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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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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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#WEEZERQUEST: A RIVERS RUNS THROUGH IT

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

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

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

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

This meant A LOT of research.

I’ve Got Electric Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

I may have gone completely overboard.

The Hundred Acre Woodshed

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

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

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

X-Ray Specs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

On Thin Ice

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

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

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

Letterman Jacket

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

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

 

AMP RIG

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

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

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

MOCK! YEAH!

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

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

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

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

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

I guess we both got lucky that night.

PEDALS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at the text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 1

IMG_3071-impBy Michael James Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2687

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scariest Music: Halloween 2012 Edition

Halloween always makes me hungry for scary things. Movies, video games, books, and creepy stories of my home town all come to mind along with the appetite for truly frightening fare. I look to the brilliant works of H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Silent Hill 2 & 3, Fatal Frame, Resident Evil 2 and Eternal Darkness to sate my desires, but what about music? Is there any truly frightening music out there? I mean, aside from the Beibers and Insane Clown Posses of our era.

I think so. In the spirit of the holiday, here are some of my favorites:

Zao’s Liberate Te Ex Inferis

Though the title of this album is grammatically incorrect, its rough English translation is “Save Yourself From Hell“, which is all I need to hear to get my blood moving. Like an omen for the would-be listener, artwork for the album was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and the track list is broken up into pairs named after the rings of hell: Limbo, The Lustful, The Gluttonous, The Hoarders and Spendthrifts, and The Wrathful.

Characterized by its metalcore sound, Zao was always known for its drop-tuned guitars, non-standard chord structures, and a love of dissonance. Gaunt, angular riffs and non-Euclidean chord progressions perfectly frame singer Dan Weyandt’s tortured vocals and cinematic lyrics pieced together from Apocalyptic foretellings and repurposed biblical imagery.

Part of what makes this particular record so effective is its roughly-hewn production; instead of the kind of tight, polished metal recordings we’re used to, this album takes on a decidedly loose feel. Whereas most producers might go for basketball kicks and software snares, the percussion here is full with a sense of space around them. The kick is low, muddy and dark, and cymbals seem to be coming from far off in the distance thanks to just the right amount of slapback echo. The guitars are pleasantly sludgy, mixing mammoth tones with those reminiscent of a Boss SD-1 through a buzzy 10″ practice amp to great effect.

Another piece of the horrorific puzzle here is the vocals. Dan Weyandt has, quite possibly, the most ghastly scream I’ve ever heard. It’s consistent, it’s demonic, and has an inhuman quality about it – it sounds as if it’s coming from a skinless nightmare beast rather than a long-haired, tattooed white dude. His is the kind of voice I would expect to hear from one of Lovecraft’s Elder Ones. Weyandt’s presentation here is everything, and so his howling, guttural yells are just low enough in the mix that even if you could understand him you’re not sure you’d want to.

When it comes to horror, subject matter is everything. You may not be surprised, then, to discover that Liberate was heavily inspired by the terrifying cult film Event Horizon. In the 1997 film, scientists created a starship capable of traveling great distances in an instant. Not quite traditional warp speed, the Event Horizon creates its own artificial black hole to fold space. No big deal, right? On its maiden voyage to Proxima Centauri the crew engages its “gravity drive” and disappears. Seven years later, it mysteriously reappears in a decaying orbit around Neptune with no contact or crew, and the viewer is lucky enough to be taken along for the ride to find out just what happened.

The film was poorly received when it came out, but has since gained cult status. Even though it has its flaws, that film is truly one of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen, and Zao deftly employ sound samples from the film to mate flesh to bone. The opening instrumental track of the record shambles along with its arms outstretched, before climaxing in a doomy storm of feedback and actor Sam Neil declaring “You know nothing. Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse.”

From that point on, the record is relentless in its thematic terror. Frenzied riffs and deranged 2/4 beats coagulate with demoralizing pop interludes and Weyandt’s singularly dark lyrics. The second song “Savannah” could just as easily be the DVD commentary for Event Horizon:

A day not to forget
The machine has collapsed under the program it’s been given
Look inside the broken shell
Look inside the broken shell
To see the broken heart
They can’t believe the machine was alive but we saw it bleed
We saw it bleed [8x]
The machine it falls apart and when it’s cut it bleeds
The machine bleeds [6x]
She was alive

I mean, my god! What a chilling way to open a record.

