I accidentally bought a guitar, and ended up with an unexpected bargain

Guitars & Gear

I’ve noticed a few decent-looking guitars going for sale on eBay recently. In the past, I’ve picked up a few great instruments and amps, including the Strat which was my main touring guitar for a decade, as well as two Fender Mustang floor units, which I use for live work most of the time nowadays. However, buying something online, especially a musical instrument you haven’t played, or even held, can be a risky business. I therefore try to set an ‘absolute maximum’ price which I won’t go over. This is price is normally quite low, meaning I should be able to at least earn a small profit on any guitars I decide to move on – but it does mean I’m not usually the ‘winning bidder’ when interesting pieces catch my attention.

That is, until I saw this gem…

What is it?

This guitar is modeled on the Gibson non-reverse Firebird III, one of Gibson’s early forays into the offset market, only flipping the body to be a mirror image of the shape in the above picture, hence the term reverse. From 1965 to 1969, Gibson offered a non-reverse version, in a much more Jazzmaster style shape. The ‘III’ in the name is a reference to the guitar having three P90 pickups, unlike the two mini humbuckers on previous Firebird models. Because these non-reverse bodied, three pickup guitars were only available for around four years, they are considered highly collectible and even ones in poor condition go for thousands of pounds.

However, I knew from the price I paid for it alone that this guitar was not a real Gibson. Once it had been delivered, it was clear that the ‘Gibson’ logo on the headstock is actually a decal, added after the original purchase (although some of these copies were actually supplied with stickers such as this, or alternative truss rod covers that read ‘Gibson’, so perhaps it came with the instrument). An original Gibson of this style from the mid to late sixties would have looked slightly different, too – chrome hardware, black pickup covers and probably a Firebird decal somewhere on the pickguard. But I have to say, I quite like the gold hardware, and I’ve always preferred cream/aged white pickup covers, especially on retro-styled guitars such as these.

So who made it?

In my initial research, the Japanese manufacturer Tokai looked the most likely suspect. Tokai, along with Ibanez, were famous for their ‘lawsuit guitars’ in the seventies; the lawsuit occurred because they were making better Les Pauls than Gibson were (the 70s saw huge reductions in quality from both Gibson and Fender guitars, making the Japanese rip-offs much more appealing, and better value). Tokai have certainly released their own take on the Firebird design, but after a little more digging, I believe this model to be made by the almost completely unknown Gould brand; seemingly British-based, but put together in China, probably in the early 2000s.

Is it any good?

Heck, yes. It sounds amazing, and reinforces my belief that sometimes, one is merely paying extra money for the right name on the headstock. This guitar plays really well, hangs nicely on a strap and has a good vintage-feel neck (i.e., it’s thicker than many modern guitars). The guitar’s budget P90 pickups sound as good as any other I have played, and the unique control layout of three way switch (neckb/ neck & bridge / bridge), shared volume for neck & bridge pickup, plus a separate volume control for the middle P90, allows for seven different pickup configurations, all of which can be tweaked by how you decide to blend pickups together. The master tone control appears to taper smoothly as well – rare for what is clearly a budget guitar. P90s sit somewhere between humbuckers and single-coil pickups in terms of output and ‘beefiness’, and I certainly get a ‘Strat on steroids’ vibe from this guitar. I love the sound of this guitar played clean, through a Fender Deluxe or Twin Reverb style amp as well as a more retro-styled dirty sound – a Fender Bass man plus a vintage tremelo effect sounded wonderfully evocative…

Could this instrument become my main guitar for soul work, replacing my main all-rounder, my vintage-voiced blonde Stratocaster?

There was one slight fault. The frets don’t seem to be the best quality, and a few were coming away slightly, causing bends to choke at certain points on the neck. I noticed the same issue might be happening in a few other places, so I sent the guitar off to my tech guy for a partial refret, which thankfully didn’t cost too much. Upon it’s return, the notes all sing beautifully, especially with those P90s…

Three great sounding P90s, giving seven different pickup combinations – and just look at that gorgeous sunburst finish…

Pros and cons

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Amazing triple P90 sound
  • Gorgeous sunburst finish (and general retro styling)
  • A really classy twist on the classic Jazzmaster shape
  • Great copy of an otherwise unattainable guitar

Neutrals

  • Neck might be too chunky for some (but just right for me)

Cons

  • Needed a partial refret
  • Resale value won’t be that high if I decide to sell it on

