Category Archives: Gear Spotlight

Fender American Pro Jazzmaster & Jaguar: First Impressions and In-Depth Review

Earlier this year, message boards and forums lit up with rumors of Fender’s 2017 American Pro series guitars, especially the Jazzmaster and Jaguar models in the range. Appearing to be a more affordable and streamlined alternative to the AVRI line, speculation ran wild as to what the series might offer. Me, I couldn’t wait.

img_4324Fender began sending them out to musicians and social media stars late in the year (where’s the love?!) but kept quiet about specs. Much of what was known about the models was deduced by blowing up blurry Instagram photos and leaked catalogue pages. Excitement soared, and soon I was buried under requests for The Jazzmaster Guy’s take on the new models.

I’m happy to say I finally had the chance to take both guitars for a spin yesterday while Hollywood Guitar Center with my best friend Vanessa Wheeler of Leo Leo. With her help, I’d like to walk you through some of our thoughts and impressions of these new guitars. Are they any good? Worth the money? Fun to play? Read on and find out.

 

Mystic Seafoam is a win for both of us

Mystic Seafoam is a win for both of us

Visuals

Fit and finish on these guitars is superb. In typical Fender Corona fashion, there wasn’t a cosmetic flaw to be found.

Let it be known far and wide that Mystic Seafoam may be the best color Fender have produced in years. No photo––not even mine––will do it justice. It demands attention, which is how we spotted it from across the room the moment we walked on the sales floor. So visually arresting is this color that we paid zero attention to any other instrument on the wall. I think I heard Vanessa mutter “Oh, wow!” under her breath.

I wish I could say the same for Sonic Grey. I was excited to see it in person ever since Jimmy Vivino posted his own grey Jazzmaster on Instagram, but it just didn’t do it for me. Vanessa pointed out that my reaction to the color might come down to the plastics: Mystic Seafoam is paired with parchment while Sonic Grey is clad in stark white, which lends a sort of harshness to the guitar’s visual palette. Of course, this is just me.

Also new for this series: glossy maple fretboards! While this isn’t a first for Fender, this uncommon feature hasn’t previously been offered as standard on offsets. The necks seemed pale in photos, but the wood has a much warmer hue in reality.

Feel

Sonic Grey. Eh, I keep going back and forth on this one.

Sonic Grey. See, I’m looking at it now and I sort of like it??? Argh.

These guitars felt super solid from the first moment we took them off the wall. Vanessa found them a bit heavy, but that seems to be the norm with new guitars. Strummed acoustically, all models exhibited loud and pleasant tonalities, which usually translates to a good plugged-in sound.

Fender introduced the new “Deep C” neck profile with this series, which you’ll notice immediately when you pick one up. Vanessa, whose chord vocabulary is from another planet altogether, didn’t seem as encumbered by the extra girth as I was at first, but I got used to it quickly. It’s substantial but never crosses over into “boat neck” territory, starting out slightly chunky at the first fret and gradually fattening toward the 12th. Compared with AVRI62 necks of either model, this profile will definitely give you something more to hold on to.

While I firmly believed they would not be my thing, the extra height of the 22 “narrow-tall” frets made for easy bends and meant I rarely felt the fretboard under my fingertips. This is good, because I always seem to get stuck on gloss maple. While rosewood is an option for the range, currently Seafoam and Grey are only available with maple fretboards. In contrast, the lone white Jaguar on the wall was equipped with a rosewood fretboard.

The addition of the Micro-Tilt adjustment to the neck pocket is absolutely genius. Having an adjustable mechanical shim on an offset guitar will make setups a breeze. I never would have considered this!

Playability

No matter the brand, factory setups are often anything but; action high enough to mitigate buzz yet low enough to be playable. I have to say, the setups on these guitars were pretty decent! The Mystic Seafoam model wowed both of us with its easy action and tunefulness, while the Sonic Grey guitar left something to be desired but was passable. Fretwork seemed clean across all models.

Now for the heavy criticism: both E strings are unthinkably close to the fretboard edges on all three of the guitars we demoed, so close that it was nearly impossible to fret the high E string without slipping off the fretboard. This seems like something that should have been corrected during the R&D phase. Quite literally the first comment Vanessa made when she sat down with the guitar was how hard it was to play the Es, a sentiment I echoed.

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The extra width also means strings don’t line up with bridge pickup pole pieces.

Mustang-style bridges typically have wider string spacing, but this is extreme. Even with nylon bushings that improve bridge stability, I honestly think that changing the bridge is going to be an incredibly common if not required mod on these guitars. (NOTE: I wasn’t able to pull the bridge, so I’m not sure which thimble set they’ve installed on these guitars, which could be an added bridge-swapping headache like the Classic ’60s models.)

My only other major complaint is that the Jazzmaster’s pickup selector switch has been moved to an exceptionally inconvenient place, a place where many players already complain about a switch being there. How often do you see players tape off the rhythm circuit so it’s not accidentally engaged, after all. This move is truly perplexing.

Depending on play style, this could be a huge issue for certain players. If you do a lot of tapping, slapping, popping, and plucking like Vanessa, this switch is totally in the way.

Compare the toggle switch positions. L: Fender AM-PRO R: Squier VM

Compare the toggle switch positions. L: 2017 Fender AM-PRO R: 2011 Squier VM

After adjusting her right hand technique, it still seemed uncomfortable. She opined, “If I owned this, I’d have to move the switch.”

Switch clearance may not be as crucial for power chord junkies like myself, but if I’m even a little more animated it becomes an issue for me too. Vigorous strummers, be forewarned.

This seems like a bit of a misstep when even the older Squier Vintage Modified hard tail models had the selector switch higher on the upper horn. Should you wish to move the switch back to the traditional placement, you’ll need to do some extra routing.

Sound

Describing the sound of the new V-Mod Jazzmaster pickups, Vanessa coined the term “magnety.” I can’t say I can come up with a better word for it. They’re hotter, fuller, and snappier than Fender’s more recent designs, and they have a special sort of attack to them that’s really nice.

They are also very bright. Brighter than I expected, and this from a Jazzmaster fanatic. Vanessa favors chimey tones yet found herself rolling off the tone control drastically before she was comfortable. In fact, when she finally handed it off to me I thought, “Oh wow, these are pretty dark pickups!” No, I just hadn’t noticed the tone knob was at 5.

We ran these guitars through a Fender Bassbreaker combo. While Vanessa compensated for the brightness by cranking up the bass on the first channel, I switched over to the second and turned the tone knob to 0. Once I did that, I’d have to say I rather liked them, but bright guitars into dark amps is kind of my thing.

What about the Jaguar? Honestly, neither of us cared for these pickups. They lacked any of the wiry treble or round bass of good Jag pickups, sounding quite honky and almost notched in the midrange. Granted there was only one at GC; I wish there were another to contrast and compare.

The factory-installed treble bleed was subtle yet functional on both models. As for the noise floor, these are single coils so some noise is expected. While the 60 cycle hum was definitely there, I wouldn’t say it was necessarily worse than any other Jazzmaster or Jaguar pickup on the market.

The American Pro Jaguar in Olympic White

The American Pro Jaguar in Olympic White

The stripped-down simplicity of the control schemes ensure these Pro-series guitars will be immediately useful to players unfamiliar with the various rollers and switches. Both guitars have volume, tone, and pickup selector controls, which couldn’t be more straightforward. I was especially happy to see the 4-way Johnny Marr switching included on the Jaguar, which adds the versatility of a series position.

I definitely miss the “Strangle” switch on the Jaguar. Fender replaced the vintage-correct low-cut filter with an out-of-phase setting for the selector’s 2 and 4 positions. Not that I have anything against out-of-phase sounds, I just find a switch that works on all positions more useful than one that works on two. Both may only be situationally useful for most players (it got a shrug from Vanessa) so let’s call this a minor quibble.

Of course, as an avid Rhythm Circuit user, I’m sad at its omission but I’m also enough of a realist to know that not everybody uses the thing. The American Pro series isn’t meant to be a vintage reissue, so some play with the design is to be expected.

Assorted Minutiae For Which I Could Not Devise a Snappy Subheading

Both Jazzmasters had their knobs situated with 6 where 10 should have been, making sorting out preferred settings a bit of a hassle. Strangely, this also matches the Fender promotional photos. In my best Seinfeld I cry out, “What’s the deal?”

None of the three guitars we sampled had their vibrato arms installed, which is a shame because I wanted to find out how the new screw-in collet compared with the push-in variety. I’ve read that there’s play in the arm unless it’s screwed in all the way so that it doesn’t pivot at all, but I wasn’t able to confirm or deny such things here. As far as I could tell, the rest of the trem is the same as those found on AVRI reissues, so it should be stable and smooth enough.

I did strum a chord and pushed down on the vibrato with my index finger, and it seemed to hold tune just fine on both Jazzmasters. The Jag had tuning problems due to a poorly-cut nut, popping and pinging with every turn of the machines.