“Autopsy”, the very next track on the album, is the first instance of Zao’s effective use of decidedly un-metal sounds to further its unhinged moodiness. You may be aghast, questioning, “Tambourine? In my metal?” It’s better than you think. Really, hearing that tambourine treading through the verse sections of this song ups the creepy quotient of the album to a maddening degree, but then they do it again with the opening acoustic riffs of “If These Scars Could Speak”, a song like a seance or a ritualistic virgin sacrifice. At this point, I expect the dead to rise again.

“Ghost Psalm” just creeps me right the hell out, with repeated sections chanting “I am buried with your words” above a eerie dance-rock beat. Then there’s Dan Weyandt whispering in your ear, “Time to go one last look, one last touch. A ghost to those I love”, instantly sending shivers up my spine. I am now actively looking over my shoulder with the feeling that I’m being watched.

Where “Scars” makes even an acoustic guitar so foreboding and malevolent, “Skin Like Winter” (widely regarded as a signature Zao tune) opens with a menacing serial-killer riff and follows it up with gang clapping and the kind of drums you’d hear on an upbeat 1950s tune. Seriously, what other band do you know that can make hand claps so damn unnerving?

The album closes with “Man in Cage Jack Wilson”, a track that makes brutal use of samples from the movie, including the partial log recording that’s discovered in the Event Horizon’s computers, wherein we find the lost crew of the doomed ship engaged in a murderous blood orgy, mutilating one another while their minds short circuit, unable to comprehend the grim realities of where they’ve been.

As the album ends, I am in the fetal position, unable to move or speak, eyes wide with fright. And all of this from a Christian band…

Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi

Warbling and warping like a worn-out VHS tape, Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi is a truly unsettling masterpiece. With a flair for found sounds and obscure instrumentation, BOC’s compositions have more in common with 1970s educational films than they do with modern electronic music. Rife with distorted spoken word samples likely culled from old classroom reels, these songs give me the same feeling of dread that I get when I hear carnival music out of context. It’s sinister and brooding, with a twisting narrative full of childish nostalgia and quivering atmospherics. As if that weren’t enough, the song titles are vague occult references, and the total run time of the album is 66 minutes and 6 seconds. *shivers*

Geogaddi takes the listener on a dark journey from start to finish. The opening track “Ready Let’s Go” is the musical equivalent of watching celluloid film burn in front of a projector bulb, droning and pulsing as if BOC meant to waste no time melting away the layers of reality, leaving a rusty cage of dense sound in its place. The layering on this album is one of its greatest strengths, with amorphous beats plodding along beneath the eerie, haunting melodies and “the hell was that?!” instrumentation above. A constant feeling of psychological horror hangs over the whole record, as if you’re not really hearing what you’re hearing, like a phantom image in a daguerreotype.

The third track, “Beware the Friendly Stranger”, may be familiar to you if you’ve ever seen one of David Firth’s Salad Fingers videos, most of which feature this song on an endless loop beneath the titular character’s babbling insanity. This street monkey music box leads into the next track “Gyroscope”, a song that reassures my feeling of impending doom with the notion that I am being chased by something I cannot comprehend. I mean, this music really gets under my skin.

The entire album just gets darker and darker, as if it intends to tear apart your psyche before it gives you any hope of escape. The final tracks of this album (one entitled “You Could Feel the Sky”) bring a sense of closure to the rolling terror you’ve just come through. Even though you’re now breathing easy, in the back of your mind you know something’s not quite right as the album closes with “Magic Window” – nearly two minutes of silence. Do yourself a favor and listen with a great set of headphones to really get into the right mood.

If I ever get trapped in a decaying nightmare realm a la Silent Hill, this is the music I want following me as I solve puzzles and run from inexplicable horror.

John Cage’s Complete Piano Music Vol. 1

John Cage was a genius, we know that. His avant-garde compositions range in feel from a flurry of notes that mimic the sounds of traffic to no instrumentation at all. As a composer, Cage was more concerned with feeling and sound than strict melody and harmony, describing music as a “purposeless play” and an “affirmation of life” in that we make music as a way to realize that we are alive.

