in the 1970s, so I have a soft spot for it. I had retained a Small Stone but the Bad Stone obviously ran away with a better guitarist than me. So, it was a case of reuniting with an old friend and feeling that comfort that comes with rose‑tinted familiarity. It sounds great, just like it did back in the day. All’s well that ends well. Good EHX Bad Stones are getting surprisingly expensive on the vintage effect market. Welcome home, mate.

1980 Electro Harmonix Bad Stone Phase Shifter

1981 Electro‑Harmonix EH4600 Small Clone Mini‑Chorus – Now here is another big‑time elite (a.k.a. expensive) classic pedal. I was never really into chorus pedals when I was younger, so this was a new one for me. I preferred my faithful trio of EHX pedals, the Big Muff Pi (fuzz), Electric Mistress (flanger) and Deluxe Memory Man (echo). The Small Clone didn’t really achieve reverential status until Kurt Cobain used it to great effect (sic!) in Nirvana’s revolutionary grunge exploits. Yes it is good for what it is but is its hallowed status truly warranted? I guess so if you want to imitate the past but there are many other competent chorus pedals out there. Original vintage Small Clones seem to be very scarce and when they do come up they are pricey and/or in a bit of a state, so I think I was fortunate to grab this one.

1981 Electro Harmonix EH4600 Small Clone Mini Chorus

1982 Ibanez CP9 Compressor/Limiter – Compressor pedals are strange things. They aren’t in‑your‑face effects that will immediately blow you away. They add a glossy sheen to playing that is very effective but also quite subtle. They give a studio produced feel to playing dynamics when used properly. Compact pedals are very simple compared to their studio counterparts and a bit of experimentation is needed to hit the ‘sweet spot’. Good compressor pedals are probably best left on full‑time and it’s only when they are switched off that you realise what magic they have been weaving. The ‘9’ series Ibanez CP9 was made famous by David Gilmour, so everyone then jumped on the CP9 bandwagon in a vain attempt to sound like him. Probably a pedal for the guitarist who doesn’t have one and didn’t know they needed one. The CP9 is still very good value on the used vintage market despite the strong artist association.

1982 Ibanez CP9 Compressor/Limiter

1981 Ibanez PT‑909 Phase Tone – Alongside the iconic Ibanez TS‑808 Tube Screamer, there were a whole range of other ‘0’ series pedals sporting the familiar square footswitch. The PT‑909 is one of those ‘other ones’. Ibanez got through a huge number of phase pedal models in a short period of time and this is just one in that long line. It’s a phase pedal and it sounds like most other phase pedals, which pretty much says it all. Incidentally, I actually have more phase pedals than any other type of effect. I guess I’m a bit jaded or perhaps it’s just a phase (sic!) I’m going through. The PT‑909 does its job well but it doesn’t necessarily stand out from the crowd (more below). It is, though, better sounding, more ergonomic and sturdier than the previous ‘narrow box’ PT‑909. Another vintage stomp box that remains reasonably priced at the moment.

1981 Ibanez PT 909 Phase Tone

1978 MXR Analog Delay – Right, now we’re really talking. The 3rd echo pedal in this catch‑up and the 2nd analogue one. The now‑vintage Electro‑Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man is my all‑time favourite delay pedal and I’ve had mine since new, so there is a lofty pedestal with which to compare. The Japanese BOSS and Ibanez delay pedals are all very well but there is something about good American delay effects that sets them apart. The MXR Analog Delay is a large, unwieldy, mains powered box with just 3 controls and, boy, does it do a grand job? I really, really respect this analogue delay for its warm, lush repeats. OK, so the delay tops out at the typical c.300ms but when it sounds this good, does it really matter? Well, sometimes, to be honest. The enclosure paintwork is a little scuffed here and there but that’s nothing, as it is the sonic signature that excels. Does it beat the EHX? No, not quite but it really is a marvellous effect. The MXR Analog Delay is much heard on recordings but for some reason, it isn’t much talked about. They are quite scarce, so they tend to be quite pricey. However, in my humble view, they’re definitely worth it. Don’t delay… or, on second thoughts, do.

1978 MXR Analog Delay

1982 MXR Micro Flanger – Once again, I find the American pedals beat the Japanese, even though the latter make some very good effects and sold them very successfully. I can’t be objective as to why I feel that way, so perhaps it is just a subjective bias. This rather demure looking MXR Micro Flanger is one is one of the later ones with LED status light and DC power input, so it is immediately more convenient than the older ones. It also sounds great. It isn’t up there with my favourite flanger, the Electro‑Harmonix Electric Mistress but it is very creditable. I’m now on the lookout for a large box, mains powered MXR Flanger to see what it can do that the Micro Flanger can’t. I think it may improve on it by a small margin and perhaps challenge the EHX, let’s see. Watch this space.