The Verdict

When I first heard rumblings of these fresh takes on my Fender favorites, I was really looking forward to trying them out. I like that Fender have something in their catalog that bridges the gap between the affordable import lines and the more expensive US vintage reissues, trading some traditional features to hit the $1499 price point. Simplifying the control scheme also helps these guitars appeal to the no-nonsense crowd.

Vanessa and I both agree that the Fender American Pro Jazzmaster and Jaguar are fundamentally good guitars, especially for the price. They felt and sounded great once dialed in, and most importantly, we had fun trying them out. We had some very minor complaints overall, but very little that would stop us from recommending them. The only possible deal breaker is the string spacing issue, but that could be easily corrected by swapping the bridge for a Mastery or Staytrem, which so many of us do already. Just like the impending new year, everything’s different but nothing is different at all.

Overall, these guitars are worth your time to check out, so grab one and see what you think. My critique notwithstanding, I still want to bag one for myself!

A big thank-you to Vanessa for offering some impressions on these new instruments. Follow her on Instagram, buy her music, see her live. She’s so good. Guitar shopping with friends, is there anything better?

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Breaking Panera Bread with Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics

Dirge Edit
In my 33 years on this planet, I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than an hour at a time in a Panera Bread. Yet here I am, two hours in and hoping that my time here will soon come to an end.

It’s grey and cold outside; the bitter Pennsylvania winter greeted me the minute I stepped off the plane two weeks ago, and since then I’ve come to the startling realization that, no matter how well I think I’ve packed, I never seem to bring enough cold weather clothing. I am freezing, and I am ashamed.

On this particular day––this particularly cold day––I’m meeting my friend Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics, a guy who’s creating pedals that grind, quake, rattle and break amps, which is a fitting description of any clever device that calls itself Dirge.

He arrives about an hour later, apologizing profusely, and by this time I have inside jokes with each of the Panera staff. We’d grown close in those three hours; I’ve walked with them through life, watched as their kids left for college, cried with them at the loss of a family member, and attended four bar mitzvahs and two birthday parties. That’s grossly hyperbolic, but a cashier noted that I had been there a long time and I winked and told her, “I didn’t have a beard when I came in here.” Nailed it.

Thing is, Evan’s tardiness is neither true tardiness nor his fault; when we made plans earlier in the week, he was up-front about the nature of his job––Evan’s day job is selling doors to home improvement retailers––and that he often has to stay longer at a particular store location to train employees on the features and installation of said doors. I knew this going in, and for some reason, I thought, “I’ll just show up early” as if I were known for punctuality. What the hell. So really, it’s my fault for sitting there for so long, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Evan collected himself and had a sandwich, we breezed through the usual smalltalk rather quickly. It was going well, his day was meh, family’s good, etc., etc. It took little time for us to get acquainted, and soon we’d touched on guitar companies we like, bands we would die for, and most importantly, how Evan got into the pedal biz.

IMG_0013Before circuit bending and pedal vending, Evan (aka Skullservant on Instagram and other forums) began his career by listening first, homing in on the sounds he found compelling. Around the age of 13, Evan discovered Noise, a genre with the most appropriate designation ever. He cites Merzbow as a huge influence, speaking with exuberance about the impact of those sounds on his young mind. “I’m still trying to collect all of the Merzbow records, even though it’s impossible. He has, like, 300 of them out there.”

But it was his first rig, a Dean Vendetta guitar and a Digitech Death Metal pedal, that got him curious about creating his own sounds. He messed around with circuit bending, starting with toys, and soon did the same to his pedal, creating weirdness any way he could. Eventually, Evan found he had the knack for bending, and began acquiring loose boards to aid in his experiments.

“When I started, I would get circuit boards from places and just modify the hell out of them, just add as much stuff as I could cause it helped me learn. I got the basic circuit down, now here’s how I can expand it.”

And that’s what makes him attractive to so many players: expansion. Evan doesn’t shy away from requests, and any opportunity to twist a familiar design to fit his idea of the perfect sound is one he’ll gladly accept. His first commissions came from the I Love Fuzz community, where Evan would post his latest builds. Interest quickly built up around his work, and forum members started asking for specific builds based on what more traditional circuits were missing.

In short order, Evan’s brilliant little boxes began finding happy homes on the boards of some well-known musicians, such as Weezer’s Scott Shriner. Shriner owns Evan’s Dirge Dweller, which is based on the Mad Bean Cave Dweller delay project but with that special Dirge twist. Evan explains:

“One of the limitations of that circuit is the headroom––that’s the limitation of the pt2399 chip in general––so it clips kind of easily. That circuit’s… kind of dark and ambient, which I dig, but I refined it to be a little more bright. It doesn’t have a normal blend control, so I’ve been adding one and a clean boost… You can drive your amp with this delay.”

Evan originally made his ideal Dirge Dweller for himself, with every expansion he could think of crammed into the enclosure. But when the bassist of one of the biggest bands out there comes around, you definitely don’t want to make him wait. “Scott was like, ‘I want you to build me one’ after I had just finished that one. So I was like, have mine. He likes it a lot.”

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One of Dirge’s three-in-one pedals, with RAT, Boost, and Comp pedals in one convenient design.

Expansion, elevation… that’s what makes Dirge stand out to me; all of Evan’s designs seem to have a common thread that runs through them, and that thread is “more.” When he takes a custom order, or evaluates a common design––a RAT for example––and he asks himself, ‘How can I take this and elevate it?’ The last RAT-style pedal he did included a custom tone stack, clipping options, and an expression jack for external gain control. For Evan, there’s no such thing as too much, at least within reason. What’s his benchmark for reasonability?

“I like people looking at my pedals and saying, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”

In fact, there was a period of time where Dirge pedals seemed to toy with their users, daring them to forget how they define things like ‘volume’ and ‘tone’. He used to leave controls unlabeled so that players could find their own way instead of relying upon familiar old settings.

“It’s cool seeing how they’re put to use,” he gushes. “I might not be into that type of music, but it just completely opens my mind up to how something can be used. I might have an idea for a modification to a circuit and they end up using it in a different way than I had intended.”

Evan’s goals as a pedal maker aren’t exactly in-line with most other manufacturers, who turn out product after product to reach as many players as possible. Evan prefers to keep his operation small, focusing on custom orders. “I honestly have more fun [doing custom orders]. I enjoy being able to just cycle through circuit boards, that’s really zen, just loading circuit boards, but at the same time there’s something special about having a story behind every single custom pedal that I’ve made.”

Working from custom order business model allows Evan to create something very player-specific, and he can guarantee that the pedal he makes for you will be something no one else has. It’s not just about churning out pedal after pedal, it’s about dreaming something up and putting it out into the world. “I remember building every single one. It’s been fun to see where they end up, where they travel and what’s happened to them.”

But what makes Dirge stand out isn’t just the sound, it’s also the look. His art style is chaotic, often consisting of squiggly, concentric lines that never touch but form patterns like ripples on a lake, but the lake is made of wide-ruled notebook pages and the ripples are colored inks from ballpoint pens. The artwork sells his pedals just as much as the sounds.

Looking at some of his work, you almost expect to see lewd drawings of his former Social Studies teacher, or some band logos scrawled around the edges, maybe a few romantic check boxes. There are frequent appearances of coffins, skulls, and scythes, and while there’s definitely a Jr. High aesthetic in play, it’s in earnest and gives his pedals the excitement of discovering heavy music for the first time all over again.

However, Evan’s not stuck in a particular idiom; he once made an Ibanez Bottom Booster in a Unicorn-adorned enclosure. He’s done hand-drawn Big Muff enclosures with the word “DIRGE” across the front, and even has some really nice etched looks to brag about. And while his pedals often embrace visual simplicity, Evan’s actually a very skilled artist.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

“I used to sit at a desk job all day and just draw ‘cause it was on the phone, I didn’t need my hands for anything, so I would just doodle and that would give me inspiration for the builds and drawings on the builds.” And as for the content of his visuals, Evan confesses, “I don’t know why I turned morbid.”

Having never publicly displayed his art, giving himself creative freedom with his enclosures means he now has that outlet, a way to have his work seen as part of a very specific medium, and one that serves him well. While other artists might have a breakthrough via the blogosphere (can’t believe I just typed that) or a local art show, Evan’s artwork is already touring the world, and thanks to rig rundowns and social media, it’s being seen by thousands of people each day.

When we sat down for our informal chat, Dirge had been on somewhat of a hiatus for a few months. Evan was still finishing a few pedals here and there, but as we all know, real life can sort of take over other interests. Real life, in this case, means having a baby.

“I just wanted to be with my wife as she was going through pregnancy ‘cause there were definitely hard times. At first I would build and she would watch TV or whatever and then as [the due date] got closer I just stopped building and finished up the builds that I could so that I could spend more time with her, and now, spend the time with Hunter.”

Since the birth of his son six months ago, Evan has extended his break from the pedal-making biz, but rest assured, he’ll be back with a renewed vision soon. And when he does come back (potentially later this year) he’ll be making time for a handful of orders every month. “I think what I’m gonna do from here on out is just take one, finish it, another one, finish it, and not take on a bunch at once.”

