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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Simplification and Nostalgia/Materialism

  • by Gitabushi

So we had a pipe burst in the basement. Nothing was lost, but they have to replace the floor and repair/repaint the walls.

Moving all my books from the bookcase, I was struck again by how many guitar books/resources I’ve rarely and/or never even opened. If I just went through and played through a new song in the AC/DC book each day, then back through, and again, by the end of the month, I’d have so many new guitar tricks, songs to play, etc.

…but for what?

Same thing with all my fingerstyle books and magazines. I was actually a decent fingerstylist at one point. But then I got into electrics, and it consumed all my time.

I should sell the drums. I should just stick to guitar. It’s not like I’m actually going to join a band.

But I know if I sell them, I’m *really* going to regret it.

Also on the shelves were all my books. I’ve converted over to e-books. It is so much easier to take stuff with me on my kindle. I don’t have to worry about books falling apart on me as I read them, either. So I think I’m going to dump a bunch of books soon.

Just watch: there’ll be a civilization apocalypse right after I get rid of all my books, and I wont’t be able to get power to keep my Kindle charged.

Anyway, also on the shelves were my Avalon Hill games.

I bought a buttload of them back in the early 00s, part of nostalgia for my youth. I planned to teach my son. 15 years later, he’s out of the house and we’ve only played a handful. Hey, at least we played that handful. About 10 of them are solitaire games…I’ve never played one of them. The rest are solitaire-possible. I have the entire Advanced Squad Leader series. If I played every day, it would probably still take me 5 years to play through all of the scenarios, since I have to work.

And to be honest, computer games like Jagged Alliance really do seem to fill that need for turn-based strategy against a smart opponent.

So I’m thinking about selling them all.

But here’s the deal: I’m 6 to 10 years from retirement.  One of my plans was in retirement I’d have time to play all these games.  But the plan is also to be active enough to still enjoy life. When I think about it, I don’t want to spend my retirement indoors, hunched over a gaming table by myself.  Not to mention, we’re planning on spending 4-6 months every year out traveling in an RV.

Can’t take Avalon Hill strategy board games out in an RV. Can’t take an electric drumset out in an RV. Heck, even taking an electric guitar is problematic…although I might be able to do it with the iPad and the BIAS app suite. The current plan is to take only the acoustic guitar along and work through fingerstyle stuff.

I guess I’m at the age where I’m fighting twin urges for simplification and nostalgia.

Any thoughts?

Guitar Lust: B-Way Guitars’ Mercury Head

  • by Gitabushi

Back in 2012, on the guitar brand fan forum I used to frequent, one of the members posted an announcement that he was starting a line of guitars.  He designed the guitar himself, contracted a builder to make the bodies and necks and paint the bodies, and then did the finishing work himself.  He showed his prototype, and his first build, and posted some clips.  They looked interesting, and sounded great.

Here’s the story of how he got started.

That was it for two years.  He wasn’t exactly pumping out a huge volume of guitars.

In mid-2014, he posted pictures of his next build, which (IIRC, were his #3 and #4 production guitars). I had saved up some money in my guitar fund and wanted to purchase a premium guitar brand new, and I chose his.

Here is my guitar.

I had a great time discussing the build with Ben. We went through so many iterations talking about the pickups.  I ended up choosing P-Rails, flipped from the recommended configuration to get a little extra twang by moving the rails farther away from each other, one closer to the bridge for brightness, and the other closer to the neck for sweetness.  Then a 3-way switch to select bridge pickup, neck pickup, or both, and a 2nd 3-way switch to select P-90, rail, or both (in series/humbucking) I didn’t feel like I needed parallel wiring, nor was I worried about being able to pair the P-90 in one position with the rail in the other.  It would have made the wiring and switching too complicated. I have 9 distinct, awesome tones.

Well, he’s kept up the furious pace of guitar building he set early, and production guitar #8 or #9 is up for sale (depending on when you read this, it might not be for sale any more). I’m not sure if the fraternal twin is still being prepped or has already been sold.

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My guitar sounds wonderful.  The neck joint is very solid and tight, and I believe that increases tone and sustain. It is wonderfully ergonomic, making it easy to play. The fit and finish is flawless. You look at it, and pick it up, and it just feels like a luxury guitar.  Mine is worth every penny.  It is a guitar I can never sell, for various reasons.

