Tag Archives: offset guitars

REVIEW: Toothsome Tones from Yellowcake’s Furry Burrito

I’m a big fan of cake, let it be known far and wide. All kinds of cake, really: carrot cake, coffee cake, Devil’s Food, German Chocolate, the band Cake, ice cream cake, and especially Red Velvet, which seems to get a lot of hate and is often erroneously thought of as “just chocolate cake that is red.” This is a guitar blog, but I’m tempted to spend the rest of this article explaining exactly why that’s so, so wrong. It’s offensive, really.

For whatever reason, I’ve been in a yellow cake phase for well over a year. I mean, with so many flavors out there, why settle for boring old yellow? There’s just something about that buttery-sweet taste that’s arrested my tastebuds, I really can’t explain it. Except now that I think of it, this craving coincides with the arrival of one of the coolest pedals I’ve ever owned, one which has cemented its place in every incarnation of my guitar and bass rigs since: The Yellowcake Furry Burrito.

Maybe there’s a connection.

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All-Purpose Fuzz

The Yellowcake Furry Burrito is a fuzz pedal, but not just––the fuzz circuit cascades into an on-board overdrive, reminiscent of the old practice of “stacking” gain stages for maximum saturation, only here it’s in a single unit. In this way the Furry Burrito offers uniquely full-bodied sounds, mating a buttercream Muff-like fuzz and the midrange and clarity of a good overdrive. Even at its most boisterous settings, this pedal never loses definition and potency.

Four knobs adorn the pedal’s pastel enclosure: Gain, Drive, Filter, and Level. Gain and Drive control the amount of fuzz and drive, respectively. Taking turns with each knob shows off the pedal’s unique versatility: favoring the Drive knob gives way to the sweeter side of the Burrito, but Gain is where the decadent fuzz circuit resides. Mixing the two offers a near-endless variety of tones that blur the lines between the two famous effects.

The control labeled “Filter” is your basic variable low-pass which governs the amount of treble frequencies present. However, even at its most extreme settings the pedal retains its personality, never sounding too crystalline or mushy. If you prefer your amps dark like me, you’ll find that the Filter knob can act as a sort of fixer where other fuzz pedals may become too gummy. 

The FAT switch, as you might have guessed, is a two-position selector that offers a boost to the bottom. The ‘down’ position is the pedal’s vanilla setting, and while it’s certainly thinned out compared with the alternative choice, it is by no means washed out or icy. Engaging the switch caramelizes the low end into monstrous bass sounds and warm leads. This pedal loves low frequencies.

The real surprise here is the LED indicator, which doubles as a voltage trim pot. This lets you starve the circuit, introducing all of the sputtery, ripping goodness we all so enjoy in a good fuzz. This, combined with the two flavors of grit, makes the pedal singularly versatile.

Suggested Recipes

At its most polite settings this pedal won’t get you to clean boost territory. What you’re far more likely to find here is a robust drive with some RAT-like edge. What it lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in bold sounds as rendered here in my very first encounter with the pedal some sixty-six weeks prior to this post:

These Pinkerton-esque sounds were produced with Drive and Gain both set right around the mid-point into my Fender Excelsior Pro. With my old Jazzmaster, I was surprised by the nearly authentic “The Good Life” sounds that were coming out of it. You know me, all of my gear-tasting begins and ends with Weezer tunes.

The Furry Burrito positively blooms where more chaotic sounds are concerned. Rolling up the Gain and Drive knobs, the pedal becomes a sumptuous wall of thick fuzz, especially with the FAT switch in the ‘up’ position. The ample, peanut butter thick low end fluffs the signal without over overstepping the bounds of good taste (unless you wanted it to). Think Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr.

It was this side of the Furry Burrito’s flavor profile that inspired my cover of “Silent Night,” which I recorded early in December of 2016. I ran the Yellowcake into a Strymon Bluesky set for a large hall verb, then ran the stereo signal to my ’65 Fender Bassman piggyback on one side and my ’79 Marshall JMP and mock 8×10” (4×12”) cabinet on the other. When the dirt kicks in at 57 seconds, what you’re hearing is the Yellowcake pedal, those amps, and my old Jazzmaster. I’m really proud of that sound. Have a listen:


Perfect Pairing

It’s also worth mentioning that the Furry Burrito pairs beautifully with other pedals.  When introduced in front of my old standard, the Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive, the cascading effect of the creamy fuzz slamming into the FUCK, which added some sweetness and depth while the Furry Burrito happily drenched it in a gooey  ganache of fuzz. When used after my Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, I ended up with an even bigger, wider array of squishier tones. The pairing of the Factory and the Burrito also proved useful for added chaos at the very end of “Silent Night.” You can hear them together at the 1:46 mark, when I go behind the bridge for for the big finish.

