Tag Archives: guitars

New Gear’s Resolutions: 10 for 2016

DSC01741_2 - Version 2-impEarlier this week, my wife and I sat down on our all-too-comfy couch to look back on the year and make plans for the next. 2015 was crazy, right? But it was good to take stock of 2015 and have hope that 2016 might be full of more surprises. And while making my personal list of resolutions with joy and sobriety, I started thinking about the world of guitars and guitar-related ephemera.

2015 had some ups and downs just like any other year, from Gibson’s calculated-yet-consumer-pleasing move to return to their roots as far as robo-tuners and the like are concerned, as well as the sadness of losing greats like B.B. King, Lemmy, Chris Squire and others. So, while looking back at this crazy year, I started wondering about what resolutions I might suggest for the world of gear in 2016, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

10) Let’s Be More Helpful

There is nothing I love more than seeing musicians helping other musicians come up. Whether it’s a recommendation that helps another guy or girl land a gig, or a shop like ours stepping in with spare equipment when something unexpected happens, the guitar community can truly be wonderful. Let’s keep that up!

9) Realize Competition Can Be Healthy and Friendly

I am so thankful for our fellow guitar shops in Seattle. Every time we attend the SEATAC Guitar Show, one of the first things everyone does is get together, shake hands, check out each other’s gear, and maybe, buy and trade a few things. In fact, the most fun we’ve had at a guitar show was going out for drinks with our good pals at Thunder Road Guitars. We spent two hours swapping stories, marveling at acquisitions we made, and plans for the future, and we did so while laughing our asses off. Frank and co. are great people, and they run a tight ship over there. We have the utmost respect for them!

And that’s not to mention the many, many other shops we partner with to get gear sorted out. We all visit each other’s shops, catch up, recommend when we don’t have a particular part or piece of gear available, and treat each other with respect. It makes the whole gear chase even more absurdly fun than it is already!

8) Let’s Celebrate Artists Before They Die

When we suddenly find ourselves mourning a beloved musician, it’s common to see tributes popping up all over the place, and that’s great. Of course we should celebrate the life of an artist and how their work affected our own. Sometimes I come away from it all wondering how cool it would have been to do that before the tragedy.

Yes, it’s impossible to predict the future, and in the case of music legends, they’re plenty celebrated as it is. B.B. King was universally known as “king of the blues,” and rightly so. Two weeks before he passed, Lemmy had his 70th birthday party at Hollywood’s Whiskey A Go Go with friends and fans alike, which included a performance.

But what about Ben E. King or Percy Sledge, two greats that I haven’t heard anyone talk about in a long time up to their deaths in April. I mean, I get it; staying relevant as an artist certainly contributes, but if you sang “Stand By Me” or “When a Man Loves a Woman” respectively, that’s worth remembering and honoring.

I think, personally speaking, if I like a piece of music or an artist, I’ll make sure I say so.

7) Try Some New Things

You my favorite thing about playing the guitar? The fact that, while you can be a technical master or a fretboard wizard, there is literally always something new to learn. Maybe you sat down to practice a scale and accidentally held the pick wrong, but now you’re getting a sound you didn’t expect. Perhaps a friend left his Whammy pedal at your house and that 4th/5th setting is inspiring the hell out of you. This year, I discovered how to bend strings behind the bridge on my Jazzmasters, enabling some super-authentic pedal steel bends. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m still figuring out how to use it effectively, but it keeps me going.

With the guitar, the ocean of musical possibilities is vast, and if you’re ever stuck in a rut, it’s relatively easy to find ways of snapping yourself out of it. Try a new pedal, buy a pick made of stone, change up your string brand, twist your amp knobs in new and terrifying combinations, maybe pick up a cheap guitar that would drive tone snobs crazy.

6) Stop Labeling Gear by Musical Style

There is no such thing as a “country” guitar or a “surf” guitar, but some people seem to believe that you can only play certain styles on certain instruments. That’s silly.

I’ve had my mind blown by an old man playing squeaky-clean country on an EMG-loaded Schecter. I once saw a girl that made the wildest noise-rock I’ve ever heard with a ‘50s Gibson ES-125 with P90s. One of my favorite punk-metal players of the ‘90s used 100% stock American Standard Telecasters and sounded heavy as hell doing so. I remember reading an article by a guitar guru where he wrote, “You can’t play blues on a Jaguar.” Bullshit! Hendrix did it. Or better yet, let’s throw jazz into the mix! Google ‘Joe Pass Fender Jaguar’ and you’ll bring up some incredibly smooth tones coming from one of the finest players on one of the most misunderstood instruments ever.

The point is, you can literally play anything you want on any guitar. In an age where everything is at our fingertips, for every person saying “you can’t play x music on y guitar” we can find hundreds of examples of someone doing that very thing.

5) Down with Blanket Statements

Going hand-in-hand with the last point, I’d like to add that many of the oft-repeated maxims we hear in the gear world are not always true, and hard opinions are often just that: opinons. Stop me if you’ve heard these before:

“Adirondack is the only good top wood.”
“Squiers suck.”
“Ugh, ‘70s Gibsons are the worst.”
“Long magnet PAFs are better than the short kind.”
“The Prequels were bad movies.”

I think we’ve all heard these time and time again, and thanks to the internet, they spread like wildfire through forums, sparking arguments and pissing contests at guitar shops around the globe. Here’s the thing: sometimes, you can see where some of these things come from.

For instance, are 1970s Gibson guitars bad? Well, it’s true that when Norlin took over, quality control did suffer, and things like three-piece necks and heavy woods make them less desirable to collectors than their 1950s and 1960s counterparts. All of that is true, but does that automatically make them bad guitars? Not at all! Go try a few out and you might be surprised.

The simple truth is, there’s more than just one good wood for a guitar top, Squier had some great models (like the Vista Series) and is making great guitars these days, a good guitar is a good guitar no matter when it was made, some pickups sound great regardless of magnet length, and the Prequels weren’t––well, okay, so that one’s true.

4) Stop Equating Gear with the Skill Level of a Player

Too often, musicians are ridiculed because of their “budget” or “substandard” gear. Just because you can’t afford a $3,000 vintage guitar doesn’t mean you’re a bad player. Some of my favorite bands use cheap gear, and they’re great players as well.

Example: Don’t really care for Epiphone guitars? Totally valid opinion! I applaud your experience and would love to hear your thoughts. Roll your eyes at the kid toting an Epiphone case to a gig? Think using anything less than a real Gibson means they aren’t real musicians? That’s a ridiculous assertion, and I hope the kid you’re talking about is better than you.

