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Spalted wood tops for both Looks and Tone

July 5th, 2018

While electric guitars and basses are first and foremost musical tools, for many players looks run a close second to tone. For years guitar builders have used various types of wood tops to enhance the looks — and sometimes tone — of solid and semi-hollow electric guitars. Flamed and quilted maple tops have been a perennial option from many manufacturers including G&L, Gibson, PRS, Fender, Godin and others. But one of the more interesting materials of late has been spalted woods. These materials are not part of the regular G&L price book, but they show up depending on availability.

sb2-tight

Spalted alder top on a G&L SB-2

Spalting is caused by fungus that attacks both live and dead trees causing unique coloration and figuring of the wood. It can lead to weight and strength loss, and also reduced density. So while you would not want to build a whole guitar out of a spalted wood, when stained and finished they are unique and eye-catching. Some guitar builders will also use dyes injected into the wood grain to accentuate the look even further.

Tone impact? – Maple tops have been used for years, and in many cases not only look good but have a beneficial impact on tone. This is especially true on set-neck, shorter scale guitars like a Gibson Les Paul, which tend to have a darker tone, and less pronounced attack and harmonics. The dense maple top brightens up the tone and is more reflective. It’s a good complement to warmer more mid-focused sound of mahogany, humbuckers, etc.

But maple as a top is not a particularly complex or rich sounding material. While this works well to “liven up” a Les Paul, the effect is different on a bolt-on, longer scale guitar with single coil pickups. Maple combined with the snappy, more focused tones of a single coil can sound a little dry and one-dimensional. We’ve had maple tops on various G&L’s, and our impression is that they have very clear emphasis on the fundamental note, but not a lot of complexity. We are not totally down on maple, but it benefits from fuller sounding pickups and more complex sounding woods for the back materials: Think humbuckers, most MFD’s (maybe not the Z-coil) and swamp ash.

The spalted woods tend to be different, and our own hypothesis is that the effect of the spalting makes them less dense and softer, even when the material is maple. We’ve found spalted top guitars to be every bit as complex and musical as a good swamp ash bodied guitar. The top may lend even more warmth and richness, but with no two guitars ever being exactly alike, we don’t want to go overboard on analysis. Suffice to say on something like a G&L or other single coil guitar, we very much like the sound of a spalted top, and feel it complements the tone.

Other Materials? – While not a spalted wood, we find Black Limba works nice on G&L-style guitars too. Limba is mahogany-like in tone — though actually not part of the mahogany species — and a Limba cap adds some warmth and mid-range emphasis to a single coil, bolt-on guitar. And it looks pretty. Something we would not do? Maple and Empress: That’s bright/focused on top of bright/focused. It might work on a bass (we like Empress for a bass) but would be as dry and crisp as James Bond’s Martini.

G&L Kiloton Black Limba top

G&L Kiloton Black Limba top

Choosing the cosmetics of your guitar is a fun part of the buying process. But choosing just on looks can have unintended consequences. Keeping in mind what works well together, it’s completely possible to combine both good looks and good tone.

 

Hand Wired Guitar Amps: Point-to-Point and Other Constructions

April 22nd, 2018

We recently became acquainted with the Little Walter amplifier line, and after hearing them and meeting their creator Phil Bradbury, we decided to jump on board. Truth be told, amplifiers are a tough product to sell, and many players are enamored with purchasing more guitars rather than purchasing another amplifier. While we would hardly not sell a customer a guitar, we are firm believers that amplifiers are a critical and overlooked component to a player’s tone.

Little Walter "59" Head

Little Walter “59” Head

Among other interesting features and attributes of the Little Walter amplifiers is that they are point-to-point (PTP) construction. Due to the labor-intensive nature of this construction style, PTP is quite rare and constitutes a tiny fraction of total amplifier production. But before we get to PTP, let’s cover the other more popular methods, their benefits and drawbacks. And we are only addressing tube amplifiers, not comparing solid state to tube amplifiers.

 

 

Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

The vast majority of amplifiers are constructed using printed circuit boards, from lowly practice amplifiers to high end products from Mesa, Fender, Marshall, etc. PCB’s are cost effective, permit assembly automation, and also allow for higher levels of complexity not possible with other methods. Multi-channel amplifiers, on-board effects, processor chips and modeling are just not possible without PCB construction. While most PCB amplifiers utilize “through hole” components similar to those used in older styles of construction, newer surface mount devices (SMD) can radically shrink the size of certain components, allowing for even greater levels of functionality with minimal impact on space.

