Buying guitars abroad and travelling with them   Leave a comment

I’ve bought two guitars in the US, I live in the UK.

I bought a Parker Fly Deluxe in Las Vegas and a Paul Reed Smith Custom 24 in New York.

Why Buy Abroad

At the time I got these there was a noticeable difference in sterling/dollar exchange rates, the pound was stronger.  I got the Parker for around £1,300 and the PRS for around £1,600, roughly 60% of UK prices at the time.  These sound extravagant I know but I had to do some serious saving to buy these and they were a few years apart.

I doubt that there are many bargains to be had out there now.

The other reasons and probably the main one now is rarity and choice.  If you’re looking at buying something unusual or very collectable it may be your best option (I wish I had the money to do that).

How to buy abroad?

I guess most people will look at the internet but personally I wouldn’t buy a guitar over the web from a private seller without seeing and playing it.  I had bought from dealer over the web without playing first and not had any problems.  However you have some comeback with a dealer and they’ll set it up or tidy it up for you first.

Personally I’d browse around a few shops it’s more fun and you might stumble on something that isn’t advertised on the web (my Parker was in a backroom and was brought out for me).

Check up where the guitar stores are either on the web or in Yellow Pages when you arrive.

Buying & Taxes

Obviously check the exchange rates and don’t forget that a credit card company will charge whatever the daily rate for the transaction is.

Check on what taxes will be applied locally, in the US and Canada there are local and federal taxes plus in some places even sports and city taxes.  It can add up to a hefty sum.

These can be refunded at the airport when you leave.  Make sure that you save some time for the crushingly dull experience and long queues for a refund.  Make sure that you keep the sales receipt somewhere safe.

Don’t forget UK import taxes.  Declare it, don’t try to smuggle it through, the Customs will probably check anyone coming in with an electric guitar and take care because some of them have excellent knowledge of electric guitars.

UK VAT is 20% and there’s import duty usually between 5 and 9% but I actually got “let off” that by one customs official once.

Getting it Home – Safely

There’s no doubt about it, the airlines make travelling with any large musical instrument a thoroughly miserable experience.  You are very unlikely to be allowed to take it into the cabin.  I did on one occasion actually get a seat allocated to my acoustic guitar on a flight back from San Francisco but that flight was almost empty, this is rare.  Unfortunately I didn’t get my guitar’s wine quota.

If you ask the answer will allows be no and you’ll be told check it in to baggage.

Some guitar stores will offer to send it to the UK for you.  The plus for this is that it’ll probably get there safely.  The down side is you’ll have to pay for it and you’ll have to wait for it.

Don’t forget the weight allowances otherwise you could get charged a really stupid prohibitive, excess baggage fee.  Allow 10kgs for guitar and case

Always get a hard case and get one with a good lock.  Obviously the lock is not important for theft (they’ll walk away with the instrument) but it might stop the case from bursting open as the baggage handlers launch the case across the runway (fragile stickers carry no weight, it’s a challenge to them).

Also wrap the guitar in the case in bubble wrap or clothing for protection, make sure that any loose objects (trem arms, etc) are taped down or in a compartment.

One last thing – tape the case up thoroughly with gaffer tape.  When I arrived at Heathrow with my Parker the case locks had burst but the tape had held the case shut.

Detune the guitar 5 turns on each string.  The cabin pressure is different.  A friend of mine recently forgot this and the neck snapped on a flight to Brazil.  Please don’t forget to do this!

Guitars usually get checked in at outsize baggage at airports.  They don’t always come off on the belt with the rest of the baggage. More than once I’ve stood at a belt for ages only to  discover the guitar a few yards away stacked up somewhere already in the reclaim baggage hall.

 

My Parker - Safe at home

One last Issue – Travelling whilst Abroad with the guitar

You may be asked to open it when you go into shops.  That happened to me in New York.

Also don’t forget to check that it’ll fit in the hire car.  The Parker didn’t fit in the back of the Mustang convertible I hired which meant I had to put it on the back seat in full view.

Also once you’ve bought it you’ve got to leave it somewhere.  Obviously it’s too big for a hotel safe but it’s worth asking at the reception desk if they have somewhere to store it.

Don’t take any guitars with you that you don’t want broken if you backpack.  I did backpack for 3 weeks in Africa with a wooden travel guitar and it was fine though.

