Tag Archives: review

Kinman “Nasty 90” Noiseless Jazzmaster Pickups: Make Noise without the Noise

Recently I was tasked with installing two Kinman “Nasty 90” P90 pickups into this Fender ’62 AVRI Jazzmaster. Already a great guitar, I was excited to hear how the Kinman pickups changed the sound compared with the stock Fender pickups I know so well. I spent time with Kinman pickups at some convention hall guitar gathering a few years back, and although I remember liking them I think we can all agree that guitar shows are among the worst places to actually hear how a thing sounds. The prospect of demoing them in the quiet comfort of my own home was alluring, to say the least.

Before you ask, yes, I totally forgot to take more pictures

Generally speaking, I come away from other noiseless pickups feeling like I was given a raw deal; it seems that the trade-off for hum-free operation is the loss of some pleasant frequencies as casualties of the noise cancellation process. Yet Kinman are widely praised for their ability to retain the tonality of classic single-coil pickups while eradicating 60 cycle hum in their trademark elegant and complex manner––the Nasty 90 pickups have over 200 parts!

Hype, hearsay, or honesty? The real question is, how’d they fare?

Pretty damn well, I’d say.

Installation

Installation of the pickups went smoothly, but was a bigger job than most simple pickup swaps. While Kinman’s proper Jazzmaster pickup is a drop-in replacement, the Nasty 90 pickup has a rather tall assembly, far too tall to install without routing. I removed about 5/8” of wood from the neck pickup rout and a little less in the bridge position. The Kinman website recommends removing 10mm from each cavity, but I wanted a little more room for hard foam so height adjustment was easier down the line. Anyway, I’d rather take a little too much than to have to do the job over again.

Additionally, the dimensions of these pickups also meant that I had to remove the big brass shielding tub present on this stock Fender Jazzmaster. The deeper pickups couldn’t be installed with the tub overhanging into the pickup routs, where it normally meets up with the brass plates found beneath the pickups. I also had to remove those plates, which I made up for with some foil tape as described in my previous article. This proved only to be a minor setback.

Once placed in their respective positions, the pickups were just as easy to connect to the wiring harness as any other pickup. The fit of those lovely black covers in the pickguard was snug but not too tight. I did note, however, that the pole piece spacing was a bit slim for the Mustang bridge installed on this guitar, so the pole pieces never quite lined up with the strings. Kinman offers multiple spacing options and I suspect that the spacing here would line up perfectly with a Mastery or Staytrem bridge.

Even with the very simple installation process, the Kinman website refers you to installation guides which I did not consult, locked away in the “members area” for which I did not register on principle. It’s puzzling that information deemed to be crucial is kept out of reach of a simple internet search; in any case, nothing untoward popped up during this job.

Implementation 

Let me say that these pickups sounded good. As is my test for good, growly P90s, I fired up my ’79 Marshall, cranked the gain, and chugged out the rhythm part from Weezer’s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” which I contend has some of the most massive sounds ever committed to tape. As I’d hoped, the Kinman Nasty 90s handled those tight inversions beautifully, exhibiting all of the colossal midrange I expect––nay, demand––from P90s.

The neck offered woolier tones while the bridge felt punchy and loud. As a guy who purposely runs bright guitars into dark amps, I did find the Nasty 90s to be a tad dark for my tastes. Even with the brightness of my ’65 Bassman piggyback, the pickups seemed to slightly favor midrange honk over treble clarity. This is the conceit of the Nasty 90 model, which the Kinman website calls “dark and syrupy” so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised or disappointed. I suspect that, were I to order a set, I’d be much happier with the standard Jazzmaster set or even the Clear or Sweet 90s models. If brightness is your bane, the Nasty may be just the right tincture.

And indeed, they were Q-U-I-E-T. So quiet, so noiseless were they that I found them a bit unnerving, as if my living room had become a vacuum. At first I even wondered if my amp was on, and it wasn’t until I slapped the strings did I realize that yes, it was on, and yes, I needed to turn down before the neighbors complained.

Impressions

I would wholeheartedly recommend these pickups to anyone frustrated by the excessive noise of their favorite single coil pickups. I think that Kinman’s done a remarkable job harnessing some of the magic of classic pickups while forging their own path on the quest for tone. After playing these pickups for the better part of a morning, I quite liked their sound and response, and at one point I totally forgot that I was playing a noiseless pickup.

