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How to Get a Custom Shop Quality Guitar For Less Than an American-Made Stratocaster

Updated on May 27, 2011

Electric Guitars Are Awesome, and Expensive

Every gear head that ever strolled through the aisles of your local music store likely realized the futility of guitar gear. There's always something new, something better, something greater to purchase to get the magical awesome tone that propels players to greatness. It's actually depressing how consumerist the guitar industry has become. Violin-makers don't constantely e-mail their customers, pushing the latest innovations in Violin design on them. Violins, unlike guitars, are made to be high-quality, lasting instruments that do not need to be replaced or supplemented with any sort of regularity. It is positively depressing that the consumerist nonsense of guitarists has reached a fever pitch with TV advertisements and constant mailers touting sales and deals on all the latest gear.

Guitars are musical instruments. At a certain level of quality there should be no need for collection, replacement, or anything of the sort. That the guitar industry has filled people's heads with the twaddle that different tonewoods sound different enough that they merit a whole new guitar, or that keeping a couple spare axes around is a good idea in a pinch. Let me ask you this: When's the last time you ever heard of a concert violinist carrying around three or four violins ready to go backstage?

It's all twaddle and noise to get you, the consumer, to purchase things under the false hope that somehow buying new equipment will make up for the fact that you will never, ever jam with Joe Satriani or Eric Clapton. I'm sorry, but it's the truth.

Being smart about your guitar purchases, then, means getting the best value for your dollar, and making sure you achieve a quality instrument that will not need to be replaced or supplemented with five or six other instruments. I can understand a professional musician who needs five or six guitars, each with different tonal qualities and construction. But, unless you are Chris Funk of the Decemberists, you actually don't need them. You need to invest the money you saved by not buying a bunch of silly toys into your retirement account to mature over the next few decades so you can afford to buy new strings in the nursing home.

Hopefully, when you're in the nursing home, you will have about two guitars that are of high quality and need not be constantly fiddled with or replaced.

There are two ways to achieve that level of guitar. The first is to locate a luthier and have one built for you. I said one. You can justifiably demand a high-quality instrument if you are a high-quality player, of talent, who does gig on occasion. It's better, in fact, to invest in a high-quality instrument instead of playing around with a whole bunch of inferior instruments to try and achieve some indefinable something you never can truly claim. Supplementing this one, golden tone monster custom built specifically for you with an off-the-shelf alternative that shares many of the same features as your primary instrument is an excellent way to keep around a spare in case a string breaks in the middle of a gig.

This, of course, is incredibly expensive.

Fortunately, an alternative exists and with a soldering iron and a little know-how, or at least a guitar tech with such knowledge, even regular folks like you and me can afford custom-shop quality instruments at a pretty low price.

Warmoth Guitar with Custom Pickups from Sweden!

Warmoth, USA Custom Guitars, and Plenty of After-Market Parts Suppliers

Companies produce all the after market parts that a professional guitarist would add to their instrument. Even replacement bodies and replacement necks can be purchased, with high-quality woods and custom routing for the demanding players.

With companies like Sam Ash, Warmoth, and USA Custom Guitars, players can piece their ultimate axe together out of after-market parts. A high-quality body blank from Warmoth or USA Custom Guitars, plus a high quality neck, some wires and routing and bridges... It isn't long until you have a screaming demon in your hands, just aching for a chance to wail. Or, if you prefer, a soothing breeze of jazz, just aching to sing.

I know many players that gig with different bands and prefer different tones for their different gigs. It is absolutely foolish to rely on changing your guitar to get your different tones when a ridiculous number of inexpensive stompboxes, modeling gear, and software offer the same services, and more, at a much lower cost than a new guitar. The choice of guitar, either acoustic or electric, and what brand or version of said guitars, for most players is currently an aesthetic choice more than it is a tonal one.

Getting two high quality guitars, custom made from parts easily available on-line, gives you exactly the tool you need to play your heart out. Adding in one stompbox per style to get the sound you need is a smarter option than buying a whole new guitar. As a player, I know that it is to my advantage to teach myself the perfect string spacing of one neck and only one neck. Changing dimensions isn't a gig-crushing feat, but it does diminish the careful precision I strive to master.

Ergo, with two guitars, and a few inexpensive stompboxes, I'm ready for anything.

Instead of sweating guitars and amps, the modern guitarist should be investing in the flexibility that comes from the best tools and modeling software on the market that step between the guitar and the PA system, to take your pick attack on the resonant strings of the electric guitar and turn them into all sorts of tones and styles.

Face it: Jimi Hendrix needed specific gear because he was Jimi Hendrix, and you are not Hendrix. You are not a household name, and never will be. That's okay. You can still have a great time and make lifelong friends in music. You just need to be smart about your equipment and your goals.

Two Warmoth guitars, five stompboxes and three quality combo amps of different wattage and output will set you back, easily, less than five thousand dollars. Your equipment will last your whole life, and if you ever really want to pursue a different tone, a new stompbox or computer modeling software can give it to you at a far less expensive, and more consistent manner than slogging through your neighborhood Guitar Center, where the guitar solos never, ever end.

(I feel so sorry for guitar center staff, by the way. What a miserable job! So many egos! So many would-be superstars! All of them jamming at once!)

You will also gain the advantage of knowing your gear. By keeping your rig simple, you will know it completely, and never wonder what you are capable of doing. Your real limitation, then, will be on your fingers and your heart, and on the ways you can move your heart down upon your fingers.


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