This pedal is one of the rare few that’s as at-home on bass as with a guitar, especially with the voltage trimmer rolled back a bit. It also totally nails some of my favorite bass fuzz tones, including Beastie Boys‘ “Sabotage.”

Cooling Rack

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The Furry Burrito fits in perfectly with Kali’s color-coordinated rig

Having owned this pedal for so long, I should be able to tell you all about its strengths and its weaknesses, but it’s shockingly difficult to come up with criticism.

Yesterday, I showed the pedal off to my good friend Kali Kazoo, one of LA’s most unique and colorful songwriters. Touring the pedal’s various features and settings with Kali, I realized that the LED trimmer, while novel, is easily overlooked. There’s no visual “TURN ME” cue as you’d might expect, no overt declaration of its function. Being a clear, back-lit knob, I also wish for a contrasting indicator so settings are easier to recall. As it stands, my favorite setting for the trimmer is “turned to one side and then back a little bit.

Surely it’s not an exact measurement, but I often adjust according to taste anyway. As far as complaints go, that’s Angel’s Food. Cake jokes.

Have Your Yellowcake and Eat It Too

At $165 street, this pedal is a steal. If you’re on the market for a good, versatile fuzz that can do a lot more than just big, meaty sounds and keeps its composure, definitely keep this pedal in mind. If you find other popular fuzzes too capricious, the Furry Burrito would be an excellent option for you as well. Me, I can’t even think of leaving this pedal off of my board.  You know, I’m glad I don’t have to.

My board from the most recent LeoLeo tour.

My board from the most recent LeoLeo tour.

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Shelton Electric: A Very Special Valentine’s Review

img_1870Valentines Day came and went this week, a day filled with heart emoji, chocolates and stomach-turning cuteness from couples telling the stories of how they met. Love at first sight gets a lot of play in tales of romance, but it is most definitely a thing with musicians as well. It can even lead to trouble sometimes.

You’ve heard the stories of chance encounters and missed connections, I’m sure:

“I walked into the store, and there it was, just hanging on that wall. I had to make it mine.”

“Begged my friend to sell it to me for three years, and then one day he asked me if I still wanted it. I went to the bank right then and there!”

“I came back later that day with the money and it was gone! Wish I would have put it on layaway.”

For this piece, I want to tell you how Shelton Electric Instruments turned the longing gaze of this furtive lover into a two-week whirlwind romance with the GalaxyFlite model. Like the flickering light of a candle, our passion danced and then suffocated quickly, leaving behind only wisps of smoke and memories that won’t soon fade.

I Swiped Right on the Flite

img_1886The first time I saw Shelton Breeden’s work, I was intrigued. Shelton Electric Instruments offers up instruments based on familiar shapes but with a few modern twists that set them apart from a room filled with suitors. Such twists range from back-painted pickguards and racing stripe finishes, to electronic tweaks and non-standard pickup configurations. From the photos posted on Instagram, Shelton’s manifest commitment to quality shined in a frankly oversaturated social media landscape. I was hooked.

I skulked about on the app for some time, liking and commenting away but careful never to draw too much attention to myself. Just an admirer, this fellow. To my surprise, a direct message from Shelton soon appeared in my inbox, asking if I’d like to give some of his guitars a thorough once-over and offer some suggestions. I accepted without hesitation; any builder that wants to send me gear so I can blab about it on the internet knows how to push all of my buttons.

Red Dress and a Pearl Neck…lace

This case really gets the imagination going.

This case really gets the imagination going.

Quick to arrive at my door was this GalaxyFlite Super III model, which uses the classic offset shape as a basis for customization. Opening the very classy-looking case, that familiar candy smell of new finish rose from it and greeted me like a handshake. Immediately apparent is Shelton’s eye for detail, the nitro finish being flawless in both hue and sheen. Fiesta Red is one of those colors that just exudes cool, and Shelton certainly nailed the shade, rich and alluring as it should be. A bound-and-blocked rosewood fretboard was perfectly accessorized to the ensemble.

Speaking of visuals, let’s talk about that two-tone headstock. Some folks don’t seem to be on board with it, and I understand that it’s a deviation from the norm. Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, yet this beholder loves it. It would seem that many builders prefer to stay in the well-tread peghead wheelhouse and only slightly tweak the shape so it’s not legally actionable. Instead, Shelton went for a design that’s half plank and half aircraft nose, evoking the image of a scimitar slicing through the air. Is it a success as unique and identifiable designs go? I’d say so. For those with less adventurous tastes, a new, sleeker version is already on its way.

img_1936Though the neck shares the 1 11/16” nut width of Fender reissues, Shelton’s shape is slightly more substantial than what you’d find on AVRI 62 models. The more modern 9.5” radius felt as comfortable as it did familiar, so players used to flatter or rounder necks should find something to love here.

