Chris Buck, the guitar maestro behind Cardinal Black, knows a thing or two about buying guitars. In short, he's an addict, a hoarder, a player whom we might associate with the Yamaha Revstar but is similarly oft-spotted with a Stratocaster in his hand.
Here he sat down with Guitarist to share some of his gear-buying wisdom, explaining why the amp is important but the electric guitar is the most critical to your sound, and to tell us all why the P-90 is criminally underrated…
What was the first serious guitar that you bought with your own money?
“The first proper guitar I really remember aspiring to for a very long time was my [Gibson] Les Paul. I had a Squier Telecaster prior to that, then I graduated up to an Epiphone Les Paul that my old man very kindly bought me – and then it was the Les Paul. I was a huge Slash fan when I was growing up and so I was intent on getting a bona fide Gibson Les Paul at some point.
“It was sort of hovered over my head as an incentive to do well in my GCSE exams by my parents, as long as I met them half way on it. Of course, the first thing I did with it was play a gig at a club in Newport called TJs. I opened up the case to proudly show it to the rest of the band and stuck it through the ceiling in the venue, taking a big lump out of the corner of the headstock. I surreptitiously tried to cover it up with black masking tape so that my old man didn’t notice…”
What was the last guitar that you bought and why?
“The last guitar I bought was a bit of a strange one. It’s a rare Gibson that they only made 150 of, which is an ES-355 signature model made for this guy called Shinichi Ubukata. He’s in a couple of Japanese bands and obviously very well respected there, but doesn’t seem to have much of a profile outside of his own country.
"Dave Grohl picked one up and there are rumours as to how heavily involved he was with the design of the guitar because it’s quite similar to his own model – a kind of Trini Lopez thing with the diamond f-holes. I stumbled across a picture of one on Instagram a year or so, I guess, and I was really intrigued by it right away.”
What’s the most incredible find or bargain you’ve ever had when buying guitars?
“It would be the ’62 Strat. I had no aspirations to own a pre-CBS Strat. I’ve had a lot of old Les Pauls, old 335s – generally older Gibsons, really, are the ones I’ve salivated over. I’d never played an old Strat that made me go weak at the knees.
“Then someone tagged me in a Facebook post asking me if I could confirm either way if the thing he saw in a video [from Pontypridd Auctions] was a Roland Space Echo. But I was more intrigued by the old-looking Strat that was leaning up against a wall behind it.
“The auction was the next day, so I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to make a move, get up early, get over there and have a look at it,’ and [guitar historian] Huw Price was kind enough to come with me, being infinitely more knowledgeable about this kind of stuff than I am. So we went in, had a look and it transpired it was what it initially looked like, but it needed a lot of work.
“The guy who owned it had obviously been a fan of tinkering, to say the least. It was a bit of a dog’s dinner, to be honest, but there was a good guitar there. I’d never bid on anything outside of eBay in my life, but the eventual price was £1,950 – and the neck is worth more than that! It’s a bit surreal, really; I’ve ended up with a pre-CBS Strat for less than a Custom Shop, all things being told.”
Have you ever sold a guitar that you now intensely regret letting go of?
“I’ve sold two guitars in my lifetime. I’m an absolute hoarder when it comes to guitars; I just can’t let stuff go without this sense of impending doom. Prior to one I sold recently, the only guitar I’d ever sold was an old Charvel Model 4 from the mid-'80s – Floyd Rose, ludicrously high-output pickups and a duotone paint job – and to this day I’ve still no idea why I bought it.
“I never played it. It was so outside my wheelhouse that I was never likely to use it, either. Then, literally as the guy who bought it was driving off down the street, it flashed through my mind, ‘What if I need to join a Steel Panther tribute band at some point?’”
What’s your best guitar-buying tip?
“You can’t beat going secondhand a lot of the time. I’ve bought so few new guitars in my life. I just trawl through Reverb or eBay or Gumtree or whatever, and some of my favourite guitars I’ve ever purchased were second-hand, third-hand or fourth-hand.
“More often than not, it’s easy to tell the good ones at a distance because someone will have at least played them and, if nothing else, the guitar feels played in when you get it. All the usual caveats apply: buyer beware, do your research before you get anything… I’m the worst in the world. Before pulling the trigger I want to know everything I literally can about a guitar.”
When was the last time you stopped to stare in a guitar shop window (or browsed online) and what were you looking at?
“Online it was a Fender AVRI – the American Vintage Reissue series. Back in about 2012, I think, they did a 1964-spec Olympic White Telecaster with a slab rosewood ’board and someone I follow on Instagram plays one.
“Every time he posts a picture of him playing it I go slightly weak at the knees, and so that’s another search that I’ve saved in Reverb just in case someone decides to list one. I’ve never actually played one, but they look like really good guitars: period appointments and all the correct paint types, and all that kind of stuff. So that is definitely on the agenda at the moment, should one actually become available at the right price.”
If forced to make a choice, would you rather buy a really good guitar and a cheap amp or a cheap guitar and a top-notch amp?
“A great guitar and a cheap amp, any day of the week. You see a lot of this sort of thing floating around in discussion boards online as to where’s the best place to spend your money – and you play the guitar at the end of the day, you don’t play the amp.
“Well, I guess you do in the most literal sense, but if you have a guitar that is awkward to play or it’s uncomfortable or it doesn’t inspire you then it’s irrelevant how good the amp is. It’s only going to be amplifying noises that you’re not fussed about. So I would categorically say, spend your money on a good guitar first and foremost.”
If you could only use humbuckers or single-coils for the rest of your career, which would it be and why?
“I’m going to extend ‘single-coils’ to include P-90s – because technically they are single-coils. I think P-90s are the most criminally underrated pickups, and it’s still baffling to me why early PAFs command the prices that they do.
“I think I’ve read somewhere that [PAF inventor] Seth Lover was trying to capture the sound of a P-90 but without the hum and that’s what the PAF is. The definition and the articulation and that top-end as well, it’s all there with added grit and grunt but with a little extra noise, I guess. Yeah, P-90s: the best pickup ever made.”