9763149681_ee1b8b6396He’s also considered doing a production run in the future, but laments that at his level, there may not be a return on that investment. For the foreseeable future, Dirge is going to be a fully custom, very personal sort of company.

So what’s next for Dirge after the break? More tweaks, more modular pedals, and even a few new ideas that have been floating around in Evan’s head. One such idea that excites him is for a special delay pedal he’s been trying to figure out, “…having such a short delay that it almost becomes a sort of cone filter.” Color me intrigued.

While talking to Evan that day, it was clear to me that no matter how he decides to balance life and business, the subject of sound will always be exciting to him. Each time he spoke of a tone he loves or a new pedal he wants to make, the passion with which he approaches Dirge Electronics wells up in him, and he beams. But there is still one thing that eclipses even the pride he feels in his pedals being used the world over:

“Dude, my son is awesome. He’s fucking great. Just fucking awesome.”

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#WEEZERQUEST: A RIVERS RUNS THROUGH IT

Rivers, if you ever read this, I have to apologize. It seems like every article where you’re interviewed or discussed has an eye roll-inducing pun in the title and I just… I couldn’t resist. I promise I’m at least 30% more clever than this. [citation needed]

IMG_5783 - Version 2-impOur ragtag Weezer tribute band My Name Is Jonas Brothers played an absolutely kick-ass gig back on Black Friday, and the crowd was one of the best I’ve ever encountered. People were screaming lyrics, having a blast, and after the show I was told more than once that we sounded just like Weezer in the ‘90s, even that a few concertgoers had been “trying to see us” for some time. That felt special. Then I realized I’ve been slacking, and I know that perhaps tens of you are foaming at the mouth for more insight into our little labor of love.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

WHEN WE BEGAN talking about the idea that would later be #weezerquest (so coined by Instagram follower and frequent commenter Dan Murphy) the only stipulation we made was as follows: Unless we were willing to put in the effort to nail those tones, we may as well not even do it. Look, there are plenty of Weezer tribute acts out there, many of which are really good bands. (At the time of this publication, there are at least three other active tribute acts in Seattle alone) However, we weren’t interested in simply being good; our goal was authenticity.

This meant A LOT of research.

I’ve Got Electric Guitar

Ric's CAR Jaguar (used mainly for cleans, most notably on "Say it Ain't So") and the Les Paul Special DC. Photo source: Weezerpedia

Ric’s CAR Jaguar (used mainly for cleans, most notably on “Say it Ain’t So”) and the Les Paul Special DC. Photo source: Weezerpedia

If there’s one thing Weezer is known for, it’s their towering, nigh-impenetrable wall of guitar, but you might be surprised to learn that the band’s first record (affectionately known as “Blue” by fans) did not rely on humbuckers to get that sound. P90s, actually.

Blue’s heavy sound is almost entirely made up of Rick Ocasek’s ’59 Les Paul Special DC run through Rivers’ distorted Mesa Mark I, as well as a Marshall SL-X for some other tracks. As much as I wanted to remain authentic, I chose early on to strike a balance between Weezer’s thick studio sound and their raw live and Pinkerton-era tones. So, instead of dropping ~$5k on a vintage guitar, I focused instead on the guitar I most associated with Weezer: Rivers’ iconic “Strat with the lightning strap.

Wearing mismatched pickups and a hardtail bridge, Rivers’ famous Blue Strat from the ’94-’01 era was the thing I idolized, so the chance to recreate it was what truly excited me in the first place. The Blue Strat isn’t a stock model, but rather an instrument purpose-built from using parts from Warmoth. It can be seen on the inside gatefold of the Blue album, and in just about every performance and promo shot of the band for 6 or so years. Having thought about that guitar for 20 years, I began collecting any images or notes I could find; there were brief excerpts from mid-‘90s interviews, disposable camera scans, and about 70 blurry screenshots from the “Say It Ain’t So” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” videos to help me nail down the parts I needed to find.

I may have gone completely overboard.

The Hundred Acre Woodshed

Over a very short period of time, I had amassed over 200 reference images. Sadly, other than the pickups, there really isn’t a lot of concrete info to go on, and working off of decades-old blurry photos isn’t an ideal way to view obscure parts. Full disclosure: I’m not bold enough to call up Weezer themselves and ask them if they would weezer BS EDITplease answer my particularly nerdy questions.

In a very short time, it became obvious that Rivers’ guitar isn’t just any Sonic Blue double fat Strat. What I had previously assumed to be a cobbling together of available parts seemed more to me like a completely intentional build, specific to Rivers’ Hair Metal-influenced technique and the perceived shortcomings of his previous instruments. Whether or not this is true is pure speculation, but in following the breadcrumb trail of his prior employs to this guitar, a methodology certainly emerged.

Thanks to the efforts of other Weezer-obsessed fans, and mainly to Weezer Historian and Tech Karl Koch, we are blessed with Weezerpedia, which has, among bios and background info on rare songs, a rather comprehensive equipment timeline for each member. Because of this, I was able to get a basic sketch of the guitar I was replicating.

X-Ray Specs

From photos, we know that The Blue Strat is a hardtail model with 22 frets, rosewood fingerboard, with a tortoise shell pickguard mounted to its blue body. Thanks to Weezerpedia, we also know that Rivers’ chosen pickup combo is a black Seymour Duncan TB59 in the bridge and a creme DiMarzio Super II in the neck, both F-spaced. Watching Rivers switch pickups during televised performances confirmed my suspicions that his electronics were as simple as they could get: a three way switch and a master volume and tone. (Actually, it’s not a tone knob, but we’ll get to that in a bit)

Other parts were more difficult to discern. For one, I could only find one really good shot of the tuners, which only shows me the shape of the buttons, which I combined with a side shot from the “Say it Ain’t So” video to determine that they are Sperzels. A lack of reflections led me to believe they were finished in satin chrome.

Another brief mystery surrounded the control knobs, which I assumed were the usual black V/T combo, but to my surprise, they’re both marked VOLUME. Although I had two volumes on my guitar for a while, I ended up with a “MASTER” knob, which turned out to be from a late ‘70s Fender Starcaster. I thought that was more badass, so I deviated from authenticity there. Booooooooo.

However, one question held up my work longer than any other: “What the hell is that bridge?”

***
Like I said, we know the guitar has a hard tail bridge, and photos of the back of the body clearly show string ferrules. Easy, right? Not at all, really. Compare this everyday hard tail bridge to a screen shot of Rivers playing The Blue Strat:

Bridge Comparison
Seriously, what the hell is that? That fat sustain block tells me it’s some kind of ‘70s/‘80s thing, but without ultra-clear shots, I really didn’t know where to start. In the end, this question stole over ten hours of my life.

I searched high and low for information about the particulars of this bridge, but found nothing. After hours leafing through photo after photo, I turned to Rivers’ metal roots for inspiration. While paging through old Charvel catalogs, I stumbled upon the Jake E. Lee model, which originally had a bridge eerily similar to the one on the Blue Strat, its visual negative twin. That led me to interviews with JEL, and finally, Charvel brass bridges.

Behold ST111: BrassParts
That’s the one there in the bottom right corner. In this shot, it’s unplated, but it has that unmistakable machined sustain block and elongated saddle design not found on any other aftermarket bridge.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, actually finding it was a fool’s errand. I searched over 10,000 eBay listings for multiple search terms like “brass Strat bridge”, “Charvel Jake E Lee” (to which it is similar) and even “hard tail guitar bridge”. Nada. Zip. Big fat goose egg.

IMG_4697I never actually found an exact duplicate of Rivers’ bridge, but thanks to Aaron Pinto from Tumblr, I was able to order a Japanese Allparts replica that was more than adequate for my needs. Though the string spacing is slimmer than on the original Charvel, not to mention that the black plating has already worn off, but it’s close enough in look and sounds unbelievably good.

Don’t worry, though, I’m still looking for that exact bridge.

Building a Mystery

When it came to things like nut width or fret size, I used my best judgment, making educated guessed and allowing personal bias to dictate spec choices.

IMG_4844-impNECK
-Stratocaster
-Maple
-Satin nitro finish
-Rosewood fingerboard
-1 11/16″ nut width
-10”-16” compound radius
-22 frets
-Pearl dot inlays
-Black Corian nut
-Sperzel locking tuners

BODY
-Stratocaster
-2 HB routing
-Sonic Blue finish
-Hardtail bridge option
-WD tort pickguard
-reissue Charvel Jake E. Lee style bridge

ELECTRONICS
-Seymour Duncan Trembucker ’59 F-Spaced (8.3kohms)
-DiMarzio Super II F-Spaced (8.7kohms)
-500k CTS Volume
-250k (275K, actually) tone
-On board distortion from two 1n34a ‘cat whisker’ diodes wired in reverse parallel and in place of a tone cap

Warmoth could not have done a better job with these parts. The body is the exact color I wanted (Sonic Blue can be hard to accurately reproduce in photos, and paint batches can vary in color as well) and the neck was beautifully finished in satin nitro. Surprisingly, they made it out of beautiful flamed maple, which was a nice surprise. The fit between body and neck was tight in the best way possible, and unlike some other companies I’ve worked with in the past, there was no need to modify the pickup routs or control cavities for the parts to be installed. I’ll say that the guard may be a bit too red, so maybe I’ll try for a darker, more brownish one in the future. All things considered, it’s otherwise dead-on!

