The Custom Shop
When you walk into the guitar store there's usually a wall of guitars to choose from, but what most don't realize is that 95% of them are junk.
Over the course a few weekends some guitar player friends of mine and I decided to go around to different stores, and play every guitar they had, just so we could say, "Yeah, we've done that." What we discovered kinda depressed us.
We had to play 20 guitars to find one good one. And that was in line with the manufacturer and model. So basically:
20 American Standard Stratocasters
20 Les Paul Standards
20 Les Paul Customs
and it goes on and on at every level of quality from the major lines to the off brands like Epiphone and Squier.
[I later found the same ratio for basses as well]
The reason for this is; that it is absolutely impossible to know when you select a piece of wood for the body and another for the neck that when it's finished it's gonna be any good.
The care in craftsmanship does not affect the outcome. It's a crap shoot to the tune of about 5%. 5% of the time everything goes according to plan and you get a great feeling and sounding guitar or bass.
Hence the institution of "The Custom Shop". What builders figured out was it's all about matching the right neck with the right body. So just cranking out a bunch of necks and a bunch of bodies, and slapping them together on assembly lines produced a yield of about 5% high quality finished product that had all the right elements in it. But, if they instead weeded out which necks and bodies had all the right stuff in them, they could mix and match necks and bodies to find the magic. The rest of the rejects get sent to the assembly lines...and so the "Standard " and lower product lines are back down to about the 5% yield. Whereas their Custom Shop lines have a higher success rate. (Even though, I've still played a couple of custom shop clunkers)
Then with Gibson gluing their necks on... it's just a total crap shoot.
So how are they able to still move those shitty guitars through the pipeline? Well, the average buyer doesn't know their standing in an ocean of mediocrity. In fact most beginners buy a guitar based on how it looks, and not how it sounds. And not surprisingly, many want the guitar that's just like the one their hero(s) play.
So how does one weed out the clunkers from the special ones?
Well, you're going to have to play a lot of guitars/ basses. I have a few things I do when visiting the store that I'll share with you that might help you.
I don't plug it in. You want to really hear what the axe itself sounds like. Off the shelf, the electronics don't matter to me cuz I'm likely gonna put in something I like better. Only if I decide it has potential do I plug it in. But for the most part a guitar or bass that sounds great without being plugged in is a quality axe.
Check the tuning and intonation. There's nothing worse than picking up a guitar or bass and getting that sour, out of tune chord sound. I always take a tiny screwdriver to adjust intonation, and a small set of alan wrenches in case it has a locking nut. Unless the intonation is correct and the instrument in tune, you can't evaluate it's tone and playability. It's also a good idea to check the the neck for any warping and how much of a break the neck has in it's curvature. A well setup guitar will have very little if any and a nice action. Most guitars/basses new have nuts and actions set safe and high, you can always have the guitar setup the way you want later.
Check for tonality and resonance. I play a specific sequence of chords that will always sound a certain way on a well made guitar, if the axe can't reproduce these with any life, it's a dead guitar. I've found this to be true of all guitars whether I prefer their particular configuration or not. Like, I prefer an unfinished maple neck with an unfinished maple fretboard. But I've played heavily lacquered necks and rosewood necks that I absolute loved, cuz they sounded and played amazing. So I don't let my preference get in the way of finding a magic axe.
I play some very simple leads. I'm not much of a lead player, so it's just some basic pentatonic runs with some bendy type stuff just to check the sustain and playability.
More things to check: (this is mostly for pawn shop guitars as music store guitars are rarely setup wrong anymore)
Action: If the action is too high or too low it can really throw you off. A potentially great sounding instrument will sound horrid. Chances are this axe with the funky action has it's intonation all out of whack as well. Make some adjustments and see if it can be rescued. But if there are issues with the following... perhaps not...
Neck curvature: usually you can look down the neck at an angle and see how much curve is there, but in case you can't.... take a capo with you, and place it on the 1st fret, hold down the low E string at the last fret and see what the gap is at the 8th fret. If you can easily see the gap without using a feeler gauge then there's way too much curve in the neck. This usually means whoever owned it wanted a lower action, and couldn't get it lower without the strings buzzing by adjusting the bridge alone, so they read an article online about adjusting the neck curve, which was the wrong move, and then gave up and sold the axe. Usually if the neck break is set to spec and the action (height of the strings at the 17th fret) is set to factory spec and going any lower causes buzz, the issue is with the nut slot heights, which you can fix yourself but it's easy to screw up, so usually best to take it to a professional. If this is too advanced for you, leave that axe alone. Move onto the next.
S curve: Look down the neck to see if it's twisted. That the plane of the neck is not off from the plane of the bridge. If it's twisted the body had better be amazing, or move on from this one...
I've Frankensteined a few guitars together over the years, and can usually tell if what's really working is the body or the neck. So, depending on my needs I may buy it just for the body... or for the neck. You should try hacking together a few guitars until you get a sense for what elements to look for. After my first one, my eyes began to really open up. So if you're feeling adventurous try creating a few monsters of your own.
In closing, unless you have the cash and the patience to wait for a custom made guitar, you're going to have to wade through a sea of crap. Don't buy for the paint job. Don't buy for the brand name. Don't buy for what you see your hero playing. Buy an instrument you really connect with that you'll never want to put down.