The extra routing required for the P90 set is off-putting both from the extra work involved, and if you can’t do it yourself, the added expense of hiring a tech. Again, this isn’t an issue with the Kinman Jazzmaster set, yet worth noting for Jazzmaster owners looking for an easy P90 swap. And at $189USD each plus shipping from the Philippines, they aren’t the cheapest pickups around. But hey, you’re not here for cheap; if Kinman’s in your sights, then you’re after something special and you’ve likely factored in a premium price already.

If you’re in the market, the Kinman set should definitely be on your list. In future, I hope to get my hands on the Jazzmaster set for a direct comparison with my other guitars.

https://kinman.com/index.php

Just One More Thing…

And if you’ll indulge me one Columbo reference, the Kinman Jazzzmaster page makes the following claim:“Kinman transforms Jazzmaster into THE BEST Fender guitar.” These pickups are great, mind you, but lemme let you in on a little secret…
Come close.
Closer.
C L O S E R .
 

 

 

 

 

 

(it already is)
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SPITFIRE (You’ll Get Caught Up In The…)

They say money can’t buy happiness, but scoring a deal on a roughed-up 1963 Jaguar is pretty damn close. The guitar in question retained all of its original hardware and even the case, but because it had been poorly refinished in a horribly thick, yellowed-out white, it could be had at a deep discount. I had been looking for a project Jaguar to utterly ruin for some time, so I jumped on it.

As soon as it arrived, I set about the task of stripping the finish, which had the texture of a Pringle’s chip. I sent the body off to be refinished by the incomparable Joe Riggio, whose spot-on work truly deserves its own blog post. When it came back, the Charcoal Frost Metallic finish was perfect and the aging was tasteful as well as thoughtful. Joe is one of the few relickers out there that seems to understand that old guitars started out glossy, which is one reason his finishes look so authentic.

Once the guitar came back from Joe’s, I knew that such an attractive guitar would need an equally alluring pickguard as the original wasn’t fit for my purposes. For this, I turned to Mark of Spitfire Tortoiseshell Pickguards.

For the uninitiated, Spitfire Tortoiseshell Pickguards is the most respected purveyor of vintage-style shell. Whereas many of the available shell guards on the market lack the depth and character of the original Fender celluloid guards, Mark has approached the task of recreating that swirly handsomeness as a true craftsman.

Each bespoke piece is handcrafted using a number of made-to-order options to narrow down color and degree of aging suitable to match the customer’s instrument. And even better, Mark is a pleasant sort of fellow who puts up with endless questions with an ironclad resolve. Believe you me, I tested this extensively. When you speak with him, you get the sense that he really wants you to love his work because he loves his work.

It’s Good to Have Options

When you order, the form will run you through all of the possible selections, from color to style, to the various types of relicking available. There are four basic colors––Faded Orange, Bright Red, Vintage Burgundy, and Vintage Dark––as well as a range of different pattern types; “Subtle” is a very gentle gradation from orange to red, appearing almost solid from a distance; “Speckled” is what you’d expect from most early tort guards, with more distinct patterns; “Crazy” has very pronounced, sometimes jagged bursts of color; “Solar Flare” is for the more adventurous, making a bold, brash visual statement that’s worthy of the churning, molten nature of our solar system’s bright center.

“Condition” allows you to choose the degree to which the guard is artificially aged, from new to Extra Heavy. New guards will, obviously, look brand new while the relic process becomes more drastic from there. Extra Light guards will have the patina of a closet-kept example, while Heavy will resemble a guard that’s seen thousands of nicotine-soaked bar gigs and relinquished its glossy shine long ago. If you want the premier vintage experience, you can even have them pre-warped!

In addition to those options, you’ll also see the price breakdown for pickguards, ranging from a modest $50 for white, $75 for mint, and all the way up to $230 for relic tort guards. Let’s be real: It’s true that $200 for a pickguard will seem steep to many of you reading this, and I fully understand. Like many of the toys we guitarists employ, a Spitfire pickguard is a luxury item, so if you’re unconcerned by vintage-correct looks and a 30-degree bevel, then there are plenty of other options out there.

