UpFront Guitars 2019 NAMM Wrap Up

We’re on the plane back from NAMM, and it seems like a good time to reflect on what was a very productive few days. Firstly, NAMM is so huge there is no way to take in the entirety of the show without literally running non-stop up and down every aisle. NAMM requires a game plan, and ours was mainly to meet with our current product partners, catch up on things and see what it new.

Espada-Natural
All-new G&L Espada

G&L – Prior to the show, we had already seen an sneak preview of some of the unique guitars that G&L was bringing to the show and “tagged” a couple in advance. But G&L had a lot cool news that we did not learn until getting to their booth late on Thursday. The big news is the G&L Espada, a newly released guitar that G&L reversed-engineered from a 1969 design unearthed from original Leo Fender drawings. Featuring new split coil MFD pickups, active/passive controls and a very sexy Tele/Skyhawk/Stingray mash, the Espada is really new but authentically G&L. Actual production date is TBD, so suffice to say we are in line to get some.

Also at the booth is their new Doheny HH and Skyhawk HH, and both will be available through the Fullerton Special line of fixed-option guitars. Both use their chrome-covered humbuckers, which we prefer sonically to the open-coil AW4470’s, and they also dress up both guitars nicely. There is also going to be a Fullerton Special Skyhawk with the current S-500 pickup set. We’re glad to see more Skyhawk models, as we love the shape and ergonomics of this design.

Bandlab – Bandlab has been hard at work on a number of projects, and we really dig the direction they are heading. The Bandlab folks are pretty sharp, and they while they respect the value of history and tradition, they know it needs to be backed up by innovation, quality and consistency.

Heritage is in good hands, and they continue to make improvements in the factory, and work on making each model as consistent and high quality as possible. While they’ve narrowed the range of products that dealers can purchase, it also means they are available from stock with very little wait time. Their “Custom Shop” is still getting up and going, but for those who want a truly unique creation that will be an option in the future.

harmony-guitarsWe saw the first Harmony prototype guitars at the 2018 show, and we’re glad to report that they will finally hit the streets this spring. Made at the Heritage factory, they include mahogany and alder bodies, bolt-on mahogany or maple necks, ebony fret boards, their own gold foil pickups, and nitro finishes. The finish and playing quality is right up there, the weight it good, and the foil pickups have a funky groove that is bright but full bodied. At around $1300 with a Mono Bag, these are a literal no-brainer and offer a fresh addition to any player’s lineup.

Also later in the year will be Harmony amplifiers. These will be semi-closed back, hand-wired 6V6 designs with built in attenuator and vibrato. The design is pleasantly retro, and will get you noticed in a sea of Deluxe Reverbs. The prototypes are built in Singapore, and the production models will likely come from one of the Bandlab facilities in that region. While it’s hard to judge an amp in the din of NAMM, our own experience was very encouraging, and we’ve posted internet legend Jay Leonard Jay doing some great demo work of his own.

harmony-amps
In the fall – Harmony Amplifiers

Tiesco is another legacy brand that Bandlab was resuscitated, and this spring they will release their first three pedals; a boost, fuzz pedal, and delay. Bandlab sweats the design details, and these pedals have unique and sturdy enclosures, funky graphics and intuitive controls. The boost pedal features a 9V and 24V power setting and ranges from true boost, to medium-crunch that is harmonically rich and detailed. The fuzz stole my heart, mainly because I don’t like fuzz, and I loved this pedal. It’s big and authoritative, but does not trample the tone of your guitar. It’s more classic crunch than lo-fi fizz, and it’s got an awesome octave feature that changes register depending where you are on the neck. I need it.

Mono is another Bandlab brand, is well known for their sturdy gig and gear bags beloved by professionals on the go. We plan on bringing some of these into the shop this spring.

ESP-multi-scale
ESP LTD M-1000 Multi Scale Guitar

ESP – Some of the sexiest guitars on the planet are at the ESP room, and their USA and Originals lines continue to push the envelop of functional art. They just built their first left-handed USA Eclipse, and we’ll soon commission our own southpaw model. They added some great new finishes to their Japanese E-II line, and much to our delight they’ll be available on the 22-fret Eclipse model. And while we pride ourselves on being a mostly USA shop, their are certain ESP guitars that we lust after that are not available anywhere but the LTD line. This includes affordable versions of their handsome Viper (SG-ish) and a very cool multi-scale (fanned fret) guitar that just knocked us out with how easy it was to play.

double-dreamer-webJAM Pedals – Our wildly artistic friends from Greece are updating nearly all of their graphics, and while some of them are a little less whimsical in nature, they continue to offer a wide array of custom graphics. Most of the changes in the line are evolutionary, but what caught our eye is their new Double Dreamer. This is an update of our best-selling Tube Dreamer 88, and they’ve added a wet/dry mix, the high gain feature is now a footswitch for on-the-fly usage, and the high gain is assignable to either or both channels.

Keeley – Keeley is always cooking up something new, and this year they had a larger space, some of the best personal demo capabilities, and four new releases. Their new Synth-1 is the most ambitious of all of them, and while it’s not for everyone, if you are looking for the road less traveled, this is it. Also of note is their new DDR, drive, delay and reverb pedal. Essentially a small pedalboard in an enclosure no bigger than their D&M Drive, it will allow you to travel light but not lacking for tone.

