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G&L Neck Profiles – Suggestions – 2015 Updates

December 13th, 2011

This is an update to an earlier blog post to cover the changes G&L made to their neck offerings during their 2015 mid-year model changes.

One thing that may not be clear to buyers is that neck profile and fretboard radius are independent. Meaning that while the Modern Classic neck that comes standard on most guitars has a 9.5″ radius, it’s available in 7.5″ or 12″ radius too. Any profile is available with any radius, with the exception that you can’t get the 7.5″ radius with a Bigsby. So by decoupling the profile and radius specification, G&L has actually expanded what’s available in terms of options.

As we cover the various neck profiles, we’ll discuss them as much as possible independent of fretboard radius, and we’ll also assume the neck has the standard Jescar 57110 fret. In parenthesis will be the old neck designation where applicable.

Lastly, all neck profile tolerances are +/- .015 (1/64th) relative to their stated dimension (it is wood after all not titanium). From the upper to lower end of the tolerance, this is a difference many people can feel. If you are on the fence about a certain profile but are super sensitive to thickness for example, opt for the thinner/narrower selection.

Modern Classic – The Modern Classic is now the standard neck on all popular Legacy, S-500, Comanche and ASAT models (.820″ at the first fret and .870″ at the 12th fret). On most guitars they use a 9.5″ radius, with the exception of the Invader Models which are 12″.  Think of the Modern Classic as a Slim C with a 1-11/16″ nut width, and the same string spacing. The “MCNK” addresses the two issues of: 1) Occasional string falloff with the 1-5/8 nut width, and 2) “What feels most like a Fender?” With the thinner profile and 9.5″ radius, the additional width is hardly noticeable, whereas on C Plus (Wide C) it can start to feel a little too manly. The MCNK is a good all-things-to-all-people neck, although I find it a little lacking in palm support in the upper frets (which my son really likes, and his hands are a little smaller).

Classic C (#1) – Up until July 2015, the G&L 12″ radius #1 neck was the standard. It is the only neck available on the F-100 and SC-2.  Measuring .830″ at the first fret and .960″ at the 12th fret, it’s mildly beefy and fits most people well. Versus the MCNK, I like the extra thickness in the higher frets to anchor my palm. Every once and a while some necks do exhibit some string falloff on the high E, but it’s rare. We’ve also tried this neck with the Dunlop 6230 vintage fret option, but the combination of flat neck with skinny fret makes the frets seem undersized, and they look a little lost on the wide flat fretboard. (1-5/8″ nut width)

Slim C (#1a) – This is your MCNK neck without the nut width. This is the only neck profile available on the Fallout (yes, really). The G&L #1a is about the same size as the #1 at the first fret, but only .870″ at the 12th. There is very little taper to the neck, so it feels quite slim as you move up the frets. Good for shredders and people who like to be able to reach around the neck and hammer the notes. (1-5/8th nut width)

Heritage ’86 (#1b) – Before the MCNK, when we intentionally wanted a slim neck, this is the one we’d order. The “Heritage C” profile is great for women, people with smaller hands, or folks who like a thinner profile. Feels instantly comfortable and tapers nicely up the frets to .910″. I’ve always liked the feel of this profile more than the #1a, and it’s still a nice option. (1-5/8th nut width)

Modern U (#1c) – This is G&L’s Modern “U” shape, which at .850″ is pretty beefy in the lower frets, but tapers less than most to .910″ at the 12th fret. We’ve only had one of these, and it feels very much like a “C” neck. If you like a more generous neck proportion down low — like a 50’s Gibson — this neck will do the trick. But if you have no strong opinions on neck shape, a Classic C is probably a safer choice. (1-5/8″ nut width)

 Deep V (#1d) – This is G&L’s Modern “V” neck, which is a shape that not a lot of players have experience with, but I’m a big fan. At .890″ at the first fret, it is G&L’s thickest neck, and it tapers to .930 at the 12 fret. The V shape provides a lot of “beef” but since it tapers more rapidly to the sides than a “C” profile, it does not wind up feeling bulky. So you get depth without the drawbacks of a large “C” profile. It’s a pretty neat feel, and personally I find it very comfortable and use it on my pine ASAT Classic. Players such as Eric Clapton have been proponents of this shape, and it’s featured on some of his signature guitars. (1-5/8″ nut width)

Classic C Plus (#3) – This is the Classic C neck with a 1-11/16″ nut width. A good neck for players with larger hands, as the combination of wider nut and classic profile is something you can really feel. Conventional wisdom is that “thinner is faster” but if you like a neck that provides generous palm support, the C Plus is the ticket.

Classic C Wide (#4) – The “Shrek Neck” which is 1-3/4″ wide with additional string spacing. We have not sampled this neck yet, but if you think you need it, you probably do.

