Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Guitar Shaped Object checklist

"Guitar Shaped Object," is a term used to describe an item that was sold as a guitar, but lacks some of the important features that makes a guitar playable.

In the realm of people who buy cheap guitars, accusing someone's instrument (or 'instrument') of being a GSO is asking for a fight. You get a lot of, "well, it works well enough," and "it's all I can afford! Do you want me to not play at all?!" and "not everyone can afford a $3,000 guitar!"

However, and I'm just going to say it, if you spent money on s guitar-shaped object and not on a real guitar, then you don't own a guitar. Spending money on a guitar you can't play and calling it a guitar is as bad of a financial choice as spending money on a spiral-bound notebook and calling it an iPad. You spent less, but you're not going to get the experience of playing a guitar out of it.

Most people who fall victim to guitar-shaped objects are people who don't have experience with quality instruments. If you've played a $500 guitar, then broken tuners will feel broken. Bad action will feel bad. Stressed joints will look stressed. If you haven't really played any guitar except for your GSO, you're more likely to think that the broken parts are normal or "good enough." Sometimes they are good enough. Sometimes they're actively stopping you from learning. If you have no other frame of reference, then you can't know which is which.

When someone's critical of your much-beloved Object, it's easy to want to write them off as, "Well, they play $3,000 guitars all the time, so they don't know what a cheap guitar is like."
However, it's important to remember that people who play $3,000 guitars do know what guitars in general are like. Most people who own a $3,000 guitar also owned a $200 guitar at some point in their lives. When a person with a $3,000 guitar says that your GSO is impossible to tune, they aren't saying, "Well, it doesn't have GForce and tune itself!" They're usually saying, "The tuners are moving when they should stay still and are not moving when they should," or "The nut is badly cut and is holding onto the string, making my tuning less accurate."
That said, GForce is hella cool

I've been trying to make an objective checklist for determining if your object is a GSO or a real guitar, and it's been a bitch to make, but here's what I've got so far:

Please note that this list is made with 'guitars' sold in a new state. Your great-grandfather's guitar that requires a lot of care and precision to sound good is not a GSO, it's a guitar in retirement. An instrument that was great new, but slowly lost elements of functionality, is very different from an instrument that, when new, never had those elements.

The number one, defining thing:
Can a person who has good technique make it sound good, using good technique?
This video of the Barbie Violin is a good example. She clearly knows how to play, and this is what it sounds like:
And yes, it's a violin, not a guitar. Principle's the same.

Here's why this matters:
Guitar technique is universal. While there's some difference between guitars of different styles and music of different styles, a person with basic good technique should be able to pick up a guitar and have it make some pleasing sounds.
That's what I love about the Barbie violin video: in the second half of the video, she switches to a very basic song that is taught to people just learning the instrument, and it sounds like a screaming mess.
If your guitar requires bad technique to make it sound passable, it's not a guitar, it's a GSO. If a guitar requires extremely precise technique to make it sound passable, it's not a good instrument for a beginner, but it might not be a full GSO.

Do the pieces work as intended?
 Not talking about the fine things here. This isn't asking if the tuners are smooth or the balance is perfect. Can you use the tuners to get the strings in tune? Do the frets change the pitch of the strings?
No? Then it's a GSO.

And then the finer things. Do the tuners turn in the normal direction? Can the strings be wound on the tuners in the normal way, or are they fiddly or backwards? Do the frets buzz? Does the output jack give clear output from every angle, or does it cut out if the cord's held at certain directions? Do the tone controls give you a wide range of tones? or just one or two spots where it sounds good and the rest is a mess? One or two of these things alone might not make it a GSO, but several definitely pulls it in that direction.

Why this matters:
The function of the basic pieces of a guitar is not a feature, it's an element. If you buy a car where turning the wheel left goes right and turning it right makes the car go left, it's not a funky quirky car. It's just a shitty car. A guitar that requires a Master's degree in precise string winding and fiddly tuning isn't a guitar, it's an Object.
If it doesn't properly fulfill the basics of what it takes to be a guitar, it's not a guitar.

Are all the pieces there?
Does it seem like all guitars have a function that yours doesn't have? That might be because you don't have a guitar, you have an Object.
Fully electric guitar, but no tone controls? Doesn't have a truss rod, but every other guitar you can find like it does? No way to adjust the intonation or action at the bridge? Does it have a head design that needs string trees, and that plays like it needs string trees, but it doesn't have string trees?
I'm not talking about an acoustic guitar not having a scratch plate or a strap button at the top. I'm talking about an essential elements that make a good sound. To go back to the car metaphor, it's still a car if it doesn't have air conditioning. It's not a car if it doesn't have seats or a break pedal.

Why this matters:
It might be able to make good noise without the essential pieces, at least for a while. But a good guitar has elements that make it playable in a wide variety of situations, and has pieces that can adjust for changes in humidity or different kinds of amps or different thicknesses of strings.
Not having elements that do that might not stop it from being a guitar, but only in the same way that my 1989 VW Rabbit that hasn't driven since '02 is a car. It's a car, but only if it stays in one location and does very specific things. If you can't use it like a guitar, it's not a guitar.

