Home Guitars Amplifiers Accessories About Contact
Home :: Blog

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.

David Allen Humbucker pickups – Impressions

July 2nd, 2015
P51

David Allen P-51 Zebra set

When we carry a line of pickups, we try to do our best to get real playing time with them, and not just write what the manufacturer says about them. With some help from our new Sales Associate Eric, we’ve been swapping a lot of pickups lately. This includes three of David Allen’s more popular humbucker sets: Alley Cat, P-51, and Dirty Cat. On a relative scale these can sort of be characterized as “light, medium, and hot” in that order. Bear in mind though that the Dirty Cats are far from hot in comparison to some of the brutally strong pickups from a number of winders out there including Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckles and others. As we said, it’s all relative.

With all three sets we got a chance to try them in both a mid-priced (Godin Core HB) and a higher end guitar (Knaggs Kenai). We tried then both at practices, jam sessions, and some real-life gigging situations. So while we have full write-ups on our David Allen product page, here are some quick impressions on living with the pickups.

Alley Cats – Patterned after the ’57 style of PAF, these Alnico 2 humbucker pickups are super clean and articulate. In the Core the neck pickup gets very close to a single coil sound, and while the bridge pickup sounds a little light on clean settings, it’s dynamite with some gain. The lower output, softer Alnico magnetic field and general “free” nature of the pickup generates spacious and singing rock tones that have multiple layers of harmonic detail. Maybe not the ticket of you desire something tight and modern, but gigging with our Kenai it was marvelously expressive. For my taste, the neck did not have quite enough “push” for singing solo work, but compared to many Alnico 2 neck pickups it was much less flabby on the low end. Hot pickups are not the only way to rock.

P-51 – David Allen’s take on the ’59 PAF, although it’s not really built like a PAF. The P-51 uses Alnico 4 magnet material, which has a fairly low magnetic pull, but more attack than an Alnico 2. Some people describe it as a cross between Alnico 3 and 5. Compared to the Alley Cats, the P-51 set was warmer with more midrange push at the neck, and gave up a little bit of top end brightness. It works better with gain, and kicks out some good blues tones without getting mushy or smeared. At the bridge the P-51 has a little more attack and snap, and for straight clean tones is probably a little more satisfying. Distortion tones are slightly tighter and more dense than the Alley Cat, and it’s a real toss up which I like better.

Dirty Cats – While the inductance (output) of the Dirty Cats is very similar to P-51’s, the DC resistance is at a level where you do start to hear it in the clean settings. Both pickups have a little bit of a midrange bump that makes the Dirty Cats a little less open and free sounding. However, they both turn down really well, and with a little volume roll-off lose lose most of their midrange congestion. The neck pickup uses Alnico 5 magnet materials, which gives it good attack and helps tighten up the midrange. It sounded very good in the wrap-tail bridge Core, but in the brighter sounding Kenai was a little “stringy” with a slight metallic edge. The bridge pickup is an interesting hybrid of Alnico 2 magnets and an un-vintage 11K DC resistance. It manages to be reasonably open sounding while also being the most “modern” voiced pickup in this roundup; with densely packed harmonics, and tight responsive low end crunch.

The Verdict – If you are in a wide-ranging cover band or just play an eclectic mix of music, the P-51 is a good choice, and our favorite. It’s very good at most things, and bad at nothing. Or if you tastes run a little heavier, opt for the Dirty Cats, which would kill at everything from Foo Fighters to modern Stadium-style Country. If you are into jazz, blues, or earlier classic rock (not 80’s), the Alley Cats really excel. The bridge pickup is “the tone” that defines a lot of classic 60’s and 70’s tunes, and for cleans the neck pickup is the clearest and most touch sensitive of the group.

On Order and Coming Soon to UpFront Guitars

March 23rd, 2014

At UpFront Guitars, we’ve always got new product from G&L, Knaggs, Simon & Patrick, Breedlove and Godin on order or in the pipeline. So to get a peek at what’s not on the site yet but will be soon just follow this link

Thanks!

UpFront Guitars

 

 

 

UpFront Guitars Big 2014 NAMM Adventure

January 26th, 2014

After a couple years’ hiatus, the brain trust of UpFront guitars made to the trip out to the 2014 NAMM show in Anaheim, California. We had several goals in mind: 1) Meet with many of our biggest suppliers 2) Scout out some new opportunities to bring to UpFront Guitars 3) Meet up with old friends, and 4) Soak up a little SoCal weather.

If you’ve ever been to a trade show of any type, you know they can be crowded, noisy affairs. The NAMM show shatters all preconceptions of crowded, noisy affairs. I suppose that the CES (Consumer Electronics) and SEMA (Car accessories) shows probably rival NAMM for calamity factor, but just imagine 35,000 visitors a day, and four floors of musical instruments. Visiting the show is tiring, and it’s hard to imagine working a booth for four days. Here are some of the high points, observations, and cheap advice to consider if you plan on visiting NAMM:

G&L – After working with G&L for almost four years, finally meeting the crew – Jim, Natalie, Rob, and Larry – was like catching up long lost relatives. These folks are awesome, and it’s wonderful to have such a great working relationship with people who really put their heart and soul into a company. It’s companies like this that make the music business fun.

