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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Being such a big fan of the “regular” Fender ’65 Deluxe Reissue Reverb, I quickly reserved a ’64 Deluxe Hand Wired as soon as I heard they were available. After all, what could be better: Hand wired with high quality components, pine cabinet, and reverb on both channels.
So with much anticipation it arrived early January from Sweetwater, the mega store we can’t help but like. Oddly enough around the same time I also purchased a used ’65 DRRI for the other guitar player in my band. He wanted one because he liked mine so much. In some ways the used DRRI is closer to the ’64 Hand Wired model than my own DR, because mine came from the factory with a Celestion Blue (and blue tolex). The ’64 and ’65 both have the same Jensen C12Q speaker.
The ’64 DHW (Deluxe Hand Wired) is very pretty, the workmanship is great, and the grill cloth has a perfect old-but-not-worn look. The pine cabinet is nice, and the weight is super gig-friendly. I was not about to pull the chassis on a brand new amp, but I’m assuming they did a nice job inside too.
But in the end the ’64 DHW went back to Sweetwater, and my DHW experiment had ended. Why?
What I noticed right away — and so did my other guitar player — is that we don’t like the Jensen C12Q much. It might be authentic but it’s kind of thin sounding, and the breakup is a little raspy and rude. By jumping the output of the amp to various cabinets we quickly learned that we were both happier with the tone of the Blue, or other British voiced speakers. And also that a lot of the early breakup of the amp was the speaker and not the amp. With a different speaker the DHW does have better headroom and will handle pedals well at moderate stage volumes. For pedals it works best plugged into input #2, and I liked the slightly warmer tone of the Normal channel best. Now it’s easy enough to change a speaker, but I just paid $2499 for the amp, and did not feel like dropping up to $200+ on Blue or Warehouse Alnico.
Secondly, the DHW just sounded a little stressed and more hard edged than my Blue DRRI. Now this can be tubes, or a lot of other factors, but DHW sounded as though they maybe tweaked it to break up a little sooner and be a little louder. Almost as if it was biased too hot. Compared to my DRRI, the feel was different regardless of speaker: More urgent sounding, and less of the “give” that I like out of my DRRI.
Now I almost never leave anything alone, but at $2499, I wanted to love the amp as is, and not start tearing into it trying to get it where I wanted it to be. So Sweetwater happily accepted the return, and $65 of UPS later, it’s back home in Indiana. Where it will probably not stay for long.
Moral of the story: Speakers matter immensely. I already knew that, but this was a great reminder of how much of a difference they make. Also, I just like most “British” voiced speakers better even in an “American” amp. And while from a standpoint of tone and maintainability I like non-circuit board amplifiers, that alone is not the key to happiness. I really like my “blue” DRRI despite the fact it has a fragile (to repair or mod) Fender circuit board and pedestrian components. Lastly, no matter how much you love your guitar, the amp is at least 50% of the equation, probably more. Search out amplifiers as zealously as you search out guitars, and respect how much influence they have on your tone.
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a typical scenario: Guitar player in local bar band is playing along through a song, and now it’s time for his/her lead. The player hits his stomp box or gain channel and POOF: Where did the guitar go? Instead of standing out, the guitar fails to cut through, and sounds like and angry beehive, lost in the mix.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. Players mistake gain for distortion, or expect to get more gain and just get more distortion. It’s understandable, as on amps and pedals the terms gain, volume, drive and boost all get used quite interchangeably. But generally speaking where you apply the gain in your signal chain will determine whether you are creating more volume, more distortion, or possibly just a bunch of mud.
In a simple non-master volume amplifier, the volume control increases gain at the preamp level. The power amp section is a fixed amount of gain. Whatever the preamp feeds it, the power amp section boosts it “X” amount. In this layout when the amp distorts, it’s the power amp tubes clipping. Unless your amp is 15 watts or less, this is pretty hard to do at reasonable volumes. This why some studio players like small low powered amps like the Fender Tweeds, old Supro’s, etc.
Master Volume amplifiers come in many shapes and sizes but most of them have some way of overloading a preamp tube (or tubes) and creating the distortion at the preamp level, and then using a second volume control (the master) to keep the overall volume level in check.
Any type of distortion causes clipping, which compresses the signal (reduces its dynamic range). The more distortion, the more the signal is compressed, producing a very even signal but with less ability to cut. Everyone has noticed how a clean guitar tone cuts through the band better than a heavily distorted one. The uncompressed dynamic range of a clean signal has a lot to do with it. Or if you use recording software, notice how much more peaky a clean guitar signal is than a distorted one? Clean guitar is much harder to track.
Let’s say you are on the dirty channel of your master volume amplifier, so you are already creating preamp distortion. If you hit a boost pedal feeding more signal into the amplifier, the effect is often to overload the preamp section even more, creating more clipping and compression. Distortion increases, but relative volume goes up very little or not at all.
