When you walk into an instrument shop, or explore the vast world of online instrument sales, you might find yourself looking at many instruments at wildly different price points. At Sylvan Music alone we have guitars ranging from $120 to well over $10,000 and everything in between. So customers commonly ask, "what makes an instrument expensive?" and "how much do you have to spend to get a 'good' instrument?".
Well, to answer the first question we must look at a variety of factors. One of the largest being the materials used in the construction of the instrument, whether the body/neck are laminated or solid wood, as well as the type and quality of that wood. The quality of the hardware and, on electric instruments, the pickups and electronics, also factor into the overall price. Another factor in determining the price of an instrument would be how and where it was made, guitars made in the United States tend to cost more than those made overseas, and those made by hand tend to cost more than guitars made primarily by machine. Yet another factor in price can be the look of an instrument, relic, inlay or binding options, or simply the name on the headstock.
As to whether all those things that make an instrument so costly really matter to you or whether pricy instruments are worth every dollar they cost is a question that really only the buyer can answer for themselves. For many people that answer is yes, but just because an instrument is expensive doesn't always mean it's the best for you. Really great instruments can be found at most all price points, it just might take some looking. It’s yet another great reason to come in to Sylvan Music and try some instruments out, you might be surprised by the price of what you your fingers and ears like.
What is a “Blue Chip”?
No, we’re not talking about those delicious blue corn chips from Trader Joe’s or an A-list stock option. Blue Chip is a pick manufacturer based in Knoxville, TN, and the picks they produce are highly prized, particularly among tone aficionados such as mandolin Jedi Chris Thile, jazz guitar guru Julian Lage, bluegrass guitar heavyweight Bryan Sutton, and the list sails on into the blazing, slightly bronze tinged Americana sunset.
If you’re used to spending spare change for picks, and losing them just as quickly, an investment in a Blue Chip pick - and make no mistake, it certainly is an investment at almost $40 each!- might seem a stretch.
As a lifelong lover of sweet acoustic flat-picking tone, and having gone through a twenty-five year long path through dozens of Fender Mediums, a slightly less embarrassing number of Dunlop Jazz III’s, to a single purple Dunlop “Little Stubby” I used for years until it was no more than a small plastic circle, not dissimilar from 50’s depictions of UFO’s.
Those days were behind me following a chance encounter with a man in Berkeley, California in 2012, who lead me to the wonderful Wegen pick I used until the day I purchased my first Blue Chip.
It was on my first trip to Nashville, Tennessee in 2014 when I stumbled across a guitar shop that carried these famously infamous - or perhaps infamously famous - Blue Chip picks.
I sat for thirty minutes that day, switching rigorously and attentively between my worn-in Wegen and this five-times-the-price, worth it’s weight in gold, pick of destiny, as legend might tell it. In the end, however, the shootout did indeed lead to a clear and decisive winner, and I have never looked back.
I’m on my fourth Blue Chip today. That’s four picks in five years, the BC LG Jazz being my particular shape and size of choice. I use them everyday for about a year and some months before I start emotionally preparing to buy a new one.
I have never lost any of my Blue Chip picks, though there have been many close calls. I gave one to a friend some time ago, and the other three I still have at the time of writing this blog post. I use one, so does my partner, and we have one current backup in a safety deposit box at a local bank. Generally, my primary pick is either between my thumb and index finger of my right hand, or safely tucked into a separate fold in my wallet.
That all may sound like a lot, but let me tell you, these picks are the real deal and well worth both the investment and the extra bit of small-object-awareness required to keep track of such a lightweight and often mysteriously jumpy, evasive invention.
The sound and feel are distinct from any other pick I’ve tried, and lasts far longer just as their website describes. For more information about Blue Chip picks, check out their website http://bluechippick.net, or come into Sylvan Music and experience them in person.
Relic-ing guitars seems to be a very divisive topic these days with folks either hating it or loving it. When you first walk into Sylvan you’re greeted by a row of beautiful Fender Custom Shop guitars relic’d to perfection. Occasionally people will mistake them for the genuine article (50’s and 60’s Strats & Teles), only to have their delight turn to confusion, and sometimes even to revulsion.