Impressions:

Before I had even plugged in, I knew it was going to be an especially fun guitar to play. That bridge, though –– THAT was the real secret to nailing the classic Weezer sound.

That massive, heavy brass hard tail bridge makes the guitar sustain and ring out like no other Stratocaster I’ve ever played. Booming low end, snarly mids and loud, rich highs abound, while pinch harmonics just jump out of the thing. Strumming full chords feels totally metal, even when played acoustically. I’ve always preferred hard tail Strats to the trem-equipped variety, but I’ve never heard one quite like this. In Eb tuning, this guitar is beastly.

Plugged into the Fender Excelsior Pro at the shop, more elements of Rivers’ sound started to make more sense, too. Both pickups are a bit more polite than you might expect given Rivers’ wildly overdriven tone, the DiMarzio Super II measuring at 8.7k and the Duncan TB-59 at 8.3k. I was initially worried about the neck pickup being slightly hotter than the bridge, but they balance out surprisingly well in their positions.

With many modern players gravitating toward hot pickups, there is a tendency to default to louder models for thickened tones. I’d argue that there is sound logic in the choice of lower-output pickups when you’re looking to get heavy: muddying up a muddy, loud pickup results in – you guessed it – a muddier sound, but over-overdriving a really clear, not too hot pickup results in this crunchy, thick sound that takes me right back to the golden days of Weezer every time I plug in. Allowing the amp to do most of the heavy lifting really brings out the punchy nature of the guitar.

I’m already a fan of the Duncan ’59 pickup, but I was shocked by the usefulness of such a bright neck pickup. I mean, the Super II is a LOT brighter than I expected, but suddenly those big chords with the low 5th sounded bigger, and some of the solos I loved from Blue sounded more “right” than ever. When I finally plugged into my Marshall rig, this guitar positively shakes the Earth.

On Thin Ice

As mentioned on Weezerpedia, Rivers had a Black Ice module installed in his guitar, a passive overdrive that takes the place of a tone cap and creates a tweed-like drive. It was difficult for me to guess at just how important this feature was to the overall character of his sound.

The Black Ice module as it used to be is a pretty neat little device, but they’ve recently overhauled the design so that more gain is available in different wiring configurations. Originally, I had planned on buying the real thing, but because the old unit had only the one sound, I got lost in all of the wiring options. Then I found this Instructable and ordered some 1n34a “cat whisker” diodes and wired them as described. How does it sound? Unbelievably good! Listen for yourself:

That sounds great, right? I was really surprised at how much I liked it, and I’ve made good use of my secret weapon in subsequent non-Weezer gigs. When covering Weezer songs, I’m using the diode distortion in conjunction with an overdriven amp, thickening the guitar’s voice while slightly dampening the high end. If you’re curious about how it stacks with other gain sources, here’s a video of how the circuit performs when matched with my Crowther Hot Cake. And here’s how it sounds in a live setting!

Letterman Jacket

IMG_5741After our first show just a week after the Blue Album’s 20th anniversary, I decided to have some fun with the many electrical tape designs the guitar wore during Weezer’s touring cycles, thanks to Karl. I picked my favorite design –– specifically, the one seen in the “Say It Ain’t So” video and Weezer’s performance of that song on Late Night With David Letterman in 1995 –– and set about copying it as closely as possible.

I already had plenty of photos, but because of Rivers’ right arm positioning, I couldn’t quite make out what was going on with the black tape at the arm contour, so I traced the lines and their most probable paths. Thankfully, the Letterman performance had a few much-needed camera angles, allowing me to see what happens to the tape as it rounds the Stratocaster’s two horns. I couldn’t be more proud of the end result.IMG_5940

 

AMP RIG

Putting together the perfect amp rig for this was a bit easier than the guitar since not as many ambiguities exist on that side of the project. You can read about the many amp rigs of the band, but as I see it, there are two main amps of note:

As we know from Karl Koch recounting the early days, Blue and the shows and tours surrounding it relied on a Mesa Mark I amp head, one of the earlier ones with the rear-mounted presence knob. This amp is, sadly, long-lost at this point. Some months ago, we happened to take in a Mesa “Son of Boogie” amp that sounded really great, but I’ve just never been able to get on with Mesa amps personally, so I didn’t spring for it. It did sound incredibly close to that early Weezer sound, but I have a bias (amp joke) toward British amps.
imageDuring the ’95 tour and Pinkerton recording sessions, Rivers used a Marshall 30th Anniversary 6100LM head, an amp with three channels, pentode/triode switching, an effects loop and a host of other features that make it extremely versatile. Karl tells that Rivers “borrowed” one from the Cranberries for their Lettermen performance when his SL-X picked up a “horrible sounding hum” and purchased his own shortly thereafter. He gravitated toward channel two, which has three separate modes to cover the sounds of the JTM45, Superlead Plexi, and JCM800/900 era of Marshall sounds. This was his main amp both live and in-studio until 2001, when it was relegated to road use. If you look closely, you can tell that Rivers’ 6100LM is in fact the less-liked 5881/6L6 version.

Up to this point, my amp of choice is actually one that I already owned, my 1979 Marshall 2204 50 watt JMP. While not something Rivers seems to have used live, it has appeared both in-studio and in Brian’s amp rig so it’s definitely in the right wheelhouse. I’ll use it until I can track down the right 6100, but honestly, it sounds perfect for the application.

MOCK! YEAH!

If we’re talking about the Weezer sound, I might argue that Rivers’ towering “mock 8×10” Marshall cab is the real secret weapon. Rivers used a 1968 Marshall model 1990 8×10 sized cabinet that had an offset 4×12 baffle configuration, loaded with two black- and two green-back Celestion speakers. Slimmer side-to-side than the usual Marshall head, this distinctively large cab pushes a lot of air.

I installed a medium Marshall logo to match my head, but it's otherwise an exact replica. Oh, except for the stains.

I installed a medium Marshall logo to match my head, but it’s otherwise an exact replica. Minus the stains, I mean.

Unable to track down a real ’68 8×10/4×12 of my own, I ordered one custom from Florida’s Sourmash Guitar Cabs, a company that makes amazing Marshall-style cabs at insanely affordable prices. They were all too eager to do another 1990 cab, and once it arrived, I was in love. It’s hilariously tall, and with that size comes a LOT of sonic power. Wired up with the same speakers as Rivers’ cab and my 50-watt head, it’s loud and thunderous; a massive cab both in size and sound. It’s my favorite cab, ever.

It’s an intimidating setup, both for myself and the sound techs unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of me loading in before showtime. I’ve actually surprised a few sound engineers with this one, one of whom told me, “When I saw you come in here, I thought ‘Oh no, look at this asshole. He’s gonna blow me out of the room,’ but you actually sounded great!”

I guess we both got lucky that night.

PEDALS

For this project, I’m not relying on pedals the way I normally do, what with my gigantic board and all. For lead boosts, I’m currently using a modified BOSS DS-1 with one of the diodes pulled for more volume. Aside from a TU-2, the only other pedal I’m using in My Name Is Jonas Brothers is my trusty Z.Vex Fuzz Factory to nail the fuzzy, octave-up sounds from certain Pinkerton tracks, such as the breakdown in “Pink Triangle” or the slower post-solo section of “The Good Life”.

That’s it for me. Soon, I’ll take you on a tour through the rigs of Mike Ball (as Matt Sharp) and our guitar player CJ Stout, MNIJB’s Brian Bell!

Like My Name Is Jonas Brothers on Facebook for show updates and pictures of Mike’s dog. And do yourself a favor and check out Weezer’s new record, Everything Will Be Alright In The End. It’s damn good.

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A Note on Gibson’s Recent Price Increase and Spec Changes

Gibson-Brands_white
Earlier this week, Gibson released (or was it leaked?) statements concerning a price increase and changes to most of their models that left most of the guitar community feeling underwhelmed. Now, bear in mind that the source for this announcement was from Gibson’s Amazon.com page, the URL for which is no longer active. Could be a mistake, but our friends at Reverb.com, while unable to reveal their sources, have confirmed that the announcement is indeed genuine. (See comments)

Before we get into it, I want to say that I’m concerned by this announcement but only because I love Gibson’s instruments so much. Sure, we’re way into Jazzmasters and the like here, but I cut my teeth on Gibson guitars. Some of my earliest musical memories are deeply connected to the image and sound of Angus Young’s fleet of SGs, Jimmy Page’s EDS-1275 doubleneck, Johnny Marr’s ES-355, and I’ve always idolized the classiness of a white Les Paul Custom. My first “real” guitar was an early graduation gift from my parents, a black Gibson Les Paul Standard that they picked up for well under street price. And I got that one because high school Michael saw an old photo of Joe Perry playing almost the exact thing. Some of the best guitars I’ve owned were Gibsons, from my ’77 Walnut ES-355 to the ’68 SG Standard I sold to Other Mike for what would become my trusty Jazzmaster. I’ve owned various Les Paul Jrs, a stunning ’59 ES-330, and Gibson J-series acoustics that have blown my mind. My current acoustic is a ’64 J-50 that’s played-in and beat up, but sounds huge; the guitar I sold to fund that purchase was an ’03 J-45, which was the best acoustic I’d ever played until the ’64 came into my life.

