Spring has arrived here in Beijing and last week brought warm and sunny weather with blue skies and air pollution dipping as low as 30㎍/㎥, which means that I have spent a lot of time outside. A couple of days ago, when descending a stone staircase cut into the side of a hill in the Olympic Forest Park, I suddenly spotted two photographers standing on the meandering footpath leading down to lower ground.
The cherry and almond trees are in blossom and hundreds of photographers were swarming in the park, carrying mostly cumbersome professional cameras and huge tele zoom lenses (though I doubt that anyone was actually a professional photographer). On both sides of the stairs I was descending, there were cherry trees and almonds trees lining the path, and precisely where the photographers stood the branches met, entwined and created an archway of pink and white. The sun was perfectly aligned and rays scattered between the flowers onto the stones below. You only need a tiny bit of imagination to understand that the scene was not only picturesque, but absolutely stunning; the kind that you would see on posters or in landscape photography books. However the two photographers were completely oblivious to this fact. They were standing in the middle of a great photo, but they didn’t notice. Why? Because they were busy obsessing over equipment! Sounds familiar?
Being an equipment prostitute can be fun, but lets not forget that our interest in the tools should really be limited to how they can help us make (better) music.
Partly because I wanted to capture that scene myself (and didn’t want two people in the middle of it) and partly out of curiosity as to whether or not the photographers would see the photo opportunity, I sat down on a stone close-by and waited. During the twenty or so minutes that I was waiting, they compared camera bodies and talked about all the amazing facts of their lenses. Sharpness, focus speed, aperture, reach and minimum focus distance — no subject was left untouched. They were passionate about their tools, no doubt about it, but all their attention was concentrated on their tools. Here they were in the middle of a park. It was a conscious decision to seek out the cherry blossom. They had probably travelled to get there and now, when they should be practicing their creativity and producing art, they just stood there talking about equipment. One could almost suspect that their passion is not a creative endeavor, but discussing technical products.
To put this in musical terms, it would be like renting a studio and when you get there you chat with the included assistant about the studio’s Fairchild 670 and your own UA 1176LN compressor for 8 hours and then you go home again. That sounds outrageously ridiculous, doesn’t it? I can see you frowning and hear you snorting, “No-one would ever do that,” and real professionals like Chris Lord-Algae most certainly don’t. Yet I know that many home studio owners sit down at their workstation intended for making music, only to head over to a forum such as gearslutz.com and kvraudio.com to discuss instead of creating music. Being an equipment prostitute can be fun, but lets not forget that our interest in the tools should really be limited to how they can help us make (better) music.
I waited for a long time, but the photographers never shot a single frame. The sun moved on, and so did I. The moral of the story is that the next time you are discussing equipment instead of making music, break the spell. Because just like the two photographers I watched, you could be in the middle of a perfect scene without even knowing it, and if you would just spend a little time creating music instead of obsessing over equipment, you might write the next great hit.
Most of us have too much stuff. Take a look over your shoulder right now and the chance is that an object you don’t actually need, or a box or closet hiding such items, will come into view. Over the years we accumulate things that we think we need to pursue our interests, but in reality the things just hold us back.
I am deeply passionate about music (among other things). I love playing music and I want to improve and produce music of ever increasing quality. To play music I need instruments, and to record the music I need even more equipment. Oh my, you already know what is coming…
There are a lot of passions that you cannot pursue without owning a certain amount of specialized equipment, and this poses a big problem if your goal is to own as little as possible. It is hard to assess exactly how much stuff you need, and as your skills improve better equipment is often also needed. That old Epiphone guitar you loved, but that never quite stayed in tune, is suddenly holding you back and you replace it with a Gibson. With upgraded equipment your abilities improve and you immerse yourself even more in your passion. So far so good, but then you start to wonder if equipment X wouldn’t make you even better at what you are doing. You see other people, who are better and more successful than you, using equipment X. They can’t possibly be better than you because they’ve had more practice. The stuff must be the secret. In interviews and magazines they tell you how equipment X changed their lives and how they couldn’t perform a proper gig without equipment Y. Most of them are paid to say this, but you don’t know that yet. You read on forums and talk to other people, who are just as insecure as yourself, and they all agree that equipment X and Y are what you need. Some will rave about how they bought equipment X and Y six months ago and now life is amazing. You of course fail to notice that few, or none, of them are actually very skilled or producing anything at all except meaningless forum posts.
Years later you wake up in an apartment or house packed with equipment but nothing to show for it.
The thought that maybe more equipment would make you a better musician becomes an itch, which becomes a fear that you are wasting your time trying to produce music without using equipment X and Y. That you will never be able to produce anything decent without it. So you talk yourself into getting X and Y. You deceive yourself, arguing that you could better just give it all up if you do not buy the equipment. One day you walk into a store or type a url into your browser, and the next day equipment X and Y are standing in their boxes on your floor. Now equipment X will make your life fantastic, or that’s what you think at least. You have no use for equipment Y until you start performing at venues with tens of thousands of people, but somehow you believe that it is still a necessity now. You might get famous over night and don’t want to be without equipment Y when the important people start calling. Or whatever…
Now you have crossed the invisible border between “most time spent with your instruments being productive, passionately pursuing the art and actually using the equipment you already have”-land, and entered “most time spent on forums worrying that you need more stuff while your current equipment is collecting dust and your skills deteriorate and you produce absolutely nothing”-land. If you had looked at the map before crossing the border you would have seen the text “Caution! Here be dragons.” But you didn’t, because you were driven by insecurity and people who are scared always dive head first in the shallow end.