Soft V (#2a) – Another neck that we have not tried, but it sounds intriguing given our infatuation with the Deep V profile. In theory it should be the solution for players who find the Classic C a little too chunky down low but want less of a taper than a Slim C. We might have to get one of these….. (1-5/8″ nut width)

Quartersawn versus Flatsawn Necks – All standard G&L necks are flatsawn. If you were to take off the neck and look at the end of the neck you would see that the grain of the wood is parallel to the fingerboard. This makes a stable neck, and also they also get more Flatsawn necks per piece of maple stock, which keeps the cost down. Quartersawn necks have the grain perpendicular to the fingerboard, so the wood is much stiffer in the direction that the neck typically bends. But cutting this way yields fewer necks per piece of maple stock, which increases cost.  Sonically, the stiffer quartersawn neck is felt to be more percussive, with a quicker attack and less note compression than a flatsawn neck (theoretically it makes sense). While it’s not practical to A-B two necks on the same guitar, personal opinion is that guitars I’ve played with a quartersawn necks have a little more attack, but maybe a touch less complexity. Some players swear by them, and if you live in an area that varies widely in temperature and humidity, a quartersawn neck may require less tweaking. Not a bad idea either on bass guitars with their longer necks and string tension. And if you are worried about “dead spots” on a bass, my recommendation would be to opt for quartersawn.

A profound observation on guitar amplifiers

December 13th, 2011

I am a big fan of the a monthly newsletter called The ToneQuest Report. It’s a real treat for guitar geeks and it has great interviews, interesting reviews, and is sometimes just plain silly. But it’s informative, written well, and does not suck up to the flavor-of-the-month for guitar gear or trends.

The latest issue has a great interview with Mike Zaite (Dr. Z) of Dr. Z amplifiers. His last interview with ToneQuest was over I decade ago (I have it) and so I was pumped when the new issue arrived today with a big “Z” on the cover. In this interview Dr. Z makes a very profound statement about amplifiers that I will quote if full:

“You have to remember too that there is no pedal in the world that is going to give you a clean tone. You gotta have that from base and then you can layer on top of that. If you don’t have a good, rich harmonic clean tone, there is no pedal in the world that is going to give you that.”

Huzzah! Dr. Z nailed it, and I could not agree more. I have been advising customers and friends for a while to find the best clean tone they possibly can, and then experiment with a couple pedals to spice it up. No pedal is going to turn a ho-hum amp into a killer rig. The foundation has to be there for the structure to exist. You can’t build a house on sand, and putting a raft of boutique pedals in front of a runt is a waste of money. Put your hard earned dollars into an amplifier that makes you mumble, “damn this thing sounds good” every time you power up. You will have spent your money wisely, and saved your self a lot of aggravation and gear churning down the road.

 

 

New Amps versus Vintage Amps

December 12th, 2011

I love old amplifiers, especially old Fenders. I love they way the look, the history behind them, how they are built, and even all the quirky minutia on how to accurately determine the amp’s age. Occasionally I even like the way they sound.

I’m on my third iteration of trying to find the perfect Fender Pro Reverb. Everything about it says I should like it: Cosmetics, type of rectifier tube, unmodified chassis, all matching transformer date codes, and so on. The problem is that it’s not my favorite sounding amp (not to say it’s bad) and while the hipness factor is solid, there are certain concerns about taking a 45 year-old amp to a gig. Not just the opportunity for damage, but the potential that is just might fry something in a  big way in the middle of a gig. Back-up amplifiers are great, but not if you’ve only got a minivan to carry your own gear and the PA.

I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you in the mode of collecting — or you can afford the risks of gigging with rare gear — then the concept of owning vintage amplification is less than practical for the active musician. In today’s world of hand-wired amplifiers — and some printed circuit board models —  all the classic schematics have been faithfully reproduced, some builders have improved upon them, and there are many new great sounding new designs. Vintage-construction transformers are readily available, as are good quality resistors, all manner of capacitor types, and more than enough good sounding speakers to shake a guitar neck at. In addition, most  components being made today are of tighter tolerance, more reliable, and free of really bad stuff like carcinogenic chemicals. One can make the argument that there is nothing like NOS tubes — and I have some nice ones — but some day NOS will mean 90’s Soviet tubes, so then what? My advice is to find the brand you like best, and maybe stock up on NOS rectifiers, because if anything else they seem to last longer.

So aside from hazardous chemicals and ungrounded plugs of yore, today’s boutique amplifier builder is not significantly restricted in any way from making a great product. Plus today’s new amplifiers are electrically safer and more reliable than what was state-of-the-art fifty years ago.

This is not about shamelessly promoting selling new gear: After several years of chasing the mystery of vintage amplifiers, I’ve decided I really like the new stuff better. To me, the sound quality from many of today’s small builders is outstanding. I also really like the convenience of heads and cabinets, which were generally not available in the vintage years. So for the same price or less than many of today’s vintage amplifiers, it’s possible to purchase a new unmolested amplifier that will sound great, and provide many years of generally care-free service. Some day it might even be “vintage” and you can sell it to someone for more than you bought it!