However, I think the price point justifies itself relatively easily. For the sake of perspective, actual vintage Fender pickguards routinely sell for $300 and higher, so choosing a Spitfire guard––made to your specs and without the threat of shrinkage––makes good sense when you’re in the market. Surely, there are other options for custom guards, but none of them offer the level of detail or control over the look of the thing, only how it’s cut. The attractive nature of Spitfire’s work and the number of available colors makes it well worth the asking price.

I Went With A Burgundy

I can hardly believe it’s the same guitar

Clicking submit sends your order off to Mark, who will follow up to let you know he’s received it. Ask him some pressing questions if need be, lay down the $50 deposit, and you’re set! If it all seems a bit overwhelming, bear in mind that you’re not just picking something off of the shelf, you’re ordering unique kit custom-tailored specifically for your guitar, and this will help Mark match it perfectly.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of installing a few Spitfire guards, so I knew the fiery nature of Mark’s work well. Fit and finish is normally excellent, and once installed the Spitfire guard lends a certain allure to the instrument. When compared with modern tort, especially that found on new production instruments, the difference is staggering.

I ordered a Vintage Burgundy guard in the Speckled ‘60s variety, lightly aged. The time between ordering my guard and receiving it was about two weeks, which isn’t bad at all. When it finally arrived, I was floored by how vivid and bold the pattern looked in person. Deep reds and browns as well as orange-yellows were present, and the swirl was particularly lovely. I especially like how the colors seem to dance like flame in direct sunlight.

I took an immediate liking to the guard as well as the new “Thin Line” material, with white-black-white layering which more accurately replicates the sandwiched materials of vintage 1960s pickguards. The aging was also tasteful and not at all overblown like one might expect in this era of torched and mutilated custom guitars. The shine was dulled a bit, but not completely eradicated, and the edges were given a touch of a brownish-yellow hue to tone down the bright white of freshly-cut plastic.

Detail of Spitfire’s lightly-aged edge

 

The general fit of the guard to my 1963 Jaguar body was snug as far as the outer perimeter is concerned, better than most other aftermarket guards, too. The lines of the pickguard mated cleanly with those of the Jaguar’s various control plates, a characteristic fault of aftermarket Jaguar guards. It may be true that they’re a tougher guitar to get right––what, with all of the control plates––but Mark’s made short work of it. A couple of the screw locations didn’t line up perfectly, particularly in the treble-side cutaway. This didn’t totally surprise me, given that it’s a vintage guitar and I believe Mark uses an AV65 template. In any case, they aren’t so off that I won’t be able to mount it, but concerned parties should know that sending a tracing isn’t out of the question.

In the interest of being Fair and Balanced (remember that?) I suppose my one critique would be with the images presented on the Spitfire website. There’s a lack of consistency in lighting and quality throughout the Gallery section, where the mix of sunlit and indoor photos can lead to some confusion between the four basic tort varieties, particularly with the very different Bright Red and Burgundy where many shots imply some overlap. (see below)

Different but close: Bright Red (top) and Vintage Burgundy (bottom) from Spitfire’s website

Of course, these are mainly comprised of images from happy customers, which is surely a fine thing––and so many of them, too! I think even a single well-lit professional studio shot of the four styles placed together would do the trick, something that gives potential customers a better idea of what they should expect when ordering.

Twas a Very Good Year

Spitfire on top, 1961 on bottom

So, how does Spitfire hold up when compared with original 1960s tort? Beautifully! It’s definitely in the same arena as vintage tort, although it does have its own distinctive look. That’s not to say it’s inferior by any stretch, but it’s difficult to quantify until you’ve seen them both side-by-side. Here’s a shot of the Spitfire next to the original guard on on Pancake, my 1961 Jazzmaster.

For lack of a better descriptor, I’d say the Spitfire is more ‘in focus’ if that makes any sense; the Fender piece has a sort of burred smoothness to its pattern whereas the Spitfire has cleaner, more defined edges to its colors. There’s also a tightness to the grouping of colors here, with yellows most prevalent in the middle of the guard, with browns and dark reds surrounding. The ’61 material more or less stays uniform throughout.