1982 MXR Micro Flanger

1982 MXR Phase 100 – I’m already a lucky owner of a vintage ‘script’ MXR Phase 45 and the iconic Phase 90. One of those aforementioned unforeseen opportunities came up to get my grubby hands on a large box Phase 100, so here it is. This pedal is unique in the MXR Innovations canon in having this size/shape of enclosure, somewhere between the familiar ‘micro’ boxes and the larger mains powered big boxes. I haven’t had a Phase 100 before and it really was an epiphany for me; this thing sounds awesome. Given that I’m a bit blasé about phasers, using that adjective is saying something. It has a 4‑way preset switch and two rotary controls so, compared to its smaller single‑knob peers, it is very flexible. Perhaps it’s the 6‑stage phasing that raises it above its competition. Whatever fairy dust MXR sprinkled on its innards, it worked and I wasn’t really prepared for the engaging sounds it exudes. It is also in fantastic original condition, which is icing on a tasty cake. The Phase 100 has quickly become my favourite vintage phaser. Sorry Bad Stone, your post has been pipped.

1982 MXR Phase 100

1982 MXR Stereo Chorus – Around the same time that I came across the MXR Analog Delay, I had the opportunity to get this enhanced version of the MXR Micro Chorus (which, to be honest, was the one that I was actually looking for and still don’t have). Like the Analog Delay, the Stereo Chorus is a large, bulky, mains powered behemoth with three controls. Like phasers, I can’t put my hand on my heart and assert that the chorus effect is the bee’s knees but it is certainly very creditable. Comparing this to the Small Clone revealed the answer to my previous question about whether the EHX pedal deserves its post in chorus royalty. Spoiler warning: not really. This one is in exceptionally clean condition and actually quite a bargain as well. Result!

1982 MXR Stereo Chorus

1976 Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz – Okey dokey, now we’re getting serious again. Last year, I ventured out of safe territory and acquired two iconic (and very expensive) vintage effect pedals, a 1969 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and 1981 Ibanez TS‑808 Tube Screamer Pro. The Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz is another of those exclusive vintage pedals, which is a little surprising given its roots in cheap British effects of the 1970s. It also came under the banner of the British Colorsound brand. I had a Tone Bender back in the day and this was an interesting reintroduction, albeit just a bit (!!!) pricier nowadays. This version of the Tone Bender is based largely on the Electro‑Harmonix Big Muff Pi, so if you’re familiar with that, you know you’re in the right ballpark, tone wise. Plenty of fuzzy goodness. This one is in very good all‑original condition and fuzzes, fizzes and froths in all the right ways. I adore great vintage fuzz pedals. A classic, for sure, but why SO expensive? Really.Hhhhh’jdf

1976 Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz

I won’t go into the three replacement pedals here, suffice to say that they were all bought to improve marginally on the ones I had, which can now move on to good homes elsewhere. The image below is of the new replacements (from left to right), 1982 BOSS DM-2 Delay, 1975 MXR Phase 90 and 1980 MXR Dyna Comp (compressor). All very cool effects.

Other 2020 Pedals

One good question might be, how do these purchases all tie together? Well, believe it or not, there is an inherent coherency to the plan. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (as said by Polonius in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’).

The two new old guitars integrate seamlessly into the other vintage guitars in the family. Similarly, the amp is very complementary to my other vintage amps and, although I don’t have many, that’s plenty enough… for now. The effects fall into three main camps, the Japanese BOSS and Ibanez range, the American Electro‑Harmonix and MXR lines, plus the odd one or two from Europe or other manufacturers. They generally all derive from the 1960s to the 1980s so, once again, job done.

Full features on both these guitars, amp and effects will appear on the CRAVE Guitars web site in due course (see more below).

Help Needed

Apologies, this is the 3rd article in a row where I’ve made this earnest plea. A few of the effect pedals above have minor electrical issues like extraneous noise, non‑working DC or battery input, LED faults, etc. If there is someone out there with the requisite skillset to help maintain these vintage effects as well as the guitars and amps, and who is local to SE Cornwall in the UK, I would be interested in exploring mutually beneficial opportunities. Is there anyone out there attracted to the proposition? If there is, please contact me at the e-mail address at the bottom of every page on the website. Talking of which…

CRAVE Guitars Web Site

I will probably cover this in more detail in coming articles but I thought that this might be a good place to mention it. For over 2½ years, the CRAVE Guitars’ web site remained largely static and unchanged. This was largely due to more pressing personal circumstances, as it takes a lot of time to do it properly. I have, at long last, finally started the desperately‑needed updates to the web site. Overall, it won’t look much different and its structure remains the same, it’s the content that matters.

CRAVE Guitars – Web Site

So far, the underlying technology has been brought right up‑to‑date and many behind‑the‑scenes components have been made current. It is actually quite a fundamental change to the mechanics, which aren’t immediately apparent when viewing the pages – it’s a bit like a car’s engine rebuild hidden away under the bonnet (a.k.a. hood for American readers).

I have also started the process of introducing a whole raft of new content. Again, at the moment, it isn’t immediately obvious because I’m starting off by replacing what is already there before moving onto adding brand new material.

