Category Archives: Fastback Custom Guitars

Fastback ’59 Zebras: Show Ponies or Thoroughbreds? (Also, Horse Jokes)

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By Michael James Adams
Seattle-based hot-rod guitar company Fastback is Fastback at it again with their newly-released pickup set: The Fastback ’59 Zebras. Manufactured by hand with care, these pickups claim to be modeled after the fabled P.A.F. pickups found on our favorite vintage bursts, but do they live up to the hype? Let’s find out!

A Horse of a Different Color

The Fastback ’59 Zebra pickups are hand-wound at Fastback’s Seattle HQ and spec’d out like the original PAFs we’re all so fond of. Visually, this set couldn’t look more right; the cream bobbins are just the right color, neither looking too yellow or too brown as aged parts so often do. Customers can expect a choice between AlNiCo 2 and 5 magnets for different tonal variations, with the 2 magnets exhibiting softer, spongier highs and lows with round mids than their ‘three more’ counterparts. The pickups come with a heavy wax bath to combat microphonics – breaking with true vintage tradition to the joy of most people – and single braid wire for easy installation.

Our set was wound slightly hotter than the measurements listed on the website (not that I’m complaining!) with the bridge measuring in at 8.4K and the neck at 7.6K. Installation was a breeze, and within no time I was slinging hot licks all over the place. Or whatever people do with guitars these days.

With these pickups loaded into my recently-acquired ’97 Squier Vista Super-Sonic, the difference in sonic fidelity was immediately identifiable. Of course the Zebras were a marked improvement over the stock Korean ‘buckers, but being a guitar tech I’m no stranger to vintage PAFs and I must say I was impressed. Fastback’s really hit the nail on the head here, folks.

Black and White and Cred All Over

The neck pickup had all of the airy, vocal midrange I expected from a pickup claiming to be a PAF, but few of them ever really get all the way there. The lows were pronounced but not overbearing, and the highs were sweet and supple, with a warmth and body all their own. Clean or dirty, this pickup retained the clarity and note definition associated with classic units. With overdrive, I was enveloped in heavenly fat tone.* Really a superb pickup in every way.

The bridge unit absolutely blew me away; creamy, chunky drive that stayed tight enough to appease my modern sensibilities, but was in no way sterile or shrill. The midrange was warm yet distinct, bringing to mind my favorite Jimmy Page sounds from How the West Was Won. Highs were stinging but round, while the lows were well-defined and present, but not as much as one might expect given current “PAF” offerings. Let me explain:

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Our test unit was 8.4K, slightly hotter than the one pictured above.

Though not as ample as I expected, the lows have a slightly different EQ curve, which seems to sacrifice some of the really round, fat low-lows in favor of a slightly higher bass frequency center, which means it never gets woofy or muddy. The E and A strings particularly had a very pleasant midrange kick, but were resplendent with a softer, woody overtone that immediately harkened back to the golden era of single-cut solid body guitars.

Again, the Jimmy Page comparison is apt here, because while his tone in HTWWW is freaking huge, I wouldn’t even begin to describe it as being as big and spectrum-killing as so many of our modern guitar ‘heroes’ might have you believe. No, Page’s tone is focused and cutting, neither overly bright or bassy. In a word, perfect – same as these pickups. I imagine the lows would be more pronounced in a more traditional mahogany body/maple top instrument, but I really dig the sound.

When used in tandem, these little beasts really come alive! The vocal qualities I mentioned earlier are magnified, with that quintessential open ‘ah’ vowel tone cutting through any dense mix. Literally anything I played with this selection sounded good, and that’s saying a lot. From legato minor-key runs to all-out, cacophonous freak out sessions, everything was gloriously tuneful.