3) Stop Telling Bass Players They Can’t Use A Pick

Seriously, just stop. You can’t even talk about playing bass anymore without someone screaming “REAL BASS PLAYERS DON’T USE PICKS!!!” This old argument is almost as tired as the word “tone” these days.

See also, Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, Lemmy, Noel Redding, Chris Squire, etc. etc. etc.

2) Stop Comparing Your Skills to Others

When I had students, one thing I heard come out of the mouths of frustrated novices was “I’ll never be as good as ____.” Not only does something like this needlessly discourage the student from realize his or her potential, it’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of the way music and art actually work. My answer was always this:

“Music is a grid, not a ladder.”

When we speak about something abstract like skill level, I think we tend to over-simplify and visualize the thing like a straight line, a progression from point A to point B, measuring our success like a ruler.

Creative outlets, however, don’t work like that at all. Where one player could be a shredding metal virtuoso, another could be a master of wringing atmospheric sounds and minor chords from her instrument. This player might have perfect pitch, but that one is fully content being able to play songs at church. He might think Lou Reed is God, but she finds herself in more of a Gilmour or Zappa kind of place. All are valid.

In each case I’ve come up with, the player in question could have conceivably reached his or her goal. And truly, art should never be a checklist to complete so you can say, “That’s it, I’ve done all the art.” Yes, it’s good to have heroes, and if there’s a player that personifies the place you’d like to be, of course, use them as inspiration. If your goal is to play loud power chords in a four-piece rock outfit, that’s great! If you want to give Steve Vai a run for his money, then I wish you well on your journey.

Just remember that it’s not about who is above or below you on the skill ladder; on a grid, you’re over there, she’s up here, and I’m somewhere on the left.

1) Sexism

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The guitar world has always been a boy’s club of sorts, with female musicians often used as set dressing, their bodies co-opted to boost sales and are otherwise overlooked for no reason other than their sex. I mean, how often have you heard the phrase, “pretty good for a girl” used to describe female guitarists? In my line of work, all the damn time.

I’ve worked with many female musicians, both as a tech and as a musician myself, and hearing about and experiencing the marginalization of women in shops or at shows is infuriating. I’ve seen sound guys turn up the wrong guitar during a song because “chicks can’t solo.” I’ve seen guitar shop employees outright laugh at female customers asking genuine questions about a guitar they wanted to buy. Or take some big guitar hardware manufacturers and organizations that have “sexy girls” included in their logos for no flipping reason. I mean, check out the ads for the most recent LA Amp Show! What does this even have to do with guitar amps???

What about the bassist of my former band, a good friend that, without fail, would have to endure shouts of “show us your tits” at every gig we played. It didn’t matter that she was good, that she was fierce, or that she was freaking classically trained. She was a woman, and because of that, she was treated like garbage everywhere we went. There were times that other male band members had to keep close to her because creepy guys were making her feel incredibly uncomfortable. They would back off when we said so, but never when she told them. That’s messed up, and it’s an all-too-common tale.

You can’t even post a photo of a woman playing music without the dumb comments rolling in. Do me a favor, and scroll up to the screenshot of the girl playing bass above. The original Facebook post by Ampeg features Laena Geronimo from The Like, and even without anonymity, these guys can’t resist spouting off whatever lewd comment they can think of. (And in a shocking two-birds twist, the first comment is about her using a pick. Ugh.)

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Or what about this post from Gibson? In no time at all, this woman sharing a shot she really liked of herself posed with her favorite guitar was met with

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I mean, come on. I can’t believe these guys took the time to type out this nonsense without taking  a moment to ask themselves, “Does anybody need to read this?” Even crazier is the fact that it would have taken less time to click the link above and discover that this woman that Travis doubts is really a guitar player IS REALLY A GUITAR PLAYER. And a damn good one at that.

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Luckily (finally) it seems like people are starting to wake up. Discussions are taking place, women are sharing their stories and fighting back. In 2015, I was introduced to a magazine called She Shreds, a guitar mag for women and by women. Interviews, gear reviews, tech tips and editorials all written with women in mind. Even the ads in the magazine are thoughtful, showing women actually playing guitar and retaining their agency. I am so thankful it exists. READ THIS MAGAZINE.

In 2016, be mindful of how these kinds of comments, attitudes, and routines described above make the guitar world less inclusive and less safe for women. And better yet, be open to hearing from women how these things make them feel. Men, educate yourselves.

So please, can we have less of this

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And more of this?

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I would also like to say that it makes me sad that Annie Clark of St. Vincent has not been on the cover of a guitar magazine.

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Boutique Builders and the Offset Vibrato: A Trem of Great Import

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I spend the bulk of my professional life thinking about offset guitars, from the next way in which I’ll be able to explain solutions to the myriad perceived bridge issues, to my idea of the perfect Jaguar, to mods and possible set up techniques I’d like to explore on one of my own. These guitars have been a huge part of my career, and I’m happy to say that recently I’ve discovered that I have a nickname among some enthusiasts: “The Jazzmaster Guy”.

Yes, dear reader, you likely know already how obsessed I am with these models, and in the same way that some proudly identify with a political party or religion, I wear my love of these quirky guitars as a badge of honor. If elections were held to determine the supreme guitar ruler of the world, I would firmly be in the Offset Party. I would totally rock a “Jazzmaster 2016” or “Jaguar 2016” bumper sticker. In fact, that might be worth putting some effort into.

Recently Summer NAMM took over the Music City Center in Nashville as well as our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. Gear lovers had a lot to look forward to, with new offerings from boutique and indie guitar, pedal, and amp makers as well as updated models from the big boys, and even if you weren’t able to attend in person (like me) there were plenty of goodies showing up online to satisfy even the most stodgy of enthusiasts. Among said goodies were plenty of models in the offset tradition, which is something that should have elicited more excitement in me than I actually felt.

It’s true: everyone makes an offset guitar these days, and how could we begrudge them that? These guitars have never been more popular, what with the spate of indie bands, aftermarket parts like the Mastery Bridge, and Nels Cline’s mind-altering musicianship, new Jazzmaster and Jaguar models (as well as variations on the theme!) are flooding the market at rates never before seen or anticipated. What was once a bargain-barrel, “crappy” guitar is now every bit as coveted and hallowed as some of the other most successful and idolized guitar models out there.

But with all of the complaints levied against these models (all of which we disputed and dispelled in our Demystifying series) one would expect that new offerings would perhaps understand not only the setup techniques involved in making these guitars play as Leo Fender intended, but also the very real affect of sub-par parts on the tone and functionality of these amazing, misunderstood instruments.

And that’s what concerns me about these upmarket models and fresh takes on famous designs, that there appears to be a disturbing trend in the “boutique” guitar market far more pervasive than relic finishes, self-tuning guitars, and ultra-hot gimmicky pickups:

$2000 guitars with cheap import hardware.