Many people in the anti-relic camp will compare those guitars to the pre-ripped jeans fad, saying that if you want a guitar to look old and beaten up you have to do it yourself by playing it for years and years.
Meanwhile people in the pro-relic camp will argue that since guitar companies switched from using nitrocellulose lacquer to thick coats of polyurethane lacquer to finish their instruments, it’s impossible to wear out an instrument like you could in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Also, with price tags of actual vintage Fenders wandering into the tens of thousands of dollars (or much mire!) they’re pretty much unobtainable for the average musician.
So is it cheating to purchase a relic-ed guitar? I don’t believe so. No more so than buying a blue guitar. Or a guitar with a maple fretboard. Or a tele with a humbucker. When it comes down to buying a musical instrument, the most important part is how it feels to you the player. Since finding the perfect guitar is such a personal journey, I don’t think anyone has the right to tell you what you should and should not dig!
In the ‘olden days’ it was really cumbersome to copyright a musical work. Regardless of whether it was a full scale symphonic work or a simple three chord song, in order to copyright it, it had to be notated in standard musical notation. Only then could it be submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright approval. Once approved, it would receive the familiar ® or © (they're interchangeable) symbol used to declare the copyright status of the piece.
When I graduated high school, I earned a living by transcribing audio recordings (usually cassette or reel-to-reel) by composers, songwriters, arrangers, performers and even jingle writers. It was very exciting to experience these early versions of pieces - some of which eventually became well known. And it was great ear training practice.
Then in 1976 it all changed. Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976. This new law (Public Law number 94-553) greatly reduced the hassle of copyrighting music. All you now have to do is submit a recording of the piece in almost any and all formats. That law also created a new symbol to designate protection, ‘P’ in a circle ℗. The ‘P’ stands for ‘phonogram’ which is another word for the phrase ‘sound recording.’ You probably never noticed but check out the symbol on a CD that was manufactured in the last few decades. It’s sure to be a ℗ not a © .
Listen close dear reader, for today I have an important message for any new or aspiring musicians looking to buy their first instrument. Are you ready? Here it is:
Avoid the flea market like it’s the plague.
“But Curtis, I love the flea market, they have so many cool, random things for great prices,” you might say without a hint of irony. “Shouldn’t I buy instruments there, too!?”
No Virginia, no you should not!
Look, I like a good flea market as much as anyone. I think it can be a fun way to spend an afternoon, haggling and window shopping and applying liberal doses of sunblock between the home made shoes, ninja stars, bongs and organic olive oil stalls. But when it comes to buying an instrument, nine out of ten times you’re going to get fleeced. Hard.
“But what do you mean, Curtis?”
Well, here’s an example: The other day someone came into the shop with a guitar they had bought at a local flea market. They were on vacation and just wanted something to play for the couple days that they were here in our beautiful city of Santa Cruz. I only wish that they had come to Sylvan Music first.
This gentleman thought he had gotten a sweet deal; $60 dollars for a used steel string acoustic guitar might sound good to anyone. Unfortunately, the guitar was more groan than tone. It wasn’t worth $6 let alone $60, it was virtually unplayable. For starters, it had plastic tuners that had been spray painted to look metal. One of these tuners was already broken off (big warning sign) and another broke while attempting a re-string. Mark my words, no one wants to use pliers to tune their guitar. I’m getting a headache just thinking about it.
That wasn’t even the worst part! Its action was so high it was patently absurd. The strings were so far off the fretboard you could have sailed a barge under them, with room to spare, making it infinitely hard to play for even a seasoned guitarist to play, not to mention a beginner.
The guitar was in dire need of what’s called a “setup” in the guitar world, which would have solved all of it’s high action problems quite easily for about $75. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to pay more to repair a guitar than what they paid to get it in the first place, and this poor fellow was no exception. Suffice it to say, he left the store that day a sad, sad man, with an unplayable guitar and all his hopes and dreams of rock n’ roll glory dashed under the inscrutable wheel of flea market injustice.
Fear not dear blog reader, for you can avoid the pitfalls of that customer, and all of those like him. First off, if you need an instrument, go to a real music shop, preferably Sylvan Music. Here you can get a brand new guitar, already set up by a professional luthier, starting at $125! No sterilization needed, no weird smells, no broken parts and costly repairs, and no small woodland creatures living inside.