I didn’t mention how well these pickups respond to tone knob variations. Even with a small twist from 10 to 8, the pickups warmed up beautifully, shifting the focus from brilliance to the woodier qualities we all associate with mahogany guitars. Thing is, this guitar isn’t mahogany, it’s basswood. Sure, the Super-Sonic isn’t the traditional guitar we’re all familiar with, but all of the warmth and lively sound I’d expect from a Les Paul was at my fingertips in a decidedly Fender package. Drop these pickups in a Les Paul, and I guarantee you’ll be thrilled.

Yay or Neigh?

Overall, I couldn’t be happier with these pickups. They’re every bit as magical as some of the original units I’ve played, with just a touch of modern wizardry thrown in. Too often, major pickup manufactures seem to be following in the current business model of most amp manufacturers, where doing absolutely everything comes before simplicity and good tone. We’re often left with amps that do everything averagely, with obscene amounts of high and low end which ultimately translates into a lackluster playing experience.

So you can understand why I really appreciate that Fastback has created a pickup that isn’t super hi-fi and doesn’t try to cover the breadth of the sonic spectrum. Instead of making a pickup that has huge amounts of earth-shattering low end and enough highs to blind a bat, it seems like Fastback tailor-made a set to suit full band situations with a focused, brilliant tone that cuts as much as it grooves. Undeniably fun, and easy on the wallet too!

Equine jokes.

Fastback ’59 Zebras
$80 each/$150 per set
Available direct or via Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar

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*Not to be confused with heavenly Fatone, which would be soooo dreamy

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Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards: Vinyl Record Pickguards for Your Instrument!

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After lots of hard work and determination, we’re ready to officially announce Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards! These pickguards made from recycled vinyl records are produced entirely by hand in Seattle, WA and are made to fit many of the most popular guitar models: Fender Telecaster, Esquire, Telemaster, Nashville Tele, Mustang, Jaguar, Jag-Stang, Jazz Bass, G&L ASAT and ASAT Special, Gibson SG, Gretsch and pretty much any other guard that fits within the boundaries of a 12″ LP. Over the coming months we’ll be looking to add even more models to the party. Pretty snazzy, don’t you think?

We’re proud to offer these custom-fit replacement pickguards in three distinct collections:

IMG_2911-impAssorted – $45: Pre-cut, semi-random guards for popular models with a choice of overall label color to match your instrument. This series could include popular artists, not-so-popular ‘joke’ artists, self-hypnosis records, blooper reels, etc.*

Custom – $60: Custom-cut guards with full artist/album options (even soundtracks and off-the-beaten-path releases) as well as accommodation for non-standard pickup configuarations. We’ll send a list of options or you can make a request, which we’ll do our best to fill. These guards will also ship in their original album sleeve whenever possible!*

Premium – $75: All of the above in limited edition colored vinyl releases. Ships in original album sleeve!*

You’re also welcome to send us your own records for us to cut into the shape of your choosing!**

Each guard is hand-cut and lovingly shaped for a true-to-spec fit. Edges are sanded smooth, lightly beveled and polished to a 1950’s Bakelite sheen, and great care is taken to ensure a perfect, tight fit with all components. As an added bonus, we also laquer each label individually to ensure that it weathers even aggressive picking technique with aplomb. This also has the effect of making the label stand out a bit more, with a slight increase in hue saturation and contrast.

IMG_2950-impInterestingly enough, this is one of the only upgrades you can make to your guitar or bass that already has music in it. Each and every one of our Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards contains a purposely-recorded performance, a snapshot of the hard work, dedication and careers of living, breathing musicians who sought to make a life for themselves. Every guard is an archive of the human spirit!

It’s also immensely important to us that our product is environmentally conscious, so helping to recycle old, worn-out and discarded vinyl albums is a huge part of what we do. We search high and low for great materials, and we do our best to use only records that have a bad side or songs that won’t play. No sense wasting a perfectly good record!

Now you can play on your favorite record! Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards are the perfect addition to a well-loved instrument, adding a touch of mid-century class the moment it’s mounted. These guards can be found at Thunder Road Guitars in West Seattle, and on certain new Fastback Custom Guitars.