I feel really proud to have one of the few B-Way Mercury Head guitars.  It is truly a prized possession, the jewel of my collection, and a great guitar to play.

Do what you have to to get one.

Here’s a gallery of guitars and guitar builds on the B-Way website.

The red one you see in that gallery?  It was purchased by Walter Becker of Steely Dan, and was one of his backup guitars, on stage with him in live performances.

Not too shabby!

Guitar Lust: Why Don’t They Make More “Blackout” Models?

  • by Gitabushi

Okay, maybe “blackout” isn’t the right term.  That’s part of the problem: there is no name for the style of guitar I like best. What I’m talking about is a Stratocaster-style guitar, with black hardware, black pickguard, black headstock, and black fretboard, and just about any body color, combine to make what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful guitar imaginable.

Let me pause a moment and discuss taste.  Specifically, my taste. I’m kind of a rebel. I like what I like, and it seems like I always like the things that are a little different. Okay, a lot different.  For instance, I genuinely like the movie “Orcs!” (2011).  I love listening to Chinese pop music; but my wife tells me that even for Chinese pop, I like the songs most other people have never heard of. When I’m not listening to Chinese music, my favorite band is Styx, which garners more than a little derision. I like 80s hair metal, too, which would be embarrassing enough, except that I like Giant and Loudness, two of the least-popular hair metal bands that were just popular enough you might have heard of them.

But I’m not a hipster. I’ve never stopped liking someone or something because they got popular. In fact, I’m usually very eager to share the things I like with other people, in hopes of it catching on.

I would like everyone to watch and like Chuck and Flash Forward. The more people that like Chinese pop music, Chuck, CJ Cherryh, etc., the more people I have to talk with about my passions.

Alas: my tastes are apparently weird.

So getting to guitars, here’s what I like:

This is Brad Gillis’ guitar. Er, a guitar made by Fernandes in the style of Brad Gillis’ guitar.

It is, quite simply, bad ass.

(the opposite being found here)

And yet, it is very difficult to find many guitars that have all those elements. I had to search for quite some time just to find these pictures:

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And to be honest, there is no telling what the headstock looks like in these photos.  Too often, they go with a plain headstock or a body color, instead of plain black.

If I want to get really picky, I’d insist on a strat style headstock, which leaves this one out:

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But I think I have to allow it, just because there are so few examples that meet all my criteria.

Too often, the manufacturer changes one thing that just makes the guitar fall short of perfection, like a chrome bridge, or light colored fretboard, or the aforementioned headstock color mistakes:

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Close. They just *had* to use a chrome bridge, didn’t they?  Bastards:

depositphotos_5175867-Red-and-black-electric-guitar3894029

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Just imagine how gorgeous this red guitar below would look with a black input jack, black bridge, and black tuners!

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This is so close to perfection, I could almost cry. Or grab a brush and some black paint:

Charvel-USA-Select-So-Cal-Style-1-HSS-FR-Torred

And Charvel is an interesting case.  The orange guitar above is rare, in that it has a rosewood fingerboard.  Charvel comes the closest to what I want with black hardware and beautifully-painted bodies.  But they insist (or their buyers insist) on maple fretboard and unfinished headstock.  It just ruins it for me.

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These would all be better if they just had an ebony fingerboard and black headstock.

Interestingly, this one works pretty well for me:

squier-bullet-stratocaster-hss-green-metallic

I guess I’m okay with a gray pickguard.  It still looks better than white, or tortoise, or any other color.  Black would still be better.

This guitar I have is the closest I’ve been able to get so far.  The headstock isn’t black, but at least it isn’t a light maple:

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So now you have an idea of what I like in guitars.  Why aren’t there more of them? Or at the very least, why isn’t there a name for this color combination to make it easier for me to search for them on guitar selling websites?

 

Guitar Lust: Kramer DMZ 2000

  • By Gitabushi

One of the things that annoys me the most about a guitar is if you take a guitar out to another location to play it, or move from indoors to outdoors, and the change in temperature and humidity causes the neck to bend differently.  Suddenly, the strings fret out. Or the action is suddenly higher.  You have to get out an allen wrench and make adjustments to the truss rod.

Or even worse, you purchase a guitar, and over the months or years, the neck slowly warps, twisting or bowing or even developing humps that make it nearly impossible to have low action without buzzing or fretting out.