Roadhouse-nylon
Eric with the Roadhouse Nylon

Godin – Godin has been making a lot of changes lately, and one of the more notable releases is their line of Godin Branded acoustic guitars. Godin has long maintained several acoustic brands, but this is the first time we’ve seen them put the Godin headstock on an acoustic. These are upper end models, all solid wood with both gloss and satin finishes. Other items of note are the reappearance of their very attractive Denim Blue finish on the ACS and A6 models, a new high end semi-hollow Summit, and some interesting new Kingpin models like their T-Armond with TV Jones DeArmond style pickups. In the Art & Lutherie line they’ve release a new finish that we really like called Havana Brown, and a cute Roadhouse Nylon acoustic.

Yorkville Sound – Yorkville is so many different brands you could literally stock a store with it (and they do in Canada via owners Long & McQuade’s more than 80 stores). Items we plan to add include their Traynor YGL2 guitar amp, which is a 30-watt version of our favorite YGL1. A little more power and slightly bigger enclosure is just the ticket for gigging players who need a great sounding pedal-friendly amp. They also have a nice compact acoustic guitar amp that is an affordable companion to their higher end Hughes & Kettner ERA-1.

What really grabbed our attention at Yorkville is the Xvive line of wireless transmitters for guitar, bass and vocals. They have a new plug-and-play wireless microphone adapter that turns any microphone into a wireless mic. So if you like the mic you have, you can now make it wireless. And everything is ultra-compact, so no big transmitter box, power supply, etc. It will make you rethink wireless.

Yorkville is also the parent of Hughes & Kettner, and they were showing off their Black Spirit 200 amplifier head. They’ve delved even further into connectivity, and the Black Spirit is a guitar amp, redbox, audio interface…and bluetooth enabled via an app.

Lastly, Yorkville is also “prosumer” and pro audio from compact bluetooth-enabled battery powered enclosures to full line arrays. If you are planning a system from solo acoustic to fixed installation, we can help you with that.

C.B.I – And if you are building that new sound system or studio, don’t forget cables. In upstate New York, C.B.I. makes everything from patch cables to concert-sized snakes and stage boxes. We’ve always liked their products, and like every stop we made on our NAMM tour, we learned something new. Their Stagewinder pedal board snake simplifies pedalboard and effect loop setup at a reasonable price. We also learned that we can simplify our cable packaging and eliminate the use of plastics (while adding our own UpFront Graphics). C.B.I. makes practically everything cable related, and we can also quote custom jobs too. We walked away with a new appreciation of C.B.I.

NAMM is fatiguing but energizing, and a little Southern California weather in January doesn’t hurt either. We’ve made our shopping list, and we’re checking it twice. Christmas is coming again this Spring.

Shyhawk-HH
G&L Skyhawk HH
Kingpin-DeArmond
Godin Kingpin T-Armond
A6-denim-flame
Godin A6 Denim Flame

 

Guitars as Investments – IMHO

lp-tightIs it a good idea in general to buy electric guitars as investments?

No.

That’s the short answer, and generally speaking I think it’s a good idea to purchase guitars that you like and want to play. While it’s true that some brands of guitars — Fender, Gibson, Martin, Rickenbacker for example — will appreciate over time, quite often it’s a long time and of course not every model. Yes, people are now paying some silly prices for 70’s Fenders, which were not even very good guitars to begin with. And we’re also talking about waiting almost 40 years for the guitar to be worth something. Just the idea that something is old does not make it of increased value.

Even if you got a really cool guitar cheap, the rate of appreciation is generally very slow. Maybe you got a great R9 Les Paul in mint condition, but it’s not a house: You can’t sit on it for 3-4 years and flip it. While it’s certainly possible that it holds its value well, it does not mean it’s going to go up. If you want a guitar that really holds its value, buy a Rickenbacker. They have a great combination of quality, history and scarcity. Hardly the all-around rock guitar, but if you’re obsessed with resale, you’ll get a good chunk of your money back. Used guitars that really take a beating? Almost any import guitar not from Japan (sometimes Korea) and valued-priced USA guitars like PRS S2 and various ~$1000 Gibson’s.  They are not bad guitars, but they are appliances, not works of art.

Manufacturers also make it difficult for investors by making increasingly good new guitars. The idea that only old stuff is good, is just not true. In fact a lot of old instruments are highly variable in quality. The hard to define “mojo” of an old guitar is often psychosomatic, and players love the concept of old stuff, and will make themselves believe that it is special. If you spend $2000 on a 1970’s Fender with a 1/4″ thick polyester finish and a 3-bolt neck are no getting a “vintage” guitar? In name only.

Manufacturers also make it difficult for investors by making way too many versions of the same guitar. When somebody gives us a Les Paul or Strat to sell (especially Les Paul) we spend a chunk of time trying to figure out what it’s really worth. Gibson makes so many darn versions of the Les Paul (Traditional, Traditional Plus, Tribute, Studio, Awesome Maximus…) it’s truly hard to figure out what the guitar is worth. Go on Reverb.com and there will be around 300 Les Paul’s from $800 to $5000. Strats are not much better: I’m mean really, how many versions of a “Clapton” Strat can you make? Quite a few, it turns out. All this just confuses the market and makes it hard to assign value.

Lastly, then you have dealers that frequently skirt MAP pricing rules for new guitars. So what you say? Selling a guitar blatantly below MAP depresses the price of a used guitar by deflating its new value. No matter how you feel about MAP, strong MAP enforcement helps the value of used guitars. Companies that protect their brand value (Bose, Mesa for example) enjoy higher perceived value and better resale. Companies that let retailers run amok pay for it in the long run.

