A Detailed Look Into Inexpensive Instruments Used by the Pros

Zac Carper of FIDLAR, one of my favorite bands, and his Costco spider web guitar.

As much as you may convince yourself that it takes perfect skill matched with perfect gear to achieve professional level performance, that’s not the whole story. More often than not, the guitar heroes you idolize today practiced, played, or wrote their hits on cheap instruments. In fact, many of today’s modern musicians still rely on off-the-shelf or super inexpensive guitars. Let’s take an in depth look at some of the coolest cheap guitars used by today’s rock stars.

Zac Carper – Costco RG-80-SW Partscaster

As seen in the title image, Zac Carper is one half of the singer and songwriter duo that fronts FIDLAR, a California-based punk group. Rising to fame in the last decade behind three DIY punk albums that could double as drunk confessions of a millennial, FIDLAR features quite a bit more musicianship than the punk bands they likely grew up listening to.

The original Rocker RG-80-SW model

But what’s really unique is Carper’s use of an unbranded spider web Strat during their most recent tours and album cycle. What many people may have suspected is some kind of custom made instrument is really just a re-purposed Rocker RG-80-SW guitar that historically was sold by Costco, the giant wholesale chain. According to a Premier Guitar Rig Rundown, Carper found it laying in a California guitar shop, was attracted to the light weight, and took it home after 15 years of neglect in the store. Zac replaced the low-quality pickup with a Tone Zone humbucker and recently learned it has a push-pull volume knob for coil splitting.

Apparently the guitar can be found for around $75 at Canadian Costcos and this guitar had the upgraded Strat-replacement neck on it before Zac got his hands on it. While the pickup upgrade and new neck definitely cost him and the original owner a bit of money, this is a shockingly cheap guitar to see a popular musician using.

Van McCann – Squier Jim Root Telecaster

Van McCann of Catfish and the Bottlemen

While Van McCann falls more into the singer-songwriter end of the guitar playing spectrum, the Catfish and the Bottlemen frontman is the engine that drives one of the UK’s best rock acts. While he has admittedly moved on to a custom model from Fender for the last album and tour, Van wrote and recorded the band’s breakthrough debut album on a Squier Jim Root Telecaster that usually retails for around $400.

Nicknamed “Bullet Tooth Tony”, McCann claims to have bought it for around 150 Pounds despite not knowing much about the metal guitarist who inspired it. In his own words:

“I don’t even know him. Doesn’t he have a mask on sometimes? I use that guitar because it’s matt black and it’s got a volume knob, and that’s it. It was like £150 and I’ve swapped the scratchplates over and I’ve smashed it up, but it just doesn’t break or go out of tune.”

Bullet Tooth Tony can be seen here at the BBC Music Awards in 2014 performing their hit single “Kathleen”

Besides the pick-guard change, the only visible modification he seems to have made is a piece of tape that says “WHY?” across the Squier logo on the headstock. Ironically, the past and present lead guitarists have played foil to Van’s rhythm playing with expensive Gibson models such as Les Paul Customs and Fender Jazzmasters. This Squier model features basic Squier passive humbuckers with a matte black cover and only a volume knob.

Gary Clark Jr – 2007 Epiphone Casino & 1981 Ibanez Blazer

Photo by K. Alize Tran – sweetestalize@gmail.com from Flickr.com

Probably one of the best, pure guitarists and songwriters to come from my generation, Gary Clark Jr rose to fame on the back of a humble guitar. As detailed through many other publications, Gary uses a stock 2007 Chinese-made Epiphone Casino. These generally retail from around $500 to $600 and are considered great a great guitar value. Even so, nothing shows that 99% of tone comes from a players hands quite like his use of this completely off the shelf instrument.

Clark Jr putting that Ibanez Blazer to good use with one lucky fan.

According to his tech, Clark Jr always wanted his fans to be able to afford the guitar he uses they could get his sound if they liked the way he plays. The guitar features high output P90’s and a bigsby that apparently came stock on 2007 models, though no one seems to be able to confirm that. Even better, you know what his second guitar is? An Ibanez Blazer from the ’80s that is near and dear to his heart after his mom gifted it to him as a child. While it likely is a little more costly (atleast at the time) than his current Casino, it is far from a Custom Shop monster.

