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  • Writer's pictureJimmy The Dog

Harley Benton? I'll eat my words.....well, some of them

Updated: Feb 27

My recent gigging experience with my 'cheapie' Harley Benton TE90 FLT Orange Blast guitar (which I've embellished artistically, but not otherwise altered electronically or physically) and how I've come to like this as a stand-up, highly gig-able and reliable axe.

Harley Benton guitar
My 'signature' Harley Benton TE90FLT in Orange Blast

Okay, my last post was written after I'd had the guitar about a week. I hadn't actually road tested it, but I'm glad I have now because it does the job I need it to do on stage far better than I'd hoped. I gave the guitar an overall 6.5/10 in my last post. Now I'd give it an 8.5/10.

As you can see from the photo, HB's unusual routing of the body gave me an opportunity to give myself my very own 'signature' model by adding some artwork to the cavity and putting a plastic cover where the cheap black pick guard was placed. It was eye-catching before but now, it gets noticed. Body-wise, the guitar doesn't have a refined finish and looks rough'n'ready, but that's okay it's supposed to. Anyway, at £158 new, who cares if it gets damaged? How much damage can you do to it anyway? Even the sweat streaks on the guitar body from my right hand don't show up, unlike my £1000+ G&L USA ASAT Classic in shiny Fullarton Red which although in a different league, greases up horribly too easily.

Getting back to the guitar body for a minute, this particular HB model possesses one thing most guitars these days - especially buget-market guitars - don't have: a one-piece body. Now I don't know if this is intentional on the part of HB - I don't know that they do this on other models, but it may be down to the wood type. Both the body and the fretboard are made of Sungkai, an inexpensive Indonesian wood normally used in furniture-making. I don't know for sure, but I think that the wood is cheap enough to warrant a single-piece body rather than spend time and increased production cost selecting wooden pieces to be put together to make a body as is the case with most electric guitars, even with upmarket types. Perhaps this is how they're able to price this guitar so keenly while still having two humbuckers on board, I don't know but I'd love to find out. The wood is rough and so it looks like they've come up with a clever and economical way of using the Orange Blast paint design finish to emphasise the roughness of the wood to make a guitar which looks like it has plenty of attitude; not "road-worn" but rough and ready from the get-go. Kind of like a 'rebel' guitar should be, if you think of the guitar it's trying to emulate in tone - Fender's 'Cabronita' - but outdoing its inspiration in dangerous looks.

But here's the best part for me; it has one of the longest natural note sustains I've ever heard from a guitar and I put this down to the one piece body as there are no joints and glue to disrupt the resonance in the wood. Or it may be that Sungkai is just a very resonant wood. Or it could be a combination of both. Just my thoughts. But even my American G&L Comanche, a superbly made work of art which cost almost 12 times the cost of this HB, has a two piece body and doesn't sustain a note quite as long (although, yes, it is in a completely different class of guitar). Does the body cavity under the scratch plate increase the resonance? Personally, I don't think so, but Thomman (HB's online sales outlet) seems to claim it does.

Gigging this axe last weekend turned out to be a pleasure. The neck is very good up and down the frets, the tuners - which I'd considered as fairly cheap rubbish when I took delivery of the guitar - responded well and held well, the strings hardly needing any re-tuning throughout the gig despite the hammering they were getting. But the main surprise was how well the FilterTron-style Roswell pick-ups grunted out their growl straight into the dirty channel of my Egnater Tweaker 40 tube amp (I used the 'British' or 'Marshall' setting on the amp) and out of my Marshall MX112 cabinet. I'd set up the amp master volume to about half the total and the gain about 60%, with the guitar tone top full on and the volume turned back a touch. So, yes - loud. These humbuckers delivered my style of dirty blues and blues-rock perfectly, no buzz, no squeak, nothing - just perfectly dirty blues. I used the bridge pick up for most of the gig but the neck pup was just as good. An even bigger surprise was how the guitar responded through the clean channel. Perfectly clear, clean sounds all across the board, from low to high registers. Although it wasn't 'telecaster-twangy', the sound wasn't totally 'humbucker-ed' either. I can get a cleaner sound by using one of my 'Strat-style' guitars - I always bring one to a gig as a spare or if I need to use the whammy bar in a song - but it did the job. My only slight gripe was that with the three-way switch in the mid-position to select the mix of both pick-ups, the sound was kind of 'meh' and strangely delivered less power than I would have expected.

The guitar was also getting some admiring looks as it looked a bit unusual, what with the artwork in the hole an' all.