While newer technology lowers cost and increases functionality, there can be compromises in sound. Some components do have a “sound,” most notably capacitors, transformers, and some believe even resistors. A paper-in-oil capacitor has a particular sonic characteristic that is unique to its construction, but the size and configuration make it unsuitable for volume production, not to mention cost. You might scoff at the idea of one capacitor type sounding better than another, but make a speaker cone out of the wrong paper and it will sound bad. The same is true with passive electronic components. An amplifier’s price is a function of its components, but also its assembly method, and some components are only practical on a hand-wired amp.

The layout (schematic) of a printed circuit board is also a compromise between assembly efficiency and optimal circuit path. If you’ve ever seen a PCB, it’s a myriad of thin copper traces laid out in usually logical parallel lines and right angles. Good circuit board layout is part skill and part art, and tightly packed component layouts can create capacitive losses, impact certain frequencies, add noise, and overall have an impact on the sound. That may sound like tone snobbery, but having been in the business of manufacturing PCB-based products, schematics have consequences.

Eyelet and Turret Board Construction

Eyelet and Turret Board construction utilize an epoxy or fiberboard card as a platform to lay out the various small components of an amplifier. The larger components such as transformers and tub sockets are generally affixed directly to the amp chassis. These types of amps can accommodate a wide range of component configurations and allow quite a bit of design freedom. Most of today’s “hand-wired” amps use this type of construction, and examples include Dr. Z, high end Fender and Marshall models, and many other boutique brands. Fender used eyelet board construction on all its amps right through the seventies (more a lack of investment than tonal concerns). Being hand assembled is not without cost though: A standard PCB Fender Deluxe Reverb is around $1100, while the hand wired version using a fiberboard will set you back $2400. If you plan to keep an amp a long time, a non-PCB amplifier is much easier to service, and if you are a tweaker, also easier to mod. While PCB’s are repairable they are often fragile and fussy to service, especially for an amateur. If the PCB contains SMD devices, just throw it out and get a new board.

Eyelet board amplifier

Eyelet board amplifier

Do hand-wired amps sound better than PCB? By virtue of their component flexibility, often less complex and less crowded layouts, they certainly have the potential to sound better. Of course, the actual circuit design matters too, and nobody is going to go to the trouble of making a hand-wired amplifier with cheesy components. There is a little of chicken & egg going on here, but it’s understandable why many discerning players gravitate towards this style of amplifier.

 

 

Point-to-Point Amplifiers (PTP)

PTP is in many ways the most primitive type of construction, and dates back to when modern materials for circuit and turret boards did not even exist (the fiberboard is a waxy carboard material that predates the PCB). In PTP construction, the components are wired directly to their intended connections with no type of component board. Some builders may use terminal strips to for structural support, but the circuit path is very direct, and you can see exactly where everything is going. Due to the labor-intensive nature of construction, PTP amplifiers are typically single channel amplifiers with limited bells and whistles. In another instance of chicken & egg, they are simple designs because the nature of their construction drives them in that direction.

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

BC Audio Point-to-Point amp

The selling point of the PTP amp is that the pure, direct circuit path along with optimal wire routings and broad component freedom have a beneficial impact on tone.  Technically speaking, PTP amps have the least amount of “stuff” clogging up the circuit, hence the potential for better sound quality.

The concept behind the PTP amp is what we like to call “directionally correct.” If you put 15 pedals between your guitar and the amp – or in an effect loop — there is a degradation in tone. Every additional circuit and feature in an amplifier – including reverb – has some impact on the amp’s natural tone (if your amp has a switch to bypass the tone controls, note the jump in gain). The PTP amp is the shortest distance between guitar and speaker.

Can you hear the difference? Like most things with music, it’s a highly subjective question. And like other hand-wired amps, PTP amplifiers are not going to skimp on component quality. The best thing to do is listen to a lot of amplifiers, and ideally if you can listen to them through the same speaker cabinet, as this also has a big influence on sound. We have the luxury of being able to try a lot of amps, and our own experience has led us in the direction that the fewer the knobs, the better. Maybe we’re just bad at adjusting knobs, but our ears tell us to keep it simple.

Life tends to drive us in the direction of increasing complexity, and music is no exception. But your guitar is not a smart phone. Ideally, it’s an analog tool to create art that requires an intimate connection between the creator (you) and the medium (your guitar and amplifier). Oftentimes simplicity is the key to creativity.

