Guitars from Sakura, Vox, Westone, Hondo...
Tragically, there may well be circumstances which force you to demonstrate your art before the world/mirror/Railway Social Club with a less than trendy instrument.
You may, like me, be dead broke. You may need a second guitar. Or you might have had your gear ripped off by the world/mirror/Railway Social Club.
The cheap guitar lives, generally, beneath a roof of £150. Sure there are six-strings and basses below £100, and if you go second hand, the cost drops even further, but the region between £100 and £150 is where you start to see individuality – variations of sound and styling that make one slice of mahogany and wire stand out from the next on the shelf.
One Two decided to look at four models in depth pointing out the weaknesses and the workhorses. Then we went for a scout around Soho to spy out what else is in the shops.
The message is that, providing construction standards are sound (and they usually are) and the sound is acceptable (it's rarely really duff), then you've got a basis to work from – and that includes the patient songwriter, the loony lead guitarist or the madcap customiser.
Anyone can wander into a shop, pluck a guitar off the wall and check it for appearance, tone, neck alignment and so forth. We've concentrated on the areas you can't see – how loud are the pickups, how robust are the frets, what's the body constructed from, how much room is there inside for your own electrical additions, and are any required?
In this frugal spirit the tests were carried out on a second hand Cube 60 (£150 plus a new plug), a midget Loco with a daft reverb, and for street-cred, a venerable Vox mains/battery job with a sore throat.
So the scene is set, the last shilling is in the 'lecky meter, the threadbare drape is clutched tight across the consumptive chest against the rising damp and increasing chill. What have we got...
This inclusion could be unfair to instrument distributors in general (or maybe the guitarist outside London), since Ivor Mairants Musicentre import the guitars directly, bringing them into their West End shop in Rathbone Place.
But Ivor's has always been worth wearing a bit off the soles in order to take a shufti, not least because any technical problems on a guitar are immediately given ten rounds in the repair room downstairs.
Inevitably, the review sample turned out to be immaculately set up. The 24 fret neck was comfortable, and fretting was level if rather low. Correctly set relief and nut action allowed a fast 1mm action (at 12th fret), and intonation was fine. Fitted strings were the popular set – .009 to .0435 (measured), but the 0.16 third required very firm downward pressure to bend on the low fret bead.
The necessity of making sure there was plenty of flesh on the shove side of a bend slowed down an otherwise nicely fast guitar. The cambered board looked like reasonable rosewood, so a refret shouldn't present problems.
The neck was a straight through-the-body laminate of – I guess – mahogany and maple, vaguely reminiscent of an Eko, and was peaked out behind the nut for extra strength. The machine heads were the classier Jap variety, fully enclosed with a screw down barrel sheath, set into a moderately thick (16.32mm including finish) headstock with a truss rod access plate.
The point of the straight through neck was rather missed at the body end. The bolt down tailpiece and "tune-o-matic" style bridge pillars were set into the body wings, putting a glue joint between thq opposite ends of the strings. Most of the cheaper straight through guitars made this rather fundamental cock-up, so it's not unique. The body wings were of a fairly hard and heavy wood – I guess Japanese oak, again in common with many of the other through neck guitars, but can't say for sure without wrecking the instrument.
The greenish tinged white body finish – it looks a bit like luminous paint! – is fair enough at the price. There are spray ripples plus joins and ridges visible under the paint, so it hadn't been sloshed on thick and then cut back hard. The back of the neck was polished up nicely, which is the important thing.
The brass nut was the same as fitted to many of the Matsumoko factory's guitars, sloping off towards the headstock. There was finish lapped up over the ends which would have to be scraped off for a clean removal. Replacement would be necessary in the event of a refret with a higher bead wire.
The controls were rather close together – two volume and two tone pots – and the pickup selector sat near to the rear pickup. The output jack was on the front – the 'tube' end was a little below the top surface of the mounting nut. Ideally it should be flush or slightly proud.