Offset Apart

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My favorite iteration of the offset vibrato: the Pat Pend unit found on my ’61 Jazzmaster.

Many builders these days have homed in on the hot, hot, hot market share the offset body design has carved out for itself. Never more popular or readily available, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar-like body designs invading stores and internet forums alike are often as enticing as they are expensive. Offsets are being turned out in huge numbers these days, and so even small builders are looking to remain competitive in this not-so-niche market, and in order to stay that way, some builders are quietly installing inexpensive hardware on their guitars. And because we’re seeing this practice so often, these expensive custom guitars don’t perform nearly as well American reissues offered by the big company with the F-logo. I find that to be inexcusable, and too often, guitar makers are ignoring what I would argue is the most important piece of hardware on the guitar in terms of tuning stability: the offset vibrato tailpiece.

If you’ve read our Demystifying series, then you know that, when properly set up, Leo Fender’s offset vibrato design works flawlessly. Seriously, take a moment to read those articles, then come back to this one with your mind blown, and thus, more open. The offset vibrato is so popular right now for a reason, and that reason is, it’s stable as hell. When well-maintained, I can do more and get more out of the offset vibrato than I can with just about any other unit on the market, and although it may not ‘dive bomb’ the way a Floyd Rose does, how many non-locking trems do you know of where you can depress the bar the whole way, strings flopping about, then release and have it come straight back into tune? 

(For the record, I also love Gibson’s equally maligned Lyre Vibrola, Bigsbys, Rickenbacker’s Accent, and the tailpieces found on old Silvertone guitars. Sorry for answering my own question.)

But hold on a sec, the above statements come with a disclaimer: I’m only referring to vintage and US reissue tremolo units. There is no import part on the market that works as intended.

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From Allparts.com

I’m quite honestly shocked at the number of high end offset guitars at SNAMM  equipped with the unbranded offset vibrato, a unit that can be easily obtained from many parts suppliers yet is never worth even its modest cost. The reasons I’m so down on the ubiquitous, no-name import trem unit is that the parts are made from pot metal, poorly machined, and are generally bulkier in design. They also happen to have arms with the least graceful bend imaginable, something that I’d contend is as much a part of the feel of the trem as the spring.

See, not only are there issues with arms spinning freely, collets breaking and never quite locking-in properly on those units, they also just don’t stay in tune as well as those made in the America. Parts that don’t fit properly together mean that the unit won’t return to pitch or “zero out” perfectly. They feel cheap, and comparing one of these import trems with the real thing, one can plainly see the stark difference in quality between them.

Recently, my pal Jessica Dobson of Deep Sea Diver brought in a new guitar for a setup and to install new pickups, and as part of a setup, I always ensure that the trem unit functions smoothly and accurately. In the case of this instrument and many like it, the vibrato wouldn’t return to pitch even when properly set up. I removed and dismantled the unit, and saw something that I’d seen many times before.

IMG_2590In viewing this photo from my Instagram feed, you should be able to see that the pivot plate on this Asian-import trem is sloppily manufactured, and it’s not just this particular one! Every single one of these I’ve ever worked on is malformed in some way, leaving the hope of tuning stability a pipe dream at best. Now, this can be corrected to some extent by doing as I did here, grinding away the excess material until the plate was left with sharp edges and equally smooth contact points. And while this does ensure that the trem works much, much better than it did, weak springs and inferior materials will continue to cause issues much farther down the road.

Another mark against the import unit: bad metal sounds bad.

A Call to Trem Arms

If you’re a guitar maker offering a Jazzmaster-type model (or any model with that particular bridge and tailpiece combo) then I completely understand that you can’t just put a Fender-branded part on your guitar. In that regard, the no-name, unbranded import vibrato seems like a good alternative, and one that’s easy to relic to hell and back, if that’s your bag. The thing is, because they’re so poorly-made, you may be offering a guitar with a flaw right out of the gate. But there is hope!

One option would be purchasing the U.S.-made ‘real thing’ and replacing the face plate. Companies like Faction Electric Guitars offer stainless steel plates (designed by our pal Paul Rhoney) that would suit this purpose well. Sure, that’s an added expense, but if you’re already charging $1800-$2500 for a guitar, well, it’s a worth while one.

An even better option? Investing in the Mastery Vibrato, a unit that’s free of ties to the California manufacturer with the familiar name that works perfectly and is perhaps the closest in feel and tonality to the units found on vintage offset guitars, and as many of us offset aficionado will tell you, they’re the cream of the crop. Woody designed this piece as an upgrade to the original, with the a new carbon steel spring meant to feel and perform as the originals, low-profile screws that won’t chew through your strings, and a pivot plate that runs the entire length of the string anchor plate. Sturdy, solidly-built, and tonally brilliant, this all adds up to the perfect vibrato for your equally well-made and attractive instruments.

If you’re building your own guitar from parts and you don’t have the coin to drop on upgraded or vintage units, you can find Fender AVRI trems in the $50-60 range, and you can even find ‘aged’ ones on eBay. The no-name unit goes for $35 over at Allparts but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Unfortunately, at this time the  import unit is the only option for those in need of gold hardware.

Now, the purpose of this article isn’t to call out any specific builders out there, so I’m not going to include the names of guitar makers that use the dreaded “no-name” vibrato. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite builders that, instead of attaching subpar parts to their instruments, go the extra mile and dollar to install the precision-machined Mastery Vibrato. These are builders that care about quality that you can buy from and know that your instrument will perform as promised every single time.

In alphabetical order:

Ayers
BilT
Collings
Creston
Deimel
Echo Park
Kauer
Rhoney

That’s all I could think of right now, but I’ll be sure to update this post once my other guitar-building friends read this and yell at me for forgetting them. I’ll deserve that much at least, I’m sure.

Anyway, this one’s the only unbranded trem I’ve ever liked, found on Freddie Tavares’ prototype ’58 Jazzmaster in Desert Sand with a huge maple Stratocaster neck and a sweet black anodized guard. Special thanks to Mark Agnesi of Norman’s Rare Guitars for letting me have an unforgettable hour with this thing. What. A. Guitar. Expect a short article about that hour in the future!

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If I only had $100K.

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

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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.”**

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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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Whoa… Busy Month and a Blacktop Jazzmaster

It’s been quite a while since our last post, but for good reason: we have been the busiest we’ve ever been. Not only are our wares selling like hotcakes (Fortune 500 here we come?) but there has been a marked increase in patrons to our humble store. Some come in for work on their prized amp or guitar, some come to browse, and a few come in just to have a drink and hang out – exactly the kinds of things we’re about!

