I’m an instrument collector and always on the look out for great gear. In recent times I came across the most amazing guitar straps from One off leather that are quite unlike anything else I have seen on my travels across the globe in many of the finest music stores. Charlotte Wainwright who creates the designs is well known in the high end shoe industry and her work is quite extraordinary.
She offers custom designs for artists and the creative work and quality of straps is really superb. Here are some examples of the items already in my collection.
This is the Shimo electric tenor guitar build for me by Takahiro Shimo from Tokyo.
Here is the spec
Body : White Limba, Neck : One Piece Hard Maple / Bolt On Pickups : Fender Style Hand Winding Single Coil x 2 / Alnico 5 Magnet, AWG 42 Wire Made in U.S.A. in 1959 Bridge : Hand Made by Steel Base with Brass Saddle Control : Volume x 1, Tone x 1 Pick Guard : Gray Tortoiseshell 5 ply Tuner : Schaller M6mini Body Shape : Shimo Original Peghead Shape : Shimo Original Body Color : Doghair Neck Finish : Matte Case : Original Hardshell
There are four pickup options, each giving a very different sound, so there are a lot of superb options. Previously I’ve bought Shimo’s acoustic instruments, this is my first electric one and I’m blown away. It both sounds and plays brilliantly. I’ll be using this both in the studio and for live work with my Supro amps.
Here’s Martin Simpson looking at it for the first time and putting it through its paces
A few years ago I came across Edwards guitars, made by ESP for the Japanese home market.
The pickups are made by Seymour Duncan and the hardware is by Gotoh. The wood choices are really good and the Japanese quality control is excellent. I finally managed to get my hands on an Edwards 335 in Tokyo and was not surprised to hear that this was one of the last instruments that is filled with the such top notch hardware and in the future, the prices will crank, the pickups will no longer be Seymour Duncans.
The black Edwards 335 seen below is made in Japan from carved maple, with the great hardware choices and a superb hardcase. The quality is better than most Gibson 335s and the playability is excellent. A Gibson 335 would start at an absolute minimum or 2300 and there’s nothing else that would remotely match the Edwards price point for such an instrument. On reverb second hand versions retail for 1400+. Price for the one below is sub 800 sterling, including the hard case. There are many “335| shaped objects, but nothing that comes close to this build quality, so this one is a great deal for any player
I’ve been aware of Danelectro for some time but never really investigated their guitars. These are straightforward no frills guitars, but very well made with a specific sound. The baritone 56 Danelectro guitar is very different to standard guitars. Firstly its tuned B – B rather than E – E and has 24 frets. This makes for a very different sound and of course if you capo at the 5th fret you are back in standard tuning. One of the minor frustrations in owning one of these instruments is finding a case to fit it. Danelectro don’t make even a soft case, which in my view is an epic fail as owners will mostly find a bass case is the only case that works. Even the excellent Mon M80 soft case which has a lot of headroom will take the instrument, but the case is stretched to its limit, which is not good.
I started using the baritone 56 with a Supro Comet amp and it sounds terrific. This combination produces a great electric roots sound and its a super simple old school set up. This set up is for my electric ensemble “The Heartache” and the combination will be great for live gigs. I also am rehearsing my acoustic ensemble “The Small Change Diaries” and thought I’d test out the guitar with a Henriksen Bud amp with an extension 10 inch cab. I’m delighted to report that the Danelectro 56 sounds fantastic with this amplification combination. The Henriksen Bud amps have also been my go to amps for acoustic instruments, but they work brilliantly with all manner of electric instruments as well. This combination really showcases how great the lipstick pickups can sound and I’ll be using this in live situations.
The Danelectro baritone 56 is an unusual guitar, but as well as looking really cool, it also allows for some very different sonic possibilities which would not be possible with conventional guitars. They are also well priced and this 56 is the most inexpensive guitar I have bought in many years.
Over the years I have come to realise the value of investing in really good musical gear. This has proved to be true for amps, as well as acoustic and electric instruments. I remember talking about this subject to my good friend and international violinist Laurent Zeller who commented that 15k would buy you “an ok< but not great violin!” Of course everyone will have a limit to what they can afford, but my experience is that a well made instrument will often inspire better playing. The challenge with mass produced instruments is that often the quality is at the best of times variable. I remember talking to one international artists in NYC who commented that for one well known brand you’d need to play ten to find one good one!
Reviews of gear?