Interested in one of these fine accessories? Email us to get started!

Special thanks goes to all of those who have helped and encouraged us to pursue this little dream of ours: Charissa Adams, Chelsea Young, Dana and Vivian Huff, Alex Lathum, Chris Graffmiller, Michael Plotke, Scott Paul Johnson and Wallingford Guitars, Wesley William Wood and Rural Nyce Custom Guitars, Frank Gross and Thunder Road Guitars, Mark Naron and Fastback Custom Guitars.

IMG_3014-imp*There is an additional $10 fee for shielded guards. Please have Make and Model info ready when ordering.
**As can be expected, vinyl records tend to be fragile and it’s not uncommon for lighter-grade pieces to become damaged during the initial shaping and cutting process. While we take the greatest care in preparing our materials, this can’t always be avoided; it’s best to have a back-up choice when ordering.
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Teaser!

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We’ve been away from the blog for a couple of weeks, and I promise we have the best excuse ever! We’ve been working hard on our first-ever product, and the time has come to let the cat out of the bag. Here’s a teaser photo of our work with full product details to follow this weekend!

Thanks to all of our faithful friends and customers who have supported us since we opened, and a very special thanks to those of you who allowed us to borrow your instruments! This couldn’t have happened without all of you!

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Fastback’s T-Master: The Hot-Rodded Masterpiece You’ve Always Wanted

Last month we peeked under the hood of Fastback’s Cabo model, a guitar that impressed us with its great out-of-the-gate tone and workhorse aesthetics. This time Fastback is back with its T-Master model for us to work over, and I’m excited. With so many D.I.Y “custom shops” cropping up all over the place, it’s good to know that these instruments are being made right in my own back yard, by players and for players. Come with me as I get taken for a ride…

The T-Master

Damn.

A blend of two perennial favorites, the T-Master is Fastback’s guitar that never was. Borrowing the electronics and hardware complement of a Telecaster, the T-Master superimposes those familiar traits onto a vintage-correct offset Jazzmaster body. I’m a huge fan of both of the aforementioned guitars, and I have to say that the combination absolutely stunned me. The moment I saw the vintage blonde ’52 model I knew I wanted one, and just looking at it I could tell that the guitar sounded great. Boy, was I right!

Specs on this model are identical to the other models, save for the beautifully-grained swamp ash body (Alder on opaque finishes), Joe Barden bridge and compensated saddles, and Lollar Special T pickups. The guitar boasts the familiar 25.5″ scale length and bolt-on 21 fret neck of your typical California dream, and they now include G&G Cases. The body looks large at first, but believe you me it’s one of the most balanced instruments I’ve ever played. Weight ratios are such that the guitar hangs on a strap without shifting this way or that, and the guitar is in the easy-on-the-back 7-8lb range.

When I reviewed Fastback’s Cabo guitar, I was surprised by just how loud it was when played acoustically. The T-Master’s even louder, no joke. To illustrate just how great this “feature” is, let me tell you a little story: My wife was in the kitchen* while I was playing the T-Master in our living room. That week I was focusing on riffs from The Darkness, as this was right around the time they came through Seattle on their reunion tour. Now, from the other room, I heard my wife exclaim, “I believe in a thing called loooooooove!”

Think about this for a moment: I was in the living room, jamming away unplugged. My wife was a room away in the kitchen. The kitchen. When’s the last time someone in a whole other room could hear what you were playing on your solid body electric guitar? Usually, if you’re any distance away from the guitar–be it a Tele or a Paul–all you hear is the springy “plink” of the strings, not fully defined notes. I’m not saying this guitar will compete with an acoustic, but it’s much, much louder than one would expect.

Joe Barden bridge and compensated saddles!