When you own a shop in a street-level garage that’s around 500 square feet, two or more customers can make it feel very, very busy. Add to this the army of gear we’ve acquired and a veritable mountain of repairs, and I think you could begin to infer just how busy we’ve been.

Even so, I thought I’d take this opportunity to update both the website and our faithful readers on just what the heck we’ve been doing this holiday season. I mean, it’s not all eggnog and carols and flasks of whichever alcohol we’re drinking these days!

The Modified Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster

IMG_1897-impDecember marked the end of a months-long project, one that took far longer to complete than I had expected. Why? Well, it’s because of that dad-blasted Gold Foil.

Our friend John (the owner of this fine machine) saw what we did ages ago with the Skyemaster and wanted something similar but tweaked to his personality. Two additional pickups were to be installed – a total of four on the guitar – to augment the already wide range of tones available to him. He provided a cool old Framus/Guyatone pickup for the middle position, and installing that required routing out the body and pickguard. Pretty straightforward.

However, John was really into the ethereal, otherworldly sounds that came from the Skyemaster’s behind-the-bridge unit, so finding a thin, small pickup that would fit under the adjusted string length of this model was a bit of a problem. We eventually decided that an old Dearmond/Rowe Gold Foil would do the trick, but that would present its own challenge: finding one for a good price.

John and I agreed that, with the recent spate of popularity surrounding these pickups, it would be a game of waiting to pounce on an under priced pickup to keep his already high costs down. I was more than happy to save my customer some money, but between searching and all of the other jobs I’ve had, it started to feel hopeless there for a bit. Luckily, after some time I was able to track one down that was in need of a rewind.

From then on it was smooth sailing. Here’s a brief rundown of what we have going on with this one:

-Stock neck and bridge pickups
-Added Guyatone/Framus pickup in the middle position
-Gold Foil (no base) mounted directly to the wood, no routing required!
-Three way toggle functions normally (N, NB, B)
-Two additional pickups are selectable via two push-pull pots on the Volume (middle) and Tone (behind-the-bridge) pots

So, how does it sound? It’s amazing. The middle pickup lends a quacky sort of darkness to the overall characteristics of the stock pickups, and the BTB unit enables all of the weird, Waterphone-like tones you’d expect. This is certainly one of my favorite mods, and it’s surprisingly useful. I’ll get around to doing this to my own guitar soon enough, I’m sure. Wanna hear how it sounds? Check it out:

There are three more videos detailing some of the quirky sounds available via the modified electronics. Feel free to watch!

I’m going to do a couple more quick updates in the next few days or so. Keep your eyes peeled! Lots more cool stuff on the way!

UPDATE: Special thanks to our pals over at Ampersand Amplification for this custom meme! We think it’s appropriate!

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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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The Most Patriotic Guitars Ever, Ever. Happy July 4th!

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Here at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar, we couldn’t be more excited about July 4th. It’s three days after our shop’s anniversary (1 year, y’all!), my anniversary with my wife (3 years, y’all!) and the anniversary of our Nation’s independence (237 years, y’all!) so we’ve much to celebrate! And we LOVE to celebrate. I can’t speak for Other Mike, but I can tell you that in exercising my freedom on the freest day of the year I’ll be hanging with friends and family while eating grilled meats and drinking frosty brews, probably some Mike’s Hard Blackberry Lemonade because I like repetition. And also because I like adult fruit punch. I swear to God, if anyone tries to hand me a Silver Bullet I’m going to glare at them until they leave me alone.

When it comes to the best ways to share American pride, among them are belt buckles, bikinis, gaudy tattoos and, of course, the guitar. Yes, the guitar; is there anything more American?* Given the amount of red, white and blue guitars out there, that answer seems to be a flag-wavin’ HELL NO. In this day and age, everyone’s got a guitar – hell, even Obama plays a Jaguar.

Let’s take a look at some of the most patriotic guitars ever created, and we’ll rate just how proud they make Uncle Sam based on their individual patriotic flair. We’ll also try to give approximate prices, proving that freedom truly isn’t free.

1) Buck Owens Signature Fender Telecaster

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Now that’s what I call patriotic: stately, refined pride. That’s a classy guitar, not some chaotic melange of blue stars and red stripes as if Uncle Sam got sick like so many other instruments. Gold hardware, three-tone sparkle finish and Buck’s signature on the headstock all makes this guitar as attractive as it is reverential, much like Buck’s deep love of his country.

Out of all the guitars we’ll look at in this post, this is one of the ones I’d really love to own. It’s a guitar even a dirty lib’ral could love! The caveat here is that this limited-edition run of guitars was actually made in Japan, for which we’ll have to reflect  in the guitar’s rating.

Buck Owens Telecaster
Price: $1200-1500
Country of origin: Japan
Patriotism Rating: 888 (exactly 1/2 of 1776)

2) 1985 Gibson MAP

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In 1985 Gibson did a limited run of guitars shaped like the 48 contiguous states of America, only nine of which are in this stars-and-stripes finish. Featuring a familiar electronics array, much like that of a Les Paul or an Explorer, these guitars have both style and substance while being a symbol of American craftsmanship. I mean, can you imagine trying to install binding on that thing? I would quit once I got to Michigan.

Because there are so few of these guitars, who’s to say exactly what the going rate would be. That finish is plenty cool, though, so if I came across one in the wild I’d snatch it up no matter what the going rate would be. There are a few of the natural-finish examples on eBay, with the sellers asking $3000, so I’m certain there’s a premium price attached to such a rare finish.

Being that this Gibson has such a rare, cool finish and is made in America, I’ll be awarding this one full points on the scale of patriotism.

1985 Gibson Map in Stars-and-Stripes finish
Price: $????
Country of Origin: USA!
Patriotism Rating: 1776

3) 1965 Mosrite Ventures “Salesman”

1965-Mozorite-Salesman-FramedIn the 1960s, California-based guitar company Mosrite produced about 50 of these guitars know as “Salesman” guitars. The thought was that a Mosrite rep could walk into a guitar shop and say, “Here’s the Mosrite guitar, and these are your color choices: Red, White or Blue.” Easy, right?

Trouble is, I don’t want any of those individual colors, I want THIS ONE. I mean, just look at that! So dreamy.

Aside from the Ventures, many of our guitar heroes played Mosrite guitars including Kurt Cobain, Joe Maphis, Fred Smith of MC5 and Johnny Ramone.