As a G&L dealer, I often hear the comment, “Great guitars but I wish the resale value was better.” I’ve come to realization that G&L’s fare no better or worse than most Gibson’s and Fenders. It just that Gibson and Fender owners think their guitars are worth more. In the end, the relationship between street price and used prices are not appreciably different (But the Gibson owner is disappointed and the G&L owner says, “Ok thanks for selling if or me.”). I just sold a left handed mid-2000’s ASAT Classic in nice condition for $849. The guitar probably went new for a little over $1000. Took about 10 days to sell. That’s a boatload better than I’ll do trying to sell a 3-year old Les Paul that had an original list of $3600.

Play what you like, have fun, and if you love the guitar, keep it. If you don’t like the guitar, sell it an move on. Guitars are a passion, a hobby, and for some a profession. For a precious few, they are an investment.

CITES, Rosewood, and G&L Alternatives for Fretboards

G&L Rosewood FretboardIf you are interested in buying a G&L guitar and live in the USA, you can skip over this blog (unless you are curious). However if you live outside of the USA, as of January 1st, 2017 things got a little complicated.

CITES, the international organization that protects wildlife (animals as well as plants) implemented new restrictions on the use and export of Rosewood. Essentially Rosewood became a restricted material, and products containing Rosewood are now required to have documentation to verify that they are legally harvested.

How did this happen? It’s all about demand, and mostly in China where the expanding middle class developed a particular appetite for Rosewood furniture. The spike in demand created over-harvesting and illegal harvesting. Rather than see Rosewood wiped out, regulations have been put in place. You can debate the logic and methodology, but something needed to be done. Also note that “Rosewood” is a rather generic term that includes many varieties including Cocobolo, Bubinga, etc.

What are the practical implications?

The short story is that new guitars containing Rosewood manufactured after January 1st 2017 that are going to be exported out of the USA, need documentation verifying the sourcing of the Rosewood. Manufacturers have to apply for the paperwork and permits to export guitars containing Rosewood. There is of course a lot more to it than that, but that is the quick summary.

Dealers (like me) in most cases do not have this type of documentation; it’s the manufacturer that holds the permit. So most dealers will not be able to ship a post-January 2017 guitar with rosewood out of the country. It stands the risk of being confiscated at customs, and nobody gets the guitar back.

Guitars built before January 2017 can be shipped out of the country provided they have a re-export certificate. These are obtained from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The certificates cost money, and take time to obtain. A dealer can also apply for a “Master File” and purchase re-export certificates in advance, but it’s still a process. Suffice to say, many dealers are just not going to bother with exporting a guitar with Rosewood.

This is bad for independent dealers selling overseas but a boon for distributors. International distributors buying directly from the manufacturer will get legally documented product, and far less competition from independent dealers exporting into their home country.

Non-commercial (person-to-person) sales are technically exempt. I can imagine this becoming a loophole as some dealers will have a relative or friend be the shipper of record on a guitar going out of the country.

G&L Alternatives

Aside from the occasional fancy top or limited editions, Rosewood on a G&L guitar is limited to the fretboard. The obvious alternatives are Maple and Ebony. Those materials can be exported freely without additional documentation.

If you are not partial to those materials, G&L has also started using a material called Chechen, also known as “Caribbean Rosewood.” It’s a hard and dense Central American hardwood that looks and feels very much like Rosewood. It has a more color variation than most rosewood, but it’s attractive and a good substitute. Most important is that is not subject to any restrictions and is widely available. Dealers with international customers looking for a way around Rosewood should consider Chechen.

Have an Open Mind

Traditional tone woods are just that: Traditional. They have obvious desirable qualities, but what they also have in common was that at the the time they were first used, they were widely available. And there were a lot fewer people on the earth. Guitar builders have been exploring new materials for decades, and many alternatives have been proven to be just as good as the traditional woods. Just like it very hard to get totally black ebony these days, guitar players will have to adjust to other paradigm shifts in guitar materials. In many cases the adjustment is more mental than sonic. Conventional wisdom dies a slow death, and there will always be players that cling to whatever “old way” they hold most dear.

If you want to play it totally safe, just avoid Rosewood. There are lots of other good materials both synthetic and natural. If you have your heart set on Rosewood, the sky isn’t falling, but obtaining that Rosewood guitar may take more diligence and planning.

 

David Allen Humbucker pickups – Impressions

P51
David Allen P-51 Zebra set

When we carry a line of pickups, we try to do our best to get real playing time with them, and not just write what the manufacturer says about them. With some help from our new Sales Associate Eric, we’ve been swapping a lot of pickups lately. This includes three of David Allen’s more popular humbucker sets: Alley Cat, P-51, and Dirty Cat. On a relative scale these can sort of be characterized as “light, medium, and hot” in that order. Bear in mind though that the Dirty Cats are far from hot in comparison to some of the brutally strong pickups from a number of winders out there including Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckles and others. As we said, it’s all relative.

With all three sets we got a chance to try them in both a mid-priced (Godin Core HB) and a higher end guitar (Knaggs Kenai). We tried then both at practices, jam sessions, and some real-life gigging situations. So while we have full write-ups on our David Allen product page, here are some quick impressions on living with the pickups.

Alley Cats – Patterned after the ’57 style of PAF, these Alnico 2 humbucker pickups are super clean and articulate. In the Core the neck pickup gets very close to a single coil sound, and while the bridge pickup sounds a little light on clean settings, it’s dynamite with some gain. The lower output, softer Alnico magnetic field and general “free” nature of the pickup generates spacious and singing rock tones that have multiple layers of harmonic detail. Maybe not the ticket of you desire something tight and modern, but gigging with our Kenai it was marvelously expressive. For my taste, the neck did not have quite enough “push” for singing solo work, but compared to many Alnico 2 neck pickups it was much less flabby on the low end. Hot pickups are not the only way to rock.

