11/17/16 Guitar Lust: Paul Reed Smith 25th Anniversary Swamp Ash Special

written by Gitabushi

Paul Reed Smith.

If you know anything about guitars, you’ve probably heard of Paul Reed Smith guitars.  He did something amazing: he turned a basement startup into THE major player in the guitar manufacturing business.

I could write pages of history and explanation if, you know, I knew any of it. But I’m too lazy to research, so if you want to more about how Paul Reed Smith became a household name, we can consider it the audience participation portion of the blog.

Let’s just say that Paul Reed Smith is the guitar for rich guys in their 40s who always wished they were rockstars. The guitar of aging dentists everywhere.

But also the guitar for actual musicians who want something special.

Paul Reed Smith guitars have a vintage sound, beautiful figured wood tops with crazy transparent finishes, thicker necks, and impeccable workmanship.  You almost can’t go wrong with a Paul Reed Smith.

That’s why they are expensive. But also why they are lust-worthy.

The one I want to focus on today is the 25th Anniversary Swamp Ash Special.  I have this thing for swamp ash.  If you believe that wood makes a difference in tone (and I mostly do, sorta), then swamp ash is supposed to give a little extra sparkle or rasp to single coil pickups.  I fancy I can tell the difference between swamp ash and alder, but the impact of wood on tone is something we can argue about some other time.  The point is even if there is no sonic difference, swamp ash is lighter than most woods.  Which is kind of cool.

But the other nice thing about swamp ash is it gives a very nice grain, when used with transparent finishes. Here are some pictures:

If you recognize the couch/pillows, it is because the blue one was one I owned.

Another thing I liked about it was the silhouette bird inlays, as opposed to the full inlays most Paul Reed Smiths have.

I’ve owned a few Paul Reed Smith guitars, but never kept them.  They do sound like good vintage Les Pauls, but that’s a problem: I don’t really like good vintage Les Paul tones. Overdriven, sure. But the over-saturated neck-position humbucker sound isn’t one I like coming out of my amp.  Paul Reed Smith guitars even seem to emphasize that (as compared to the Seymour Duncan ’59 when in the neck position).  Sometimes you can get humbuckers that are wound to sound like really fat, dark single coils.  My Yamaha PAC 921 is one like that.  But not Paul Reed Smith.  They sound muffled and oversaturated to me.  People that like that sound call it “warm”, but that doesn’t make sense, because a “hot” pickup should be bright and shrill, which means that “warm” is on the opposite side of the tonal spectrum from “hot”. smdh

Many Paul Reed Smith guitars have coil splits, which helps.

But then Paul Reed Smith developed the Narrowfield pickups.  Not really a breakthrough in concept, since mini-humbuckers and P-90s (humbucker length windings on a single-coil bobbin) have been around for decades, but still a welcome development as they sound twangy like a single coil, but lack the hum single coils bring when used singly.

Here’s a good video:

So why didn’t I keep the blue one?

I don’t know, actually. I loved it. It played well, sounded great, was comfortable, and was pretty.  And yet, I found myself always reaching for my Mercury Head, Warmoth, and Yamahas.  As I was saying to a friend the other day regarding a guitar I was thinking of buying, “It looks good and sounds great, and clear is a #1 guitar. My problem is I already have more than a dozen #1 guitars!”

I do kind of miss it, but not enough to seek one out again.  If I could keep only one guitar, I would have been satisfied with it.  But there was something that kept it from being my favorite guitar, and I’m not sure what it was.  Still: Lust-worthy.

Gitabushi

11/17/16 Guitar Lust: Paul Reed Smith 25th Anniversary Swamp Ash Special

11/15/16 Guitar Lust: Hamer USA Diablo

The Hamer USA Diablo was one of its last Superstrats*; it came out near the end of the shredder era.

It may be one of the most perfect guitars ever. At least, it has so many things I like, but was relatively simple, and as such, relatively cheap.

They mostly came in red, yellow, and black. Most had black hardware, I think…that’s what I encountered the most, but it wasn’t difficult to find examples with chrome.

They also made some cherry sunburst:

diablo

And a very rare blue:

20161003_224740

So what’s good about them?

Slab alder body (no expensive contours). Trem that stays in tune. Top notch Dimarzio or Seymour Duncan pickups for great tone. Flat fretboard radius that makes bends easy. Thin neck that makes it easy to play fast.

Every one I’ve ever owned felt wild. Like I could play fast and loose and sloppy and it would still make me sound good. I felt more like Eddie Van Halen playing a Hamer USA Diablo than on any other guitar I’ve ever touched.

It’s biggest limitation was a lack of coil splitting options, or it might be the perfect guitar for me.

So if it was so good, why have I owned at least 7 (and am trying to sell my last 2)?  Why did I sell the yellow one shown above with nearly-perfect after-market stainless steel frets, and coil-split push/pull pots with amazing-sounding Dimarzio 26th Anniversary pickups?