Godin – Godin gets their own room upstairs at the convention center, so it’s a little less chaotic. But as usual they are rolling out a lot of new products, and it’s a good place to hear an impromptu performance, often Latin in nature involving their Multiac line.  New items that we took a shine to include a P-90 version of their Montreal Premiere line (with Bigsby), gloss white versions of the Nylon ACS, and some cool affordable guitars from their Richmond line.

Vox – Interesting that their display was over in the Pro Audio section with Korg, while sister company Marshall was smack dab in Metal-Land. But Vox has done a nice job blending traditional amplifiers with technology, modeling, and their own line of unique guitars.

Percussion – Unless you are a drummer, you really want to stay away from their section. Think about it.

The Biggies: Taylor, Martin, Fender, Peavey, Gibson, PRS, etc – They mostly have their own rooms, and these tend to be very crowded affairs and are as much branding/culture exercises as they are selling to their dealers. The crowds were so heavy, that we had just walk by some of them and move on. Taylor knows brand building better than just about anyone, and their room was heavily focused on live performances and an almost museum-like approach to their displays.  They topped everyone on Saturday with an unannounced performance by Jason Mraz, which we missed getting into by mere minutes. You can see it on their website, and as usual Jason exhales more talent than most people ever have in a lifetime. In contrast, the PRS room was very low key, and basically just a room full of guitars with mood lighting. For a brand with such a fervent following, they didn’t bring the story like Taylor and others.

Breedlove – Way more impressive than was I expecting, and they have some beautiful guitars, and interesting design features that are both functional and attractive. They cover all the price points with USA, Korea and China-made models, and we may to have to take a closer look at these guys, specifically their USA line.

Metal is Not Dead – It’s in Anaheim. It’s grayer, older, several pounds heavier, but there was a whole heap of leather, tattoos, fishnet, and piercings walking the show. They must have all driven there, because there is no way they got through airport security. The artist signings were also heavily tilted towards hard rock, and any long line of black leather was typically waiting for autographs. But God Bless’em they love rock and roll and were out in force. Be nice to them.

Pedals and Effects – To paraphrase Chandler from Friends, “Can there possibly be anymore pedals?” There was just an unfathomable number of pedals on display, from the big names to the tiny cottage makers lurking in the far back corners of the hall. I have no idea when the bubble will burst, but it’s got to someday.

Band and Orchestra – We guitar heads forget how big the B&O segment is to the overall industry. Quite likely lessons, sheet music and rentals are keeping your local music store alive. If you can figure out how to start a guitar orchestra and rent them instruments, you will be very rich indeed.

Technology – In many ways, the Pro Audio and software exhibitors were some of the most fascinating. And that fact that a good deal of the stuff is right over my head is a real wake-up call. There will always (I hope) be a need for real guitars, amps and performers, but you owe it to yourself to stay abreast of even rudimentary recording and production technology. Record labels and radio stations don’t have the power they used to, and the ability to self-produce at a high level of quality has never been better. You still need talent, but you don’t need a big dollar studio to get heard. For around $500 you can get a pretty good mic-preamp/USB/Firewire interface, recording software, and an SM-57. You can do it.

Have a plan for the show – Just going to NAMM to “walk around” is like saying you left your glasses at Disneyworld and you need to go find them. It’s too big, too noisy, and too crowded to saunter. Many booths are so packed that unless you have an appointment you won’t even be able to talk to anybody. Make a plan of attack, make appointments, download the phone app, and get organized. Wandering is fruitless and unproductive. It’s great for people watching, but you can do that while outside in the nice weather, and sitting down.

Attend seminars and workshops – NAMM is after all a trade organization, and there are literally dozens of opportunities to learn about business, technology, finance, marketing…you name it. It’s free information, often taught by independent businessmen with a lot of personal experience to share. If you are in the business, or are just curious, these are well worth your time. We took a lot of notes and got some great ideas for UpFront Guitars.

China, the country and the brand – We all know that China makes about 75% of all this stuff, maybe more. But they are not just the factory anymore, and there is an emerging number of China-based brands looking to make their own name at NAMM. Much of the productive derivative and often blatant copies, but that was Japan fifty years ago.

Food – Hands down, the best food of any trade show I’ve been to. Nice weather means Food Trucks, and while the lines were long, we actually got something really good at a reasonable price.

Go early, leave early – Get your business done early in the day. Go back to your hotel, take a nap, and go back for the live performances that run late into the night. We at UpFront Guitars didn’t do that. Next time.

For more information about UpFront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

Adjusting the action on Godin Multiac guitars

December 29th, 2013

The Godin Multiac and ACS series of Electro-Acoustic guitars are great instruments for both live performances and recording. Plus their easy playability make them ideal for electric players who want to add acoustic nylon or steel sounds to their repertoire. But like any guitar, they benefit from being properly adjusted. Most electric players are accustomed to having an adjustable bridge to tweak their guitar. So what’s the best way to set up a Godin Multiac?

Shameless Plug: If you buy a guitar from UpFront Guitars, all this work is done for you and you can stop reading! If you already own a Godin Multiac or similar instrument, please read on.

When working on a Godin Multiac, the first place to start is to look at the action at the 12th fret. Whether nylon or steel, acoustics strings are heavier gage and often get played harder then electrics. As such, the strings may experience greater amplitude (physically wider vibrations from being plucked or strummed). So setting up an acoustic with action suitable for an electric guitar may choke off the sound and hamper sustain. A typical target is somewhere about .070” but generally not greater than .080” when measured from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the 6th string.

