For some time now, I have had a particular interest in what are often termed “travel guitars”—i.e. instruments which have been designed in various ways (mostly size-related) to be more easily carried around by travellers. The interest is at least partly practical for me; I often take part in “intensive” songwriting challenges such as FAWM, during which I have to write and demo one new song every two days or so. As you can imagine, this means it can be helpful to have at least one instrument nearby (wherever I happen to be), so I can try out chord or melodic sequences, and/or be able to record them when I get the opportunity.
In 2012, when I embarked on my first such activity (the 2012 50/90 Challenge), I bought my Yamaha GL-1 guitalele for go-anywhere playing and song-smithing. As I mention on “Tigger”‘s page, I still use it for this purpose; however, I soon felt that for writing and demoing purposes, I wanted an electric guitar which was small enough to carry around where my Steinberger (“Nigel”) [also forthcoming] would be a bit bulky. If it also had “Telecaster”-style pickups and was cheap, I felt that would be a distinct bonus…
Sadly, my initial research wasn’t promising. I found most “travel” electrics were either way out of my (admittedly low) budget, limited in features (e.g. single-pickup—I was hoping for at least two), or even both. The Hofner Shorty almost “won” by default—despite its solitary pickup—and I even briefly considered trying to track down a Washburn Hannah Montana electric (don’t laugh—3/4-size, Telecaster-style twin pickups… though I probably would’ve had to strip the finish and repaint it!).
One day, I came across something interesting at Thomann: a range of “minimalist”-design electrics, which looked like little more than guitar-necks with pickups and metal appendages to fix a strap to. I don’t recall whether I’d heard of Ministar guitars before then, but the size, quirkiness, multi-pickup options and (most of all) the around-£100 prices all got my attention. I was lucky enough (very lucky, as it turned out) to “make a move” on one very soon afterwards, and I chose the “Testar” (Tele-type) model without a vibrato bridge, as I hoped it would mean less likelihood of mechanical issues!
My Testar carries Thomann’s “Harley Benton” brand, but I have wondered whether it is a licensed copy, or a fully-fledged Ministar with an extra name on the headstock. The serial number begins with an “H” (which might point to the “licensed copy” option); also, the digits begin with “12” too, which makes me wonder if that indicates the year it was built (2012). I found a quality-control label in the gig-bag with a 2012 date on it, so unless I hear to the contrary, I’m assuming that’s when the guitar was “born”.
I wrote a full review of my Ministar on this site, so I won’t repeat myself with what I said there. Suffice it to say, the Testar took my rather low expectations and blew them away, to the point where it has become my “go-to” electric in many settings, not least because it weighs much less than my Steinberger. The Testar neck profile is pretty chunky, meaning that for me it is more suited to rhythm playing and more “sedate” melodic parts—if I want to play “full-on” solos or MIDI guitar parts, my Steinberger with its slimmer neck and Roland GK pickup still rules those particular roosts.
That said, the Ministar Testar has that great Tele-style sound—bright and glassy with a distinct twang—which is very much to my tastes, both for clean Jack Johnson-esque tones (especially the “neck” pickup) and rockier Status Quo-style “crunch” (when played through a suitable patch on my ZOOM G3, the ideal partner for the guitar). The guitar’s setup seems very good; I’ve read numerous horror stories about Ministars arriving in less-than-ideal states, so I can only assume I was one of the more fortunate customers.
In case you wondered about this guitar’s nickname, “Boneapart”: I named it after the skittish skeleton character in the 1970s US cartoon series “Groovie Goolies” who had a habit of falling to pieces if surprised. Thankfully, the instrument seems to hold together rather better than that!
Sadly, Thomann stopped stocking their Harley Benton-branded Ministars a matter of weeks after I got mine, and as of mid-2014 the Ministar site itself has disappeared from the Web, so it looks as if the company may be no more. A great shame, as at least Ministar guitars have tried to be something distinctive and practical—if I could find one of their 12Star models (a 12-string electric-and-piezo-pickup instrument) in working order and not break the bank, I’d be distinctly chuffed!
Recording début: “Memory Lane” (“The Rockpool Files” EP (2013)) – only electric guitar on the track
Other examples: rhythm/lead guitars on “Fence” (“Conditions Apply” (2014)); all electric guitars on the “Ahead Full Of Steam” EP (2015); some parts on “Blackbirds Banquet” (2016 – “Helmsman” is a good example); some demos from 50/90 2013 (as yet unreleased)