Here’s what I’ve been finding out recently from a couple of budget purchases:
Firstly, let me just get this out of the way. This blog post, as a review, expresses my honest personal opinion about two products which I own and have trialed. I can confirm that I receive no payment or incentive of any kind from anyone for this post and have chosen words carefully to intentionally avoid any possible statutory or copyright violations.
JET JS-400 HSS
About a year ago, I was asked to try out an ST-style guitar and guess the price. It was beautifully finished, had an HSS pick-up configuration and a two-way tremolo. And, oh the neck - it was absolutely perfect like it was made for a high-end guitar. The finish and the frets were exceptional and it played beautifully too, so easy to get tone and definition and the factory set-up was just about perfect for me. I reckoned the price would have been around the £400-500 range similar to the Classic Vibe Squiers’ feel and finish. It was £169. I could hardly believe it.
Without having to think, I handed over my credit card and walked out the shop with a guitar which soon became my No. 2 machine at every gig, the Jet JS-400. Admittedly, it’s not in the same league as my other ST-style guitar, a 2005 G&L USA Comanche, but then it costs a tenth of the price of the G&L. To make a driving comparison, with the JS-400 on stage it feels like I’m driving a later-model Ford Focus, but with the G&L it’s more of the S-Class Mercedes experience. Although they’ll both get you from A to B - cars, that is.
Incredible value and it holds tune too! And confirmed to me that like modern budget cars, there aren’t any real bad examples in the guitar world either any more. Well, maybe if you’re unfortunate, but this one certainly ain’t the case. Plus this has so many refinements such as a bone nut, belly cut and sculpted fret access that you’d normally only get on the higher end guitar. The basswood body makes it light weight and the roasted Canadian maple neck is as straight and true as I’ve seen on any high-end branded guitar, you know, the one starting with the letter F.
Tuners were light to the touch, but certainly held tuning true. The ceramic pick-ups are pretty hot and don’t give the same sweetness you’d get from say a Mexican Fender Strat, but the tone and volume controls are decent and so with a bit of jiggery-pokery, you can get close. But while the ceramics lack some of the clarity of an Alnico pick up, they provide provide plenty of grunt, especially the humbucker. There's hardly any hum from the single coils which is good and none from the humbucker, as you'd expect.
This one’s made in China by a European company, Jet Guitars, and I have to say it gets top marks. Accordingly, I’ve never had the feeling I wanted to strip this guitar down to check for defects (which is why I don't have any deconstruction photos of it here). It looks, plays and sounds perfect. I’ve used it on recordings where I used to use more expensive guitars because it plays so well and so easily. Maybe the only slight ‘meh’ about it is that at time of purchase, Jet only had plain colours and mine has an off-white body which isn’t very inspiring. Although on the flip side it looks very "Jeff Beck", which can’t be a bad thing. A real all-round 5-star experience and a solid investment. I hope it lasts a long time.
MY THING FOR TELECASTERS
Now, I have had, as a personal preference, a thing for the T-style guitar since I first got my hands on my cousin’s Tokai Thinline Telecaster copy back in the 70’s when we were kids. Not sure why, maybe I just liked the shape over that of a Strat when I bought my first Japanese Squier Tele back in the late 80’s (when they used Fender parts). I have two Fender Telecasters (a Nashville and an FMT and I used to have a Fender TC 90 limited edition Tele too) and a G&L USA ASAT Classic custom shop T-style.
I’ve also got a G&L USA Comanche ST-style as I mentioned above, G&L’s ‘super-Strat’, but I’ve been intrigued by my experience with the JS-400, the ‘cheapie’ ST-style guitar discussed above so that I’ve taken a passing interest in budget guitars as they seem to give you a lot of bang for your buck these days. Budget guitars were, well, pretty poor when I was young but in these days of hi-tech with laser measurement, roasted woods and CNC machine finishes they not only look professional, but some of them play and sound great too.
So I’d been looking at some other budget makes, particularly Harley Benton, owned by Thomann. Harley Benton, because I saw and heard a trio-guitarist playing soft music to a bar full of hotel guests in Madeira last year. I couldn’t tell the make of his guitar - I knew from a distance that it wasn’t a Fender - but he was getting the sweetest sounds out of his T-style. After the gig he showed me. It was a Harley Benton Pro Series Tele (I can’t remember the exact model) but it had Alnico humbuckers and was finished like it was a fine marble statue. He told me he’d owned it from new for about 2 years and had paid less than 300 euro for it new from Musikhaus Thomann online and it’s the best guitar he’s ever had. So…..
Now, I don’t need another Telecaster but I was keen to try out one of these Harley Bentons but not spend any more than I’d spent on the JS-400. As it happens, I’ve always had a fancy to buy a "Cabronita" Telecaster - the most un-Tele-like of all Tele’s apparently - with hot TV Jones or Gretsch ‘Filter-Tron’ humbuckers and a gutsy tone that you’d find with Mexican or Chicano Desert Rock acts like Tito & Tarantula or Los Lobos. Fender USA only made them as a custom shop job except for a few short years when they were made as stock items by Fender in Mexico. The Mexican ones haven’t been made for ten or so years now and they fetch a decent second-hand price, no matter their condition. The custom shop ones are still made-to-order - at an insane price! Don't mistake the Fender Cabronita Telecaster for Fender's budget line Squier Paranormal Cabronita Tele Thinline. It's not even close to being the same animal, IMHO.