G&L: What’s new for 2018?

February 10th, 2018

Doheny SH 2017 was a very active year for G&L and they’ve gained steam, rolling into 2018 with a lot of new products, features and a whole new look on their website. Let’s take a quick look at what’s new for 2018:

New Website – G&L has launched their new website, and it’s cleaner, more modern and better pictures and images. G&L is also clearly promoting their heritage, and the Leo Fender story in a more obvious fashion. Makes a lot of sense when your founder invented the modern solid body electric guitar and bass. They also have a new “CLF Research” Instagram and Facebook page.

It’s still a work in progress, and there are some guitars and options in my price book that are not on the site, and vice versa. So we are working through that, and if you have any questions, just check with us and we’ll get an answer.

NAMM – G&L had a booth at NAMM for the first time in many years. It was packed, very active, and they had some great one-off guitars on the wall (we snagged a couple). Phyllis Fender was on hand to sign copies of her new book about Leo Fender the man. It’s the story of Leo, not a history of Fender guitar. It’s a pretty quick read and quite insightful about a very unique and creative individual that did not even play guitar.

G&L Custom Shop – G&L has launched their Custom Shop concept, and there is a dedicated section on the website for custom shop guitars. There a new finishes — the nitro option is back — the availability of hand-wound and signed pickups off Leo’s original CLF pickup winder, mild aging if you want it, and in general a much higher level of attention and hands-on TLC. Considering how good the “factory” guitars currently are, this is a pretty high bar. It’s not clear how “custom” you can get, and this is a work in progress. I don’t have a enough detail to know if you can put P-90’s in a Doheny, make a single pickup Fallout with Solamente wiring, etc. It’s baby steps as they feel out the process, and if you are interested give us a shout and we’ll work through the process with you.

What’s Out – The SC-2 is gone for 2018. My feeling is that once the Fallout came along, that really took the air out the SC-2. It’s fun guitar but they still have the ASAT special and it’s the same pickups.

What’s New  – The Doheny was new for the fall of 2017 and they’ve now rolled out the Doheny Deluxe and Doheny Semi-Hollow. The Deluxe is a Flame Top guitar with wood binding and rear-mounted controls. But you don’t have to get binding, and what we also like about the Doheny is that Fixed or Vibrato bridge is the same price. Also the MAP for this guitar is $200 less than then similarly outfitted ASAT Deluxe.

The Doheny Semi-Hollow comes standard in swamp ash and also includes wood binding and rear mounted controls. Our feeling here it to opt for an Okoume back when ordering this guitar. Semi-hollow guitars tend to gain some nice harmonics, but lose a bit of low end. The Okoume back will add in a bit of roundness and warmth.

Also note there are no neck profile options on the Doheny. It’s a Modern Classic, but you can opt for a different radius. The Doheny has its own 21-fret neck, and it’s not tooled to handle all the other profiles. The “MCNK” seems to be very popular, so I think they are sticking with what most people want anyway.

Also new is the CLF Heritage L-2000. This is a throwback L-2000 with an 80’s neck profile, the cool 80’s metal control plate, glossy neck finish, and “Heritage” MFD pickups. It’s available in four colors and no options. To keep the weight down they are using Basswood on the solid colors and Okoume on the bursts. Both woods work very nice on a bass, with punchy and clear fundamental notes.

Not Sure – The Invader and Invader XL are still in my 2018 price book but not on the new website. I don’t think they are dead, but that there is a make-over in the process in terms of a more shred-friendly neck profile and other features. The Anderson/Suhr market is something G&L has yet to crack, and they’ve got their eye on it. The ASAT Fullerton Standard is on the website but also not in the price book, and I know that’s currently not in the plans.

While I’ve not scoured the prices in excruciating detail, nothing pops out, and all the base guitar MAP prices appear unchanged. Rosewood is now a $50 MAP option and “Caribbean Rosewood” (Chechen) is now the standard “brown” wood. We really like Chechen, and while it’s not as dark as Rosewood, it’s got really interesting grain and it feels nice and smooth. Due to CITES regulations Rosewood has become problematic, and the supply is erratic.

Neck Profiles – The 2018 book is not listing the V-profiles, U, the Wide C, or Heritage profile. But the website is. We’ll have to sort this out, and it could be that the wide range of profiles will be reserved for Custom Shop. I will lobby for the Soft-V though….