Need something used? No problem, most guitar shops have something in that world too, but the difference is they know what they are selling and aren’t looking to take advantage, so even if it is used, you’ll generally still be walking away with a quality instrument. In closing, don’t try and find a secret treasure and don’t make a rookie mistake. Heed these words:
BEWARE THE DUBIOUS FLEA MARKET.
How many pedals is too many? It's a question that every guitarist must face sooner or later.
I have a theory; ‘use what you need’.
Some people don't use any pedals at all, some use just a few. Then there are those of us that like to use a lot. Using multiple pedals creates a variety of sound and, depending on the type of music played, different tones might be needed to keep the sound true to the creators vision. One of the first artists I got in to that used loads of pedals was Queens of the Stone Age. The duo of Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen created some of the most unique sounds in modern rock. I would spend hours trying to research what effects they used, but it was hard because they would cover their set up and call it, ‘The Veil of Secrecy’. Years later they realized that even though people may know what they use, they can never sound like them because it's all in the player. One of my favorite artists that doesn't use pedals is Tony Reed from Mos Generator. The dude plugs his ESP guitar with Lace Pickups right into his amp of choice and bam! That’s it! He creates some of the most magnificent, magical music with nothing but guitar, cable & amp!
If you choose to use pedals, keep in mind that they should enhance your sound and not diminish it, unless of course, you got a specific pedal to create that good ol’ telephone sound.
The order in which you place your pedals matters too. This is called 'signal chain' and it can greatly effect your tone. Typically, pedals go in between the guitar and the amplifier, though a few folks like to use the effects loop on the amplifier which is just a slightly different approach. If you plug pedals in between the guitar and amplifier, the guitar sound will change before it goes through the amplifier. If you plug pedals in through the effects loop, the sound from guitar will go through the amplifier, then through the pedals, then through the speaker.
There are many different variations you can utilize and the best thing to do is experiment. There's a general variety of effects that some say should always be part of a rig, as well as a specific order they should go, but really there's no rules. Jimi Hendrix plugged his wah-wah backwards to get some unique sounds on Axis: Bold as Love. I, and some other guitarists, use some bass pedals with for guitar. Most importantly: have fun with it and keep searching for tone!
The pics shown here are two board from two separate local bands in Santa Cruz. One is of Ryan Avellone from his band Dreaming Ghosts, and one is mine from my band Still Searching.
Some people like to keep their instruments looking as new and pristine as possible, I am not one of these people.
Sure, I protect my guitars, keep them safe, and clean them when they’re dirty, but I welcome any scratches or playwear they sustain in their honest work. I’ve always seen wear on an instrument as a badge of honor, a kind of battle scar, and I always assume that any well played instrument can’t help but gather some, if not many, in their long life.
As the buyer for this shop, I always get excited when someone wants to sell us something old and it looks, as my buddy Ed likes to say, ‘like it’s been rode hard and put away wet.’ Usually, that means this instrument is going to sound great! This is obviously not always the case, but more often than not it is. On this flip side, I’m always wary of an instrument that is decades old but has barely any scratches on it. Sure that may be nice for a collector who just wants to stick it in a glass case and look at it from time to time, but it probably sounds stiff and sterile. Not my cup of tea personally.
So don’t hold back when you wanna do some heavy strumming on your favorite axe. There’s a time and a place for light, sensitive strumming and fingerpicking, but sometimes you just gotta let it rip. And if you scratch up your ‘baby,’ don’t worry, it probably won't be the last time. Think of each scratch or mark as adding to the character and tone of your instrument. Welcome them. Invite them. Cherish them. It’s all part of this magical journey of creating music.
We live in the golden age of guitar building. The available knowledge regarding guitar craftsmanship, the array of skilled manufacturers of all sorts and the world-wide demand for unique, personalized instruments is at an all time high. There's never been more variety in the market place when it comes to different options available to the consumer. From the thousands of different guitar pickups, tone woods, finish options, neck profile shapes, fret wire size to the various component values of guitar electronics... yikes! The options may seem overwhelming. When you're in the market for a guitar, it can be tough to distinguish how impactful any of these variables may be to you as the player. Let's break it down and take a look at three basic features to consider when evaluating a guitar: scale length, nut width and bridge spacing.