Guitar manufacturers are aware of this, and they dealt with it in a number of ways.  First, of course, is the truss rod that allows you to adjust to the changes.  Other solutions have included dual carbon-fiber truss rods (that can deal with twist), baking/drying/aging the wood so that it will less susceptible to environmental conditions, using three-piece necks with the grain of the middle strip running opposite to the two outside strips to cause any wood movement from environmental factors to work in opposition, and using other materials that are less susceptible to environmental changes.

In an excellent example of that last approach, in 1976, the Kramer guitar company made aluminum-necked guitars.

The guitars featured an aluminum skeleton neck, with a distinctive forked neck, attached to a normal wood body.  The neck has wooden inserts usually, but not always, the same type of wood as the body, with the intent of providing a more conventional, less cold feel for the guitarists fretting hand.

In 1978, they came out with the DMZ line, including the one I have, the DMZ 2000.  The DMZ portion was a marketing emphasis on its Dimarzio pickups.  The 2000 being that it was better than the 1000, I think.  Or maybe just that there was a series, because the 3000 is just a Strat-style guitar, without extra features, and the 4000 and 5000 series are basses…no one in their right minds would say a bass is better than an electric guitar, right?

Like all Kramer aluminum-necked guitars, the DMZ 2000 featured an ebonite fretboard. That’s something I really appreciate, because I really like ebony as a fretboard for a number of reasons.  First, I like the appearance of black fretboards.  Second, I fancy that I can hear an impact on tone; guitars with ebony fingerboards seemed to have an extra chime to the attack.  Or, at least, I used think that.  I can’t seem to tell the difference anymore, so maybe it was all in my head in the first place. After all, there is no way to swap out fretboards on the same guitar to a/b the tone.  Third, ebony has always been the easiest and fastest to play on.  I really can feel that rosewood fretboards are more difficult to play on, because the softer, more open-grained wood of rosewood literally clings to skin and slows down the release.  I know the difference is microseconds, if not nanoseconds, but I have tested this out on many guitars, and I really can feel the difference.  Ebony-style man-made materials (like ebonite and other materials like acrylic) are simply faster.

diagram

The DMZ 2000 also has two coil split toggles, so you can get eight different usable tones from the two pickups, including some good single coil tones either singly or in combination.

All that aluminum does make the guitar pretty heavy.  It’s a drawback that doesn’t bother me much, but might bother someone with shoulder or back problems.

The guitar is very comfortable to play standing up or sitting down.  Personally, I love the tone and ergonomics of playing this guitar.

I got mine from a local vintage-focused guitar shop.  I was surprised to see it listed at just $850.  I had heard about these and thought they would be collector-priced well beyond my willingness to pay, maybe something above $2000.  A quick search showed that the price was pretty much in-line with what they sold for on Reverb, or maybe slightly lower.   I didn’t regret buying it.  It is one of my favorite guitars: collectible and a great player, but also durable enough that I wouldn’t be afraid to take it out to a gig.

There are other aluminum-necked guitars made by Kramer, of course.  The DMZ line was the second wave, running from 1978 to 1981.  From these pictures, you can see the first wave, as well as how the second wave changed during its production run:

robdutch1

You can find out more about Kramer’s aluminum-necked guitars here.

…man, I really want to choose “robots” as one of the categories for this post, but I’ll stick with accuracy and refrain.

 

Stoicism: A Rambling Think-Piece

  • by Gitabushi

A friend emailed me and mentioned that he’d encountered the term Stoicism several times lately.  That stimulated some online research and thought, and here is the result.

I stopped to think about it, and realized that when I think of Stoicism, I usually think of Asceticism; just 3 seconds’ thought makes it clear that isn’t correct, so I googled Stoicism quickly, and figured out where that misapprehension came from:

Stoics face their fears by deliberately trying to experience what they fear.  Since fear of poverty (starving, freezing, etc) is a fear most people have, the Stoics recommended periodic stretches of deprivation to help one realize material things aren’t that important. So asceticism is a Stoic exercise, but not necessarily a tenet of the philosophy.

Here’s a definition of Stoicism:

[Stoicism] asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

The other impact of googling it was realizing that even though I never overtly studied Stoicism, over time I have separately arrived at many of the same views as Stoics.  I often say I am a philosophical Buddhist, because although I don’t embrace the religion at all, I do think one significant source of unhappiness in life is wanting more than you have, especially when those goals are not achievable.

