Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Warning Signs that a Music Review Is Going to Suck (Regardless of the Music Being Reviewed)

Okay, that tears it. I was reading reviews of Enslaved's latest release, some on the high traffic metal blogs, and I hit three reviews in a row that sucked. Not that said that the album sucked -- the actual reviews themselves sucked. I mean how fucking hard is it to write a decent review of a CD? And, no, I'm not complaining about the quality of the actual words and sentences. I fully expect that any metal review I read may have been written by an international metalhead for whom English is a less-than-primary language. Some of the best reviews I've read were written by people who have less than fluent English.

Nope, I'm talking straight up bad reviewing -- the sort that you could have given a classic Black Sabbath album to review and s/he'd have spent the entire review finding a way to leave you with 0% useful information and left you with the impression that they had a) never listened to heavy metal b) never listened to Black Sabbath OR the Black Sabbath album that s/he was reviewing and c) cared more about impressing his or her douchenozzle sycophant friends than about the music or the reader who showed up on the digital doorstep expecting, you know, a piece of writing that was actually about the music on the album being reviewed.

Silly fucking us.

Here are (hopefully) early warning signs that the music review you are reading is going to suck. First a few species of stupidity that don't even make it to talking about the actual release before they suck:

Blanket statements about genres that have nothing to do with describing actual features of the genre but reflect some weird association that only exists in the head of the reviewer and the people masochistic enough to get drunk with him or her.

A review that only exists as an excuse to talk about the reviewer's dislike of the scene or the genre that the release fits into. This approach is usually taken by someone who is going to take some variation on the old "kids these days" nostalgia train or indulge an irrational prejudice. A closely related variant...

"I don't like/get this sort of music, but I'm going to review this anyway..." -- so you don't like death growls? big fucking deal. Go review something you do like. Or go call a sports radio station and bag on a sport everyone there hates. Seriously, a person who writes this sort of review does not give a shit about the music being reviewed. S/he only wants an excuse to rant. So write the fucking rant already and quit wasting your visitors' time pretending to review the album.

Trv Kvlt Mëtäl Poseur Bullshit -- where the entire review reads like its an application to join the metal equivalent of a teenage Mean Girl clique in some pathetic attempt at getting validation from judgmental assholes. I may excuse a review like this if it's obvious that the writer is, in fact, a teenager, but that still doesn't mean that I want to read it.

Next, a few warning signs that, whatever the reviewer writes about the actual music in question, you will leave the review knowing no more than when you started reading:

Prejudgment based on a shift in style or change in lineup -- If the review starts off by complaining about how Band X sold out the moment that they decided to tune-up/tune-down/include keyboards/start growling/stop growling or the moment that a particular member of the band left, then the chances of that reviewer giving the new recording a fair listen drop in direct proportion to the level of fannish loyalty they believe the band has violated. "Bring back X" is seldom a good sign in a review if the review starts off by telegraphing this bias.

Aesthetic opinions issued like objective facts -- "The mix/drumming/vocals/guitars/songwriting just sucks" is not enough to justify an opinion in a review. The only reason to read a review is to find out why a record is good, bad, mediocre, uneven, whatever. The reviewer owes it to his/her reader to offer justifications in order to make the review something other than just a personal statement. Without justification there is no actual information.

Descriptions of how a particular song makes the reviewer feel that do nothing to describe the actual music -- "This album is the perfect example of cold, wintry despair" is a good fucking start or a nice wrap-up when accompanied by descriptions of tempo or comparisons to other music that also evokes that particular feeling for the reader. Take away those qualifiers or descriptors, however, and all that is left is someone's idiosyncratic response to an unknown stimulus.

Botched descriptions of the actual music -- Learn some musical terms, people, and use them correctly. Nothing loses you credibility like throwing out a particular piece of terminology incorrectly. Not all double bass drumming is a blastbeat. Not every song about a viking is viking metal. Show some care with your words. Sloppy words are often a sign of sloppy ears and sloppy analysis as well.

Speculation about how committed the musicians are based on whether or not the reviewer likes the new music more or less than previous work -- No, you can't hear the boredom, you are just bored with the music. If the song is derivative or formulaic, then say so and say why. If the work sounds more spontaneous or inventive, then say so. Absent that sort of qualifier, though, what you call boredom may just as well be a problem with the mix or the mastering.

