This journey started on 12th March 1985, when a friend and I went to see Billy Bragg live at the Powerhouse in Birmingham (England) – the Sid Presley Experience providing the support (ah, they were the days). Bragg had a very basic, punk-orientated solo act – just him, an overdriven electric guitar, and an amp. No drum boxes or backing tracks – his percussive guitar style drove the beat. Ridiculously simple, but powerful, and effective. The notion of being able to walk onto a stage in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, plug in what looked like little more than a plank of wood with strings on it, and captivate a big audience, really appealed to me. There’s a great live example of Bragg's act during that period on YouTube…
The ‘plank of wood with strings on it’ was a single pickup guitar, which I thought was a double cutaway Les Paul Junior, but it had no paint on it, and no sign of any ‘Gibson’ branding on the headstock. You can see it in the vid I’ve linked to above. I actually wondered initially if Bragg might have made the instrument himself. I later read, however, that the guitar was a ground-level offering from a Manchester-based guitar manufacturer: a Gordon Smith GS1. This proved completely untrue, and Bragg’s guitar turned out to be an Arbiter LP Junior copy, which he bought for seventy quid, and stripped of its ‘TV’ blonde finish. But the badly-researched piece of journalism did, for the first time, direct my gaze towards Gordon Smith, and their simplistic, almost DIY-looking, GS1.
After my initial investigations, I didn’t think much more about the GS1. The distribution of Gordon Smith guitars was pretty limited and selective, so I never used to see them in the guitar shops I most often visited. Indeed, the GS1 was the sort of Plain Jane guitar which, even when it was on display, would have an almost impossible task in attracting your attention away from the metallic finish Strats and the sunburst Les Pauls.
But in early 1988 I saw the Gordon Smith GS1 reviewed in a guitar magazine. Whilst the guitar had its flaws, the tide of the review was very positive, and when I saw the price – little over £200 – I thought I’d seek out the nearest dealer. With a discount, the GS1 was selling for £195. Definitely worth trying one, I thought.
And as you’ve probably guessed, I didn’t leave the shop without the guitar. Didn’t need it, didn’t find it particularly inspiring to look at, the build was a bit rough and DIY, and the sound didn’t give me any sort of religious experience. But this was a real, solid mahogany guitar, made in England, selling brand new for £195. I had the money; I bought it. It may not have been the ‘Billy Bragg guitar’, but it had the same simplicity and shape, the same look of bare, unfinished wood, and it was in the same ballpark tonally.
Actually, despite the spartan image, the GS1 did have a finish. The plain, untinted mahogany was coated in clear matt lacquer. As I said in my Gibson Sonex article, that type of low-budget matt finish is fine when the guitar is brand new, but use the instrument for a few months and you get an unattractive patchiness in areas where the body and the back of the neck get rubbed or buffed. Commonly-buffed sections of the finish take on a shine, and that contrasts with the matt in a way that’s aesthetically quite annoying. That was one of the things that helped cement my decision to sell the GS1 in the end. The more shiny certain sections get, the worse the guitar looks.
One of the surprises given the price of the GS1, was that the neck join was glued rather than a cheapo bolt-on arrangement you might have expected on a guitar costing in the region of £200. The neck itself was really nice, with a wide, spacious fingerboard, and not too much bulk behind it. I found it extremely comfortable to play once I’d addressed the slight roughness of one or two fret ends – a facet of the rather ‘DIY’ build quality, which did blight some of the details, but not the guitar’s overall capacity to perform as a professional piece of equipment.
The setup was reasonable, and was easily improved by raising the action a little, which I always find helps the tone too. Despite the primitive ‘stop’ tailpiece/bridge having no adjustable saddles, there was no problem with the tuning/intonation.
The pickup was a coil-tappable humbucker made in-house by Gordon Smith, and wearing a dark grey plastic cover rather than the more familiar metal variety used by Gibson. The pickup’s tone and output fell into the territory of older Gibson units, as opposed to ‘80s metal-buckers with super-distortion characteristics, but the general personality was more modern than something like a PAF or ‘patent number’ pickup. I don’t know how many coil windings were isolated for the tap arrangement, but it certainly wasn’t a whole bobbin’s worth by the sound of it. Even with the coil tap activated (by pulling out the volume knob), there was still plenty of substance to the tone – more Jazzmaster than Strat in ‘single coil’ mode, I felt.
So, what could you do with a GS1? Well, there wasn’t a lot you couldn’t do really. I found the guitar best suited to overdriven rock – the sustain proving impressive for a guitar with such a thin body. But since the pickup was sensitively voiced, it could produce clean tones without sounding like a detail-devoid glob. Especially with the coil tap active, the GS1 was well suited to styles such as country, rockabilly, and perhaps with the aid of a flanger or chorus, some clean ‘80s indie styles. Provided you were happy with the sound, there was nothing at all to prevent you using the GS1 in professional situations.
I kept my GS1 for a few years, into the early 1990s, at which point I finally got fed up with the ever-increasing patchiness of the finish, and in any case by then I felt I had other guitars which could fulfil the GS1’s role. I don’t regret selling the GS1, and I wouldn’t get another, but it was a great example of how a manufacturer could pare down the cost of production without compromising the potential of the guitar, or relocating the factory. This was not some plywood Strat with microphonic pickups and pots you daren’t even turn. It was a basic and plain, but extremely capable musical instrument, which could easily be used to record a seminal rock album, or gig at a stadium. It's very, very difficult to think of any other brand new guitar which could fulfil that kind of brief for the modest sum of £195 in 1988.