There are always some avowed gear snobs who say you can’t do this or you can’t do that with a cheap electric guitar because it’ll sound rubbish, it will fall apart, blah blah blah… But then there have always been players who’ll use budget gear onstage and in the studio and prove otherwise.
There is plenty of evidence out there that proves it is not the price of your electric guitar that counts. Even discounting the legions of players who have made a sound – and a career – out of playing cheapo pawnshop catalogue models from Teisco, Silvertone et al, the market leading guitars for beginners are also doing the business for today’s pro players.
Mike Rutherford is one. The Genesis-cofounder has a Squier Bullet Stratocaster in Sonic Grey, a £149 instrument that is after a few tweaks is one of his favourite guitars for touring. Scott Poley, a session pro who plays in the successful Fleetwood Mac tribute band Rumours Of Fleetwood Mac, is another, and he has taken the idea of a cheap guitar as road workhorse to its logical extreme, playing 113 area dates with a Harley Benton guitar that he bought for £30 second hand.
The Standard Series ST-20 would set you back just under 100 bucks via Thomann, and it is fair to say it could not be held responsible for spreading G.A.S. as far and wide across the guitar playing population as, say, a vintage ’62 Fender Stratocaster, or even one from the current American Professional II Strat. But Poley wanted to prove that with a little TLC from his tech, Phill Orme of Doghouse Guitar Repairs, that it could be roadworthy, and, furthermore, that it could sound great.
Before he hit the road with the ST-20 s-style, Poley had the output jack swapped out to make it compatible with the Neutrik silent jacks on his guitar cables. He had Orme block out the vibrato, too, making it a more stable, and used a heavier gauge of strings, going up from 10-46 to a heavier bottomed 10-52, and adjusting the nut so the heavier wound strings fit easier.
A little clean-up of the control cavity was in order too. After all, you don’t want a scratchy or sticky pot onstage. For this, Orme, removes the pickguard and control loom and applies some DeoxIT Fader F5, a lubricant for faders and controls that you’ll find in any touring pro’s tool box.
“This is used right across the industry, recording engineers, touring guys,” says Orme. “If you go on tour, they’ll be using this on the faders because it is fantastic stuff. It doesn’t attract a lot of dust. It leaves a film on the carbon strip which protects it.”
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On no account should you use WD-40. This is one of life’s battles that everyday DIY's panacea can sit out. Orme also shares some guitar maintenance wisdom gleaned from the all-time great Dan Erleweine. If you don’t want to take the pickguard and control set off your guitar, there is a workaround should you need to apply some of the DeoxIT in a hurry.
“You could always the control knob off, get a piece of tubing that is about the same size as the shaft, slide it onto the shaft, and then squirt some [DeoxIT] down into that tubing, and it will run in through the gap around the shaft. It is obviously not as good as being able to spray directly into the pot, but one of my guitar repair heroes, [the] legend Dan Erleweine, it was one of his tips, and anything he says, basically, is the truth.”
The DeoxIT will help keep the pots free of dust. Like any good beginner electric, the ST-20 makes an excellent candidate for modding. Upgrading the pickups would be a good place to start, and both Poley and Orme advise you upgrading with CTS pots and better quality switches while you are at it.
Now, Poley hasn’t gone all the way with this budget fundamentalism. The rest of his rig is fairly high-end, with his ST-20 going into a Milkman tube amp with a Little Walter 1x12 cabinet, a Boss Blues Driver overdrive pedal in front as a clean boost.
Which all goes to support the other theory that cheap guitars into a high-end guitar amp is a preferable scenario to a high-end guitar into a budget guitar amp. But your mileage may vary. As for the ST-20, Poley was impressed.
“What can I say about this guitar? It’s great,” he says. “It’s consistent. It sounds good. Problems with it? The pickups are underpowered for this kind of stuff. If I was using it longer term, I would replace the pickups. I say that, the pickups are fine! I mean, they’re not bad; they’re just a little underpowered for something like this. This is really serious touring. But they sound okay. They just sound a little bit quiet.”