NAMM Notables: 2009 Guitar Review
John Frondelli was at the 2009 Winter NAMM expo last weekend. While galvanting through the many manufacturers offerings he took notes on some guitars that stood out from the crowd. Here it is from a man who was there.
Winter NAMM has once again come and gone. As always, it is chock full of enough toys and goodies to make you want to relive the recent holiday season all over again, minus the cooking and the in-laws, of course. I am happy to report that the guitar industry is alive and well. No, I do NOT mean the endless clone and also-ran Asian ripoffs, though a couple of those ARE cool and I will mention them. I mean the Big Boys…Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, etc. You know, the stuff we all dream about. I had my uber-shredder son Alex in tow to help me evaluate all of the guitars I played through a picky shredders eyes and fingers. This 13 year-old KNOWS good gear, and like his Dad, will trash something that doesn’t make it. So, without further adieu and hyperbole, I will now help you narrow down your next Holiday Wishlist. Let’s go one-by-one, shall we?
Fender– Yes folk, things are A-OK at the Great American Guitar Conglomerate. For those who may not know, Fender also owns Squier, Gretsch, Guild, Charvel, Jackson and EVH in the electric guitar world. That’s a lot of great names under one roof, and they all did not disappoint.
First, we have Fender: Much of the line remains the same with a few notable additions. The new Eric Johnson Stratocaster now sports a classy bound-neck look. The Ritchie Blackmore Stratocaster is really cool. It features two Seymour Duncan Quarter-Pound neck and bridge pickups, with a dummy pickup in the middle, as Ritchie likes his Strats. For those of you who have a hankerin’ for scallops, the rosewood fingerboard is lightly-scalloped up until the 15th fret, where the scallop transition to very deep. This guitar sounds and plays awesome, especially when you are kickin’ out “Smoke on the Water” like everyone else who picks it up!
On the Standard series (Mexico), we see some much-needed and welcomed upgrades. All tremolo systems now sport a steel block, all of the pickups have gone from the anemic, shrill ceramic types previously-used, to Alnico 5 like their American brethren, and an updated and classier black & gold Fender logo now graces the headstock, along with a nice “not-to-glossy, not to satin-y” neck finish and a gloss headstock. Overall, VERY nicely-done.
Fender’s new hecho en Mexico Roadworn series offers the quality of the Standard series with vintage appointments and light relicing at an affordable price. These guitars feature Tex-Mex pickups and nitro finishes to complete the package. They feel nice, smooth and broken in. So, until you can afford that Custom Shop relic, here ya go!
And what about the much-maligned Squier series? OK, I have to tell you that the Squier series was overall the most-improved AND most impressive bang-for-the-buck in the entire industry. No kidding! The series that deserves these accolades is the relatively-new Classic Vibe series. I spoke to Squier’s marketing manager Chris Gill at length, who said that they were intent on emulating the quality of the early-80’s Japan Squier line with these Chinese-built guitars, and let me tell you, they hit a grand slam with their efforts. These were SO cool, I don’t know where to start! OK, let’s start with the Classic Vibe Telecaster. This guitar sports a GORGEOUS pine body in a blonde Mary Kay-type finish. Yes folks, I said “PINE”! However, this pine was really chosen for its grain and weight, which is comparable to swamp ash, though a tad weightier. The “C” neck, which is around .990″ at the first fret, is perfectly finished in a vintage-tint gloss poly lacquer. The new Squier logo is black & gold (hmmm…I sense a theme here), and the guitar sports Kluson-style tuners with Alnico 5 pickups and a PERFECTLY cut and contoured plastic nut. Man, this guitar just SINGS, and plays like frickin’ buttah!!! I could NOT find a thing wrong with it. It really is a Classic Vibe axe! Same goes for the 50’s and 60’s Stratocaster (on which they perfectly nailed the 2 and 3-color sunbursts, respectively). My favorite was the Duo-Sonic. This guitar looks SO cool with its faux brushed-gold pickguard and cream finish, plus it’s downright fun to play. My son suddenly remembered that he has holiday gift cards from GC, and this is what he is buying for himself. He might spend a lot of time prying it from my hands!
