Saturday, May 23, 2009

Guitar Pron 5: the Squier Super-Sonic

Back around 1998, the Fender factory in Japan was making Squier-labeled guitars from the Vista series that were better, apparently, than Fender HQ was comfortable with. Sold as lower-priced instruments, the workmanship on these instruments rivaled the Fender USA instruments and certainly beat their other overseas-built guitars, although some of the parts, particularly the electronics, are somewhat sub-standard. The Squier Super-Sonic is one of the best of this series, although I also own a Jagmaster and have played a Venus and both also are pretty well-made guitars that outshine most instruments built in their price range.

The Super-Sonic is a short-scale instrument, with a 24" scale. It's got a belly cut (which comes in handy, in my case) as well as the forearm contour. That makes it is a very nostalgic-feeling instrument for me because my first electric guitar was a Fender Mustang, a Competition model in red with the racing stripe and painted headstock, which had a similar body shape. With a 24" scale length, the Mustang fit my relatively small hands nicely. (I can play a Stratocaster-scale instrument, but it always just feels slightly awkward to me, even decades later). I'm not sure why short scales are always aimed at the low end of the market, as student or entry-level instruments; I think some experienced and even professional guitarists would also appreciate short-scales, if they were as finely made as this one.

Anyway, the Super-Sonics can be had at pretty low prices, or at least they could; I haven't seen very many go by on eBay recently. They were made in black, white, silver sparkle, and blue sparkle. For a year or so I stalked eBay looking for the instruments in excellent condition and good prices. I watched a number of them go buy without bidding on them, and bid on a few and watched the price go up past my comfort zone. But after some careful bidding I own three of them, two in silver sparkle and one in blue sparkle.

This silver one is in the best shape: the body and hardware are nearly perfect. The poly finish has yellowed very slightly, which gives the whole thing a slightly gold look. The blue one is in second-best condition; the finish is excellent, a brilliant blue yellowing slightly to aqua, but it has needed some bridge parts replaced and has more troubles with the knobs and electronics.

As a young teenager I didn't really appreciate what a finely-built instrument the Fender Mustang was, although it was sold as a student model. And I never could get the tone I wanted out of it. Now I understand that with its low-voltage single-coil pickups, the Mustang was built for twang and surf, not emulating Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It was a hand-me down from my stepbrother, and since it came cheap, I didn't really understand its value. I'm trying not to make that mistake again. A word of advice for guitarists: if you have a guitar and you don't like its tone, after experimenting with different amplifiers, don't modify the guitar by replacing the pickups; it could ruin whatever collectible or resale value it may have had. Find another guitar that comes closer to the sound you want. If you do decide you must change out the pickups, find exact physical replacements so you don't have to do any routing or drilling, find pickups that give you similar but better-quality tone, and save the original pickups in case a future owner wants to put the instrument back to stock. And remember: most of the tone you get from an electric guitar is in your fingers and your amplifier, not the wood. I'm not joking when I say this, although some gearheads may think I am.

The Super-Sonic has an interesting design: it looks like a left-handed guitar played right-handed. The word is that it was inspired by Jimi Hendrix's use of right-handed guitars left-handed.

The body is basswood and the neck is maple, with a "skunk stripe." The truss rod is the bullet style, which adjusts at the headstock. It is a godsend to be able to adjust a truss rod without removing the neck.

An aside: I also have a Jagmaster which needed truss rod adjustment and it had a poorly-fitting neck pocket, and also a shim, which fell out when I loosened the neck to adjust the truss rod; it still isn't right. The neck pocket on these Super-Sonics seem tighter, by comparison. And another quick aside: I'm still keeping an eye out for one of the Japanese Jagmasters with the bullet truss rod; apparently a few were made, but they are scarce. I'll do a photo spread on the Jagmaster at some point, although it is not quite as pretty.

These instruments are much easier to maintain. They have vintage frets -- tall, narrow fret-wire. The frets wear pretty quickly. The silver one needs to have the frets leveled and crowned, but they aren't too bad -- I don't think any frets need to be replaced. I'm planning to run it up to Elderly Instruments and see what they can do with it.