Scale length (or the measurement from the nut to the saddle) has a big impact on the feel, response and sound of the guitar. A shorter scale length like Gibson's 24.75" will have a looser feel, producing a warmer, more mellow tone whereas a longer scale length like Fender's 25.5" scale length has a tighter response with a brighter, snappier sound. Of course, a shorter scale length means the frets are closer together, which can make fretting chords more comfortable. The additional tension of a longer scale length can create louder projection, something to consider if you're looking for the next 'banjo killer' dreadnought.
Nut width and bridge spacing really have to do with the physical comfort of the guitar more than impacting the sound of the instrument. As much as jumbo acoustics may feel cumbersome for smaller guitar players, you may consider a different nut width depending on the size of your hands. Players with large hands may prefer a wider nut width. A narrower a nut width means the strings are closer together, making intricate chord fingerings more challenging for larger hands but just right for players with smaller paws. Maybe you wrap your fretting hand thumb around the neck to fret the low E string, playing psychedelic RnB a la Jimi Hendrix or the thumbpicking style of Merle Travis? Both of these artists preferred a narrower nut width to facilitate their styles. Are you more of a fingerstyle player? You may find wider bridge spacing more comfortable for your picking hand.
While these suggestions may serve as a general guide, these guitar measurements are really about your personal preference. Pick up your favorite guitar and consider its scale length, nut width and bridge spacing. What about that guitar really appeals to you? Is it comfortable? Maybe there's something about it that you wish were different. Go to your local guitar shop and play some instruments while keeping in mind these various options. If the exact combination of features isn't available on a guitar in your local shop, it's very possible one can be custom made to suit your preferences. Many boutique acoustic guitar makers such as Santa Cruz Guitar Co, Lowden and Goodall offer different scale lengths, nut widths and bridge spacings as custom options on their instruments. Good luck and happy strumming!
When I started working at Sylvan there were many things I looked forward to: meeting musicians, playing guitars I’d seen in my dreams, stretching and challenging myself in the world of guitar repair, and, of course, the ability to tell people that I work at the world renowned Sylvan Music.
I never foresaw what became one of, if not the most, satisfying parts of my job: the cleaning of a dead-skin packed, oiled ridden and dirt covered fret board!
There is nothing like taking a fresh razor blade and skimming the top of a truly grimy fret board. Removing the thick layer of filth and polishing the frets. Graduating grits of sand paper, moving on to 0000 steel wool. Then applying some fretboard oil to then step back and revel in a fretboard that came in looking like dark ebony and turned out be figured rosewood.
Ah yes, the simple pleasures of luthiery.
As musicians, many of us often find ourselves wrapping up instrument cables, microphone cables, extension cords, and all the other sorts of stringy things a musician might require to shred.
Here at Sylvan Music, we see a lot of instrument cables, coiled and otherwise, and I am here to tell you that not all cables are coiled equally. There is a right and a wrong way to wrap up a cable.
It might be a bit more time consuming, but coiling cables properly will make them easier to unwrap when you’re setting up, and will extend the life of the cable by not adding unnecessary twists and kinks.
So then “how do I wrap up a cable properly,” you ask? One tried and true method is the “over and under.” To do this yourself follow the steps listed below:
1. Take cable end in your left hand with jack facing away from you.
2. Make the first loop by grabbing the cable 12-18 inches down with right hand, make a forward circle, and place the cable in your stationary left hand.
3. Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Continuing to hold the cable in your left hand, take hold of the cable with your right hand about 12 to 18 inches down from your left hand as you did in step 2, except this time, turn your right hand over so that your palm is facing up when you place the cable in your right hand (the cable should cross the palm of your right hand from left to right, not right to left).
4. Continuing to hold the cable with both hands, and without moving your left hand, move your right hand toward your left hand while rotating your right hand so that when it reaches your left hand the back of your right hand is now facing up instead of your palm. The cable has now “looped” inward creating your second loop.
5. Continue Steps 2 through 4 until your cable is nicely coiled!
If that was too confusing, which let’s be honest, it was, check out this video where pro cable winder Chris Babbie explains this method.