New Colors – Rally Red (sort of Fiesta), Galaxy Black (jet black with a subtle light metallic flake), Shell Pink, and Surf Green joins the permanent ranks. Yukon Gold Metallic is out, and they are working on a better replacement. Nobody really liked Yukon Gold, including G&L.

Overall we like what G&L has been up to, and while sometimes they run before they walk, it’s all with good intentions. They also maintain a presence on Social Media, which a lot of companies just don’t bother to do. That’s good for the brand image, brand value, and ultimately resale value. We think 2018 will be a great year for G&L, and let us know if you have any questions or comments at studio@upfrontguitars.com

 

CITES, Rosewood, and G&L Alternatives for Fretboards

August 23rd, 2017

G&L Rosewood FretboardIf you are interested in buying a G&L guitar and live in the USA, you can skip over this blog (unless you are curious). However if you live outside of the USA, as of January 1st, 2017 things got a little complicated.

CITES, the international organization that protects wildlife (animals as well as plants) implemented new restrictions on the use and export of Rosewood. Essentially Rosewood became a restricted material, and products containing Rosewood are now required to have documentation to verify that they are legally harvested.

How did this happen? It’s all about demand, and mostly in China where the expanding middle class developed a particular appetite for Rosewood furniture. The spike in demand created over-harvesting and illegal harvesting. Rather than see Rosewood wiped out, regulations have been put in place. You can debate the logic and methodology, but something needed to be done. Also note that “Rosewood” is a rather generic term that includes many varieties including Cocobolo, Bubinga, etc.

What are the practical implications?

The short story is that new guitars containing Rosewood manufactured after January 1st 2017 that are going to be exported out of the USA, need documentation verifying the sourcing of the Rosewood. Manufacturers have to apply for the paperwork and permits to export guitars containing Rosewood. There is of course a lot more to it than that, but that is the quick summary.

Dealers (like me) in most cases do not have this type of documentation; it’s the manufacturer that holds the permit. So most dealers will not be able to ship a post-January 2017 guitar with rosewood out of the country. It stands the risk of being confiscated at customs, and nobody gets the guitar back.

Guitars built before January 2017 can be shipped out of the country provided they have a re-export certificate. These are obtained from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The certificates cost money, and take time to obtain. A dealer can also apply for a “Master File” and purchase re-export certificates in advance, but it’s still a process. Suffice to say, many dealers are just not going to bother with exporting a guitar with Rosewood.

This is bad for independent dealers selling overseas but a boon for distributors. International distributors buying directly from the manufacturer will get legally documented product, and far less competition from independent dealers exporting into their home country.

Non-commercial (person-to-person) sales are technically exempt. I can imagine this becoming a loophole as some dealers will have a relative or friend be the shipper of record on a guitar going out of the country.

G&L Alternatives

Aside from the occasional fancy top or limited editions, Rosewood on a G&L guitar is limited to the fretboard. The obvious alternatives are Maple and Ebony. Those materials can be exported freely without additional documentation.

If you are not partial to those materials, G&L has also started using a material called Chechen, also known as “Caribbean Rosewood.” It’s a hard and dense Central American hardwood that looks and feels very much like Rosewood. It has a more color variation than most rosewood, but it’s attractive and a good substitute. Most important is that is not subject to any restrictions and is widely available. Dealers with international customers looking for a way around Rosewood should consider Chechen.

Have an Open Mind

Traditional tone woods are just that: Traditional. They have obvious desirable qualities, but what they also have in common was that at the the time they were first used, they were widely available. And there were a lot fewer people on the earth. Guitar builders have been exploring new materials for decades, and many alternatives have been proven to be just as good as the traditional woods. Just like it very hard to get totally black ebony these days, guitar players will have to adjust to other paradigm shifts in guitar materials. In many cases the adjustment is more mental than sonic. Conventional wisdom dies a slow death, and there will always be players that cling to whatever “old way” they hold most dear.

If you want to play it totally safe, just avoid Rosewood. There are lots of other good materials both synthetic and natural. If you have your heart set on Rosewood, the sky isn’t falling, but obtaining that Rosewood guitar may take more diligence and planning.

 

Upfront Guitars – My personal rig rundown

August 12th, 2017

Players always like to see what other players are using, so just for fun here’s my current gigging and general playing setup.