Because despite the guitars being awesome players, there are simply guitars I like more for various reasons.  Some guitars are prettier, or have ebony fretboards.  Over time, I’ve gotten to the point I trust Wilkinson 2-point trems with locking tuners (or sometimes even without them), so there is no reason to deal with the extra hassle of a double-locking system that needs to be unlocked and completely retuned every few weeks; a system that doesn’t allow you to drop to Eb easily, or go to drop-D tuning, or even deal with a song that was recorded slightly out of tune.

I still have the blue one.  I can’t get what I want for it, so I’ll probably hold on to it, let it be a case queen, pull it out once a year or so and be thoroughly impressed with it, and then put it back in its case for another year.  At some point, I may fall in love with double-locking trem systems. Or as original-condition Diablos become less available over the coming years, maybe I’ll get a decent price for it.

However, if you love dual-humbucker rock machines, see if you can try out a Hamer USA Diablo. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

*Superstrat: A 25.5″-scale guitar with a shape generally like a Stratocaster, but usually lacking a pickguard. Often has two humbuckers or even a humbucker-single-humbucker configuration, but must have at least one humbucker (in the bridge position). Must have a 2-point trem, usually double-locking.  Often has 24 frets. Often has a thin neck and flat fretboard radius for fast playing.

 

-Gitabushi

11/15/16 Guitar Lust: Hamer USA Diablo

11/3/16 Guitar Lust: Brownsville Choirboy

Brownsville is a guitar company that is hard to find anything out about. I’ll spare you all the details of my search, but the end result is that I figured out that Brownsville was the House Brand for Sam Ash.

Okay, I just deleted a long, boring story about my first experience with Brownsville guitars. Let’s just say it was good enough that when I stumbled across this one on Reverb for under $200, I was willing to pull the trigger.

Here’s the one I got:

 

Here’s what you should notice right off:

  • quality paint job and craftsmanship
  • made in Korea
  • excellent upper fret access
  • good materials
  • “toaster” pickups

Here’s what you can’t tell from pictures: what the tone is like, how well it is set up, how well it plays…

Maybe the neck is bowed? Maybe the frets are uneven? Maybe the fret ends are sharp (the biggest problem on cheap guitars)? Maybe it sounds like crap?

None of the above.  It plays like an intermediate-level guitar. If I’d played it first, I’d have expected to pay $500. I paid $140.

The fret ends are smooth. The neck is straight. The craftsmanship is excellent.

And it’s built like a tank.

I checked on eBay to see if one was currently available, and found only an old advertisement for sale. Apparently this guitar was in production in 1999. I’m not sure how long the line was in existence, but if only for 2-3 years (as is most likely), mine is virtually mint, despite being at least 15 years old.

My research also indicated that toaster-style pickups are single coils, but many cheaper versions of toaster pickups are actually double coils with a fake cover.  The eBay advertisement also indicates single coils, but when plugged in and in a single coil position, there is no hum whatsoever. So if it is a single coil, there is a dummy coil stacked with it.

Still, it has credible single coil tones.

Is it the best-sounding guitar I’ve played?  No, but it does sound good. It is light and resonant due to being a semi-hollow body. The bridge is much more comfortable to rest your hand on than a tune-o-matic. The tuners are sturdy enough to keep it in tune despite heavy thrashing. It has good quack in the 2/4 notch positions, good funk tone in the middle position, and a decent dark single coil tone in the neck.  I can’t see myself using the bridge position alone for much, it was a little harsh and raspy.

I’m not encouraging you to go out and find and buy this guitar.  You may hate it, especially if you have ever played on a  guitar retailing at $1k or above, much less a used one.  But it is lust-worthy because it is cheap (someone claimed to have found one for $50; I got mine for $140; patience should get you one for about that), far better than it has any right to be, and I’d take it gigging or to a jam session without a seconds’ hesitation.*

*This is because of a paradigm-shifting realization at the last open mic jam session I went to…which will come up in a future post, maybe as early as next week.

11/3/16 Guitar Lust: Brownsville Choirboy

Guitar Lust, Intro –Gitabushi

Thanks to PCBushi for the warm welcome.

We are in a golden age for guitar ownership and playing. Guitarbuilding experience and advanced computer fabrication technology have combined to make it possible to produce good quality guitars for very little money almost anywhere.

Almost everywhere electric guitars have been made, the same process has been followed: the first products are low quality, with poor standardization and substandard craftsmanship. As the laborers increase in skill, quality guitars are made and sold, but due to poor reputation, the increase in quality isn’t recognized. With increased skill, however, comes increased costs in the form of higher salaries and more expensive materials as the host nation’s advancement and growing wealth stimulate an increase in the cost of everything. Then 90% production moves overseas to another location where labor is cheap, and the process begins again in the new country, but the 10% of production that remains in the first country becomes known as a high-quality instrument, and the guitars are priced accordingly.

It is arguable that this actually started in the United States. The original guitars made by Les Paul and Fender are collector’s items and highly sought. But those are the best ones. Most of the guitars made in the late 50s are probably atmospheric carbon by now. But without a doubt, the process absolutely started in Japan. Then moved to Korea and Taiwan. Then mainland China. And now Indonesia.  But the initial products of these successive nations improved due to lessons learned, increased quality control methods, and computer fabrication, to the point that many Made in Indonesia guitars sound, look, and play every bit as good as boutique Made in the USA models.