1965 Mosrite Ventures model “Salesman”
Country of origin: ‘Merika
Price: ~$5000
Patriotism Rating: JFK riding a robot unicorn on the moon

4) Blueberry Guitars USA Eagle Thing

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Holy shit. Evidently this was a custom order for a country artist that wanted everyone to know that his pride is bigger than yours. I can’t knock the kind of skill it takes to produce such an instrument, but subtlety is lost on this one. I mean, this thing is… well, I can’t describe this one to you as well as photos can…

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And yes, the headstock shot from the beginning of the article is from this guitar. Can you imagine what this thing must be like in person? It must sound like the tears of an a bald eagle falling onto the Liberty Bell. And guess what: it’s not even made in America! This one’s from Canada, and the thought of someone in another country having to do this is hilarious. I do love Canada, though, and being that they’re our neighbors to the north I want to take this opportunity to say that we should hang sometime soon.

Blueberry Guitars USA Eagle Thing
Price: many thousands, I’m sure
Country of origin: Canada
Patriotism Rating:

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Blueberry actually does really beautiful work. I’m picking on this instrument heavily but I do have deep respect for their craftsmanship and instruments. Check them out here.

5) Fender Wayne Kramer Signature (MC5)

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I’m a huge MC5 fan, and I would totally Kick Out the Jams on this guitar. With US hardware, a Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker in the middle position and an engraved “This Tool Kills Hate” neckplate, I would have no qualms about taking the stage with such a flashy Strat. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m not even a Strat guy!

This model has been relic’d to match the original, and is made in Mexico. “Mexico?!!”, you ask incredulously, mouth agape in shock. Yes. And it’s great. At least it’s an American brand, which is more than I can say for our next entry.

Fender Wayne Kramer Stratocaster
Country of origin: Mexico
Price: $999 new
Patriotism Rating: WELCOME TO EARF

6) Toby Keith’s Stars-and-Stripes Takamine

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I’m sorry, but no. I mean, the other offshore-made guitars we liked were at the very least made by an American brand, but come on! Takamine?! Sure, they make good guitars, but TK’s not even trying here. Yeesh. How’s about you sing us another song about putting boots in terrorist’s asses or bringing American jobs back home. Let’s slap Old Glory on the front of a Takamine! Brilliant!

Irony? He’s swimming in it.

TK’s Takamine
Country of origin: Japan
Price: Custom
Patriotism Rating: McCarthyism

7) 1976 Gibson “Bicentennial” Firebird

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Gold hardware and an understated tweak to commemorate 200 years of American history. It’s no Map, but it’s a nice nod.

1976 Gibson “Bicentennial” Firebird
Country of origin: USA
Price: $4,000-6500
Patriotism Rating: 177.6

8) Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” Gibson J-45

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Woody Guthrie is an American legend, and the songs he wrote are just as poignant and effective today as they were when he penned them. Utilizing familiar folk melodies and the breadth of his experience gained while rambling around the country in train cars, Guthrie deeply loved his country and believed it was inseparable from its people, and aimed to protect her from fascists, singing his songs anywhere people were.

There’s much to be said about Guthrie’s legacy and music, but the song that’s probably the most well-known of his is also one of his most misunderstood: “This Land is Your Land”. Guthrie wrote that song in 1940 as a reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie thought was trite and complacent. The song, originally titled “God Blessed America”, is a beautiful example of his feelings of patriotism, far removed from today’s brand-name, fearful allegiance.

Above all, Guthrie believed in the capacity of people to care for one another, but he also believed that the country he cared for was going in the wrong direction, filled with greed and injustice. A socialist, Woody saw the wealthy profit from the labor of the poor, going from migrant camps to union halls, feeling what was happening around him.

I say that “This Land” is misunderstood because until I was in This Land, a play/musical I was in last year detailing Woody’s travels and songs by use of his personal journals and letters, I had never heard the whole song. Sure, everyone sings “This land is your land, this land is my land”, but I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone sing the other more damning verses before. I remember when my family was invited to see president George W. Bush at the York Fairgrounds in York PA, there was a group there singing patriotic tunes, and among them was “This Land”, and looking back those later verses were conspicuously absent. Here are those verses:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
God blessed America for me.
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

As Greg Carter, the director of This Land said, “Woody will tear your flag down and give you a reason to pick it back up again.” And, having spent three months working in that play, singing his songs and playing his notes, I can honestly say that being so enveloped in Guthrie’s words and songs has taught me more about patriotism and heroism than the 30 years of fireworks, cookouts, pledges and elections ever could have. No one ever fights for a piece of cloth; they fight for the idea.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” Gibson J-45
Country of origin: United States of America
Price: Priceless
Patriotism Rating: Eleventy Billion

*Yes. The modern guitar has its roots in Spain, and further back, Rome. But of course, we’re a big ol’ melting pot, aren’t we?

-Michael James Adams

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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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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar, Pt. 2: Bridge Over Troubled Vibrato

IMG_2101By Michael James Adams

A few weeks back, we took some time to fully explain the electronic innerworkings of Fender’s paradoxically well-loved and oft-maligned models, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. For many players, the tonal options available on these guitars is a breath of fresh air; for others, the switching becomes an exercise in futility, leaving them to wonder how to just turn on the bridge pickup. Hopefully we helped!

In today’s column, we’re going to dive into what be the most misunderstood and subsequently damning design element on these amazing guitars: the bridge.

It’s a common occurrence for players who are used to Strats and Teles or Les Pauls to get the Offset itch and pick up a Jazzmaster or Jaguar and find that it doesn’t play quite the way they expected: strings will slip out of their grooves with moderate pick attack, the bridge sways back and forth with vibrato action, and sympathetic ‘ghost’ notes will ring out from behind the bridge, prompting many stymied players to install a Buzzstop. Please, don’t do that just yet – I’m begging you to get to know your seemingly unwieldy friend before you do something rash.

Shim Shenanigans

Conventional guitar wisdom tells us that shims are bad. They’re tone-sucking, sustain-killing, useless pieces of paper that shouldn’t come anywhere near a neck pocket, right? Well, about that…

That's A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

That’s A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

Most of the vintage Fender guitars we love came from the factory with at least one shim installed, and I’ve seen vintage guitars with four or more original shims! Telecasters, for example, might have a shim in the front edge of the neck pocket so that when the guitar is strung, the strings sit closer to the top of the ashtray bridge instead of down in the middle, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable place for picking. Also, the height adjustment screws on the brass bridge saddles could be longer than necessary, which means sharp pieces of metal digging into your picking hand. Not fun.

Many players operate under the belief that a shim will kill their tone, and to an extent they have a point. Obviously, for maximum sustain and tonal transfer, it makes sense to have a tight neck pocket with full wood-on-wood contact. Here’s the thing: tone is subjective, and the vast majority of us won’t be able to hear the difference between a shimmed and un-shimmed guitar. Add to that the fact that many of the old-school tones we’re all chasing were created with shimmed guitars, and the argument gets even more murky. And, unlike Strats and Teles, Jazzmasters and Jaguars were actually designed with shims in mind!