Once you’ve determined that the action needs adjustment, the easiest way to make a small adjustment is to adjust the neck relief (forward bow of the neck towards the fingerboard or back bow). Although neck relief is also critical for insuring that the strings do not buzz on the lower frets, there is usually some leeway to find a happy medium between neck relief and action.

String-Height

Checking action at the 12th fret with a string height gauge

To check neck relief, place a capo on the first fret, and then fret the last fret on the 6th string. With a .010 or .011 feeler gage, check the clearance at the 8th fret between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. If you don’t have a feeler gauge, a typical uncoated business card is about .010 and works fine (but if you plan to do frequent guitar maintenance, get a set of feeler gauges from an Auto Parts store or Stewart-MacDonald). Clearance of .010 is usually enough to ensure good playability on the lower part of the neck without buzz. But as Ronald Reagan said, “trust but verify” and always play your guitar after making any adjustments.

If there is excess neck relief (forward bow), and the guitar action at the 12th fret is higher than you’d like, you can dial out some relief by adjusting the trust rod. This will effectively lower your action. The truss rod adjustment on a Multiac is at the bottom of the neck, and it works opposite of an electric with the truss rod socket at the headstock. Facing the rod socket and turning the rod clockwise will remove bow and decrease the relief.  Godin guitars have dual action truss rods, so you can add relief (forward bow) or flatten the neck (back bow).

When adjusting a truss rod, a little can do a lot. Don’t turn the nut more than a ¼ of a turn at a time, and then measure the change in relief. Also, the neck must have some amount of truss rod tension. So if the perfect relief is achieved with no tension on the rod, add a small amount of tension (eighth to a quarter turn) in the direction that works best for playability.

If the action at the 12th fret is too low, you can add relief to essentially raise the action. In the extreme, too much relief will affect the guitar’s intonation (the strings become less parallel to the fretboard). However, since even semi-hollow guitars have more complex resonances and overtones than a solid body guitar, they are not nearly as sensitive to minor changes in intonation. I’ve never had the occasion where any adjustments caused a Multiac to not play in tune.

The method of adjusting relief to tweak the action is a compromise between how the guitar plays, and whether there is any objectionable fret buzz. Too little relief will cause buzzing around frets 1-8, and too low action will cause buzzing at the 12th fret and above. So if you can’t get the desired result with this method, you have two other options:

Shimming the Neck

Note – If you have a Godin ACS with piezo saddles, you can’t shave the bridge and all your adjustments have to be made with neck shim/relief.

Truth be told, many Godin Multiac guitars come from the factory with a neck shim, often in the form of a piece of sandpaper. It’s the right thickness (about .009) and being a guitar company, they have a lot of sandpaper. If the action needs to be raised, I will usually take out the sandpaper shim – if there is one – and insert a “business card” shim. My UpFront Guitars coated business cards are about .016, so if I need more of a change than the sandpaper shim is providing, the business card usually does the trick.  For demonstration purposes, I show a guitar with the neck removed. It is not actually necessary to remove the neck of the guitar. Here is the quick method:

  • Loosen the strings so they are very slack
  • Remove the neck screws
  • Tilt the neck forward in the pocket. Do not remove the neck from the pocket!
  • As needed, remove the old sandpaper shim using tweezers or needle-nose pliers
  • As needed, insert a new shim, and visually confirm that it is seated in the bottom of the neck pocket
  • Re-install the neck screws, making sure the neck is seated fully flush in the neck pocket. When driving the first couple screws, hold the neck tightly in the pocket
  • Tune up the guitar.
Cut-card

Creating a neck shim from a business card

 

 

install-card

Placing the shim in the pocket (you don’t actually have to remove the neck to do this)

At this point you’ll need to check the action at the 12th fret, and see if your changes achieved the desired results. You can also again adjust the neck relief to fine-tune the guitar’s playing qualities. To achieve optimal results, it’s quite often a balance between the right neck shim and neck relief adjustment.

Shaving the Bridge

Let’s say you want to lower the action, and you are not able to get right results with a shim. Or you don’t like the idea of the shim, and the potential for the shim to “de-couple” neck on body vibrations. The other option is to shave the bridge. To do a good job of the shaving the bridge, a little more equipment is needed. And of course if you go too far, you can’t go back (“I cut it twice and it’s still too short”). Ideally the tools needed are:

  • Bench grinder
  • Vernier or Dial Caliper (to measure material removal)
  • Sanding block (I use a sanding sponge, but dry)
  • A black Sharpie pen

The Godin bridge saddle is made by Graphtech, and is some sort of graphite impregnated plastic. It’s a very workable, so go slowly and check your results frequently as you go. Also, how much material do you need to remove? This is where having a Dial Caliper is handy, as generally the amount needed to remove is only .010 to .015”. Keep in mind that a 64th of an inch is only .015”, so a ruler is not going to be accurate enough. Lastly, before you take the saddle out of the guitar, mark it with a pencil to indicate its orientation in the bridge. It’s not a symmetrical part, and position matters. Once the saddle is out, here is my approach:

  • “Color” the base of the saddle with the Sharpie. As you remove the material by grinding or sanding, you can judge the results by how the black is removed
  • Holding firmly with both hands, lightly move the saddle base across the grinding wheel, holding the saddle as tangent to the wheel as possible.
  • Check after each stroke to see how evenly the black Sharpie if being removed.
  • Check the height of the saddle with the caliper to accurately measure material removal
  • “Re-Color” the base as needed to insure that you are evenly working the saddle
grinding-bridge

