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Spalted wood tops for both Looks and Tone

July 5th, 2018

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

sb2-tight

Spalted alder top on a G&L SB-2

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

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

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

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

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

G&L Kiloton Black Limba top

G&L Kiloton Black Limba top

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

 

Should your next G&L guitar be Pine?

January 26th, 2014

Sometime in 2012, G&L obtained some nice figured pine and started offering guitars – mostly ASAT’s I recall – in pine. This was over and above their Pine Launch Edition of their new ASAT Alnico product. Always liking to have the latest and greatest G&L models at UpFront Guitars, we ordered a few of these for the shop.

To be charitable, the pine guitars were very slow sellers, and hung around for quite while. Anybody who bought one seemed to be very happy with their choice, but it took months and months to find customers willing to take the plunge on a pine bodied guitar.

Around Christmas time, I had a dialog with a buyer interesting in one of the remaining two Pine ASAT Classic (MFD) guitars in stock. Lacking sound clips – yes, another thing on the to-do list – he asked me to evaluate both guitars and give my honest opinion.

One was Tobacco Sunburst with a glossy maple neck, and the other a Butterscotch Blonde with tinted satin maple neck. Through this process, I became enamored with the sound of both guitars, and was on the verge of trying to figure out how keep the Butterscotch guitar. But honesty is the best policy and the Butterscotch guitar found a happy home in Nashville.  Right in time for Christmas no less.

But pine guitars continue to languish on the shelves, and we’ve got two Alnico S Launch Editions to prove it. But why?

Pine is not as dense as most other tone woods, and most pine guitars are going to be lighter in weight. If you want an ASAT that is less than eight pounds, pine is one of the most reliable ways to achieve that goal. As I’ve continuously proclaimed, weight is not synonymous with tone, but most would agree that all other things being equal, lighter is not a bad thing.

The grain of pine is not particularly exotic or bold. Like most alder, it’s straight-grained wood, and unless it’s full of knots there is not a whole lot going on. But its straight uniform grain has a pleasing, crisp symmetry. Besides, a knotty pine guitar would look more like a Middle School Woodshop project than a fine instrument. Applied to pine, the G&L transparent finishes take on a very liquid appearance, and the lack of a bold grain pattern gives them a smooth creamy look, as if the finish never quite dried. Finishes that look particularly good on pine include Butterscotch, Honey and traditional Sunburst.

Tonally, pine gives the player a lot of control. Pine has a degree of natural compression that allows the player to manipulate the attack. There is a little sag and swell – almost like a tube rectifier – that allows the tone to develop rather than just blast out of the speaker. If you want tone that is immediate and in-your-face, pine is probably not the answer. Pine probably won’t please a shredder, but much like a vintage tweed amp, it has a slightly softer, looser feel.

Pair this up with the G&L MFD pickups, and there is nice synergy between the wide- ranging, sensitive nature of these pickups and the soothing effects of pine. MFD pickups have plenty of attack and output, and the pine body allows an extra measure of control. Overdriven tones take on a slightly creamier nature, with a nice “push” after the initial attack, and a complex lingering decay.

So in many ways pine has a bad rap. Probably because it is just “pine,” a domestic wood more associated with Early American furniture and rustic wall art than fine instruments. Pine comes in many grades, and there is clear-grained high quality pine, and there are 2×4’s; and pine should not be dismissed as some sort of cheap substitute for something else. And the fact that we don’t have to clear-cut a rainforest to obtain it is a bonus. Attractive in a way that is clean and elegant, and with a tone that rewards mining deeper more complex timbres, pine is fully deserving of a place on the mantle of fine tone woods (how’s that for hyperbole?)

Sales be damned, we’ve doubled down and ordered four more pine ASAT’s, three in Butterscotch. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing.

For more information on the G&L Pine guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

 

What should your G&L guitar weigh?

January 3rd, 2014

Of all the questions I get asked from prospective G&L buyers, “what does the guitar weigh?” is one of the most frequent. Besides reminding me that I should just weigh every guitar as soon as it arrives, guitar weight and its purported benefits is a hotly debated topic.

How much a guitar weighs has obvious implications such as playing comfort, but it has also been ascribed with many other qualities such as tone, resonance, and sustain. There are various theories and schools of thought: Some feel that lighter guitars are more resonant, other believe that heavy guitars have better low end, and so forth. My own experience — and this will seem like a cop-out to some — is that all guitars are “different” and that the tonal qualities of any guitar is the sum of its parts. Personally, having a lighter weight guitar is nice from the viewpoint of playing a 3-hour gig, but a guitar that weighs 8.5 pounds is not onerous either. After all, bass players survive often playing instruments that weigh upwards of 9-10 pounds. And let’s not forgot the Les Paul players out there, and very few of those guitars weigh under 8.5 pounds.