Over at the Gretsch division, we don’t see much new except for the new Chet Atkins 6120 Relic and the Patrick Vaughn Corvette, which sports THREE FilterTron pickups with a Tune-O-Matic bridge. Pretty cool, eh? Yes, it is, as are ALL of the Gretsch guitars. Still some of the coolest stuff on the market.
On to “Shred-Land”: Jackson and Charvel served up lots of hot hor d’oeuvres with their low-action, Floyd Rose-equipped metal machines. The Jackson gear is cool, but only if you like that look that says “I am trying REALLY hard to look like a metal axeman”. I personally don’t. Over at the Charvel division, we have a more traditional look, with Strat-shaped bodies in some wild colors, as well as some cool traditional finishes. Alex picked this Hot Green, single Duncan pickup, Floyd-equipped shredbox off the wall, plugged into the available (and COOL!) EVH half-stack, and proceeded to put them through their paces. Damn, “that” sound came out, plugged straight in! I mean that EVH tone we all know and love. This guitar, as well as others like it, practically played itself. It even made this ol’ warhorse sound like a shredder, for a minute or so anyway. VERY cool stuff! This Charvel/EVH combo was really a one-trick pony, but the trick was quite impressive!
Over on the EVH side, I plugged Eddie’s new signature axe into an EVH stack. It was actually more sedate, prettier and versatile than the Charvel stripped-down hot rod, but also very cool. Then again, he can play anything and make it sound good.
Oh yes, about amps: I didn’t plan on reviewing any amps, but the EVH and Fender Bandmaster Vintage Modified amps deserve a special mention. These amps are cool, versatile, and do what they are supposed to do.
Gibson– The flagship at NAMM this year was the new Les Paul Dark Fire. This is basically a 2nd generation Les Paul Robot with a custom “Dark Fire” burgundy finish, the exclusive Robot-Tune system, plus a traditional analog output as well as digital output to interface with the included software which allows access to a plethora of guitar models. In addition, this guitar features a chambered body and piezo bridge for access to nice acoustic sounds. The pickup complement is a new BurstBucker 3 in the bridge and a new P90H noise-cancelling model in the neck. Despite the chambered body, the guitar is still somewhat weighty due to the electronics, battery and motor-driven tuners. This 2nd generation automatic tuning system is more accurate and faster than its predecessor, and is available for retrofit into all original Robot guitars. Lastly, this guitar, like most expensive Gibson’s, is set-up using the famous Plek system.
If gadgetry and computers are your thing, then this uber-tech Les Paul is for you. If you are looking for just a nice Les Paul, then buy just a nice Les Paul. This technology doesn’t come cheap.
Despite the hoo-ha over the Dark Fire, the overall feel at Gibson is conservative, and much of what was displayed was variations and reissues. Of note were the Epiphone USA Wilshire (predecessor to the SG design), ES-335 Dot and the Trini Lopez model, which for me, was the coolest axe in their booth, with its slashed F-hole design, quasi-Fender/non-reverse Firebird in-line headstock and nice, meaty neck. Me want!!!
G & L– The SC-2 has been brought back to the fold. With its compact body, 25.5″ scale and tummy/arm contours, this 80’s axe looks like a Fender Mustang on steroids and sports two large MFD (Magnetic Field Design) pickups and their own Fulcrum Trem. The neck is finished in gun-oil tint with a lacquered peghead face. This guitar is comfortable and downright fun to play, plus it is versatile and sounds amazing. Otherwise, not much really new at G & L, however they HAVE changed their neck profiles. Gone is the thin, shoulderless profile, and they now sport a more tradition C-shape, which feels to be about .95″ or so at the first fret. Some vintage Tele players might still find this a bit thin, but it will please the general public. G & L continues it’s tradition of high quality and hand-built feel. They are a bit pricey, but worth every penny. Also of note is the improved neck quality of the Tribute series. The spirit of Leo truly lives in G & L guitars.
