The Guitars (Part 2)
Son of Leo Meets Son of Les — a further attempt to sort out the neat from the naff.
Copies of the Gibson Les Paul & Fender Precision, researched and collated by Tony Bacon & Dave Blake. Part 2: Conclusion.
So. Farewell part one — and welcome to the vibrant world of part two. More As you will know from reading part one our survey goes deeper than a series of ripoffs from manufacturers' brochures. SI's about doing — so we got out and did.
For those of you who didn't read part one's test conditions, or who have duff memories - here's a bijou recapette: Each panellist was allowed three minutes (that's right, three minutes - think about it) to fondle, play and evaluate each guitar. The brand names of the guitars had already been obliterated with a Norwegian beaver's tusk (masking tape?). Then each panellist filled in and out an SI evaluation form, which required a 1 to 10 rating of the following points: weight/balance, tuning/machines/nut, looks/feel, action, strings, string spacing, fret intonation, neck/heel joint, bridge, controls, noise/feedback, pickups, and dead spots (basses only).
The 'scores' appearing in the text are percentages based on the totals of these ratings. Also included are verbatim comments from each form. Following these are comments from SI made after the masking tape had come off.
Each guitar was 'straight from the box'. So if anybody owns one of these instruments and would like to dispute or underline opinions, sharpen your quill and dash off a quick missive (or write us a letter).
Dave Blake: Well read and green SI contributor, wears a nice Smarties scarf. Has been writing on Sound for yonks and only plays cello (he lied).
Rob Dean: The screaming lead guitarist with beat group Japan, whose perspicacity is only exceeded by his hair.
Jack Hughes: A self-confessed Intelektual who sees no harm in loving his mum, wearing a clean shirt and peeling off tasty licks (hmmm).
Pete Marshall: (No relation.) The collapsible six-Stringed wonder from Rogue Herring whose ambition is to be an all-round entertainer and gynaecologist.
Richard Ford: A roving freelancer who's really quite spiff - offers of interesting work on a postcard to SI or the Zambia Daily Clarion (in the Yellow pages).
Colin Hodgkinson: SI contributor makes good — ex-Back Door man for Jan Hammer band (it's true, we finally got rid of him! The liquor bill should be lower...).
Andy Pask: A Landscape artist whose odd name is no impediment to a burgeoning musical career with plenty notes in him.
Gareth Williams: Reputed to be bassist with This Heat, proving that truth is stranger than friction (the author of this line has been summarily shot).
So. Now read on.
rrp: £84.44 ex VAT
Bolt-on neck, built up body, two hum- buckers, gold top, gold-plated hardware.
Distributors: Grant Music of Edinburgh, (Contact Details).
Scores: DB-33% RD-33% JH-26% PM-35%
'Pickups were more receptive than normal for a cheap copy. Sound pretty rough and raw, not very subtle.' RD
'Badly finished, neck very rough. Awful sound, no way of changing it with controls.' JH
'Bridge screws backwards, strings/machines/nut bad. Tuning problems. Bass sound okay, treble thin. Cheap looking.' DB
This is not the best of the cheaper copies. The frets are particularly rough and nasty. The nut is reasonable, but the set up is such that the action is very high, and the strings don't help. The grain of the wood has disappeared under a peculiar mottled stain and the guitar is not clean. The neck joint isn't bad, and although the hardware is obviously not 'expensive' it looks okay. The knobs are the contoured gold Gibson-type, but the nasty plastic pointers need getting rid of, and the bridge saddles are plastic. The main problem with this guitar would seem to be the frets, and this instrument will be overpriced until these are attended to.
rrp: £186.44 ex VAT
Bolt-on neck, built-up body, three humbucking pickups, cherry, gold-plated hardware, ebonised fingerboard.
Distributors: M Hohner, (Contact Details).