I hope this helps

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My First Guitar – Part 3 Final   Leave a comment

This might not be everyone’s experience but as I learned to play my musical interests changed.  A large part of that is due to my music teacher who was passionate about west coast and fusion bands such as Steely Dan, Toto, Larry Carlton, Pat Metheney, Weather Report.

For me, as a teenager learning music theory and the guitar, these bands were a musical narcotic.  The more I looked into their music the more I found, layer after layer, some music jokes, clever and imaginative stretches of music theory.

To the probable immense relief of my neighbours I was getting bored of “banging out” heavy metal/hard rock riffs very loudly and really looking at what was going on musically.

This did have some bad side effects, firstly my “feel” was poor, I was becoming too much of a technician, secondly I had no consideration of performance when playing to an audience and thirdly I needed a better guitar.  I’ll talk about my thoughts on the first two in later blogs.  For now I’m going to finish my storyline on my first guitar.

By this point I had left school, intending to go to college and university.   I was offered unexpectedly a job in investments in a bank.  This gave me some spending money and I thought it would open the door to me becoming a cool, bohemian fusion jazz/west coast muso.

One lunchtime whilst walking through the shopping centre and I stopped in my tracks.  There in the window of the local music shop was a Fender Stratocaster Elite, black, with a white pick guard.  I couldn’t take my eyes off its beautiful curves.  As I stared at it I swore that a light shone from it and an angelic choir sang.  It was a “Waynes World” moment, it was love at first sight. It also looked so out of place, the shop usually sold those large home electronic organs in wooden cabinets with lots of multi coloured switches that were inexplicably popular in the late seventies/early 80s.

I dashed down the street emptied my account of ten years of savings and dashed back to the shop.  I don’t remember playing it first I think I just bought it (please don’t ever do that, very bad idea).

I proudly went back to work (rather late from lunch) with the guitar.

A little about the guitar, some controversy first, us guitarists are a very conservative bunch and this particular guitar was Fender’s “top of the range” and was very innovative.   So of course it didn’t do very well.  I’ll talk about my thoughts on change resistant, conservative guitarists in another blog.  Fender built these from 1983 to 1984 in the USA and also had a Telecaster model (I also have one of these) which is probably the weirdest Tele you’ll ever play.

My strat was different because in had a 3 push button pickup selector (yes you can select neck and bridge only as an option), it was active – having a TBX/MDX circuitry, had a side jack socket (no idea why though) and a custom trem (ok that wasn’t a good trem, ….really not a good trem).

Mine had a alder body finished in black, a white pick guard, chromed Schaller tuners with two string trees, Schaller strap lacks, a 21 fret maple neck and that hopeless freeflyte trem system (I had this locked down).

The routing for the trem and all the electrics is on the front of the guitar which is probably why the trem is so poor.

What does it play like?  Firstly it’s very loud; the output from the TBX treble/bass expander and active MDX mid boost is impressive.  There can be quite a lot of hum on heavy gain despite the use of an internal dummy coil in the 3 Alnico 5 pickups.  There is a battery cover in the back of the guitar, when it’s low on juice you sometimes get whooping or farting sounds from it.  I have to be careful not to leave the jack in as it drains battery power.  I absolutely guarantee that the preamp battery will go at the worst time, so I always carry a spare.  I can’t figure out why there isn’t an on/off option for the actives.

My Strat Elite

However the main thing I like about it is the neck, it’s a joy to play, it’s a little skinny but the action is the best I’ve ever played, still.  My tutor used to borrow this guitar for recording.

Soundwise it’s not quite as bright and brassy as a normal strat, it’s a little thicker.

If you want one, sorry but they’re not too easy to find, the Telecaster model in particular is rather rare.  80s instrument prices are starting to rise and I think that these may become quite collectable in the future.  Regardless of that, they’re a joy to play, don’t forget these were supposed to be at the time the top of Fender’s range.  This instrument was the base template for the fantastic Eric Clapton signature strat that was first made in the late 80s and is still being produced now.  You might be more comfortable with that instrument with its better electrics.

Anyway that was 1985, the job didn’t last (I wanted to study, hated the bank) but the guitar did.  Despite many gigs and rehearsals I’ve kept it in excellent condition and I still have it.

