I have talked briefly before about making musical instruments affordable so that anyone can learn to play music (see Bluegrass Bass: Part 1). Fortunately, there are some instruments that are affordable to beginners, although the quality and playability can come into question, which in turn can be a motivating factor on continuing to play music, especially with a youngster.
A few months back I learned about a company in China called Glarry (www.glarrymusic.com). It produces a number of different acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, ukelele, melodica, and percussion models at extremely affordable prices. Now, if I had seen a new acoustic guitar anywhere at a department store or eBay for under $50 two years ago, I could assure you that it would have been absolutely unplayable, with garbage tuning gears, no fret balance, and action way too high to finger any chords.
However, a check on YouTube shows a number of video reviews for Glarry guitars, and almost all of them have overall positive feedback for the instruments. I had written about Glarry on LinkedIn a few months back, stating that it could possibly be making the Model T of acoustic guitars. The reviewers range from Joe Six-Packs to professional guitarists and repair persons. There were a few things that most of them agreed upon about the guitars when pulled out of the box and set up for first-time playing, which is what I wanted to find out as well.
I decided to purchase the Glarry GT502 Dreadnought Cutaway Spruce Acoustic Guitar. At $45.99, it is the lowest-priced dreadnought in their line. The package comes with a gig bag, hex wrench for adjusting the neck, and pickguard (which is not attached, allowing the buyer to choose to put it on). Shipping is free, although you can pay a few bucks more for faster shipping and insurance. You can only pay by credit card or PayPal, since all of the transactions are done with the China office. This can be a turnoff, since there are so many sham Chinese companies popping up on the internet. However, this company has a good reputation, and does have warehouses in the US.
The guitar arrived in three days, and my experience was like most of the YouTube reviewers. The shipping box is just one layer of cardboard. The area near the headstock was crushed, so I feared the headstock was damaged (fortunately, it was not). The guitar itself was wrapped only in thin packing material, not even bubble wrap. Fortunately, FedEx was somewhat careful, and it all came undamaged.
Once unwrapped, I went about checking to see if all parts were there and working. I tried to approach it like someone with no guitar experience, but that was not to be. I started going over the structure with a fine tooth comb, and saw that, for the most part, the guitar was worth the cost. The neck was straight, so no need to adjust (even though that hex key is provided and the adjustment is easily accessible). The tuning gears, while not the best, are durable enough. The frets themselves are good quality, but the end cuts are rough, especially down past the 12th fret. This can be irritating when moving your hand over the fretboard. The action was much higher than what it should be, but that was due to the saddle being leveled bad. Also, the saddle divots for the strings to guide over were next to nothing, which meant the strings were moving all over while trying to tune and strumming hard.
Once I tuned it, I noticed that, while it was playable, there was a lot of work needed to get this guitar into a quality playable situation. The strings on the guitar were extremely cheap, and one of them was so dead-sounding that I thought there was a problem with either the saddle or headstock nut. The saddle being at a bad level meant that it was hard to finger down fretted notes past the 7th fret. The guitar is a lot lighter than a Martin or other stalwart dreadnoughts. While the top of the body is made of spruce, the sides and back are made from basswood, which is a cheaper, less durable wood available in Asia. Once unwrapped, the heavy aroma of glue comes out, so you know how much of it was used to put the guitar together. The tone is good but not comparable to a well-aged Martin. However, for a guitar at less than $50, it is a true bargain.
There are some things that you can do to get this Glarry acoustic to sound better and be a solid beginner guitar as well as a reliable back-up for someone with a higher-quality primary guitar. Two things to do immediately:
- Change the strings. The strings that are already on the guitar are probably from some bulk pile at the factory in China, and are really low quality. You will notice a big difference. Check with your local music store or a guitar-playing friend. If you are a beginner, start off with an extra-light gauge set of acoustic strings (not electric or electric-acoustic). A set with the high E string at about .011 will be good on beginner fingers. Once your finger tips start to callous and you want a stronger tone, you can move up to heavier gauge strings. This shouldn’t break the bank, as a decent set can be had for around $8.00.
- Get a better gig bag or case. The bag that comes with the guitar is extremely cheap with no padding. It has the same durability as a windbreaker jacket. While it will keep the dust off of the guitar indoors, it is not good for traveling. Again, check with a local guitar store or check online sources like eBay or Sweetwater. You should be able to pick up a gig bag for $15 and up that has padding as well as carrying straps. Make sure that you are getting one for a dreadnought full-size acoustic guitar. Glarry does sell quality hard-shell cases, but they cost more than the guitar itself, so it is up to you if you want to invest that much to carry a beginner guitar.
Other recommended work on this model to get it sounding good may need to be done by someone who does guitar repair work if you are not skilled enough. They are not difficult jobs, but unless you have at least a little woodworking experience, you may want to ask around. These jobs may cost about as much as you paid for the guitar, but the result will be a great player.
- Shave down the saddle. Again, almost all of the review videos, as well as my guitar, had a very high saddle (the white bar that the strings rest on by the soundhole, if you didn’t already know). A good 1/16 to 1/8 inch needs to be taken off, but this is one of those cases where one would file off just a bit from the bottom evenly, then replace it into the bridge and re-evaluate the string height on the fretboard. If doing this on your own, a good reference book that I mentioned in a previous blog is Guitar Setup & Maintenance by Chad Johnson (Hal Leonard Publishing ISBN 978-1-4584-1824-1). NOTE: The saddle (as well as the nut and bridge pins) is made of plastic, which is cheap and does not do much for the guitar tone. Be careful shaving it, as it is easy to remove too much.
- Smooth out the fret ends along the side of the fretboard. If you have the confidence to do it on your own, take a sanding block with fine sandpaper and evenly glide it along the length of the fretboard edge, slightly angling the top of the block toward the center of the fretboard. This should smooth out some of the snag ends of the frets sticking out beyond the white binding. Again, take it to a repairperson if you prefer and have the extra money.
There are a few other quirks, like the markers on the fretboard and side binding are off in places. For a guitar under 50 bucks, you cannot expect much. However, this Glarry acoustic does fit the bill for any beginner who wants to get started with bluegrass or other folk-type guitar music and doesn’t want to sink in a lot of money just in case the mind changes shortly thereafter.
I may talk about this guitar more later, particularly comparisons to other acoustic guitars and how you can upgrade it. In the meantime, chew on it and comment.