Wonderfully Awful Electric Guitar
September 17, 2004 5:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a nice, shitty, beautiful, hideous electric guitar. (More Inside)

I was partial to obvious choices like Strats and Les Pauls when I was younger, but for the past few years I've favored some of shaggy dog brands: Italia, Teisco, DiPinto, Mosrite, Valco/Airline, Kay, Silvertone and so on. So I'm looking for something that is not just strange and ugly/beautiful, but also plays well and has a forgiveably chintzy tone.

Do you any of you all covet a cheap-but-great-sounding guitar? Where did you buy it? What do you like about it?
posted by dhoyt to Shopping (21 answers total)
Oops, I should add that I definitely lean toward guitars with a Bigsby tremolo.
posted by dhoyt at 5:13 PM on September 17, 2004

I have a Yamaha SE110 that serve(s/d) its purpose as my first guitar. The nut broke on it about a year and a half ago and I never got around to fixing it. It's not quite chintzy; but it's not quite good. It, however, is a great, fun guitar to play, though the neck is a little rough. I picked mine up for 75 bucks (which was too much) at a pawn shop. If you can find one, I recommend it. It's amazing as a beater.
posted by angry modem at 5:23 PM on September 17, 2004

Why not build your own?

Or, as (sort-of) suggested, cruise pawn shops. You can get all sorts of cheapo wonders there. I've got an old strat copy (by Aria Pro II) that came from a pawn shop (many moons ago) and, although I've moved onto bigger and better things (by which I mean dropping eleven bills on an SG), a couple weeks ago I wired crazy switches into it (in phase / off / out of phase on each pickup) and it's got some truly bizarre, jangly tones now. Definitely a keeper. Plus, it feels pretty good to wail on.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:33 PM on September 17, 2004

ESP XTone, Maverick X1, the latest Gretsch, Godin SD, Gould XGVG Classic, anything by Duesenberg, the Guild electrics, Music Man Silhouette, Epiphone Wildkat or ES-295, Ibanez PM120, JTK2, AM73T.

Cheap? Not necessarily. Beautiful? Definately.
posted by armoured-ant at 5:37 PM on September 17, 2004

I covet my £269 Tanglewood TW-55NS. It's a cheap jumbo electro-acoustic, but I'll be damned if I've ever played a guitar with better action. The pickup got a little tiring, so I picked up a Fishman Rare Earth Humbucker on eBay for £80. I don't think I'll ever sell this guitar.
posted by armoured-ant at 5:42 PM on September 17, 2004

I have an old Hondo Deluxe Series 768 flying vee I got for $100 bucks with case in a pawn shop which has logged a lot of stage time. It's a great guitar for a piece of crap. What makes it great is that it has dual humbuckers. Sounds great (nice overdriven sound well-suited for punk and metal) with no effects plugged into almost anything, as long as you turn all the knobs to 10. The intonation, on the other hand, is not so great.

In my old band the lead guitarist used that on stage despite having much nicer guitars. Until he got his Firebird, anyway.
posted by alex_reno at 6:25 PM on September 17, 2004

I second the Duesenberg, recommendation - the thing is a tank !, sturdy trem (Bigsby-style),
thick knobs, solid wiring, very good sound, all-in-all a beauty, and it was relatively cheap.
(in an awesome surf green no less)

It was a step up from my Hondo (which I would call too chintzy)
and a step down from my Gretsch (which you already know about)
posted by milovoo at 6:26 PM on September 17, 2004

Pawn Shops are your best friend. Seriously. Someone else's misery is your happy day. I've seen $300 Paul Reed Smith guitars at my local pawn shop. A '69 Gibson for $500. That kind of thing.

Just hold out for a quality manufacturer (PRS is da' bomb), and an older guitar with some history in it's body. Then replace the strings, pickups, and possibly frets (kinda pricey, though) and you're golden.

If you're itching to get one now, the PRS "economy" line Santana series can be found cheap on Ebay (for example).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:33 PM on September 17, 2004

I've got one of the first Reissue Danelectros that came out, before they named that model the U-2 and long before a lawsuit stopped the guitar's manufacture. When I bought it, I dug through the dozen or so the shop had and picked the one with the best acoustic tone. Some years later, I had all of the stock wiring and pots torn out, put in good switches and jacks, and changed the pots to 250k while eliminated the stacked design.

Total outlay for all new parts and guitar ~$200.

It's my sleeper guitar. She can fake anything from tele to grestchy to SG-ush sounds while having that cool Dan-o thing going on. This is my main gigging guitar, though I confess it looks odd having a vintage Les Paul propped up as a backup ax. What can I say, the Dan-o sounds better.

(More later, including my guide to buying cheap electric guitars.)
posted by stet at 6:48 PM on September 17, 2004

Hagstrom! Find an old Hagstrom II or III! Some nice playing on those fellas!
posted by punkrockrat at 7:11 PM on September 17, 2004

Just to draw a sharper image of what I'm imagining:

Something like this or this would be really boss.
posted by dhoyt at 7:18 PM on September 17, 2004

The nicest, shittiest, most hideously beautiful electric guitar I own is a cherry red 1967 Fender Mustang. Though it is as old as I am, I've only had it for about 15 years. This axe is still amoung my favorites for its raunchy ass sound. I won't give it up even though half the paint is worn off, and one of the tuning heads is cracked (don't have the heart to replace it with anything but original parts, which don't seem to exist). I had it refretted about three years ago, and plays like a dream. The pickups seem about 5x hotter than any equivalent brand new Fender.