Years later you wake up in an apartment or house packed with equipment but nothing to show for it. You’ve spent years collecting stuff while being so busy acquiring and comparing that you forgot to actually produce anything. Now you realize that you lost the spark and need to kindle the passion inside you. To rid yourself of the equipment and get back to what really matters. But how?
Maybe you’ve heard of paulownia wood guitar bodies. To me, “paulownia” sounds more like a ballet dancer or the zoological name for a peacock (and “paulownia wood” like something certain males might experience while watching half-naked, sweaty ballet dancers perform). However this fairly unknown wood has some pretty interesting features, such as being very lightweight, cheap and having awesome tone. At least that’s what retailers and basement guitarists claim. But does it live up to the hype?
People who know me from previous bands know that my favorite guitar is a red Fender American Stratocaster. I bought it second hand in 2001, one year after it was produced, and instantly fell in love with its feel, tone and playability. During the last 13 years I have played, recorded and gigged with a myriad of excellent guitars, but at the end of the day nothing compares to the Stratocaster.
I travel a lot and move between countries as frequently as some people I know change underwear. Space is limited and, in the modern world of nonexistent airline service, weight is even more limited. The Stratocaster body and neck are joined together by four steel screws, which is an ingenious solution for a traveler as I can simply split the guitar in two and pack it into my luggage. Gibson et al can claim that glued neckjoints sustain better, but I’m not convinced and don’t want to pay extra to bring a guitar along. Anyway, the guitar is easy to stove away when body and neck are separated, but the body is heavy. Not as heavy as my mahogany Ibanez Artist from the seventies, but a Stratocaster alder body is nonetheless quite heavy.
In my imagination they are possibly drilled freehand by an inebriated, one-eyed rhesus monkey.
While considering and researching different options for lightweight guitars and guitar modifications, I came across paulownia wood guitars bodies from Guitarfetish (GFS), an American company that is well-known for its cheap pickups and guitar parts. For $50 I could buy a paulownia Telecaster body, which is a lot cheaper than buying a body from for example Warmoth. GFS claim that the bodies fit all Fender speced parts, but their assurance didn’t feel convincing. However curiosity was stronger than my fear of a crappy guitar body, and the idea of traveling with my favorite guitar neck on a lightweight body was an exciting prospect. I clicked purchase.
How bad could it possibly be? I mean, the luthier cuts the wood into a standard shape, drills a couple of holes that s/he has drilled a thousand times before and carefully coats the body in a few layers of paint. At least that’s how I imagined the process before I received the body. Now I imagine the factory worker watching youtube videos while misaligning the foolproof neck cavity template and randomly splashing paint. To finish off the job, s/he casually drops a tool on the newly painted body to dent it slightly.
I also discovered some curious looking white fibers stuck to the pickup cavity and imagined that the guitar body must have been hauled on the back of a sheep from the factory to the DHL drop off point.
In other words, my illusory scenario of just dropping parts in, stringing the guitar, tuning up and begin to play awesome riffs would not happen. The template must have been off with a certain angle when routing the wood, because so are all the cavities. The holes where the strings go through the body seems to be drilled almost at random and so close to each other that the ferrules overlap. In my imagination they are possibly drilled freehand by an inebriated, one-eyed rhesus monkey. Long story short, I had to bring out my trusted tape measure and spend some time to properly align the bridge as well as undertaking some drilling and routing to fit the bridge and pickups.
I also discovered some curious looking white fibers stuck to the pickup cavity and imagined that the guitar body must have been hauled on the back of a sheep from the factory to the DHL drop off point. Then my attention was turned to the discoloration on the upper horn and I realized that the paint job was even sloppier than I first thought.
So how does it sound and play? After correcting the factory imperfections, pretty awesome! It’s light. Amazingly so. Almost 1kg (2lbs) lighter than the original Stratocaster body. It might not sound like a lot, but my shoulder and luggage are grateful. The tone is great as well, both unplugged and plugged in. Fullbodied and balanced. A bit brighter than alder, but that might also be because of the Telecaster bridge. The wood is soft a dents easily, but that is nothing that worries me.
All in all I’m quite happy with the resulting guitar and plan to use it as my main (possibly only) guitar for the Diminished Duo project. Time will tell if I grow to love it at much as the original Stratocaster body.
Interested in a building one yourself? If you’re looking for a lightweight guitar body that sounds great and you are willing to put a couple of hours into making it playable, then you probably won’t find a better deal for a lower price.
However, if you are looking for quality workmanship and a paint job that will impress your friends at the luthiers club, then there are better choices.