P-51 – David Allen’s take on the ’59 PAF, although it’s not really built like a PAF. The P-51 uses Alnico 4 magnet material, which has a fairly low magnetic pull, but more attack than an Alnico 2. Some people describe it as a cross between Alnico 3 and 5. Compared to the Alley Cats, the P-51 set was warmer with more midrange push at the neck, and gave up a little bit of top end brightness. It works better with gain, and kicks out some good blues tones without getting mushy or smeared. At the bridge the P-51 has a little more attack and snap, and for straight clean tones is probably a little more satisfying. Distortion tones are slightly tighter and more dense than the Alley Cat, and it’s a real toss up which I like better.

Dirty Cats – While the inductance (output) of the Dirty Cats is very similar to P-51’s, the DC resistance is at a level where you do start to hear it in the clean settings. Both pickups have a little bit of a midrange bump that makes the Dirty Cats a little less open and free sounding. However, they both turn down really well, and with a little volume roll-off lose lose most of their midrange congestion. The neck pickup uses Alnico 5 magnet materials, which gives it good attack and helps tighten up the midrange. It sounded very good in the wrap-tail bridge Core, but in the brighter sounding Kenai was a little “stringy” with a slight metallic edge. The bridge pickup is an interesting hybrid of Alnico 2 magnets and an un-vintage 11K DC resistance. It manages to be reasonably open sounding while also being the most “modern” voiced pickup in this roundup; with densely packed harmonics, and tight responsive low end crunch.

The Verdict – If you are in a wide-ranging cover band or just play an eclectic mix of music, the P-51 is a good choice, and our favorite. It’s very good at most things, and bad at nothing. Or if you tastes run a little heavier, opt for the Dirty Cats, which would kill at everything from Foo Fighters to modern Stadium-style Country. If you are into jazz, blues, or earlier classic rock (not 80’s), the Alley Cats really excel. The bridge pickup is “the tone” that defines a lot of classic 60’s and 70’s tunes, and for cleans the neck pickup is the clearest and most touch sensitive of the group.

G&L 2015 Mid-Year Model Changes

As of July 1st 2015, G&L is making some of the more significant model specification changes in quite some time. G&L has gone through their whole lineup, and practically no guitar remains untouched in some way or another. Pricing is changing too, both in the form of some increases, and how guitars are priced relative to each other. There is a lot to take in, but here is a rundown on the more notable changes to the guitars, along with some commentary.

Neck Profiles

For years the #1 “C” profile neck with 12″ radius has been standard on most G&L guitars. On the Legacy and ASAT line this is now changing to the “Modern Classic” neck. The Modern Classic neck is 1-11/16 at the nut with less of a taper than the #1 neck (now .830 at the 1st fret to .870 at the 12th). On the ASAT and Legacy line the standard radius is 9.5″.

Also of note is that G&L has separated neck shape from radius. And in the dealer price list there are separate options for fingerboard radius (7.5, 9.5, 12) and for profiles. So pretty much you can mix and match anything for one up-charge. You don’t get dinged twice for radius and shape.

Why the new profile on their most popular guitars? One thought is that a frequent question I get is, “which profile is most like a Fender?” The Modern Classic is a pretty close fit. In addition there were occasional complaints about string fall-off with the #1 neck, and the slightly wider nut width of the Modern Classic will help this. Most of the other profiles remain (C, Wide C, U, V, etc.) with slight name tweaks. G&L still offers more options than just about anyone on a production guitar. However, a couple guitars — namely Fallout and SC-2 — do not offer neck profile options.

Here is a quick rundown of the more popular guitar and bass models and their new profiles:

  • ASAT – Modern Classic 9.5″
  • Legacy – Modern Classic 9.5″
  • Fallout – Slim C 12″
  • Invaders – Modern Classic 12″
  • S-500 – Modern Classic 9.5″
  • Comanche – Modern Classic 9.5″
  • SC-2 – Classic C 12″
  • ASAT Bass – 1.5 nut width Medium C 9.5″
  • L-1500 and 2000 – 1-5/8 Medium C 9.5″
  • M-2000 – 1-5/8 Medium C 9.5″
  • 5- String Bass – 1-3/4 Medium C 12″
  • JB – 1.5 Medium C 9.5″
  • LB – 1-5/8 Medium C 9.5″
  • SB – 1-5/8 Medium C 9.5″

Discontinued Models

G&L has thinned the herd slightly, and here is what I noticed. Nothing really earth shattering here; and from personal experience these models have either run their course, or never took off:

  • ASAT Special Deluxe
  • Legacy Deluxe (No pickguard, Flame Maple Top)
  • S-500 Deluxe (Ditto)
  • S-500 Semi-Hollow
  • Will Ray Signature
  • MJ Series bass guitars (Back in – recently amended)
  • JB-2 Bass
  • “Rustic” series products

Pickups

While there are no changes to their single coil pickups, G&L will be using Seymour Duncan pickups only in the Rampage, Bluesboy and ASAT Deluxe models. All other models – Fallout, Legacy, Invader — will use G&L’s own Alnico humbucker pickups. G&L is of course known for their pickups, and there also some cost savings involved with using their own product versus sourcing from someone else. These are the same Paul Gagon designed pickups as used in the Tribute series, and they are made in Fullerton by G&L. The Duncan pickups will be available as an extra cost option, and if you must have them, the up-charge is well below the cost of going out and buying a set.