Online reviews of musical gear can be useful, but there’s no substitute to having an instrument in your hand so you know how it responds and how it sounds. Also its a good tip to have somebody else play, so you can hear the result as a listener as well as a player which of course is very different. The challenge these days is to find any store that holds sufficient stock so that you can reference how things sound in the same acoustic space. Increasingly stores are closing and some of the ones I used to go to like Chandler Guitars in the UK, Hill Country Guitars in Austin Texas and Matt Umanov in NYC, no longer exist. Online reviews can also be very biased and partisan, so I mostly take these with a pinch of salt!
Luthier built instruments
Luthier built instruments can often be great investments as well as great playing instruments. When I first looked into buying and playing ukuleles, I was lucky enough to pick up a Collings pre production concert uke which had been at NAAM. As with all Collings instruments (both electric and acoustic) it sounded amazing and that was the start of my ukulele collection. I later bought my first Shimo from Japan and I now have eight of his instruments which have been used extensively in the studio. These still remain my favorite ukes, unlike anything else I have come across and I’ve played a lot of ukuleles from all over the world. There are a lot of “uke shaped objects”, some “ok” ones, some good ones, but few really great ones. In the UK the only place I shop at is Matt Stead’s store, where by far you get the best quality and prices. For acoustic instruments I love Sobells, Collings and Gregor Nowak’s instruments. I also have an excellent Pete Howlett uke that is quite unique.
To my great surprise, I am currently playing and recording a lot of electric guitar. This is a far cry from the last four years of acoustic work that revolved around guitars, ukuleles and other instruments. This is a great chance to revisit many pedals I have including the excellent Zen Drive 2 pedal.
I have always liked this pedak that to my ears has a very Robben Ford tone. I’ve been using it with the Acme DI straight in a DAW, and it sounds fantastic. The sound is in similar territory to the Dude pedal which I have also used on the latest set of recordings. The Zen Drive 2 is great for rhythm as well as lead work I’ve used all manner of pedals over the years and settled on a few which give the very best tones and keep the character of the instrument.
Here’s a video of the Zen Drive 2 in action
Recording in a DI manner is also very ususual for me. I’m really surprised at how good the overall sound is and of course having an excellent producer and using UAD plugins is an absolute game changer. I’m loving this very stripped down way of working and the material is rockier than anything I have recorded previously.
I continue to be amazed at how much difference some instrument string combinations make when matched to musical instruments. Since 2004 I’ve done a lot of research on what sounds great to my ears in terms of ukuleles and now I’m revisiting electric and acoustic guitar combinations.
Ukuleles are small bodied instruments and of course there are no “best strings” despite the nonsense proclaimed online in uke based social media! Instead different sized ukes with different materials will create some very different sound outcomes.
For my Shimo instruments Hilo strings are my first choice. The strings are much thicker than anything else I have used. Of course Hilos are now impossible to find, but I did stockpile 160 sets including 23 baritone uke sets. For my two Collings concert ukuleles, the Worth Brown sets sound best to my ears. For low G strings on tenor ukes, I prefer Freemont strings.
In recent times I’ve been playing more guitars and have been reviewing string choices for both electric and acoustics. Martin Simpson pointed me to balanced tension Nickel Bronze strings by D’addario. The low E is a 13.5 gauge, so we are in “Stevie Ray Vaughn” territory. These work brilliantly for my two Stefan Sobell acoustics, but would not be the best fit for by Collings guitars.
D’addario also do electric NYXL sets that sound great on my stratocasters. I’m always fascinated at the sonic improvement with a new set of strings and these are quite exceptional. Martin Simpson always advocated the benefits of changing strings and I agree 100%
Of course not everyone gets this and of course social media forums are full of posts asking “What are the best strings?” and in the ukulele world some advocate buying fishing line, rather than invest in actual quality checked ukulele string sets. Part of finding your sound as an artist is in making string choices as they are a key ingredient in determing the final sound.
Once a year I do a proper review of my instrument collection and decide whether to move on some of the collection. This can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes some instruments have served their purpose and have been superceeded by new aquisitions.
I have a checklist of four fundamental questions when deciding whether to keep or move on an instrument
1 Do I use it live? 2 Do I record with it? 3 Do I write with it? 4 Am I keeping as an investment or for sentimental reasons?
I’m lucky enough to travel across the globe each year and to know where to find the very best instruments. The biggest challenge of living in the UK is that we simply don’t have the choice that would be available in many other countries. Stores like Rudy’s Music in New York and Carters Music in Nashville simply don’t exist in the UK for guitars. For ukuleles there are numerous great stores in Japan than offer instruments I’ll never see in the UK.
Custom Built instruments that are “keepers”
I never set out to be an instrument collector, but mostly seek out instruments for live work, writing or recording purposes. With live work any instrument needs to be amplified and 100% reliable. Some instruments are better played acoustically without pickups and of course every instrument requires different amplification considerations. This is one of the reasons why questions like “Whats the best pickup or amp?” are totally meaningless!
