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Guitars in 2015 - the year in review

Fender Standard Stratocaster HSS

Price hikes and lesser desires for vintage can sum up this year.

2015 wasn't a groundbreaking year as far as guitars were concerned, but there were a few things I noticed.

The "Big F" and "Big G" further plod along into boutique-only territory

First, the Fender Mexico Standard Strat, including the HSS model (seen above) jumped up in price by $100. Ridiculous.

Second, a new Gibson USA Les Paul Standard broke over $3,000. Ludicrous.

Fender and Gibson are basically turning into boutique brands - even for their lower-end models. This is weird because "mass-produced" and "boutique" don't go together, but both Fender and Gibson do it anyway because they can get away with it (for now.) This is all the more reason to just go Squier or go Epiphone instead.

Vintage guitar appeal is waning

The desire for owning a vintage electric is far less than it used to be, and it's primarily for four reasons.

  1. Too expensive
  2. No guarantee of ROI (Return On Investment)
  3. Both Fender and Gibson can easily replicate anything the old guitar had, and for less than the genuine article
  4. The genuine article is too old to be playable

It's reason #4 that's the biggie.

In 2016, a guitar made in 1969 will be 47 frickin' years old. That's dangerously close to the half-century mark. Electric guitars were never designed to last that long. While true there are many over a half-century in age that still exist, what is not being said is how many are now unplayable due to age.

For example, take a real-deal Gibson Les Paul of the 1950s. Can't be played. Why? One reason is the "tulip" tuner buttons. The ravages of old age make those things literally crumble apart right in your fingers even with the gentlest of care.

Age problems happen with electric guitars starting at around 25 years old, regardless of make, model or manufacturing origin of the instrument. Corrosion and even erosion happens where things just crumble apart.

I'll say it like this: It is a STUPID IDEA to buy a vintage electric. Don't do it.

Do you own a vintage electric now that's worth money?

If you do and the guitar holds no sentimental value, sell it. Get rid of the thing now while it's still playable. Take the money and run. The time is now to part with it. Get the money now while people are still stupid enough to pay more for a vintage electric. If you bought the dumb thing as an "investment piece," now is the time to cash in. If you don't, the guitar will literally start to crumble apart, if it hasn't started to already.

Boutique appeal is waning

The desire for a boutique instrument (which is the same as vintage appeal but with a new instrument) is also waning, and this is happening for just one reason:


There are more players waking up to the fact that spending thousands of dollars on an electric guitar is just a dumb idea.

Or put another way, more players are waking up to the fact it's better to own 3 different cool cheaper guitars than one really expensive one.

An example of 3 cheap cool guitars, is a Squier Strat, an Epiphone Les Paul and a Squier Jazz Bass. You can get all three of those for as little as $700 USD total. Bear in mind that's three guitars. All the tones and sounds you want in guitars you already know. Easy, cheap and good.

When is a boutique instrument actually worth it?

Answer 1: When you meet a luthier personally in his workshop to discuss your build. That luthier will construct your guitar from nothing but wood blanks to your design specs, and you will spend about $3,000 minimum at the end of it all. But it will be a truly custom made guitar built for you, just as if a tailor fabricated a suit for you from scratch. That's as boutique as it gets, and nothing is more "yours" than that.

Answer 2: When you build the guitar yourself from scratch. It will take a while, you will buy a whole bunch of woodworking tools, and it certainly won't be cheap. But it is worth it just to build something yourself that actually works.

More players are realizing that a lot of "great tone" actually comes from great software

Amps are amps and blah blah blah frickin' blah. But what matters more these days is how to get your guitar recorded properly to sound good on Bandcamp or YouTube or SoundCloud or wherever you post your songs/riffs.

Solution? Zoom R8. Or DigiTech RP360 (or XP model with pedal.) Or maybe plug-in software.

You will never get that golden turned-up-to-11 tube sound recording with microphones at home. Not happening. You can try, but you'll fail...

...unless you wise up and emulate it with software. Then you'll get that great sound.

You'll realize something else by going the software route. Pickups aren't everything. With today's software solutions, you can even make a $89 guitar sound like a million bucks.

What's coming for 2016?

Price increases...

Fender and Gibson prices will continue to increase. No surprise there.

Limited-run models

A trend that started a few years back that will continue to happen are limited-run cheap electrics. Guitar makers are trying out different things just to see what sells and what doesn't with minimal investment on their part. Squier for example did this with the Cabronita Telecaster and a few Strat HH models. Epiphone did it with a few models as well.