Shaving the bridge with a bench grinder

 

Even with practice, it’s not easy to get a perfectly flat grind from the grinding wheel. There always seems to be some amount of unevenness. So after the majority of the work is accomplished with the wheel. The final “honing” of the saddle is done on the sanding block. Pressing lightly on the block and working in circular motions does a nice job of producing an even, flat finish on the saddle base. If you have only a very small amount of material to remove, it might be possible to do the entire job on a sanding block. But it’s a slow process, and removing even .010” is a lot of strokes. But you’re unlikely to ever wreck the saddle doing it that way.

sanding-bridge

Use a sanding block to make sure the bridge surface is level, or to remove very small amounts

 

If you shave the bridge too much, it might be possible to save the job by removing a neck shim or tweaking the relief. The only other recourse is to start over with a new saddle, or shim the saddle. Since all Multiac guitars receive some or all of their vibrational input via the bridge saddle, a shim is likely to have some sonic affect on sound quality and should be avoided.

Shaving the Bridge Plan B

What if you have a Multiac with a Graphtech saddle, don’t have a grinding wheel, or the thought of that process seems too risky? The other option is to work each string slot with a fret file. Of course this requires the added expense of having a set of nut files, and the tedious task of working each slot evenly. The “can’t go back” rule also applies to filing saddle slots. This is really best for working out a spot problem, and not dropping the string action an even amount across the board.

In Conclusion: Plan your attack in advance

With any repair or project, it’s always most efficient to employ the least complex method that will produce the desired the result. So in order of preference, the plan of attack for a Multiac guitar would be:

  • Adjust neck relief to achieve the best balance of action and playing performance. Neck relief is subjective: Your ears will tell you if you are happy. Players who want the lowest action possible will oftentimes tolerate the minor buzz of a very flat neck.
  • Use a neck shim. If you can’t get what you want with just neck relief, a neck shim is fast and effective. To maximize neck/body coupling. Don’t use more than one shim and don’t shim more that a business card. Combining a shim and truss rod adjustment is usually all that is ever needed.
  • Shave the bridge if you must, but it’s a non-reversible process and requires the most tools and skill.

For guitar selection and services at Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

Solid Body or Semi-Hollow for your G&L Guitar?

July 5th, 2013

With just a few exceptions — the SC-2, Invader and Rampage come to mind — just about every G&L guitar is available in solid body or semi-hollow format. On the bass side, the ASAT bass is also available in both flavors. Here is a rundown of the things to consider when selecting whether to go with a semi-hollow or solid body G&L.

Finishes – Any semi-hollow model automatically includes the premium finish option on swamp ash, and this is built into the cost. You can get a solid finish too, but the wood choice will still be swamp ash. Of course the “Deluxe” models have flame maple tops so don’t ask for a solid finish on that!

Weight – Some guitar players are obsessed with the topic of weight. For many, the tone of the guitar is often ascribed to the weight of the body. While weight and tone is a subjective discussion, from a purely comfort standpoint, a semi-hollow is definitely easier on the back. Typically, a semi-hollow G&L will tip the scales at about a pound lighter, which you will definitely feel. An ASAT semi-hollow will generally weigh between 6.8 and 7.6 pounds, while its solid body brethren will weigh from 7.6 to 8.8. Why such a wide swing on the weight? Swamp ash has more inherent variability than alder, and sometimes can get pretty hefty. Really light swamp ash is out there but it’s getting rare.  An and ASAT, solid body alder is generally within a couple tenths of 8 pounds. Body contours and belly cuts can also take a little weight off a solid body ASAT, but are not available on the semi-hollow. Note that the ASAT Deluxe semi-hollow has a mahogany back, and theses are often the lightest of the ASAT family (and the most expensive). Any other semi-hollow is all swamp ash, and alder is not available.

Cosmetics – The entire semi-hollow line is available with or without the f-hole. So if you don’t like the look of the classic violin-type sound hole, no problem. My own ASAT is a semi-hollow with no f-hole, and while I have not played enough guitars side-by-side to determine if the hole makes a big difference, I imagine the effect is subtle. Generally, make your decision on whether or not you like the look. G&L does not finish the inside of the guitar, so if the guitar has a very dark finish, the white swamp ash wood inside the f-hole may be too much of a contrast for some tastes.

Sound – So the big question, how does it affect the sound of the guitar? To my ear, the semi-hollow configuration seems to even out the sound across the spectrum, making the response a little more even and less peaky in spots. Overall the attack is a little softer, and there is slight reduction in low end response. If maximum attack/punch or low end response is of great importance then a solid body G&L is generally a better choice (hard rock or snappy country picking come to mind). It’s not a true acoustic, so feedback is a non-issue, and overall the sound is a touch richer and more dimensional that a solid body. Because of the slightly reduced low end, I’m not sure I’d recommend a Legacy semi-hollow. The conventional Alnico pickups are a little bass-starved to begin with, and a solid alder body is the best choice, just as Leo intended. In contrast, the G&L MFD pickups have plenty of attack and response, and the semi-hollow treatment works very well with them. In particular the ASAT Classic makes a great semi-hollow, and so does the relatively rare Z-3. The Z-coils are powerful critters, and the combination of saddle lock bridge and chambered construction creates a simultaneously complex and powerful sound, with the only downside being that the bridge pickup lacks a little low end.