Scores: DB-62% RD-73% JH-68% PM-43%
'Action suspect at the top, dry and muggy.' PM
'Sweet tone on middle section, quite accessible.' RD
'Liked the thin neck very much. Very comfy, like a good armchair. Reasonably well set-up. Quite nice sound, mellow. Better strings than average.' DB
'Pickups a bit high; extra pickup tends to make tone changes a bit non-eventful. Nice sound but not very flexible.' JH
Even with the bolt-on neck, this is one of the best copies. Considerable attention to detail: fret-finishing, fingerboard binding etc. The action is very low as supplied, the nut may be a little larger than is necessary. The wood grain presentation is very handsome, although there was one very tiny tool mark under the lacquer. Very solid, tight neck joint, nicely done. The neck itself is representative of a much more expensive guitar. The knobs could have been better, and the use of plastic string saddles is easier on the strings, but may block sustain and treble harmonics slightly. High in the copies price list, but worthy of attention from pro musicians.
rrp: £88 ex VAT
Bolt-on neck, built-up body, two Di Marzio humbuckers, cherry, chrome-plated hardware.
Distributors: John Hornby Skewes, (Contact Details).
Scores: DB-51% RD-65% JH-50% PM-41%
'Chunky, if a little unsubtle. One of the better copies.' RD
'Action too high. Average.' PM
'Tone controls make too quick a change, thus diminishing range of sound. Okay.' JH
'Rather lightly built, machine/nut could be better. Okay, bass a touch muzzy. Cheaper copy.' DB
One of the cheaper copies, and looks it. The guitar really doesn't live up to the use of Di Marzio pickups. Neck joint is crude and the lacquer there is flaking in places. Frets are thin and a bit rough. The pickups 'wobble', the bridge is not set parallel to the endstock, and the pickguard is badly mounted. The plastic pointers under the knobs are cheap'n'nasty. There are several flaws on the body under the lacquer. Nevertheless the guitar sounded good and played well, and must therefore be considered viable at the price. A reasonable beginners' guitar.
rrp: £333.33 ex VAT
Fixed neck, two humbuckers, tobacco, chrome-plated hardware, solid, with special onboard battery powered eq.
Distributors: Fletcher Coppock and Newman, (Contact Details).
Scores: DB-69% RD-78% JH-64% PM-55%
'When effects turned off, pickups proved unexceptional, if a little dull. Interesting sound lots of fun, some nice ideas put together which seem to work well.' RD
'Nice action. Sound very good - too many effects for my personal taste, but well thought out.' PM
'Without effects guitar is very limited tonally. Would probably be alright when techniques of control mastered. Sound with effects very good. Otherwise forget it.' RD
'Very odd guitar, onboard wah, phase, sustain, LED. Difficult to control in five minutes - needs study.' DB
The oddball of the collection — mainly included for relief at the end of the day's testing. Extremely well-made, but not for the straight 'copy customer'. The unusual lacquer is attractive. There are no adjustable polepieces on the pickups. Very good action, machines, nut, frets. The endstock came adjusted too low - the angle over the bridge was too extreme. The onboard controls - Phase, Sustain and Auto-Wah — are very well thought out. The LED running light is useful; legends on eq section should be 'upside down', ie for player and not for audience. A minority guitar; those who buy it should be satisfied.
rrp: £137.78 ex VAT
Fixed neck, two humbuckers, sunburst, gold-plated hardware, not truly solid body.
Distributors: Stentor Music Co Ltd, (Contact Details).
Scores: DB-61% RD-76% JH-46% PM-57%
'Not bad, bit muggy in the bass.' PM
'Particularly comfortable instrument, reasonable in most departments.' RD
'Cheap sound, no top, no bottom, tone controls affect volume adversely.' JH
'Screws on bridge adjust wrong way round - facing pickup. Knobs cheap and nasty. Grain filler too light.' DB
Worth the money, with nice Schaller copy machine heads — generally well-made. The lacquer on the back looks as if it may have been brushed on - there are streaks and irregularities in it against the grain. The neck has good frets, the inlays near the top of the neck have been filled a lot, and the camber on the fingerboard is quite high, with one tiny gouge mark in fingerboard. The string-spacing across the nut is a bit too tight, and the peghead side corners of the nut have been left too sharp. Very nicely set-up, a playable guitar straight out of the case. No real complaints.
rrp: £57.73 ex VAT
Bolt-on neck, built up body, two humbuckers, brown sunburst, chrome-plated hardware.
Distributors: Fletcher Coppock and Newman, (Contact Details).