Typically I bring a “Fender” style guitar with me, and for many years that’s been some type of G&L. Currently it’s a G&L ASAT Classic “S” with spalted alder top, swamp ash back, carmelized ebony fretboard, 12” radius Classic C neck and stainless frets. It did not start life an “S” but I realized that I really needed the middle combinations and modded it for the middle pickup (it did not have a middle rout). I’m a big fan of the neck-middle and middle-bridge much more than I am of the traditional Tele neck+bridge (which it does not even do…for now). It also has an Emerson wiring assembly which I put in every guitar I play.

ASAT Classic S

Prior to this I was using a Knaggs Severn which had a Strat type pickup arrangement with David Allen Strat Cat pickups. While the tone was great, I always hit the volume knob on that type of guitar, plus the fuller output and more mids of the G&L MFD pickups just “gig” better and work great with pedals.

The other guitar that has been in service for a while is a Knaggs Kenai. This is hands-down the best Les Paul style guitar I have played, and is much more open and articulate that most guitars of this ilk. And it’s very comfortable and only about 8 pounds. It also has Emerson wiring, a David Allen P-51 bridge pickup and a Sheptone Heartbreaker neck pickup. The P-51 is hands down my favorite bridge humbucker and you can do almost anything from country to heavy rock. The Alnico 5 Sheptone is a little more percussive than the P-51 neck, and sounds great with a touch of gain. Frankly, the stock Duncan SH-1 sounds very good too, and I could have easily used that.

deluxe and knaggs

For a long time I’d been playing through a Dr. Z Remedy and a Mojotone Pine 4×10 cabinet with Jensen P10R, C10Q speakers. I still love it, plus it’s light and actually not too loud for smaller venues. But after all these years I finally discovered the Fender Deluxe Reverb, and the combination of tone and portability won me over. This particular edition came with a Celestion Blue and a matched set of groove tubes. Other than a Mullard GZ-34 I have so far left it alone. I’m tempted to stick it in a Mojotone Pine Deluxe cabinet to cut the weight a bit and round out the tone a little. I plug into the “2” jack on the Vibrato channel. For tone and ease of transport, no wonder it’s a fixture on so many house backlines.

With the Deluxe I use a Radial JDX to run an XLR line into the mixer. This does a great job of capturing the amplifier’s tone and is much more consistent than using a microphone. The line out is as much for the monitors as it is for adding a little guitar to the overall house mix.

The pedalboard is pretty simple affair and starts out with a Voodoo Lab Giggity. It’s essentially a boost and mild EQ. But for me it’s always on, as everything just sounds better that way (I have it just barely boosting the normal signal level). It’s also an easy way to tweak levels between guitars.

pedal board

The Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive is my “mild” gain pedal and I’ve been using them for probably 15 years. The deal with the pedal is that you can mix in clean signal to maintain attack and dynamics. I’ve also had the Lovepedal Kalamazoo for a number of years and this is my higher gain pedal, although not high gain by popular standards. While it’s in theory a TS-inspired pedal, it has more gain and is not as midrange heavy.

The Keeley Seafoam Chorus is a recent edition. It’s easy to use and can add a nice clean sounding chorus without cluttering things up. The Catilan Bread Belle Epoch tape delay gets used on a couple numbers, and the Lee Jackson Mr. Springgy Reverb only gets used with the Dr. Z. I may try one of the Keeley Tone Stations to consolidate the Reverb and Delay functions and make a little more room on the board.

Lastly, the Solodallas TSR is another “always on” item that acts as a line buffer, and also makes everything sound a little bigger, more 3-D and tactile, especially with pedals. It’s initially subtle, but you know when it’s off. I don’t use it to boost the signal, just condition it. The Strymon Zuma power supply is expensive, but it’s built like a Mercedes and can power just about anything. The Solodallas needed 300mA at 12VDC, and the Strymon is one of the few power supplies that will do this.

The patch cables are the UpFront Evidence Monorail cables that I have made for UpFront Guitars, and the guitar cables are Evidence Audio Melody.

While there are some new pedals that I’d like to try out — such as the Keeley White Sands and some of the Tone Stations — I’m wary about using a new pedal live without getting very familiar with how a new pedal interacts with the board, guitar, and amp. Lately we’ve been playing out more than practicing, and experimentation time has been limited.

 

G&L – What is new for 2017?

