The Tonal Bliss of Cheapo Guitars

When I started playing guitar as a youngster, all I could afford were inexpensive models, or knockoffs of well-known guitars.
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When I started playing guitar as a youngster, all I could afford were inexpensive models, or knockoffs of well-known guitars. Now, I am blessed to have a studio with plenty of fantastic guitars, but I have never lost my love for oddball, “entry” level guitars. I use them constantly when recording, because they often have unique identities that normal guitars can’t match.

Back in 1980, I was packing for a trip to London to produce a project for EMI Records at AIR Studios. I grabbed my passport and very few clothes, because I knew I’d end up doing a fair amount of shopping. As I was leaving, I grabbed my early- ’60’s Airline 7214 guitar/amp/case combo to play in the hotel room. A couple of days later, I was treated to a studio tour by none other than its owner, George Martin. I got settled and checked out all the instruments I had ordered for the sessions. Recording budgets were huge back in the day, so the gear was everything I could ever hope for.

When it was time to start laying down guitar parts, all the rented guitars and amps were amazing, but I felt they lacked the character of that little ¾-size Airline in my hotel room. This fiberglass guitar with its Valco tube amp—which doubled as the case—produced a better sound for the gig than any of the fantastic and pricey “real” gear. The Airline ended up being used for all of the electric guitar parts on the project.

This wasn’t the first time a pawnshop guitar trumped the more popular, pro-level axes. I once did a film project for Jack Nitzsche in Hollywood, and the other guitar player on the session was appalled when I walked in straight from the airport and opened up my Silver-tone guitar/amp/case combo. That other guitar player was Ry Cooder, and, at the end of the day, he asked me where he might be able to get one himself (and he subsequently bought many).

I also have a ’70s Les Paul clone—which I named “Way Less”—that has been on tons of recordings. Jack White is a well-known fan of low-grade guitars, and Jimmy Page used a Silvertone on many classic Led Zeppelin tracks. I saw Beck recently, and his duct-taped Silvertone sounded like thunder.

Not all pawnshop models are suitable for live applications, as some were not made to withstand the rigors of the road. But, in the studio, the sound is strong, and that’s all that matters.

So the word is out, folks— weird, cheap, off-brand guitars that can be finicky, hard to tune, and often quite odd looking offer some of the most interesting sounds you will get from any electric or acoustic guitar. Check out old Stellas, Regals, Kays, Harmonys, etc. There are even new companies making knockoffs of the old cheapos!

The takeaway here is to seek new sounds that are different, fresh, and unique when recording. In the studio, I place the only true value of any guitar on that factor alone. There are incredible cheapo guitars that sound fantastic in the studio, so open your eyes and ears to them. Sure, many were made for beginners, but, as artists, we are always beginning something new, right?

Scott Mathews is a record producer, composer, vocalist, and multi–instrumentalist whose music has sold in excess of 40 million units and has generated more than 30 RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in the pop, alternative rock, R&B, country, blues, and dance genres.