To give you an idea, there are over 120 existing pages and more than 70 monthly articles. There are 60+ incumbent guitar feature pages to revamp and 15 new guitar feature pages to add. There are only 2 amps to add, then there are 30+ effect pages to overhaul and 26 new effect pages to add. Then there are all the galleries, new features on brands and model histories to add. The resources pages need to be completely re‑worked as they are completely out of date, often irrelevant and error‑prone. Even the main CRAVE Guitars logo has been very subtly refined.

Also, the bass guitars have gone from the site, as have the newer guitars that don’t (yet) qualify as vintage. This makes the material a bit more focused than it was. I hope to re‑introduce CRAVE Basses in the future but it’s not an immediate priority.

In coming weeks and months, I hope to make many fundamental changes. Well over 1,000 new photographs have been taken and many dozens of new features have been written. It is a colossal task and one that I’ve been actively prevaricating (?!) for way too long. Now that I’ve started, I will actually relish rejuvenating the site and making it a lot more relevant, and hopefully a respected resource for people to enjoy. There is so much to do that it will probably take until the end of the year before the project is completed (and then the on‑going updates and maintenance). By the time the main job is done, every single page and post will have been updated in some way or other. Some pages have already been finished and have gone live. I will work through the immense backlog as quickly as I can.

If anyone has any positive and constructive thoughts or ideas about what you’d like to see on the web site, let me know and I’ll give it serious consideration. Also, some typos and errors will undoubtedly creep in, so I would appreciate being informed of any corrections and clarifications to help improve the quality of the narrative.

Tailpiece

There isn’t a lot of time to go now until the end of a thoroughly miserable and depressing 2020. There also isn’t much time to take action to acquire some of those elusive items that were on last year’s ‘most wanted’ list. I think I’m going to fail big time on the guitars but I’m very content with how other things are going. I realise how fortunate I am to have all these great vintage guitars, amps and effects, so I’m not going to complain about my lot… much. Anyhow, the quest continues and it’s time to get back to the graft!

Who knows what I’ll be pontificating about for the next article but I’m sure I’ll come up with something. In the meantime, I will be in splendid misanthropic solitude and voluntary seclusion to work on the web site and play vintage guitars. Sounds good to me. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “Why are so many people so determined to be so stupid?”

© 2020 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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January 2018 – The State Of The Village

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Welcome to 2018, albeit a tad belated. The previous CRAVE Guitars article (December 2017) was an introspective look back at 2017 and a tentative look forward to 2018. That article looked only at CRAVE Guitars’ personal experiences, apprehensions and aspirations. What it didn’t do was to look more broadly at the music industry landscape and to make some sort of sense of what’s going on out there in the global guitar village, hence the somewhat intentionally ambiguous title of this month’s article. The timing also coincides with the U.S. President’s annual State of the Union Address, so there is some rhyme to the reason. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my assessment (quite the contrary in fact), as it is purely a personal view of the world from the margins of the sector.

Looking across the whole industry, it is in a good enough state considering the severe difficulties experienced by just about every sector of the global economy over the last decade. Business has been, is now, and will remain very challenging and it will only get harder for manufacturers to achieve competitive advantage in rapidly changing markets. Things are looking positive though; maybe not everywhere but there are certainly areas of buoyancy and there is reason for optimism, generally. Yes, there are always ups and downs and it is often a case that firms need to be adapting continuously in order to stay current and relevant. There have been fundamental, structural changes taking place in the way people experience music and the likelihood is that those changes will not only continue but also accelerate as technology enables new and better ways to get into the groove. Generally, the industry is both driving innovation and meeting the needs of musicians, which is a good sign for manufacturers, distributors and consumers.

Music is the law

The thing that I keep being reminded of is that people are still actively making music and people are still listening to music; something that I believe is a universal constant that will not change. I have covered the science of music in previous articles and, as music is subject to the physical laws of the universe, it is essentially necessary for the continuation of the human condition. How and where people experience music changes but the basic (and I believe, elemental) human need for music ensures that demand will be sustained, although I hesitate to use the word ‘forever’.

“Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life” Keith Richards (1943-)

“Music is the universal language of mankind” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807‑1882)

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe” Laozi (6th Century BCE)

The challenge for the industry in the developed world is that music, as an artistic and cultural pursuit, is discretionary and people’s ability to access music is a matter of individual choice, subject to inevitable economic constraints and lifestyle priorities. Fortunately, at least in the western countries, personal freedoms mean that music is an integral and essential part of most people’s lives. Furthermore, most post‑industrial societies recognise the value of art and culture to the well‑being of its citizens as well as being a principal contributor to the national economy – music earns a great deal of money and thereby raises a considerable amount in taxation.

An appreciation of this ‘macro’ context is important in order to evaluate what is happening on the ground at the ‘micro’ level.

