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#NAMM2017 DAY 1!

Hail and well-met, favored readers. As you may already know, Thursday marked the first official day of the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show. Hall after hall, exhibit after exhibit, there’s so much gear packed into each square foot that it’s difficult at first to take it all in. I spent my first day milling around, getting my bearings on the densely-populated show floor, and in the company of good friends and new real-life acquaintances which were formerly of the internet-only variety.

Though I did my best to see and experience as much as possible, there was just too much to pack into a single day, so I’ll be returning to NAMM 2017 for two more days of coverage. In the mean time, I’ve hit some of the bigger booths to give you a taste of what’s in store for this year’s show.

EARTHQUAKER DEVICES (BOOTH 4296)

Running behind as I was, I rushed to get to the EarthQuaker Devices booth before the Vanessa Wheeler demo set was over. Alas, it turned out that she had fifteen less minutes than I believed, so I missed it. Still, I’m proud of my good friend for landing such a cool gig! And from the videos I watched on Instagram, her singer-songwriter vibe and chordal wizardry paired beautifully with the subtler side of EQD.

In turn, this afforded me the chance to fully experience EQD’s range of pedals with a BilT Relevator through their headphone rig. Among my faves from this year’s setup were the Acapulco Gold (a single-knob distortion) and the Rainbow Machine, which is pure joy in pink pedal form. The new Space Spiral seemed to be all the rage, and sure enough, this modulated and ethereal delay gave me literal chills, boasting sounds I never imagined coming from a delay pedal. It is 100% worth your time.

img_4637We stayed to see a demo set by Sarah Lipstate, who weaves spooky and cinematic tapestries of sound under the moniker Noveller. Armed with a ’65 Jaguar and a host of clever boxes, Sarah showered us in washy, moody tunes that were orchestrated movements rather than songs. Moaning and wailing, her guitar sounded less and less traditionally “guitar-like” as her set waned on. This is what I love about EarthQuaker’s NAMM presence: they choose such a wide range of musicians that the versatility of their pedals is absolutely clear.

Before we left the EQD area, we met up with a few cherished souls, among them Chandler Eggleston (guitarist for Carter Winter) and Andrew Sinclair from Madlab Coffee. We banded together, feeling much safer in numbers as we traversed the busy show floor.

FENDER (300E)

img_4640From EarthQuaker, we headed straight upstairs to check in on what Fender was up to at NAMM 2017. Fender’s exhibit is even more exciting than last year, boasting a ton of Custom Shop instruments and the new American Pro line as well. The full AMPRO line was well-represented: Strats, Teles, Jazzmasters, Jaguars, Precision and Jazz basses too. Decked out in new, bright colors, your first look at 2017 Fender is a pretty sight for sure.

Walking toward the rear of the exhibit, you’ll start seeing Journeyman and Masterbuilt guitars for the year. Among my favorites were a Journeyman Relic Bass VI in Shell Pink, a host of sparkle-finished Custom Shop guitars, and a special collaboration with my pal Paul Frank. Yes, that Paul Frank. This Telecaster features a custom-printed foil paper under a lovely metallic burst, a Curtis Novak gold foil in the neck, and one of Fender’s new RD bridges. I always love to see Paul’s cartoons put to good use on a musical instrument.

The Paul Frank Telecaster is so wacky. I love it.

The Paul Frank Telecaster is so wacky. I love it.

We also ran into our pal Matthew Farrar from Fender’s Artist Relations department and had a lovely chat about staying healthy during NAMM. If you’ve never been, you may not have heard about the yearly bug that goes around, not-so-affectionally known as NAMMthrax. Having suffered from this last year––like a mix of the flu, pneumonia, and the less savory bodily functions––I can tell you, it’s earned a fearful reverence from attendees and exhibitors alike. Matt recommended getting sick before NAMM, but for those less inclined to get sick at all, carrying some hand sanitizer and overloading on multi-vitamins seems to be the usual preparation.