It’s also a myth that quality was always better in the good old days. Vintage gear is fraught with variation (especially electrical components) which is why there is some great vintage gear out there, but also some absolute dogs, and a lot of replacement transformers.  Thanks to the Japanese taking us to task in the 70’s and 80’s, most product today is much more consistent than it was 40-50 years ago. Sometimes old is just old.

If historic value is of primary importance, seek out vintage. If you are seeking the best possible sound quality, there are dozens of great choices available from many American manufacturers.

 

Selecting Guitar Pickups – Science or Art?

December 7th, 2011

Without a doubt, if you want to change the sound of your guitar the biggest single difference you can make is to change the pickups. Anything else: Bridge, saddle materials, pots, caps or tuners are refinements and tweaks that may or may not have a noticeable effect. But changing a pickup can have a mild to radical effect on the sound of your guitar. So how do you select a pickup with any level of certainty? After all it is a “blind” purchase, and aside from a demo guitar or sound clips there really is not an effective way to audition a new pickup.

Like music itself, making pickups is a blend of science and art. Furthermore, describing how a pickup sounds practically has it’s own vocabulary. You’ll hear words like “cluck”, “chime”, “hot” and “glassy” among other words to describe how pickups sound. To some degree you just have to immerse yourself into the world of pickups, read a lot of descriptions of various pickups, listen to sound clips or demo videos where available, and  learn to relate what they are saying to what you are hearing. Like wine buffs, “pickup geeks” have their own language. But at the risk of generalizing, there a some basic categories and classifications that most people can agree on.

Conventional Pickups – By this I mean pickups that follow that follow the classic construction and material techniques set forth by industry pioneers at Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker, etc. Within the world of conventional pickup designs there are arguably three typical configurations:

Fender® Style Single Coil – Essentially thousands of turns of fine gauge magnet wire wrapped around a bobbin with six individual magnet pole pieces. Some erroneously call it an electromagnet, but a pickup is actually an inductor. The vibrating strings disturb the pickup’s magnetic field and induce a current (signal) in the coil which goes to your amp and the rest is history, and a lot of it. This type of design is famous for clarity, good string definition, high end response, and the propensity to pick up stray electrical noise (hum).

The P-90 Style – This design was introduced by Gibson® in 1946, although there were earlier similar designs. The p-90 is a single coil pickup but the (6) pole pieces are threaded steel screws that pass through the coil with a bar magnet located beneath the coil. The overall coil resistance of the P-90 is generally higher than the Fender single coil, and the magnetic field is different. P-90’s tend to be higher in output with a thicker midrange and less clarity at the high end. The P-90 has gone in and out of vogue over the years, but a good P-90 is a joy, especially in the bridge.  Some Fender-type pickups are really “imposters’ and actually follow the P-90 design. For example, many Fender MIM (Made in Mexico) and some Godin Stratocaster-type pickups are actually steel pole pieces with bar magnets beneath the coil. Usually this is a cost-driven decision although they can sound pretty good. P-90’s share the same noise issues as the Fender pickup, sometimes worse.

Hum Canceling (Humbucker) – Invented in 1955 by Seth Lover, who worked at Gibson. The humbucker pickup uses two single coils wired in series and out of phase. Using what is call common mode rejection, the two coils cancel most of the hum. Humbuckers are characterized by a fuller, thicker sound than a single coil, a strong midrange, but also with less high frequency response and upper end clarity. Nearly all Humbuckers use a construction similar to the P-90, with a bar magnet underneath the coil, and threaded screws or steel pole pieces that pass through the coil. There are many variation of the humbucking design: The coils can be in line which is the most typical configuration, facing each other with the pole pieces in between the two coils, or stacked which gives the appearance of a single coil pickup. The Precision Bass and G&L Z-Coil pickup have two coils side-by-side with each coil covering just half the strings. This provides hum canceling benefits while retaining a more single coil tone.

Variations on a Theme – For many, the best pickups were invented nearly sixty years ago, and that’s that. But there is always somebody our there trying to improve the breed and there are some notable examples. Lace Sensor has been producing uniquely designed hum cancelling pickups for many years, aimed primarily at Stratocaster players. Their Lace Alumitone pickup is a real departure — in both looks and sound — from a normal pickup and combines both noiseless operation and a very broad frequency range. The G&L MFD (magnetic field design) pickup in terms of construction is really very much like a P-90. However, the MFD has a fairly low coil resistance and larger magnetic field. The result is high signal output and a broad, flat frequency response. The term “hi-fi” is often associated with MFD pickups because they don’t over accentuate any particular frequency. Guitar players in general are conservative bunch, and many shy away from anything seen as deviating from past classics. But the Lace, MFD, and noiseless pickup designs from Lindy Fralin and others offer some real alternatives to the classic limitations of pickup design.