On the other hand, here are some things that are actually helpful to find in an album review:
  • Contextual comparison with the artists' previous work that gives a sense of how the new work fits with the old.
  • Comparison with other similar musicians.
  • Descriptions of the music itself.
  • Descriptions of the sound quality of the recording.
  • Descriptions of the lyrical content.
  • Innovative features and things that make the recording distinctive.
  • Contextual information that enriches the listening experience.
  • Subjective impressions (if tied to one or more of these other things in a meaningful way).

It ain't rocket science, but it is hard work and due diligence, both with ears and with words and a bit of research to make sure you do not sound like an idiot. Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bass Guitar Scale Length, String Gauge, and Tuning

Back in March I wrote about wanting to shift from guitar to bass. Since then I went ahead and made the jump, picking up a beautiful, used Yamaha bass at a ridiculously low price given the materials and workmanship. (For more on why I chose a used instrument, read my Eco Guitar Ponderings post from back in 2010). The choice of a used instrument was easy compared to the back-and-forth thinking that I did about whether to get a standard 34" scale bass or to opt instead for either a medium scale (32") or short scale (30") bass to give my aching wrists a break.

I've written a few times before on this blog about guitar scale length and its relation to pickup placement and fret placement, tuning, and intonation. It's a topic that I'm pretty comfortable with in terms of the underlying physics and how they make the instrument sound and play. I've also gone through a couple of months in the past when I was unable to play much because of shoulder and wrist pain and had considered switching to a travel guitar to take some stress off of my wrists. So it's not like I am the sort of person who is going to choose the longer scale bass simply because I was convinced that the longer scale is inherently better or more "authentic" than a short scale bass. Indeed, the first bass I looked at was a short scale Hagstrom 8-string to match my Hagstrom Swede. And had I done that, I'm sure I would have loved it. But I didn't. When the time came to commit, I chose a 34" scale RBX instead.

Why? The answer to the scale question bears some examination and, like the previous entries about scale length, involved looking up a lot of charts and comparing the numbers. (Thank goodness that D'Addario does an excellent job of giving their players as much information about string gauge, scale length and tension as they do). I'll try to keep the numbers to a minimum and make the explanations as short and clear as I am able.

Scale Length Basics

As noted before:

...a guitar's scale length is the length of the string from where it leaves the nut towards the fingerboard to the place where the string crosses the bridge saddle. This distance is (more or less) the same as the "speaking length" of the string -- the part that vibrates when the string is plucked. The strings speaking length and gauge form the basis for all the math that goes into acoustics that I'm mostly going to ignore here because we don't need all that math to get a basic understanding. Just wrap your head around this one thing:

If two guitars have different scale lengths but are using the same gauge of string, the one with the longer scale length will need more tension on the string to reach the same pitch as the one with the shorter scale length.

Put another way, comparing the same string on two guitars:

Longer string - same gauge - same tension = lower pitch

Same length string - heavier gauge (thicker string) - same tension = lower pitch

Same length string - same gauge - lower tension = lower pitch

Therefore: longer string - heavier gauge - same tension = even lower pitch

As you can see the pitch is determined by all three things (length, gauge, tension) and not by any one of the three alone.

If we assume, therefore, that any competently built bass will allow us to alter string tension to accommodate the tuning requirements of the other two factors, and we assume that we are discussing conventionally fretted basses of short/medium/long scale, then we can control our tuning through a combination of string gauge and speaking length. In practical terms this means that in order to maintain a consistent level of string tension across a range of tunings, the shorter scale instrument will need to use heavier gauge strings than will a longer scale bass. In other words, a short scale bass strung with a standard set of 105s and tuned to EADG will have less tension on those strings than will a long scale bass with strings of the same gauge.

Now what if you want to tune lower? Assuming we want to keep a similar tension on the strings to keep the playability, neck adjustment, and overall sound quality as close as possible to the standard tuned version, we'd need to use strings of a heavier gauge. Comparing tension charts for D'Addario Nickel Rounds as a control standard since they are widely available and come in a fairly representative range of choices.

Changing Pitch - Gauge and Scale

Since a 34" scale is the most widely used scale, we'll start there. A .105 gauge Nickel Round tuned to E has 40.3 lbs of tension on it. Tuning it down to D drops the tension to 32 (around the same tension as a 30" scale bass tuned to E) and C drops it to 25.4 lbs. In order to keep the tension on the string consistent as the pitch drops, one would have to gauge up to .125 (40.3) for D and .135 (40.4) for C. On the other hand, if one doesn't mind, or prefers the string tension of the short scale bass, then the .125 can be tuned down to C (32.0) without the string becoming too floppy. We could tune even lower using these principles, but the general idea remains the same.