The fretwork on this Galaxy Flite is perhaps the best I’ve seen on any custom instrument, and I’m not just being kind here – this work is superior to my own. Notes ring out clear in all positions, fret ends are meticulously sculpted, and the crowns are so perfectly rounded that you barely register them whilst sliding your hand up the neck. All of this is thanks to Rachel Quinn, who handles final setup duties for the company.

I Used “Pickup Lines” in a Previous Article So I Can’t Here

img_2023Equipped as standard are a few of my favorite brands, namely Mastery Bridge hardware, Porter pickups, and Emerson Custom electronics. Using such high-quality components means these instruments are guaranteed be fully functional and dependable right out of the box. Aside from matters of taste, there won’t be any need for round after round of upgrades here, setting Shelton apart from the few high-end builders that use cheap hardware and electronics.

Three Porter Jazzmaster-style pickups occupy a swimming pool body rout, a modern-wound J-90 for the neck, a standard Jazzmaster in the middle, and a WRJM in the bridge. I really love what Porter’s doing in the pickup world, but the selection here may be the only aspect of the guitar that may need some re-thinking. On their own, each pickup sounded great and well-suited to its position, but there was a disparity in volume between them that couldn’t readily be corrected with height adjustments. Really, it came down to the J-90 being louder than the other two, so perhaps a vintage wind on that one would settle in a bit better.

Something Cliché Involving the Word ‘Curves’

The control scheme on this one could be somewhat confusing if you’re expecting the normal layout of a Jazzmaster. Instead of the lead/rhythm circuits commonly found on the guitars, Shelton opts to use the on/off switch on the upper bass side horn to split the bridge pickup and add in the middle pickup via the rollers repurposed as volumes for the neck and middle pickups. Somewhat cumbersome the first time you use it, the array becomes second nature with a little persistence – and useful as well!

Even with the learning curve, there are some potent sounds on display here. Rather than shoehorn the same old descriptors for tones, why not just listen to the thing? Click the videos below for sound samples, including one that runs through all of the available pickup selections.

I rarely ever play totally clean, so you're in for a treat. Here's a quick run-through of all of the available pickup selections on the amazing @sheltonelectricinstruments GalaxyFlite III. The middle pickup and Wide Range in split mode are controlled via the typical Rhythm Circuit switch and roller pots, with the neck volume being the front roller and middle being the back one. RC switch UP: -> Middle -> Neck & Middle -> All -> WRJM Split! RC switch DOWN: -> Bridge (normal) -> Bridge & Neck -> Neck Sorry I rushed at the end there, I realized I was running out of time. Also, that ringing out you're hearing? That's coming from my acoustic, which I absent-minded li left on the chair right beside the camera. That's a good acoustic, though! So sympathetic. #guitar #demo #clean #cleantone #sheltonguitars #sheltonelectricinstruments #galaxyflite #jazzmaster #custom #customguitar #porterpickups #widerange #wrhb #p90 #offsetguitars #fiestared #music #musician #guitarist

A post shared by Michael James Adams (@puisheen) on

Hands-On Experience

From the moment I unboxed the guitar, it played magnificently. Shipped with 10 gauge strings, the action was low and comfortable and intonation was spot-on. Clean or distorted, the guitar had much to offer in harmonic complexity, never sounding dull or flat. Again, Rachel’s expert fret and nut work played a huge part in this.

img_2017With Mastery Bridge involved, it’s no wonder that the guitar felt solid and took all that my heavy right hand could give it. I’ve oft praised the Mastery Vibrato for finding a perfect balance of tension and smoothness, and here is no exception. With every wild stab of the arm, the guitar always returned to pitch and reacted tit-for-tat with any change in attack.

At home or a loud rehearsal, this instrument covered all of my tonal needs without sacrificing the integral, forward-facing characteristics of the guitar it’s based upon. Jazzmaster fans looking for more options should find their home in the Shelton. And, if wacky features aren’t your thing, Shelton does indeed offer more simplified and classic interpretations of the offset guitar.

Love Connection

I am in no way employing hyperbole when I tell you that this may be one of the most exciting and well-built guitars I’ve ever played out of the boutique market. The quality of this instrument is just superb, and you can tell that at the end of the day Shelton Electric care about making great instruments over statements. He lets the instruments do the talking rather than making bold claims about how his work will change your life.