HARLEY BENTON TE90-FLT
So I came across the Harley Benton TE90-FLT. A T-style ‘Cabronita’ sort of clone with their house-branded Roswell 5157490 ‘FilterTron’-style pick-ups, hence the FLT in the name. Price was £158 pounds new, so within budget. It looked daring with it’s orange burst body finish, reverse head stock and alternative controls layout, although the body remained true to shape. Here was a "Cabronita" that wasn’t going to break the bank. I clicked on ‘Buy Now’.
It came in a cardboard box and looked good on first sight. The Orange Burst colour and design made the guitar look daring, like a guitar with attitude and the reverse headstock matched the body coloration with an embossed logo and a ‘deluxe series’ tag line. So far, so good.
And Harley Benton have really gone to embrace the ‘different’; the body, on closer inspection seemed to lend its finish to a matt acrylic stain coating which emphasised the roughness of the Sungkai body (an Indonesian rough-finish hardwood, also known as Kurus, mainly used for furniture making). You could see parts of the body wood that seemed to be porous and other parts slightly rough indicating that the guitar body was poorly finished, but on the flip-side I think this was a deliberate ploy by the manufacturer to emphasise the nature of the guitar body for the target market and also to reduce manufacturing time and effort!
The neck was made of roasted Canadian maple with a roasted Sungkai fretboard, looking pretty much like maple itself. It was well finished and smooth, as were the frets, making playing easy. I think the neck and frets are the crux of an electric guitar and HB have done a good job with this one.
I was taking to this new toy quite well, but for a few quality issues. Firstly, the tuners were of poor quality; stiff and not enough of a ratio to get a refined tuning without fiddling about. They didn’t hold the tune well and I hoped that after a bit of string stretching this would improve. The switching was okay, if slightly looser than I’d like and the tone and volume controls worked fine. The nut seemed okay for a graphite nut. The chromed string tail on close inspection seemed a bit cheap by virtue of the roughness of the metal under the chrome plating, but, hey, it’s a tail and it was solid. Plus it had a six-piece saddle.
The truss rod was way too loose with strings on under tension, so I released the strings and tightened the rod fully. The action was slightly high and the octave intonation was a bit off, so I lowered the bridge saddle pieces to get the action and intonation just right. The guitar comes with a truss rod adjuster key, but not the smaller saddle adjuster. Fortunately, I’m all tooled-up.
The ‘Filter-tron’-style pickup screws were sitting proud of the pick ups, one in particular on the bridge pick up where the screw’s star head had been completely stripped (inferior quality material?) so no adjustment could be made. It was going to interfere with my playing styles. It seemed to have been rammed in by an electric screwdriver and this should never have got through Quality Control (IMHO), without this defect having been rectified. We’ll come back to this later. The pick guard was a cheap single ply black plastic which really didn’t suit the guitar design scheme. Plus it was already scratched 'in the box', which is another QC fail. I took it off.
And this is where the guitar started to show me some surprises and clever innovations which was encouraging as it was starting to feel like it needed some redeeming features! Under the pick guard, a cavity has been routed out of the body.
Also, the electronics cavity for the tone and volume controls is way too big for the controls provided. However, these cavities seem to add an acoustic resonance to the guitar which, I found when I eventually plugged it in, possibly helps with the excellent sustain which I suspect has more to do with the body wood than the cavities themselves. However, it has the advantage of making the guitar lighter than it would normally be without them and gives the buyer plenty of scope for modifications and at the same time doesn’t compromise the balance of the guitar. I’ve found that some thin-line ‘f-hole’ Teles are somewhat neck heavy because of the body routing and I personally find this annoying, always having slight pressure on the fret hand. It’s the reason I got rid of my Fender TC 90, an otherwise excellent and underrated guitar. However, the TE90-FLT remains well-balanced.
If you remove the pick guard, which doesn’t fit snugly anyway, what do you do? Replace with a decent pick guard, but with which colour or design? You’d have to get to a custom pick guard supplier to get one that fits the body scheme and that could cost you upwards of £45 for one pick guard - almost a third the price of the guitar itself - but the upgrade would improve the guitar's looks. However, thinking laterally I thought I could use the cavity as a customised feature - perhaps adding some kind of small Tex-Mex themed 3D objects enclosing the cavity with a transparent single-ply thin plastic pick guard which you could make at home. A good way to personalise your guitar for a few pennies?
