Looking for a reasonable raita, an affordable axe, a cheap tubular bell? Read on!
Graham Meigh helps you find a way to turn your hard-earned readies into instruments and equipment that won't make your fantastic sound come out like a pneumatic drill in a dustbin.
So you have decided that you can't face another living day without that brand new Marshall stack or Gibson Firebird. Right, all you have to do now is hunt around for the price list, jot down the total price of amp and cabinet or guitar and case and compare it to your available cash. Hmmm... don't quite tally, do they? In fact you could say they are several hundred hard-earned notes apart. But before you commit suicide, think again. Does your dream machine really have to be brand new? No. It doesn't. Therefore, set your sights on those Sound Equipment columns and glance around the second-hand corners in the shops.
Now, the first thing to do is to decide just what nature of beast you require. The only person who can decide this is you, so don't be bullied into buying something you don't want by quick talking salesmen, the rest of the band, or the friend who you borrowed the money from. Once your mind is set on a particular product, you then have to decide how much you are willing to part with. Bear in mind that the final price will vary depending upon the current market value and condition of the instrument or equipment. Only then can you start searching for that bargain.
One of the questions to ask will be whether to buy privately or from a shop. This will depend upon the availability of the equipment you wish to buy. If, for instance, you are looking for a vintage AC30 or a pre-CBS Strat you may have to buy from any available source, on the other hand if you are seeking a fairly common Marshall 100 or standard Les Paul the choice is yours, bearing in mind two points:
1 Both shop and private dealer are required by law to replace or repair faulty equipment. No trouble arises (usually) when returning your sick amp to a reputable shop, but what happens when the bloke in Reading shuts the door in your face when you arrive on his doorstep with his old amp?
2 Shop prices will nearly always be dearer than those of private dealers; they have to be because the guy who owns the shop has to cover overheads and pay staff, and also wants to eat.
In practice you have to balance the price against after-sales service, assuming of course that you don't buy from a disreputable shop (and they do exist!). How do you tell a good shop from a bad shop? Not easy this one, but a few guide lines:
1 Always ask around the local musicians (they'll soon tell you of any nasty deals they've experienced).
2 Look at the general condition on equipment in the shop.
3 Ask who does their servicing for them (if they won't answer, or tell you they never have any need for service, steer clear!).
4 How helpful or bullying are the sales people?
The obvious places to avoid are secondhand junk shops (most of whom don't check the equipment thoroughly when they buy it) and shops that are closing down (the price of course will be lower if they are holding a sale, but where do you take your equipment back to if a fault occurs?).
Right then, before you hand over the money, what do you check?
(a) Note the outside appearance of the amp. A battered amp doesn't always mean a useless one, but it shows that it has had a hectic life, or at the least has been well-used.
(b) Look in the back of the amp for the correct fuses, repairs (look out for bad soldering etc), cracked circuit boards, loose wires etc.
(c) Turn the volume up full and fiddle with each pot in turn. Do they crackle?
(d) Now turn all the pots up full. Is there undue hiss, hum or noise? If so, check earthing and repeat test.
(e) If it's a valve amp, note the type number of the tubes and check the availability of spares.
(a) Note outside appearance as for amplifiers.
(b) Try an amp through the cabinet and listen for rattles and buzzes. If they occur, tighten loose screws, handles and castors and repeat test.
(c) Listen for high and low frequency distortion.
(d) If the cabinet has more than one speaker, check that each is working and that they are wired together correctly.
(e) Try to look at the speakers and check for small holes in the cone, correct impedance, reconditioned speakers and satisfactory mounting.
Always test your amp and speakers when they are wound up and don't listen to any pleas against excessive volume from the shop assistant or private seller. Most faults will show up when the equipment is being driven hard. Generally, if any of the above items apart from (a) occur, then it is best to leave well alone. Valves can of course be replaced, but bad earthing and/or faulty wiring could be fatal. Scratchy pots can deteriorate very quickly and cleaning them may do no more than delay the need for replacement by a few months, if at all. Unless your prospective amp or speaker cabinet is in good working order you may be lumbered with one that is in the repair shop more often than it is out, leaving you without equipment for long periods and with an empty pocket.