After working on a couple hundred G&L guitars, I’ve got a pretty good feel as to what they are going to typically weigh. So depending on the particular model of guitar, here is a rundown of what you can expect for guitar weights.

ASAT – The ASAT (Telecaster) body style is pretty good chunk of wood, and you can expect an Alder ASAT to weigh around 7.8 to 8.4 pounds. In terms of weight Alder is quite consistent, and these guitars do not vary that much. Guitars with premium transparent finishes are usually Swamp Ash, and this can run anywhere from 7.6 to 9.0 pounds. There is quite a bit more variability in Swamp Ash, and most guitars are in the 8 – 8.4 range, with fewer of them coming in under 8 pounds. There are examples of very light Swamp Ash guitars out there, but it’s difficult to source consistently lightweight material, and a medium-volume builder like G&L does not have the luxury of being that selective. While G&L does not advertise it, you can opt to get a transparent premium finish on Alder. The grain is not as striking, but they can look very nice in their own way, and will generally weigh less.

One way to trim a little heft from your ASAT is to get the optional top and rear body contours (like the Legacy/Strat contours). These contours can increase playing comfort plus shave a few tenths off the guitar weight. The consistently lightest ASAT’s are of course the semi-hollow models. These ASAT Classic and Special semi-hollows are always swamp ash — so there is a little more variability — but they never exceed 8 pounds, and are usually in the 7 – 7.5 range. A customer recently ordered a semi hollow ASAT Special, and was quite unhappy when it turned out to weigh 8 pounds (it’s the heaviest semi-hollow I’ve come across). Chalk this up to two factors: The variability of swamp ash, and that he ordered the vibrato bridge option, also a first for me on an ASAT. Steel weighs more than wood, and weight gain of the bridge is not compensated for by the extra routing of the body.

The Mahogany Body/Maple Top ASAT Deluxe models generally tip the scales at about the same weight as an alder model. The ASAT Deluxe semi-hollow is one of their lightest ASAT models, and ranges from 6.8 to 7.5 pounds.

The limited edition chambered Savannah series are real feathers. Made from Okoume with a Korina top, they rarely exceed 7 pounds. The solid body Korina series from 2012 were quite hefty, but that sure did not hurt how they sounded.

OLS Body Option – In 2015 G&L started offering the “Original Leo Spec” body thickness as a no-cost option for the ASAT. This body is about 1/8″ thinner and can shave off about 1/3 of a pound. It’s kind of a no-brainer in terms of comfort and weight.

Legacy/S-500/Comanche – Being slightly thinner and more contoured than the ASAT, an Alder Legacy with a vibrato bridge is consistently in the 7.6 to 8.0 pound range. As with the ASAT, Swamp Ash guitars will weigh a little more, sometimes in the low 8’s. Hardtail guitars are usually a tad lighter, and we have a hardtail Legacy Special in swamp ash that tips the scales at 7.2 pounds. As we’ve said, you can get lucky with swamp ash and get a really light guitar, but there is no way to predict it. We’ve never had a semi-hollow Legacy in the shop, but you can likely expect those guitars to come in around 7 pounds. There are other Legacy permutations such as the Legacy Deluxe and Invaders, both which have mahogany bodies and maple tops. Generally speaking, these guitars tend to weigh around eight pounds, but we have not handled enough of them to have a feel for the typical weight range.

SC-2 – Those who like the ASAT but are really concerned about weight will find the SC-2 easy on the back. Although it has the same pickups as the ASAT Special, the thinner body and slightly narrower waist is just naturally lighter, and the heaviest SC-2 the we’ve seen was a 7.8 pound swamp ash guitar. We’ve also seen them as light as 6.6 pounds. The new Fallout guitar is the same body as the SC-2.

Wrap Up

Light weight is often a desirable quality, but tends to get overemphasized in the buying process. It’s generally not a highly accurate indicator of tone, although like a lot of things with guitars, the intangible “feel” of an instrument is in the hands of the beholder. How much weight matters is related to how you plan to use the guitar. If you play clubs every weekend, a lighter instrument is a considerable advantage. If you play mostly at home or do studio work, an extra pound should be lower on the list of concerns. There are a lot of great instruments out there that deserved to be played. Don’t let a few ounces stand between you and a great musical experience.