Cost – Because the semi-hollow construction includes both the added labor of a chambered body and the premium finish upgrade, it does command a price premium. For an ASAT-style guitar, the street price up-charge is about $225. For reasons that I can only imagine relate to build complexity, the semi-hollow Legacy, Comanche and S-500 guitars are a lot more expensive. The street price up charge is close to $700. For that reason alone I really have no experience with them, and customer inquiries about them are rare.

Wrap Up – While other guitar makers offer chambered guitars — Carvin, Gibson, Fender and Godin have them as standard offerings — G&L has really made them a staple of their line and not just catalog oddments. While the additional cost of going semi-hollow is not insignificant, they do offer both sonic and comfort benefits that may “tip the scales” for many players (sorry about the pun).

To check out body styles offered at Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

Playing Guitar vs. Playing in a Band

July 3rd, 2013

As guitar players we all have some sort of musical goals. Whether it be to continually improve, master a certain style, or just amuse oneself. Usually this goal is attached somehow to getting better at playing the guitar. But how many people have as their goal to play guitar well in a band? This might sound rather odd at at first, but playing your guitar well versus playing your guitar well in a band — or with people — can be two very different things.

You’ve seen them on YouTube: Bedroom shredders that can tear it up playing along to a jam track, or just soloing. You probably also know players that can pull off tons of recognizable riffs and mimic their favorite artist down to every bend. These people will get labeled by their friends as “very good guitar players.” But have you ever tried to jam with any of these people? Sometimes considerable technical skill does not translate into cohesive musical thoughts.

In reality, most of us likely spend the majority of our playing time by ourselves. Between work, chores and other obligations, most playing or practice time is generally solo. The skill building of practicing guitar is often a solitary pursuit, but the skill (and joy) of playing music is best enjoyed in the company of other like-minded musicians.

I’ve found that what I know about my playing, my tone, and even how I tweak my gear often goes out the window once I’m playing with others. The interaction of volume, other instruments, the drummer, and a host of other factors has a profound effect on how I actually play and sound. A famous Field Marshall once said that “no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” Much the same can be said about playing guitar solo versus with a band. Until you are in the heat of battle, you’ll never know what really works and what doesn’t

Technique, and musical theory are all important and help us all become more literate at playing the guitar. And so is understanding your gear, and developing your tone. But things such as phrasing and timing — the parts of playing that turn notes into music — are learned best in the company of others. I’ve heard lots of guitar players play “through” a band, trying like mad to jam their preconceived ideas and notes into a song regardless of the outcome. But music is made when players make the most of the space made available to them, and use the band as a platform for their musical inspiration.

Another thing playing live or with a band will do is make you simplify your gear. Unless you have a roadie, lugging around a huge pedal board, outboard gear, and tons of cables is not only inconvenient, but also begging for technical difficulties. After a few gigs, you’ll be trying to figure out what not to take, and refining you setup down to the essential elements. I think part of the obsession over pedals is driven primarily by home players looking for something new and different to experiment with. I firmly believe that good gear and cables matter, but often subtle nuances get blown away by the drummer or the noise level of a crowded bar (it’s why I don’t worry about noiseless pickups. What?). As I said, I love gear, and good gear sounds better than crappy stuff.  But music is ultimately an emotional event that if done well is more than the sum of its parts. A crew chief for a racing team said something to the effect that: If I need .2 seconds per lap I work on the car, if I need 2 seconds per lap I work on the driver.

Any guitar playing is better than not playing. But unless your goal is to play solo guitar or do strictly multi-track recording, try and find a jam session or some other format that gets you out there with other players. There is nothing that can simulate playing with a living, breathing band, and making it work takes a combination of technique, patience, and most of all listening. No matter what your style of music or long term goals, it will make you a better player.

For guitars offered by Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

 

Amplifying your Godin or other Acoustic Guitar

June 7th, 2013

Godin A6 Koa Extreme

 

Here at UpFront Guitars we sell a lot of Godin and Simon and Patrick acoustic or thinline acoustic guitars. All these guitars have built in electronics, and in most cases the buyer does not ask me for advice on how to amplify it. Without a doubt, amplifying an acoustic or even the thinline Godin acoustic-electrics is a challenging proposition. Despite major advances in on-board electronics, getting a natural sounding amplified tone still takes some work. There are multiple ways to approach amplifying an acoustic guitar with on-board electronics, and here are a few suggestions we’ve stumbled on along the way:

Straight it the Mixer – For many performers, direct into the board is a very common approach. However, many mixer preamps are not that friendly for acoustics and the sound can be a little flat and uninspiring. This gives rise to the Acoustic Preamp, which is typically a stomp box with EQ parameters specially voiced for acoustic guitars. Quite often Acoustic preamps feature special “notch” filtering to help fight feedback, and the ability to adjust not only the gain but center frequency of the all-important midrange. At minimum they also serve to convert the Hi-Z 1/4″ jack signal from the guitar to a Lo-Z XLR input for the mixer. There are many manufacturers of these products including some well know names like L.R. Baggs, Radial, Tech 21, BBE and others. These products run from $129 to $500 for the Taylor K4. My feeling that going “naked” into the mixer is not going to yield desirable results, and some type of signal conditioning is needed.