Shiny, shiny new gear

That’s the ‘big picture’ set out. Now let’s start with what’s happening with new gear out there. At the time of writing, Winter NAMM 2018 in Anaheim, California has just ended and there is plenty to be excited about. NAMM is the trade show where the major manufacturers in the business sport their wares for the coming year.

Although my primary focus and main interest is with vintage guitars, as well as vintage analogue effect pedals and vintage valve amps, it may surprise to you to know that I still have a keen interest in modern gear as well. OK, so I don’t spend my meagre lucre on new musical equipment any longer but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate exciting, shiny new‑fangled stuff. Like most eager G.A.S.-obsessed guitarists (you know who you are and what that acronym stands for), I am not alone in that I have the frequent pangs of lust for whizzy modern gear. I may not have the intimate knowledge of new equipment that others do, so my comments are therefore largely general and observational.

First off, the quality of equipment coming onto the market these days is extremely high and many leagues ahead of the sub‑par stuff that was available in most guitar shops when I was young, eager and willing. For people who are starting the journey of guitar discovery, it is very easy to buy a very high standard of instrument these days, even on a tight budget. The baseline is that there are very few poor guitars in today’s market. That doesn’t mean that poor examples don’t exist, of course they do. Sometimes, though, consumers can be critical of what is on offer, although this may be result of not being clear about what they need and then not making informed choices of gear. This mismatch may cause as much disappointment as bad gear per se. I regularly hear the “piece of cr*p” argument levelled at the tools of our trade and I feel that this is possibly more to do with assertive conceit to cover up a poor experience in the first place, rather than an objective evaluation of the kit itself.

Part of the reason for the bar continually being raised is the influx of mass‑produced equipment from the Far East, particularly the growth in products from China. Chinese output is in turn exerting pressure on other Pacific Rim producers, such as Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia to up their game in the face of stiff Asian competition. Japan has suffered economically for many years and is now facing many of the commercial squeezes that America faced several decades ago, including increasing labour, regulatory and raw material costs and increasing inability to compete on price in a saturated global market. Let’s face it, there are only so many guitars that can be sold, so if there is over‑production, this places downward pressure on costs and therefore effectively capping retail prices. Improved quality and low prices are good for the consumer but cause many headaches for many manufacturers trying to earn a living.

As a result of global trading arrangements, established American brands like Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, PRS and Danelectro will continue to take advantage of offshore production in order to compete at the lower‑cost, higher‑volume end of the market.

The over-supply of generic products at the budget end of the market does, however, open up all sorts of opportunities for the niche guitar makers who are small, agile and able to meet individual customers’ needs for something different. The boom in independent luthiers from all over the globe is a healthy phenomenon of the early 21st century. These custom builders are producing innovative and appealing guitars like never before. There are way too many small‑scale builders to mention but just take a look and you’ll discover a plethora of superb bespoke equipment just waiting to be tailored to your individual requirements. There is even a guitar show specifically showcasing small luthiers – the annual Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, Germany.

The losers in this more volatile and fickle arena tend to be the mid‑sized producers of classic instruments who are constrained by their history and a certain amount of preconceived public expectation.

Gibson, in particular, has had a number of difficulties over recent years. Strategically, they are caught between a rock and a hard place with their traditional customer base being eroded by competition while not being able to create a loyal new following. The introduction of the Modern Double Cut is evidence of how Gibson continues to split opinion (NB. for what it’s worth, I like them). It may seem that Gibson doesn’t know where it is going. I would argue, though, that whatever direction it goes, it is likely to struggle, so I don’t envy the company executives who have very difficult jobs at the moment. Gibson’s custom shop is producing excellent wares but the size of that niche is limited to a relatively few well‑off discerning customers. It is Gibson’s Memphis division though, responsible for its semi‑acoustic products, that is a shining light. The Memphis plant is producing some exciting, beautifully made instruments in relatively low numbers. If they can replicate the success and reputation of their Memphis division in other areas, they may well experience a resurgence in fortunes. In the meantime, Gibson’s absence from U.S. industry trade show NAMM 2018 in favour of CES may be symptomatic of their problems. Sadly, the words ‘shoot’ and ‘foot’ spring to mind.

Conversely, Fender seems to have fared better in keeping things afloat. They have done this by rejuvenating some of their lesser known instruments (e.g. the updated offset Duo‑Sonic and Mustang, as well as the semi-acoustic Coronado) to a customer base that wasn’t generally aware of the originals. The Jaguar and Jazzmaster are also proving to be popular and very cool, especially with alternative and indie musicians. Fender is also tweaking its classics, the Strat and Tele. Fender’s, current ranges have an exciting freshness at keen price points that are attracting young players wanting to differentiate themselves from the old guard. Fender also has an advantage in material sourcing, as they generally use woods that are less exotic and therefore more available and sustainable. Compared with Gibson, Fender also has a highly lucrative amp and bass guitar business, both of which provide industry standard products. The Gretsch brand (part of the Fender empire) is also producing some very fine instruments across its key lines.