My parents were furious about the money I spent on the guitar but I do enjoy telling them that the guitar has more than doubled its value since then.  If I’d spent the money on a car it’d be long gone now.

 

Travel Guide to Vietnam   1 comment

Halong Bay

 

Vietnam – Blog 1 – General

I went there in April /May this year so this is fairly current.  These are also just my impressions.  Vietnam is a truly amazing, vibrant and colourful country.  It’s still a little outside the mainstream for a holiday destination but keeping in mind that only 20 years ago you needed visa to travel internally it’s come a long way.  It’ll cater for any level of travel from backpack to 5 star so it’s your choice.

 

Travel There

I went there on Malaysia airlines via Kuola Lumpar.   It’s about 13 hours to KL then another 5 to Hanoi which is further north east.  Saigon is a little closer around 3 hours.

You can also use Singapore or Bangkok as a base.

Travellers from the UK need a Visa which you can get from the embassy or online.  However they’ll want you passport (usually for a week) so if you live in the London area I’d recommend dropping in and leaving the passport.  The embassy is a fairly cheerless place but don’t let it put you off.

http://www.vietnam-embassy.org/vietnam-united-kingdom-london.html

You can get visas on arrival but I wouldn’t recommend it.  It can take a while and if they don’t like something you’re a bit stuck.  Most people on our flight already had visas.

Vietnamese Airports

Except for Saigon these can be a bit old fashioned and minimal but most are under development to cope with the rapidly expanding tourist industry.  The basics are usually there.

Mekong Delta

 

Currency

There is a  limit on the amount of currency you can bring in I believe it was around £100.  I was able to get currency at Kuala Lumpar ok but not in London.

There are plenty of ATMs around in the cities, most of the western restaurants and shops take credit cards (Mastercard and Visa) but don’t try to use it in a street café. Most of the banks are only open between 9am and around 4 on weekdays only. In large cities they can be open longer.

Tour operators, a few shops, etc will take US Dollars.  Don’t take Pounds Sterling or Euros, you’ll be lucky to be able to use or exchange it.

Advise your credit card company that you’re going there before you use your card.

Water

Don’t drink the tap water, take water purifying tablets or use bottled.

Travel

This is quite a big country north to south but very narrow in places.  You really seriously need to plan your travel if you’re short on time.  The roads are in a pretty poor state of repair, there are no motorways (ignoring the little bit the US built in the 60s near Saigon) and most importantly they are VERY busy.  Plan on doing no more than around 30 to 40 miles in an hour, much less if you’re in a town.  Almost everyone drives little motor scooters and they dart around everywhere.  I really seriously don’t advise driving but by all means give the scooters a go.  It’ll be intimidating but if you’re careful you’ll be ok.

Most vehicles (cars, lorries, scooters or bikes) totally ignore pedestrian crossings.  However the traffic is pretty slow (mostly scooters) and they will drive around you if you walk slowly and they can see where you’re going.  Do look for gaps though and don’t walk in front of cars, etc.  First time you cross a road in Vietnam you might be a little scared but you soon get used to the chaos.

There are lots of taxis, they’re cheap, always pick one with a meter, avoid the posh looking people carriers because they’re private and expensive.  Write down the address for the driver to read but I found that a surprising number speak English.  Ask your hotels or some locals for the best local taxi firm.

The local airlines are very often delayedso plan for delay however this is the quickest way north/south.

I didn’t use the rail but I’ve heard it’s good way to get around, I wish we’d tried it

 

Road in Hanoi

Power

They use a mix of UK and US style plugs, the voltage is UK/EU standard, 240 volt.

Shopping

You’ll be surprised, it’s cheap and in the large cities you’ll see all the familiar brands including expensive fashion house boutiques.  Watch out for the sizes though, the Vietnamese are smaller than most westerners if you’re tall/big you might struggle to find anything that fits

Languages

A lot do speak a little English, the accent can be quite strong sometimes.  I speak French but found no one speaking it there now other than tour guides.  Vietnamese is a very difficult language for westerners.  By alls means try some of the language but it’s VERY tonal and subtle, you can easily mis pronounce things that’ll have a different meaning causing locals to laugh or puzzle at what you’re saying.

Crime

It’s got a reputation for crime but I saw and had no trouble anywhere.  Just apply usual sensible precautions and you’ll be ok.  Keep you hands on your camara, phone and/or handbag.