Cage studied under famed composer Arnold Schoenberg, who complained that Cage would always be going up against a brick wall without any sense of harmony. Cage devoted himself to beating his head against that wall, and the results are both minimalistic and intriguing.

John Cage loved plucking the strings of a piano just as much as most people enjoy playing in the conventional manner. This technique yields otherworldly textures and hammered tones that sound like the scampering of a small, precocious creature not of this earth. On this record you’ll hear steel drums and out of tune simultaneous tones from god knows what source, and seemingly atonal passages that seem right at home with the likes of today’s noise rock pioneers. If John Cage ever held a guitar, I’m certain he loved to pluck both behind and in front of the fretted note. He would likely have enjoyed ring modulators as well!

While his music isn’t necessarily scary on its own, it’s all about context. Around this time of year, innocent sounds can take on a special meaning that might not exist over the summer, for instance. If you’ve ever driven a long dirt road in the middle of a dark Pennsylvania night, just about any music is going to be disquieting. I know; I’m from there.

What really gets me about John Cage’s compositions though, is the perceived lack of logic or timing therein. Make no mistake: I’m aware that these compositions were well thought out, but would the casual listener call this music? It’s instinctively free form and disturbing in its shambling way, like a “walker” from The Walking Dead. Notes seem to flutter by loosely until they converge on the listener, embracing the chaos of a cluttered sonic mess before exhausting themselves and drawing back. It’s both cerebral and listless.

It’s not simply the notes he chose (or rather, threw like darts at the ear) but all of the other sounds in the recordings. There’s the shuffle of clothed arms, creaking of floorboards or the shifting bodies in the distance. Metal against metal, mallets barely missing the mark, percussive striking of piano keys and the very real mechanical sounds of instruments being played all lend to the ambiance.

Perhaps it’s not simply the notes that are there, but the notes that aren’t there. Cage was no stranger to silence, and it’s not uncommon for a track to wallow in extended periods of purposed quiet, where it seems like more is happening than you’re led to believe. In his well known work, 4’33”, Cage didn’t simply intend there to be no music, but to point out that the real music of life is actually the sounds that naturally occur around us all the time.

Side note: friends of mine recently attended a recital of the works of John Cage, and 4’33” was one of the titles chosen for performance. When the time came, a lady sitting close to my friends opened – get this – a giant bag of chips, happily crunching away. When I heard about this, I laughed my ass off, knowing that John Cage would have been proud. Some concertgoers did not get the joke, I’m told.

So, I’m not intending to tell you that John Cage is the scariest man alive, but what I am saying is that his music is so nuanced and off-kilter from the norm that it elicits such a strong reaction in the listener which, under the right conditions, could be more haunting than anything else on this list.

Silent Hill 3 Soundtrack

Speaking of Silent Hill, the soundtrack to the game franchise’s third installment is immensely terrifying in its own way. If you’ve never played any of these fantastic PS2 games, I highly recommend them for fans of psychological horror, especially games 2 and 3.

It may be an obvious move to call the soundtrack of a horror game “scary”, but there are reasons well beyond the simple connection of game to music. The soundtrack is moody and produced with a pop sheen, but what makes it memorable is its rickety back beats and off-kilter vocal performances.

It’s odd for a game about a girl that gets lost in a world of rusty fences and contorted monsters to have a soundtrack full of songs about love and distance, but it actually works well with the game’s read-between-the-lines imagery. Silent Hill is renowned for its character designs, with the ghoulish denizens you face created by the fears, neuroses and sexual hangups of Heather, the game’s protagonist. You come across frail zombie-like creatures with torsos encased in a bag of flesh, likely symbolic of the teenage heroine’s struggle with her own body image. Faceless nurses await you in the hospital, each of them with a slender body and an ample bosom, which can be interpreted as the insistence of the hourglass, 36/24/36 figure upon our culture’s young women. In fact, some of the first monsters you encounter are tall man-creatures with vaguely phallic heads and arms, a reflection on being a woman in a world that pushes masculine wants and desires. Not to spoil anything, but the most terrifying revelation in the game comes when, after having fought your way through hordes of blood-crazed beasts, you meet a character called Vincent who asks, “Monsters? They look like monsters to you?” He then says it’s a joke, but WTF?!