Fender therefore seems to have the upper hand of the ‘big two’ at the moment, although this could change easily and rapidly. Like Gibson, Fender could do with some credible, long‑standing all‑new guitar and bass designs to reinforce their reputation and ensure their long-term prosperity.

When this article was published, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations prohibiting, or at least severely limiting, the international trade in rosewood will have been in place for a whole year. The full long‑term impact of this has still to be felt. However, most guitar makers are urgently seeking viable alternatives – easier said than done. Ebony is likely to be next and who can predict what will follow after that (mahogany?). The import burden imposed by CITES has pretty much stopped CRAVE Guitars from purchasing instruments containing rosewood from outside the EU. As if importing from North America wasn’t bad enough (including dire currency exchange rates), Brexit will probably impose further barriers to buying products from the near continent. These burdensome trading restrictions are definitely not good for small enterprises like CRAVE Guitars.

Will online selling result in the disappearance of physical off‑high street guitar shops? Internet sellers will try to gain market share and brick‑built emporiums carrying expensive display stock will struggle in the same way as many other retailers grappling with the same conundrum. However, as with other parts of the retail sector, it will probably result in a mix of retail and online channels providing customers with choice about the way they buy their gear.

I always advocate actually playing something before buying but it doesn’t always suit everyone and sometimes it just isn’t possible. As an example, some of the guitars in CRAVE Guitars’ ‘collection’ simply couldn’t be sourced locally and many had to be acquired over the Internet, usually in eBay or Reverb, many from across the Atlantic or in Europe. There is obviously a risk in doing so but these can be mitigated to a degree by doing one’s homework. Diligence should always rule over desire when making unseen purchases. Even so, I have made many costly mistakes but on the whole, one develops a nous for buying guitars this way, especially when there is no alternative option.

The fad for ‘modding’ guitars is as strong as ever with many 3rd party after‑market companies producing just about anything you could ever want for your guitar, effect pedal or amp. In particular, the evolution of quality after‑market pickup manufacturers seems to have followed the growth of luthiers, focusing on quality, tone, character and individuality. Small changes can have a significant improvement to an otherwise bland, generic instrument (but realise that it may devalue a vintage piece of equipment).

Specialisation and differentiation is increasing in the accessories market as well, which includes anything from strings, leads, picks, pedalboards, cases, straps, merchandise, and just about anything else you can think of. In a similar vein, front‑of‑house concert tech such as mixing, PAs, monitoring and lighting are all evolving very rapidly.

One downside of a market flooded with cheap imported product is the resurgence of copies, knock‑offs and fakes affecting both old and new guitars. Long gone are the days of winnable ‘lawsuit’ cases, so replicas are rife. The topic of 1970s and 1980s ‘lawsuit’ cases against Japanese copies is fascinating (not for this article though). Many cheap lookalikes sail close to infringing trademark violations.

As the value of rare vintage gear rockets, there is a temptation to capitalise on reproductions that are so well done that even experts can be fooled. There have always been fakes of course but the stakes seem to be so much higher now. The origin of fakes seems to be from countries over which there is little or no jurisdiction, therefore bringing those accountable to justice is nigh on impossible. Few companies have the resources to track the forgers down, enforce their rights and drive them out of business. Even if they are successful, it is only a temporary sticking plaster, as the culprits simply disappear underground, only to pop up again somewhere else with an alternative ruse to rid the unwary honest of their cash. Beware!

Another massive growth trend over the last few years is in boutique effects. This is, I believe a reaction to the trend towards multi-effects and digital modelling products where major companies crammed so much versatility and functionality into these boxes that it became difficult to make music without embarking on an engineering degree. The back‑to‑basics approach of the small specialist effect makers has mirrored the boutique guitar and pickup makers. Their tactic was to take the best of the past and bring it up to date without falling into the trap of over‑cramming. The quality is excellent and the only problem for the consumer is possibly the abundance of choice (and sometimes price). Great examples from 2017 include pedals from Keeley, Electro‑Harmonix, Orange, Digitech, Way Huge and Earthquaker Devices. If you want full-featured effects, well you can have that too if you want.

One unforeseen benefit to the explosion of stomp boxes is that it has stimulated a boom in power supplies and clever pedalboard switching systems. Following the established GigRig (now in G2 form), Japanese giant Boss has jumped on the bandwagon with their highly successful MS-3. There is a negative to complexity in that the level of tinkering needed to find THAT killer tone is considerable and it can actually distract us guitarists from actually playing guitar! Not a good thing in my view.

Another idea spun off from effects is for crossover tech such as ‘amps in a pedal’, frequently used in a modern amp’s effects loop to push an amp’s power stage by bypassing the amplifier’s pre‑amp. These intriguing boxes of tricks are just emerging onto the market – expect them to be popular in 2018.