This, however, is the strength of the Spitfire: It’s a one-of-a-kind work of art, like a thumbprint for your guitar. With Spitfire, you’re guaranteed to receive something that no one else will have, something meant to enhance the visual essence of your instrument. Instead of simply rehashing the techniques of old, Spitfire’s taken them a step further. The results? Gorgeous.

Check out Spitfire and start your order HERE. Now to find time to finish this Jaguar.

 

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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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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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Ampersand Sound Solutions’ Cherry Bomb is the… Bomb?

IED? No. C4? Grenade? Warhead? Whatever the kids are saying these days, one thing is for certain: this amp is frightfully good.

Owen Backtacks and Paul Campbell of Ampersand Sound Solutions

Back in late July, the boys from Ampersand Sound Solutions (henceforth referred to as Ampersound) stopped on by the Guitar Bar for a “demo and drink” session–a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, if I do say so myself. In tow was their entirely hand-made creation, which they lovingly refer to as the Cherry Bomb. Preemptive pun apology: This thing has explosive tone.

Mike B. will likely brand me a heretic for this, but I have a confession to make: I’ve never played a Tweed Bassman that I liked. There, I said it. Black and Silverface models are the ones I connect with, but each and every time I’ve plugged into a ’59 Bassman–vintage or reissue–I just couldn’t get past what I felt to be sterile tone and a lack of punch. I felt this way so strongly that, for a time, I associated all tweed amps with lackluster tone and avoided them at all costs. I know, pretty harsh.

Purists will likely burn me at the stake, but even if I never liked them I fully understand why they’re so coveted. The ’59 Bassman circuit is regularly lauded for their touch sensitivity, natural compression, simplicity and ability to fill a room with lots of sound. These are all qualities I look for when choosing an amp, but something about this model just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s the 4×10″ speaker complement, the clean-as-can-be circuit design (I like just a touch of hair on my clean sounds) or the loud/louder volume controls. Still, when other people play them, I think they sound fantastic.

Enter the Cherry Bomb, Ampersound’s tweaked and beefed-up version of the ’59 Bassman circuit. Ampersound have taken liberties with this tried-and-true circuit design, and the results are impressive, especially for a guy like me. The most notable difference between the stock model and the Cherry Bomb is that they’ve substituted Sovtek 6550WE power tubes whereas originals are 6L6 based. And wouldn’t you know it, 6550s are my favorite tube. Remember that punch I whined about earlier? They deliver that punch, but retain the transparency of 6L6 tubes with just a bit more headroom. Rectifier is a 5U4GB, which works in tandem with the 6550s to provide healthy sag.

Other tweaks include inputs decoupled from the rest of the circuit (for both cleanliness and safety’s sake) and beefier power diodes and filtering in the bias circuit for stability in less than ideal conditions. This means the amp is better able to handle fluctuations in voltage without the kid glove treatment or catastrophic failure.

All of this is fine and good, but there’s one question that I know anyone reading this is asking: “How does it sound?” Pretty damn good. The boys have spared no expense in making this amp an exercise in tonal bliss, and the result is an amp with all of the dynamics, compression and warmth of the original, but with more… everything. It has punch, precision control over volume, and an updated tone that is essentially everything I felt was missing about the originals I’ve played. While it retains the woody texture of the Fender design, the Cherry Bomb inexplicably doubles down on tonal control, with controls that are not only precisely centered on aural sweet spots, but provide a vast range of variation with the turn of a knob. I swear, I’ve never heard an amp react so noticeably to minor tweaks, like a solider taking orders. Especially that Presence control, which is a knob that I usually set at minimum on most amps; this one was actually usable without destroying my ears.

Why is this? Owen Backtacks of Ampersand Sound Solutions explains:

“…we modified the presence circuit to use a 25k pot instead of the usual 5k as we found the standard Bassman circuit was rather inefficient at controlling the negative feedback and was inherently leaking some voltage across that pot unnecessarily. Now the presence control is way smoother and more pronounced.”

All of this adds up to more control and less harshness. It’s not just the high frequencies that are worth mentioning here; plenty of bass and a woody-yet-full midrange add up to a delightfully rich sound, and no matter what settings I used on the amp I couldn’t find one that wasn’t usable. It didn’t matter which input we plugged into–or if we jumpered them–the Cherry Bomb does not have a bad sound in it. This thing would be a huge asset in a studio environment–it could even be the only amp around and still cover all of the bases. Wooly jazz tones? Check. Glassy Fender brilliance? Check. Goosed Marshallesque mids? Checkmate.