Modesty aside, it just very well may.

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

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

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

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

 

Mystic Seafoam is a win for both of us

Mystic Seafoam is a win for both of us

Visuals

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

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

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

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

Feel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound

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

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

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

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

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

The American Pro Jaguar in Olympic White

The American Pro Jaguar in Olympic White

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

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

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

Assorted Minutiae For Which I Could Not Devise a Snappy Subheading

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

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

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

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

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Mike Landis’ Very Special 1966 Jaguar: A Holiday Tale Spanning Two Decades

Happy Holidays from all of us at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar. We truly would be nothing if not for the love, support, and business of our many friends and customers. Cheers to you! In celebration of this joyous time, I’d like to tell you about something extraordinary that happened to me recently, something I couldn’t talk about because it would have spoiled a surprise.

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This 1966 Jaguar belongs to the father of my good friend Mike Landis, and it happens to be the very first offset guitar I ever encountered. I haven’t seen it in 20 years.

I vividly remember Mike pulling it out of the case on some otherwise average day in 1996. I’d never seen anything like it before—like something out of a Sci-Fi dream. The cold gleam of the Jaguar’s many control plates ignited within my young mind what felt like a fumbling musical adolescence; I didn’t know what I’d do with it if I had one, I just knew I needed it.

Sunglasses case, no less!

Sunglasses case, no less!

Holding that guitar for a brief moment two decades ago felt like some guilty, illicit pleasure. Everything inside me knew I shouldn’t have been messing with it, but the rush of getting caught made it all the more thrilling. I strummed a few chords, ignorant to the function of the switches, yet marveling at its beauty and quality of the sound I was hearing. It was clear to me then that I wasn’t worthy of such a guitar.

When Mike heard that I was coming back to my hometown of York, PA for a quick visit, he asked if I’d be able to get it back into playing shape as a Christmas gift for his dad. Of course I said yes!

That night as I stood over the guitar—the guitar—I paused for a moment before I dared touch it. I thought back to that first trespass, handling his dad’s Jaguar as if it were a priceless artifact, caught up in wonder and amazement. Surely, at that time, it had been the nicest instrument I had ever seen, let alone played. I wondered, was I worthy of it yet? I breathed, spoke aloud a quick thank you to any deity that may have been listening, and got to work. For two hours, I attended to it with the same thoughtful, careful attitude I try to lend to every instrument.

fullsizerender_1Before I arrived, Mike gave me a run-down of what the guitar might need. For starters, he wasn’t getting any sound out of the thing, and my first thought was that the Rhythm Circuit switch may have a bad solder joint. When I finally got my hands on it, the solder joints didn’t look obviously inoperable, but I thought it a safe bet to simply reflow a few key joints. This certainly helped, and suddenly I was getting sound from the Lead Circuit, with intermittent functionality of the RC.

It took a few minutes of turning the Rhythm volume and tone controls, but it turned out that those pots were just so dirty from disuse that they wouldn’t pass signal. Ideally, I’d have sprayed them out with contact cleaner, but alas, this was one thing I forgot to mention when I sent Mike my laundry list of tools I’d need to do the work. They cleaned up beautifully just by being turned over and over, and I told Mike to get some cleaner before too long.

Back in 1996, I remember asking why Mike’s dad never seemed to play the thing. The complaint then was that it just didn’t play all that great, and that was still a problem today. I don’t think the guitar had ever been set up, at least, not by someone that understands the intricacies of Fender Offset Guitars. Strung with too-light strings and with the bridge too high and saddles set at the wrong radius, it was clear that this guitar hadn’t been comfortable to play for ages.

fullsizerender_2I took the strings off, removed the bridge, and gave the guitar a thorough cleaning, from finish to frets. It wasn’t filthy by any means, but the frets showed signs of disuse and the finish had a dull shine. It’s Christmas, after all; this should feel like an entirely new guitar. After a good polish of the finish and frets, and some lemon oil for the rosewood fretboard, this guitar came right back to life.

I had Mike pick up a set of 11 gauge strings, which is usually the lightest I’ll recommend for Jaguars. I lowered and pre-radiused the saddles by eye and re-installed the bridge, intending to fine-tune it later on. To my surprise, the guitar actually played pretty well with just that done, but I decided to give the truss rod another quarter-turn to really dial in the relief. With 11s and the correct amount of neck angle, those strings weren’t going anywhere.