Break Angle Benefits

You see, Leo Fender knew that his floating bridge design needed a certain amount of downward force to work properly, so he used shims in the leading edge of the neck pocket to adjust the angle of the neck, causing the strings to pass over the bridge at a sharper angle. This is called the break angle.

The further back he tilted the neck, the bridge would have to be set higher to achieve playable action, and thus, more downward force on the bridge. More downward force on the bridge also means greater tonal transfer via the contact between the bridge and its thimbles, which in turn transfer that vibration to the body, and then who the hell really knows how much sustain and resonance you’re losing or gaining?! It boggles the mind.

When players complain about their strings slipping out of the tiny grooves on their saddles, more often than not the problem isn’t the saddle, it’s the aforementioned break angle.  A sharper break angle means more downward force on the bridge, which in turn helps to keep the strings seated! One other solution is to deepen the grooves with a file, which is a fine solution that I’ve had to use a few times. It’s not my first choice fix, but with some guitars with worn or import bridges, there’s not much else you can do, short of replacing the bridge. More on that later.

Players will also cite excessive mechanical buzz from their bridges as a source of frustration, but again, I point to neck/break angle as the first solution. Most of the time, the bridge buzzes because of a weak break angle and thus, less pressure, which means the saddles themselves aren’t tightly seated on the bridge plate. Tilt that neck back and voila, the buzz disappears. At least, it usually does; new bridges that haven’t been played-in will often make noise because they don’t have years of oxidation helping to tighten things up. In that case, either sweat a lot or dab some blue Loc-Tite* on the saddle screws, which will not only diminish rattle but also ensure that screws don’t turn when you don’t want them to.

The other solution to this problem is the Buzz-Stop, an add-on unit that screws into the trem plate and forces the strings down toward the body. While this solution certainly works, it also kills the vibe of having a Jazzmaster or Jaguar; the strings behind the bridge are deadened – a huge part of what makes these guitars  so fun! – and the vibrato has another point of friction to contend with, making it work less efficiently. It also makes the guitar feel different in terms of playability, but feel is subjective.IMG_4061

Rock. YEAH. Ing. YEAH. Bridge. YEAH. YEAH. YEAH!

For the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender designed a new “floating” vibrato system which revolved around a bridge that rocks back and forth as the whammy bar is actuated and promised unparalleled control and flutter as well as better tuning stability. But if this system was supposed to be so great, why does it seem like everyone complains about it?

A lot of people don’t understand that the bridge is supposed to rock, which understandably freaks them out. I’ll admit that this feature isn’t my favorite element of the design, but it really does work, but not perfectly. The bridge doesn’t always return to its zero position, but this is a problem just about every trem system on the market has, and if we lived in a perfect world it would be enough.

If the rocking bridge bothers you and makes your intonation spotty, a lot of us will wrap the bridge with foil tape, which locks it into place in its thimbles. The vibrato still works well like this, but again, it’s not a total solution. This is yet another issue addressed by the Mastery Bridge, with its larger diameter posts that fit snugly into the bridge thimbles.

A Word About String Gauge

When Leo was rolled out the Jazzmaster, he intended to market the guitar to Jazz players, hence the addition of the darker preset rhythm circuit. Because of this, the guitar was also designed with heavy-gauge flat-wound strings in mind. Back in the day, light guitar strings weren’t readily available, especially when it came to flats. That’s why you so often hear older guitarists talking about using a banjo string on the high E and moving the rest of the set over one string! Jazz players were often using sets as heavy as .014”, and .011” sets were considered pretty measly by comparison.

When the Jazzmaster rolled out, the idea was that these jazzers would be using at least .012” flat sets on the guitar, which have much more tension than today’s slinkier round-wound strings. Heavier strings equals greater tension, get it? If you ever try to put flat-wound 12s on a Jazzmaster, they usually won’t go anywhere.

When you want to use light strings on a Jazzmaster or Jaguar, you’re going to have to compensate somehow. You’ll need to increase the break angle and adjust the bridge, but if you’re going lighter than .011” sets you might also consider swapping out the bridge for those found on Fender Mustang guitars, which have a single, deep groove for each string. Or, you could go for the ultimate upgrade, the Mastery Bridge, but I’d make that recommendation to anyone regardless of string gauge. The Mastery Bridge is hands-down the best upgrade you can make to your Fender Offset guitar in my opinion. With it, you may still need a bit of a neck angle adjustment, but your strings will definitely stay on their saddles.

Next time, we’ll take a brief look behind the bridge and how to work with the vibrato unit for greater tuning stability and control. Wanna go wild and return to pitch? We’ve got you covered!

Mastery on a '58. Yessir.

Mastery on a ’58. Yessir.

*CAUTION: Never, ever use the red Loc-Tite on guitar parts unless you want them permanently frozen in place. The blue variety is meant for a non-permanent bond, allowing the user to make adjustments down the line. I think they’ve just come out with a green formula as well that’s not as strong, but I haven’t used it. Also, that stuff dries clear, so don’t freak out when you put blue goop all over your shiny new guitar. It’s cool. Simmer down.

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Couch Guitar Straps: Vegan and Sweatshop-Free in the USA

IMG_4087By Michael James Adams

This year, my birthday was a tough one; the more my wife and family asked what gifts I wanted, the less I could even think about answering that question. Truth is, I didn’t really want or need anything, at least as far as I could tell. That is, until my wife reminded me of something I’d mentioned ages ago: I was getting tired of my lame black straps, and had been obsessed with Couch Guitar Straps for years. Bingo.

Like many of my friends, my first exposure to Couch Straps – at least that I can recall – was from Nels Cline, guitar wizard and purveyor of atonal noise/free jazz extraordinaire. I picked up a promo copy of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky back in 2007 and was blown away by both his ferocity and tact, so you can imagine how little time passed before I started analyzing his back catalogue, his gear, his technique, tone and style. And in every photo I saw, there was that same jet-black strap with the offset white stripe running its entire length, not simply holding up his guitar but elevating it, enhancing it.

I’m in an italics kind of mood. Can you tell?

Now, that man is the epitome of cool in my book, so I had to find out who made that strap. It’s been so long that I don’t remember exactly how I found them, but eventually I did, and so I spent three days just soaking in all of the colors, materials and options, of which there are many. For whatever reason, though, I never ended up making an order, likely because of my legendary gear distraction, where I get hooked on something and then forget about it once another great piece of kit comes along. But fast-forward a handful of years and here I am, all Couched up.