Even if your “boost” switch is part of the guitar amplifier’s footpedal system, where the boost is applied will determine whether you get more volume (post preamp) or more distortion (in the preamp section). Pedals can do the same thing: If you pump a distorted pedal signal into a signal path that is already compressed, you are just layering distortion on distortion, further crushing dynamic range.
The concept of a “good pedal amplifier” is an amplifier that has enough headroom (clean gain capability) such that you can feed in boosted and distorted pedal signals without significantly overloading the amplifier. In essence the guitar amplifier is amplifying whatever you send in, but adding little or none of it’s own distortion.
A “bad” pedal amp would be a small Fender Tweed. They have so little headroom that any type of signal boosting device would just overload both sections of the amplifier, creating mush. At the other end, a Fender Twin or 100 watt Marshall can take a hot input signal without distorting, and have enough power to amplify that signal to very high decibel levels. If you listen to Angus riff on most AC/DC songs, it’s not heavily distorted, it’s just really loud. And it’s got great dynamics, bite and texture. Angus does not use any distortion pedals.
There are 15-30 watt amplifiers that are good pedal amps, and it has much to do with amplifier design, transformers, and tube selection. To generalize, a fixed bias amplifier tends to have a good amount of clean headroom (Blackface Fenders, many Mesa amplifiers) while a cathode bias amplifier may have great tone, but can be less forgiving to hot signals (Fender Tweeds, Vox, many Dr. Z EL-84 amplifiers).
Tubes matter too. While the 12AX7 preamp tube is by far the most common, the EF86 tube (some Dr. Z, 65 Amps, Bad Cat, etc.) has more gain and clean headroom potential. They also sound different than a 12AX7, but they handle pedals very well.
My own personal preference is to find a single channel amplifier with decent headroom and really good clean tone — pedals won’t make a bad amp sound good — and then go with pedals for overdrive and distortion. Real power amp distortion is awesome, but in a gigging situation where a lot of different tones/colors are needed, pedals are just more convenient and easy to modulate. If you are in a blues band and can put your Tweed on 10 and ride the guitar volume, it’s a great sound. But if you are in a wide-ranging cover band, the pedal-based format is more effective and flexible. For the record I don’t like feel or tone of attenuators, and feel it’s best to pick the right size amplifier for the job. Unless I’m outdoors I don’t play an amp bigger than about 20 watts.
You should also consider the order of your pedals. If your clean boost pedal is before your primary distortion pedal, it will increase distortion and some amount of volume. If it’s after your primary distortion pedal, it will increase volume more effectively with little increase in distortion. Arranging your pedals with an eye towards how they will interact can greatly increase their effectiveness.
If we go back to the hypothetical guitar player at the beginning of this post, think about some of your favorite blues and classic rock guitar leads. Quite often they are not wildly distorted, but there is a lot of texture, dynamics, and the personality of the guitar player comes through. Managing volume versus distortion can improve the quality of your lead work, and help it stand out better in the mix. I’m not talking about playing “clean” but that crushing amounts of pedal or preamp distortion can really suck the emotional life out of a guitar. Music is all about dynamics, and making sure your guitar does not vanish at that crucial moment can make or break the emotional impact of the song.
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.
In the world of guitars, there are a number of features that separate the higher end of the spectrum from the typical electric guitar. For my own purposes, I’ll classify high end guitars as those that have a street price of greater than $2000. For some that may not be an expensive guitar, but only a few percent of the market is above $1500 dollars, so at least in dollar terms it’s high end.
Many guitars in this price range still use the traditional process of finishing their guitars in Nitrocellulose Lacquer. This type of finish chemistry has been in use since the 1920’s and for decades was the preferred method for finishing all types of musical instruments. Nitro remained the dominant process up through the early 70’s when the faster and easier polyurethane catalyzed finished grew in popularity. Today probably 99% of all guitar production is some form of a poly finish.
Like many things that have become revered as the “best,” nitrocellulose lacquer was the available chemistry at the time, and one of the first commercial processes for producing colorful finishes. Until then, it was no coincidence that many commercial products — like cars — came in just black. It was not just economical, but a practical necessity.
But there are certain advantages that make nitro finishes attractive for musical instruments. The finish is quite flexible, which is a good property to let the base materials of the instrument resonate properly. The solvent-based nature of the finish means that you can both remove it, and patch it, which makes is repairable. Lastly is can be buffed and polished to a high gloss.
The drawbacks of nitro is that it uses toxic and highly flammable solvents — xylene and toluene for starters — which means specific handling precautions and ventilation. It’s also built up of many thin coats, so it’s also a slower process as compared to poly finishes. In contrast the modern poly finish is much quicker to apply, and requires fewer handling and safety precautions. Poly finishes have come a long way, and some manufacturers have developed thin environmentally-friendly finishes for their instruments, especially for acoustics. But to many players, poly finishes just don’t “sound” the same.