Impressed? I was. Imagine my further elation when, upon plugging into my Marshall I was greeted with some of the most strident tones I’ve heard from a bolt-on guitar. Equipped with Lollar Special T pickups, this guitar had the girth and mid-kick of higher-output pickups, but I found that the guitar wasn’t simply louder, but that its most sonorous frequencies were moved forward in the overall mix. Notes jumped up to greet me like a Labrador ready for walkies.

I will say that, even though I’m a huge fan of Jason Lollar’s pickups, I prefer the Vintage T’s to the Specials. The Specials are great pickups for sure, but just a tad darker than I expected, especially when playing a guitar that has any kind of Telecaster vibe. In its current configuration, the T-Master had more bite than humbuckers, but less than single coils with more traditional output, which might be a huge plus for other players. Even with the tone control maxed, I had to bump up the treble a number or two when I needed spanky, Paisley-approved twang. It’s also worth noting that while Lollar Pickups are an option on Fastbacks’ line, they also are winding their own pickups in-house, allowing them to tailor the tonality of each of their guitars. This is exciting news, so expect a review soon!

Even with that small complaint, this guitar really shined when I took solos. Played through the same amps mentioned in the previous portion of this article, as well as a bevy of dirt boxes, the T-Master retained its own character. Single note runs had equal amounts of bite and body, and full chords remained tight and true. Digging in with a pick revealed just how much this guitar loves to rock, and whether it was searing blues or all-out rock, the T-Master delivered. As a side note, this guitar loves to be fingerpicked. Quick country runs were no problem for this beast, but it also responded well to neck-position jazz tunes. Whether saturated in dripping gain or set for glassy cleans, the T-Master weathered it all.

Let there be no mistaking it: the T-Master is a brilliant guitar and I’m in love with it. Other than the pickup choice–which is honestly more a matter of personal preference than a strict denouncement of the manufacturer’s specs–I have little in the way of complaints. On this guitar’s see-thru finish more so than The Cabo’s basic black, it was perhaps more evident that there were some very minor fit-and-finish issues ranging from some slightly uneven polishing on the maple fretboard to the thin nitro finish sinking into the pores of the swamp ash body. The website doesn’t specify an “open pore” finish, so I assumed that this wasn’t intentional. Mark tells us that, because this guitar was one of the first they built, they learned a lot from that initial run. Current models have filled grain and glassier finishes, to which I can attest.

Still, these are very minor nitpicks, and neither did they really bother me nor prevent me from playing as great as I ever have on these guitars. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I experienced one of my most enjoyable practices in a long time employing this guitar. Not only did I feel like a total badass just strapping on the T-Master, but with a big, lively tone and the sheer ostentation of the guitar I was fielding questions and taking friends for test drives before the night was out. One thing’s for certain: Both of the guitars we tested carried with them that nigh-unquantifiable quality that turns a good guitar into a great one. That quality? Fun. These guitars are absolutely a blast to play.

I. Love. This.

Speaking of fun, did I mention the neck plate? Ho, ho! Dear reader, feast thine eyes on this! We all know that when you want to date a vintage bolt-on guitar you have to have done your research to decrypt the numbers stamped on the neck plate. Fastback makes certain you’ll never have this problem when dating your guitar, thanks to their “Pinup Girl” system. That’s right, each year of production gets its own specific pinup girl. Seeing that each time I picked up the guitar let me know I was in for a treat, I can tell you that.

At the end of the day, it’s always exciting to witness the progress of a fledgeling brand, and even more so if said brand is making phenomenal instruments. It’s worth noting that Fastback is still a relatively young company (they’ve only built 12 guitars to date) but given the truly impressive nature of their first batch, it’s a good bet that Fastback is in this race to win. 

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on a Fastback as soon as possible, preferably before they take off so you can brag about knowing them before they got big. Because they will, and then you won’t have the smug satisfaction of having known about them first. You hipster.

UPDATE 10/25/12

Yeah, I totally bought this one. After months of pining for it–and going through three other guitars without satisfaction–I couldn’t stand not having this guitar as part of my collection. I just played my first gig with it, and I have to say it’s living up to all of my expectations. Of course, I did change out those pickups!