As noted in the parentheses above, the other way to approach this question of pitch is from the direction of scale length using strings of identical gauge. From this perspective, as noted above, a bass with a 34" scale strung with a .105 gauge Nickel Round tuned to E has 40.3 lbs of tension on it. In comparison, a bass with a 32" scale strung with a .105 gauge Nickel Round tuned to E has only 35.7 lbs. of tension on it and a a bass with a 30" scale strung with a .105 gauge Nickel Round tuned to E has 34.0 lbs of tension on it. Tuning the same 32" and 30" basses to D reduces the string tension to 28.3 and 27.0 lbs. respectively, and to drop the tuning to C the tension on each string would need to be reduced to 22.5 lbs. on the medium scale bass and 21.4 lbs on the short scale bass. That's almost a 20 pound difference in tension from a long scale base tuned to E and a short scale bass tuned to C and that difference in tension is going to translate into a very different sound and feel. Evaluating the Possibilities

What all this demonstrates is that there is a wide range of possibilities to be considered before choosing. That does not, however, mean that all these possibilities are equal across all the examples. To illustrate the differences we need to think in terms of specific goals we have for our bass guitars and the ways in which we can achieve them with different instruments. The single most limiting and expensive choice involved in this conversation is the choice of the bass scale. Changing string gauge is relatively inexpensive in comparison, requiring only the purchase of new strings and perhaps a bit of attention to or replacement of the nut to accommodate the change in string diameter. Given this, scale is an important consideration.

Before we settle into the topic of scale, however, we need to consider that scale only measures the maximum speaking length of the string. Fretting a string creates a new speaking length, effectively shortening the scale of the instrument for as long as the string is fretted. What this means for our comparison of short, medium and long scale instruments is that a 34" long scale bass can be made to feel and function very much like a medium or short scale bass by placing a capo at the first (32.1") or second (30.3") fret respectively and a medium scale bass can function much like a short scale bass with the addition of a capo at the first fret (30.2"). Both these compromises do affect the overall playing experience a bit: it reduces the number of playable frets by one or two and it changes which fret acts as the octave fret, making the position markers on the neck misleading and problematic. (I suppose the latter problem might be relieved somewhat by installing vinyl inlay stickers on your instrument by way of compromise...). Otherwise, though, this accomplishes many of the same things that make people search for a short scale bass. It brings the (relative) first fret up to 3.75" closer and reduces the stretch required to span the lower notes in the lower and open positions. The only thing it does not do is reduce the overall length and weight of the instrument, but even compared within scales, some instruments are lighter and shorter than others depending on bridge placement, body size and headstock shape and configuration.

Looking the other direction, aiming at a shorter scale and relying on changing string gauge to allow for lower tunings, we begin to see greater limitations for the short scale instrument. The largest gauge offered in a short or medium scale Nickle Round string set is the .105, which means that in order to gauge up, you would need to cut your strings down (and risk ruining the string, according to many pro bass techs), or go in search of alternative strings. This often translates into much more limited availability, longer out-of-stock waits, and thus the necessity of ordering extras to have on hand for emergencies. It's not a problem that cannot be overcome, but it is less convenient than the alternative.

The same laws of supply and demand, (or is that "economy of scale"?), that make larger gauges more available for the long scale bassist who wants to tune down by gauging up work to make it possible to use both "cheats" at the same time. Gauging up and using a capo means being able to use the thicker strings to tune down and then capo. A 34" bass with a .135 can be tuned to C and capoed at the second fret to function like a 30" bass that is tuned down to D with the same string tension as a 34" instrument tuned to E.

Which is why I ended up choosing a long scale base in the long run. It gives me the widest range of possible strings while also leaving open the possibility of making it play like a shorter scale instrument should that need arise.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Cult of Original

Rush got a brief flurry of attention a couple weeks back when they announced that they would be going out on tour again in 2015. The news quickly went from their press release to Rolling Stone, who immediately threw together a readership poll asking for the ten best Rush albums -- no doubt to get a bunch of people to give their contact infoso that Rolling Stone could spam their Facebook pages with ads.

The irony of RS showing enthusiasm for Rush is, I'm sure, not lost on Rush.