Taylor– Not a company normally known for their electric guitars, Taylor opens its second year in the ring with a whole host of new and cool models, and boy, do these babies deliver! Of particular note are the new thinline hollowbody T3-series guitars, which sport Bigsby tailpieces, perhaps the only non-original piece of hardware on Taylor guitars. You see, Bob Taylor did not just want to bolt on existing parts. All parts and pickups are built by Taylor from the ground up (right down to the easy-grip knobs), to create what is essentially a new American original. I spoke with Bob Taylor at length, and this man is every bit the innovator and genius builder, who in my opinion, belongs in the same class as Orville Gibson and Leo Fender (so does Paul Reed Smith, but I haven’t gotten to him yet!). Back to the guitars: these are BEAUTIFUL, easy-playing, creamy (and pricey) guitars that deliver on all levels. Ironically, Taylor has the distinction of making acoustics and electrics that feel nearly identical. Anyone who owns or has played a Taylor acoustic will tell you how easy it plays. Bob simply translated all of his acoustic building philosophies to his electrics, and really hit a home run. If you are looking to spend big bucks on an electric, do not overlook Taylor.
Paul Reed Smith (PRS)– Paul Reed Smith guitars have been around so long that it is hard no to think of them as part of the fabric of the history of American electric guitars. When we think of them, we think of craftsmanship: serious flame-maple tops, bird inlays, exotic woods, gorgeous finishes. Paul’s original concept was to bridge the gap between Fender and Gibson, or so it would seem. Hence, the newly-created 25″ scale (vs. 24.75″ for Gibson and 25.5″ for Fender), humbuckers with coil-tapping, tremolo designs which didn’t rob tone, and necks that are meaty (to say the least) yet comfortable. With a roster of elite players topped of by such luminaries as Carlos Santana and Al DiMeola, Paul Reed Smith has earned his place in guitar history, right next to the aforementioned Bob Taylor. So, what better way to kick off this year then with a guitar that pays homage to a great past design? The new Mira X maintains the familiar PRS solidbody feel with two humbuckers, a non-carved top, stop bar tailpiece and simple controls, smacking of Les Paul Special/Junior looks and functionality, topped off in either Black, Vintage Cherry or Tobacco Sunburst finishes. Very retro, very cool. Another winner from PRS.
Carvin– Possibly the world’s best-kept guitar secret, Carvin has been around since 1946 and is still owned by the Kiesel family (Carson and Gavin, hence the name). Carvin has an interesting history. Their original guitars were made by Kay and Harmony (then of Chicago) and later by Hofner (yes, like Paul McCartney’s bass). They finally built their own factory in the late 70’s to concentrate on their own designs. However, unless you live in Hollywood, Santa Ana, Sacramento, San Diego or have visited NAMM, it is unlikely that you have tried on of their guitars. However, Carvin offers full money back after ten days if not satisfied, plus a full five-year warranty.
There are a lot of famous guitarists who are closet Carvin users. The most recent to come out of THAT closet (easy now folks!) is Joe Walsh, who plays their California 6, a single-cut in the tradition of the Les Paul and PRS. At the low end of the line is The Bolt, essentially their take on the Strat, but Carvin is a TRUE custom shop, so The Bolt can be customized all the way up to “Super-Strat”. In fact, there are almost limitless finish, cosmetic, wood, hardware and pickup options. All built right here in the USA in San Diego. As for feel and quality, Carvin is top-notch all the way and keeps up with all of the big boys in terms of tone, looks and build quality. If you are looking for something familiar, yet different from what anyone else is using, and want it Burger King-style (“Have it YOUR way”), I would seriously consider giving Carvin a shot. After all, you can’t lose anything.
And I’d like to mention…..
With all of the “me-too” products at NAMM, it is difficult for some products to stand out of the crowd. This year, I found three pleasant surprises from the East:
St. Blues– St. Blues Guitars was originally a Japan/USA collaboration, with the parts being made in the ESP factory and assembled in Memphis, but they now have a USA Custom Shop as well. The following guitars are built in Korea of USA woods using brand-name hardware and set up individually in Memphis. These guitars are just WAY cool! Korea craftsmanship, one time the bane of many a pickers existence, is now a force to be reckoned with.