My hope in responding to this announcement isn’t simply to complain, but to come from a place of deep respect for a company that’s meant so much to me over the years; a company that, as it seems to this casual observer, has been in decline for some time. This week’s announcement feels like an even steeper descent to me, and though I have little voice on the issue, it felt right to call out what appears to be another major misstep.

Let’s take a look at the text:

“Gibson USA continues to raise the bar of Quality, Prestige and Innovation with the new line up of 2015 guitars. All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system. Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities. The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments. All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire. All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability. To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side. Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal. For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED. In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself. To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

That’s a lot to take in, so let’s go through it piece by piece.

“All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system.”

That’s a pretty huge statement. Note that it says “All Gibson USA guitars…” with three exceptions listed. The above leads me to the conclusion that the Les Paul Custom, SG, Flying V History, Trini Lopez, Les Paul Traditional, Grace Potter V, RD Artist, etc. will all include the G-Force tuning system. Does this also include acoustic models? I ask because the language used is “All Gibson USA” and not “All Gibson Memphis” or “All Gibson Nashville”, without mention of Gibson Montana.

aa430cc388df770d58f3c7bf2eb194a99248353cThe G-Force system (not pictured above) if you didn’t know, is just Gibson’s Min-ETune but rebranded. Part of the evolution of the Robot system, the Min-ETune promised quicker and more accurate tuning with a smaller overall footprint, taking the tuning facilities out of the signal path of the pickups completely. Never a fan of self-tuning guitars personally, I certainly can’t fault Gibson for developing a product, but to force that product onto every model –– a product that most musicians don’t seem to want –– doesn’t seem like a wise move.

As a tech, I’ve worked on plenty of the Robot and Min-ETune guitars, but would you guess that one of the most frequent requests I’ve gotten with the lower-model Robot guitars is to remove the Robot tuners and convert them to a normal guitar? At first, it was because the battery life wasn’t feasible for most touring acts. (I mean, who has time to charge their guitar between sets?) Later, either the owner felt the tuners weren’t dependable or didn’t look good, which I’ve heard quite a few times. The Robot models were fundamentally great guitars, so it wasn’t much of a problem to put them back to, um, regular guitar specs.

LP-Std-HeroOf course, some people find the Robot/Min-ETune guitars to be useful, and that’s great! I knew a guy that used his blueburst first-edition Robot Les Paul and loves it because he can go from Standard to any number of slide tunings he uses on a regular basis. It works for him, and that’s great. However, it seems to be a smaller subset of players that actually want guitars to tune themselves, and offering the Min-ETune as standard across the board doesn’t make me want to purchase a new Gibson any time soon.

“Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities.”

One of the most common complaints players have about factory-fresh Gibson guitars is that the nut isn’t up to snuff. Either the owner isn’t happy with Corian or Tektoid™ as a nut material, or it’s improperly cut at the factory with the strings too high off the fretboard or pinging wildly with string bending. One of the most frequent jobs I take for Gibson guitars is replacing the nut with a hand-cut piece of bone.

61y2CirnMkL__SL1500__zps9c453266_uofv8cThe new Gibson “Zero Fret Nut” is a nut that has an adjustable brass insert that allows the user to fine-tune action without having to use files. (This idea isn’t exactly new; for years Warwick has offered an adjustable nut on some of their models.) The brass insert also mimics the zero fret found on old Gretsch and Teisco guitars, which governed string height at the first fret by being taller than the other frets while doing away with the need for exacting nut shaping techniques. Traditional zero frets also have the added effect of making open notes sound as if they’re being fretted, resulting in brighter tones from open strings. This was also the goal with the brass nut craze of the ’70s and ’80s, a modification that’s largely reversed on most instruments today.

I can see how this new Zero Fret Nut makes sense from a manufacturing standpoint; workers don’t have to spend more time trying to properly slot nut after nut all day long, which takes up time and money. Instead, they can simply use a small tool to raise the strings until they’re at a satisfactory height, then send it out the door. However, we know from Gibson’s adjustable acoustic bridge of the ’60s that having movable parts at such critical points in the string path isn’t necessarily a recipe for great tone. And although there are some players who prefer brass nuts on their guitars, with the market so obsessed with vintage originality and “tone” most brass nuts are tossed with preference for era-correct materials.

As a tech, I can see myself replacing a lot of these next year.

“The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments.”

I’m not going to poo-poo this out of hand, as we’ve all been stuck with too-low or too-high action on a guitar with a TOM bridge and have had to struggle with gripping thumbwheels as hard as we can before the next song starts. The proper way would always be to loosen the strings before adjusting action, but I won’t pretend that not everyone wants to go to that trouble. Of course, thumbwheels aren’t always hard to turn, but anything that makes adjustment easier is potentially a good thing.

The only objection I have to this change is that Allen keys aren’t usually my favorite way to make bridge adjustments, whether it be action or intonation. The Mastery Bridge is an exception to this, being designed with ease of use in mind, but adjusting intonation with hex keys on most other bridges is not fun at all. I’m also curious to how exactly this thumbscrew adjustment works, whether the key inserts at the top or from the side. Without more info, I really don’t know how this might play out.

“All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire.”

As a tech, I’m somewhat glad to hear this. If these factory setups are actually setups, then I’m excited to walk into a shop and play an on-the-rack Gibson and know it’s going to feel great. Factory “setups” are often disappointing, with action left high to hide bad fret jobs, lessening buzz and rattle that shouldn’t be there in the first place. I mean, sure, a percentage of my business comes from fixing factory mistakes, but if this means that a customer can buy a guitar knowing that it feels good, then that can’t be a bad thing. I’ll try to hold off judgement on this until I play one, because the track record for factory adjustments isn’t good.

blog_P1040558-300x221Although I’ve never been too happy with factory PLEK fret jobs, I’m looking forward to seeing what this new program holds for consumers. Again, taking a guitar off the guitar shop wall and knowing it’s going to have perfectly leveled frets is a boon; just this week, one of my tasks is to level and crown the frets of a brand new Gibson, which is disappointing to the owner. I’m also interested by the idea of lower fretwire, because I’m one of those guys that can’t stand jumbo frets, personally.

“All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability.”

Nothing too crazy there. The new oil treatment could be cool, especially when most rosewood necks coming from Gibson right now are incredibly dried-out. I wonder just how much thicker these fretboards will be, but I wonder if they mention it only because of the minor controversy surrounding Gibson using laminated fretboards on models back in 2012. Many players were less than happy about the change (to put it mildly) but in response to questions about the laminates Juszkiewicz said “It actually doesn’t change the sound at all,” and “…actually improves the sound.” He also claimed it will “last longer,” but I guess we’ll see. Don’t be surprised if I politely disagree.

UPDATE: Holy shit, I didn’t even think about this until I scrolled through the conversation going on over at Offset Guitar Forum tonight. Again, the phrase “all models” is used here, which causes alarm when we remember that all models don’t have rosewood fretboards… Does this mean that even Les Paul Customs (which had ebony boards until the Government seizure/Henry and Fox and Friends jamboree of 2012 when Gibson switched to the option of baked maple or Richlite, a synthetic material) will now have rosewood instead? Because I hate to tell you Gibson, but we used to buy LPCs because they have ebony fretboards. Oh man, say it ain’t so.

“To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side.”

Again, not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know that many people are complaining that Gibson’s necks are too thin these days, but I’ll reserve judgement until I have one in my hand –– it’s really not a huge difference. This seems to be a reaction to player feedback on Gibson’s use of binding nibs on the fret ends of most bound models, which never bothered me personally but I’ve heard more than a few players complain that their strings are getting caught between the fret and binding as of late.

“Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal.”

Whoa. Slow down there, Gibson. Don’t go spending all of that precious money on such thick wire! Also, I wasn’t aware that my signal was being interrupted, but there you go. #newjack2015

“For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED.”

This is possibly the most distressing passage from the now-removed Amazon page. With the doing-away of satin finishes, this could mean the end of sub-$1000 Gibson guitars, which I thought were best sellers for the company. Having quality, affordable guitars in the line should be important to both Gibson and consumers, so I’m hoping they’ll be introducing some models that retain the low price tag and quality of the Faded series.

Additionally, the language isn’t specific as to what type of finish the “gloss lacquer” might be, just that it’s lacquer. Hopefully this is just Gibson saying the company will still use nitrocellulose instead of switching to something else like acrylic.