Because the guitar just wasn’t staying in tune before I started my work, I paid special attention to every point of contact on the strings, lubricating the nut and making sure it was properly cut for the gauge being used. Ideally, I’d like to replace the nut on this one at some point, but there just wasn’t time for that on this quick trip home. Another day, then! The trem was also wildly out of adjustment, so I zeroed in on the sweet spot for both the Trem Lock to work as intended and for optimum string tension, and the whole guitar snapped right back in to perfect functionality. Bam!

fullsizerender_3When I was finished, I hovered above the thing, not quite sure how to feel. This was the guitar from my youth that elicited such passion, though my ignorance kept me from fully embracing the model. I couldn’t believe that I was able to give back, as it were, to that first Jaguar. I dreamed about this shimmering blue guitar for years, and here I was, ready to play it as it should always have been. And play, I did; the sound, the feel, the response… it was magical.

Life has come full-circle, in a way. What an honor it was to care for this instrument! Thanks, Mike!

 

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The Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI: a 100% Pun-Free Upgrade Guide

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My Squier VI lounging with Paul Frank’s amazing Custom Shop model, strung with Gabriel Tenorio strings

While Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar seem more popular than ever, the Bass VI still seems mysterious, or at the very least, under-appreciated. Players seem confused by its mere presence in the catalog: Is it a bass? Is it a guitar? Is it a baritone?

Let’s clear up the confusion right now: The Bass VI is a bass guitar in the strictest sense. Tuned E to E a full octave lower than a standard guitar, the VI is an incredibly versatile instrument that’s as well-suited for familiar chord shapes as it is for punchy bass lines.

Right now, the easiest way to get into a VI is the Squier Vintage Modified model. Fundamentally a great instrument, the Squier VI ticks all of the right boxes for me: it has Jaguar-style pickups and the all-important fourth Bass Cut switch, it’s affordable, and it’s damn fun to play. We’re still talking about an import model, so if you pick one up and find it lacking, I’m here to provide a handy upgrade guide to the “ba-VI” of “VI-sessfully” upping your Squier’s “VI appeal” into a machine for making “mu-VI.” (My deepest apologies for how poorly those puns worked.)

The first mod I’m going to suggest can hardly be called a mod at all, but believe you me, it’s crucial.

STRINGS

Far and away, the most common complaint with current Bass VI models is that the low E string lacks tension. You’ll hear it described as “floppy” or “sloppy,” and those adjectives sum it up nicely. It feels unbalanced and just can’t stand up to aggressive picking.

The problem with your Bass VI’s low E is thanks to a too-light gauge of string. When Fender released the Bass VI in 1961, the standard set was made up of strings gauged .026”-.095”, and that .095” is key here. At some point in the recent past, the low E string changed to .084” which is woefully under-built for the task. A .095” E is going to feel taut, stable, and will gleefully accept heavy attack, whereas the lighter string ends up feeling, well, just as described in the paragraph above.

In my view, the most essential mod you can perform on your VI is installing a heavier, more balanced string set. Even without upgrading the bridge or swapping pickups, this very simple and easily overlooked tweak can tighten up the whole instrument and bring back the low end that’s so sorely missing with the stock strings.

Because this information doesn’t seem to be collected anywhere, here’s a handy shortlist of string makers that offer a good set of VI strings with adequately heavy E string, which I’ll update as I stumble upon them. The only set Fender currently offers is gauged .024″-.084″, sadly.

La Bella (Flats and Rounds)
Kalium (Rounds, tons of options)
Gabriel Tenorio String Company (Rounds and Gabriel’s new Ground Wounds)

Or, if you want a genuine set from the 1960s

BRIDGE

A '62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

An original ’62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

If you ever have a chance to inspect a vintage Bass VI, you’ll notice that the original bridge is much wider than the one found on most reissues, which is just a standard offset bridge slapped on likely due to the costs of tooling-up for such a niche item. That original 1” width is a big part of the Bass VI functionality puzzle, which translates to more flexibility when it comes to intonation. Original examples have nearly twice the saddle travel as the current part, and with the Bass VI’s 30” scale, every little bit is precious.

The stock Squier VI bridge

The stock Squier VI bridge

The bridge found on the Squier Bass VI is essentially the same as the other VM offsets, save for the adjustable Mustang-style saddles, which have deep grooves and the ability to set the radius of the strings to match the fretboard. It does, however, have a propensity to rattle around so much that even correct offset setup techniques may not quell it. (See my Demystifying series for more info)

What to do? Track down an original bridge from the 1960s or 1970s? Nah, Staytrem’s got you covered with their fantastic and appropriately wide Bass VI bridge. If you’re looking for a stable bridge that’ll intonate for sure, this is the way to go. I have a Mastery on my personal Squier, and while it does intonate perfectly for me, your mileage may vary depending on string gauge and type as well as setup.