*Note: My wife was in the kitchen circumstantially; this is not where she usually belongs. She does not have to ‘make me a sandwich’, nor do I tell her to ‘get back in [there]’. Mike and Mike’s Guitar Bar believes in gender equality, and as such, I sometimes cook dinner.
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Fastback Guitars: On the “Fast Track” With the Cabo

Tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle has been a hotbed of musical activity. Any casual music fan can name a bevy of well-known bands that hail from the area, and there are plenty of amazing musicians you’ve never even heard of before. One thing’s for sure: there’s plenty of buzz surrounding the Emerald City.

Home not only to big-name bands and weekend warriors but also its own share of destination guitar shops and talented builders, Seattle has much to offer to musicians from beginner to touring pro. Now, one more name can be added to that list: Fastback Guitars.


Spearheaded by Seattle natives Mark Naron and Bob Kelley, Fastback was birthed out of a love of music production and a desire to build the best studio-grade gear possible. Fastback is, at its core, a one-stop shop for most everything to do with making or recording music; at once a guitar and amplifier company as well as a first-rate recording studio, it’s obvious that Fastback knows what it’s doing.

Fastback’s motto is “From Stage to Studio,” and it shows in everything they offer; their recordings are pristine, their amps are ferocious, and their guitars? In a word, superb. Specializing in F-style bolt-on guitars, Fastback is quickly carving a niche for themselves by making instruments that are both fully affordable and fully custom. From the drafting board to final set-up, everything can be customized and tailored to suit the needs of the player. While Fastback has the ability to produce guitars with out-of-the-ordinary body styles, it’s the four models that currently make up bread-and-butter range that really steal the show.

While each one owes a certain amount of its heritage to Fender’s venerable Telecaster, but with subtle refinements–and a few not so subtle ones–Fastback has created tools of the trade that live up to their branding. Conjuring images of hot-rodded roadsters, these guitars have just as much in common with classic 1950s sedans as they do 1970s muscle cars. Vintage-flavored body styles  and color options coalesce with modern-radius necks and hot boutique electronics to form instruments that have that serve the needs of today’s musicians while appealing to the tastes of the discerning guitar enthusiast.

Though each model differs slightly in configuration, standard features on all Fastback guitars include a custom “Soft-V” neck shape, 9.5” radius necks, twenty-one 6105 frets, a special pin-up girl neck plate for each year of production, quality hardwood bodies and necks, American-made hardware, handmade pickups (Lollar and TV Jones on current models, with a Fastback brand soon to follow!) and 100% Nitrocellulose finishes. Bodies and necks are cut and shaped together in Tennessee and are guaranteed to stand up to the rigors of road abuse. Rest assured that Fastback guitars are already being used by worldwide touring musicians with great success.

The Cabo

Taking a design cue from a hugely popular guitar of recent make, Fastback’s The Cabo promises killer tone and playability at a fraction of the cost of the big boy’s toy. The Cabo can be ordered in 1- and 2-pickup models as well as in a variety of finishes. Our test model’s sonic horsepower comes from a genuine TV Jones Powertron, a pickup with that extra kick to push a tube amp into overdrive while retaining all of the vocal midrange and sweet highs you’d expect from a Gretsch-style pickup.

Superb playability is thanks in part to an expertly finished maple fretboard that doesn’t hang up, which is a lot to ask for from most gloss-finished necks. Thanks is also in order for the back of the neck as well, as Fastback’s semi gloss finish feels absolutely drag-free even with vigorous play. Frets are expertly leveled and crowned, preventing any choking out or dead notes in every position.

Being a T-style guitar, one won’t find any unnecessary contours on its alder body. True to form, the body is a plank, eschewing any fancy carves in favor of a great workhorse aesthetic; edges are, however, rolled for comfort. And, word from Mark is that future Cabo guitars will have double-binding, which will only up the class of this already uptown instrument. Weight (7.8 lbs) distributed evenly and balanced on a strap perfectly without any sign of neck dive.