G&L toyed with nitro finishes on their now-discontinued “Rustic” line of guitars. This was during the relic boom a few years back when just about every manufacturer was beating up their guitars. But the finishing process was subcontracted, and lead times were often many many months. And it was an aged process.
Quite by surprise, G&L introduced their own in-house lacquer process in the spring of 2016. The process is still gaining momentum, and G&L tends to spray a single color in batches of twenty guitars at a time. The colors are pretty traditional and run the range of vintage and 60’s-inspired colors: Sunburst, Butterscotch, Sonic Blue, Fiesta Red, Surf Green, Shell Pink, and Vintage White are all colors that we currently have in stock. The nitro process also includes the neck finish, and all guitars at this point have glossy neck finishes with rosewood or maple fretboards. At this time there are no special orders being taken for nitro guitars.
The nitro finishes have a decidedly “non-plastic” look to them, and this is especially noticeable on the necks, and transparent finishes like Butterscotch and Sunburst. The thinner nature of the finish will also show a little grain texture in the finish. We see this the most on the mahogany bodied guitars. The finish is glossy and smooth, but you can just see the texture of the mahogany in the finish. On some of the guitars there is also the occasional small sink in the finish where the filler did not totally block the pores in the grain. This is not seen as a defect, but a positive sign that the finish is thin, and that the body is not excessively encased in potentially tone-deadening fillers.
Naturally, there is a price increase for the nitrocellulose lacquer finish, but G&L has done a great job in keeping the price in check. Most MAP prices are in the $1600 range for solid bodies, and $1799 for semi-hollow models. When you figure that all models have gloss necks — around $150 MAP in poly — the up-charge is very reasonable indeed.
Does nitrocellulose lacquer sound better? It’s hard to quantify, as every guitar is different in its own respect. But nitro is what I’d like to term as “directionally correct.” In other words the benefits of a thinner, more flexible finish is in theory always beneficial to improving the acoustic properties of a guitar. Or you could ascribe to the idea that no company would apply an expensive nitro finish to a poorly assembled guitar, or one with low quality materials. Either way, there should be no sonic downside to a properly applied lacquer finish, and plenty of potential for upside.
Kudos to G&L for bringing a type of finish generally reserved for the upper stratosphere into the “everyman” range.
As many G&L bass fans know, the G&L SB-2 comes with a somewhat unconventional control set of just two volume controls. While this sounds a bit odd, they actually work like two tone controls. Turning down one pickup effectively shifts the mix, adding more highs or lows depending on which one you turn. It’s a jazz bass setup without a tone control.
For those concerned of any potential limitations of this setup, there is the G&L SB-2 Tone Mod. G&L adds a global tone control where the jack usually is, and adds a side-mounted jack. Bingo: Volume-Volume-Tone. Global harmony and peace on the gear pages finally acheived.
As an SB-2 player, I don’t necessarilly miss the tone control, but I really like the idea of a side-mounted jack. For that reason alone it’s a nice concept, and there is no downside of having a tone control other than a minute amount of additional signal load.
You won’t find this on the G&L option list, so just ask.
For years, the standard body wood offerings from G&L have been Alder and Swamp Ash. Mahogany is available too, but is generally reserved for the ASAT Deluxe and other maple topped guitars.
For a couple years G&L has been quietly offering pine as a non-price list option, and lately Empress Wood. Here is quick rundown on the two “other” woods currently in the G&L line up.
Pine – We’re personal fans of pine, most notably for its tone, and generally good weight properties. Pine has a slightly softer top end, and a touch of compression on the attack. So while as not punchy as some woods, it’s got a little “give” and responds nicely to pick attack. The low end is also very clean and clear. It’s good for basses as well as guitars. The heaviest pine guitar we’ve seen is 7.8 pounds, but they are more typically 6.8 – 7.4, with bass guitars being proportionally heavier. The grain pattern is nothing dramatic, and tends to be straight and clear.
Empress – Looks a lot like swamp ash, and is the welterweight champion of the current G&L lineup. This fast-growing and strong wood is native to Asia, and has historically been used for both musical instruments, and furniture. Empress guitars are typically right around 7 pounds, and our experience is that there is not a great degree of weight variation between guitars. Tonally Empress is on the brighter side with a very solid and punchy attack. The sound is a little less dimensional than swamp ash, with greater emphasis on the fundamental tone. If you like a forward tone with plenty of presence, Empress is a good choice. We really like it for bass guitars, and it has very solid low end response.
So two woods, with two very different personalities. With many guitar players — especially those of a certain age — looking for lightweight and comfortable guitars, both Empress and Pine offer alternatives to traditional woods, and with their own unique tonal spin.