Tag Archives: choosing a jazz guitar

The Great $400 Guitar I Used On 5 albums

This is a REALLY cheap guitar and it was my main guitar for quite a long time. I used it on several albums and played all my concerts with it for a few years. That is what this video is about.

It is also about how you can find very solid instruments for very little money and with a few modifications make them sound and play, something that is a good option for a “first” Jazz Guitar, and later in the video, I will talk a bit about guitar prices and quality in general.

Getting Started With Jazz

Most of you guys see me playing semi-hollow guitars in my videos, and that is what I play 99% of the time mostly my Ibanez or my Gibson, but when I started at the conservatory I was playing a Strat (which I had strung up with flatwound 13s, not the most obvious of combinations) and later that year I bought the ES175 that you have probably also seen in some videos.

The story with the Gibson is actually a bit strange, a friend of mine came across it in a shop in the Hague. He couldn’t afford it, so he told me about it and I tried it out and went directly to the bank and took it home. I played the ES175 for my entire education and the first years after my graduation. An odd tangent about this guitar is that a few years ago I found out that it had been stolen 10-15 years before I bought it, but that is another story maybe for another video.

After I graduated from the Royal conservatory, I was listening to a lot of musicians that had a different sound from the more traditional sound of my ES175. Players like Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Ben Monder. After a lot of experimentation with delays and reverbs, I realized that I couldn’t really get the ES175 to do that type of singing sustained mid-focused tone, which is really the semi-hollow thing to me. So I needed to find another guitar and I needed to figure out what it was that I wanted.

2nd hand instruments and trying guitars

When it comes to investing in gear then I am usually very cautious, even if I do have some expensive stuff like Fractal Audio gear and vintage Gibson guitars. I don’t usually just go out and buy an instrument on impulse.

At the time, I didn’t feel comfortable just getting an expensive semi-hollow since I wasn’t 100% sure if that could give me the sound I wanted or that it played like I wanted, in part also because I was aware that I wasn’t 100% sure about what I wanted.

I started checking out what was out there, different models, new and vintage. Looking across Ibanez, Yamaha, Heritage, Epiphone, and Gibson. I realized that the Epiphone Sheraton was a fairly cheap model so that was quickly the type I focused on. But, While I was checking that out I also tried some other types and brands, among other things I remember a Scofield signature Ibanez in a shop, but that was set up so badly and had strings that were as old as Scofield, so I didn’t investigate those any further. Instead, I focused on the Sheraton, mainly because I had seen Kurt Rosenwinkel play one live at the North Sea Jazz Festival a few years earlier, and I really like his tone and especially being able to get more sustain so that I could play chords under a note that kept ringing and really get notes to sing much more.

The Guitar Chooses You

Since I didn’t want to spend too much money, and I had read about the Korean Sheratons being better than the Indonesian-built version, I started searching for second-hand Sheraton models and asked for serial numbers to figure out when and where they were made. I ended up searching for 6 months and trying around 20 of them in shops and for sale privately before I found one that I liked in the Spring of 2008.

For me, this was always important. I have never bought a guitar that I did not first play, and I find that difficult to do, ordering a guitar in a shop like Thomann or Andertons and never trying it before you buy it seems pretty scary, though I guess that is also what you have when you order from a builder, but then there are other differences as well, I’ll talk a bit about that later in the video with discussing the prices of different guitars.

When it comes to choosing a guitar then there is almost a part of it that is also how that specific guitar fits you. It has to have the right vibe and resonate with you, and this one did. I somehow always had that with the guitars I ended up buying. The vibe thing, and I have let quite guitars go on that account as well.

The Guitar – New pickups and electronics

This guitar plays extremely well, I also had it set up by Angelo from Panucci guitars and he certainly adds his own magic, since he is an amazing builder and tech. I loved how it played and I immediately started to use that as my main guitar and did all my gigs on it. It was almost what I wanted it to be, I just need to fix a few things, and realize that they needed fixing (which is half of it)

So about this guitar: It is a 2000 Korean-built Epiphone Sheraton. It is pretty heavy, mainly because it is built largely from mahogany. If you have back problems, then this is not a guitar for you. These guitars also have a very thick finish and the neck is fairly flat and wide, but that also means that it can be set up to play very easily with very low action, very suitable for legato playing. I had 13s put on it and it played so well, obviously still does

What I did realize quite fast was that the guitar needed new pickups. The stock pickups in the instrument were not fantastic. They lacked definition in the lower frequency range and easily sounded undefined and muddy. Now that I had a great playing instrument I was more willing to invest in upgrading the pickups, but I was still careful because I had absolutely no idea about different brands or any real experience with humbuckers, so I read a lot of stuff on the internet about pickups that meant almost nothing to me and I set out to find some 2nd hand pickups. I originally wanted to get Seymour Duncan Seth Lovers, which is also what happens to be the neck pickup on my Ibanez and they are really solid. I had also read about other more boutique brands like Lollar and Bareknuckle, but they were more expensive than the guitar and it didn’t really make sense to buy pickups that were more expensive than the guitar.