Gibson have been shipping guitars for ages without installed pickguards, so this could be cool or not. How does it work? I don’t know, but we’ll all be keeping our eyes peeled on that one.

“In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself.”

It’s a well-known fact that Les Paul LOVED holograms, so I think we can all safely assume that this is what he wanted. I remember reading an interview where he voiced his distaste for the SG when it came out in ’61, which had a lot to do with the body shape and how they moved the neck pickup away from the neck, but Les also revealed that the main reason he wanted his name off of the guitar was due to the lack of holograms.

“Back in the ’50s I said to Ted [McCarty, Gibson CEO 1948-66] ‘Hey, I like what you got going here. It sounds good, plays alright. But the thing is there aren’t enough goddamned holograms on the thing.’ And Ted scratched his head, because we really didn’t have the technology back then, and we didn’t come back to the idea until they made the laser back in, was it ’60? When they slapped my name on the SG without asking, and I said, ‘Hey, whaddabout them holograms!’ but it was too late. So I had them take my name off.” (Gibson Les Paul Book, Bacon, pg 148*)

I’m sure that, were Les alive today, he would be overjoyed. I’m joking, of course. LES PAUL HATED HOLOGRAMS. He called them “3D-for-Devil pictures.”**

Les+Paul+Dies+At+94+o8Y8pex-Z3Fm
Aside from the new logo looking a bit strange (see the Zero Fret Nut pic above) it is Les Paul’s handwriting and that’s a nice thing to have. This could also be one of the only truly collectable aspects of the guitar, so perhaps this change will work in its favor. Not mentioned in the above copy is that the Gibson Logo is swirly.

“To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

Okay, this is great. No longer will customers have to argue with store staff about how their guitar actually, definitely does come with a case when they want to charge an extra $100 or give them a gig bag.

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All in all, this list of changes is pretty hard to stomach, especially when the one thing left out is just how much the price of guitars will increase. Now, prices do go up over time when manufacturing costs rise, but our friends at Reverb.com note that while a 2014 Les Paul Standard with flame top “…comes in at $2999, the 2015 equivalent will start at $3879, marking a roughly 29% increase.” That’s a HUGE MAP increase. How will it play out? We won’t know until they’re available.

Let me be clear: I love Gibson guitars, but this is crazy. Perhaps consumer feedback on this list of changes could do some good, but I believe they’ll end up doing far more harm than good. It’s never good to add features your customers don’t want when they’ve been asking for simple, well-built instruments for some time.

Like I said before, I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

…or this could all be a ploy to cause us to rush out and snatch up 2014 models. And then I think that perhaps this could all be just a 2015 model year only affair, meaning that things go back to the way they were in ’14. Who knows? Hopefully we’ll get that info soon.

*Not a real quote. I made that up.
**Also, totally not real.

UPDATE 9/24/14: I visited Guitar Center Seattle with a friend of mine tonight, and the store had just received the first shipment of 2015 Gibson guitars. Suffice it to say, all of the above is absolutely true, including the G-Force tuners on every guitar, the Zero Fret nut, and wider necks. I’ll be posting an in-hand review shortly. Until then, look on Gibson’s works, ye mighty, and despair!

 

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Redemption for Matt’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’

IMG_2625-impby Michael James Adams

If you’ve been around the shop at all in the last year, chances are you’ve met the third ‘Mike’ AKA Matt. Matt’s a good friend of ours and Mike Ball’s band mate in The Verb, Goldie Wilson and Elephant Runner. I always thought our little shop was pretty cool, but I can honestly say that having Matt around is a huge boon for us; never has our shipping department run so smoothly, nor have our books looked so pulpy.

Matt’s a fantastic bass player in The Verb and Goldie Wilson, anchoring the low end on his Fender Jazz Bass with an equally thick and loud tone. He’s also a great guitarist, but Matt has had a hell of a time getting everything he wants out of his trusty Telecaster.

Turning Tricks

His Tele, we think, is a bit of a hodge-podge, and so it’s not entirely clear which parts are original Fender and which are from non-Fender sources. It’s a fundamentally good instrument. It’s equipped with an ultra-wide ’50s style maple neck, what we assume to be an alder body (that paint is seriously thick) and standard electronics, save for the pickups: in the bridge is a microphonic ’59 Esquire model from Illusion Pickups, but there was a big surprise in the neck: a gold Gibson Firebird pickup we later discovered was a vintage patent number pickup from the 1960s! Score!

Even with what should be a great pickup combo, the guitar didn’t have quite the tonal options Matt was looking for, so he decided a third pickup was in order. After discussing all of the available options a few months ago, Matt became enamored with the look and sound of the Charlie Christian pickups wound by Jason Lollar. And who could blame him; with a louder, darker personality, we believe the CC would end up being the perfect panacea for the otherwise bright tone of this particular instrument.

“I’m working here! I’m working here!”

IMG_2544-impInstallation of the Lollar CC pickup requires the addition of an oversized, rectangular pickup route in order to fit the vaguely triangular bottom bobbin of the pickup. By a stroke of pure coincidence, our good friend Phil had shown up at the shop some time ago with a set of router templates for–you guessed it–the Lollar CC pickup. Armed with those beautiful plexiglass templates, the hard part of my job was already done!

Aside from the additional pickup, Matt also asked for one of our vinyl record pickguards, this one cut from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. (We’ve taken to calling the guitar that, too.) We also replaced the non-Fender ashtray bridge with a Joe Barden unit with compensated brass saddles and a handy cutout on the treble side, which is something I wish other companies would add as an option.

Here's what it looked like all wired up. We did revise the wiring a few times after this shot was taken.

Here’s what it looked like all wired up. We did revise the wiring a few times after this shot was taken.

Controlling all three pickups is a rather ingenious scheme, and I wish I could say I thought of it all by myself. Matt wanted to be able to retain the familiar Telecaster controls of standard models with the added ability to blend in the middle as needed. Sure, we went through a number of custom wiring ideas including putting the CC on a push-pull pot, using a five-way Strat switch, maybe even a blend knob, but nothing really struck Matt’s fancy. Then Matt had the brilliant idea of using concentric pots just like the ones found on the earliest Fender ‘stack knob’ Jazz Basses. Incidentally, those happen to be my favorite Jazz Basses.

It just so happened that AllParts stocks the proper concentric pots and knobs for that exact Jazz Bass model, with an inner 500K and a 250K on the outside. These are meant to be wired as a combination volume and tone control for each pickup, but we devised something a little more fun: the 250K pots of each control wired together as a standard Telecaster control scheme, and the 500Ks utilized as volume and tone for the Charlie Christian!

“I ain’t a f’real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!”

All wired up, this thing is impressive; the bridge pickup gives you that classic Tele twang and bite, but the Firebird pickup in the neck adds a whole other dimension of paradoxically warm yet bright tone. But that Lollar CC… that’s the star of the show! When soloed, it has a P90 sort of feel but much smoother and darker, and it doesn’t bark as much as it rolls over for tummy rubs. When blended with either of the other two pickups, it’s as if you’re hearing more of the guitar, almost as if the tone is being de-electrified; It’s really something to behold.

IMG_3144-impAfter reassembly, we finally decided the bridge pickup was far too microphonic to be useful, so we gave it a thorough wax bath. Armed with our Goodwill crock pot (which set us back a hefty $4) and a pound of wax, we bathed the pickup for about 15 minutes. I’m happy to report that not only did the pickup perform beautifully when reintroduced to the guitar (quieter than ever!) but we now have enough wax to pot every pickup ever made since the 1950s. I had never considered what a pound of wax looks like, but I can now tell you we have approximately a door of wax.

I also went ahead and cut a new, unbleached bone nut for Matt as the string spacing on the original was just too damn wide. The wide neck is a plus for Matt, accustomed as he is to bass necks, but when both E strings just want to fall off the side of the neck, adjusting the spacing can only be a good thing. And unbleached bone just looks soooooo good.

The end result:

IMG_2919-imp
“You look real nice, lover boy. Real nice.”

Check that out! Pretty sweet, right? I really enjoy doing these one-off custom jobs, and Matt’s Telecaster has never looked, sounded or felt better! Get in touch with us if an off-the-beaten-path custom job is in your future!

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Road Worn? More like Road KILL, Amirite????????***

IMG_2866
Yeah, but no, this guitar did have some problems.

by Michael James Adams

Sometimes the hardest part of the job is fixing previous repairs and mistakes made by amateur techs and hobbyists, quite often done so with the best of intentions. Hell, we all make them, and in this business even good intentions can have disastrous effects. Especially when they aren’t disclosed…

Buyer Beware

My good buddy Art recently picked up a Fender Road Worn ’72 Telecaster Custom from eBay–fantastic guitars with a vintage look and nitro finish–but there were problems with this one that went unmentioned by the less-than-scrupulous seller.