Amp manufactures, like luthiers and effect builders have followed a similar track by diversifying and honing in on specifically what 21st century musicians’ need. Live gigging has changed massively and so has the business that supplies it. Apart from arena bands, the crowded backline of insanely powerful amps and stacked speaker cabs has pretty much gone by the wayside. There is still a place for muscle amps but tone quality has largely replaced volume quantity in the modern gigging environment. The move towards ultra-high quality and often low output boutique valve amps (e.g. Two Rock, 633, Bad Cat) and cute/cool ‘lunchbox’ amps has been particularly notable, with many established amp manufacturers following suit at the next level down (e.g. Victory, PRS, EVH). The choice of amps for the budget conscious is impressive with some great options (e.g. Fender, Vox, Orange, Blackstar, BOSS, Yamaha). The change is revolutionary and on‑going. It will be fascinating to see where it leads. Archaic valves still seem to be beguiling the affection of serious musicians, so we won’t see the imminent end of those pretty glowing glass vacuum tubes just yet. It may well happen, just not soon.

All in all, gear‑wise, it’s been a fascinating 2017 with lots of exciting new product hitting the scene. The growth in small‑scale companies suggests that a shakeout may occur at some point, with larger corporates buying out smaller entrepreneurial companies. The big companies do this to acquire successful new products without having to do all the R&D and testing and the risks that go with it. This process of rationalising the supply chain is quite common in post-recessionary periods of economic growth, so expect some announcements of mergers and acquisitions. The flood of imports from Asia is likely to increase further in 2018 and will continue for the foreseeable future, echoing the massive growth of Japanese brands in the 1970s and 1980s. As long as the standards are good and the prices reasonable, consumers will keep spending money.

Live and recorded music

Live music seems to have overtaken recorded music in terms of significance to the sector. It appears that consumers are increasingly demanding the immediacy and exclusivity of the live concert experience. This also seems to coincide with the fact that it is also where management and bands are making their money. The demands of touring make for a great deal of hard work for professional musicians – it isn’t the endless rock ‘n’ roll party of sex and drugs that naïve outsiders think it is (or would maybe like it to be). The key to success for artists is to achieve longevity, rather than the harsh spotlight of overnight success followed by the abyss of obscurity.

Like many, I am trying hard to work out where the guitar heroes for the next generation are coming from. There are so many very good guitarists out there and it is tricky trying to determine what it will take to stand out from the crowd. Once they do get attention, will they then have the credentials to stay in the frame for decades to come? Personally, I would dearly love to be able to record my music. At the moment, I don’t have the time, patience, resources or equipment to do it.

Like live music, the way that music is recorded and distributed has also been revolutionised with major recording studios being replaced by modest home recording environments using impressively powerful DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). Never has it been easier and cheaper to record music. The quality of the music recorded, though, is another matter. The regretful tendency towards the celebrity‑driven vacuous and generic is an enduring concern. Thankfully, there are still enough leftfield artists with integrity to keep the cauldron of creativity bubbling. Britain and Europe seem to be pushing the boundaries more than America, although this may be a perception based on local exposure, rather than reality.

The abundance of people who believe that they know best how to make, record and sell music also has an effect on what the consumer hears. We have a situation where the OCD can delight in correcting every last flaw in the production process and, perhaps unknowingly, they rob much modern music of its vitality and rawness in the process. There is also a tendency towards uniformity and conformity that I can only put down to ‘artists’ seeking short‑term fame and success, rather than producing excellent new music for the long­‑term. Having said that, the ability to create and distribute music has enabled musicians to get their music heard in a way that they wouldn’t have done in the past, as well as for listeners to find new artists.

The investment in time and effort required to master recording technology is immense. Even then, the technical skills and expertise may dominate over the ability to create something worthwhile. However, this is no different to putting a novice at the controls of a traditional studio desk. Those who can and do master the technology have my respect, not only for learning and being able to do it in the first place but also in keeping up to date, which must be a complete nightmare. Having worked in IT for over a decade, currency of knowledge is essential and it is the same with recording technology.

Distribution of recorded music has been transformed by downloads and streaming services like iTunes and Spotify, rather than tangible product or traditional media broadcasting. The benefit is that it provides greater choice and diversity. The issues around licensing and royalties are lagging behind the technological changes, meaning that predatory lawyers will no‑doubt benefit from the inevitable wrangling over rights ownership and originality for years to come.

So… what of the consumer? UK sales of music in 2017 were higher than for any year in the previous 20 years. Streaming (excluding YouTube) accounted for just over 50% of all music consumption in the UK, equating to 68.1 billion songs and contributing £1.2bn to the economy! Vinyl still accounts for about 3% and grew in absolute terms in 2017. Both CD sales and downloads have been declining in percentage terms for the last 5 years, which is a bit sad. All this indicates that entertainment industry scare stories about the Internet and streaming killing off music have proved quite the contrary, given the evidence.

Unlike music sales, there are some areas where innovation is certainly lacklustre, for instance in music videos. For most bands, music videos are still an essential medium but there is little in the way of ‘must watch’ material, compared to the past (think 1980s video). It’s difficult to see what could rejuvenate the platform. If it were me, I’d be looking to work with successful video game producers for an injection of much‑needed new ideas and talent.