The pickups were DiMarzio copies/clones – hex socket polepieces conducting from a single central magnet – and they pushed out a peak of over 700 millivolts (back pickup) when the guitar was swiped hard. That's high enough to boogie-on-down convincingly on most amps.
The bottom end strap button was centred properly, but the other one was too far round on the bass side horn for security, and needed a visit to the repair room to sort it out.
Tonally the guitar was predictable and smooth. The guitar would stand a bit of hot-rodding since there was plenty of space in the control compartment. The close pots spoil it by restricting obvious places for mini toggles and leaving large-ish holes when removed. I can't help feeling that the main value of a tone knob is either to operate a coil tap, or to protect a phase switch toggle from getting broken off in transit! The pots here did a reasonably smooth job of rolling off treble, though, if that's all you expect from a tone control.
The natural sustain of the guitar was fair enough for the price and overall, given a couple of mods, it would do a good job for someone. The case was an average budget Jap hard case – some top flex but adequate for local gigging.
My eight year old son thought this one was smashing, and I have to confess it held for me some of the ancient magic of a Dinky Jag that once shone brightly through some flat schooldays.
It is an attractive guitar, in spite of the vague feeling that the designer has pinched a feature from just about everything that has sold a few. However, the sharply cut in bottom end has left little room for control layout, and the forwardmost volume knob raps a strummer's knuckles as sharply as a maths master.
The front pickup volume control is well forward of the ideal, the back pickup volume sits easily enough in roughly the usual area for a Strat volume knob, and the last in line, coming up closer to the body edge, is the overall tone. The pickup selector rests below these.
The maple neck is its strong point, comfortable and smooth, and the added fingerboard maple is attractively figured. Under the paint, the body is a soft, white wood, called sen. The makers say that in production, mahogany will be used for everything except "natural" finishes, and "walnut". Clear finishes will be done on the sen.
Sen is similar in appearance to Japanese ash, but lighter (around 560kg/m3 dried) and is used generally for interior joinery and panelling. In this guitar it seems to be doing a similar light, bright job to alder, and works well. Well enough, in fact, for me to question the necessity of using mahogany at all, given that in this price range it is unlikely to be top quality stuff.
Sustain was par for the bolt on neck course – a hint of a weak fundamental high on the 3rd, but no bad dead spots. The action was lowish ex-factory standard. The nut was high, and relief maybe a little too low – there was a certain amount of fret slap in the higher positions which should come out with a decent set-up.
Fingerboard camber was gentle enough not to interfere with bending, and this at an action of 1.5mm on the first – a better arrangement than on a Squier Strat I did a bit of work on recently, which had to go a little higher because of the hump.
Fretting was accurate with a nice amount of bead for easy bending. In fact, this one bent more easily on its 25½ inch scale gauge for gauge than the 24¾ Sakura, thanks to the difference in bead height.
Pickups are open black bobbin types, reminiscent of the old cheaper DiMarzio humbuckers. A check that they didn't have DiMarzio written on the bottom revealed that the ring mounting screws were a bit too short to grip well. The Sakura screws were much better, and it didn't say anything exciting on the bottom of those pickups either. Maximum swipe on the Vox clocked up a peak around the 520 millivolt mark, which could probably be nudged up a bit in the course of a setup, but as it stood, was sufficient to enrage the test amps.
It could well be an interesting candidate for customising the back pickup is situated far enough forward of the bridge to get the Knopfler noise with the right value capacitor partial tap, and the front pickup front coil is smack on the second harmonic mark.
Moving the selector switch to the bass side horn (planned for production models) will leave a little more room in the cavity. Quite where the maths master volume knob will go – it will be moved – remains to be seen, but I think I'd go for a stereo tone pot to operate separate coil taps on each pickup, rather than trying to cram any more switches in.
The longer scale ensures plenty of top end to play around with, and a bit of judicious rewiring could turn it into quite a peppy little guitar.