How do the G&L Humbuckers sound? We’ve played the G&L Alnico humbucker pickups, and in most cases we are talking about the bridge pickup in the Legacy and Fallout. The resistance is in the 13K range versus 16K for the Duncan JB. The G&L pickup is a little warmer in tone, with a softer high end. It lacks some of the top end sharpness of the JB which depending on your point of view is a good thing. When gained up it’s smooth with creamy tone, and again less sharp and buzzy than the JB. We recommend giving it a try, and of course there are a zillion aftermarket options.

The potential backlash with the G&L pickups is that some will say that this just makes the USA and Tribute models more like each other. I can’t argue that point, and my feeling is that while import guitars are important to the industry, (after all imports are >90% of the total US guitar market) using the same pickups in both the USA and import lines sends a confusing message to the consumer.

Model Name Changes

  • Legacy HB is now the Legacy HSS
  • Legacy 2HB is now the Legacy HH

Pricing

Prices have gone up, but also they have shifted. The basic Legacy and ASAT guitars now have the same MAP price. Historically the ASAT was always more money. The SC-2 and Fallout are also the same MAP as the Legacy, and the S-500 is still a little more. The MAP on all these guitars is $1299 (S-500 $1399), and includes the standard burst or solid finishes, alder body, satin finish neck with maple or rosewood fingerboard, white pickguard and tolex case. It’s also of note that the Legacy HSS and HH models are now the same price as the standard Legacy, so no penalty for humbucking pickups. The Legacy Special is still a little more, and last time we looked those pickups were supplied by Kent Armstrong.

There are also minor price changes on some of the options, but nothing game-changing. And yes, stainless steel frets are still expensive. Our understanding is that they chew up the tools very quickly and of course take a lot more labor and Plek time.

The pricing relationship between List and MAP is also different, and the MAP is now about 30% off list. Without going into great detail, buyers who typically assume they can strike a deal below MAP will find dealers more reluctant to negotiate than in the past. As Fender has done, the MAP price really reflects the true street price, and the battle continues to preserve price and brand value in the cyberworld.

Wrap Up

While nobody likes to see a price increase, G&L still offers a unique value in a USA guitar that can be made to order. As far as these changes go, I think most of them make sense either commercially, or in terms of what the market really wants. And if you really want a “Pre-July” G&L you can still option a guitar to come out that way. So nobody is left out in the cold. That is unless you want an ASAT Special Deluxe.

The G&L Bluesboy: Traditional Bluesboy or Bluesboy 90?

Belair Green G&L Bluesboy 90

The G&L ASAT Classic Bluesboy™ has been around for many years, and is very much analogous to the Fender Telecaster Custom, which comes and goes at times the Fender lineup. The concept is simple: Create an option for players that like the idea of a Tele® style guitar but find the traditional Tele neck pickup lacking in dynamics and flexibility.

It could be said that G&L already solved this problem by creating the MFD ASAT neck pickup, which pretty effectively “fixed” the Tele neck doldrums. But there’s a market for a humbucker equipped ASAT, so why not fill it?

The original ASAT Classic Bluesboy uses a Seymour Duncan Seth Lover pickup, which emulates the construction of the early PAF pickups developed by its namesake. With a fairly low output and Alnico 2 magnets, it has a smooth top end with good clarity, but the wound strings are on the warm side and lack a strong attack. It’s a “loose” sound that has a definitive old-school vibe, and it’s always seemed to me more of a Jazz tone than a Blues tone. It’s a very good pickup, but the contrast to the ASAT bridge pickup is rather stark to the point of being a challenge to find an amp EQ that works well for both (although the sound of both pickups together is rather heavenly).

The G&L Bluesboy 90

A few years back G&L developed a great P-90 pickup that they used in some of their limited edition ASAT Junior II guitars, and even some Tributes. Originally created by Gibson in 1946, the P-90 fell out of favor with the advent of the PAF humbucker. The P-90 lived on in the Les Paul Junior and other less prestigious Les Paul models, but the PAF was clearly viewed as the “better” pickup. So G&L has this really nice pickup and no standard USA production model to stick it in. Enter the Bluesboy 90 (and the Fallout too, but that’s another post).

My totally subjective theory is that P-90 pickups are not very popular because as builders responded to the commercial desire for higher output pickups, the P-90 did not respond well to higher octane techniques. High output P-90 pickups are often dull, one-dimensional, and at the bridge take on a grating nasal bark. Somebody trying a P-90 for the first time would not be favorably impressed.

Much to their credit, G&L developed a very moderate output P-90 pickup that measures in the mid-6K range, which is a “weak” reading for a P-90. While resistance is no guarantee of tone, the G&L P-90 is a clean sounding pickup, with good note definition, even midrange response, and the wound strings have a pleasantly percussive attack. It’s not the scooped glassy sound of a Legacy, but a fatter, firmer tone that is warm, clear and expressive. The pickup handles pedals well too, taking on a slightly creamy note, but not collapsing into mush. Or just turn up your amp – always a good idea – and the G&L P-90 will create it’s own natural crunchy personality.

It’s also a great tonal match with the ASAT bridge pickup. In terms of overall response, the P-90 and ASAT Bridge are more akin to each other, and if you tend to work both pickups in equal amounts, it’s more likely you’ll find a common ground amplifier EQ.

Traditional G&L Bluesboy or Bluesboy 90?

If you delve into Jazz or smooth pop, and typically don’t rely on the bridge pickup in large amounts, the traditional Bluesboy is a very nice guitar. No denying it looks cool too. There are a wide range of tones that you can get with the Duncan pickup, but be advised that what amp EQ works for the neck may not be optimal for the bridge.

If you like to tinker with your guitar, the opportunities for replacement humbucker pickups are limitless. A quick pickup swap with possibly a moderate output Alnico 4 or 5 pickup may be all that’s needed to bring sonic harmony.

