Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cheap Guitars

I'm working on a post devoted to determining just how cheap a guitar can you use on Rocksmith. This may include or possibly be a separate blog entry from my evaluation of kids' guitars for Rocksmith. At the moment, there's sort of an unavoidable overlap.

Among all the possible entries for this study, I've always presumed I would have to include First Act instruments. They're sold at Target and I think also at Wal-Mart. I've bought First Act brand strings and found them lacking in tonal if not material quality. But, there are tons of First Act instruments out there - from trumpets to drum set - and I suppose it bears investigating whether their guitars are at all playable as Rocksmith instruments.

I have all but conclusively established (at least in my own mind) that the quality, age, and condition of your guitar strings can make or break you in Rocksmith. Being in tune is critical and you can't stay in tune with bad or old or bad old strings.I think I have discovered that the same principle applies to guitars. You don't need a $5000 Gibson LP Custom to play Rocksmith. But, my experience tells me that you will get better scores with a better guitar. I'd guess that pick-ups as much as anything are the deciding factor. Noisy or weak pickups seem to limit your scoring potential.Sustain also seems to play a role in getting better scores. My new EG112 has incredible sustain - especially considering what I paid for the guitar. And, since I've started playing that guitar, my RS scores have been significantly higher.

But, back to First Act guitars. My first step in researching these instruments was to look them up on the Internet. Lo! and behold - they actually have a website. (Predictably, it's And, it's at least nominally an American company - based in Boston, Massachusetts! Like other more famous "American" instrument companies, the vast majority of First Act instruments are made somewhere other than in the U.S. However, I was shocked to learn that they have a custom shop (called Studio for Artists) which makes guitars right in Boston (or nearby) for professional musicians. Adam Levine of Maroon 5, for one, plays First Act guitars! I'm not a Maroon 5 fan, but they're getting paid so they must be doing something right. Brad Rice, guitarist for Keith Urban, also plays a First Act custom rig.

So, what's the deal? Well, apparently First Act makes four high-end "limited edition" guitars - the Lola, the Delia, the Delia LS, and the Sheena. (They also make a limited edition bass called the Delgada.) These are apparently made by American luthiers at the First Act Studio for Artists shop in MA, USA. These things were rated pretty highly in a review by Chris Gill at Guitar World Magazine. Of course, that was 6 years ago. That fact that First Act is still posting the review on their official website does tend to make me wonder what they've done in the past 6 years. . . The Lola lists for $1500.00. Based on the GWM review by C. Gill, that's a bargain price for an awesome guitar. Certainly worth checking out.

You can also have a completely custom-built rig made by the same luthiers at the Studio for Artists. Evidently, a whole bunch of players have done that, including one of the guitarists for Avril Lavigne's band. There were 18 pages of names on the First Act website of artists who play First Act custom axes. I stopped when I got to Hugh McDonald of Bon Jovi. Good enough for me.

Of course, you've always got to ask yourself a couple of questions. First, did these guys buy their guitars with their own money, or were the guitars given to them to generate buzz for the brand? Second, if the latter, are they actually playing the brand? Or, are the "First Act" guitars they're playing really one-off custom jobs that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the instruments First Act would sell you or me? I cannot tell you the brands, but let's just say that I once worked on a major Indy racing team and we had a certain spark plug maker's name on our car. But, we never ran their spark plugs in the car. We went to considerable efforts to make sure that nobody knew that, too. So, I'm somewhat suspicious. But, I'm not unwilling to believe that First Act could actually make a decent guitar, possibly even a great guitar that you could buy for a lot less than a comparable Gibson or Fender. I do have to wonder, if that's the case, why they'd sell their stuff at Target or Wal-Mart - but, the Epi LP Junior/RS bundle is sold at Sam's Clubs and my second-hand Epi Junior is a nice little guitar. The fact that I could buy one in the same store where I buy marinated artichoke hearts really has no bearing on it's quality. Just kinda weird marketing strategy.

Clearly the LE and custom guitars built at First Act's Studio for Artists are not the ones you buy in Wal-Mart or Target. So, what's the deal on their regular line of instruments?

Well, it's a little hard to tell. On their website, First Act lists First Act Instruments and First Act Discovery brand instruments. Discovery stuff is clearly for little kids - basically relatively realistic musical toys and some stuff suitable for elementary school music education programs. But, there is no link for First Act Instruments. . . I guess I'll dig into that a little deeper when I get a chance.

I'm still not sold on the notion that First Act guitars are anything more than really cheap Chinese junk made for the not-so-serious music student. But, I'm open to the possibility. More later. 


  1. My neighbor's son has a first act acoustic that is playable. the action is terrible, and it sounds kinda crappy, but he is 17 and doesn't have any money to spend. My Uncle has a Madeira (the low end brand for Guild) and it is a million times better than the first act. My other neighbor has a Taylor that is another big jump over the Madeira (and almost a different instrument than the First Act).

    I would be curious to see the difference on scoring between possible settings on one guitar (front and back pickups, more/less volume, more/less tone) and vs other guitars. I am not sure how they score the input, but i would have to imagine that changes to the signal coming in would make it better or worse.

    Good luck,

  2. Oh, regarding the First Act endorsements, just for fun looked at Rick Neilson of Cheap Trick. I think these must be non-exclusive contracts b/c you can see plenty of pics with Rick not using FA guitars - like this - vegas on 12/4/2011. I think if you sign to a major vendor, you pretty much have to play their stuff all the time. Actually, going thru Cheap trick's site, i can't find any of the FA guitar they made for him (which is actually pretty sweet).

    Along those lines, check this out - - more from Rick. He is quite the collector.


  3. It's perfectly straightforward. They state that their brand mission is to get more people playing music. To do that their business model centers around getting to the masses through mass merchandisers. Finally they build the mid and pro guitars so the brand is seen onstage and in videos, thus generating publicity and feeding demand. The custom shop guitars they can sell at a reasonable cost as they're for brand awareness, not cash flow. The cash comes from the mass merchandisers.

    I own a custom shop First Act. It's replaced my Guild (made in the Fender CS) my USA Hamers and my Gibson ES137. The guys in the First Act shop used to be in Gibson's CS. They know what they are doing.

  4. I have a First Act Lola Custom Shop that replaced my Les Pauls as it sounded better and played much better. It is just a superb guitar. I bought it at a guitar show after being amazed by the tone and the playability. The build quality is outstanding with great finish and the finish is top notch all around. It stays in tune great for alternate tunings where many of the top brands will not hold tune after being subjected to alternate tunings