Thursday, July 21, 2005

First Guitar

It wasn't too long ago that my friend AD and I were jamming over at my house. We both play guitar, not virtuoso but well enough to have fun and sound decent doing it. The boys were home when we were playing and they couldn't resist, they had to have their turn. AD lent my youngest his Arbor Les Paul copy and my oldest got to play my old Squier Strat (the first "real" guitar I ever owned). They had a blast banging away and making a LOT of noise. J particularly enjoys the chance to play my Strat any chance he can. Used to be, he would sit on my lap and strum while I worked the fingerboard. Now here he was trying to do both, not very well but he was having a blast.

Well, we let them have their fun for a bit and then the big boys wanted to play again, to much argument and distress from the little ones for whom we were about to spoil their good time. What can you do?

Since that day J has been picking up my Strat when he can and trying to play, it was obvious he was hooked. After much consideration, my wife and I decided it was time. So for his birthday this week he got his very own solid-body electric! Needless to say he was very happy.

I have dual inputs on my Fender combo so we can both "play" at the same time. Life should get really interesting.

Since it was obvious that a full-sized guitar was going to be too big for him, we decided to go with a small scale guitar. K and I had looked at them over at a local music store previously and spoken to the guitar tech about the prevalent model--the Fender Squier Mini Strat (specifications), and let's just say he was not overly enthused. "Passable" was the best endorsement he would give it. I'm no novice myself when it comes to solid-body electrics and I did my research. It seems the Mini Strat might fit the bill for a starter guitar even after wading through many mixed reviews. I certainly wasn't expecting much for $99, that is for sure but we went ahead and took the plunge.

It had to be red of course (everything has to be red, don't you know?). We just happened to get hold of the only red one available in the store. Now it's time for my own review, was this thing going to work for him...

First off, I have been playing guitar forever (since my mom bought me my first steel-string acoustic when I was eight. I beat that poor thing to death, but in retrospect it was a terrible guitar to begin with. The neck was terribly bowed, among other deficiencies but I had a lot of fun with it just plunking around whenever). I got serious and bought my first electric (the Squire Strat I still have) in 1986 I believe. I modified it a bit on my own--had a graphite nut installed, put a Seymour Duncan Classic Stack in the bridge position, added a phase switch, and some cosmetic stuff too, but these days it is in pretty bad playing shape. Needs fret work (or a just new neck period) & a setup to go along with that but I digress. I also have the custom Warmoth that I put together from parts I got from them (and other places). Now that is a sweet playing guitar. Warmoth makes the best necks ever, IMO. But back to the Mini. In the off-times when J has not been playing with it, I have been checking it out and here's what I have come up with:

Pickups, Electronics, Strings, and Tone
There are a lot of complaints in reviews about the pickups being noisy. Oh brother, get over it! What do you want from single coil pickups on a $99 guitar anyway? They are no more (or less) noisy then most other generic single coil pickups I've heard. Play it in the 2 (bridge/mid) or 4 position (neck/mid) and ta-da, no noise (or at least less, even at high gain).

If I had a gripe about them, I would be more inclined to say that these pickups are somewhat thin/brittle sounding (particularly in the bridge position) but tweaking the amp, they are musical enough especially for a starter axe. The neck position sounds fine to me. I usually chose the neck/mid combo to limit noise, and besides I particularly like the tone that combination produces myself. (FWIW, I never play the mid pickup by itself, there's just something about the tone I am not overly fond of for some reason. Isn't it all so subjective after all?) On the subject of tone, I didn't even waste time with the strings that it came with (Fender 9-42). I had the store do the initial set up with D'Addario EXL110's (10-46). I put these on all my electrics, and since it was obvious from reading the reviews that tuning on this guitar would be a factor, a heavier string gauge was definitely indicated. Even with the replacement strings the shorter scale makes the 10s still feel somewhat loose & floppy, more like the 9s I used to use on my Warmoth. Anyway, I am going to let them settle in and see how they work out, but I may move up to EXL110+ (.0105-.048) on this guitar: for improved tuning, tone, and action. We shall see...

The tone with the new set of 10s on the Mini is quite bright, too bright (see my comments regarding the pickups above). The single tone control the Mini sports is useful in curbing the sound. Tweaking the settings on the ole Fender combo amp (solid-state, not tube unfortunately) helps too. So far I think we've gotten decent musically playable results.

As you can see above, a standard five-position switch is combined with one volume and one tone pot. These are adequate. I'm not a fan of more then one tone pot on a guitar anyway, and this one is set to work under any position on the five-way switch--which lets us modify the tone of the bridge pickup at the source of course, something I cannot do on my Strat (at least not without some rewiring, but then I would have to add a coil splitter for the stacked humbucker or some other such nonsense. Forget it, let's just get to playing!).

I am going to have to check out the output jack, it feels like it's going to fall apart. The five-way switch works fine (for now) but it does feel cheap, like it will need to be replaced in the not too distant future I'm afraid.

To sum it up, yes the single coil pickups are a bit cheesy, but it works and you can get it to sound musical if you try.