March 6th, 2017

Back from our 2017 NAMM trip and G&L factory tour, we’d thought we’d let you in on what’s new in 2017 for G&L. Before we get rolling, there are no base price changes to the guitars or the major options. There may be a couple tweaks here and there, but nothing that has a significant effect on the price of a guitar.

Note: G&L’s website may not be entirely up to date. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us. Here’s a rundown of the more notable changes:

Basswood – Basswood is now an option on any guitar for a slight up charge. Basswood is sonically similar to Alder but lighter in weight. This is is response to the growing interest in lighter weight guitars (It’s all those Baby Boomers with back issues!) The grain on Basswood ain’t much, so if you opt for premium finish, it may be a little underwhelming.

Okoume – Also a new wood option with pricing similar to Swamp Ash. Okoume is similar tonally to Mahogany, but lighter in weight and not regulated or endangered in any sense. It has a reddish tint, so keep that in mind when going for premium finishes (Hint: Old School Tobacco or Clear Red). Okoume was used on the Savannah series of semi-hollow guitars, which we thought sounded great.

Empress Wood – Still available, but not a consistent enough supply to make it into the price book. I really like the clean forward tone of an Empress bass, but maybe a little bright on some guitar models. The shop foreman at G&L prefers the tone of a multi-piece Empress body used for solid finishes rather than the one or two-piece clear finish variety.

Carmelized Ebony – Think of this as “striped ebony” and G&L has a limited number of boards that are in guitar length only. There was a time when only purely black ebony would do. But dwindling resources and the impact of Bob Taylor (Taylor Guitars) and his quest to preserve Ebony has made streaked Ebony acceptable. More power to him. Frankly it looks great, and I love the feel of a real ebony fretboard. It’s a great surface and not a huge up charge.

Rosewood – Rosewood is now becoming a highly regulated wood. This is a result of the increased demand in China for Rosewood furniture, and when 1.2 billion people want something…well that has an impact. There are literally a couple hundred varieties of Rosewood including Cocobolo. Expect to see more manufacturers looking for alternate fretboard woods that have good tonal properties and the right feel.

No Semi-Hollow Legacy, Comanche, S-500….for now – G&L is in the midst of re-tooling a number of guitars, and the low demand of these models has taken them off the list for now. IMHO – If you think a Legacy with less low end is a good idea, have at it. But I’ll stick with a solid body. If weight is a overriding concern, Basswood, Okoume, or Empress is a better route and a lot less money.

Rear Mounted Control Guitars (RMC) – Many of the “Deluxe” guitars have given way to a no-pickguard style guitar without the requirement to purchase a flame maple top. This is a big deal, and makes an ASAT Deluxe pickup configuration much more affordable. You can still get an ASAT Deluxe, but now it’s not the only way to get two humbuckers in an ASAT.

Block Inlays – Rumored to be in the works but not in the latest price book. If you like the look of the big block inlays introduced by Fender in the mid-60’s they are on the way.

A few years back I came up with the tagline for my website, “Guitars made by craftsman, not accountants.” That really sums up G&L: A bunch or really dedicated people who love guitars. Like a lot of small manufacturers in the music business, it’s a labor of love, and when you talk to the folks as G&L you definitely get that vibe.

 

UpFront Guitars Goes To NAMM 2017

January 28th, 2017

OK, so we just got back from NAMM, and as always it’s a fun if not tiring and slightly deafening time. This is not a blow-by-blow rundown of the show, but a few quick observations on what we did and saw.

G&L – G&L did not display at the show, but the factory is 20 minutes away and so we dropped in for a tour. We spent quite a bit of time there, and got a very detailed tour from Ben the Shop Foreman (I won’t throw out a lot of names because I did not ask them that ahead of time. But you can read their build sheets). There is a lot that goes into a guitar, but the process takes place in four major sections: Wood shop, paint, polish and assembly. It’s pretty compact facility and G&L builds in a day what Fender probably builds in 15 minutes. It’s a group of people who build guitars and love doing it. And they are doing it better than ever.

The NAMM Show – With over 1100 exhibitors for just “fretted instruments” it begs the question, “how on earth does one make up their mind on anything?” The shear number of guitar manufacturers makes you wonder how anyone survives. Especially the small builders who are often making very expensive guitars in low numbers. Some of their work is exquisite and some just weird. But how they carve out their market niche and clientele seems challenging to say the least.

