Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How a $93 guitar changed my life (the guitar part of it anyway)

The best guitar you can buy for around $100.
I've often said that the right guitar will find you, not the other way around, and if you don't recognize it when it happens, you'll forever regret it. Well, a few weekends ago, the right guitar found me, and I'm glad I was paying attention.

I have a big birthday coming up (one of the ones that end in zero) and my wife wanted me to get something special, so I was given a generous budget of $400 to get whatever I wanted. Since I'm not a professional gigging musician, I have no need for a $2,000 custom shop guitar, which means that $400 would buy a nice mid-level guitar that I would be perfectly happy with.

But what's better than buying one guitar? Buying two guitars, of course.

I'm nothing if not cheap, and I have an affinity (no foreshadowing pun intended) for cheap guitars, so I decided to look at the low end of the guitar spectrum and see if I could get two decent guitars for my $400. It's been a goal of mine to complete, in one form or another, the Holy Trinity of Guitars - Strat, Tele, and Les Paul. I already have the Strat, so I needed one of each of the other two to complete the trifecta. Could I do it on $400?

As it turns out, pretty easily. My local Guitar Center had a sunburst Squier Affinity Telecaster in stock, and to me that's the best looking Tele - sunburst finish, white pickguard, and maple neck. And at $180, it left me a lot of space to find a Les Paul-style guitar. I've always loved Juniors - I love the thin slab body and the simplicity of one pickup - and I've always been drawn to the uber-cheap Epiphone Les Paul Junior Special. Wouldn't you know it, they had a black one in stock and on sale for $99. So that's why, a few weekends ago, I was back at Guitar Center with hypothetical cash in hand - who uses real cash anymore?

I made a bee-line for the Tele and did a really quick check to make sure that it worked. I probably looked at it a little too quickly - I missed a few glaring issues that I'll get into at another time when I do a gear review - but I was a little sick and I was in a hurry to get home. I gave the Tele to my wife to hold while I searched for the Les Paul Junior, which I found on a stand above the amps. I pulled it down and tried to play it.

Try is the operative word here, because it was dead. The open strings wouldn't ring out. Obviously the truss rod wasn't adjusted right, but when I looked at the back of the neck I noticed the damage. I brought it up to the counter and the salesman said that yes, the neck got broken and it was repaired, but it wasn't really good enough to sell. He checked inventory and it was the only one he had. He pointed at the front of the store and said he had a few LP Specials with P90s for the same price, so I went to look at them instead, even though I really wanted one with a single humbucker.

That's when I saw the SG, or more accurately the Epiphone Limited Edition SG Junior. As you can see from the stock picture above, it looks fantastic. The finish is called worn black, but it looks more like a very dark brown, and it's matte finished all around, including the neck. It's absolutely stunning. I picked it up off the stand and noticed immediately how light it was. Then I looked on the back and noticed the "Made in Indonesia" sticker. I've played and owned many Indonesian-made guitars and they've always been well made, much better than Chinese guitars.

I plugged it into a random amp (an Orange Crush), and as soon as I started playing it I knew I had to bring it home. The neck was comfortable, a little chunky with a nice flat fretboard, and with the satin finish on the back it was quick. The fret work was perfect, the setup was good, the tuners were cheap but felt solid, and the intonation was good. It felt like twice the guitar that the Tele was, at about half the price. Yes, it was on sale for $93, less than the LP Junior. I looked at the salesman and said, "I'll take it."

So for less than $400, I got the Tele, the SG, two gig bags and GC's protection plan on both guitars. After bringing them home and playing them, I can't get enough of the SG. I love the way it feels, I love the way it plays, and I love the way it sounds. It has quickly become my favorite guitar to play, supplanting even my beloved Strat. It makes me a better player. It gets out of my way and just lets me play. Not bad for a $93 guitar. I'll do a full review, hopefully with video, in the near future.

The funny thing is, I've been searching for the perfect guitar for years, and it's ironic that I found it in a guitar that I didn't even set out to buy in the first place. I like it so much that I want to buy a spare just in case something happens to it. But that's what happens when the right guitar finds you, and why you should always be paying attention, because it can happen any time you walk into a guitar shop.

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