REVIEW: 2014 GIBSON SGJ – How good can a US guitar be for £499?

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The SGJ is, at the time of writing, the cheapest Gibson you can buy and has a street price of £499. This is for a full-fat US-made guitar, with all import taxes and VAT paid. It is astonishingly cheap so there has to be a catch.

 Body and Hardware

Certainly it scores on it’s looks. The one I played had a rich cherry finish that complemented the classic SG shape very well. The solid mahogany body was a little open pored but the thin nitrocellulose finish was very well applied and the matt effect gave the guitar a no-nonsense look that was very attractive. It felt good to hold and you sense that with a little care, the finish would age well (hey, just like me).

The neck is maple and has a mortise and tenon join to the body. It’s finished in the same cherry and the nitro gives the neck a lovely satin feel. I’ve played a few otherwise lovely Fenders with thick urethane coated necks recently and they just felt sticky. The SG felt lovely, warm and smooth.

You get 24 cryogenically frozen frets (they did not feel any colder). Frets were well laid and nicely polished, which impressed me as this was a random guitar just pulled off the shelf.  The 2014 SGJ has a nice slab of rosewood with a 12” radius so tempered enough for chord work but speedy for soloing. Gibson seem to have abandoned their experiment with baked maple boards  –  I played a few and they seemed fine but the traditionalist in me always liked rosewood.

The neck shape is described as a 50s Rounded. What this meant to me was a nicely meaty neck that really filled the hand nicely. The satin finish worked really well with this neck and it was supremely comfortable. This is a really great neck to play and if you are intimidated by the idea of a big neck, give this one a go, it is an absolute peach. The extra neck mass will help the tone along as well.

You get a silk-screened Gibson logo on the headstock and lovely green-tinged tuning pegs (much, much nicer than the ones on the similarly priced Melody Maker. There is a white tek-loid nut, which is pretty standard for Gibson.

Bridge is a classic tune-o-matic unit. There is a curious satin look to it that looked machine tooled – it gives this end of the guitar a very modern and attractive look.

 Electrics

New for 2014 are what Gibson call ’61 Zebra humbuckers. These are Alnico V units so should give you a vintage tone with a bit of bite. Visually, they are an improvements on the matt black units on the 2013 model. You’ve got 2 tone and 2 volume speed knobs (I’ve always wanted a speed knob). Not much more I can say about that – even I cannot get too excited about tone knobs. If I wanted to be really fussy, a coil tap would have been nice.

 Construction

One word – neat. The thin finish means that every join is visible and there is no hiding place for dodgy joinery. But every joint, every angle is nicely finished and there is a simple pleasure to be had in just handling the thing and admiring how well the whole thing has been assembled. SGs always look delicate but there is a pleasing solidity in this one.

I don’t need to tell you that this is not always the case with Gibsons, who still are frustratingly inconsistent with quality control. But this SG is as well constructed and finished as any Gibson I’ve seen recently.

Next….we play the darn thing….

DiMarzio Releases PAF Master Pickups – Ohhhh, pretty!

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Direct from Dimarzio Towers comes this missive….

DiMarzio, Inc. announces the release of the PAF Master neck (DP260) and bridge (DP261) hum-canceling pickups for electric guitars.

One variation that’s highly sought after by vintage PAF players is a pickup that is quiet, bright, and very dynamic. The PAF Master neck model is truly special. It has a great balance of full richness with a throaty tone, but it’s not too fat and notes still come through nice and clear, with beautiful, smooth and creamy highs. We gave it just the right amount of windings to allow the pickup to sing, sustain and still be articulate.

The PAF Master neck model uses several of our patented ideas to create a pickup that pays tribute to the original sound rather than trying to clone it. Instead of “accidentally” unbalancing the coils, we’ve tuned them to different frequencies to get the same effect without compromising hum-cancellation.

The PAF Master bridge model is also quiet, bright, and very dynamic with real rock and roll character. It reacts to playing and sounds good when playing more than one note at the same time. Picked hard, it has a beautiful, snarly, thick, rockin’ tone. We chose Alnico 4 for the PAF Master bridge model because of its high iron content and energy coefficient. AL4 lends more body and attack to the sound than you might expect from a pickup with relatively low output voltage and DC resistance specs. The PAF Master bridge model is not a loud pickup, but it feels hot because of its fast and aggressive response to pick attack.

DiMarzio’s PAF Master neck and bridge pickups are made in the U.S.A., and may now be ordered for immediate delivery. Suggested List Price is $104.99 each.

Peavey Revalver 4 – The Ultimate Review Part 9! Post Effects….

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If you’ve ever used Revalver in its various forms before, then the format of the post-effects section will be familiar even if some of the effects are new.

C-Verb –

Convolution reverb may be old hat these days but this is a pleasingly simple model with a number of presets from popular reverbs. The whole effect works very well in Revalver, with the emphasis on subtlety. It is unfortunate that there appears to be no simple way of importing your own IRs into the module which does limit it’s appeal.