My personal opinion is that out of the box (or the case) the Bluesboy 90 is a more harmonious package. For reasons previously stated, the G&L P-90 sounds good by itself, and plays nicely with the bridge. It’s a single coil, but it doesn’t sound like a Strat®, and chances are you already have one of those. There are fewer options in terms of pickups tweaks, and yes P-90 pickups can be noisy under stage lights. Thankfully, LED stage lights are on the rise. Once the drummer starts, who can tell?

It’s not difficult to find happiness with either guitar, but if you’ve never tipped your toe into the P-90 pool, the ASAT Bluesboy 90 is a very positive introduction.

Guitar Finishes: Is Lacquer really better than Poly?

In the guitar world, there are two major categories of chemistries used to finish electric and acoustic guitars. One is the traditional “Nitro” nitrocellulose finish, and one is the modern “Poly” or polyurethane finish.

Early guitars used the Nitro style finish because that was the available chemistry of the day for both classical instruments and electric guitars. Many of the techniques for making classical instruments transferred directly to electric guitars, especially the traditional set-neck hollow body models.

Nitro finishes have many desirable qualities: They are thin, repairable, flexible, and don’t inhibit the vibrations of the wood. For a purely acoustic instrument these are highly desirable qualities, and a bad finish will kill the tone of an acoustic instrument. Nitro finishes are also labor intensive to apply, slow, are highly flammable, and toxic. They are a VOC (volatile organic compound) and subject to environmental limitations. Special permits are required to have a spray booth that uses lacquer finishes, which also raises the cost.

The Knaggs Kenai is a Nitrocellulose finish

From a pure standpoint of manufacturing efficiency and cost, the more modern Poly finishes are the dominant method. They cure using a catalyst, which can be accelerated with heat or UV light, and compared to a Nitro finish, can be applied in a fraction of the time. They are also extremely glossy, durable, and don’t tend to crack or check over time.

The wrap on a Poly finish is that they are thick and inflexible, and don’t allow the instrument to vibrate and resonate as well as a lacquer finish. This is completely possible, but there are many variables in how the finish is applied, the amount of wood fillers, undercoats, etc. Environmentally conscious companies such as Taylor have put a lot of research into thin, flexible modern coatings that provide great sound quality but are safe for the environment and their employees.

Almost all G&L guitars are a Poly finish

Lacquer finishes by their very nature are a good match for instruments, but their cost makes them viable only on higher end products. So are Nitro guitars better sounding because of the finish, or better sounding because they are only applied to guitars of higher overall quality? It’s probably a little of both, and because of that it’s hard to separate the two.

Some players will only play Nitro guitars, and if you have the means to own that level of instrument, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. However, a guitar is always the sum of its parts and workmanship, and finish is just one of the components. Nitro guitars make up a tiny fraction of the market, so obviously there are scores of wonderful guitars made every year utilizing modern finish chemistries. The finishing method is an indicator, but always let your ears be the guide.

Humbucking Pickups – Less is more

For single coil loyalists, the humbucking — or dual coil — pickup has always been a conundrum. The extra power and fatter lead tone is attractive, but not at the expense of clarity and attack.

The humbucking pickup was originally developed as the name implies to fight hum. In this case the enemy was 60-cycle hum and noise induced by lighting, appliances, and grounding issues. The late 50’s Gibson PAF gets the credit as the first humbucking pickup, but Gretsch and others companies were producing similar designs during the same period.

While elimination of hum was the goal of the PAF and other pickups, the phase cancellation of high frequencies provided a warmer tone, and the series resistance of the two coils produced greater output and more midrange content. Almost by accident, the humbucker pickup was not only quieter, but more powerful and less shrill than the single coil pickups from Fender.

As distortion became a greater part of the musical landscape, players realized than the humbucker pickup could push the front end of their amp much harder, making it easier to distort. Mind you, this was before the huge explosion of pedals — and master volume amps were in also their infancy — and having a pickup that could help produce distortion was pretty handy. Play a humbucker through any small Fender tweed amp and you’ll get the picture.

But given human nature, if a little of something is good, too much will certainly be wonderful. In order to drive amplifiers into a frenzy, pickup makers started to build pickups with more windings and stronger magnets. The grandaddy of them all is the Dimarzio Super Distortion; one of the first if not the first hot humbucker. Favorites of hard rockers and metal players, nearly every established pickup manufacturer offers at least one type of  high output humbucker.

But while human nature is predictable, so is physics. Pickups are inductors, and adding more windings to a pickup increases it’s output, but also it’s DC resistance and inductance. In general, increased DC resistance tends to increase midrange and reduce high end response. While how a pickup sounds is a result of many factors and the manufacturing process itself, as pickup output increases clarity tends to diminish and the sound gets darker. This is true of any pickup including single coils, and a “hot” single coil Strat pickup will generally be less glassy and clean than it’s vintage equivalent (not a bad thing at all if used in the bridge).

Tonally, the sound of a hot humbucker is a matter of taste, but to players used to the clean, transparent nature of a good single coil they sound dark, stiff, and dull. While they can create some pretty good crunch tones, their clean tones sometimes border on useless.

It doesn’t have to be that way though, and today there is a cottage industry of small builders trying to nail the sound of a “true” PAF pickup. Partly this is the dubious mojo of anything old and vintage, and partly because there is a realization that the original pickups sounded darn good. But while there “could” be some magic to a pickup wound in 1957 in Kalamazoo, the majority of the magic is magnet strength and DC resistance. And technically neither of those two things are magic, just physics.