Scores: DB-28% RD-22% JH-24% PM-34%
'Very badly set up, strings, tuning etc. Sounds thin, boring, ball-less. Not a good job — sloppy.' DB
'Sounds as cheap as I'd be prepared to pay for it. Manufacturer needs to pay more attention to the mechanics and the overall looks.' RD
'Didn't like it.' PM
'Impossible to tune, bottom range not bad, but top is limited.' JH
Considering the price of this guitar, any fault finding must be limited. Quite attractively finished, and nicely presented fingerboard. But obviously the cosmetics will reflect price, and in this case the pickguard is crudely cut, the flange round the pickup switch is very crude and off centre, the nut is cut miles too high, the neck inlay filling is missing in several places, and the heel joint lacquer is very rough. The strings supplied are quite astonishingly bad, strange tape-wound devices that neither feel nor sound good. However, an hour's setting up, coupled with minimal outlay, should make this a reasonable beginners' instrument.
rrp: £177.73 ex VAT
Glued-on neck, built-up body, two small humbuckers, gold-top, chrome-plated hardware.
Distributors: Rose-Morris, (Contact Details).
Scores: DB-46% RD-73% JH-48% PM-53%
'Intonation not so good at the top end, sound not bad.' PM
'Insensitive tone controls, lacks presence.' JH
'Pickup surrounds unaesthetic, generally cheap except for the heel joint. Quite liked it, cheap but better than several.' DB
From the back this looks like a nice guitar; it's only when you turn it over that it becomes a bit of a disappointment. Neck is quite nice, but with a hefty head/neck bulge. Aesthetically it's not really a good effort; for instance the logo is a tacked-on plastic plate, the pickup surrounds are merely rough-cut thin sheets of plastic tacked to top of guitar, no purfling and some rough edges on edge of pick-guard, bridge is on 'backwards', little bits of flash on polepieces, neck inlays not well done. Nevertheless a nice neck, nice flat fingerboard, good nut and string spacing. Couple of fret ends a wee bit sharp. An excellent guitar if it was about £120.
And there you have it: STs first large-scale survey of so-called copy guitars. We looked and listened subjectively and got to know thirteen guitars, including the 'original', ranging in price from less than £60 to several hundred pounds. There were many lessons to be learned and indeed some of them got learned.
The first and most important lesson was that price is not always an infallible indicator. Some of the more expensive instruments did not stand up to scrutiny while one or two of the cheapest turned out to be remarkably fine machines. So if you are shopping for a copy, by all means establish your price ceiling and stick to it unless you meet a real bargain (a used but perfect nick 1958 Les Paul Standard going for £3 more than the £200 you budgeted for), but don't be afraid to look at much cheaper instruments. Because — and this is the next lesson — no two guitarists desire the same things in their instruments. One player's £75 lump of grobbage may be your Lucille. The feel of the neck in your hand, the way the guitar balances on the strap, that extra millimetre between the strings at the nut — all these things are absolutely subjective, and your opinion is as good as Eric Clapton's. Close your eyes to the price-tag and the brand name and play the guitar. If you like it, it's good.
Another critical lesson to be learned more by manufacturers, distributors and retailers, is that potential sales of any instrument will be enhanced by an extra pound's investment or half an hour by a guitar doctor (or intern) to give the guitar even a rough set-up. Several of the instruments we tested were rendered virtually unplayable by the strings or action or truss-rod adjustment (or lack thereof). Since all the guitars we tested were foreign-made, all these things should ideally be done by the UK distributor or, even better, by the retailer, because temperature and humidity changes and the inevitable vibrations caused by shipping will affect neck straightness and action, and strings put on at the factory may be on their last legs by the time the customer lays hands on them. Certainly all this would add to costs, but either it can be passed on to the customer or (much better) it can be absorbed as a trade-off on more sales.
The copy market is a healthy symptom — it means more people are buying instruments which means more music being played, which is no bad thing. And while the more expensive guitars will almost certainly last longer, many of the copies offer the beginner and the amateur an opportunity to get to grips with a far better instrument than could have been bought for the same price ten years ago.
Copy Guitar Test Pt 2: Conclusion
Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)
Review by Dave Blake
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