The Blazer is an HSH-instrument featuring a push-pull tone and stock pickups from back in the day. Similar to the Casino, it’s pretty much entirely stock with a Strat-style body. Again according to his tech, this guitar is thinner sounding than his Casino, but is likely the only guitar he really needs due to their long history together. Info generally seems scarce on these guitars but they seemed to have been made around ’81 by the Greco factory but sold under the Ibanez brand name.

St. Vincent – Harmony Bobkat & Silvertone 1488

Annie Clark a.k.a St. Vincent and her Harmony Bobkat

While St. Vincent has recently made her wildly successful Ernie Ball Music Man signature model her main instrument, you can still occasionally she her using a Harmony or Silvertone. Before that signature model, they were two of her main guitars that she favored for the vibrato arm. According to her she could divebomb as hard as she wanted and they would still in tune. That kind of tuning stability is not common on most cheap guitars and she certainly put it to good use as she built up her resume as one of today’s premier guitar players.

The lovely Harmony Bobkat pictured above features two DeArmond gold foil single coil pickups and can be found used for anywhere from $300-$700 on sites like Reverb.com. The Silvertone on the other hand featured 3 DeArmond single coils with an equally impressive tremolo arm. The Silvertone is bit more expensive, thanks to it being a bit rarer and the unique tonal options. With “rocker” switches and dedicated tone knobs for each pickup, a multitude of sounds are controlled via the master volume. Both of these offset style import guitars are classic examples of “pawnshop” guitars and St. Vincent certainly has had no small part in the re-popularization of these instruments.

Check out that Harmony Bobkat in action on Letterman

Traditionally, these guitars were created as surf and jazz alternatives to the high end Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters of the time. While they’ve been given a bad rap in the past because of playability issues, St. Vincent has shown that with a little bit of love, you can coax some amazing performances out of these guitars.

Don’t Buy An Expensive Guitar, Just Practice

While you certainly do need to spend enough money on a guitar that you get something reliable and inspiring, it doesn’t take a ’50s or ’60s Stratocaster to shine. All of these guitarists cover a wide range of technical proficiency and musical styles, showing you can play anything with affordable gear. As long as a guitar brings the best playing out of you, it should be good enough to be your main instrument, regardless of price. Some times an outside-the-box choice leads you down a new, unexpected path.

Published by Matt Dunn

Guitar and music journalist for Ultimate-Guitar.com and Guitarsforidiots.com as well as a contributor for Guitarniche.com and Stringjoy.com. Reach out to talk about guitars, commission a partscaster, or ask for a review.

2 thoughts on “A Detailed Look Into Inexpensive Instruments Used by the Pros

  1. I have quite a few guitars myself (just learning how to play), and most of them are Squiers, a few Ibanez, a Mitchell, two Epiphones, and a Laurel Canyon acoustic. Other than the price and my fledgling beginner status, I felt these were great to get my hands on and see how they’d handle. I like Squier guitars just fine so far, and I like that they’re not so busy in the looks department. Other than the “made in the USA” label that true Fenders can claim (and an extra 400 tacked on in price), sometimes the body work feels excessive to me, whether in color or features or whatever. I like the more stripped down look of many Squiers (and if I wanna improve sound, upgrade the electronics and save a few hundred, I can…and I’ll keep a body style and color I like just fine).

    I’m still an absolute beginner, so as far as sound and effects go, I can’t say I know much about electric guitars. But I’m happy to learn and play with cheaper guitars so I can make improvements without breaking the bank if need be… or if somebody breaks it, they can upgrade it for me (hee hee).


    1. My first guitar was a Mexican-made Fender, which is pretty affordable, and it still blows away guitars twice its cost. Sometimes a cheap guitar is just great, no need to spend $1000+ unless you really want to!

      Liked by 1 person

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