Tuning Machines, Bridge, etc.
The tuning machines are lame. I don't know what the gear ratio is on them but fine tuning is not an easy task with them. I asked our tech about replacing them, but he said not to waste the money. While they aren't fun to use per se, they (so far) seem to hold the pitch once the strings are adequately stretched out. I am not thrilled with the plastic nut either, but you get what you pay for. A little oil at the nut and on the string trees should help things out.

The bridge is interesting, in a bad sort of way (IMO). This is where I figured I would have some troubles. This is a hardtail bridge in Strat fashion, however the strings do not go through the back of the body, they go straight through the bridge itself, up a slight angle and then through the saddles. This causes a bit of a problem. My wife pointed out yesterday that their was something wrong with the sound on the low E. It seemed to be rattling in it's saddle. I noticed that one of the height adjustment screws was lower then the other on the low E (set up that way no doubt to obtain the desired action) I simply raised it to be even with the other screw and that resolved the issue. Someone in a review I read pointed out that the slight angle of the string through the bridge into the saddle did not provide enough tension to keep the saddles in place as they should, I totally agree. This rattling issue among other things may be a problem. I will have to keep an eye on it but there will only be so much I can (or will) do...

Neck & Body
Maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard installed with medium frets (that need to be dressed, they are just a touch rough on the edges of the neck).

I really like the finish on the maple. Very natural and smooth. Adjusting to the scale of the neck takes a little getting used to but playability wise, it's fine. Of course it will need a professional set up "out-of-the-box", which was kindly included with the purchase. I have a maple neck (glossy finish) on my Strat, which I am not very fond of; a maple neck/ebony fingerboard on my Warmoth custom with a satin finish that I always liked, but I like the finish on this Mini better! The natural feel to it is awesome! BTW, you can access the truss rod from the headstock (one can only hope that it actually works). At any rate, the sustain on this guitar is pretty dang good. I am pleasantly suprised!

The finish on the "Laminated Hardwood" body is fine. The Torino Red with white pickguard looks nice. This thing is going to take a beating. The polyurethane finish looks like it can handle it. The body is quite light, perfect for the little guy that is going to be playing it. All gripes aside, it's pretty fun to play for me too. :-)

So What?
So what is the point of making a fuss over all the little details of a $99 axe anyway? The point is, you have to enjoy playing the thing if you are going to be willing to learn to play at all.

If it sounds terrible, the neck is bowed, the frets cut your hands, it hurts excessively to finger the notes/chord, if it won't stay in tune, if your bends fret out, if the action is too high then you're going to end up with a kid who never learned to play because he didn't have the right tool to learn on--he hated even trying because he could not get results from a cobbled together hunk of scrap. I hope that is not the case here. J needs the small scale right now that the Mini gives him otherwise we would have considered a better quality full-scale guitar. He's already trying to do some chords and single notes. So far so good.

So... I will keep an eye on things. Make sure it stays set up properly, with the best possible action and playability. Make sure to keep it in tune and make modifications as needed to help that process. Adjust the tone as best I can to make it appealing to listen to (once he can actually fret the notes) and then, teach him how to jam.

In the end that is all he really wants anyway, he wants to "rock & roll" with his dad. That works for me... Now we just need his brother to take up the drums!

Updated: 7/22/05


Anonymous said...

I read your review of the Squier Mini before I bought one for my kids. As you mention the machine heads ar not very good. I decided to get new ones. I ended up with a set of Grover 18:1 tunes that I found on ebay. (Mainstreet Musician Supply) The price was USD 44. A bit steep considering the price of the guitar itself, but I know from prevous experience that having good tuners really makes the difference.
When i got the tuners, I found that the new tunders did not fit! The tuner hole in the headstock is 8mm wide, but the bottom part of the Grover tuners are 10mm.
I went out and boght a suitable bit for my drill. Luckily my boss who has all kind of gadgets, had a rig where my drill could be fixed in place to make it easy to drill carfully to expand the wholes. I you dont have such a tool, take it to a guitar reapir shop.
Anyway, I got the new machine heads in place, a set of new strings (10-42), and the giutar is like a dream: Easy to tune and keeps the tuning very well.
The quality of the gutiar is actually not bad.

All in all, the change of machine heads was well worth it. I use the guitar a lot my self, and it is fun and easy to play.

chronicon said...

I read your review of the Squier Mini before I bought one for my kids... All in all, the change of machine heads was well worth it. I use the guitar a lot my self, and it is fun and easy to play.

Glad you found the review helpful. We keep the Squier Mini accessible in the family room so the kids can play it whenever they want. I'm always playing it as well--when I am wasting time watching TV.

Just as I thought, it's the bridge that gives me the most grief. The height adjustment screws get loose and have to be reset. The stock tuning machines continue to be a pain when tuning up, but they generally hold the pitch even during a lengthy playing session. Maybe someday I will replace them as you did, if I get annoyed enough at them! ;-)

Still thinking of bumping the strings up to a heavier gauge. Maybe even to 11s but that might be a bit much.

Thanks for the feedback!