As it was the ‘most-budget’ of all guitars I currently own, I decided I’d got nothing to lose if I used the front-body cavity to mount a self-made piece of (ahem) art which could get it some attention and maybe get some interest from a Los Lobos tribute band? Anyway, the name Cabronita, Spanish for “little devil”, gave me the idea of a mardi-gras or a “La Muerte” theme, with voodoo, blood, skulls and some religious artifacts as if to to ward off evil spirits. I found a wooden skull key ring and some enamel paints in a local hardware shop. The cavity was already painted matt black. I removed the skull from the key ring, drilled and painted it gold and white with black eye cavities and mounted it into the cavity securing it to the body with a small screw. I then painted the blood from a murder scene in matt red dripping down the sides of the cavity onto the ‘floor’. Finally I glued two religious medals, one of the Virgin Mary and another of a guardian angel either side of the skull so that the montage told a story. All that’s missing is a transparent pick guard, although I did fit a makeshift one out of thin plastic cut to form. This modification cost less than 15 pounds and gives the guitar a load of character - well, I think so.
Enough of the visual descriptions already! I hear you say. What does it sound like?
And this was where I was impressed. I played the guitar through an Egnater Tweaker 40 tube amp and a Marshall MX112 cabinet with some reverb on both clean and dirty channels using a reverb pedal. The Roswell pick ups didn’t disappoint! More growl than grunt but gutsy enough on both pick-ups individually but also with a hint of tele twang on the bridge that you wouldn't get with PAF style humbuckers and enough definition, sounding just like it’s gagging to thrash out “La Bamba”.
Unlike Fender’s Cabronita, this model comes with a tone control as well as a volume control which allows for some tonal coloration, although I doubt I'd use it. With the three-way switch in the mid position I thought the sound was a bit less aggressive than I would have expected, but I normally play on either one pick-up or the other so I wasn’t too disappointed. It’s definitely a gritty rocker and doesn’t give you the sweet tones you’d need if you want to play country or jazz. No, that’s not what a Cabronita does.
I’d left the guitar for a day and (thankfully) the tuning held true, for the most part. But the big surprise was the length of sustain the guitar was capable of - at least as much as I could get out of my high-end G&L Comanche! Now that’s impressive. However, leaving the guitar for a week un-played, I noticed it had developed a string buzz on the B and E strings, not at the octave or higher, but strangely enough at the nut! This has meant me having to raise the action slightly to get rid of it (it was quite pronounced and wouldn’t hold an F-chord). This is something I though I'd have to have to keep an eye on, but it's been holding tune well since the adjustment and is string-buzz free.
The Roswell humbuckers do kick out more growl than grunt with a fair bit it of twang compared to, say PAF-style humbuckers as you would expect as they're based on "FilterTrons" but they're not of the same quality, not surprisingly for the price-base. These humbuckers don't really cancel out the hum. Not fit for purpose? Well, the hum is there but it's only very slight, particularly on a high gain channel, so I'd say, yes, fit for purpose unless you happen to be OCD about humbuckers cancelling 100% of all hum. Also, I've found that there's an audible switch click when you switch pickups, particularly on a dirty channel. Still, I'd be happy to gig this guitar, or at least try it out at a gig and see how it performs. From trialing it so far, I can't foresee any real issues. I've had bigger problems with much more expensive guitars.
Now to the QC issue. The problem with the stripped screw was that, once removed by gently twisting out using pliers and removing the bridge pick up, the screw had missed the drilled hole and had been forced in at an angle, creating a new hole right beside the original, dangerously close. I replaced the pick-up using another identical screw in the right hole this time and the pick up now sits properly and can be height adjusted. I also noticed that the wiring runs directly under the pick-ups instead of around them - this being indicative of a budget construction. However, I wasn’t about to send the guitar back for the sake of a screw and some poorly-routed and slightly tight wiring. If worst comes to the worst, It’ll be a great platform for a whole bunch of upgrades, come the revolution!
So I got my “Cabronita”. It didn’t cost me a fortune and I like it despite the QC issues. I haven't gigged it yet, but I think it'll do just fine. Time will tell.
It’s not really fair, I suppose, to compare an ST- with a T-style guitar, but as I’ve also played a Jet JT350 - one of Jet's T-style guitars - and I would say, based on quality, if you were planning on buying a budget T-style and you had a choice to buy Harley Benton or Jet, I’d tend towards Jet. It’ll cost slightly more than the Harley Benton equivalent but IMHO the build quality is better than HB's, the finish is close to being perfect and from my experience I've had no QC issues (certainly with the Jet model I own) and it's a tried-and-tested-perfectly-gig-able guitar which plays and looks like a more expensive brand and comes with a great set-up right out of the box.
Marks: Jet JS400 - 9/10
The Harley Benton TE90-FLT has grown on me. It plays and sounds great, looks great (if you forget about the cheap-looking one-piece black plastic pick guard), it’s good value for money, but doesn't exceed the ‘Budget’ category for me as the QC failures on the model I own let it down. That and the cheap tuners. But it is the cheapest "Cabronita"-styled T-style currently on the market. So if a Cabronita is your thing and you're on a budget, this is a good option. HB also do it in different 'blast' colours including black, red and blue. The reverse headstock may initially confuse you when you come to tune up, but it does add to the guitar's 'coolness'.
Marks: Harley Benton TE90 FLT - 6.5/10
Both guitars are solid platforms if you want to buy a guitar with the intention of engaging yourself in an upgrade project. There's plenty of quality after-market parts out there to choose from if you do decide to go down that route. Just be sure that whatever bits you choose will fit your guitar before parting with your cash!!