I did not answer that poll, but a friend on Facebook asked the same question on his own Facebook page, sparking a small discussion in which no one mentioned any album later than Signals and most gravitated towards either Hemispheres or the first three albums. (Confession: my response was Moving Pictures, but even that fairly populist response felt risky in the context of so many responses that trended even earlier than Hemispheres. There's a weirdly reactionary, curmudgeonly impulse that has woven its way through rock music audiences via the odd disconnects between the 'classic rock' crowd and the 'indie rock' cool hunters. It's uncool to like old bands unless you only like their early output. It has to be either brand new or classic.

Which is sad, really, because, nettled by this strange pressure to conform, I've been poking about Rush's forty-year discography and finding that they have produced a lot of beautiful, accomplished, satisfying music during the times that I had not been listening to them because I had other sounds in my ears. Perhaps Rush has ceased to surprise us the way they once did, but that does not mean that they have begun to sound "tired and stale," words so often used to dismiss any band who has maintained a consistent approach and output over a space of more than a decade. Those traits are only admirable if a band has done so in an "underground" niche. Consistency becomes a criticism for any band that is both long-lived and popular.

Which, inevitably, brings me around to thinking about Opeth. They have a new album, Pale Communion, coming out in June and their fanbase is already polarized at the news that this next album, like Heritage before it, does not feature any death growls and continues to explore a more vintage heavy metal sound palate. "That's over," proclaim a large number of fans upon hearing this news in advanced reviews, "Opeth are done, out of fresh ideas and avoiding the sounds of the past so as not to be found lacking in comparison." Not a new claim where Opeth are concerned. Fans have protested vehemently and rage quit before over Blackwater Park, (Keyboard? Steve Wilson ruined our death metal!), Damnation, (No growlzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ::snore::), Ghost Reveries, (Popularity? Roadrunner ruined our kult metal!), and Watershed, (Bring back Lindgren and Lopez!). The bias towards the earlier material is perhaps not as pronounced as it was with Rush, but there are similarities, with Still Life acting as Opeth's 2112 and Blackwater Park as their Moving Pictures. After that, though, the audience tapers in its appreciation of Opeth's new material, and especially in any new material that deviates much from the bipolar brutal/pretty approach that made Opeth so distinctive and influential when they came into the scene. But the new music they are making is still stunningly beautiful. I listen through Heritage and what I hear is not so much the absence of growls and brutality, but rather how stripping back the sonic complexity in the music has in-turn opened up the warmth of their sound and given the different band members more space in the composition to play with the rest of the band, rather than just filling in a part. It feels more organic and you can sense that they are having to listen to each other and respond to each other dynamically the way that they always have in their more delicate compositions like "The Face of Melinda." They are making music and not just recording songs. It's something that they have always done, even in the past, but by opening up the sound a bit more and dialing down the extremity of the music they have also taken away some of the cushion that they had and made it so that they all have to play more expressively or the songs won't come alive. I appreciate that, and I appreciate the risk that they have taken on in order to pursue this elusive delicacy.

But here's the dilemma. Does the band stick with its original sound -- the one the first set them apart from all the other bands and gave them a distinct musical identity, or do they continue to experiment with their sound, try to explore other paths and mine other influences looking to keep their approach to music itself fresh and original by taking risks and branching out in new, unexpected directions? Which "original" is the right one to pursue when either direction is a sure path to criticism from fans and critics who demand something absolutely fresh, but completely familiar every time they buy a new release? It's an impossible bind, and the older I get and the more I face this sort of tension between resting on laurels and seeking out the new, the more I begin to appreciate the bands that continue to explore, even when I don't always entirely appreciate the new direction that the band has taken.

Which is not to say that I think all established bands should be given a pass when it comes to making new music. I respect Rush and Opeth for their combination of consistency and evolution, but a lot of that respect owes to their commitment to playing interesting music and continually being surprised and grateful that a core audience remains who connect with their music. I don't get that sense of gratefulness from a band like Metallica, who continue to put out music when they feel like it, complain about the music that everyone else puts out, and act as if the fans should be grateful that they continue to bless us with their presence. When the band becomes more important than both the music and the fans I think it's time to pause and reconsider what you are doing. Once you pass this tipping point it's no longer a band, it's an exercise in vanity.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Musings on Musical Identity

Otherwise known as bass...

Yeah, it's been a long time since I had anything to say here. Professional life has gotten more involved and with the dissertation done there's less need for distraction and blowing off steam with awful riffs. As a result, the Hagstrom has been somewhat neglected.

