Guitar Lust: Yamaha SE-612 (-603 / -620/ -612M / -612MA)

  • by Gitabushi

It’s been a while since I talked guitars.  That is mostly because I finally (almost) satisfied my guitar lust, and moved on to buying and learning to play drums.

One of the guitars that cycled through my hands was a Yamaha SE 612. They were plentiful and cheap on eBay and Reverb for a while, and I bought and sold several. I’d find one in good condition for cheap, buy it, find another guitar I wanted to get, and sell it to either reduce the inventory (make room) or build up funds.

Then the supply dried up.

It became impossible to find Yamaha SE guitars…or if you saw one, they were overpriced.

So, of course, I wanted one again.

And last week, an SE-603 came up on eBay and I grabbed it, which inspired this post.

See, like almost all Yamahas, the SE-612 and its variants are great guitars. One theory I’ve heard is that you should always try out guitars unplugged, that a guitar that sounds great unplugged will always sound great amplified, but one that doesn’t sound great unplugged may sound okay amplified, but you’ll find weaknesses in its sound.  This kind of makes sense: you can put a good pickup on a plank taken from a pallet, amp it up, and make it sound good with enough distortion and maybe a good pedal or two.  Similarly, you can put enough frosting on a piece of stale bread that someone can enjoy eating it, but if the cake is really good just plain, it will taste even better when you put a tasteful amount of frosting on it.

I defy you to find another guitar that sounds better than an SE-6xx guitar unplugged.

Okay, I realize that I need to talk a little bit about Yamaha numbering.

In the mid-80s, when they started the SE line, they numbered everything in 50s: SE 100, SE 150, SE 200, SE 250, SE 300, SE 350.

Numbering wasn’t consistent, but it seemed like the ones ending in 00 had traditional, 6-hole screw trems (exception: the SE 200 had a fixed bridge), and the x50s all had locking trems (exception: the SE 150 (sometimes?) had a traditional non-locking trem). The higher the number, the better quality guitar.  At the same time, they also had an SE-700, which was a monster guitar, with ebony fretboard, extremely stable trem, great tone, and possibly-stainless steel frets.  That may be a future Guitar Lust entry.

Perhaps at the same time, they also had SE 112, SE 211, and SE 312 models.  These numbers seemed to indicate a pickguard (exception: the SE 200 also had a pickguard). And this is the first time (that I know of) that Yamaha used the numbers to indicate pickup configuration.  The first number is the level of the guitar. The second is the number of humbuckers, the third is the number of single coils.  They kept this numbering system in later SE lines, and then on into the Pacifica line.

My SE-603 is a second generation SE guitar.  That’s when they moved to a newer system of numbering, where 1xx is entry line, 2xx is slightly better and nearly giggable as is, 3xx is a decent intermediate guitar, 4xx adds some bling, 5xx is perhaps a low-level professional guitar, and 6xx is a full-on professional guitar with minimal bling.  There is also a 12xx, which is a high-end professional guitar with top notch components. In between there are some guitars that often weren’t sold in the US.  The 7xx and 9xx seemed to have pickguards and non-locking trems.  The 8xx is usually the same as a 6xx, but with additional cosmetic improvements.

In the 6xx line, you have my 603, which means 3 single coils.  612 means one humbucker (in the bridge) and two single coils.  You’ll see two humbuckers represented by 620. To the best of my knowledge, there are no 621 guitars in the Yamaha line…it indicates a HSH configuration, and is usually found on 7xx and higher guitars.

Oh, boy, I could get into this for paragraphs and paragraphs. I’ll save more thoughts about the numbering system of other guitars later.

In the SE 6xx line, you will also see M. That stands for a Maple fretboard. You’ll also see A, which indicated Active pickups.

Interesting note: Active pickups are usually associated with strong output but low noise. I bought a few, cranked up the knobs to full, and they all sounded muddy and lousy.  It wasn’t until I purchased my 3rd one that I realized: the tone knob has a center spot, where you get normal EQ.  The more you turn it up, the warmer/darker (muddier) it gets.  The farther down you turn it, the brighter/sharper it gets.  I still sold the guitar in all my churn, but I may end up getting another one at some point, if an SE 1212 A shows up for cheap.

But there are other things I like about the SE-6xx series. One is the trem.  You will never find a better trem than the RM-Pro II on this era of guitars.  It is smooth. It doesn’t have knife edges on posts, so there’s nothing to wear out.  It has a pitch rise adjustment, so you can set the amount of float (fully floating, or dive only, or limited pull up). The saddle locks hold it firm, and I haven’t seen a corroded example of one yet. There is one problem: the saddle lockplate screws can strip if you aren’t careful, and it is impossible to find replacements without cannibalizing another guitar.

se603ma

Another great thing about those guitars is the paint job. Like the finish on the trem, the paint seems to be incredibly durable. I’ve seen a few with scratches or other damage, but I haven’t seen an SE 6xx guitar for sale that didn’t still shine.  And for their age (they are all 30-ish years old), they are often remarkably free of damage.  I’ve owned at least 5, and one had a scratch, and one SE-620 had all sorts of dings (shipped with horribly poor packaging), but the rest have all been near-flawless. Including the one I just got.

And another nice aspect of the SE 6xx and SE 12xx line is that inset input jack location.  That configuration makes it easier to put the cord through your guitar strap and go into the guitar without stressing the cord, and making it harder to pull out by accident.  It’s a great innovation.

Finally, the pickups on these guitars really rock.  In the mid-/late- 80s, hair metal was running hot and popular, with a bunch of bands trying to capture the same big brown sound EVH got, and Yamaha tuned their pickups to help people get that.  Even their single coils have a great overwound-ish sound for good SRV/Hendrix tones.  And the humbucker guitars (the 612, with a humbucker in the bridge, and the 620, with two humbuckers) all had push-push coil taps so you could get single coil sounds that sounded like good single coils.  The push-push knobs are incredibly robust; one guitar-maker told me he wouldn’t install push-push switches on a guitar unless they got one from an old Yamaha, because those just keep working and working.  Full disclosure: I have encountered some that have worn out, but mostly on old 2xx models.  In any case, from the view of versatility, I would have been better off with an SE-612, but you can only work with what’s available.

 

The Yamaha SE-6xx guitars are monster guitars.  You could do far worse than picking up an SE-6xx for approximately $200.  It would probably be the best $200-ish guitar you own, beating out almost any new guitar costing hundreds more.

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