Mike B. taking the Cherry Bomb for a test drive. Dig on that Paisley Telecaster!

Cranking this amp is a joy. In our small shop, we didn’t have the ability to go as full-on loud as we would have liked (the less our neighbors hate us the happier we are) but even so, I was really struck by how this amp never muddied up. The higher that volume knob went, the more three-dimensional this amp sounded. While it’s designed for clean headroom, the amp took on a really pleasant sort of grit once we hit 5, though in our test it never went into full on drive territory. Turning up, it just kept on sounding great, seemingly egging us on to go even higher.

Ever played an amp that felt like it was having more fun than you? That’s the Cherry Bomb. And did I mention that this amp LOVES pedals? I just so happened to have my monolithic pedal board on hand, and I decided to see if I could tame this amplifier. It responded dutifully to medium overdrive courtesy of the Fulltone OCD, taking the middy presence of that pedal and imparting its own roundness and bite. I could have nailed SRV, Angus Young or Kerry King here.

Moving on to a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, I was surprised to hear the amp respond differently, cheerfully lapping up all of the harsher fizziness I could muster and throwing back some of its own in return in true ’60s fashion, as well as thickening up  on the low end. A pedal famous for its ability to kill amplifiers due to its excessive amount of volume, I’ve never been able to use the Fuzz Factory past its 10 o’clock setting with my Marshall JMP. I’m happy to report that the Cherry Bomb took noon to 1:30 in stride, shrugging off my puny attempts at ruination.

Switching out for a Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive (an amazing pedal we’ll be reviewing sometime soon) this amp went from a classic rock powerhouse to a harbringer of sonic doom of apocalyptic proportions. Oscillations, gated fuzz, and even maxing out both volume and gain couldn’t KO this one; it seemed to have a death wish, smiling all the while. It. Sounded. Huge.

My final test for breaking up an amp involves what I call “Organ Tone”: my VPJR volume pedal, an EHX Micro POG, a Line 6 DL4 and the Strymon Bluesky Reverberator. Everything is set to full on the Micro POG, the DL4 has a Gilmourish slow delay and a slight boost, and the Bluesky is on its room setting, with the most cavernous reverb one could ever ask for. While this usually produces a beautiful, make-you-say-hallelujah pipe organ sound, when paired with the wrong amp it could also provide huge amounts of breakup. Surprisingly, the amp didn’t break up at all and was possibly the best example of that tone that I’ve heard. And once again, the Cherry Bomb was all, “Like, whatever.”

Some of the tonal goodness of this amp can also be attributed to its mismatched speaker complement: two Jensen P10Q ALNICOs and two Celestion Greenbacks. In this configuration, each set of speakers plays well with the other, making up for what the other set is lacking. The P10Qs have the depth and presence that the Greenbacks lack, whereas the Greenbacks bring their signature midrange focus to the mix, with an old-school crispiness that makes for an exceedingly versatile setup.

Words can only do so much when speaking of tone, but as for aesthetics I can just show you how breathtakingly good-looking this amp is:


It could be furniture, but it’s also an amp! The cabinet has nearly the same dimensions as a traditional Bassman, but is just a bit taller and shallower from front to back. Speakers attach to a Birch ply baffle and are housed in a beautifully crafted, dovetailed solid Cherry cabinet that one has to see to truly believe. The face of the amp is capped off in flamed maple, with precisely rounded corners and finishing touches that all spell Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y. From wiring to construction, this thing is a beast!

I know I’ve talked and talked about this amp already, so I’m going to sum it all up for you: Ampersand Sound Solutions has a real winner on its hands with this one, and the amp is exciting as hell; you’d be wise to look out for this one. Whether you like Tweed Bassman amps or not, this is one to watch. If you love ’em, this one could provide you with a more versatile version of your beloved tweed friend that’s great for gigs or recording. If you’re like me, it could mean sonic salvation, a tonal transformation, a Bassman Baptism of sorts.

All I can say is, I’m a believer.

-Michael James Adams

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