(Aside: which puts me in the curious position of my guitar angst coming from wanting to want less…so I have more than I want and should be happy, but I manage to make myself unhappy by wanting to want even less, so to want less than I have, in this case, would be to accept that I have more guitars than I want to have.  Okay, now I’m dizzy)

Anyway, one core touchstone of my personal philosophy is that you can’t control what you feel, but you can control what you do about what you feel.  That grew out of the realization that I can’t control other people, I can control only myself.

I found a long time ago that I was much happier when I was “centered”, a term I borrowed from New Age or some crap, but what I meant by it was “within myself”, i.e., worrying only about what I can control, i.e., my own actions, and letting everything else go.

My wife is very capable of pulling me off-center, of course, although over the last year I’ve gotten much better at remaining centered even despite her influence and impact on me.

And I’ve also dealt with the frustrations and disappointments of being a Chiefs fan by inadvertently developing a Stoic attitude toward their game results.

“It is what it is” is Stoicism, right?

Here’s a picture of  a bust of a Stoic:

zeno_of_citium_pushkin

Back in my Army days, when I got frustrated because we were not only spending the day doing boring training, but we had finished all the standards and they still held us there because we finished too early, I thought up the idea that, “Everyone has to be somewhere.  I have to be somewhere, too, sometimes, and right now, this is where I have to be. So I might as well accept it.”

Later, starting a few years ago, I started thinking: This is life.  This is all there is.  I can’t know there is an afterlife or that anything I do matters.  Okay, fine.  I should enjoy every moment, while it lasts; when I’m stuck doing something not so fun, don’t waste my mental energy fretting about what I’d rather be doing, but make the most of it.

That seems Stoic, too.

It makes me wonder if I could somehow make it through actual torture by trying to analyze and experience the pain, to change it into something else.  Probably not, and I hope I don’t have to find out.

I’ve also analyzed, learned, and tried to teach my kids: there are perhaps three sensations in life: stimulation, peace, and sating of appetites.

Stimulation is infatuation, sex, drunkenness, flavor, excitement, etc.  Those are enjoyable because they are strong.  But you need ever more input to feel the same level of stimulation…besides the body developing a tolerance, the Primacy/Recency principle means that you can only have one first time, and repeated applications of a stimulation will inevitably have a lesser mental effect. Stimulation is always a relative sensation, and is measured in degrees.

On the other hand, peace is an absolute sensation: you either have it or you don’t.  You can never have too much peace.  So I seek peace, satisfaction with myself and with life, acceptance, sufficiency, etc, and have tried to teach my kids to seek the same things.

Sating of appetites is a basic urge that constantly renews.  You will always return to hunger, and you can reduce your the tolerance you build up for certain appetite satisfactions via abstinence.  I’ve tried to control my appetites, and also tried to teach my kids that, too.

To restate, the point of this interminable musing is that I now think I have been living a life based on many Stoic tenets without realizing it.  But looking at this, I can see I could do more to deliberately follow the philosophy.  Not that I (or anyone) have to fulfill a Stoic ideal, but even after just a quick scan of the list, I think I would be happier and more satisfied with myself and my life if I did work harder on achieving Principles 6-9, particularly in relation to my aspirations to be a professional writer.

In my highly-subjective opinion, Stoicism is very closely related to Right-wing ideology, and incompatible with Left-wing ideology. However, apparently the New Yorker ran an article very recently on How to be a Stoic.

I cannot imagine a philosophy less compatible with modern Progressivism than Stoicism.  The cornerstone of Progressive ideology is victimization gives power, i.e., the more outraged you are about things outside your control, the more consideration and benefits you deserve.  Progressives don’t actually want the power to fix the problems they think they have, they just want to have power in other areas to compensate.  If they were ever given the power to fix the problems, they would then be responsible and no longer be victims.

To me, it seems like Progressives could use a healthy dose of Stoicism.  Moreover, the stereotypical Millennial could also benefit greatly from embracing Stoicism, recognizing that all emotions come from within rather than being compelled from external events, accepting that living often means failing, and that growth comes from overcoming failure.

If this article has stimulated interest in Stoicism, here is another good article that puts the philosophy into context with competing philosophies, so you can grasp a better understanding through the comparison and contrast.

Finally, here’s a picture of a guitar:

warmoth