The bridge is a simple plate with individual saddles hanging off a back lip; the strings are fed from the back of the guitar. Machine heads are the very basic Jap covered jobs, single sided on a headstock that steps back in parallel with the neck. A couple of string retainers ensure firm pressure on the nut, but the D string winding was showing signs of wear from a hard edge on the one that held it down. There is some potential for 'premature deadness' there – it's avoidable either by polishing the slot smooth or by not bothering to use it.
The headstock tip curls up, and there is plenty of timber there to absorb bashes, but it comes rather close to the first machine head and makes it difficult to use a string winder.
The body contouring is comfortable, and the whole guitar is light.
Once again, given a few mods, it'll do a nice job.
This is it. The ultimate in poverty stricken music.
This little character brings back some happy memories, for it's appeared before under various names, Sakura and Avon being two. Of course, odd bits are different, it hasn't got the neck binding that the Sakura had, nor a bit more body binding that that Avon had. But the familiar old plywood body is still there, as well as the steam-pressed arch-top, stuck on leaving hollow bits underneath all round the top of the guitar. I thought, years ago, that it ought to be called a semi for that.
And, joy of joys, it's still got the half empty humbucker cases. Yup – there's only one coil per pickup in there, folks, and it hums like an unshielded Strat in front of a Marshall.
But I flogged a Sakura version around for well over a year, gigging five or six nights a week (we had a different government then), and I still have some old studio tapes of it sounding quite presentable. I suppose this must be seven or eight years ago, now, and it cost me just over £40, including a case.
It paid for itself 100 times over and didn't let me down once. In the end, much customised, someone sold it for me because I'd got a posher guitar. The posh guitar cost ten times as much, didn't sound ten times better, and certainly didn't earn ten times more, and it became a source of paranoia – thieves, accidents, etc...
The delight about these is that they actually handle well with a bit of a set-up, and that's easily done. You might have to thump the odd fret back down now and again (though I never had to) but neck relief is easy to deal with from the headstock end. The bridge goes up or down and the saddles go back or forwards. Sustain may not be quite (!) up to solid maple levels, but it works fine with compression or overdrive. Output from the existing pickups is not... er... significant, but they sound reasonable enough. Anyway, the trick is to do a few gigs and get some cash in, and then bin them in favour of a real humbucker or two. Virtually any cheap replacement can be bunged in without fear of devaluing the guitar – it's actually quite hard to reduce its resale value.
A guitar like this is so bad for your image that it simply doesn't matter any more, in fact there's almost a sort of inverted snobbery to be had out of it. Mind you, I have to confess to being embarrassed enough to take the label off mine.
Scale length is 24¾ in. Fretting is accurate, and the guitar bends easily (the strings, that is). Machine heads are very basic, and do the usual. Likewise tone controls. The knobs are pretty, but will have to vanish if you go in for American replacement pots with thicker shafts. The paint job is fine, the neck feels fine, and the fingerboard runs up to top D on the first. The strap buttons are in the right places, and the intonation is fully adjustable.
You'd think that an accident or loss wouldn't be too painful, and in wallet terms I guess that's so, but I found I cared quite a lot when mine picked up a dent or a scratch, and eventually, when forced to part with it (for reasons connected with technique and style changes), I found it quite a wrench.
But a guitar like this is for having fun with, not for sticking away in a cupboard. In spite of my reservations about copies, it represents access to a playable guitar for all but the most destitute of Thatcher's victims.
The funniest thing about mine was that one of the replacement pickups actually cost more than the whole damn guitar – what a comment on values. It's an ideal candidate for customising experiments. Watch out for over-enlarging the pickup mounting ring screw holes in the top, the wood is fairly soft. If in doubt, shove a load of plastic wood into the gap between the top and the bulk of the plywood. The pots are 500k linear – you'll get better results on tone controls with 250k linear.
If you're going to stick with the existing pickups for a while, shield all the cavities with foil. This is probably the place to try your wiring/switching ideas out before you get stuck into a more professional instrument. "Professional instrument"? – I made a living with mine.
