A Quest for the Holy Grail of Tone: Building Your Guitar Without Breaking the Bank

As those of you who play the electric guitar painfully understand, there is little out there that has quite the same get-up-and-go when it comes to chaining your wallet to a chair and beating it with a rubber hose (except maybe textbooks and acoustic drum sets). If you’re one of those lucky folks who has evolved from “I’m playing this because it’s awesome” to “I’m playing this because it’s awesome and, oh damnit, now I care about it,” then I’m sure you’re also well aware of the quest for the Holy Grail of tone and all of the associated nerd rage.

There’s a lot of excellent advice out there; it’s just that most of it is screaming for help under a pile of complete and utter nonsense. I like my nonsense as much as the next person, but when the vein is spoiled it hurts both your finances and your ability to progress as a player and/or connoisseur. A great example is the argument that this particular type of wood is best, or these pickups, etc. Seventh-grade Earth Science should have taught you that the behaviors of physical forces are circumstantial—the same goes for this sound stuff. Taking into account the notion that “best” is nearly meaningless in this context, one might argue that there’s no better way to learn than through experimentation. However, until you can teach your stomach to digest overdrive pedals, it’s probably best to take the path of least cash resistance. I guarantee you that 80 percent of the wasted cash is based on caving to superficialities and paying for the vintage analog despite the feeling that the cheapo digital worked better for you. Don’t let your love for rock n’ roll land you sleeping in the alley outside of Crow Bar under a pile of stuff you can’t eat.

Call me a hippy, but a musician’s connection with their instrument is of utmost importance and will absolutely translate into tone. Remember this: the actuality of something and what that something appears to be are often not the same thing. I’ve played with plenty of gear knock-offs, off-brands, and no-names that have outperformed their expensive cousins. And I’ve also handled ones that were supposed to, but didn’t. The trick is to simply be honest with yourself and ignore absolutist ideals, because they’re seldom true.

Point being, if you’re going to play in front of someone (or a mirror) and feel cranky because you have a Squire instead of a Fender, it’s okay to take that into account. Sporting the bells and whistles while sounding awful is a perfectly respectable choice if you’re aware of what you’re doing. There’s a lot of chatter about how only suckers fall for that sort of thing (and on the flipside about how the only choice is a high-priced American guitar), but in this case I think the end justifies the means—an informed decision is defined simply by being informed, not what the decision is. And strange as it may sound, that comfort will improve your playing.

So you’ve got this thing in your hands—here is where it gets nasty. Most money blown isn’t on the instruments themselves, but on upgrades, pedals, and other accessories. Just about everything in, on, or around your instrument and the accompanying amplifier contributes to this mythical tone you seek—from the material of the nut to the tuners, bridge, strings, pickups, pots, capacitors, body material, your type of amp, tubes, speaker cabinet, speakers, cables… yep. Unfortunately there’s no off switch for this, and there’s a lot of confusion, compromise, and contradictory reviews for most of the stuff; however, most advice worth its salt will always touch on two really wise pieces of information.

The first is to get a setup. A good round of adjustments can make a massive difference for the money. And the second: the most important contributing factors are your fingers and brain cells. And that’s why I’m going to tell you to just relax and try stuff out. Compare. Fiddle with knobs. Poke things (not with sticks). Be sure to do it in as close an environment to your own as possible. And get back on those forums and read endlessly. Use emoticons and possibly rage a bit. Let one of those montages happen where day turns to night over and over again until you know what you’re into.

Now that it’s 2016, you may have decided to go for the expensive stuff, the cheap stuff, or a mix of the two. You might have saved yourself the $15 it takes to fix a broken ground by soldering a wire from your bridge plate to a tin foil hat that, coincidentally, also protected you from the Pleiadian agenda. The bottom line is just do whatever the hell you want, other folks’ opinions be simultaneously heeded and damned. And as hinted at, whatever you want may wind up being exactly what I’m suggesting you don’t do. And that’s fine too, but don’t expect a Christmas card.

Corvallis Music Shops

Corvallis has an amazing array of music shops, not only in relation to its population, but in general. As a musician and recording engineer it is incredibly convenient to have this sort of diversity at my fingertips, as the ability to physically pick up gear and get a personal feel for it is paramount when it comes to making informed decisions. Unlike chains or online outlets, our local shops carry an intensely diverse selection of everything from name brands to the nameless (and bizarre), thanks to great consignment programs.

Clustered downtown, we have Bullfrog, Troubador, Gracewinds, Seismic, and the Fingerboard Extension. Between Fingerboard and Troubador, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better selection of alternative and folk instruments anywhere, including a massive selection of banjos, violins, and everything in between. While Gracewinds is closer to the “big box store” motif, it boasts an extremely wide array of instruments, delving into just about every category imaginable. While it may be a bit more mainstream, if nobody else has it, chances are that Gracewinds does—and I’d wager that it occupies a space that either has or will keep large chains like Guitar Center from attempting to impose themselves on our doorstep.

The smaller of the shops, Bullfrog Music and Seismic, respectively boast one of the best guitar techs I’ve ever dealt with (and an excellent stable of Breedlove acoustics, made mostly right here in Oregon), as well as a shop dedicated almost entirely to accessories.

Not only do Corvallisites have no real need to go elsewhere for their musical desires, but residents of larger Oregonian cities have every reason in the world to travel here in search of curing their GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome, of course).

By Johnny Beaver



  • – Bullfrog Music


  • – Troubadour Music Center


  • – Seismic Music


  • – Gracewinds Music


  • – The Fingerboard Extension