Price paid: $ 160
Purchased from: Yamaha, Thailand
Features — 10
Let me start by saying that my ratings for this guitar reflect its price, as I'm mostly comparing it to other beginner, cheap guitars. The guitar is a 25.5 scale strat model Yamaha, basswood body, 22 fret maple neck (rosewood fingerboard), H-S-H stock Yamaha pickups, 5-way switch, Tone/Volume knobs, and a 6-point vintage strat-style tremolo. Aside of the finish (which I cover later on), the features on this guitar are solid.
The first to point out is that the C-shaped neck is very narrow (distance from string to string). This can be a great thing for many, but it's worth noting that this is one of the narrowest neck I've played, and quite the opposite to the average Ibanez neck, for example. Either way - it's a great neck. No, it won't compete with a $1000 guitar neck, but to me it's always felt MUCH better than almost any other guitar in the lower end category. The maple feels nice and fast, and the same applies to the fingerboard. Even after (a rough) 14 years, the truss rod still works flawlessly. Even after it was neglected and poorly maintained for years, compared to most (close to all) of the lower-end Fender Squires, Washburns, Jacksons, Ibanez Gios I've tried, this neck has surprisingly always felt better (wood/speed/feel wise). While this is a personal opinion, I've come across many who agree with this assessment.
This was originally bought as part of a "starter pack," although I'm leaving the other extras out as they're no different than the average crappy starter pack items, and are fairly irrelevant to this review.
Sound — 8
Given the price and generic Yamaha pickups, the guitar does not actually sound bad. String vibrations seem to carry quite well through the basswood body, and the H-S-H passive pickups do let you achieve a variety of sounds. The humbuckers give out a somewhat full sound, while single coil is very bright. They're not great by any means, but again on par with the average guitar in this range. I play this through an integrated 100w tube amp, and even took it on (a very expensive/proper) stage once, it performed without issues, and it sounded just fine.
Action, Fit & Finish — 9
Now, as with most factory guitars in this range, the factory settings were probably not optimal. Honestly, I wouldn't know as it was years before I knew what I was doing. While the guitar had a few issues pop up over time, all of those were solvable with what the guitar provided, and that's what my review will reflect.
Action - For example, the action was clearly quite high to begin with, but with some neck/bridge adjustment I was able to get the action very low without buzzing (the necessary Allen keys were even supplied in the pack if I remember correctly).
Pickups - The pickup saddles are a bit cheapish, and at times the humbuckers would vibrate so much they'd rub against the plastic, but this was also easily solvable by adjusting them slightly.
Switch/Knobs - The 5-way switch, as many have noted, is far from perfect and can start to make noises and poor connections. Yet, you can tighten it quite easily. The same applies to the pots - they were somewhat loose to begin with, but taking off the strat-like knobs and tightening the hex screws with a wrench fixes that entirely.
Tremolo - The bridge is excellent with one minor exception (later). It stays in tune without issue, especially when it's not raised. I kept it floating for a few years, and I can't complain about tune changes much there either. It's not a locking tremolo of course, so it'll never compete with a Floyd Rose in that regard, but again - performs excellently for what it is. I've played many low and even mid range guitars with similar bridges or hardtails which stayed in tune far shorter.
Intonation - The slightly bigger issue is the intonation. With 10+ strings this is not an issue, but as I tend to prefer the super light 9s, my high E string tends to fall flat at the 12th when the bridge saddle is pushed as far towards the head as possible. However, I removed one of the 6 connecting screws, in front of the high-E saddle, which allowed me to move it further in the right direction, and get perfect intonation with super light strings.
Finish - If the neck and versatility are this guitar's best, as many have noted, the black finish is probably its biggest weakness. It looks fine from far away (stage), although it's far too glossy and simply looks cheap. It does scratch and dent easily. On the other hand, it doesn't actually come off of the guitar, and because it's black, you do have to look closer to notice. In 14 years I've hardly taken care of this guitar well, banged it on all types of furniture, even dropped a pool cue ball on it once (on a side note - coolest-looking-dent-ever), the finish is dented and scratched... but is still there and still looks new from 6+ feet away.
Input-jack - One of its not so great parts, although again, with a little tightening every few years, it's still working after all this time.