With today’s cascading gain amplifiers and vast array of pedals, a really hot pickup is not necessary. Lower output pickups by their very nature will have a more even frequency response, more clarity, and better note definition. Even if you rarely play clean, the improvement in sound quality is noticeable even with pedals. Plenty of hard rock players known for their fiery licks use relatively mild pickups. The Duncan Alinco II Pro is one such pickup, and Seymour Duncan even now has a Slash signature version of the Alinco II. One of my favorites is the Duncan SH-1, which is used by Knaggs in their Kenai. This is also a fairly low resistance pickup (8K bridge) but I like the attack of the Alnico V magnet versus the Alnico II. The Arcane ’57 Experience is similar in nature to Alinco II Pro, and uses Alnico II magnets and moderate DC resistance. The result is good clarity, open midrange, and a balanced round low end.

How you wire up your pickups is important too. For humbucker pickups, 500K pots are the way to go, and a 1 Meg pot for the tone control can help improve the brightness of the pickup. For tone capacitors, .022mf is the general rule, but I like using a .015mf for the neck pickup. It does not roll high frequencies as aggressively, which is handy at the neck. If you are using “modern” wiring, a treble bleed capacitor/resistor is also a nice modification, but less so for “vintage” wiring. Wiring is a hole ‘nother blog post, and Premier Guitar Magazine has run a series of great articles on guitar wiring.

If your guitar is not loud enough, turn the amp up! Using a pickup purely to increase volume has detrimental sonic effects. You paid for all those watts, use them.

 

Fender to phase out MSRP “List” Pricing

Fender has recently announced that starting in July, they will no longer provide Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Pricing — also known as list pricing — to their retailers. As of  July 7th, Fender will begin using just an “advertised” price, otherwise known as MAP pricing.

In many industries besides musical instruments list pricing is an almost meaningless number, sometimes only a reference point from which to calculate the MAP price. Given the fact that probably 0% of guitars are ever sold at list price, reverting to using only MAP may not have any material impact on the average consumer. But given the ability of buyers to rapidly price check products on the internet, MSRP bears little connection with reality.

The larger goal for Fender and other makers of well-known consumer brands is working with retailers — brick and mortar and otherwise — to properly present, market, and value their products. If the internet has proven anything, it’s that there are people out there willing to make amazingly little margin on their sales. Sometimes these folks don’t last long (it’s hard to survive on marginal profits, at least not without massive volume) but they all have their impact on the overall market. While low pricing and competition is inherently good for the consumer, taken to an extreme it lowers the value of a product to the point where it becomes unattractive to manufacture. This is the Wal-Mart effect of being able to drive a supplier to the brink of failure.

Case in point: I used to work for a well-regarded maker of very nice pens (writing instruments to those in the industry) and in order to grow volume they took on big box customers such as Wal-Mart, Target, etc. It got to the point where Wal-Mart was retailing our typical pen for less than a jewelry store or gift shop to could buy it from us. Long term having our pen at Wal-Mart dropped it’s perceived value, plus our traditional retailers were mad at us and stocked less of our products. Ultimately, Wal-Mart dropped the pens because the product did not generate enough sales volume. So the pen company alienated their traditional retailer, had their reputation damaged by the big box store that ultimately jilted them, and for that and many other reasons the company was never the same.

I can’t be inside the minds of Fender management, but the pen company experience feels very much like what many old line musical instrument manufacturers have been going through. We’ve had the grand experiment with Guitar Center, Mars, Unique Squared, Bain Capital, a botched IPO, and now it’s time to regroup and rethink.

While guitars can and will be sold on the internet, if they are sold and marketed like a commodity, the industry is doomed. Musical instruments are a personal experience, and people create art and emotion with them. Quite often the sales process is a relationship process, and even big mail order companies like a Sweetwater get that point. Consider Best Buy and their dalliance with MI products: Having untrained, underpaid people selling microwaves and Marshall amplifiers was so uncool and unappealing it could only crash and burn.

It’s interesting to see the recent changes at both Fender and Gibson. Fender is getting new management, dabbling with some direct sales of merchandise and high end products, cracking down on MAP violators, pruning minor brands, and eliminating MSRP. Gibson has been in an acquisition mode to acquire other types of entertainment and audio products, and positioning Gibson as a “lifestyle” (sic) brand. And while all this is going on, Guitar Center has cut ties with the private equity group that nearly killed them, dropped Berhinger for kicking them when they were down , and is crafting a plan to cutting years of quarterly losses. Interesting times indeed.

Personally, as a self-described “micro-retailer” I’m not sure who I’m rooting for. But emotionally, Fender is trying to maintain and protect the value that their products represent. Yes, you can get a silly “Fender” stereo in a VW Beetle, but I think you’ll see less pimping of their name, and more focus creating true brand value. Gibson appears to be doing the corporate diversification game, which is a sign that they may have less than rock solid faith in the profitability of their core products. Both approaches can work, but Fender’s “do what you are good at” approach is more reassuring for music lovers. As far as Guitar Center goes, their tactics have contributed to the devaluation of musical brands in general, but they are now trying to reinvent themselves. GC is very big player, so it’s similar to not liking General Motors, but not wanting them to go belly up either.  Paying their salespeople a half decent hourly wage would be a start though.

In the end though, any product has to represent value: Both tangible and emotional. And the selling process is part of the overall value proposition. Selling your product for too little, whether it be a guitar or the music you create is bad for your products, and it’s bad for the artist and creator. Free sounds cool until it’s your work that is being literally given away. On the surface, Fender dropping MSRP may appear like just a marketing sleight of hand, but hopefully it’s a sign of a new recognition of value in the MI industry.