People

I found the locals charming, interesting and very friendly, not very many hawkers or people bothering you.

Culturally the north and south are quite different.  The north is ethnically quite Chinese and still a little eastern block whilst the south in more Cambodian and quite western.

Generally avoid asking questions about the war but if the subject comes up the war in the 60s is known as the American war.  The country has sadly had a very troubled 20th century with the Japanese, French, civil war and US.

Oh yes and the locals tend to call Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon.

 

Remains from the war near Da Nang

I hope this helps you, if you go have a great time.

My First Guitar – Part 2   Leave a comment

I simply didn’t enjoy playing the keyboards. They felt more mechanical and less expressive. Why? A guitar can slur or bend notes in a way that reduces the attack and mimics the voice. Every note can be different.

Things would change. At 16 a friend of the family moved back to the village I grew up in. He’d spent the previous ten years in LA playing sessions, occassionally gigging but generally surviving by merit of his carpentry skills. He had an imposing presence, he was 6’7” with black curly hair and looked like a sharper faced Brian May.

At that time I was a moody and greasy teenager with an obsession for Heavy Metal and I wanted to play the guitar again. He took me down to a guitar shop run by a friend of his (who was the uncle of a future drummer in a future band I was in). He selected a lovely Washburn “Wing Series” electric guitar called the hawk and once again my obliging parents paid for the guitar. I think it cost around £230 in 1984. It was basically a small double cutaway Les Paul with an ash body and two humbuckers. It was well constructed with a arched top, good electrics and well finished binding.

It was sunburst finish, a rosewood and ash through body neck and a three a side headstock. The action was a little high but it had a deep rocky tone that sounded very dirty when played hard with lots of overdrive (well I was a teenager). The neighbours complained about the noise which seemed to me a little unreasonable at the time. On reflection the fact that the neighbours who complained were across the road and not next door probably indicated that I was playing a little loud.

This is what the guitar looked like:-
http://www.matsumoku.org/models/washburn/catalogs/wing/hawkad.jpg.html

I part exchanged it two years later, sadly I’ve never seen one since and I wished I’d kept it.

Within 6 months of playing the guitar my musical tastes had changed dramatically, my guitar teacher had introduced me to the complex west coast Steely Dan sound.

My musical interests had changed, I realised that I needed a slightly better guitar. By this point I had left school, intending to go to college and university.  I was offered unexpectedly a job in investments in a bank. This gave me some spending money.  Of course I knew exactly what to do with that.

My First Guitar – Part 1   Leave a comment

This is my first blog so I guess that “My First Guitar” seems like a good start.

I have 3 “first” guitars that I’d like to write about:-

My first ever guitar in my chldhood
My first electric guitar
My first electric that I bought

So I’m going to write in this blog on the very first, hope you enjoy it.

Why want a guitar? Well that’s easy, as a child I have warm memories of watching the wonderful, colourful performances on Top of the Pops by bands such as the Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and various glam rockers. I thought it was magical and it looked so much fun.

So when my infant school started doing guitar lessons I dragged my musically conservative parents out to look for a guitar. Oddly the guitar shop my parents took my to turned out to be a Woolworths. My parents adroitly deflected me from the gleaming electrics and I walked out (perhaps a little disappointed) with a three quarter size tobacco sunburst acoustic guitar. I loved its woody, musty smell and shiny body.

So began two years of chord charts, group strumming of “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain” and sore fingers. In my mind I was of course on Top of the Pops but in reality it was difficult and my playing must have been painful for the persevering teacher.The lessons were run by a wonderful “hippie” lady teacher. She had long hair, an easy friendly nature, a lot of patience and apparently may have been a distant relative.

I moved to a junior school at 7 and only had a little over a year of lessons. At the time I couldn’t appreciate how much my new teacher must have struggled against a church music obsessed headmaster to run any guitar lessons at all. She’d persuaded the head by arranging a school production of “Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat”. As a guitarist I was in the orchestra/band.

After the production the lessons stopped, the head really didn’t approve of the guitar and continued with the stodgy school program of classical church music.

My guitar gathered dust in my cupboard in the absence of lessons and I tinkered with keyboards.

My acoustic guitar sadly died a few years later having been accidently rammed by a Corgi toy Chieftain tank during an over exuberant war game at the age of ten. I remember crying.