Guitars (& other stringed instruments)

Although I'd wanted to get myself an electric guitar for a while I couldn't seem to solve the dilemma of finding a nice instrument that didn't cost more than I could justify for an 'indulgent' purchase, a recurring theme with me. The solution came when the Steinberger Spirit was released, a set of guitars based on Steinberger's 'cricket bat' design but with wooden construction and more conventional electronics. Actually buying one turned into a bit of a circus as it was only available by mail order within the USA but on a visit to America I managed to grab one and 'smuggle' it back to the UK in my suitcase.

The only area where the cost cutting was apparent was in the pickups, the supplied H-S-H set were a bit ordinary and the Strat-style selector didn't allow for the combinations I wanted. I upgraded the humbuckers to Mighty Mites and swapped the selector for two switches, one to choose either or both humbuckers and the other to add the (out of phase) single coil. For good measure I added a push/pull switch to the volume control to split the coils on the bridge pickup.

The Spirit has became my workhorse guitar, small & sturdy enough to be trusted to a gig bag but with an impressive range of tones. It's very comfortable to play, the double-ball system gives great tuning stability, and it stands on its end without needing a stand. A great little instrument.

As I began to play more (Balkan) folk music an acoustic guitar seemed an obvious addition to my setup and I bought a secondhand Yamaha APX-4A. This was marketed as being ideal for electric guitar players with its slim neck and shallow body (it is very comfortable to play) and came with an integrated piezo pickup for plugging in to PA systems.

Despite being a fairly reluctant acoustic guitarist I've ended up playing this live probably more than any other instrument, including trips to Brazil & Germany. The tone isn't anything special but it's been good enough for dance gigs and open mic performances and has let me (finally) think of myself as a passable rhythm guitarist.

After being introduced to the tanbura at a dance camp workshop I searched high & low for one before acquiring a Stefanov Bulgarian tambura from a private importer in Switzerland. The 8-string layout was different from the 4-string (Macedonian) one that I'd seen at the camp and I spent a few years experimenting with removing strings and different tunings before settling on the 'Western' style, tuned like the top 8 strings of a 12-string guitar. For a while I used a contact mic for amplification but this never gave great results and I've generally used it acoustically. For a fairly cheap instrument this is a good performer with a nice, jangly tone and surprisingly loud volume from its shallow bowl back.

I finally bought myself a 4-string tambura when I ordered a Gievski Macedonian tambura directly from the makers in Skopje. Buying an acoustic instrument sight unseen was quite a risk but they had a good reputation, the price was surprisingly cheap, and I hadn't found another one anywhere. When it arrived it was a thing of beauty with a deep, carved bowl back and two-tone soundboard and it played with a clear, resonant tone. It's something of a niche instrument, played like a dulcimer with drone & melody strings and intended to provide an almost percussive rhythm accompaniment, but it does it wonderfully and I have managed to take it into other areas with some unconventional fingering.

Earlier instruments

In periods of (relative) abundance I've often found myself tempted by nice instruments and in the early 2000s I came across a secondhand Guild Bluesbird being offered (relatively) cheaply. This had the look of a (larger) Les Paul with a beautifully figured maple cap but the body had been 'chambered' (partially hollowed out) to reduce the weight. This gave it a very different sound with more dynamic range and a tone closer to a 335 semi-acoustic, something I'd never considered before but which quickly became a delight.

I used the Bluesbird in a variety of ad-hoc groups but most notably in my 'soundscapes of isolation' pieces where I used long echoes to bring out the subtleties of its wonderful tones. Sadly I used it less & less in later years and eventually sold it rather than leave it gathering dust in its case.

Before the Bluesbird I'd bought myself a secondhand Gibson Les Paul Special as a bargain price indulgence. This was a more basic, stripped down version of its more famous namesake with a simple 'slab' body, double cutaways, and single coil P90 pickups, all in the traditional cherry finish. The Special was a great guitar, it had a wonderful tone, was comfortable to hold both standing & seated, and gave me the confidence to start performing solo with just a guitar. When money got tight I sold it, something I regret to this day.


My current guitar amp is a VOX AC10C1, a smaller version of the classic AC30. This has been a fairly recent acquisition (my first tube amp!) and so far I've not used it in public. It's still pretty loud for playing at home!

My first performance amp was an Award Session Rockette 30 that I found gathering dust at the back of a rehearsal studio. It had a nice clean channel but an 'overdrive' that sounded like the fizziest 60's fuzz box you'd ever heard. I soon switched to a Roland Cube 30 which proved a versatile (if somewhat anonymous) amp for all sorts of styles & genres.