Can you buy a pickup on “specs”?

There are a several ways to characterize a pickup by measuring certain properties. However some of those are hard for the typical consumer to relate to. The most common measurement of a pickup is resistance (usually in thousands of ohms, or KΩ). Resistance is essentially the DC resistance of the pickup coil. Resistance can generally describe the approximate output of a pickup, and typically higher resistance pickups are hotter (louder) pickups. Resistance can be increased by either more windings, or changing the gauge of the magnet wire, or a combination of both. While we are talking generalities, higher resistance pickups will often have more midrange and less high frequency response, and a “fatter” sound.  As mentioned earlier, pickups are not actually resistors but inductors, and inductors are measured in Henries. Lace actually lists the inductance of their pickups, but I’m not sure that is of much value to the average guitarist.

Magnet power can be measured too, but measuring the magnetic field of permanent magnets is quite complex, and beyond the realm of most of us. Different magnet materials such as generic ceramic magnets and the revered ALNICO (Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt) have differing magnetic properties, retain their magnetic properties differently over time. Some pickup makers will actually “age” their pickups, essentially demagnetizing them (degaussing) to replicate how an old pickup might sound now. So magnet efficiency and material (Ceramic, ALNICO 2, ALNICO 5, Samarium Cobalt) do make a difference in pickup sound and efficiency, but most people rely on subjective descriptions rather than hard measurements. You can always subjectively measure the magnetic properties of a pickup by taking a small screwdriver and seeing how strongly it is attracted to a pickup pole piece. Again talking in generalities, stronger magnets will induce a greater signal in the coil and produce more output.

Many months ago I was swapping out some pickups in my son’s “Highway 1” Telecaster. It’s a nice guitar, but I’m a Rio Grande dealer and wanted to road test some of their product. The stock Telecaster bridge pickup sounded pretty good but was maybe a little thin. I measured the resistance, and it was a whopping 11K ohms. But the magnets had almost no “pull” on the screwdriver. The resistance of the Rio Grande Halfbreed Tele bridge pickup was a more normal 8K resistance, but the ANILCO magnets had a much stronger subjective pull. The result? Both pickups had similar volume output but sounded different. If we looked at the Highway 1 pickup solely in terms of resistance we would think, “wow that’s going to be really hot”. But not knowing the magnetic field of the pickup showed how resistance is a incomplete measurement by itself. It’s reasonably safe to say that selecting a pickup by reading the manufacturer’s technical data is not going to accurately describe the tonal qualities of the pickup.

So How Do I Select A Pickup?

Without being a wise guy: It’s a journey. As mentioned earlier it’s important to read pickup reviews, gear pages, and manufacturer’s websites, and experiment a little by trying out some pickups. If you can handle a screwdriver and a soldering iron, the world is your oyster. If you try a pickup and don’t like it very much, chances are somebody on eBay will. Keep in mind that pickups will sound different in different guitars, so it’s most effective to experiment with your own guitar.

There are many other factors that affect the sound of a pickup than just resistance and magnetic force: Winding pattern, winding tension, potting (usually a wax material applied to the coil to help prevent feedback), bobbin size and height, etc. It’s impossible for the consumer to predict the effects of all these potential design considerations. It’s for the manufacturer to do the proper R&D to determine what variables give them the sound they want within their cost targets.

Do not assume that only boutique manufacturers can produce good pickups. There are many small winders devoting tremendous energy into recreating the vintage vibe of early pickups, but reverse engineering a 1957 PAF may not be the solution to everybody’s needs. Larger companies can do a lot of R&D and invest money into building very consistent processes. Just because “Company A” sells thousands of “shred-o-matic” pickups at the local big box does not mean they can’t satisfy the needs of a blues traditionalist. I work with a guitar builder that often uses boutique pickups in his guitars but also really likes the DiMarzio Area 51 pickups and encourages their use. I sell Rio Grande pickups, and they don’t get hung up on creating vintage reproductions. Their focus is to build great sounding pickups for a variety of applications. I wish they would write better descriptions on their website, but I’m OK taking the time to write my own. I also really like the G&L MFD pickups (not all of them equally though) and their large MFD is probably my favorite pickup to play. But it’s not a vintage anything, and especially not a traditional Fender single coil. Leo Fender developed the MFD because he was trying to develop something that was even better. He was looking forward, not backwards.

So while there is science in pickup building, the selection of a pickup is almost totally subjective, and purchasing pickups just based on specifications or snob appeal will not lead to guaranteed satisfaction. Read, listen, test, experiment, and develop your own understanding of what works for you. And don’t forget to practice in between pickup swaps!