The amplifier market seems to be a tale of two cities: The big and fairly big guys like Marshall, Fender, Orange and Vox, and the boutique-ish small builders scattered throughout the show. With margins very thin on amplifiers, many of the small builders seem rather disinterested in dealers, and focus more on direct sales or getting picked up by Sweetwater. Supro is currently occupying the space between average and boutique, and the guitar world needs more of that. For us, the search continues for amp line that is inspiring and reasonably affordable. Sigh.

Keeley Electronics – Except for our beloved Solodallas, we have deliberately avoided pedals. The whole market seems insanely over-saturated, and like a lot of things at NAMM, how on earth does one choose? But pedal effects are a fact of life, and I have a pedal board, so who am I to judge? So we chose Keeley electronics. Why? They have a comprehensive line that covers just about everything, they sound good, are well built, and they shy away from gimmicks and silly stuff, like calling a volume knob “urgency” and nonsense like that. Pro-level pedals for regular folks that won’t cost you $400.

Heritage Guitars – We’ve been looking at Heritage for about three years, but never quite made the jump. We’ve played a couple and they are awesome, but long delivery times, minimal marketing, and the secondary market made us skittish. But they’ve got new ownership, a renewed emphasis on artist relations and marketing, and better operations management that should bring down lead times and bolster consistency. So we are going to take the plunge, and while it will take 3-4 months to get our first batch, we are really looking forward to it.

Norman Guitars, Art and Lutherie – Acoustics have never been a big part of our business, but they are a big part of the market. We’ve dabbled in some higher end acoustics, but I’m convinced that if you can’t have Taylor or Martin, you’ll be forever swimming upstream. Their names are synonymous with the genre, like Kleenex. But everyone needs a solid, affordable acoustic, and we decided to go with two of Godin’s other historic  brands, Norman and Art and Lutherie. Both have been given a little bit of a reboot, and the new A&L guitars in particular have some very cool “Americana” finishes that are hip, and fit in well with singer-songwriter coolness. Take one to Brooklyn, and you’ll be an instant hit.

Best Booth Venue for Music – Taylor. The Taylor room always has interesting people, a nice stage and great sound. And usually a surprise or two.

Biggest Marketing Splash – D’Angelico. Where did these guys come from? Somebody has put some serious bucks into what I thought was a little jazz box company. Even Ukes for heaven’s sake. And Bob Weir was the invitation-only headliner on Friday night. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Pianos, Band and Orchestra – This is not a guitar show, and the amount of space occupied by Piano, B&O and Sheet Music makes one think twice about what makes the industry tick.

Metal Heads – They keep the guitar industry alive and are the guitar’s most faithful supporters, even more than Blues. The autograph line for Steve Morse at the Ernie Ball booth always wraps around at least once.

Line 6 – Was not even in the convention hall, but in a ballroom at an adjacent hotel. I don’t follow the logic on that. Would you take a long walk through a crowd and security to look at a Line 6? Me neither.

Post Show Music in the Hotels – Take a nap, do whatever, but make a point of hanging out a the host hotels after the show closes for the night. The music is frequently good — at least performed well — and you never know who you will run into.

Flame and Quilt Maple tops for G&L Guitars

January 22nd, 2017
flame maple top on ASAT Special from UpFront Guitars

A G&L Flame Maple top on an ASAT Special

Quilt Maple Top S-500 UpFront Guitars

A very deep Quilt Maple top on a G&L S-500

One of the snazzier options for a G&L guitar — or any guitar — is the addition of a flame or quilt maple top. The grain pattern in these woods is produced by cutting specific varieties of  maple in a direction that highlights the grain or figuring of the wood. This technique has been around a long time, and violin builders have been using flame maple — especially for instruments backs — for ages.

A maple top is both cosmetic, and to some degree sonic, and guitar builders frequently employ maple to add brightness. In particular it pairs well with mahogany solid bodies, which otherwise can be a little dark or muddy. So while they look great, is this a good idea as an option for a G&L guitar?

In theory, woods that are more hard and dense tend to add brightness. I guess one way to think about it is that they are more reflective than absorptive. Maple being quite hard tends to accentuate high frequencies. Single coil guitars like a G&L probably don’t need maple for the purpose of brightness, although an exception to this might be the ASAT Deluxe which has two humbucker pickups. In this case the classic pairing of mahogany body and maple top is a natural. Or a Bluesboy, which has a warm and woody Alnico 2 neck humbucker. And while the Fallout is thought of as a “simple” guitar, from personal experience the P-90 and Humbucker pairing responds nicely to a maple top, and looks very cool. Tuxedo Punk, if you will.