TREM

img_8743As I mentioned in my recent article on the J.Mascis model, if you’re planning on using the vibrato you really should upgrade this part. Import vibratos are made of inferior metals and often have manufacturing flaws that render them less stable than their US-made counterparts.

A great solution here is obtaining a Fender AVRI/AV65 vibrato, especially if you’re on a budget. I’ve chosen the Mastery Vibrato for my own specifically because of the heavy-duty spring Mastery uses, which replicates the sturdier feel of early 1960s units and really stands up to the extra tension of those thick strings.

 

NUT

As you might expect, the nut work on these instruments is passable, but not great. The soft plastic used wears easily, and the slots are often too tight even for the string gauge used at the factory. I’ve also seen a number of them with poor string spacing, but hey, I don’t expect perfection on a sub-$500 instrument.

I highly recommend having the nut replaced by a competent tech in the material of your choice; my preference is bone. And for those of you that use the vibrato, a properly-cut nut is your best defense against tuning issues.

ELECTRONICS

The electronics in the Squier Vintage Modified series are, understandably, on the cheap side of things. I’ve seen and heard of a number of VMs that had wiring issues or faulty parts right out of the box, so if you’re going to be using this instrument heavily I would insist that you have the instrument rewired with higher quality pots, switches, capacitors, and even replace the jack while you’re at it. Not only will you end up with an instrument you can really trust, you’ll also have better sound as a result.

Look to CTS, Bourns, or my good friends at Emerson Custom for pots, Switchcraft for the jack and switches, and any number of options exist for capacitors. Most of these parts can be found via AllParts or Angela.

Note: US parts will require enlarged holes on the volume-tone control plate.


PICKUPS

While I confess that you can get by with the Squier in its stock configuration, let’s be honest: there are better pickups out there. They’re a little trebly, a bit noisy, and too weak on output to keep up with other basses. It’s well worth your time to explore the myriad pickup options that exist in today’s market, but where to start?

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

In my mind, Curtis Novak has his finger firmly on the pulse of offset guitars’ unique capabilities, and he’s the first person I bring up when a customer has a specific sound in their head. From traditional sounds to obscure designs stuffed into familiar covers, Curtis excels at wringing every last drop of tone from your instrument.

For Bass VI, he offers both the early ’61-’62 Jack Bruce-style pickups and the Jaguar-style pickups that came as standard on the model from 1962 onward. However, if you’re looking for something different, I’m sure Curtis could wind up a trio of his Jaguar-sized Lipsticks, some unique Gold Foils, or even something humbucking if you’re that kind.

Another good option would be the fantastic pickups made by our friend Jaime of At The Creamery. He offers a VI set with much higher output than the stock pickups, and with custom options if desired. Jaime does exceptional work!

On my personal VI, I started out by building a set out of three Fender AV65 Jaguar pickups, which I really like. They’re affordable and great-sounding pickups for the price, but ultimately, a little too bright for my tastes. If you need a good Tic-Tac sound, this would be a great way to go. If you create a set out of three separate pickups, do pay attention to output in each position as well as polarity to make sure they all play well together.

Currently, my VI is loaded with a set wound by our good friends a Lollar Pickups, which have a bump in midrange and output, and they really keep up with my other instruments no matter the setting. Plenty of bass on tap and clarity through any amp. I’m a huge fan of Lollar Pickups.

TUNERS

Prepare to be amazed: there’s no good reason to toss these. The Kluson-style tuners you find stock on the Squier VI are great. On the many examples I’ve had across my bench, I have never found them to be problematic. Keep them.

LINE VI

When Squier introduced their take on the VI, I was immediately excited. At the time, the VI wasn’t an instrument I was keen to spend a lot of money on, simply because I didn’t think I’d be using it heavily. Squier made that sound accessible and did so with a lot of bang for the buck. When you mod this instrument, it isn’t so much a lipstick-on-a-pig scenario, you’re genuinely taking a good instrument and making it better.

My VI and '73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

My VI and ’73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

To that point, I recently joined my good friends Vanessa and Sarah, a duo better known as Leo Leo. The LA-based contemplative rock-pop outfit plays complex, beautiful music that’s as energetic as it is challenging; they are one of my favorite bands. When they asked me to tour with them on bass, I have to admit that I was overjoyed and overwhelmed, especially with just a week to learn ten songs. It was a lot of work, but I’m so proud of the noise we made together at those shows.