GIBSON

Before heading back downstairs to the main floor, we stopped by Gibson’s hall. As I walked between the ropes leading inward, a Gibson-branded girl in tiny shorts stopped me by placing her hand on my stomach. She then grabbed my badge and scanned it without saying a word. This was weird and uncomfortable.

Andrew is a total boss

Andrew is a total boss

It seems that scanning the QR code on our badges (and the personal info that goes with it) is the price of entry here. Andrew smartly asked if they were taking his info and when the girls answered in the affirmative, he held his badge against his chest and exclaimed “CAN WE NOT” as he passed them. I admired him for that.

Realistically, this probably leads to an innocuous email list, one that I’ll likely unsubscribe from as soon as the first blast hits my inbox. No harm, right? Thing is, this just didn’t feel good to me, and that’s the real damage here: Making consumers and retailers feel uncomfortable and possibly less welcome while trying to build buzz for new models seems like a total misfire.

Simply asking if I’d like to sign up for more info would have sufficed, or perhaps incentivizing the move somehow would have smoothed over the whole transaction; just taking it didn’t sit well with me. Gibson doing so with neither explanation nor respect for personal space made me want to leave before I’d even crossed the threshold. It should also be noted that Gibson are the only exhibitor doing this.

This out-of-touch practice did little to ingratiate Gibson to myself or my friends, and in fact, we left mere seconds later without really caring about the guitars or other products found there. And that’s to say nothing of how outdated the whole “booth babe” concept remains in 2017. So, no, I won’t be covering Gibson.

BENSON & RONIN (Booth 2294)

img_4675It’s always good to see friends, and Chris Benson has always been a good one to the shop. We’re huge fans of his amps, from the 30W Chimera and 15W Monarch to the 1W Vinny head & cab. At the time a demo was going on, so I didn’t get to spend any time with Chris’ bass amp, which I’ve been dying to try. Another mission for Friday, I suppose.

At the same booth we also found Ronin guitars on display. I don’t know about you, but those deep carves and uniquely crafted lines just slay me. Such artistry begs to be played, but like I said before, a demo was going on. We were SO in the way. I did, however, manage to snag a few photos. Just look at that!

This is beautiful.

This is beautiful.

SINASOID MEETUP!

Our friends and makers of our very favorite cables on the planet (including my own signature Redbeard cable) held a small get-together for artists in their Hilton Hotel room toward the end of the day, a lovely time for all. We got to hear about plans for 2017 including some very exciting, very hush-hush developments for the company. With as much traction and support as they had in 2016, I think this year’s going to be huge for them. I’m so proud to be a part of their lineup.

REVERB.COM (Booth 4368)

img_4687It’s always good to run into the fine folks at Reverb.com. Although Reverb is a retailer, they still brought plenty of eye candy for the show, including a Sheltone Electric GalaxyFlite, a custom Jazzmaster that exceeds all expectations from price to playability. I’ve had the great honor of keeping and inspecting two of Shelton’s guitars over the last year, so do expect an in-depth review of his wares soon. Spoiler: I love them.

Reverb also had another of my favorite builders on display, namely Paul Rhoney. The last Oceana available for some time is available there, its striking red-and-black finish catching the eye the moment it’s in view. Paul’s put his company on hold for the moment, but he’s not gone for good! He just moved to Portland, OR and you can catch him at NAMM with Veritas Guitars (Booth 2290). I’ll be checking in with them over the next few days.

Vanessa was suitably infatuated with this one

Vanessa was suitably infatuated with this one

I also had the absolute pleasure of handling a hardtail Jazzmaster-style guitar from Electrical Guitar Company, a first for me. I’ve always wanted to spend some time with their aluminum instruments, and even though I didn’t get to plug this one in, I came away from it completely impressed. I’ve never owned a Travis Bean instrument––the company handles the reissues of these legendary beasts––but I’ve long admired their quality and unique feel and tone, so being able to experience these guitars in-person was a huge treat for me. THANKS, NICK!

The Electrical Guitar Company Ken Andrews (Failure) model.

The Electrical Guitar Company Ken Andrews (Failure) model.