I do like red ones, be they wine gums or guitars, and here's another. Apple Red it's listed as, and on this podgier shape, it's not quite as grabbing for me as on the sharper and more extravagant Vox. It's a very aggressive colour for a guitar with a peaceful name, but then what the hell is a White Shadow?
But the Westone is a nice little guitar, little being the operative word. The 24in scale was surprising – I measured strings and scale length after having a go on it, and it felt fairly average with a .010in to .0413in set on. The .017in third bent easily on the lowish bead, medium/narrow fretwire, but felt slightly sloppy after the Vox – the bend seemed rubbery at the far end of the push.
Tonally the guitar was bright enough, with a pleasant warmth around the mid. The maple neck and alder body combination seemed to get over the danger of dullness in the short scale, maintaining at least a reference to good old fashioned single coil values and character. Sustain doesn't seem to have suffered either, and the guitar would croon along happily, if unspectacularly.
These pickups must have sailed in thousands of Japanese guitars. Single coil, the fixed polepieces conduct from an under-pickup magnet. The swipe test nudged around the 300 millivolt level, with an unusual peak and a skinned knuckle at 360 millivolts.
Compare that to a sweet, vintage, single coil guitar at 170 millivolts with a favourable wind, or the Hondo pseudo-humbucker at around 170. The vintage lesson could be that it's what you leave out that counts. The Hondo lesson is that it's what you leave out that makes it hum.
A poke around inside revealed shielding on the scratchplate around the controls only – nothing in the cavities or around the pickups. Treble loss on volume reduction was noticeable, and the tone control worked reasonably satisfactorily with most of the action in the low end. The pickup selector was a common or garden Jap box-type toggle, and a proper earth rail was fixed up between controls. The neck was slim to the point of famine.
The bridge is a Strat derived, bolt down plate with individual saddles and plenty of adjustment range for intonation and height. The strings come through from the back of the body from a metal strip hanger rather than separate cups. If you've ever lost a ball end cup, you'll appreciate this. And it's screwed down.
Truss rod access is at the body end of the neck, and the access cut-out is the reason for the front pickup being set back off the second harmonic mark. On a 24 fret neck, the slight loss of body in the front pickup tone is a reasonable trade-off for the extra range. Here you lose a bit of tone and only get up to top D.
On the hotting up front, the fact that everything mounts on the scratchplate makes electrical experiments an irksome business. You have to remove the strings each time it doesn't come out quite right. The guitar does need better shielding. A volume pot bypass capacitor of 500pf should be right first time.
There are no hardware problems: strap-buttons are in the right places, and the machine heads are the very basic, single side version of those on the Vox. The setup was handleable with no high frets apparent at 1.5mm, but it could lose a little action height at the (plastic) nut.
Neck finish is a smooth satin, and the maple was pleasantly toned down from its deathly virgin pallor. The body finish is neatly done.
Not a bad little beastie at all – very fair v.f.m., and you can have it in black or natural if you are less aggressive than this red. A good example of the black finish came on a sister bass, the Concorde 1 bass. This at £149 could make a very useful back-up instrument for a guitarist willing to take on casual bass gigs as an income supplement.
The sample had a nicely figured maple fingerboard, and a very comfortable slim neck. It sounded good and rich, and sustained evenly with no dead spots. I mentally marked it down as a useful tool to have hanging around the house for the odd bit of recording. It gives out a smooth and reliable bass character with a cello-like treble, and with a 32¼ in scale, doesn't make too many dramatic extra demands on a guitarist's left hand. The body is alder once again.
Adrian Legg concludes his study of electrics under £150 with a stroll round London's West End and a peer through some shop windows.
An excursion around the West End revealed some playable bits and bobs here and there. A Hondo Deluxe Series 757 sounded rather grand for £115. In fact it's a Korean Tele copy. Frets are set into a fattish maple neck with a rear fitted truss rod.