Auto-Q

The big selling point of this 8-band filter is an “auto Q function that allows the equalizer to decide the bandwith”. After playing with this for an hour, I still don’t know what this means. What we do have is a very competent filter for tone shaping – soothing Revalver is not lavishly equipped with. Again, the effect is subtle and the emphasis is on usable tweaking of a basic tone. Be warned, there are a lot of knobs here and each one interacts with the other. Slight changes can have a major effect but single coils especially seem to respond to it. Bringing out the mids toughens the tone and seems to work very well with the clean amp models.

Digital Flanger

It’s digital and it flanges, what more do you want. Well, a bit more charecter frankly as this is a rather crude model and seems a bit of a relic in a 2014 product. It does a job but it is not very musical and frankly Tonestack has 3 flangers that can beat this one to a pulp.

World Wide Verb

An expanded version of the modeled stomp box, this makes much more sense as a post amp effect. Using convolution as a basis, this is the dark side. The C-Verb is all musical subtlety. This is extravagantly theatrical with a wide range of filters to push, twist and distort those poor IRs. It is huge fun (just twisting the Fatverb knob will expand the sound enormously). Again, an easy way of importing your own IRs would help, but this is a great effect. Bonkers, but great.

Again

A stereo delay with chorus and ambiance effects. This is a very simple and old fashioned delay but it works because of the warmth of the tone and the way the delay interacts with the simple but musical chorus effect. It seemed to work very well after a clean amp tone and seemed to darken and soften amp output that overwise was too harsh (it sounded magnificent after the Masterpiece 50 amp). Push the effect and I quickly got a really good Jonny Greenwood OK Computer tone that I’d tried for years to get and it really worked for some ambient noodlings that quickly led to a couple of interesting song demos. A creative and inspiring effect.

You also get a noise gate and a 3rd party VST loader. The loader is very useful as it gives you access to a whole range of effects (which may or may not make up for the relative paucity of pre and post effects on offer here). Be careful loading VSTs as Revalver can crash if it does not like it.

So, once again a curious mixture of the humdrum (yes, that means you Flanger) and the inspired, I love the Again and World Wide Verb. There is also a basic lack of effects which might frustrate guitarists who these days simply expect to have everything on tap all the time. I’m assuming that updates will sort this out at some point, but a wider range of effects at launch would have been nice.

Next – the output section, this includes ACT settings on your processed signal, now this is very interesting and I think you’ll like it. Until then….

Viene la tormenta!

Review: Fender American Special Telecaster – play it, love it, buy it.

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The Telecaster is not just one of the greatest guitar designs, it is one of the greatest pieces of industrial design ever made. Leo Fender’s and Doc Kaufman’s masterpiece is as relevant today as it has ever been since it was introduced 64 years ago, a master of musical styles that could not even have been imagined when it was first produced.

So what can you do to make it even more attractive? Simple, take a US Standard and make it cheaper. The Special is Fender’s attempt to take a US made Fender, with all that attached mojo and sell it to a crowd who might otherwise go for a Mexican Fender – or even, shudder, a Gibson Special.

The model I played had a maple neck with a Vintage white body and black scratchguard. The finish was flawless, poly may not be glamorous but it is tough as hell and the neck join could not have been neater. There are two custom shop Texas Special pickups, a grease bucket tone circuit and a classic 3 saddle bridge. The saddles are compensated brass. I am actually getting a little hot just typing this.

The neck is a 9.5″ radius with 22 jumbo frets, but it is a little wider than a standard and simply gorgeous to play. Some complain that the 9.5″ neck on modern Fenders are a little bland – this has tons of character, it is just easy to play as well. The fretboard is perfectly finished and the frets immaculate.

The whole package feels immensely solid and well-put together and just fits against the body so perfectly. Lets plug it into this Vox AC4 and see what happens.

That bridge pickup – I’ve played some awful Teles from the early 80’s where that bridge tone just bites your head off – this is so different, clear, a ton of sparkle and so touch responsive. Dig in and those notes really growl and the whole guitar has a delicious sense of fight to it. Turn on a Soul Food pedal and the overdriven tone is just extraordinary, so clear, so much definition, so rich. Just an open G chord sounds so incredibly vibrant and complex.

Both pickups and you’ve got that lovely fruity tone that is so good for funk. Go for the neck and you’ve got a warm and fluid Hendrix-Gilmour tone that scrubs up for jazz as well.

Those pickups do add a degree of warmth to the show. Does it compare to a Standard? Tonewise, it is subtly different, and to these ears perhaps even better. Perhaps it sounds even better than a Baja Tele, which is as fabulous a guitar as I’ve played all year.

On the street it costs about £715. For a US Fender, beautifully made and designed with real care and imagination. It is really quite moving that a design so old can, with the smallest tweaks, still produce sounds so beautiful. 2 pickups and it produces so many great sounds.