Speakers of course can be a pain in the neck if not in perfect condition, especially to a bass player. One bad speaker in a 4 x 12 can make the whole cabinet sound like a buzz-saw. The trouble lies in the fact that speakers are so often abused; they are asked to put out too much volume after being left in a damp garage or truck and then pushed down stairways and dropped on to the pavement. What condition would you be in after the same treatment? Don't, like so many other people, spend all your cash on a beautiful amp and then begrudgingly scrape together a few notes to spend on a knackered cabinet. If you do then you will have no one to blame but yourself when you are greeted with a sound like a pneumatic drill in a dustbin.
Buying a secondhand guitar will soon show your understanding of axes, or lack of it, because no two guitars can ever be the same. Every guitar is alive and breathing and whether you buy a fine athletic brute or a arthritic old codger is a matter of understanding and attention to detail, along with a certain amount of luck. Take, for example, my first bass guitar. I was a very, very green 14 or 15 year old rushing out to spend my Christmas money. I ended up as proud as punch with an old Egmund 4-stringed animal bought from a nasty little music shop. Of course, the bass had a warped neck, slipping machines, worn frets, a horrid nut in which the strings danced around, worn bridge, chipped lacquer and almost non-existent electrics. There was not a lot that you could say in its favour! Of course your new axe won't have any of these faults, will it?
But guitars don't just obtain merit on mechanical performance alone, each one has a certain amount of ingredient X. X is that factor which tells you whether the guitar is right for you or not. The right guitar will fall into your hands almost as though it were telepathic and knew just what you required from it. In short the right guitar will tell you that it should be bought. Unfortunately most of us will change guitars numerous times before we find the right instrument.
On to the mechanical points, then. Pick up the guitar with both hands, point the machines away from you and look down the neck making sure it is straight and that the frets are not badly worn. Next step is to tune-up, testing each machine while doing so and watching the nut for sticking strings. Almost every guitar has some intonation problems — inevitable by the very nature of its construction — but the comparison of an open A chord and a barred A chord an octave higher should tell you whether the intonation is acceptable or not. If it is out, adjust the bridge saddles until the fretted twelfth note and the harmonic are the same. Retune the guitar, repeat the test and if the intonation is still wrong the fret positions are probably out — leave well alone.
The next point to check is the electrics. Bad hums, faulty wiring and scratchy pots can be fixed, at a price of course. It will be up to you to decide if the additional cash outlay will still make the guitar an attractive proposition.
The last point concerns the finish of the guitar. Personally this comes last on my list but a lot of musicians will want a guitar that looks as good as it sounds.
Finally a tip for bass players. Most bass guitars suffer from dead spots, that is certain positions on the neck where a fretted note will have little or no sustain at all. Watch out for this point and you may, with a lot of luck, find one of those rare basses that are immune to this disease.
To sum up, then, there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to buy some great secondhand equipment as long as you look hard and don't rush into buying anything until it has been thoroughly checked. Of course, faulty equipment can be rectified, but unless you know exactly what is wrong, how much it will cost to put right and how long the repair will take, it is best to leave well alone until you are more experienced in such matters. A good idea is to find the name and address of your local professional electronics genius (not the bloke up the road who fiddles around with radios and televisions that never see the light of day again) and have him examine and service regularly any equipment you buy. This will ensure that it is ready to take the punishment that most musicians expect their gear to live through.
Finally, you are the man or woman with the readies and as such should call the tune. In other words, haggle over the price until you are satisfied that you are paying the right price for the equipment. Always pay cash — it will greatly influence the prospective seller if those notes are waved under their nose.
After reading this you should be ready to buy that dream machine and, of course, you will never be sold a piece of duff equipment again. Will you?
Feature by Graham Meigh
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