Digital rules… or does it?

The analogue versus digital debate would seem to raise its head at this point but to many observers, the lines are currently reasonably clear. There is a place for both and both have their well-argued positives and negatives. Put bluntly, digital is here to stay; get used to it. However, many musicians remain wedded to analogue gear and it is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Heck, we can’t even eradicate vinyl records after decades of digital ‘supremacy’, so the best of analogue will be around for a while yet.

Thanks to the likes of the Line6 Pod before it, innovative digital products like the Fractal FX-II, Line6 Helix and the Kemper Profiler have proved hugely successful. This is notable, mainly because of the way these products replicate or emulate the tone and dynamics of decades‑old valve amps. This suggests that new music technology may be more likely to succeed when imitating old technology. The same applies to many new digital effect pedals that strive to reproduce the lo‑fi characteristics of clunky old analogue pedals. Go figure!

I remember back in the 1970s when solid state tried to oust the vacuum tube in amplifiers – it failed. I also remember solid state (analogue) effects replacing, for instance, tape echoes – it succeeded. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of mileage in transistor amps and they are very good at what they do. At the risk of repeating myself, there is a place for everything in the right context. The future will undoubtedly feature a mix of both analogue and digital domains, each suited to their strengths.

I foresee a whole area for growth in hybrid ‘cyber’ guitars, ones that balance traditional characteristics with digital tools that appeal to new age tech‑savvy musical pioneers. While many companies have toyed with the idea, it hasn’t taken off yet but I reckon the flood gates will soon open and they will push the sounds guitarists are able to create to new levels. Where digital excels, for instance, is in the recording environment where it is almost universally standard. Will digital guitars completely replace our beloved instrument? Not in my lifetime.

Guitars will undoubtedly accommodate and adapt to digital technology but digital won’t make what we have now obsolete. After decades of electric guitars, we are devoted to the beauty and tone of our instruments. Will new generations demand an all‑digital guitar and will such an instrument be able to replicate the best of the old tech? I don’t believe that it can but you never know. Counter‑intuitively, electronic music has only made guitar music stronger since the 1980s, when synths and ‘electronica’ attempted to eliminate ‘old‑fashioned’ guitar‑based music. It failed then and it would almost certainly fail again now. I think we’ll be sticking to our traditional woody guitars, the essence of which hasn’t changed since the 1930s (for electric hollow body guitars and the early 1950s (for solid guitars). I think we will see an increase in hexaphonic pickups, i.e. ones that are able to send separate signals for each individual string to external digital processors/controllers. This is actually nothing new!

Therefore, some sort of mutual co-existence will probably exist for many decades to come, without an ultimate resolution to the digital versus analogue debate. In the end, it’s all about compromise. Fine by me, I’m happy to sit on a fence and continue playing my vintage guitars without them becoming totally obsolete.

Trivia: The original ​¼“ (6.35 mm) jack plug and socket, the ubiquitous industry standard for connecting electric guitars to effect pedals and amplifiers originally dates from c.1878. An early type of the humble jack connector was created by George W. Coy and was used for the first commercial manually operated switchboard at the telephone exchange he created in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Note: Other connectors have been tried in the past, including a few companies that attempted, unsuccessfully, to replace the jack plug/socket with the common DIN connector. I will wager that the digital USB port, currently being fitted to a few guitars these days will not endure for the next 140 years in the same way as the jack plug/socket has. You’ll have to wait until the 2120s to collect any winnings on that particular bet.

Mobile devices

Where do our mobile phones and tablets sit in this brave new world? Like other electronic visual interfaces, it is simply a different way of looking at the same thing. They have their place but it will probably remain at the margins of music production, largely due to the effects of continual progress and obsolescence. I would suggest that guitarists, generally being quite a conservative bunch, probably won’t adopt mobile technology in quite the way many companies might like. While portability and convenience is undeniable, standardisation and compatibility need to be established before they become commonplace.

Vintage vibrations

Moving onto things vintage… The ‘investment’ boom years between 2000 and 2008 came to an abrupt end with the financial crash and the subsequent recession that followed it. Many commentators point to a 30% loss in value across the vintage guitar market. The market has just about recovered to the point that it was before the crisis. There are always exceptions to the rule of course. Some aspects, particularly the affordable low end of the market remain very problematic with prices varying wildly and with considerable inconsistency.

The upper end of the market did, and probably always will, ride out short‑run economic fluctuations relatively unscathed. The wealthy are far better equipped to ride out commercial ups and downs and that’s where the big profits are likely to end up. Pecuniary speculation may be rewarding for the well‑healed musician or collector but for everyone else it is challenging and I can’t see that changing for the foreseeable future. My usual bleat of ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ still holds true, especially as I am firmly in the latter category – apologies, this is just the chip on the shoulder of sour grapes talking (no apologies for intentionally mixing metaphors).