Looking at the guitar, it’s obvious that there have been some changes here: a ’72 Telecaster Custom most definitely comes equipped with a Fender Wide-Range Humbuckers (WRHB for short) in the neck position, and hand-in-hand with that is the pickguard, which we can determine is a replacement due to its having been cut for a standard-size Telecaster neck pickup. (A Dimarzio Area-T in this case) But wait, there’s more!

What may not be so obvious is that there has been plenty of other funny business going on here, but as they say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Most notably, we have the telltale signs of a previously installed Bigsby unit of some kind: filled holes on the top, and the seller claimed, “They all had them.” Yeah, right. More alarming were the holes for the Bigsby/Jazzmaster bridge that’s usually installed along with the vibrato, poorly drilled and filled with wood putty. Knowing that we’d be installing another Bigsby, I prayed they were at least drilled in the right place. SPOILER ALERT: They weren’t. Grr/Argh.

Aside from those issues, the wiring on this thing was absolutely ruined, a solder-drenched mess on each pot and frayed connections all over the place. The pots used weren’t the correct values to begin with, so replacements were in order. Additionally, someone had decided to “relic” the neck even further with a hearty rasp or something, because there were deep gouges on the back that felt positively dreadful to the hand. Smoothing out the neck with 220-400 grit sandpaper and a light refinish made all the difference here.

The Long, Hard Road… Worn

Here’s how we planned to take this guitar from road kill to Road Worn and BEYOND:

  • Dowel and redrill the holes for the bridge IN THE RIGHT #%(*&@#$% PLACE
  • Install more proper pickups. Lollar’s Special-T bridge and Regal WRHB seemed more than appropriate!
  • Install a new Bigsby B7, Bigsby bridge plate and a Mastery Bridge
  • Enlarge the hole in the guard for the new neck pickup
  • Build a new wiring harness (250k x2 for bridge, 1m x2 for neck)
  • Smooth out and refinish the back of the neck
  • Have fun while doing so (no charge)

I prepared our friend for the amount of work and the associated cost with such work and parts, and once we got the go-ahead, it was on. And after a great deal of hard labor, the end result was stunning. Behold:

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And it sounds brilliant. Just, three-dimensional, sultry, smoky and smouldering. Honestly, it’s my favorite guitar in the shop right now! I kind of don’t want Art to pick it up! Yes, Jason Lollar makes amazing pickups, and the Mastery Bridge makes everything better. I’m really proud of this one!

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***I know this is a lame title. I want to say it was intentional, but I can’t lie to you: I’ve had some hot cocoa with tequila and that’s the best I can do right now. Please don’t tell your friends/family/pets that this Adams kid is past his prime. I promise the next article will have a properly humorous but simultaneously enlightening title. Pinky swear.
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Skye’s Jaguar Thinline Gets a Serious Upgrade

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As you well know already, Skye Skjelset (Fleet Foxes, Japanese Guy, Tiger Beat Magazine) often hires us to customize instruments to his exceedingly quirky tastes – he’s like the Zooey Deschanel of guitars. And it’s great.

Mr. Skjelset (Pronounced: shell-set) seems to vacation in Japan frequently, and during his last round of fun under the Rising Sun he picked up this lovely black Thinline Jaguar with the intention of making it ‘his own’.

It’s a huge honor to so often be the M. Ward to his guitar-customizing She, and as such I have a lot of fun letting my mind run wild when we’re talking about specs or ideas for upcoming mods. Although Skye’s only had this Japanese Jaguar Thinline for a few months, we’ve been talking about this job for a quote some time.

Skye had already taken it upon himself to swap the original neck with a mid-sixties Mustang neck, and since the scale length is the same this ensured that worn-in feel without any negative side effects. Our plan was to swap the stock IMG_2098-impJapanese single coils – something I’d almost always recommend anyway – with a Lollar Jaguar neck pickup and a vintage DeArmond/Rowe Siver Foil in the bridge. Nothing too fancy, really.

It’s a good thing Skye wanted a new single-ply guard for this one, because mounting the Silver Foil to the original guard might have required some extra work, given the bridge pickup rout in both guard and body. We ordered the new guard sans-bridge pickup hole from Chandler Pickguards (Pickguard Heaven) and had it in no time. Even without sending a template, Chandler’s work was excellent and the guard mounted without issue.

Honestly, this thing came out so, so good; that Silver Foil is loud, clear, and has this vocal midrange you just don’t hear on most single coils. It blends beautifully with the neck unit, making for an intense, complex middle position that begs for delay and reverb.

So, to recap:

-Installed a Mastery Bridge (yes)
-Swapped in a Lollar Jaguar neck pickup
-Installed the custom-cut pickguard we picked up from Chandler, specially made with no bridge pickup
-Installed the vintage DeArmond/Rowe Silver Foil in the bridge (AMAZING)
-Full set up, and some secret sauce on top

And I know we get these questions all the time, but the Mastery Bridge is the greatest thing ever. Skye’s going to source a vintage vibrato for this one eventually, but for now it’s good as-is!

Here’s some more eye candy for you:

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Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar Featured in Premier Guitar’s “Reader’s Hot Rods”

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Woke up to some cool news this morning! Premier Guitar magazine runs an annual column dedicated to modded guitars, and it’s always an interesting read. I decided to send two of our more recent guitars their way in hopes they’d publish one. Well, guess what: they published them both.

That’s right, Skye’s Skjelstang and John’s Jazzmonster are both plastered on PG’s website! They even quoted me, which kind of sucks because I didn’t really spend much time writing those emails. Blah. Can’t win ’em all. Ah-hyuck.

Check out the article – and the other cool guitars contained within! – here!

CHRISTMAS CAME LATE, BOYS!

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Wiring Upgrade for a Fender Reissue Starcaster

This is the second part of our ongoing “Holy Crap What a Busy Month and Also I’m Lazy” series, in which we’ll detail some of the more fun and noteworthy undertakings of a very hectic, backed-up month. So backed-up, in fact, one might even say Father time himself suffered from a sort of chronological constipation.

Today, I’d like to tell you about this fancy and fantastic Fender Starcaster Reissue. Part of the latest in the line of Modern Player instruments, today’s Starcaster reflects the design elements of a line that echoes the classic shapes we love while nodding to modern tastes – guitars with a vintage look and a tweaked, updated feel.

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While the Starcaster reissue is a fantastic guitar, I have a few personal, OCD-related gripes with the update: I dislike the slightly adjusted shape, the way the neck is inset on the body, the stoptail and the lack of a Master Volume control as found on the 1970s models. I’m also not a fan of Fender’s reissue Wide Range Humbuckers, but I’m so used to swapping out stock pickups for something a little more dependable and tuneful that I can hardly gripe about this.

All that said, this guitar is honestly a LOT of fun to play, and even more fun to behold; truly, as much as I love the old Starcasters, they are increasingly difficult to come by and nigh-unaffordable. Having the chance to play both, I can say that from the standpoint of playability, this reissue is a most enjoyable offering. And super cheap, thanks to Chinese manufacturing.

“Oh I Come from a Land, a Faraway Place”

Our good out-of-state buddy Blake IMG_1964-impcontacted us shortly after he picked up his new Starcaster, wondering about the best way to ‘open up’ his lovely guitar. Blake had already taken it to his tech, who swapped out the reissue pickups for a set of Lollar Regals – his answer to the classic WRHB, highly prized for its darker personality and huge-yet-decidedly-Fender sound. Lollar’s pickups retain the darkness of the originals, but pepper that trait with stunning midrange clarity and a low-mid shift that absolutely kills me. All of this is seasoned to taste with present, yet round highs and a slight kick in the salts to give the pickup a slight hint of tasty PAF goodness. If you can’t tell, I adore those pickups.

Thing is, Blake’s guitar didn’t sound anything like what I just described to you. When he sent the guitar to me, output was about 60% of what it should have been (the pickups are wound to 10.7Kohms but I wasn’t getting any kick out of them at all!) and had a muffled, wildly underwhelming sound that spoke of something amiss in the wiring department. Blake asked what I thought, and in my mind the best solution was to do a complete overhaul on the wiring harness.

Jason Lollar – a man that knows his stuff and makes some of my favorite pickups – recommends 500K pots with the Regals, and I’ve used them with those pickups before to stellar results. However, my preference is for the tried-and-true vintage Tele Deluxe complement of 1 meg pots all around (CTS or Bourns are my choice) which really seems to broaden the tonal spectrum of the Regal pickup. This also seemed to be the logical choice for the muddiness we were experiencing.

Upon getting inside the guitar, I discovered that the guitar came equipped with 500K Alpha pots, which are usually good parts for an offshore guitar. Sadly, the wiring left much to be desired and given the minimal body routing, it became apparent that installing full-size pots might require some extra routing. Still, given the quality of sound coming from this guitar and the rather ramshackle wiring, taking a bit more wood out of the bridge pickup cavity was totally worth the extra work, in my opinion.IMG_1970-imp-imp

I began by building a new wiring harness using CTS 1Meg pots and a ’50s Les Paul wiring diagram – my favorite scheme for getting the most out of any humbucker-equipped guitar. The difference lies mainly in the way the tone cap interacts with the hot pickup signal. With modern wiring, the signal from the pickup hits the first lug of the volume pot and is routed through the tone cap before it gets to the pot, effecting the signal no matter the position of the pot. 1950’s wiring fixes this by feeding the tone pot via the switch instead, allowing more clarity, top end presence and a touch more volume overall.

