In Praise of Cheap Instruments: 3 Pros Discuss their Appeal

In an era when a production-model guitar can easily set you back five grand and when a vintage solid-body guitar might fetch as much as a house, you might catch yourself believing that the more expensive the axe, the better it must be.

The truth, however, is that some high-dollar guitars are lackluster and, conversely, some of the cheapest instruments are gems. And plenty of fine guitarists of all stripes can attest to this.

Reverb spoke with Adam Levy, Dave Schramm and Tashi Dorji, three professional players whose styles couldn’t be more dissimilar, about the appeal of inexpensive gear and some of their favorite pieces.

Adam Levy

Adam Levy

Adam Levy

Adam Levy, a jazz/Americana guitarist and singer-songwriter who’s worked with everyone from Norah Jones to Amos Lee, is known for playing one of the most coveted guitars on the vintage market, a 1964 Gibson ES-335. But Levy uses a bunch of less expensive pieces for his warm and restrained signature style.

Not long ago, Levy brought his brand new all-mahogany Martin, an 000-17SM, to a high-profile recording session where his co-guitarists came with their Brazilian rosewood Martins from the 1920s. He found it stacked up favorably to its nearly century-old counterparts.

“Holding a 1928 000-18 up to my solar plexus, I can feel the difference in my bones, but on the mic, my new Martin really holds its own. I don’t know of any other guitar that I’d put up against a guitar worth more than 10 times the price.”

Instead of a vintage or high-end modern Fender, Levy recently picked up a used Cabronita Telecaster for $500 and has been enjoying gigging and recording with it, finding that its Gretsch-style pickups really cut through a mix.

“I figured if I couldn’t get my hands on a really great ’52 blackguard Telecaster, I’d just get the cheapest Tele I could find,” he says. “In a way, my Cabronita is probably close to what they were making in 1952, since the Telecaster was certainly not a luxury item then.”

Levy also has opted for a common and inexpensive overdrive pedal, Boss’ OD-3, in lieu of a pricey boutique stompbox. It’s been on active duty in Levy’s rig for five years. “It works so well in a low-volume situation where I want it to sound like the amp’s turned up, singing and humming. I’d put it up against any low-gain overdrive pedal, at any price,” Levy says, adding that his next inexpensive purchase will be Behringer’s Ultra Vibrato pedal ($24.99 street), which to his ear sounds every bit as good as Boss’ discontinued VB-2, often fetching more than $500 on the used market.

Dave Schramm

Dave Schramm

Dave Schramm

Dave Schramm, indie-rock stalwart best known for playing guitar in Yo La Tengo during the band’s early years, has led the band The Schramms since the late 1980s. Around the time he started the group, he picked up a Japanese-made Fender Telecaster for $300 and slapped a Fender Bigsby on it. He’s played the guitar on every album he’s worked on since then, including all of the Schramms’ albums, the Replacement’s All Shook Down, and a handful of albums by the singer-songwriter Kate Jacobs, among other recordings. Schramm says,

“I’ve now played it so much that it’s desperately in need of a fret job. Undoubtedly that will cost more than I’ve put into the guitar, but what the hell. One of the benefits of a cheap guitar is that I’m not too precious with it,” he continues. “Nicks and scratches mean nothing really; screwing an old Bigsby into the body was a no-brainer. But still I’d be very sad if it were gone. Cheap guitars are not necessarily easy to replace. I bought another ‘80s Telecaster so I’d have a backup in Europe for touring, but it didn’t play or sound nearly as nice.”

Among the other highlights in Schramm’s collection of cheap gear is a the late-’50s Valco Tonemaster lap steel he bought for $125 in the early 1980s, which can be heard on Yo La Tengo songs like “River of Water” and “I Can’t Forget,” and which he used for the sessions of the group’s latest album Stuff Like That There. For tracking acoustic parts he’s relied on a beat-up Yamaha FG JR1, a 3/4-size flattop with a current street price of $134.99. “It’s very mid-range-y and one dimensional, but it’s easy to play and it records a certain way that I like,” says Schramm. “I can do some chordal things that are tricky on a regular-scale guitar, but easy on this.”

Tashi Dorji

Tashi Dorji, one of the most original guitarists in the world of free improvisation, uses the cheapest and most unremarkable instruments in conjuring up his brilliant, otherworldly soundscapes. His main guitars are a hundred-dollar Hohner HW605 concert-sized steel-string and an equally inexpensive Ibanez 2839 nylon-string. “I find that both are excellent guitars,” says Dorji. “I am not much of a gear/guitar head, so anything that has great action, sound and durability works for me.”

Similarly, Dorji has invested little in his electric gear. He plays an old Jay Turser semi-hollow with P-90-style pickups, which is probably worth $250 used. Though this instrument costs less than a tenth of a modern Gibson semi-hollow — or less than 100th of a vintage one! — Dorji sings its praises. “Another great guitar, and it looks fine too,” he says, showing that it can be less about what you play than how you play it.

Lead photo by Patrick Wall

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