I have increasingly sought out had made custom instruments rather than production line instruments. Yes, there is a higher financial ticket price but the attention to detail and quality is usually much higher. There are few companies who reach such quality standards and Collings guitars definately falls into that catagory. I interviewed Bill Collings many years ago and told him that I have never played any acoustic or electric Collings instrument that was anything other than excellent. Bill had the perfect ability to figure out the very best elements in brands like Martin, Gibson and Fender and then improve on what they did.
I own a number of Collings instruments including an I35 electric, a tenor guitar, a 6 string acoustic and two concert ukuleles. All are superb. In terms of custom builds my preference for ukuleles is Takahiro Shimo and I have eight of his instruments so far. I also own two Stefan Sobell acoustics and a mandola. Stefan is another great builder and like Shimo there is a wait for any instruments as they are greatly in demand. Pete Howlett is also a superb builder from Wales and Gregor Nowak from Vienna continues to amaze me with his instrument builds. Almost without exception any of these purchases are keepers and the production models are the ones that usually get moved on at some point.
Space and other considerations
Ukuleles and mandolins are small bodied instruments, so don’t take up a lot of space. Guitars however can soon take up a lot of space, especially if you have good protective cases for each instrument. Suddenly space (or lack of it) can be an issue.
I’m a big fan of instruments being played and its of course once you get to a certain volume of instruments its impossible to play them all on a regular basis. I’d rather pass on some such instruments so they get the attention they deserve, than have them just sitting in cases.
This year I have been learning new instruments and one of the toughest adjustments has been to learning the mandolin. I’ve always wanted to find a mandolin I loved and until this year have tried numerous great instruments but never really got on with any of them. That was until I was introduced to this mandolin previously owned my Martin Carthy by Martin Simpson.
Its been a tough 6 months and Evan Davis has been a wonderful teacher coaxing out some sonic improvements. The initially experience was like wrestling the kraken as I found it really hard to get used to the neck width and the either strings in what to me seems like a very small space. Finally we’ve made friends and I’m starting to get some good sounds from this mandolin and to my delight am enjoying playing it. Up until recently, its been a lot of work where my brain found it very hard to connect to my fingers!
One of the key realisations is that this is very much a percussive instrument and having a proper think mandolin plectrum really helps. I’ve had to park all previous thoughts and expectations from years of playing guitars and ukuleles and start from scratch. It continues to be a massive learning curve, at times frustrating and at times just delightful. I’m glad I’ve stuck with it and have made a plan for 2020 which will include picking up a second mandolin custom made, so I better get myself in gear to learn more tunes and even start writing some material.
I recently did an insurance review for my instruments and I was amazed at how many have greatly increased in value. There are various reasons including the decline in sterling value, new regulations on making some woods less obtainable and the fact that anything of quality usually increases in value over a period of time.
In the world of ukuleles my own experience is that there are a huge number of “ukulele shaped objects” some reasonable instruments and a few really exceptional instruments. I currently have 22 different ukuleles and have passed on 10. The core 22 are really exceptional and include 7 Shimos, 3 Collings concert ukuleles, a Pete Howlett, a James Triggs Gibson prototype, and a 100 year old Martin soprano. These are all terrific playing instruments, many of which have been used extensively in the studio. They are also hard to find, especially in the UK. I’ve not seen a Collings uke for years and I am delighted to have a pre production concert, a custom doghair finish concert and a concert signed personally by Bill Collings.
In terms of guitars, I have a number of high end instruments that are great playing/recording guitars which have also become superb investments. The Collings I35 Deluxe with Tom Holmes pickups has increased in value by 160% and the Sobell acoustics are also great investments. When I interviewed Bill Collings I commented that I have never played any Collings instrument that was less than excellent. My last Collings purchase was a Waterloo guitar which is one of the best instruments I have ever played, truly superb and I’ll be recording with it later this year. I also have a Collings 4 string tenor guitar which is rare and fascinating to play. I also have a Stefan Sobell mandola which is in pristine condition and an old Gibson mandolin that was previously owned by Martin Carthy and sounds great.
There is an old saying “Buy cheap, buy twice” I fully appreciate that everyone has budgets to stick to, but I’ve never regretted buying any quality instrument, even if I’m financially stretched for a period. The two biggest impulse buys are from Gregor Nowak in Vienna, a Brazilian cavaquinho and a guitarelle, both of which are outstanding. All these instruments bring immense joy and are tools for playing live, recording or writing. I’ve reduced the collection to 35 instruments at this point in time and they all bring great joy and inspire all manner of creative thinking.