But will a maple top ruin your ASAT, S-500 or Legacy? No it won’t, and in the case of the MFD pickups they have plenty of depth and body to work well with a maple top. With any Legacy or traditional ALNICO pickup it can get pretty bright, especially at the bridge. But if you like the look, don’t be shy: After all you do have tone controls. The concept that guitars sound best with all the controls up is just not so. Personally I don’t think any P-90 sounds best wide open, but I love them with a little bit of volume or tone roll off. You paid for those knobs, so use them.

In the extreme, it is possible to create a guitar that is too bright. Maple will add some brightness, certain body woods will add brightness, a vibrato bridge is brighter than a hard tail, and so on. I did have a customer order a Comanche, quilt maple on Empress wood, and vibrato bridge. Between the wood, pickups and bridge it was about as zippy as you an get. I actually thought it sounded good, but he was never quite happy and changed out the pickups. In general, the pickups are the greatest driver, with body wood and bridge type being the next biggest factors. Fretboard material in my opinion matters least.

And remember, you do have tone controls….so build something you dig looking at.

The G&L ASAT Special – Truly Special

July 21st, 2016
A fancy ASAT Special

A fancy ASAT Special

My first-ever G&L was a 3-bolt ASAT Special purchased in the mid-80’s. I really knew nothing about the brand at that time, but thought it was a very cool guitar. It was used, and as USA guitars go, at a good price at the local music store.

It’s very hard to buck tradition, but the ASAT Special is intended to be evolutionary progress relative to Leo Fender’s iconic original solid body. The most noticeable difference to the Tele® are the large MFD pickups, often mistaken for P-90 pickups. These are what drew me to the guitar both visually and sonically. The neck pickup sounded very Strat® like, a tone I’ve always loved but never really took to playing Strats. But it was also bigger, fuller sounding, and could be jazzy, or Tele-like with a couple knob tweaks.

The bridge pickup was twangy, clean, and being a Beatles fan reminded me a lot of that early sound. But it too had more guts than my old 70’s Tele and sounded a lot sweeter than the Duncan quarter-pounder that I had in my homemade Parts-Caster. It wasn’t going to cut it for heavy rock, but through the drive channel of my Peavey — few pedals in those days — it was great for the type of stuff we were playing back then like REM, Crowded House and Steely Dan.

Fast forward thirty years and the ASAT Special is still relevant, and still a very usable guitar. It has the ability to channel both Strat, Tele, and even Jazzmaster, while also being able to kick it pretty hard with a gain pedal. My band is playing more funk theses days — thank you Bruno Mars — but country is also in demand. I think it’s time to break out the ASAT Special again.

Getting Better at Guitar: Play Well With Others

April 24th, 2016

This post is in no way to meant to be judgmental to the scores of guitar players that are perfectly content playing within the confines of their own personal environment. Realistically, that is the vast majority of the guitar world: Players who play for their own enjoyment and nothing else.

But is was a famous 19th century German Field Marshall who said, “No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” And much the same could be said for playing guitar. Or as I like to put it, “It’s all well and good until the drummer starts.”

Playing with other people can be hugely disruptive, but also highly educational. Maybe that solo you have perfectly crafted at home just doesn’t seem to work once other people are involved. You may also find that some of your favorite tones don’t sit well in a mix of instruments. Even if you have no desire to gig, learning to play in the less-than-sterile environment of a group setting will make you a better player no matter what your aspirations.

Truth be told, even for experienced musicians jam sessions or jam nights can be intimidating and/or frustrating. If you happen upon one with a couple self-anointed guitar slingers, jam nights can devolve into a noisy game of sonic one-upmanship. But true guitar slingers know how to play “in” the song rather than “on top” of the song. Ultimately, the goal of playing with a group is to make the song better, and not just insert “your solo” at every available opening.

A potentially more productive alternative is to find a couple people – or even just one other person – and work on developing a set of songs you like to play. Songs provide context and goals, and help develop structure, listening skills, dynamics and phrasing. These are all critical aspects of playing, and much harder to develop when only playing alone. And unlike a pure jam session, there is less of a competitive element and more of a shared vision. This does not mean that you can’t improvise, but the secret to a great jam session is good listening skills and dynamics. Learning songs with people teach those skills. Who knows, you might like what you hear, and decide to venture out to a local Open Mic night.