Still, we went to see Amon Amarth and Enslaved a few weeks ago and I found myself in the mood to play again. Except that when I thought about the concert, I kept coming back to how I spent the whole time this time mesmerized by watching Grutle Kjellson and Ted Lundström playing. This seemed strange to me because Ice Dale is the quintessential guitar action hero and Johan and Olavi are themselves amazing players.

Then I got to thinking about other shows we had gone to see. Opeth: I love Fredrik's playing and Mikael is the most entertaining host in metal, but during the actual songs I end up, more often than not, watching Mendez and his side-to-side headbanging as he jams out on that Jazz Bass of his. Barren Earth? Sami is a guitar god, but I watch Opu Laine and his Thunderbird. Lamb of God? John Campbell. I think there's a pattern here.

So I mention this to the Wyf and she says: "Duh. When you were first looking for a guitar, I was a bit surprised that you didn't get a bass."

So why didn't I get a bass?

Well, when I first started thinking about getting an alternative to my acoustic guitar to play as a hobby, my brother, himself a bassist and pianist, suggested that a guitar would be better than a bass for someone who has no one else to play music with. And that made sense to me. And I love guitar. So I got a guitar.

But whenever I had picked up the guitar to mess with it before I bought an electric, I usually ended up messing around with something that sounded more like a bassline than a lead line. And seven years on, whenever I come up with anything cool of my own on the guitar it is usually something on the lowest three strings and close to open position...and the moment I start messing with that idea the variations that come out are usually either variations that change the feel of the rhythm or that stretch the tonality. I don't think melody, I think rhythm and foundation. Those are the parts of music that I feel, even if I respond to the melody.

Which has me wondering...have I always been a frustrated bassist who just happens to love listening to guitar? I'm beginning to think that may be the case.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Endorsement Game

Just saw a note on Opeth's Facebook page that Mikael Åkerfeldt had a new endorsement deal with Marshall Amps and his new 'amp of choice' is the Marshall Vintage Modern. He had previously been endorsed by Laney Amps. Åkerfeldt has all sorts of good things to say about the Vintage Modern and, no doubt the majority of them are true. Marshall knows how to make a good amp that covers the ground between vintage tube sound and modern high-gain sounds.

I still find myself rolling my eyes a bit, though. Because in most interviews the guys from Opeth and their guitar tech mention that when they are on the road they run all the amps on clean and use their effects and modeling boards to approximate their recorded sounds. The amps on stage all say Marshall or Blackstar, but the color is more likely to come from a Roland multi-effect unit preset than from the Marshall.

Likewise, Opeth are endorsed by PRS Guitars and use them on tour. They are really good guitars that the guys sometimes use for live recording, but they also use older Gibsons and Jacksons and, recently, a vintage Strat or two as well. There's no telling what guitar the guys used to get a particular sound on record unless you read it in an interview and they tell you straight out.

It's a weird game, really, with bands using all sorts of stuff -- whatever they can get their hands on -- to get 'the sound' they are looking for or re-recording dry tracks run through layers of different equipment for a more dense sound or changing mics and mic placement, etc in order to get the sound that young guitar players fall in love with and want to emulate. When they hear the sound on record they look in the guitar magazine and see that their hero uses StoneTone Amps and figure that's where the sound comes from. And when they see their heroes perform live they see that guitar and that amp again and hear that tone again.

But the guitar is playing clean and the amp is being used more like a stage monitor PA between the digital effects and the house PA. And they still sound great, but it's not the sound of that guitar and that amp. It's the sound of those hands playing a guitar that's sending a signal through an amp sim to a house PA with maybe a Dunlop Crybaby and a vintage delay in the chain for some analog magic that sounds something like whatever alchemy they cooked up in the studio without the fragility and risk associated with bringing a bunch of cranky old equipment on the road.

The artists really have three sounds. There's the one they have when they are playing by themselves and writing the music -- their private sound. Then there's the one that ends up on record after all the engineering is done which may be close to that private sound or may be only a distant cousin. And then there's the live sound, which is as close to the recorded sound as one can get with a minimum of risk and a maximum of consistent repeatability.

