5 Famous Guitarists Who Play Cheap Guitars
Do you need an expensive electric guitar to write and perform great music? Now, to answer this question, ideally, we would gather a Live Aid’s worth of musicians in an aircraft hanger, position an over-sized condenser mic in the middle of them, and have them shout “No!” at the top of their lungs.
But this is not an ideal world, so here’s a list of very cool players - very different players - who have chosen something odd, something cool, but ultimately something cheap as the right tool to get the job done.
There is an inherent difficulty in defining what counts as cheap. When any of these players pick up a once-forgotten piece of gear - say an old catalog/department store guitar like a Sears Silvertone - and then consecrate it on record with the tune of the year, then naturally people want those guitars, and because no one’s making them anymore the price rises. That’s just a paradox of retail economics that we’re going to have to live with here.
But what these guitars have in common is that they were built primarily with budget in mind. Many had been forgotten for years, and by the grace of tonehound curiosity, they have been ferreted out of obscurity to soundtrack our lives.
The thing is: here are the likes of Derek Trucks, the world’s most-gifted slide player, playing a chipboard Silvertone, Van Halen reliving his early teens with a Teisco, and Prince, the Purple One himself, whose number one guitar was a Japanese Tele copy, a left-of-center choice for one of the artists of the modern era.
Well, that’s as good a place to start as any...
Stories abound that His Royal Badness bought the Madcat for 30 bucks from the back of someone’s car. Or from a Minneapolis guitar store (more plausible?). Either way, it wasn’t expensive and its build is worthy of note.
Made in Japan during the ‘70s under Moridaira’s H.S. Anderson brand, who later sold it to Hohner, the Madcat was designed by Hidesato Shiino and has an ash body topped with figured maple with a walnut centre strip. It has two Strat-style single coils, and a six-saddle hard-tail bridge. Oh, and a leopard print pickguard and jack plate that Prince accessorized with a matching strap.
Hohner has reissued it as The Prinz. Bill Lawrence made a version. And H.S. Anderson has now reacquired the design and is selling deluxe period-correct Madcats with upgraded pickups and Gotoh hardware. In the spirit of cheapness, Harley Benton does a version for under $200.
2. Brian May
You can’t get much cheaper than constructing your own guitar with your dad from materials that were lying around the house. We’d hesitate to call the Red Special cheap, though. It’s priceless, and there’s a difference.
In a recent interview with Total Guitar, Brian May said that the inspiration behind the guitar was his voice. “I wanted it to have the smooth tones of a singer, but also the ‘consonants’, sort of the definition which gives you the words when you’re singing.” Crucially, May’s homemade design was alive and would feedback a la Pete Townshend, opening a cornucopia of musical possibilities that May would exploit fully with Queen.
3. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen has some history with budget Teisco guitars - technically Teisco Del Ray guitars, as they were rebranded after ’64, but you get the drift. EVH turned up with a Spectrum 5 in the video for twangin’ Hagar-era hit Finish What You Started, and was even photographed on the cover of Guitar World with one.
Maybe it was nostalgia. His first guitar was Teisco ET-440 that he picked up for 70 bucks once he decided to swap drums for guitar with his brother, Alex, which is not really that relevant as the four-pickup oddity was his tool to copy his favorite licks, not write Hot for Teacher. But still, you never forget your first love.
4. Billie Joe Armstrong
Billie Joe Armstrong is like any number of punks who were given a cheap-o Superstrat as a kid and then radicalized it through adulthood, pummeling it mercilessly and ultimately modifying it with a proper humbucker and making it your number one.
The Green Day frontman’s Fernandes, aka Blue, is stickered, half-trashed, with millions of road miles on the clock, and yet somehow it is perfect for Armstrong’s stadium-friendly punk sound, and the Seymour Duncan JB humbucker is a judicious upgrade with plenty of snarling mids.
5. Jack White
The thing about Jack White’s penchant for pawnshop is that as soon as he picks it up and electrifies it with whatever voodoo mojo is coming through his fingertips, well, that cheapo six-string becomes one of the most sought-after guitars on the market. It doesn’t matter what the build is.
White doesn’t always use curios. He plays Gretsch. He plays Fender. He plays Gibson. But when the Duke of Junk gets his hands on an Airline back or a hand-me-down Kay arch-top, some magic is about to happen and you’d best pay attention. Who else would pick up a Kay K6533 and write - arguably - the riff of the noughties?