This Los Angeles-based company has been around since 1999, and prides itself on making quality, road-tested straps that are sure to hold up to the rigors of rock n’ roll life and looking sharp while doing so. Their straps are made from finish-friendly vinyl and vintage, deadstock and recycled materials. Ever been inside a Mercedes from the 1980s or a ’70s Volkswagen and thought, “I want this seat near my guitar, like, all the time.” Well, guess what! Couch does that.

Also a point of interest is that Couch Straps are vegan and sweatshop-free, which is easy on the soul and conscience of the would-be customer. And they make a good point about their business philosphy, too:

Look, most guitar straps are either really bad or really overpriced. On top of that, hardly anyone is making them vegan and sweatshop free in The United States. Why can’t someone else just make a guitar strap that isn’t either completely generic like the music store ones or looks pretty good but cheaply made and overpriced like the fashion strap companies? …[We’re] not into purchasing the actual hides of leather and then stamping the tabs out of asymmetric sides of beef before sewing them on our straps. The buying and selling of animal skin carcasses was a little too weird for us, thanks.

Well, I’m sold!

My wife and I spent nearly an hour pulling out my guitars that desperately needed cool straps and discussing our favorite color combinations. The company’s Racer X straps alone have three pages of color options on their website, so for us this was no easy choice. After much deliberation, screaming, hopelessly deadlocked voting and tearful apologies, we finally decided that my Sonic Blue ’07 Fender Thin Skin Jazzmaster (which I affectionately call “Artoo”) would be best served by a white Racer X strap with an orange stripe, in keeping with the Rebel Alliance color motif. It was also decided that my 2011 Fastback ’52 Telemaster needed a cool strap of its own, and I couldn’t think of anything better than the Vintage Cadillac Sunburst Deadstock Luggage strap. And, because I just stuff bills in my left front pocket, my wife bought me the company’s Jet Age Slimline Wallet!

When the straps finally came – and quickly, I might add! – I didn’t even have to open the package to know that I was in for a treat. It’s not often that companies will put in the time to make customers feel like they’re really appreciated, but imagine the feeling of unbridled giddiness I had upon pulling this one out of my mailbox:IMG_4196

Even my invoice had this personal touch, with a sort of tree/man hybrid flailing his arms/branches praising the Jet Age wallet with glee. I was thrilled, and the straps were cool, too. The end.

NO! Not the end. The straps? Amazing, actually.

IMG_4070You might be able to tell from the pictures, but I can’t make it clear enough that the materials and workmanship are both top notch on these straps. Made from soft automotive grade vinyl, there are no harsh edges or stiffness, no skipped stitches, not even an unsightly hanging thread to be found. The straps, if you didn’t know, measure at about 67″ when fully extended, whereas most straps are around the 60″ mark. This means there’s a lot of room for adjustment when you first don your new strap, and maybe a bit more than you’d expect.

The white vinyl on my Racer X strap was pure and unmarred by shipping, and the contrasting orange stripe was expertly applied. The strap ends look sturdy as hell, with plenty of secure stitching throughout and three rivets on the rear tab for extra reinforcement. Everything about these straps screams quality.

The Racer X strap really excels at adding to, not taking away from the already hip looks my my instrument. While the Couch strap certainly does stand out, it’s neither gaudy nor overly flashy. Ah yes, the Couch Strap knows its place, never overtaking the stately presence of a well-chosen instrument.

To be sure, I’m absolutely in love with the Racer X strap, but what really surprised me was how ‘in love’ I fell with the Vintage Cadillac Sunburst Deadstock strap, made from actual Cadillac Hardtop vinyl. When we ordered it, I was positive it would look great, but not necessarily any different from the other black straps I already have. I was wrong; as soon as it was out of the bag the waxy shine of the vinyl caught my eye, and the vibrant orange and yellow-orange stitching really looked great even in the light of our crappy apartment. And no matter which of my guitars I paired it with, it just fit. At first I thought that maybe I could get away with it being a community strap for all of my axes, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be ordering more straps from Couch in the future. This one is staying on the Telemaster.

IMG_4097Often when I wear a leather or vinyl strap from other makers, I expect that the strap will have a rough material on its underside and that the weight of the guitar will pull whatever shirt I’m wearing into an uncomfortable bunch on my shoulder. Not so with Couch, ladies and gents. It’s clear to me that a lot of thought went into designing these straps, and I can honestly tell you that they are the most comfortable 2″ straps I’ve ever used. Ever had a strap “bite” your neck, rubbing it raw during a show? That’s not going to happen here, folks. That vinyl is soft and smooth.

It seems to me that Couch’s offerings are tailor-made for the working musician, and they’ve taken into account all of the things that non-musical designers might miss. In fact, the thing that really gets me about Couch is that they’re not only made for musicians, but by musicians. Other Mike’s Band Goldie Wilson has shared the stage with 60’s power-pop band The New Fidelity, which is led by Daniel Perkins, founder of Couch Guitar Straps. Of course, The New Fidelity rocks Couch straps and the makers have been using the same couch straps since 1999.

As for the Jet Age Slimline Wallet, I can vouch for its 1960s TWA cool and ability to organize even the messiest of pockets. Made from vintage blue vinyl with orange and white racing stripes, this wallet has a My bills are cozy, all tucked in together while my cards, gym badge and other miscellany are held tight in the Jet Age’s amply-sized pockets. Like the straps, the wallet is soft and well-made, and all of the stitching is top-notch. The interior pocket is lined in fabric inked with the Couch logo, and though the website warns that the ink may rub off on bills for a short time after initial use, I haven’t noticed anything like that. IMG_3994

The wallet fits great in my pocket, and though I can’t speak for every pair of jeans on the planet, I’d imagine that the size – maybe 20% or so larger than a wad of folded cash – would slide into most pockets with ease.

After a week of normal use, going in an out of pockets and being pulled apart to insert all of the crazy amounts of money I make and consequently flash at all of the fanciest of clubs, the wallet is starting to break in a bit. The edges are loosening up and becoming more flexible, not that the material was stiff to begin with. I’ve already managed to partially rip the double stitch on the left side of the orange stripe, but I doubt that has anything to do with the quality of this piece. I tend to be hard on things like this, and I’ll admit that until I had this I wasn’t a ‘wallet guy’ and haven’t used one for quite some time. I usually keep them in a coat or bag and not on my person, so this one is getting a lot of use. All of the stitches that are holding the thing together are intact and tight. Another positive note: this wallet is getting all kinds of stares and compliments each time I pull it out to pay for something. ALL KINDS.

