By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
One day while surveying the booty accrued via years' worth of swap meets, garage sales and Pennysaver ads, I realized I could equip a rock trio for less than $100. The gear in question wasn't monkey chow, but a '60s Gibson Firebird snagged for $7, a Sears Danelectro bass for $5, a Fender Princeton for $35, an Ampeg B-15N and a red-sparkle Slingerland drum set for $25 each. You can rock okay with those.
This was amassed years ago, before everyone and their uncle was hip to vintage instruments and before everything started going straight from the attic to eBay or the Antiques Roadshow. But the fact remains that if you think a lack of money is keeping you from playing music, you're wrong.
Obscure treasures still turn up in flea markets and thrift stores. (I recently got a '50s Silvertone guitar and amp for $70 at a local swap meet, while a friend found a 1930s Martin at an Orange collectables shop for less than $200). While eBay may have dried up much of the gear to be found in the real world, there are also tons of deals to be found within its cyberconfines. Meanwhile, the musical-instrument business is so damn competitive that usable gear has rarely been cheaper.
Resign yourself to the fact that what you don't spend in money, you're going to have to spend in time researching and hunting.
Don't want to spend much money or time? You can walk into most music stores and buy a package with a guitar or bass, plus amp, cord, gig bag, strap, tuner and probably even a groupie thrown in for less than $300. (Check out Fender's Squier and DeArmond lines, as well as Gibson's Epiphone line.) Fifteen years ago, any keyboard selling for less than $300 was pretty much a toy. Now, in that range, you can find keyboards that are better featured than pro gear was a few years back. You can even get a brand-new, functional drum set for $250 to $400. It may not be hip, but it's solid, usable stuff, and it's all only a tool. A musician with emotion and ideas playing a shit-looking $250 Peavey will always sound better than some lardhead with a $70,000 flame-top Les Paul.
That's one way you can go, but not the way I'd choose. It pains me to say this because there are many good stores and manufacturers that deserve your business, but NEVER BUY ANYTHING NEW! Musical gear is like a car: it can loose nearly half its value as soon as it leaves the showroom. Though, unlike a car, if a Strat's vibrato fails, it won't kill you on the freeway. Let the rich kids spend their parents' money on new gear, and when they chuck it aside to be a porn star six months later, buy it then. If you shop smart, instead of that beginner's practice package, the same money will get you a rig you can gig with.
There's less security in buying used from a private party, particularly at a swap meet, and that's why you need to spend some time informing yourself. Read up on what the instrument you want should do and on what might go wrong with it. Harmony-central.com is a good reference source.
There's not much to go wrong with a guitar or bass that's not evident just in examining and playing the thing. The most important thing is a neck that's not warped or twisted, that has clean fretwork and feels comfortable to play. If a guitar or bass is cheap because the electronics don't work, don't be scared off: often the problem is as simple as a broken wire that needs to be resoldered.
Amps are far more complex, but the rule pretty much is if they work, they'll keep working. It isn't like they can put sawdust in the differential to fake a buyer out. You should look, though, to make sure the proper value fuse is inserted. Sometimes people replace them with a higher value fuse or even wadded foil, masking a problem that could soon lead to a meltdown. Beware of any modifications made to an amp, unless you can be assured it was done by a pro.
Solid-state amps are fine for bass, but I recommend tube amps for guitar. They still sound warmer and distort better (some of the recent solid-state digital modeling amps now come close and are wicked versatile. The Vox Valvetronix line, starting at $449 new, is a real bargain). Of the currently made tube amps, the reissue Ampegs sound great and often turn up used for less than $200. Most tube amp problems are easy for a tech to troubleshoot and, with the rare exception of blown transformers, aren't all that expensive to fix. For old workhorse amps, it's hard to go wrong with a Fender, but even most '60s Sears Silvertone amps are still chugging along pretty well.
Buying used does get dicier as you move up the technological food chain. With keyboard synths, digital rack gear, PA mixing boards and such, make sure you take the time to check out all the different parameters and programs before you buy.