The body looks like Japanese ash under a clear finish. This one had separate saddles and the first exhibited a tendency to slip sideways and run the first string too close to the fingerboard edge. The Very-Basic-Jap covered heads make yet another appearance, but the classic bypass capacitor for this type of guitar does not – a deficiency easily remedied.
The pickup selector was stiffish, and needed a squirt of silicone grease, but in the centre position produced a rather surprising out-of-phase mix. The action wasn't bad, and bent easily enough on the 25½in scale with no excessive choking up.
A Kay through-neck was on special offer elsewhere for £99. The fingerboard featured brass inlay dots and medium wire running up to C sharp on the first. Of Korean origin, it bore some resemblance to the Mairants' Sakura. The major exception was that the gold coloured bridge plate did actually fasten to the central maple/mahogany billet.
Separate saddles and strings through from the back of the body gave independent adjustment and a solid bite into the billet. Two mini-toggles did the pickup and out-of-phase switching – a mini toggle is not a wise choice for pick-up selector.
Nondescript cream and black open humbuckers delivered an undramatic tone at a reasonable level off a 25½in scale. Treble loss on volume reduction was noticeable, but otherwise the two volume and two tone pots functioned adequately.
Allbang and Strummit, bless them for a euphonious and apt name, were offering an Aria Diamond for £149, down from a usual list of £171. Whatever it's called, it's a Strat copy, simple and functional with a nicely fretted maple fingerboard on a maple neck.
Once again, the Very-Basic-Jap heads, and a three-way selector that was wedgeable – just – for the extra, traditional "out of phase" sounds. Spray mottling was quite apparent in the thick blue finish, and the bolt down bridge plate featured brass saddles. Truss rod access was at the sharply cut headstock – bullet type with no cover. It performed predictably and adequately.
The shop reckon to carry a regular stock of low price stuff and opine that Antoria or Ibanez copies are a good bet. In stock at the time was a decent quality Les Paul copy at £95, and a Westone Thunder 1 discounted to £139.95. A small note – it is nice to be able to try guitars without bloody synths racketing around in the background.
Andy's in Denmark Street were offering a Dan Armstrong Plexiglass guitar for £150 cash and a venerable Hofner Colorama for £145. Both had been set up in the workshop, and carried a year's guarantee. They were set low, but customers needing a variation would have it included in the price.
Roka also set up in their own workshop to customer idiosyncracies, and normally carry cheap stuff when possible. They spoke highly of Kay guitars, but on the day had a left-handed Hayman for £150, and a Hondo SG copy for £105.
FD & H's window displayed a Hondo Flying V for £115; thankfully it was on a rotating stand and thus out of sight for most of its travel. A couple of Satellites at £95 failed to tempt further investigation, but on a more expensive note, the Gibson stock was impressively unattainable.
A couple of other also-rans that didn't cry out for someone to come and play them were a Craftsman (sic) Explorer copy knocked down from £225 to £125 in Macari's window, and a Westone Raider for £149 in Rose Morris' window. Heavy metal freaks have their own value system anyway.
Rhodes Music Store had done a bulk purchase on Ibanez RS100s, which they were offering for £125 with warranty. The couple I prodded had highish actions but looked capable of simple adjustment. I'd seen one in use a couple of nights before, anyway, and apart from a front pickup which had beaten a retreat into the body cavity, it seemed to thrash very well. Rhodes reckon usually to have something in under £100, but not today.
And at the end of the exercise, I find myself quite reassured. Overall it is possible to get a reasonable, functioning axe under £150. Resale or trade-in values are insignificant enough to encourage judicious hot-rodding to personal requirement/fantasy, and bottom end of the market standards, in terms of simple physical properties and construction, are not bad.
You can always replace an inadequate pickup, a dodgy switch or crackly pot, or cheap hardware, if the basic guitar structure is solidly done, and the Hondo LP copy is the only one in this batch where the latter point may be questionable. But my plywood guitar paid my bills very nicely, thank you.
Gear in this article:
Review by Adrian Legg
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