END OF DAY 1

I’ll be back tomorrow with more photos, info, and scoops on what’s new at NAMM.

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“I’m Feeling Supersonic”, a Squier Super-Sonic Upgrade/Mod Guide

IMG_6309By Michael James Adams
Recently, a long-held dream of mine came true: finally owning a Vista Series Squier Super-Sonic.

When Squier released the Super-Sonic in the late 1990s, I was immediately smitten with its reverse-offset body and headstock, fast looks and the sparkly blue finished model in particular. I had to have one. Unfortunately, it took until May of 2013 – 17 years after it was released – to make that dream a reality. Why wait so long?

For one, I had never seen one in person as none of the guitar shops in my area were willing to take a gamble on a flashy Squier guitar. I think the look of the thing scared them off, and soon I became caught up in other instruments. I consider myself lucky to have owned quite a few cool pieces in my day, but once a month or so my mind would return to the Super-Sonic, which has become a bit of a collector’s item due to its rarity, and players are seeking them out for their short scale and more familiar control layout as compared to the model’s close relative, the Fender Jaguar.

I finally found one for sale via Craigslist, and this one happened to be in Ohio. The guy was open to shipping and payment via PayPal, and was totally up-front about the broken pickup selector switch, a few scratches and lack of a case. I’ve never been scared off by a guitar having been ‘played in’, as they say, and because I was able to negotiate a better price I had no hesitation in pulling the trigger.

Once the guitar arrived, it was clearly in great shape. Because of the sparkly finish it was really difficult to detect the scars the seller had mentioned, but once I found them they turned out to be mere surface abrasions that easily polished out. Win for me! There was an added strap button and the switch tip had unfortunately snapped-off and was hopelessly lost years ago.

Without hesitation, I set about bringing this treasure up to spec in the hopes I’d be able to play it loud and proud at a forthcoming gig. As Ten would say, “Allons-y!”

Electronics

Even though I’d been pining for a Super-Sonic for years, I was also well aware of their apparent shortcomings. Probably the biggest detractors from these amazing Japanese-made guitars are the pickups: Duncan-designed and produced in South Korea, these pickups are known for flabby, muddy sound and insane amounts of squeal. Once I finally had one in my hands, I knew instantly why so many disliked them. They’d have to go.

IMG_7380-impLucky for me, our good friends at Fastback Custom Guitars here in Seattle had just released their vintage-inspired ’59 Zebras, a set of pickups that aim to replicate that vintage Gibson sound with a slight modern twist. Not only do they sound great, but they also look the part, making them a beautiful addition to the already flashy nature of this guitar. A definite upgrade, and you can read my review of these impressive pickups here.

Next on the docket was replacing that broken pickup selector switch. Truth be told, I would have replaced it anyway, as I have little confidence in plastic-backed Asian market devices, having broken plenty of them in my day. Yes, my heart truly belongs to Switchcraft, and their short model was just the thing I needed for this project. Solidly built and just the right size, the switch also has a satisfying amount of resistance when flipping from pickup to pickup. AllParts also chooses randomly which color of tip to send, so I definitely lucked out with the correct black.

Since we’re being honest, I should admit that I just don’t trust the electronics found in most Japanese-made guitars. I’m not saying that the stock parts are unusable, but knowing how hard I am on guitars it’s always a good idea for me to fully upgrade the wiring harness. Pots, switches, wiring – all of it goes. I used cloth wire, CTS 500K pots and a .022 Orange Drop cap.

If you’re at all familiar with this model, you’ll note that the two controls found on its chrome plate aren’t what you’d expect; instead of the usual vol/tone combo, what we have here is two controls acting as individual volumes for each pickup. A nice thought, but I’m the kind of guy that likes having a tone control and a good capacitor on hand. I set about wiring the guitar in the more familiar 1950s Gibson tradition, for which I always use a 1950’s wiring diagram, which allows the pickups and tone cap to work together more transparently.

Hardware

I didn’t go quite this far because a) I’m quite content with the bridge as-as and b) I’m only willing to indulge my obsessive-compulsive upgrades to a certain extent. Even so, the original bridge and hardware aren’t bad at all. In fact, they’re quite good.