At the center of my bass sound: my trusty Squier VI. I plugged into a borrowed Salvage Custom board (thank you, Gabriel!) populated with pedal necessities run through a mini SVT. Night after night, that thing performed beautifully and never let me down. Even as we rehearsed, it became clear that the VI was the sound. It proved to be such a bruiser that next time, I may leave my ’73 Precision Bass at home.

Each time I took it out of its case, I was immediately greeted with questions from perplexed onlookers that wondered about my weird bass. I showed it off proudly and handed it over to person after person, none of whom could believe what they were playing was a lowly Squier. There was only one occasion before a show where a churlish bassist chided me for playing––and I quote––a “piece of shit.”

I’m happy to say that I proved him wrong that night. I’m proud to play my Squier.

Here's how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!)

Here’s how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!) See below for a post-mod comparison.

This one's getting a TON of use in the @leoleoband set for the tour that starts—holy shit—tomorrow. Now, the weight of this Squier Bass VI never bothered me until we started this hours-long rehearsal process, but at the end of the night my back is screaming at me for relief. I think it may be time to look into a real '60s VI refin or something, that is of course assuming that the band wants to keep me! 😁 I also wish it were brightly-colored, but eh, such is life. Upgrades: -Lollar pickups -Fenderparts mint guard -Mastery Bridge + Vibrato (thanks Woody!) -upgraded wiring -La Bella Deep Talkin' Flats -Matching headstock #guitar #bass #bassvi #leoleo #tour #masatour #makeamericashakeagain #squier #fender #offsetguitars #lollarpickups #masterybridge #fenderparts

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When Relics Go Wrong: A Cautionary Tale

Whether or not you’re a fan of the look of so-called “Relic” instruments, the appeal is certainly there and well-represented in the guitar market. Day after day, there’s a new “old” guitar on my favorite gear site, touting authenticity and that same feel as well-used vintage instruments at a price that’s usually many thousands less.

IMG_0458Relicking–and etymology will back me up on that spelling–is a divisive topic in the world of guitars and guitar ephemera. Some argue that it’s disingenuous, that scars should be earned and not faked; others admit that it’s a feel-thing, and many unabashedly love a good relic and to heck with what anyone else thinks.

Me, I’m right there in the middle. Good fake wear can look great, but bad fake wear looks, well, terrible. I mean, there are some truly awful relic jobs out there, and while I won’t call any out in particular, I would point to my next statement as the only thing I’m prepared to say about the visual aspects of artificial aging techniques:

When ageing a guitar, a bit of mindfulness goes a long way.

And that goes double for functionality. I’m not here to argue over looks. What I care about first and foremost is making sure that making guitars look old and used doesn’t impede the viability of a given instrument. Have you ever tried to remove a fake-aged screw from a pickguard only to have the head snap off on the first try? A bridge saddle you couldn’t raise because the saddle screws refused to budge? A set of relic tuners were tough to turn even with extra lubricant applied? I’ve had to deal with all of the above on more than one occasion.

I recently recently worked on a Jaguar, one that was exceptionally well-made and superbly playable, yet it had one fatal flaw: because of the over-the-top nature of the rusty parts, the tension adjustment screw on the vibrato was frozen to the spring retainer, rendering proper adjustment of the vibrato impossible. Frustrating, to say the least.

FullSizeRender(8)No matter what I tried, from DIY suggestions of white vinegar or Coca-Cola, soaking it in WD-40 overnight, even a number of other high-concept solutions, I just could not free the screw from the set nut. Eventually, the tension screw broke in half from all of my hopeful twisting, but we planned on replacing the entire spring assembly anyway. There was no way I was going to call a job finished when the thing couldn’t be adjusted.

The true irony of this situation is that these parts don’t rust like that on vintage guitars. Even the most beat-up, weathered vintage Jazzmasters and Jaguars we’ve had through the shop never exhibited this problem. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but for a shop like ours to specialize in these instruments and yet never encounter an example of such drastic corrosion is telling.

If you’re going to age a guitar artificially, it’s important to remember that, while a rusty screw might look cool, ultimately the part has a job to do. Functionality should always be priority number one.

There’s also the matter of relicking parts that are not meant to rust, like the Mastery Bridge. A feat of engineering by our good friend Woody, we’ve praised this bridge on numerous occasions. While we also adore and respect the original bridge design, the Mastery is nonetheless our favorite option for upgrading if one is so inclined.