For guitar offerings from 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

Which Wood to select for your G&L Guitar?

November 21st, 2011

As one of the few mainstream manufacturers of electric guitars that works to a custom-order format, a G&L custom order customer has several decisions to make. One of these is which wood to use for the body.

The general rule for G&L guitars is that Alder is used for Standard Colors (solid colors, 2 and 3 color Sunburst, Tobacco and Cherry Burst) and Swamp Ash for Premium Finishes (translucent finishes and most bursts). But, Swamp Ash is also available as an option for the Standard Colors too. For a less dramatic effect, you can get Alder with a premium finish. How much does the wood matter, and is one wood better for certain types of guitars?

Alder – Alder is a traditional tone wood for solid body guitars, and has been used for decades by Fender and others. Alder is dense, has a nice grain, and is reasonably light. If you are concerned about weight, Alder is consistently lighter than Swamp Ash. Tone is often associated with weight with the generalization that lighter is better. There are many factors that affect guitar tone, and unless weight is the primary consideration, don’t obsess about it too much.

Tonally, Alder is punchy, tight, with a solid midrange and a bright high end. Alder works very well with Legacy guitars, and it’s characteristics gives the lower output Legacy pickups some good punch. It’s a great combination, and the best choice for those looking for the classic Fullerton sound. For pickups with a lot of output and midrange — such as the Z-Coils used on the Comanche and Z-3 — Alder can be a little too zippy, giving the Z-Coils a very fast attack and somewhat harder midrange.

Swamp Ash – Swamp Ash has a striking, deep grained appearance and looks great with translucent and clear finishes. A nice translucent finish on Swamp Ash can be just as interesting as flamed maple, and less expensive. Swamp Ash has some fine tonal properties too, with a lighter midrange and a sweeter top end than Alder. Consequently, Swamp Ash works well with pickups that have a lot of midrange and top end. It’s a great match for the large MFD’s used on the ASAT Special, Z-Coils, and S-500 pickups. Swamp Ash  is a more delicate sounding wood, and in my opinion works very well with the Z-Coils.

Legacy guitars can sound good with Swamp Ash — and look awesome —  although the sound is somewhat lighter in body than with Alder. The high end is rounder and smoother, but the reduced midrange can have a thinning effect on the bridge pickup. If you like to install hotter bridge pickups in your Legacy guitars, Swamp Ash works very well.

The ASAT Classic pickups seem to work well with either wood, which is a testament to the flexibility and musicality of these pickups. So if less weight is a consideration, go with Alder. Occasionally a Swamp Ash ASAT will hit 9 pounds, which can get fatiguing during a three hour gig. Another fix is to go Semi-Hollow, which takes a little low end out of the guitar, but makes them up to a pound lighter and is sonically very balanced.

Conclusions – This is obviously a very subjective topic, but after ordering and playing dozens of G&L’s certain patterns do emerge. So if forced to grossly generalize, my recommendations on the most common G&L models would be:

  • Legacy – Alder is first choice. Swamp Ash works with a hotter bridge pickup (Semi-Hollow really sucks the bottom out, not my pick)
  • Legacy HB – Alder or Swamp Ash. Alder for a dense tighter sound and Swamp Ash for a more open airy tone.
  • ASAT Classic – Alder, Swamp Ash or Semi Hollow. Alder for more punch, Swamp for sweeter top end, Semi-Hollow for overall balance.
  • ASAT Classic Alnico – Classic low output pickups work best with Alder which provided fuller midrange and snappy low end.
  • ASAT Special – Swamp Ash, Alder or Semi Hollow.
  • ASAT Bluesboy – Adler to maximize twang, Swamp Ash for a cleaner, leaner humbucker sound
  • ASAT Bluesboy 90 – The P-90 is very flexible and Alder works as well as Swamp Ash
  • Comanche or Z-3 – Swamp Ash on the Comanche is my pick if using the DF vibrato. With the Saddle Lock bridge, Alder or Swamp Ash both work.
  • S-500 – Swamp Ash is my favorite. Alder is a little harder and darker with the S-500
  • SC-2 – Alder is punchy, Swamp Ash is a bit more lush. Vibrato option really makes the guitar lively.
  • Legacy HB2 – OK, not a common guitar at all, but like the HB Alder gives it a tighter more dense tone, and the Swamp Ash will open up the humbuckers a little