Does it play the right notes?
People own guitars for two reasons: to make music and to get laid. If your guitar will not make music, you will not get laid. Therefore, guitars exist for one reason: music.
If your guitar does not play the right notes, you will not make music, and therefore not get laid. ):
Guitars play the wrong notes for three main reasons: the strings are out of tune, the intonation is wrong, or the fretboard is wrong.
If the string is the wrong tune, the string itself should still play properly relative to itself. When you play the first fret, the note should be raised half a step, no matter what the string is set to.
If the intonation is wrong, you can hopefully fix that (see previous comment about adjustable bridge saddles).
If the frets are in the wrong place, you're fucked. There are two ways to fix a guitar with frets in the wrong place. The first is the extremely expensive fretboard replacement, where a new board is made with the right frets, and put on your guitar.
The second is the more common, frequently similarly-priced, full-guitar replacement.
This is an easy thing to check for yourself. You need a precise tuner (I use GStrings on my phone) that tells you the HZ of each note, and you need your guitar (with suitable amplification to make the tuner pick up your notes).
So, pick a string, and tune it with the tuner so that the open string plays a note perfectly. That little needle should be right in the center of the tuner display.
Now fret the first fret and play the string again. You want that note to be almost in the center of the display as well. Check around on the fretboard, and you want most frets to be playing notes that have the needle roughly in the center. If your frets are ringing really sharp before about the 5th fret, you're going have problems.

Why this matters:
If it can't play music, it's not a guitar, it's a GSO.

How long is it going to last?
Durability is not always the sign of a good guitar. Unnecessary fragility is frequently the sign of a bad guitar.
Guitars go through things. You love them, you treat them nice, you buy fancy hard cases that protect it from harm, but it's also going to be in your car when you get into a crash and strapped to your shoulder when a drunk guy rams the stage with his shoulder.
Three of my guitars and two of my ukuleles are 10+ years older than me, and still in totally playable shape. None of these guitars was built to be particularly durable, and all of them have a little bit of road wear and battle damage, but none of them have broken in a way to make it unusable or less enjoyable to play.
Every guitar that I own could survive a drop from 9" high onto a wooden floor and not suffer any structural damage (yes, even the 30-year-old Ovation, despite everyone's insistence that it'll shatter like glass). I'm not saying you need to beat your guitar up, but if you're afraid to grab it by the neck and pick it up, it better have a really good excuse for being that fragile.

And another thing: A guitar shouldn't destroy itself through the process of existing. If you tune it up, put it on a good stand, leave for the weekend, and come back to a neck that's broken and unglued itself, you didn't have a guitar.
They're not like violin bows. You don't need to remove the tension when they're not in use.

Why this is important:
Because even if it was a guitar before you dropped it, if it broke in the first week of you owning it, it's now a guitar-shaped object.

OKAY, PINK, BUT WHY DO YOU CARE? why do YOU care how I spend MY money?
1) Because I like playing the guitar and watching other people get excited about learning the guitar. Because there's something very special to me about watching someone get interested in a thing I am interested in. Because I think the worst thing you can do to someone who is interested in something is to make it so they are not interested in that thing anymore. Because giving someone who wants to learn guitar an Object doesn't just make them lose interest in that particular Object, but in playing guitar in general.
2) Because there are so many good quality instruments out there that cost the same or less than the GSO crap you bought off Amazon for $39. This is especially true with guitars. There's so many people out there who bought a usable guitar, found out it wasn't for them, and are selling it in barely-used condition.
There are three ways to judge if you got your money's worth for something. How much would it cost to buy another just like it? What else is out there for that price? Do you feel like you paid too much?
Because, first of all, if there's some intangible "other" about what you own, and you feel like it was worth the money, then fine. But if you spent $80 on a guitar, and someone else is selling that exact same guitar for $30, you didn't get your money's worth. On the other hand, if you have a guitar that's technically worth about $30, but is very special to you in some way, then you might not be willing to part with it, because money cannot buy a replacement. If you got a used guitar for $20, but you would need to spend $300 to buy one exactly like it, you got more than your money's worth.
When you look at money this way, a $30 GSO will always be less than your money's worth, and searching around for a quality used guitar will almost always be more than your money's worth.
People buying GSO's because they think they're saving money just frustrates me. It's like burning $20 bills because you think the fire's saving you money on your heating bills.

So, there, my guide to looking realistically at an instrument and saying, do I hate guitar, or do I hate my guitar?
Also a handy guide to "do I need to feel bad for smashing this at the end of my set?" and "Can I cover this in glitter and route holes in it and make it into a zipline for the play that I'm working on?" and "Can I use this as a weapon."
Because as we all know, destroying an instrument for the sake of destruction is unforgivable.
But as we all learned, there's a lot of things out there that look like guitars, but just plain aren't.
Go have fun.

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