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Help me make noise.

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Hi guys, I’m a total noob I’m afraid – off on my summer holidays from uni and really want to get into learning the guitar quickly while I have time, so I can get my practise off the ground before work comes calling again! I’m looking to buy a guitar next week if possible, plus amp and pedals, and I hope I can have some of my confusion cleared away quickly by you knowledgeable people :)

As far as the guitar itself is concerned, I think I’ll be wanting to go with an Strat (American Standard) – I do not want fat or “classic rock” sounds with a lot of low end so I’ve ruled out a Les Paul. The main thing I’m confused about regarding the actual guitar is pickups. I think I’ll be wanting to go with a single coil rather than a humbucker, and active rather than passive pickups (for similar reasons of wanting a tone with a lot of harsh, bright high end), but I don’t know if there’s anything else I should be looking for. Also, can I get something close to the sound of a Strat without actually getting the real thing? My budget is limited but I will go for the real deal if I have to.

I’m more unsure about the amp. I want to go for a solid state (for more high-end again, and also I don’t want to have to fiddle about changing tubes). I’m looking for distortion and reverb in the amp, to hopefully limit the number of pedals I need to fork out money for. Can I reasonably expect decent distortion and reverb within a relatively cheap amp – or would it maybe be a better idea to look for separate pedals?

Finally, I was wondering if anyone who is familiar with early 80's post-punk stuff (like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Public Image, Cocteau Twins etc) could suggest any pedals to me. I've looked at the rigs of my favourite guitarists from these bands, and there seems to be a lot of use of flangers and chorus pedals, also some delay. I tried to include clips in this post but I wasn't allowed to, so I'm hoping someone might know the kind of sounds I mean!

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Hey Boudicca,

1) If you are on a budget, then the American strat may not be the best bang for your buck. A new American standard will run around $1100, used for around $850 on Ebay (also caveat emptor on Ebay--it is not unheard of for unscrupulous sellers to put an American neck on a cheapo body and try to sell it as an American strat).

By contrast, you can pick up a used MIM (Made In Mexico) Strat for $250 - $350 and upgrade the pickups to MIA quality for another couple hundred bucks. I have one and for sure it makes that classic "strat sound." There is no doubt that the MIA strat is made of higher quality materials, has better craftsmanship generally (e.g. rolled fretboard edges), and comes with superior pups installed, but as a beginner it will probably take quite some time before you can play well enough for those differences to have an impact on your tone (with the possible exception of the pickups). It also hurts a lot less if you ding/chip a $350 guitar than a $1100 guitar. Some guys who have MIA strats leave them at home and gig with MIM strats for precisely that reason.

2) My practice amp is an Orange Crush 20LDX, and I think it's pretty awesome. It has several good effects (reverb, delay, overdrive, etc.) as well as a built-in tuner. You can get one new for about $150 - $180.

3) As for active pickups? I personally am not really sold on them. Active pickups have a hotter output as they use a battery to drive a preamp circuit that is part of the pickup. However, active pickups were designed to produce clean tones that are very flat across the entire tone spectrum--they were originally made for bass players and then adopted by jazz players. Yes, some metal guys use them cuz the hotter output can drive effects harder (though if you buy quality gear that should not be necessary), but if you are playing without effects then the tones can seem more "sterile" due to the flatter frequency response.

The other thing about active pickups is that they are a wicked pain to install. First they require a 9V battery to operate. There is no space under the pickguard of a strat to accommodate the battery, so you would have to take your guitar to a luthier and have him rout out a cavity for the battery (something that will almost certainly reduce the resale value of a MIA strat). Then, you would need to change the pots and install a jack that has a built in switch so the pups come on when you plug in.

4) In the interest of being kind to your budget, if you buy an amp with decent effects then you might want to hold off on the pedals until you have enough experience under your belt to be able to decide which one is best suited to your needs and your particular playing style.

Hope this helps!

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