I wouldn't sell it for $2,000, but I still see a few of these around from time to time for about $400-$500. Since you live close by Manhattan, I would go check out 30th Street Guitars (between 7th and 8th), since they have the best collection of used axes of anywhere in the city.
posted by psmealey at 7:51 PM on September 17, 2004

Oops, sorry dhoyt.... thought you were someone else. Never mind about the 30th street guitar shop.
posted by psmealey at 7:52 PM on September 17, 2004

But if the Airline is your thing, you might want to check out some Mosrites, too.
posted by psmealey at 7:55 PM on September 17, 2004

I think you may have already listed most of the eclectic cheapies that are actually available for
sale and not just museum pieces, unless of course you are brave enough to play the Daisy.
posted by milovoo at 8:01 PM on September 17, 2004

I have a few guitars, but my all time favorite was the guitar I saved up for in JR high - a Gibson SG copy by Mann that I purchased for $150 used at a pawn shop. I love it - I learned how to play on it, and have a lot of good memories touring with it etc. And it sound soo good - almost ratty, like a buzz saw, and for what I play, perfect.
posted by Quartermass at 8:11 PM on September 17, 2004

Something like this or this would be really boss.

You're a sick, sick man with sick, sick tastes, dhoyt.
posted by armoured-ant at 8:51 PM on September 17, 2004

You want a Mosrite Black Widow with the Bigsby, I believe.

Skip the Kays if you want a front-line full-size hollow body, by the way. The pegs are murder on pretty much every Kay I've ever fiddled with.

I heart lipstick-pickup Silvertones, too, though. The Dano reissues can be pretty incredibly great for the money, too, but you lose the alien invador feel.

Supros were National's off-brand, and they have incredibly hot pickups which lead to wonderful things, if the electrics are in good shape.
posted by mwhybark at 12:32 AM on September 18, 2004

Punkrockrat: I had a Hagstrom Viking for a while, the same model Elvis played for his '77(?) Revival tour. It was an amazing instrument. I actually A/B'd it with a vintage (40s or 50s) Gibson L-5 archtop. They sounded almost identical, which is a nice trick considering I paid about 5% of the L-5's value for the Hagstrom. Unfortunately, in these parts the Hagstroms are now going for around $8-900, which is a little steep IMHO.

In general, I find cheap guitars in regular music stores, the kind that sell vintage/old instruments, not Guitar Center-type superstores. My favorites are the instruments that have two things: good setup and good acoustic tone. Anything else is easy to fix. When I test out an electric, I don't even plug it in for the first 10-15 minutes. What is important is the acoustic tone. Mass-produced guitars don't have the care taken that a hand-built instrument does. When a good luthier builds a guitar, he tunes the body by tapping it and fiddling with it until the resonance is pleasing. Assembly line workers do not take the time to do this. The upside of mass production is that one can sometimes get lucky and find an instrument where everything lines up and it sounds downright amazing. If the pickups suck, which they often do, it's easy and cheap to swap them out.

The second aspect is setup. Getting a good setup done runs $50-75 in these parts and is essential. If you want fretwork done, that can be more expensive. It's also harder to find someone who can do a good job. I've got a Squire Telecaster ($250 a couple of months ago) that I love. The instrument sounds pretty good, but what distinguishes it is that fact that the neck is fantasically well broken in with precious little finish left other than hand oil and that the frets are like jewels. They've been perfectly levelled and rounded and are just... just.. Well, really nice.

As far as the two examples you cited, I see a fair number of them around Seattle. They all need work on the electronics, but that's easily accomplished. What I'd look for is an instrument where the body is still physically solid and the neck is straight and has a trussrod and some adjustment left in the trussrod. Many of the instruments like those have necks that are warped to unplayability.

I'd go for a reissue Danelectro with lipstick tube pickups over an actual old shitty-beautiful-hideous guitar off of eBay. There are too many variables to buy one sight unseen in my opinion. For a chunk more money, you can get a Jerry Jones Danelectro reissue. These are real instruments, not charming pieces of crap like the Dan-os (which I love). Don't pay more than $200-250 for a Reissue Danelectro. Jerry Jones sell new for $800, I think, and I haven't seen many on the used market.

Actual vintage Danelectros will give you the sound you want, but the construction was *extremely* crappy. They were made out of freaking masonite after all. The also didn't have a trussrod reinforcing the neck, making a 50-year-old Danelectro a real crapshoot in terms of playability.

All comments about playability and action may be safely ignored if you play bottleneck slide.
posted by stet at 12:52 AM on September 18, 2004

myrareguitars is THE place to go for bizarre and ugly guitars, priced to move!
posted by mcsweetie at 6:38 AM on September 18, 2004

You're a little too late for this but it's worth a look anyway.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:02 AM on September 18, 2004

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