Some things still surprise on the vintage front. As a simple example, a relatively modest original early‑1980s Ibanez TS9 overdrive pedal seems to have certainly bucked the trend. I bought one for a reasonable market price about 18 months ago, now you can’t find one offered at less than four to five times what I paid. What the heck is going on there? Crazy. It may be riding on the back of its scarce and collectable predecessor, the venerable TS-808, but that’s no guarantee of anything. Other prices, for instance late 1970s/early 1980s Fender Stratocasters, seem to bouncing along in a very unpredictable fashion compared to similar guitars from the early 1970s, the prices of which are beginning to climb steeply.

I am concerned that the vintage guitar market is increasingly at great risk of repeating the pre‑recession ‘boom and bust’ cycle. Anything ‘classic’ from the 1950s is already at a premium, while most models from the 1960s are likely to increase in value significantly until they are equally out of reach. Gear from the 1970s, 1980s and newer is still not fashionable… for now. If the climate changes dramatically, which it could, the probability of the bubble bursting (again) will increase. It will happen again; it’s a case of when, rather than if. Looking at the long-term, the vintage guitar market will survive for as long as there are vintage guitars to be bought and sold.

One thing I’ve noticed over the decade‑long slump is that sourcing specific guitars, effects and amps has become so much more difficult. The same also goes for vintage parts that are needed to conserve vintage instruments for the future. There used to be much broader choice and availability for punters. Now, particular items are either unavailable or very hard to find. This lack of supply linked to sustained demand would suggest an inevitable increase in market value (one of the basic laws of economics) but that only seems to apply piecemeal. I’ve said it before and it still holds true, the vintage guitar marketplace remains a bit of a minefield at the moment.

Another thing I’ve observed is that my UK online feeds for vintage gear are being flooded by items from Japan, the Russian Federation, China and Australasia. I would urge extreme caution if considering long-distance purchases from these underdeveloped territories. Prices are high, the exchange rates into the UK are poor, import duties, taxes and charges are disproportionately exorbitant, and the regulations are increasingly onerous (CITES again). It is not difficult to deduce that it just ain’t worth the risk.

Moreover, be aware that many Japanese items are not owned by the actual seller. They list the item and only when a customer clicks ‘Buy it Now’ do they then try to source the original and, if it has been sold in the meantime, you may either not receive the item at all or you may get a substitute that can be very different from what you believe you ordered. As if to corroborate this, it is not unusual to see the same item being offered by different sellers. Do you think you’d have any sort of come back in the event of an issue? Nah, forget it. Never has the contract law principle of ‘caveat emptor’ (literally from the Latin, ‘let the buyer beware’) applied more. If you do risk it and end up getting burned, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you are interested in gambling on vintage guitars to make a return on investment (not my thing, I reiterate), the trick is to anticipate what might be ‘the next big thing’ just before it takes off. Do I have any advice on this front? Yep, but I’m keeping it very much to myself. Why? Not because I want to profit from my hard‑earned insights (which would be nice) or because I hate greed (which I do), it’s because of the numerous uncertainties involved. I would hate to suggest something only for that advice to implode (i.e. my sort of luck). I really don’t want to be held to account for giving poor advice… or for pricing myself out of a purchase because I end up competing with someone who took my advice.

Summary and conclusion

So, there you have one person’s view of the ‘state of the village’. The market for new music gear continues to evolve in a positive way. With western economies emerging from the deepest, harshest recession ever, the industry will thrive, innovate and change providing a wealth of choice and options for guitarists of every age, level of competence, income bracket and musical style. The vintage market, while currently erratic, will always remain relatively niche as supply and demand is limited – expect vintage market values to escalate in the year (or two) ahead.

The operating environment for manufacturers and retailers will continue to be challenging and they will need to adapt to meet musicians’ fickle needs while appealing to traditionalists and neophytes alike. The firms that will survive will understand both the external pressures affecting them while also engaging actively with what guitarists most value in their diverse gear-focused world. A much‑needed injection of authentic customer service would be welcome too.

The future looks exhilarating as the technology continues to evolve and challenge existing preconceptions about what music‑making is all about. The business is not going to go away but it will change and do so more rapidly than it has in the past.

I am optimistic that the best of the past and the best of the future will find a sustainable equilibrium where there is something for everyone. More importantly, the products that we use on a daily basis, whether created in the past, the present or the future will continue to inspire, motivate and enable more of us to produce some fantastically creative music. That music will, in turn, hopefully excite and evoke deep emotions for millions of listeners of both recorded and live music all over the world. Music is a wonderfully powerful medium that has the potential to change individual lives, communities and societies to create a better, more peaceful world. Now that’s an ambitious agenda. Sign me up!

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Whatever transpires, I’ll watch with great interest. Wanna play? I do, so I’m off to plink my planks (despite badly hurting my little finger on my fretting hand). Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “The best way to keep music alive is to keep music live.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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