The sounds and songs of the SH3 collection is brooding and disorienting, with the sounds of a factory contorted into mechanical percussion. Tender melodies soothe while pulsing, distorted bass rumbles beneath, the punishing sound of implicit evil looming atmospherically in the background. You hear orchestral parts soaring while looped and cut beats crumble beneath your feet much like the collapsing streets of the game’s namesake town. Pitch-shifted cries and ring-modulated tones play a vicious game of hide and seek, there one moment and gone the next. And then there are the unashamedly “rock” songs on the album, “You’re Not Here” being the most obvious. Guitars careen and drums crack while the vocalist sings about being “…strung out, addicted to you”. Even with a song like that, the sense of foreboding is in full force because the sounds you’re hearing aren’t quite right.

A good example of this can be found just about anywhere you hear vocals. For one thing, the voices on this soundtrack are almost too produced, impossibly clean and pitch-perfect. As for what they’re singing, most of the lyrics were originally written in Japanese, then translated into English with little regard for syntax or lyrical flow it would seem. It’s not that they’re bad or poorly-written lyrics at all, but they’re just, well, ‘almost there’; That’s what makes them so creepy.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: “Letter – From the Lost Days” is a song that assuredly was translated but retains an inherent vibe of nostalgia. Vocalist Melissa Williamson – who honestly has a beautiful voice – sings the story of a girl writing a letter to her future self, pleading with her older self to be happy and remember “Daddy” and “Colleen” instead of some unaddressed misfortune that happened to the girl. The song ends with multiple repetitions of the phrase, “We were put here on this earth, put here to feel joy”, the last of which is whispered sinisterly.

There are a few spoken word pieces here that are equally discordant, with the same slightly off delivery that makes them so piercing:

The world is teeming with unnecessary people
It is God’s decision that I fight
As knight of honor, as a protector of the seal
I sacrifice myself to the blood of criminals

Nah, that’s totally legit. Nothing scary there.

The rest of the record is filled with the sounds of droning monk chants, the marching of giants, and in the case of “Flower Crown of Poppy”, what is presumably the machine that they used to challenge track layin’ American folk hero John Henry. The closing tracks of the album don’t really give any sense of comfort or release from the grip of sheer terror, with the following lovely little prose poem to remind you that the way cults like the one in the game are so effective: they take seemingly innocuous religious things people have heard before, but they offer them with a twist.

In the beginning people had nothing,
Their bodies ached and their hearts held nothing but hatred.
They fought endlessly but death never came
They despaired stuck in the eternal quagmire

A man offered a serpent to the sun,
And prayed for salvation.
A woman offered a reed to the sun,
And asked for joy.
Feeling pity for the sadness that had overrun the earth
God was born from those two people.

God made time and divided it into day and night.
God outlined the road to salvation and gave people joy.
And God took endless time away from the people.
God created beings to lead people in obedience to her.

The red God Xuchilbara
The yellow God Lobsel Vith
Many Gods and Angels
Finally God set out to create paradise,
Where people would be happy just by being there.

But there God’s strength ran out and she collapsed
All the world’s people grieved this unfortunate event
Yet God breathed her last,
She returned to the dust promising to come again.

So God hasn’t been lost,
We must offer her prayers and not forget our faith.
We wait in hope for the day…
When the path to paradise will be opened.

Awesome. I’m so scared that I’m involuntarily crysturbating. Happy, Akira Yamaoka? Actually, you probably are, you sick freak! (Kidding. Well done, sir!)

The penultimate track is completely wack, though. It has possibly the most ridiculous lyrics in the known universe, and the delivery of said lyrics breaks with established tradition by also being incredibly ridiculous. The songs’s “She’s gooooooooone” lyric rivals the absurdity of Darth Vader’s insipid “NOOOOOOO!” in Revenge of the Sith. Listen to this track once for teh lulz, then delete it. You’ll be glad you did. Also, the very last one is alright, but starts with a eye-rollingly awkward, “Okay, let’s do this. One, two, three, four.”

Ugh.

Any Carnival Music, Ever

I mean, that shit is frightening.

-Michael James Adams

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