Are vintage guitars, amps and pickups really better?

There is no denying that vintage musical equipment holds great allure for many players. Famous players and people of means often have prized vintage gear and swear by it. There is a general unquestioned belief that old gear is just inherently better, but is it really?

Humans by nature are nostalgic, and are predisposed to believe that the old days were always better. You know, things like Polio, Segregation, and AMC Gremlins. And once people perceive a change from the way things were, there is a reflexive yearning for whatever it was that is no longer the way it was. With Fender, this was of course the purchase by CBS. With Gibson I suppose it was the move from Kalamazoo to Nashville, and the Norlin era of ownership. I’ve even had a customer opine that any post-1999 Taylor isn’t as good because they changed their neck joint technique. Really?

These days, mid-70’s Fenders have asking prices well over $2000. Frankly, I was around in the 70’s and nobody thought much of a 70’s Strat. The 70’s was a true low point in American product quality, and manufacturers were trying to reduce costs and compete with the likes of the Japanese, but did not have the tools and processes to do so effectively. But now these indifferently assembled products of the 70’s are over thirty years old, and suddenly they are vintage? No, they are just old. So before you consider plunking down three grand on a post-CBS Strat with a wobbly micro-tilt neck and a 1/4″ thick finish, let’s somewhat objectively consider whether vintage really should mean anything to you in regard to playing value.

Guitars – In terms of solid body electric guitars, there really is no technical reason why a modern guitar can’t be as good or better than a vintage guitar. Why? Because basically all the materials that go into building an electric guitar 50 years ago — the woods, hardware, electronics, pickups, nitrocellulose lacquer etc. — still largely exist today in the same form (we’ll get to vintage pickups later). If you want to build a guitar just like it was 50 years ago, for the most part you can. Except today we have CNC machines, better hardware, and much better process control than ever existed 50 years ago. Guitar companies have gotten very good a letting machines do what they do best, and having people do what they do best. That’s why you can buy a $400 guitar that plays amazingly well and sounds good to boot. While some of this value is tied to low cost labor, it’s more a function of advancements in manufacturing.

Interestingly, there was a test in 2012 involving professional violin players that in double-blind testing could not reliably tell a prized Stradivarius violin from a high quality modern violin. Their ability to identify which instrument was the Stradivarius (they were wearing dark goggles) was virtually no better than random. When asked for their preference, most players chose the newer violin, but thought they were playing the vintage instrument.

There are various intangible reasons for owning a vintage guitar: The look, history and feel of an old instrument is hard to quantify but compelling for many players. Have a piece of gear with a sense of history can be a cool thing, and any instrument purchase is a combination of head and heart. But like many products today, the price-to-value ratio for new guitars is at a very high level (even for American gear) so don’t buy into the “only vintage is good” argument. Sometimes old stuff is just old stuff.

Pickups – Much like guitars, the materials available to build pickups the way they were built in the good old days still largely exist. The great pickups of yore were largely a function of good fortune.  Guitar manufacturers sourced wire and magnet materials based mostly on availability, the tension of the winding machine was generally controlled by hand, and the number of windings was approximate. On other words, not all pickups were created equal. Today’s boutique winders have studied the characteristics of a good pickup, and can faithfully reproduce a “good day” in Fullerton in 1957 on a consistent basis. And large pickup manufacturers utilize process controls and modern equipment to produce consistent product that can also sound awfully good. Spending $200 – $400 on any single pickup is probably never necessary, and spending that kind of money on a parted-out vintage pickup is basically a crap shoot.

Amplifiers – Compared to guitars and pickups, amplifiers are probably least likely to be truly reproduced in the exact manner of materials and construction as their vintage counterparts. Partly this is due to the complexity of an amplifier and myriad of components and materials used. Some of chemicals used in capacitors, speaker adhesives, transformers, etc. can’t be used anymore because they are hazardous or even carcinogens. Vacuum tubes, while still available new, differ from their vintage counterparts for either reasons of cost, health, or availability of materials (and some of the NOS tubes really are magical, and never to be made again). But that does not mean that there are not lots of fantastic sounding new amplifiers using available modern materials.  I’ve personally gone through a “must have blackface” phase only to come to the conclusion that they really weren’t for me, no matter how much I was told I would like them.

Plus even more than vintage guitars and pickups, older amplifiers varied widely in component selection, tolerance and speaker type. Fender used several different speaker brands depending on what they could get a good deal on (vintage Utah speaker anyone?) and Marshall was equally cavalier with component values and sources. Lastly  given the fact that few vintage amplifiers survive without some amount of component drift, component replacement, or “improvement” and it’s easy to imagine plunking down a good deal of cash for a box of rocks. Then there is just the whole reliability issue of of gigging a 50 year old amplifier. Now if you want an old amp purely for historical vibe, go for it, but sonic nirvana is not guaranteed.

Wrap Up – The great mystery of analog sound, is that everything does matter to some degree. Sound is an interaction of guitar, amplifier, and player. And within that there is a subset of pickups, components, speakers, cables, tubes….everything. Chasing the perfect sound can be fun, inspiring, and sometimes obsessively frustrating. And as Frank Zappa said, sometime you just have to “Shut up ‘n play yer guitar.” Because as we all know, the greatest variable is the player. I’m not down on vintage equipment, and sometimes owning something only for its aesthetic value is reason enough. Guitars and amps can be art, or at minimum great examples of industrial design. But like our 70’s Strat, buying “vintage” equipment guarantees nothing but age, and a little objectivity can save you a lot of money and frustration.