While the products of this small company are truly great in their own right, I would point out that the photos on the website aren’t as helpful as they could be when it comes to selecting a complementary color scheme for your instrument. While the photos are individually fine, the colors vary a bit from shot to shot, making it difficult to nail down exactly what you’re getting. While this is a minor quibble, I could see how that might be a problem for some customers.

IMG_4101The only other thing I could think of that might be a problem for some would be how long the straps are in relation to the adjustment buckle. Because I’m used to shorter, more standard-length straps, it took a short while to grow accustomed to the buckle sitting in the low shoulder area of my back instead of between my side and instrument. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, and something that most players may not even notice. (OCD is a hell of a drug!) The buckle is virtually undetectable as it is, and after a few sessions with it I no longer feel the difference. I thought it worth mentioning this because I tend to be way too positive about things I like and therefore gloss over the negative aspects of things, however slight. I’m trying to be objective! So there. Fine. I’m sorry, Couch. *folds arms*

As I’m sure you might have guessed, I’m extremely happy with my Couch straps and wallet. I never dreamed that I’d have straps that feel comfy AND look cool. Until now, those two attributes seemed mutually exclusive! These days, guitar shops seem overrun by faux-rock designs peppered with checkerboards, skulls and vaguely indie branding that borders on twee at best. With Couch, the designs are solid, timeless, and sometimes a little bit cheeky. With Couch, $35 gets you a hell of a lot of strap.

Go buy some now, please. And while you’re at it, you forgot my birthday. Buy me more! You might even see Couch Guitar Straps at the Guitar Bar in the coming months…

-Michael James Adams

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 1

IMG_3071-impBy Michael James Adams

It’s no secret that we here at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar are BIG fans of Fender’s oft-maligned Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars. Top of the line in their day, these guitars are perhaps the most misunderstood instruments that Leo Fender ever created, a sad truth that to this day follows these wonderful guitars like a scarlet letter.

Why are these guitars so misjudged? For starters, Fender’s line of “Offset” guitars – so called because of the adjusted waistline body design – shared little in common with their more straightforward brethren, the Telecaster and Stratocaster. Those guitars were plain-as-day in terms of fit and functionality; when one looks at a Tele or a Strat, there’s little question as to the purpose of their respective three- and five-way switches, where the strings anchor, or what kind of music one can play on them.

When first released in 1958, the Jazzmaster was a bit more nebulous than its forebears, intended for Jazz players who largely dismissed the guitar. The first Fender guitar with a rosewood fretboard, the Jazzmaster also included Leo’s latest innovations including the floating bridge/vibrato unit and wide, flat pickups designed to pick up more of the string’s vibrational length, resulting in less sustain and a warmer overall tone than the Telecaster or Stratocaster. Luckily, instrumental rock and surf players (and even a few country players!) soon embraced the guitar, giving the Jazzmaster a new direction.

IMG_3779-impBy the time the Jaguar was released in 1962, the surf craze was in full swing and it would appear that Leo tailor-made the guitar to appeal to instrumental rockers. Chrome for days, a slightly modified, faster body, a shorter 24″ scale and a newly-designed Fender Mute all contributed to the wild looks and distinctively percussive sound of the model.

Hard to pin down as they may have been, these two models were wildly popular in the early to mid sixties, with sales numbers overtaking those of the Strat and Tele, which were at that time experiencing stagnated sales and a general view in the guitar world as being old-fashioned. The new, sleeker Offset Fender guitars certainly sold well, but soon enough public opinion began to sour. What went wrong?

As I mentioned before, these guitars shared little of the design elements of their predecessors, which is something many of us appreciate today. Unique controls and string length behind the bridge appeal to those of us looking for something different, from shoegazers to alt. country troubadours. With that recent spate of popularity have come numerous upgraded parts that promise to improve the feel and playability of Offset guitars, including the mind-blowing Mastery Bridge and the Staytrem. Sadly, this lack of familiarity may have proved to be these models’ undoing in the long run, with players frequently complaining that the guitars were confusing, poorly made or impossible to keep in tune.

In this series, I’ll attempt to address a few of these complaints, and explain why the very designs that confound so many are, in reality, brilliant.

“IT HAS TOO MANY SWITCHES!”
It’s not uncommon to hear the above phrase uttered ad nauseum at guitar stores and internet forums alike. It’s frequently followed by, “What the hell do they do?!” and “My brain hurts.” In reality, the switches aren’t all that hard to figure out, and with just a few minutes of patient open-mindedness most players can easily adapt to the layout.

IMG_3699Jazzmasters have the decidedly more familiar control layout, with a Gibsonesque three-way toggle switch on the treble-side bout. Obviously, this one changes the active pickup selection from Bridge, to Bridge and Neck, and Neck alone. The thing that tends to get murky for folks is the switch located on the upper bass-side bout: the Rhythm Circuit.

The Rhythm Circuit was designed with the intention of giving the player a darker preset sound for rhythm play. A different array of pots (50K tone, 1M volume) lends to the darker sound, contrasting nicely with the Lead Circuit’s brighter personality. (1m for both) Roller knobs poke through slots on the guard that allow the player to easily change settings without much chance of settings being changed by vigorous play. Flip that switch to its ‘up’ position and you’ve got a rounder, bassier tone at the ready, one which I frequently utilize for a clean, somber tone or to mimic synth craziness with a big fuzz and an octave pedal. Even so, most players will choose to ignore this optional circuit as a nuisance or a design flaw, but do yourself a favor and play around with it! It’s great!

IMG_2687

L-R: ‘Strangle’ switch, Bridge Pickup, Neck Pickup. Simple.

The Jaguar, however, seems to be the guitar with the most problematic layout for some players, and while I can understand why it’s so intimidating, again I implore those stymied masses to have patience. Don’t let those little chrome plates get the best of you!

Thankfully for most, the upper bout switching is exactly the same as the Jazzmaster Rhythm Circuit. The three switches on the treble-side bout of the guitar control on/off for both pickups and what’s known as a “strangle switch”, a capacitor that can be engaged to bleed away bass frequencies, resulting in a thinned-out tone that’s perfect for biting leads or cutting rhythm work. Thanks to this, the Jaguar can easily be the most versatile guitar in a player’s arsenal.

If you’re still feeling vexed, check out the Interactive Jaguar instruction manual over at The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars.

We’ll continue shedding light on these amazing guitars in part 2, where we discuss the floating Bridge, from its intended design to tips on keeping it functioning properly even with heavy trem use. Stay tuned!

We also believe that we perform the best Offset setups in the Pacific Northwest. If your Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Electric XII, Mustang or Bass VI needs some help to sound and play its best, stop by Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar for a free consultation!

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