St. Blues’ main body style looks like the accidental mating of a Les Paul and Tele. Their “61 South” (hollowbody) and “Bluesmaster” and “Mississippi Bluesmaster” (solidbody) guitars are my favorites. Familiar, yet a bit different. The 61 South features a Wilkinson Tele-style, staggered-saddle bridge and Tele pickup configuration (with optional P-90 neck pickup), 3-way switch and a 25% coil-tap switch, plus a 25.5″ scale. The body is hollow, double-bound ash with a flat top and F-holes. There is that familiar twang with nice hollowbody flavor happening here and is just fun to play, because the response is so bouncy. The Mississippi Bluesmaster features a double-bound mahogany body with a bolt-on mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard. Pickups are dual P-90’s or humbuckers. Together with the shorter 24.75″ scale, this is a mellower, throatier guitar at its very core, very much Les Paul-like in nature, with a Fender-ish feel. Not a bad place to live at all. The “Bluesmaster II” is essentially a solidbody version of the 61 South with a 2-piece ash body, optional flame maple top and optional rosewood fingerboard. The bridge and pickups are Tele-style, with a 25% coil-tap switch and traditional 3-way switch for myriad tonal variations. Hardware is classy nickel-plated. Lastly is the total hybrid “Bluesmaster IV”. It shares the same body and neck shape plus 25.5″ scale, but sports an H/S/S pickup configurations, Strat-style hardtail bridge and Tele-style controls. The body is contoured front and back, yet sports binding. Options are flame maple top and rosewood fingerboard. Additionally, related to the Bluesmaster IV is the “Bluescaster IV“, essentially the same guitar with a Tele body shape. Incidentally, all guitars sport bone nuts and Lollar or Fralin pickups.
Fret King– The Fret King Blue Series, their low end (though there is nothing “low end” about them is made in Korea and the entire Fret King project is spearheaded by none other than Trevor Wilkinson. Though the guitars sport a traditional look, usually with altered pickguard shapes and modified body contours, they are not just the usual fair. Same goes for the upscale Green Series, which are hand-built in the UK. Lastly is the Vintage Series, which is nicely, lightly (and properly) reliced for a broken-in feel, and they are smooth as silk. There are too many models to mention. I suggest you check out their website.
Reverend– OK, so Reverend Guitars are no surprise for most of us, but these, like the two aforementioned, top off the cream-of-the-crop of Asian guitars, and there are plenty of players that will vouch for them. Again, lots of familiar, yet different designs and there is a huge selection. Again, I suggest you visit their website.
TV Jones– When you think of TV Jones, you think of his fabulous recreations of Gretsch pickups, and some cool permutations thereof, like the TV-‘Tron and P-Tron, which are FilterTron’s in humbucker and P90 cases, respectively. What you probably do NOT think of is his guitars. There are two models, the Spectra-Sonic Supreme, and Model 10. The first is made in Japan, with the usual stellar Japanese craftsmanship. This is a large, thinline, single-cut alder body with flame maple top and a GORGEOUS translucent nitro Translucent Red finish. The tuners are Sperzel, bridge by Gotoh, tailpiece is the Bigsby B-12, and in the electronics you have CTS pots, Switchcraft switch and TV Jones TV Classic pickups (natch!), FilterTron’s by any other name, which is a Gretsch trademark. This is important to know, since Tom (that’s the “T” in “TV”) ALWAYS checks with Gretsch before doing ANYTHING so as not to step on their toes, proof that he is a standup guy. The Model 10 is a solidbody with a stop tailpiece (optional Bigsby B5) made domestically in their own shop in Washington State. So, how do the guitars sound and feel? Do you like Gretsch? Then, you’ll love TV Jones Guitars. There were ten Spectra-Sonic Supreme’s on the rack at the show at $2625.00 each. All were sold by Sunday. I’d say Tom is doing something right. Still and all, pickups are his game, and if you haven’t tried on of his TV-‘Tron humbuckers or P-Tron P90 replacements, you should. You find a whole lots of tone and air that you didn’t hear before.
Well, there ya go, my take on NAMM notable axes. Trust me, there is MUCH more, and I am still soaking my feet to prove it!
Manufacturer’s Web Sites:
Fender: http://www.fender.com/ (all Fender brands are accessible from their site)
Gibson: http://www.gibson.com/ (all Gibson brands are accessible from their site)
G & L: http://www.glguitars.com/
St. Blues: http://www.saintblues.com/
Fret King: http://www.fret-king.com/
TV jones: www.tvjones.com
John R. Frondelli is the Technical Services Director at dBm Pro Audio In New York. He has been a technician for 30 years and has repaired, restored and custom built all types of musical equipment. Part of his client list includes Bob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, U2 and The Who.