Reliability & Durability — 10
It definitely did withstand live playing, although I certainly won't advise a half-serious performer to take one of the cheapest starter guitars there is on tour. As a backup? Absolutely. If you're in a high-school band? It's perfect.
Can it take a beating? Absolutely (a little imaginary tear rolls down my cheek). As I've mentioned, I did not take care of this guitar, especially at first. The poor thing has been banged up, been stored in humid/damp places, has been reassembled and carried in bag packs on planes... and it's perfectly fine. There's a tiny bit of rust on the bridge saddles, which I could easily remove, the body/neck has a few dents, but feels great. Frets and fingerboard have shown less wear than my prestige Ibanez (which sleeps in its own case and I look after religiously), and still feel great.
The strap buttons ok - they are the vintage strat types. You should definitely replace them with locking ones should want to do anything wilder, as they're not too deep and have a "V" shape coming out, but with an average strap they will support live playing if you don't go crazy. As stated above, the finish looks cheap up close, dents and scratches easily, but does not fade, disappear, or even chip off, so an audience will remain oblivious to your guitar's dark history.
Overall Impression — 10
Overall, for the price, and compared to other guitars in this and higher price ranges (up to $400-500 guitars) this is an excellent beginner guitar, especially if you make a few very simple adjustments yourself (experience is not necessary, just some patience, for most).
It's consistently outclassed most entry level, and some intermediate level guitars, despite being poorly maintained. This includes the lower end models of popular guitar makers like Fender (Squire), Washburn, Jackson, Ibanez (mostly Gio, but not only, sadly), Gibson (Epiphone) and many others. Considering it's half the price of some of those, I found this quite surprising. It also outclasses all of the generic cheapo brands like Stagg, Vintage, etc. that you'll find all over used guitar sites.
I do not work with guitars, but I've helped a large number of friends/acquaintances pick out starter guitars, and have played and compared most guitars in this range (and others, but let's focus) at various guitar shops around the world. While I'm handy with tools in general, I'm also not adjusting guitars professionally or anything like that, so with a few basic tools I think almost anyone could maintain/get this guitar into great shape. Yes, a lot of things had to be fiddled with, but none of it required anything special or no type of destructive/potentially harming work.
Best and Worst Feature
Favorite feature? I love the neck. I actually prefer wide necks, like the jumbo fret Wizard Prestige neck on my Ibanez (which is a polar opposite to the Yamaha's narrow neck), and still love the Yamaha's neck. The vintage tremolo is also great, and perfect for anyone in the early/intermediate stages of guitar as it can allow you do anything. You can keep it leveled to act as a hard tail, or float it for a bit of fun (not too much, remember, it doesn't have a locking nut).
Its worst feature is probably the 5-point switch or the input jack, the finish indicative of its actual price (unlike the rest of the guitar which I think is worth more than you pay for it), and perhaps the pickups.
The guitar is probably not worth DiMarzio pickups, but when I replace a few pickups on my basswood prestige Ibanez, I'm planning on tossing the Ibanez pickups into the ERG121. No, it won't be the type of upgrade people brag about, but I imagine this cheap cheap guitar will actually feel and sound quite alright at that point.
Would I Re-Buy It?
If I could go back to when I bought it as my first guitar, would I buy it again? Hands down yes, it's an amazing beginner guitar, especially if you're not sure what you want (i.e. a beginner). If someone stole it... I would probably get another. I prefer a wider neck, and do not like constantly switching between the two as one is super narrow, while the other is super wide (good for practice I suppose, but does get a bit annoying at times), and yet I'd probably still replace it simply to have a cheaper guitar I can mess around with (plus a second hand one is one of the cheapest guitars out there, of any make). If I were to find a used LEFT handed one of these for sale (I play right handed) I would totally buy even now, just because I'm curious about learning the other side (ambidextrous, so who knows, could be fun).
Overall, considering these go for not much more than $50 used, and about 3 times that new, this is an excellent guitar. While by now nostalgia is part of it, I wasn't always appreciative of the guitar, and was constantly surprised when it ended up feeling better than various other guitars which one would expect (due to brand or price) to be better.
I would note that this one was purchased in 2002, so it is possible the quality changed over time, or that I got an above average one by chance, but the two others ERG121s I've played throughout the years were also quite similar in all aspects.