Would it do what a Fender Cabronita could? Well, I'd love to be able to say either way but never having played one I don't know. However, I have noticed that 12 year old Mexican-built Cabronitas with the original TV Jones pick-ups are currently selling on eBay for around the £1100 mark. All second-hand, obviously - Fender haven't made them for years. I've seen a black one on Gumtree for about £650 which seems much more reasonable, but it does indicate that these Fender Mexico versions have become sought-after artifacts of folklore, given their bold pricing. I've even seen second-hand Fender USA Custom Workshop Cabronita's being advertised at £4500+. Really? I mean, it's not like it a '68 Les Paul (although I wouldn't pay for one, personally).

If you wanted a new Fender Cabronita Telecaster (and I don't mean the current Squier Paranormal Thinline Cabronita with the imitation P90's), you'd have to build it yourself. I did some rough pricing on eBay and this is roughly what you pay for the parts:

Second hand Fender Mexico body - £250 - 300

New Fender Mexico neck - £300 - 350

2x TV Jones pick-ups - £300 - 400

Wiring, pots, switch, cables, jack etc - £100

Even before you're considering the paint finish costs and a luthier set-up, that's going to cost you between £950 and £1150. Is it worth it? Only you can say.

Which brings me back to the whole budget guitar issue. How much money do you really need to spend on an electric guitar these days to get one which is decently gig-able? My recent pleasant experience with the guitar above and with both my Jet JS400 and Tokai Goldstar Sound 'Strat'-style guitars seems to be that there's no need to go above £500 new and you can get great second-hand deals at the moment. Try a few non-brand guitars, see how they feel and sound and never mind the label.

You see, I think the label on the neck has a lot to do with pricing. A small Toyota will get you from A to B just the same as an S-Class Merc. It just won't feel the same. If you're a session-player or you're in a 'big stage' band, then the guitar label might matter for a number of reasons, but if you're a semi-pro muso playing small venues or a play-at-home amateur why go to the expense?

It's not like it was in the 70's when cheap guitars were just that - cheap in every way. Nowadays, they're all made on CNC machines, measurements are by laser and wood treatments and conditioning are far superior to what they were back then. Because of this, you no longer have to depend on 'superior' USA builds like you used to; Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican and other country builds are every bit as good these days as the 'good ole' US versions, unless you're flush enough and go for a custom shop build, just because you can. The old adage "you get what you pay for" isn't really all that true these days when you consider what is available out there. My 'cheapie' HB TE90FLT 'Cabronita' cost me £158. The non-branded "Roswell" pick-ups on it sound pretty 'TV Jones' to me. My Jet JS400 'Strat' cost me £169 and is arguably the most playable of all my guitars. Going slightly higher up the scale my Tokai Goldstar Sound 'Strat' should have cost me £550, but I got a deal at £260. A far cry from the £1700 G&L Comanche I bought 20 years ago (mind you, the others don't come close). There are perfectly playable non-branded affordable options that'll give you loads of pleasure and reliable service if you don't mind the lack of a prestige badge.

Occasionally, you'll get a prestige guitar for a decent price because the company that makes them hasn't mastered the marketing of them. Yamaha is one of those companies, it seems. Their quality control in everything they build is excellent, but they seem to fail to notice the esthetics and the effect on the buying public or just that they don't seem to push the brand in the way hungry up-and-coming competitor guitar builders do. A case in point - I use to own a Yamaha AES 800, a 2000 model with DiMarzio humbuckers and played very much like a Gibson SG. I bought it new from a music shop in France in 2003 at almost half price because the guitar had been in the shop for three years and nobody wanted it. Why? I played it. It was flawless and almost never went out of tune. It really rocked but at the same time was super-versatile. It became my go-to studio guitar. Mahogany body, rosewood fingerboard and all over quality - except that it was a kind of monkey-shit brown and it's pseudo-60's-pschadelic cut made it look ugly, well, that's what most people told me. I played it out too and it features on the video I made at my first appearance at the Standon Calling summer festival in 2016. But, yeah, it was still ugly. I eventually sold it to a collector of odd and unusual guitars and regretted it. It out-SG'd the SG's, out-Les Paul'd the Les Pauls and would even do a decent Strat sound. Yamaha also make a pro-level model called the Revstar - not the catchiest name IMHO and despite its exceptional build quality, play-ability, sounds and value for money, it's also suffered from the same lack of marketing awareness as you'll be able to see from Nashville session guitarist Rhett Shull's YouTube video on the subject.

Yep, there's a lot of bang for your buck and pleasant surprises with budget guitars these days - IMHO! The Harley Benton I've mentioned above is just one of them.

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