It is simply magnificent. And I, dear reader, have bought it. £715? For all this? It is the bargain of the century.

Originally posted in July 2014

Review: Ibanez RG-9. Part 2 – Sounds and Feel

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Putting on my best djent face and plugging the RG-9 into a Victory V30 valve head (a truly brilliant British made amp – try it if you get the chance) and going for a heavily saturated sound I got a strong, tough tone going from E to E. The bridge pickup has good degree of definition and the neck pickup smooths out the basic tone nicely. Go past the E string and things get murky quite quickly. With an extended range guitar like this, and this is a very extended range guitar, the challenge is, what do you voice your setup for? For the conventional E to E range or for the lower bass strings? I found that when using a lot of gain, setting the amp to get a defined bass sound robbed the treble side of a lot of it’s strength, aiming the amp at the E to E range made the lower strings – especially the C# – feel and sound loose and flabby.
Things certainly improve greatly with the more open response of a good amp sim. Bias worked very well here and even at high gain, the lower strings retained an acceptable tightness and definition.

But backing off on the gain a little and the guitar really begins to open up – you might need a gain pedal when soloing on the treble side but even with distortion slightly turned down the bass strings really come together and the whole guitar begins to work as a whole rather than have the bass and treble side battle against each other. The design begins to make real sense. Once again, Bias is just better at handling the extreme range than a physical amp.

But what is really interesting is what happens when you go to a totally clean tone. I used Yonac’s lovely Tonestack app here as the clean amp models are particularly fine and Yonac have nailed some really choice modulation effects. All this work exceptionally well with the basic clean noise of the RG-9. It’s not an earthy, organic tone but it is a classic, metal clean tone, strong and almost hi-fi in its response. It’s a tone that loves the modulation effects on Tonestack and when you start playing like this something striking happens. You stop those fast 9th string riffs, fun as they are, and you begin to explore the hugely increased range under your fingers. Simple lines and riffs become more complex as you play an octave or two octaves above and below. I played some Pat Methany and the ability to extend the chords so much really added so much harmonic variation and interest. Played like this, the sounds it makes are just enchanting. They also make you want to make what you are playing more complex and more interesting. As a compositional tool it gives an ambitious player a lot to play with and can easily be seen as a more conventional (and cheaper) version of a Chapman Stick. And clean gives you some reasonable conventional bass tones – it might give your bassist some sleepless nights.

Of course, to make these noises, you have to play the thing. I’ve rarely gone beyond 7 strings in the past and the extra width here does put additional strain on your left hand. But the neck is thin enough (and has a very nice unfinished feel to it) that you quickly get used to the extra space, mentally navigating it of course is a different matter, but physically, it posed less of a challenge for the left hand than I feared. It’s a good workout for anyone’s technique, but the neck is surprisingly playable.

The right hand is a different matter – string noise at high gain is always a challenge and here it is exaggerated by a bridge so wide that normal palm muting techniques are very difficult. If you want to play a lot of high gain here, your muting technique does need to be spot on and a good noise gate is essential. Things get easier the cleaner you go but if you want to push the gain, then it will really test the cleanness of your playing – but it’s 9 strings! What do you expect.

It’s bonkers, its extreme and Ibanez have really pushed what the market expects from a guitar. But the more you play it, the more it makes sense not only as a stage guitar but as a compositional tool and as a way of opening up both your playing and your approach to music. It’s well made, sensibly priced, not unattractive (but I think I’d hold out for that maple top) and it does something that nothing else on the market does. It’s not a 1st guitar or, to be frank, a 2nd or 3rd guitar, but I really enjoyed it – it’s a real alternative to something like a Fender VI. It is not for everyone but if you see one, give it a try, you might hate it but you might just love it.

Good luck finding a case for it though!

New from Focusrite – The iTrack Pocket and Audio Hub

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El Segundo, CA (September 15, 2014) — It can take a lot of gear to produce great tunes. That’s why Novation have designed Audiohub 2×4: a combined audio interface and USB hub designed for electronic music production.

It provides an ultra-low latency stereo input, four high quality audio outputs and a super-loud headphone output, all in a compact and tough aluminium case with exceptional 96kHz, 24-bit ‘Focusrite Sound Inside’. Its integrated USB hub powers up to three USB devices simultaneously, meaning a single power supply can power an entire setup, and connect everything to a computer (or even an iPad with a Camera Connection Kit).

Specs:

  • Two in, four out audio interface and USB hub
  • 96kHz, 24-bit ‘Focusrite Sound Inside’ audio quality
  • Loud outputs for DJs and Live performers
  • Integrated USB 2.0 hub with three ports
  • Bus powered and class compliant
  • Ableton Live Lite and 1GB Loopasters samples included
  • Connects to iPad via Camera Connection Kit

Watch the company’s video demo:

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