That’s another thing that is vastly underrated: Buying 2nd hand gear, You get so much more for the money, and a warranty on a guitar means very little, if it is crap or if the wood did not rest enough and goes bad then you are anyway screwed, though that is really something for VERY cheap guitars.

While I was looking for 2nd hand pickups I came across some Bareknuckle “The Mule” pickups and thinking what the hell, I made a really low bid on them which to my surprise I got them. With these pick-ups, I went to Panucci Guitars and asked Angelo to change all the electronics and the pickups.

This made the guitar sound 10 times as good! Everything became so much clearer and it retained the singing sustain quality. Essentially it was now the guitar that you hear now and at the beginning of the video.

Putting it to use

The guitar went with me to work, quite a lot of studio stuff. I was on a short tour in Africa, where I also had to fly back and without sleep go directly to the studio to record an album.

Don’t EVER do that….

Somewhere in that incredibly long session, there was a take at the end of the day, so after 10 hours of recording, where I literally fell asleep in the middle of a take. I also used the Epiphone on the 2nd Træben Album, Push which features Top Dog, the song we were playing on TV at the beginning of the video. At that time I had switched to using the Fractal Audio AxeFX for pretty much everything, but there is also another very old video on my Channel which is the Sheraton through my AER compact60 amp if you want to hear it amplified in a different way.

I did make one mistake though: Angelo actually offered to make me some pickups instead of the Bareknuckles, but I said no at the time because I was very happy with how much the clarity had improved. In hindsight, I should have taken him up on that. His pickups are really good and would probably improve the sound of the guitar quite a lot. The Bareknuckles are pretty dark for an instrument that is already quite dark sounding, but they still do the job for the type of sound that I mostly use, I did consider changing them though.

Pickups and Cheap Guitars!

This was my main guitar until I got the Ibanez that you know from the YouTube videos in 2012, and that was also the guitar that I took on most of the Træben tours in Europe and the one time we went to Canada.

So My way of easing into Semi-hollow guitars was:

  • Find a cheap but decent model and then
  • Trying a lot of different guitars before choosing one that is a good deal
  • Replacing the wiring and pickups, and have it set up properly.

This was not very expensive, I ended up with a very good instrument for less than 1000 dollars, and it is nice that you can find an instrument and then along the way decide to upgrade it. I could probably get it to sound even better with some slightly brighter pickups, but it is already a very good instrument like this, as you can hear.

I actually also wore down the frets along the way so they were replaced as well, but that was mostly just because I was practicing really a lot, and at that time I had to have frets changed or polished once every year, but again Angelo did a fantastic job and the new frets on it are made to last longer, they are not stainless steel but they are harder than nickel. I’ll link to that type of fretwire in the description, they are pretty amazing and play nicer than steel in my opinion.

Frets: https://www.jescarguitar.com/shop/jescar-fret-wire-47104/

Cheap vs Expensive Guitars

So overall, this was a fun process and adventure where I learned a lot about guitars and pickups because I also had to figure out what I wanted. And for that alone, it can be a great project to undertake.

The Downside to this approach is that it is very time-consuming, so you have to have more time than money or really enjoy checking out guitars and figuring out what you need and want.

As far as I can tell, by now even the cheaper instruments are built extremely well, and you can get pretty amazing quality for very little money leaving a lot of room to upgrade things like pickups or tuning pegs, nut, and all that.

And maybe I have a controversial opinion on this, but to me, this option only really is in competition with the more expensive factory-made instruments. To me, that is the biggest difference, because you can be really lucky and find a factory-made guitar that is great, but the biggest difference with the price is the pickups and the other stuff, not so much the construction of the guitar since they are both factory-made.

Now, most of the time if you go to a handmade instrument then you pay a lot more but you also get an instrument where everything is made to fit together and much more care is taken with the choice of material and really putting it together perfectly. In general, instruments like that are more balanced, play more consistently, and just better. It is in the details, but it is there and you can tell when you play an instrument made with the attention to detail that people like Richard Heeres, Angelo, or Schottmuller, or a place like Collings.

And going to them will give you a great instrument every time where you have to be a bit luckier with something mass-produced.

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