In other words, if you see something you like in 2016 that's cheap and available, grab it because it will probably be gone in less than 3 months.

Bluetooth wireless connectivity for guitar that's actually usable?

You might see more options to connect a guitar wirelessly.

The most civilized tech-friendly guitar is the Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III; it has USB connectivity, stereo outputs and loads of goodies - but no wireless.

What I mean by "most civilized" is that the Epi LP III is the tech-style guitar that serves the most use to the player. There's not just a bunch of whiz-bang stuff just for the sake of stuffing it in there. Rather, every part of the guitar has its purpose, from the ProBucker pickups to "Shadow NanoMag" to the USB connectivity to the stereo output and so on.

But again, no wireless. That's the one thing missing from the guitar. If it had it, what should the wireless control? Maybe a pedal effect, maybe an amp, maybe a smartphone app, maybe all three?

Whatever wireless tech we see in guitars for the future, it has to serve some kind of benefit to the player and not be just for show.

For example, something like an assignable wireless effect on/off toggle (such as for distortion to clean) would be genuinely useful. Short-range Bluetooth could be used for this.

The problem with Bluetooth is of course latency, otherwise known as lag. But for simple effect switching, the pause is acceptable. I do believe players would genuinely like having an assignable on/off Bluetooth toggle on the guitar to enable/disable their effect of choice. The functionality of the guitar is extended without taking away any of its playability, and it's stupidly easy to operate since the effect assignment is done at the effect unit and not the guitar.

Makes sense to me. Someone should build it, starting with the toggle switch that goes on the guitar, the "smart switch" (which really isn't "smart" but just Bluetooth-enabled.)

Even if someone just built the switch and nothing else, that would be a good start.

"Hey! That already exists!"

No, not really. There is Jack, but it's real clunky and ugly:

Imagine the thing seen in the above video not as a plug-in to the guitar's output jack, but rather a simple on/off toggle that doesn't act for audio throughput. Instead, it enables/disables the guitar effect of your choice. A signal is sent to the effect and that's the way it works.

Yes, it acts just like a stomp box, but has two major advantages over it. First, the toggle is assignable to any effect you can connect it to and not just one effect, and second, the toggle is physically on the instrument so you don't have to walk over to a box and stomp it. That is useable wireless tech to a guitar player.

"Couldn't the same thing be achieved with a strap-mount box?"

Yes - if it can be designed small enough to where it doesn't bother the player to use it.

REMEMBER: The goal is not to replace the guitar lead but rather add in functionality to enable/disable effects wirelessly without having to walk over to a box.

A return to "workhorse" guitar designs (hopefully)

Fender has already started doing this somewhat, as has the Squier lineup. Gibson isn't because they're too busy releasing ultra-boutique garbage that nobody can afford, but Epiphone is at least answering the call here.

A "workhorse" guitar design simply means a no-nonsense simple guitar that's built well and offered in nice range of solid colors that are non-metallic (but shiny.)

Example workhorse designs for Strats are the Fender Standard Stratocaster in Arctic White or the Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster in Black. Plain, simple, elegant, no metallic anywhere, no pearloid anywhere.

It's not that workhorse guitars haven't been around because they're certainly available, but when I'm hoping happens is that we see more of them across the board from all electric guitar makers. We need more solid-color choices on the tried-and-true simple design electrics.

A move away from anything "Custom Shop"

This is not a going-to-happen thing, but rather something I'd like to see happen.

The guitar industry has ruined the phrase "custom shop" so much to the point where it doesn't mean anything anymore other than "this guitar costs more because it has useless frilly crap on it."

Any time I see any guitar (or pedal or pickup for that matter) with "custom shop" in its model name, I know it's overpriced junk. How do I know this? Because it has fancy bits and bobs on it that don't do anything to make the the guitar any better. Such examples are gold-colored hardware, "custom" finish options, anything that lights up that doesn't need to, any pickup that's claimed to be hand-wound (a lie because nobody winds a pickup without a machine,) and so on. I could name more, but you get the idea.

"Custom Shop" at this point has totally lost its luster and guitar companies need to stop using it for at least a few years.

In the end...

...2015 was an okay year for guitars. Like I said, not groundbreaking. A few price hikes here, a few limited-run models there, but nothing too spectacular.

The most exciting thing for me was seeing the maple-board Squier HSS Strats right as this year is closing out. That's a cool guitar, and I'm still considering picking one up.

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