All of this is nice, but the real question is this: how does it sound?

It’s no secret that a guitar that sounds balanced and loud unplugged will most likely sound great through an amp. Well, I’m pleased to tell you that The Cabo is an impressively loud electric guitar on its own. What’s most telling about the guitar is not that it’s simply loud, but that it possesses a certain acoustic clarity that’s unrivaled even by my favorite semi-hollow Gibson. When you strum a chord you can really feel this guitar resonate.

Played through numerous amps including a ’79 Marshall JMP, a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue, and a Fastback 18 combo, our test model was throaty and loud with equal amounts of punch and kick on tap. To be clear, this guitar certainly has a darker personality, requiring some treble adjustment on each of the amps to really draw out the twang we’ve come to expect from a TV Jones-equipped guitar. This may be due in part to the higher-output Powertron pickup, which does sacrifice some treble.

Our Cabo in an inky black finish. This is a guitar you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. “Ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”

Not that I’m saying that darkness is a bad thing; when played through the Fastback 18 with set for high gain, this guitar remained rich and full with a unique sag that can only be attributed to the TV Jones’ inherent personality quirks. It was only when I started pushing the limits of modern gain levels that it started to lose definition and got muddy, which could likely be said of any ‘Tron-styled pickup; they’re certainly not a proper metal pickup.

Even with its higher-output, this guitar can still tap into some very mid-century tones. Through the Fender Deluxe I was greeted with pure, round tones that worked equally well for jazz or clean electric blues. Picking dynamics were perfectly replicated, and full chords had that certain extra something that makes for a very luxurious, spanky clean tone.

Where the Cabo really shined was medium gain riffage. Through the Marshall, the Cabo really opened up, absolutely soaring with a moderately overdriven tone. Whereas the darker tone of the guitar might have been a problem on other fronts, this guitar is perfectly voiced for throaty, singing and stinging electric blues and ‘70s rock. Guitar leads had presence and body, and the sound of double-stop bends was enough to make you throw your hands up. Replete with 2nd and 3rd-order overtones, I couldn’t believe a guitar with a single bridge pickup could be so vocal and alive, thanks in part to its high-end electronics package which includes CTS 250k pots, an Orange Drop capacitor and treble bleed circuits. The icing on the cake is that this guitar seemed at home no matter what musical situation it wandered into. Jazz, Britpop, hard rock, country… this guitar just would not give up.

Obviously, I really enjoyed this guitar, but I did have a few nits to pick. For one, the nut material used on this first batch of Fastback guitars is of a synthetic bone, which I felt robbed the guitar of some zing and resonance. After I switched it out for the real thing, the guitars were suddenly slightly louder acoustically, and plugged-in tones were a bit fatter with increased clarity. (Mark tells us that the next batch of Fastback offerings will be using bone exclusively.) The guitar could also have used a bit more attention in the initial setup, but in that respect I could just as well be talking about most other guitar makers. With minor adjustment, the guitar played exactly as I hoped.

FINAL THOUGHTS

All things considered, I loved my time with The Cabo. It was definitely a treat to behold, and from the moment I laid eyes on it I knew I was about to play a guitar that I wouldn’t soon forget. Its loud acoustic ring coupled with high-octane electronics and slick playability amounts to a guitar well worth its asking price and then some. Though the guitar was a tad on the dark side, it more than proved itself in both live and session venues. No matter what amp I paired it with, the Cabo excelled at bluesy runs and any rock riff I threw at it.

It’s also worth noting that this guitar was genuinely fun to play, which is a quality that seems more like luck of the draw these days. Having played a few other Fastback guitars, I can honestly say it’s a quality that’s built into their entire line. If Fastback keeps this up, they’ll be a huge force in the guitar world in no time flat. Do yourself a favor and check them out! -Michael James Adams

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