Tube or Microphone Preamps – An alternative to a specific acoustic preamp stomp box is a microphone preamp. These can range from $99 for an ART tube preamp to thousands of dollars for an Avalon, Universal Audio or other high end studio stuff. In general these are tube-driven devices that are intended to offer a softer, warmer sound and natural analog compression via a vacuum tube circuit. For short money, we’ve played around with a basic ART MP Studio V3 Tube Preamp ($75) and it certainly takes the harsh edge off a piezo-based transducer, and offers some basic amount of tone shaping. Mic preamps also have lots of other uses besides acoustic guitars, so it’s a multi-functional tool. You can spend a ton of money here, so consider whether you are looking for a product for live performance in front of a bunch of drunk people, or a critical recording application.

Powered Speakers – Chances are these days that if you are playing your acoustic into the mixer, there is a good chance that the mixer is feeding a powered 2-way speaker. Powered speakers rule the world of portable and small-medium PA systems, and they also make excellent stand-alone acoustic amplifiers. For most acoustic electric guitar demos our favorite tool is a QSC K-10 powered speaker. It has plenty of power, and the full range frequency response needed to produce complex acoustic guitar tones (acoustics have a wider frequency range and more complex overtones than an electric). Plus as opposed to an electric guitar amplifier, powered speakers typically have a specific woofer and tweeter to accurately produce high an low frequencies. A good preamp, maybe a little reverb and a high quality powered PA speaker is a killer combination, even if you are also feeding the mixer.

Conventional Electric Guitar Amplifiers – As a rule most electric guitar amplifiers are pretty lousy at amplifying acoustic guitars. Mostly because the amplifiers are not designed to produce the wide frequency range needed for a natural acoustic sound. The extended high end needed for an acoustic simply is not needed for an electric guitar, or would have an electric sound overly harsh or icy. But in a pinch, some guitar amplifiers can do a pretty good job, and if you want an amp that can do double duty there are a couple things to look for. First is speaker surface area. More speakers are better, and generally smaller speakers are better than bigger ones. A 2×10 will produce a more detailed sound than a 1×12, and a 4×10 is better than a 2×12 or 1×15. Smaller speakers with lighter weight moving parts can easily produce more detail and nuance than a big 12″ speaker with a 50 ounce magnet. A midrange control is also very handy, and even better if your amp has an active (versus passive) midrange control. Shaping these critical frequencies can mean the difference between a reasonably natural sound and a honky, nasal box o’ noise.

Also, some of the earlier guitar amplifiers based on designs from tube manufacturing handbooks make pretty good acoustic amps. Why? Because they were really not “guitar amp” designs, but rather full-range tube amplifier designs adapted to amplifying guitars. Amps like the Fender Bassman make very good acoustic amplifiers because they are essentially full range amplifiers with four small low-mass speakers in a pine box. We use our Fender Bassman Ltd Reissue to check out acoustics prior to shipping, and it sounds remarkably good. However, our Dr. Z Remedy through a similar 4×10 cabinet with the same speakers as the Bassman sounds more closed and dull. The Remedy is an excellent electric guitar amp, while the Bassman origins are more hi-fi than guitar. Jason Mraz uses two blackface Fender amplifiers for his live stage sound and mixer feed, and his live guitar sound is killer. Surface area and those simple Fender schematics do a great job.

Aurel Exciters – An Aurel Exciter (such as the BBE Sonic Maximizer) use frequency dependent phase shifting and dynamic equalization of (usually) higher order harmonics to make music sound more alive, distinct, and lend a greater feeling of note separation. I really like the results using this type of effect with acoustic guitars, and it’s part of my band’s live acoustic rig. Aurel Exciters are also frequently used in the studio to perk up dull recordings without making them sound overly bright. Aphex and BBE are the best known names in this type of product, and it’s also available as a software plug-in for recording software.

Dedicated Acoustic Amplifiers – I don’t have much to say about dedicated acoustic amplifiers, because it’s been years since I’ve used one. Acoustic guitar amplifiers are optimized specifically for acoustic guitars, and typically have active equalization, and high and low frequency (woofer/tweeter) transducers. As such they are generally overly bright and unsuitable for electric guitars, and if you do double duty with your band, you’re faced with hauling two amps. It just seems more logical to bring your favorite electric guitar amp, and work out a good sounding direct setup for the acoustic.

The Lowdown – Electric guitar players are known to be obsessive about their tone, but acoustic guitars are equally if not more challenging to dial in. A warm, natural sounding acoustic guitar can add a lot of character and richness to any band. Study your acoustic setup, and give it the same attention to detail as you would your solid body. Getting a good sound make take some experimentation, but it’s not necessary to spend hundreds of dollars to spruce up your amplified acoustic tone.

The Godin Core P90 – A New Sound is Waiting for You

December 21st, 2012

In the interest of full disclosure, I do sell Godin guitars. Actually I sell quite a few Godin guitars, although most of them are the Multiac Electro-Acoustics and the Kingpin Archtop Series. These are guitars that are fairly unique in the marketplace, and for that reason do quite well. In the case of the Multiac series, there is probably nothing better for trouble-free acoustic sound in a live performance setting, especially with a loud band clattering away.