Woody designed the bridge specifically so that it wouldn’t corrode. The Mastery website even has this to say: “Every part of our bridge is precision machined out of the highest quality, non-corrosive materials to protect against any rust.” So, when I see these bridges being artificially aged, I just don’t get it. I mean, sure, I understand that a new part on an old-looking guitar might seem out of place, but going so far combats the fundamental design of such a bridge. And while Mastery Bridges will certainly collect their fair share of dirt and grime from heavy use, I have yet to see one rust out so drastically.

Plus, the Mastery Bridge didn’t exist until 2008, so simulating 60 years of wear is anachronistic, and Federation temporal agents will be very cross with you indeed.IMG_7619

In many cases that have come across my repair bench, such a process renders this amazing bridge less functional, and sometimes, unusable. At this very moment, I have a lone Mastery saddle tossed aside in my parts drawer that can’t be adjusted thanks to overzealous ageing techniques.

So I ask intrepid fakers everywhere to please consider the consequences of extreme relic processes on the instruments we choose to make “old” lest we become like the lamentable genetic engineers of Jurassic Park. Heed the grave words of Ian Malcolm:

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Happy Birthday, Leo

I have always been bad with birthdays. Well, birthdays, numbers, names, locations… honestly, unless you want to know about guitar specs, 1980’s cartoons, Star Trek, and obsolete breakfast cereals, please don’t ask me questions. I will not know that answer, I’m telling you.

It’s not that I don’t know when they are generally, but also being a bad test-taker, the emotional stress of having to recall dates of supreme importance like birthdays––even my own!––forces me to make loud thinking noises until someone else answers for me. I remember not too long ago when I needed to pick up a prescription for my wife, and God bless her, she forgot to tell me there would be a pop quiz administered by the pharmacist. I ended up calling her from Rite-Aid to tell her that whatever ailment she had, well she was just going to have to wait it out, and thank the maker she wasn’t a crudely-named character in Oregon Trail.

You can imagine my near-shock when I awoke rather late this morning to discover it was August 10th. (I mean, yesterday was the 9th, so it wasn’t the sequential nature of the date.) Specifically, August 10th is the birthday of Leo Fender, a man that dreamed up the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar. What a guy!

Az-KD0QCEAAEmxn.png-largeDear Reader, do you truly understand the weight of that statement? Imagine a world without the Telecaster, imagine the evolution of popular music without the Precision Bass, the Twin amp, and the powerful, wiry sounds of the Stratocaster. This man couldn’t play a lick of guitar, yet he absolutely changed how music is made and played, as well as the world around him in profound ways. He didn’t invent rock ‘n roll, but his work certainly helped.

In honor of Leo’s 106th birthday, there are a lot of articles being published and a lot of celebratory forum threads you can check out with more info on the man and his career, so I’ll keep this one brief. Personally, there are a bunch of things I would love to thank him for, including blackface amps (the Twin Reverb and Bassman in particular) and the Esquire,  the Precision Bass, his wild and wonderful offset guitars with their vibratos, and by extension, my career.

I have seen a lot of guitars over the years, but when asked about my work, I always mention that I specialize in offset guitars. They are, without a doubt, my most favorite guitars ever made, and I cherish the ones I own more than any other instruments that have been in my possession. The sound, feel, and near limitless possibilities of these guitars gives me new ideas on a daily basis, causing me to wonder if even Leo himself understood just how cool his guitars are. Never before have I been so enthralled by a guitar as I have been with the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and because of that, people keep following me on Instagram, reading these blogs, and bringing them to me for setups, repairs, and restorations.

I realize that Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar exists thanks in no small part to Leo Fender and his instruments. The first time Mike Ball and I met, he was cleaning the fretboard of a red Mustang. When we got together at his practice space, we geeked out about Nels Cline and his black Jazzmaster. Later, I bought my first Jazzmaster from Mike. And when we decided to create our own guitar shop, we specifically targeted Jazzmasters and Jaguars as focal points. When we both ended up with ’61 Jazzmasters, it was serendipitous but not without a sort of cosmic intentionality, as if nothing could have been more right for us.

These guitars are why we have a following, why we’re dealers for Lollar and Novak pickups and Mastery Bridge products, and why we use and install all of them frequently. I mean, hell, we use a silhouette of a Jazzmaster in our damn logo. And woe to those that stumble into the shop to inquire about offset guitars, unprepared for the avalanche of ramblings with which we are likely to answer.

So thank you, Leo. Thank you for your enduring designs. Thank you for continually creating and innovating. Thank you for conjuring these fantastic and inspiring musical instruments from the wellspring of your mind. Thank you for making your amps loud, too; we like that part.

Without Leo Fender, I don’t know that I would be doing any of this. Without Leo, this world and its music would be a lot less interesting.

Thanks, Leo.

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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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