After installing the new harness with 1M pots and 223 orange drops, this guitar came instantly alive. I hadn’t even really tuned the thing when I struck the first chord, and the guitar, amp and Crowther Hot Cake I was running all greeted me like an excitable puppy. There was that zing, that tightness, that clarity boost I’d been missing. And oh! The glorious, full-figured volume!

That little upgrade took the guitar from decent to stellar, and it really wasn’t much work at all. If you’re feeling like there’s something missing from your tone, try upgrading the wiring harness before you go crazy with all manner of pickup swaps and cable tryouts. Full-size pots, quality caps and the right scheme can very well make all the difference.

Again I say CHECK IT:

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Introducing the Skjelstang: Difficult to Pronounce, Impossible to Put Down

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A few months back our good friend Skye Skjelset of Fleet Foxes’ fame (also a stint in The Walkmen and his noise/free jazz band Japanese Guy) contacted us about wanting to build another custom guitar, and we couldn’t have been more delighted. See, we’ve done a lot of work for the Foxes and their various other projects, and each of those guys has amazing taste in gear, both vintage and custom. Any time we can help someone realize their vision – whether it’s world-touring acts or weekend warriors – it reminds us why we even do this job in the first place: we love music, we love guitars and we love people.

You may remember the last guitar we built for Skye some time ago: a four-pickup monstrosity of a Fender Jazzmaster lovingly dubbed ‘The Skyemaster’ complete with a vintage neck and vibrato, Mastery Bridge and two Lollar Jazzmaster pickups with a Gold Foil in the middle position and a Novak lipstick pickup behind the bridge. Let me tell you, what a guitar! The sounds one can coax from that beast are nearly endless, from your standard punchy Jazzmaster fare to amp-killing, raucous sound from the ‘foil and even ghostly, far-away eeriness from the BTB unit. It’s an unbelievable guitar and you can hear it on Japanese Guy’s latest release.

IMG_0916-impAs you can imagine, Skye was already having some big ideas for his ‘new’ guitar based on the Fender Mustang: ‘Stang body, 24” neck and three pickups, loosely inspired by the Mustang Thurston Moore was seen with back in the ‘90s. Skye had loved that guitar since high school (and who hasn’t!) and wanted something close to this ‘hero’ guitar.

We deliberated for weeks over specs – pickups, electronics, switching options, necessary tones and how to get them, and any little touches that would make this guitar truly his. Skye’s tastes, however bold they may be, are decidedly vintage in look and feel, so instead of sourcing a new body with custom routing, we were able to procure a vintage ’65 Mustang neck and a refinished body of similar vintage. (We did have to talk Skye out of buying an absolutely beautiful, original black ’65 Mustang for this project, citing our refusal to start removing wood from an otherwise perfectly-kept piece)

Here’s what we came up with:

  • vintage body, neck and hardware
  • three Lollar Blackface pickups (with deglossed pickup covers for that aged look)
  • custom switching that would allow the outer pickups to be selectable independently of the middle unit
  • 1 Meg volume and a 250K tone for the bridge and neck pickups
  • a Mustang three-way slider switch (on/off/phase) for the middle pickup and an individual roller volume for it in the other pickguard slot (1 meg)
  • Mastery Bridge (of course!)
  • a modified Jazzmaster vibrato arm
  • an aged mint green vintage-style guard from our friend fenderparts, which I later modified for the middle pickup and roller volume and toggle switch

The end result is elegant of the above list turned out to be a little mysterious and very punk rock. Honestly, nailing down the basic specs for this build was the easy part. Figuring out just how to make all of this work required some more thought. Read on for in-depth details on how we created “The Skjelstang!” (Pronounced: shyell-stang)

BODY SCULPTING

As you might expect, we had to remove quite a bit of wood to make this custom pickup scheme fit properly. Adding a middle pickup and a toggle switch to a Mustang means removing a lot of wood, but using a Jazzmaster-style roller volume bracket required not only more routing, but modifying the metal bracket for the usual rhythm circuit controls.IMG_0777

It seemed that the best place for the roller control was between the middle and neck pickups, given that the spacing between the bridge pickup and the slider switch was already so tight. I took out about 40% of the wood left between the neck and middle pickups to accommodate, and I took the wood down to just below the original routing depth to ensure that everything would fit three-dimensionally.

As for the bracket, I cut it in half and drilled new holes for proper mounting screw placement, then cut a channel in the middle of it for the roller disc to pass through. Because of the placement of the pickguard and the slot for the slider switch, I had to get creative with how we were mounting the mini Alpha pot to the bracket, flipping it around so the disc was on the inside of the bracket with the potentiometer’s casing facing the pickups.

ELECTRONICS

Certainly there are many ways to have the pickups working independently of one another, but serving Skye’s needs was the first priority. Initially we thought using a Jaguar switching plate to be the best option; the three on/off switches usually found on Jags could be repurposed to accommodate three pickups instead of the normal 2 pickups and ‘strangle’ switch combo, a modification which we’d done before with the Skyemaster. We also discussed using a ‘Wronski’ plate, so-called because of surf legend Dave Wronski’s custom blade switch plates on his guitars. Then there was the control plate found on the Kurt Cobain Jaguar, which has a toggle switch and an on/off switch for the strangle.

After discussing all of this with Skye, none of the above options were going to work; yes, Skye needs the third pickup to be independently selectable, but he was also hoping to be able to blend it in with the others regardless of pickup selection. This presented a slight challenge with respect to both wiring and space, but in the end I’m really proud of our solution.

IMG_0917-impOn the bass side of the Mustang body, you’ll usually see two three-way slider switches which govern the pickups. These switches not only turn the pickups on or off, but the third position reverses the phase of each unit, enabling more tones than a more simple layout might produce. This is one of the coolest things about Mustangs in my opinion.

Gleaning inspiration from both of the aforementioned guitars, we came up with a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario: both neck and bridge pickups are wired to the toggle first, then to the lead circuit controls just as you might find with a Jazzmaster.* The middle pickup is wired to its volume roller, then to the three-way slider so Skye can still control the middle volume independently while still opting for specific phase settings. The lead and middle circuits meet at the output jack, allowing the user to blend the middle in as needed or to cut the other pickups so the middle can be used independently. Pretty great!

*this, of course, is doing away with the rhythm circuit entirely

PLAYABILITY

IMG_0926-impThe vintage Mustang neck on this guitar has a 24″ scale, 7.25” radius fretboard, a new bone nut hand-cut by yours truly and original frets. I’ve dressed them, but in the future we may re-fret the neck altogether depending on how Skye feels about the guitar in a few months. And honestly, there’s only a little life left in those frets, so it’s better to do that sooner rather than later given the Foxes’ recording schedule. We’ll see.

As with all of Skye’s offset guitars, it was obvious that we’d be installing a Mastery Bridge. In our opinion, the Mastery Bridge is the best aftermarket upgrade you can get for your offset guitar so you can imagine that it not only sounds great but plays superbly with this bridge installed. Speaking of sound…

SOUND

Usually, a Mustang has two flat-pole Stratocaster-style pickups mated to the usual 250K pots. On the Skjelstang we used a 1 meg volume and a 250K tone coupled with a .047uf Orange Drop capacitor, which gives the guitar the ability to get VERY bright should Skye require it. His other guitars are mainly Jazzmasters and Jaguars, so this isn’t out of left field for him. We originally went with 1 meg controls for both volume and tone, but the result was so shrill that even my initial test run with the guitar was a painful exercise. Stepping down the tone to 250K really warmed it up, even at 10 on the dial. I would estimate that rolling off the tone 20-30% approximates more standard Mustang sounds.

Now that the guitar’s fully assembled and finalized, I can tell you that I enjoy immensely the addition of that middle pickup on this guitar. I would never refer to Mustangs as tonally limited, but I’m surprised at how much adding the extra pickup has opened up the sonic landscape of this instrument. Yes, having the middle paired with the neck or bridge pickup elicits quacky, nearly Stratocaster sounds, but the short scale of the Mustang combined with heavy strings makes for a more springy, unique tone. Running all three pickups together sounds HUGE, and reversing the polarity of the middle pickup makes for some entertaining rhythm sounds and haunting leads. Endless fun can be had here, folks.

At the end of the day, it’s all about serving the needs of the player, and in this case I feel as though we’ve hit the nail on the head. Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t change anything about the guitar down the line – we’ve made more than a few alterations to the Skyemaster, catering to whim after whim as Skye became more familiar with both the instrument as his personal needs. We fully expect some tweaks to happen, but in terms of taking the original concept and bringing it to life, I don’t think we could have done a better job!

Seriously, this thing is wild!

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