I also carry Godin solid body guitars too, but these often move much slower as buyers more often than not buy a Fender, Gibson, Epiphone, or if a younger guitarist an ESP or Ibanez. This is too bad, as Godin makes as nice a solid body guitar as anybody, and they are made in the USA and Canada to boot. But the lure of the brand is a very powerful thing, and to some degree why buy a Stratocaster-shaped Godin when one can buy a Stratocaster from Fender, and depending on your price point pay anywhere from $199 to $4000?

But instead of having the Fender-versus-the-world discussion, how about trying a guitar that really can really do something different for your tone and your playing? What I’m talking about here is the Godin Core P90. Yes, it is shaped very much like a Les Paul, and yes it has two P-90 pickups, but the world is not choking on P-90 Les Paul’s like it is Stratocasters. So while the Core is derivative, it’s derivative of something that is not all that common in the marketplace. That’s sounds like a questionable marketing plan, but bear with me.

The Core P90 uses a chambered mahogany body with a flat maple top. The chambered body keeps the guitar around 8 pounds, and the maple top gives the guitar a nice high end response. Although it’s not a carved top, it still looks pretty, and besides this is a guitar that you can score for around $850. It’s got a mahogany set neck with rosewood fingerboard, Gibson length scale, a GraphTech wrap tailpiece with adjustable saddles, three-way switch and individual volume and tone controls for each pickup. All good stuff, none of it screams high end, but it’s all far from budget or cheesy.

For pickups the Core uses a Seymour Duncan SP90-1 in the neck and a hotter SP90-3 in the bridge. I’ve heard more than one person remark that they don’t like P-90 pickups, and there are several reasons for this, and some quite justifiably so. A P-90 pickup can sound muffled and dark in an all mahogany guitar. The great exception to this is when they are used with a dog ear mounting like the Les Paul Junior. Getting the pickup up and out of the body really seems to help. Another reason for P-90 disdain is that there are a lot of lousy ones out there. There is temptation to wind them too hot, creating dark nasal pickups that are one-dimensional and have no harmonic qualities at all. Stick these in an all-mahogany guitar and all you’ll want to be is Pete Townsend at the end of the show so you can smash the damn thing to pieces.

So after some initial trepidation upon reading the specs on the Duncan’s, I was more than happy with how they sounded. No doubt helped by the maple top and chambered body, the neck pickup was clear and clean with good note definition, and a midrange that was fat enough to punch but still had a little bit of scoop to it when played up the neck. Single notes had enough girth to stand out, but the overall tone was not so thick as to discourage heavy strumming. Great for the blues, me thinks.

The SP90-3 bridge pickup is considerably hotter in output than the neck, but again I was pleasantly surprised with its overall clarity and lack of harshness. A P-90 in the bridge is the quintessential recipe for classic rock tones. The fat midrange works great with pedals or low powered amps, and the high end is ample enough to produce a lot of sparkle without getting icy or brittle like — you guessed it — a Stratocaster. Whether dialed in to a level of mild crunch like AD/DC or with heavy distortion, a good P-90 is an indispensable rock weapon.

But wait, there’s more. Unlike most of their guitars, Godin very wisely equipped the Core with individual volume and tone controls. This is not a guitar you should just play with everything on ten: With both pickups engaged, small adjustments of volume, tone, or both create varying shades of bright, dark, warm and cool that can expand your playing in ways that you’ve never considered. Neck a little too dark? Blend in some bridge. Bridge not thick enough? Add a little neck. Roll down the tone a little on one of the pickups and you get an almost out-of-phase growl. If you thought a 5-way switch was versatile, you’re in for a real treat.

And if you are a fan of Fender amps, your day just got even better. P-90’s love Tweeds or Deluxe style amps, where the leaner tone of the Fender circuits complement the chunky nature of the P-90. The Core P90 sounds magical through our Bassman Ltd, and positively rips when plugged into the gain side of the 6V6 powered Andrews Para-Dyne 20.

So while most of the world is buying another Stratocaster thinking it’s going to be radically more awesome than their other Stratocasters, here is a guitar that will give you some seriously good tones — different tones — for not a lot of money. The set neck and shorter string length will also provide a different feel and response than a bolt-on 25.5″ string length guitar. There is of course nothing wrong with a Strat: It’s the world’s most popular guitar design. But different guitars make you play differently, unlock different tones and musical thoughts, and expand your range of creativity.

With their Core P90, Godin is building a great guitar that not many people are paying attention to. This chambered maple top P-90 guitar is lean enough that Strat players won’t freak, thick enough that Les Paul players will still dig it, and flexible way beyond its 3-way pickup switch. Does it need anything? Maybe a good wiring kit with better caps and a treble bleed on the volume controls. The tuning machines are nothing fancy, but there are no issues with them either. There are plenty of cork-sniffer P-90’s out there, but for my money I like the sound of this guitar more than their Lollar P-90 equipped Icon 3. Of course that has a mahogany top and an ebony fingerboard, which slides it more to the dark side. No, it really does not need to be “improved” right out of the box. As I sometimes say to my customers, “Be secure enough to spend less.” This is one of those times.