The music can still be magic, but that magic is rarely in the equipment being endorsed. You will have to find your own magic in those instruments.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Precious Little Help

One thing I've noticed as I crawled my way from being a horrible guitarist to being an unremarkable one is how little actual supporting material there is for players whose tastes run to music outside of the commercial mainstream in America -- in my case this means progressive folk, death, doom and black metal. Any aspiring guitarist can find plenty of Metallica, GnR, heck...even Children of Bodom tabs and videos and Dave Mustaine has his own app to help teach you Megadeth songs. But the rule seems to be that you have to be attached to one of the big Guitar companies to make it into a guitar mag with any consistency. In the case of the guys mentioned above that means tabs and vids brought to you by ESP, Gibson and Dean. The closest you are going to get to anything underground is probably Opeth, and even there you have Akerfeldt and Akesson endorsed by PRS. Slip down the endorsements list too far and you might as well not exist. Which is too bad, because there are so many awesome bands whose music I'd love to have some decent help learning. Sure, there are some GPro tabs on the usual sites for bands like Enslaved or Paradise Lost, but I lost faith in those pretty soon after downloading a bunch and finding that the people who tabbed them out may be better guitarists than I am, but they all seem to have crappy ears that are unable to distinguish anything other than major, minor, and power chords. Diminished? Fuhgedaboudit. You will not find any nuance in an amateur GPro tab, and if you do, it's probably wrong. Go a bit farther into the underground -- Amorphis or Agalloch, for example -- and you won't even find crappy amateur tabs. Which is too bad, mind, because they both have complex and beautiful music to learn and play. It seems, however, that the people who have deciphered the songs are all too busy playing them to write any of it down for us slow kids. It's not just tabs, though. I love to wank around with Garage Band loops running through my Line 6 Guitar Port so that I have drum and bass to play over. Which is fine so long as you are looking for either funky and danceable or worldbeat and you want it in 4/4. Some of the loops are labeled as classic rock, but we aren't talking Zep or even the Who. The closest they come to straight up rock are the 'edgy modern' loops that have a sort of Incubus feel to them. And there is nothing even remotely metal to be found in the standard library that ships with the basic version included in iLife. If you want metal you will need to either pay for a dedicated software library of metal grooves or download one of the free samples that contains mostly flashy, real instrument loops rather than a basic double bass pattern with crash cymbal for the kick done on the software instrument so that you can tweak it or add to it to make it your own. It's one of the ironies of the digital age. Technology does give ordinary people the tools to make their own music sound professional, but the only music you can make easily sounds like the same commercial stuff that you can already hear anywhere else. Making something outside that safe range takes just as much work as it ever did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

No BS Buying Advice For New Rock Guitarists

Things the store won't tell you:

Do not buy a guitar with your eyes. You have to buy a guitar with your hands and your ears. Hands and ears are the things that matter for playing music. The guitar will need to feel good in your hands and will have to sound good to your ear. You can do all that with your eyes closed.

So what goes away when you close your eyes? Looks and brand are the two biggest things. I'm not saying that those things should not matter at all, just that they are way overrated in the scheme of things. The body and headstock shape will have more effect on how you play from the way they feel than they will from how they look. Pointy guitars may look mean, but they also can be really uncomfortable to play. Particular brands may be known for quality but every guitar is a little different in material and feel and how the parts go together. If every guitar is different, then every guitar could be great or could suck. You won't know until you pick it up and play it.

When you are playing it, pay attention to how it sounds and feels, but even more than this make sure that you get a tuner and tune the guitar as well as you can and then play notes all over the neck and see how well those notes stay in tune. Check especially to see how close the tuning at the 12th fret is to the tuning on the open string. If they are off you need to find out if the place you are buying the guitar does free setup with every purchase and if they will set it up before you buy it. If the guitar goes out of tune as you move around the neck then there is either a problem with the setup or there was a mistake made when the neck or bridge were put on. Any of these things can be a problem. Buy the guitar within your budget that plays best. You will care less about the looks over time and fall in love with how it plays.

More of your sound comes from your fingers and your amp than comes from the pickups. You want decent pickups, but a guitar with adequate pickups will still sound good if you have a decent amp or, better yet, a good computer setup that gives you a wide number of virtual amps and effects to play with while you learn and figure out what sounds inspire you. You can worry about the perfect pickups once you have figured out what sort of player you are and get a second guitar that fits your personal style.

Non-electronic hardware is easy to replace, but it is also way more important than most salespeople will let on. Try to figure out how well the tuning keys stay in tune and look for guitars with better quality parts. Prioritize these over style. Staying in tune and sounding good is much cooler than looking good and sounding like crap.

Truth be told, the most important thing you can learn with your first guitar is how to make friends with the strings and fretboard. This is everything for a player. If you are comfortable playing and can make sounds that inspire you without cringing at how out of tune your guitar is you can really learn a lot with that first guitar and once you outgrow it you will know what things matter most to you as a player.