All in all, I think I’ve grabbed a bargain! Especially from a random purchase on eBay. At least it’ll give me a new toy to play with while I wait for my new custom guitar to be completed (more on that later this year…)

Upcycled music: my custom-built, eco-friendly classical guitar

Guitars & Gear

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may be aware that I recently had a new classical guitar custom made for me by Neil McHardy Guitars in Cumbria. Here’s some details and a closer look…

McHardy’s eco-friendly mindset

Neil works alone and handbuilds his guitars to order. His offset sound hole design came from his father, who built guitars for the boys he used to teach, using old wood. Neil, a retired engineer, has kept the same overall design & philosophy, creating beautiful instruments out of old wood. Most of his guitars had previously been doors, floorboards or old workbenches. It goes against the mentality of many high-end luthiers, who prize certain ‘tonewoods’ over others. Believe me, these guitars sound brilliant & play as well (if not better) than their (considerably) more expensive rivals.

Unique in more ways than one

I first discovered Neil’s craftsmanship at the Sunbeams Music Centre in Penrith, which has a guitar donated by him amongst its collection. Intrigued by his philosophy of using recycled wood, I contacted him to ask if he had ever made a nylon-strung guitar. Neil told me he had not (all of his creations until then had been steel-strung acoustics), but was up for the challenge.

After lots of careful of research, Neil designed & built a guitar to my specifications. He also sent me regular work in progress pictures (below).

The finished product

Neil finished the guitar for me in late January, and it was great to finally have it in my hands to play. All of my requests & requirements had been met, from the thinner body depth to the input jack being placed separately from the bridge pin/end strap button. The offset soundhole does not effect volume, but rather allows for more vibration of the top. It also suits my more percussive style of playing better.

Specifications

Top: Red Cedar
Back & Sides: Spanish Cedar
Neck: Cherry, with a Beech stripe
Fretboard & Bridge: African Ebony
Head Facing & Golpe: American Walnut

Nut & Saddle: Camel Bone
Pickup: Fishman ‘Presys’

Depth: 90mm at bottom, tapering to 70mm at top
Width of lower bout: 370mm
Length: 1,000mm
Nut Width: 52mm (2″)

I’ve played this guitar for a couple of months now and still very pleased with it. The thinline body & offset soundhole create less conventional nylon-strung sound which is perfect for jazz and latin styles, while still retaining an intrinsic classical vibe.

Unplugged, it is loud enough to be heard, but the onboard mic/pickup combo is very versatile for both live performance and recording – I especially like being able to blend the ratio of microphone (just under the soundhole on the guitar’s upper bout) and pickup. Having a tuner on there means one less thing to forget to pack in my gigbag too!

I’m terms of how it looks, I think this guitar is a real stunner. To me, it mixes the best of classic Spanish guitar with elements of African design – particularly in the binding & rosette. Speaking of which, these are another feature unique to all McHardy Guitars, as they are pieced together from spare wood chippings. No two rosettes made by Neil look the same!

Playability

The action is low but clean, and the 52mm (2 inch) nut, the standard in classical guitar making, feels perfectly comfortable. Its thinline body make it easy to hold in the right position and the neck is well intonated. Big stretches aren’t a problem and full chords hold their tuning across the fretboard. In short, it feels as good to play as it sounds.

The electrics are simple to navigate and sound superb. I’ve already found two settings which will likely become my main voicings for this instrument.

One of a kind

When I first met Neil in his workshop, I noticed he had a collection of wooden circles on a string. These, he explained, were the cut-outs from the soundhole of every guitar he had ever made. He estimated there to be around 50 in total. All of them steel-strung six string acoustics, until mine.

However, it seems Neil continues to diversity and experiment. At time of writing, he was starting on his first ever twelve string, another requested build. I’m sure he’ll nail it as brilliantly ass he did with my nylon-strung axe.

In a follow up conversation, Neil mentioned one of his Facebook followers admiring photos of my finished guitar so much that he had started enquiring about his own. So perhaps this could be the start of a whole new range for Neil!

For more info…

If you asked about his work, Neil would tell you that he’s “just a man in a shed”. However, if you would like to see more of his guitars, or even discuss a future build of your own, then please do check him out via the Neil McHardy Guitars Facebook page – just don’t inundate the poor guy with requests for the Tim Higgins Signature Model!