The original tuners work brilliantly, but if I were in the market for replacements I’d be looking to my favorite brand Tone Pros. Their Kluson-style machines are made with higher quality materials than the originals, and are super authentic in look but precision-machined for modern reliability. Wonderful stuff, there.

As for the bridge, it’s a great unit that stays in tune nicely. I could see myself going for a Callaham bridge at some point, but I’m not necessarily looking for true vintage Strat tones, you know? Man, what I’d really like to do is pull the trem, fill the cavity and route the body for a Jazzmaster/Jaguar vibrato and a Mastery. I won’t, but that would be amazing.

Cosmetics

Flashy as she was, there were a few visual detractors that I couldn’t simply gloss over; I’m a picky guy, I guess.

For one, the original knobs were a good bit smaller than standard Jaguar knobs, and of course won’t fit on the US pots I dropped in the guitar, so they had to go. I ordered some genuine Fender replacement knobs, which looked very, very new when they arrived. Given that my guitar had been played hard and had tarnished hardware, it didn’t make aesthetic sense to have bright, shiny knobs on the control plate. So, I set about the task of lightly aging them to match, using Other Mike’s ’63 Jazz Bass as my template.

IMG_6652IMG_6650

Using my coarse-grit polishing pads I was able to de-gloss the knobs sufficiently, and after that I sprayed some lightly tinted clear coat on them to soften the look of the indicator. After dirtying them up a bit, I was left with knobs that had the perfect well-worn attire that belied their age.

The other eyesore about the guitar was that the previous owner had added a strap button on the upper bout, a common mod for these guitars. If you didn’t know, the Super-Sonic has its upper strap button on the neck plate, utilizing a longer anchor screw to accommodate the button itself. Some people really don’t like this – I didn’t at first! – but having gotten used to the way attaching the strap to the neck plate button shifts the guitar forward I couldn’t see myself using the other ever again. So, I set about filling in the hole and making it as invisible as possible.

IMG_6795I doweled the hole with some scrap wood we had laying around the shop, and after the glue was dry my aim was to create a perfectly-shaped surface for whatever new finish I would lay on top. Because the addition of the new strap button had chewed out some extra wood, I had to use wood putty to fill in the missing bits. Simple enough!

After allowing the putty to cure for a few days, I was stuck wondering exactly how I was going to recreate the look of blue sparkle finish in such a small area. If it were a solid color or even a burst, that would be a far easier task; laying down sparkles in a convincing way would be tricky, especially when it comes to the way the original finish reflected light…

Then an idea struck me: “What about glitter glue?”, I wondered to myself. Soon enough, I found myself on the hunt for the right shade of glitter at Michael’s, which was appropriate. I stumbled upon the Recollections brand and found exactly what I was looking for: Peacock Blue.

That’s a nice match, innit? It’s even better out of the bottle. Michael’s only carried the two smallest flake sizes in their stores, so the next one up would have been perfect. But hey, I nailed the color, so why complain?

It took a few days to get this right, honestly; laying down layer after layer of glue and waiting for it to reduce as it dried, never quite being able to predict how the flakes would lay. Very tedious. After I achieved the right about of sparkle density, I covered it up with super glue, which polished to a high gloss after it dried. I think it came out pretty well, considering. I mean, it’s not an exact match, but it’s pretty damn close. And now I don’t have an extra strap button hanging out, nor do I have to deal with an open wound on my beloved instrument.

I forgot to upload this shot in my initial post, but better late than never. Like I said, I'm super proud of this!

I forgot to upload this shot in my initial post, but better late than never.

Like I said, I’m really proud of how this turned out. Up close, you can definitely see the scar, but from a few paces away, the mind simply glosses over the offending spot, with the sparkly finish blending together in a pleasing way. Success!

The Final Product

Totally stoked.

Actually, I just noticed that the added strap button is still installed in this picture. I’ll replace it later. Grr/argh.

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– MJA

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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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