by Bryan Lee Peterson
Sometimes we search for the perfect piece of gear for years and years, sometimes it falls into our lap, and we learn a little bit about ourselves along the way. That's what happened at the start of 2020 to me. I was in dire need of money, and tried flipping guitars. Don't think it worked very well, because I just wound up with guitars I wanted to keep, but anyway, this is the story of one of those.
I was browsing Craigslist and happened across a 1981 Ibanez Artist with the asking price of $420 (which seems to be my magic number for instruments, all my best instruments were between $400 and $480). The shop I was working in at the time had a similar one that was tagged at $800. This seemed obvious.
So I pulled out the money and ran down to pick it up. I acted like I was looking for myself, talked about the new band I was in. I'm mostly a bass player, but I'm playing guitar in this one, and was at the time, truly in a panic because I'm not nearly as good or comfortable on guitar.
But really, I was looking for the perfect guitar outside of this purchase. I didn't have a hot rod, you know, a Musicman Petrucci, a Jem, a super Strat of some sort. Something with a flat Ferrari neck profile, and a bassball bat neck for my bass player hands. All the things that are typically associated with a performance guitar. I was digging into specs and since I worked in a shop (not More Gain, a different shop), I had a lot to occupy that part of my mind with. I had customers coming in with the same kinds of questions, we'd get into it. One of those customers is a partner in this shop now.
The Ibanez was rougher than I'd initially inspected, but it played decently. I figured I could flip it for a couple hundred in profit, even minus the original pickups. It didn't have the cloud plate behind the bridge, the tuners had been haphazardly changed to Schallers. All in all it was a decent enough guitar. The previous owner had swapped the bridge with a single coil (who does that?) and he was also tuned to C and had crazy heavy strings on it, I think Ernie Ball Beefy Slinkys.
So I bought it. It did come with a replacement humbucker from the bridge, I have no idea what it was.
So I commenced to cleaning it up and working on it. Didn't have any sets of strings laying about so I tuned it to standard. That was the first lesson of the Artist. That heavy low E meant I could really hit the string hard and with a precision that made playing easier. I have kind of weak hands due to hypermobility. I can bend my fingers in ways you don't want to see if you have a weak stomach to contortionists. A six or seven fret stretch in the low octave isn't out of the question. But holding down something heavy? My fingers just fold and flex like my tendons are rubber. Never thought I'd like anything that heavy, but here we go, it was a revelation. That tension also gave me a way better tone for what I wanted and meant my bass player tendencies weren't pulling me out of tune. A quick neck adjust and I was playing better just because of the gauge.
It has a great playing Les Paul style neck, kind of thicker, which I need. Thin necks pull my thumb into a weaker playing position and eventually gives me tendonitis.
I swapped the pickup and sold the single coil. I have no idea what is actually in there right now. Might be a Dimarzio, or something starting with a D. It's old. The neck pickup, I notice, doesn't line up with the strings.
Had to dowel the strap ends. The switch wouldn't stay in the neck position, so I changed that out. Then found the pickup ring holes were stripped so I dowelled (actually toothpicked) them, and the rings were cracked. So I replaced those, found knobs that were more like the originals.
Somewhere in that, it became mine. I was playing it in Zoom calls with the band, and my bass player told me not to ever get rid of it. He liked what he was hearing.
So it's become mine. It isn't leaving. It's a monster that weighs over 10lbs, heavier by a few ounces than my acrylic Moderne. Yeah, pretty sure they made it out of ironwood.
But it sustains for days.
But really, I chanced into it. I didn't obsess over every last spec. I didn't ignore it because the radius didn't match what I thought was my ideal, or the width or scale length didn't match. Similarly, it didn't have a spotlight from heaven saying this is the chosen one. I was open to it as an instrument, I was already in a period of searching for better quality guitars to round out my role in the new band.
I've spent years working with players who come in with a set of specs that they've researched furiously over the internet without putting a guitar in their hands. It's an amalgamation of features from other instruments they've owned, or touched once in a store. I'm always a bit dubious when a guitar feels great once in a store. Often I come back and it's just something that was a fluke, maybe I was feeling that that day or having a good playing moment.
So maybe what I'm saying is that this guitar shaped me as a player, more than I shaped it as my perfect guitar. And I might not have seen that at other times. I've certainly made mistakes. Had a little Rickenbacker with single coils when I was a metal guy with bass player hands. Put away my DeArmond M80 for years liking my Schechter better, until I pulled out the DeArmond, having grown as a player and decided that for what I wanted, the Schechter just paled in comparison.
The perfect guitar, as I look at it with hindsight, isn't a set of specs. It's a fluid instrument that will change with the day and with personal growth. The perfect guitar isn't the next one, or the one they may put out in a year's time. It isn't this feature or that, or even a culmination of features. It's a perfect storm of factors that ultimately inspire your playing more so than make your playing technically better, and often this isn't what we are focused on. A spec can obsess us to the point that it is cutting down on our playing time, and even distract us while we're playing. How many times do you think you could hit that note better if the scale length was longer or the width wider while you're playing?
In the end, the Artist as a guitar is in the middle of most specs, a perfectly average guitar that happened to be right for me, and maybe that's the lesson right there.