I love guitars.

I love all sorts of guitars. I love old guitars, and I love new guitars.  I’ve researched extensively into a handful of different guitar lines, enough to be sort of an authority on a few. I’ve bought and sold over 200 guitars over the last 7 years, searching for the perfect guitar, learning about different guitar lines.

I’m never satisfied. There are always new guitars lines to check out. There are always other pretty guitars to look at. There are always cool and innovative functions I’ve never tried; or tried, sold, and want to obtain again.

I am filled with Guitar Lust. But I am tired of buying and selling guitars, so it is time to switch to enjoying guitars vicariously.  I will probably contribute any number of different topics to this blog, but the main feature I intend to return to every Tuesday and Thursday is an exploration of Guitar Lust.

A few ground rules.

  1. Do not expect me to be fair/balanced. These are the guitars I lust after, not you. If you already lust after them, too, great! If you develop some Lust after reading these pages, even better!  But inevitably, some guitar you love will not make my list. If that bothers you, write your own blog.
  2. I have a few guitar companies that I favor. Expect a heavy dose of Hamer, Yamaha, Alvarez, Fernandes, Rainsong, and Jon Kammerer. This is because these are the guitars I’ve owned most, so I have greater personal knowledge of why they are lust-worthy guitars.
  3. I won’t restrict myself to guitars that I’ve owned, however, because there are three main reasons to Lust after a guitar, in my opinion: a) rarity; b) value (tone, function, playability; c) prettiness

The first guitar I talk about will be the Brownsville Choir Boy, on Thursday. Mark you calendars now!

-Gitabushi

Guitar Lust, Intro –Gitabushi

Steeleye Span and their nerdy folk rock

In recent years I’ve become much more partial to certain brands of lighter music. Though they’re liberal jagoffs, for example, I’m rather fond of the Decemberists and their bleak little ditties. Sometimes a little banjo and violin and vocals set to the tale of a highwayman’s murder and rape of a woman just does you right. Must be the patriarch in me.

Last year I blathered on a bit about my guilty pleasure Blind Guardian, a heavy power metal band specializing in songs of Middle Earth and Arthurian legend and the like. I think my proclivity for such fantastical fare is now well documented.

There must be plenty of others who enjoy this stuff, right? I mean the musicians haven’t starved or joined gypsy caravans yet (so far as I’m aware). Therefore I offer up another recommendation. If you like electric folk rock and you like folklore, Steeleye Span may be up your alley.

The U.K. group has been around since 1969, playing songs about such historical events like the Siege of Lathom House, folktales like the story of Lamkin (a Scottish/Northumbrian bogeyman who dwells in the wild and then murders a woman and her baby so as to drink the infant’s blood), and versions of traditional songs and ballads like Sir James the Rose.

Sir James the Rose was probably the first Steeleye song that I heard, and it left an impression. Though upbeat in feel and tempo, the ballad’s story tells of a knight who has murdered a squire and gone into hiding. The squire’s friends form a posse to avenge his death and hunt the errant Sir James. Grisly violence ensues.

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

Steeleye Span and their nerdy folk rock

Vicarious

Stare like a junkie
Into the TV
Stare like a zombie
While the mother
Holds her child
Watches him die
Hands to the sky crying
Why, oh why?
’cause I need to watch things die
From a distance

I wasn’t able to get into Tool when I was younger. There were a few songs here and there that I liked, but albums full of strange song structures were too dense for my young mind. The songs were also very long. What 13 year old has time for that? Not me.

Recent years have been different. I have come to a new appreciation for Tool, at least their later albums. The lyrics posted above are from the song “Vicarious” off of their newest album 10,000 days (from way back in 2006!). The official music video looks like a bad acid trip, so I’ve posted an unofficial lyric video below:

The lyrics to this song have had a deep effect on me in recent days. Violence and death is news. The news is violence and death. Always has been and probably always will be. Today, however, we are able to experience death in real-time, from the safety of our smartphones. Terror and suffering are live-tweeted, sometimes even live-streamed. We eat it up. I eat it up.

Every time there is a terror attack I refresh the twitter feed and the news page to check the body count, to see if the killer fits my narrative, to get a glimpse of something real and horrible happening to people I don’t know. A violent break in the monotony of modern life. Something to talk to the echo-chamber about. My natural revulsion to violence has been dulled by its frequency and the ease with which I fit it into my normal routine.

Toward the end of the song the following lyrics are sung:

Credulous at best, your desire to believe in angels in the hearts of men.
Pull your head on out your hippy haze and give a listen.
Shouldn’t have to say it all again.
The universe is hostile. so Impersonal. devour to survive.
So it is. So it’s always been.

I can’t help but read the first line as a reference to Original Sin (I am Catholic, after all). I’m not sure Mr. Keenan would agree with me. He offers no answers, only that things are this way and always have been. We should just admit it. I admit it. I also hope for something better. Maybe in the next world.

 

-Kaiju

Vicarious