 

 

 

American Made Electric Guitars for around $1000

October 1st, 2012

Updated January, 2016

The solid body electric guitar is a uniquely American invention, but as most people know, very few of them are made in the USA anymore. As with many consumer products, the lure of low cost labor has drawn most manufacturing offshore. The first imports in the 60’s were from Japan, and then as costs rose there, manufacturing shifted to South Korea, then China, and now there is a growing industry in Indonesia. China is still the big dog in terms of guitar production, but as Chinese manufacturing costs continue to increase, more manufacturing will likely shift to Indonesia, and after that, who knows where?  Most players would be surprised to learn that South Korea accounts for only about 5% of electric guitar production, with the USA a couple points below that.

In practical terms, the average guitar player benefits from lower prices for musical instruments and gear. Given the combination of low labor costs and improved manufacturing technology, the bang-for-the-buck on guitars has never been better. About 44% of electric guitars purchased in 2011 cost less than $200. That’s just an astounding number, and even more astounding when you figure that these products are generally something you can actually play and that will stay in tune. Fully 80% of electric guitars purchased in 2011 cost less than $600. While I can’t be certain, I’ll wager that virtually none of these guitars were manufactured in the USA.

But what if you want to purchase something made in the USA, and you are on a budget? There are several options available, and if you are willing to head north of the border, the selection expands considerably. This is not meant to be a totally comprehensive list, but just some of the options out there for guitarists that want a good quality instrument and also support American manufacturing.

G&L – Barring a special release model, the days of a $1000 street price G&L are over. With new dealer and list pricing implemented in July 2015, your not going to see a 2015 G&L at this price; short of a desperate and/or math-challenged dealer blowing them out. There are still quite a few new 2014 models out there, and a base Legacy or SC-2 still might be had for around a grand. G&L continues to offer a unique value in terms of fit, finish, and the ability to special order. If you are willing to stretch your budget, you will be well rewarded.

Godin – Godin gets an honorable mention because while they don’t manufacture complete guitars in the USA, they assemble a variety of models in their New Hampshire facility from Canadian-made parts. Godin also uses a lot of locally sourced and sustainable woods like Maple, Basswood, and Cherry for their guitars. The Session and Progression and Core lines are examples of guitars assembled in the USA, and with a street price of around $500 the Session is a particularly good value. If you consider Canada as the 51st state, the all-Canadian Godin Core is our favorite both in P-90 and Humbucker trim. These street price for around $800, and there is just nothing not to like about them. They even use Seymour Duncan P-90 and bridge Humbucker pickups. Now for a $500 North American guitar don’t expect vintage Alnico pickups, and Godin does use PCB-mounted controls rather than hand-wired pots, but the setup and playability are first rate. All Godin guitars included a gig bag in the price.

Fender – One thing is for certain about Fender, and it’s that they offer a dizzying array of products that is both extensive, confusing, and often unnecessary.  But mixed in there is an assortment of Highway One and American Special guitars that offer good values and prices right at around $1000. Models seem to come and go in the Fender line with little or no warning, so what’s available at any given moment is hard to predict. The pickups in these guitars are decent if not awe inspiring, but overall these guitars are perfectly gig-worthy instruments and great platforms for hot-rodding. Keep in mind the price of these guitars either include no case, or a gig bag.

Gibson – Like Fender, Gibson suffers somewhat from product line schizophrenia. If you are browsing the major online retailers, models tend to come and go, at least from a standpoint of what’s being promoted at the moment. Gibson offers “faded” Les Paul and SG models with prices below $1000. There are also satin finish guitars both with flat and carved tops that come in under $1000. Gibson also offers Melody Maker and Les Paul Junior models, again with satin or aged finishes. We’ve tried the Les Paul Junior, and it’s pretty nifty with lots of bite out of the single dog-ear P-90, and good playing qualities. LP Juniors are fun guitars, and for a for pure elemental rock machine you can’t really go wrong. Gibson fit and finish can sometimes be a little variable, and if you want to mod the pickups or controls, you’ll likely be dealing with a printed circuit board (even if you spend thousands). As with Fender, gig bags may not be in the price, so consider that when you are shopping.

Carvin – By eliminating the retailer and going strictly direct, Carvin has been putting out a broad variety of attractively priced USA guitars for many years. Having never played their guitars I can’t say a wh0le lot, but my personal experience with their pro-audio and bass amplifiers tells me that they do deliver above average performance at a very competitive price. Provided you don’t option them up too much, their ST300, DC127, DC134/5, DC600 and Bolt-On  series guitars can all be had for under $1000. Carvin guitars can be custom built to order, and the array of options available from Carvin is pretty mind-boggling. For under $1000, your going to be looking at a fairly basic guitar — no quilt maple tops or Koa wood — but there is still a lot to choose from. Part of the option list is the case, and essentially you have to buy some sort of case, but the case pricing is very reasonable.

Summary – There is a good feeling about buying something made in the USA, and supporting American manufacturing. After all, the solid body electric guitar was born here, so why not buy one made in the USA? In this global world, made in USA is also subject to interpretation. For many product categories there are specific regulations that control whether a product can be labeled “made in USA” or “assembled in USA” etc. There is likely some amount of foreign content in any USA guitar, most notably electronic components, and of course certain woods like rosewood just don’t exist in the USA. Also, chances of finding a gig bag not made in China is pretty tough. So made in USA can sometimes be a fuzzy term, and certain components just cannot be sourced domestically. With that in mind, you can find a guitar in which the majority of the parts and labor come from domestic sources, and not break the bank doing so.

To see some of the American made guitars carried by UpFront Guitars for around $500 – $1200: www.upfrontguitars.com