The electronics of the Super-Sonic have an odd layout: it has no tone controls. Those are both volume controls. And oddly, the one closer to the bridge controls the neck pickup, and vice-versa. The only rationale I can think of for this odd arrangement is that if you're playing a solo on the bridge pickup, you can use your pinky to do volume fades.

The last oddity to comment on is the strap peg. The one on the butt end of the guitar is normal, but the other one is actually mounted on the neck plate. I think the idea might have been that you could move it to either horn and play the guitar right or left handed -- one of mine has been modified like that. But I actually kind of like it where it is.

There really is a lot to like about these guitars, but a few things not to like. The tuners are a bit flimsy, so I've considered replacing them with drop-in replacement vintage locking tuners from Gotoh, but I haven't done it yet. For some reason the headstock holes in the Vista series guitars tended to be drilled just slightly too large, which means that when you go to change the strings, the tuner bushings sometimes fall out. That's sloppy. The string trees tend to bind up on the strings and tuning these instruments is a little tricky; despite my best efforts at nailing down the tremolo, with extra springs and tightening down the tremolo screws, heavy bends still tend to pull the other strings out of tune a bit; if I were to use them live, I'd probably have to re-tune quite a bit during a set, where some of my other instruments -- the Ovation acoustic, the Peavey T-60s, the Steinberger basses, and the Parker Fly -- hold their tuning much more securely. I may see if I can get Elderly to block the trem on one of them, for the sake of tuning stability, although it affects the tone a bit.

I've got these two set up with 11s, with the truss rods and tremolos adjusted accordingly. I adjusted the intonation with a Peterson virtual strobe tuner, and they sound great. The only problem is that the bridge saddles don't slide far enough to intonate the low E and A strings perfectly. So I might wind up going back to 10s. I think they may have been set up for 10s in the factory.

Despite these minor quibbles, I love these instruments. They are a blast to play -- low action, short scale, tone out the wazoo, easy string bending, and a really striking look! If you can still find one in good condition for a decent price, I recommend you give it a try.

Oh, how do they sound? Well, a couple of my YouTube videos feature me playing the Super-Sonics, but I'm not really happy with the sound quality that results after YouTube gets done compressing my video files. When I get a little more free time -- hah! -- I will try to record something a little higher-quality for you to listen to -- mabye just audio, or maybe my first-ever video clip on Vimeo, which claims to provide better video and sound quality.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Guitar Pron 4: Peavey T-60 Sunburst

I have several T-60s. This is the one that is in the finest condition. The exact date of manufacture is difficult to ascertain, but it may be from 1981. Whatever the exact date, this instrument is almost 30 years old, and when I received it I was very impressed that the eBay seller had not been exaggerating when he called it a "closet classic" and claimed it had scarcely been played.

The Peavey T-60 was an attempt to capture some of the best design elements of the Stratocaster and the Les Paul and blend them together, along with a few special touches dreamed up by Chip Todd and Hartley Peavey. The weight is in between the two, and it has a flatter, more comfortable body like a Gibson SG. The price was considerably lower as well.

Take a look at the superb solid steel bridge with string-through design. Those saddles give you an enormous amount of leeway in adjusting intonation, and the bridge feels totally bomb-proof.

The T-60 has a 3-way pickup selector, a pickup switch (which, of course, only changes the sound when both pickups are active), and separate volume and tone controls for each humbucker. The tone controls have an unusual feature -- when you bring them all the way up, they disable the humbucking wiring and the pickups get brighter (and slightly noisier), acting as single coils. This gives you an even wider range of tones. The T-60 can do a very good impression of a classic strat, and the neck pickup with the tone control rolled down gives a nice jazz tone. I've got mine set up with 10s, but you could use 11s or perhaps even 12s with no trouble, especially if you down-tune.

I don't generally like the "classic" sunburst finishes very much, but this one is a very restrained burst that is almost an iced tea color, and less reddish or orangish than many burst guitars. I'd call it "iced tea burst" instead of tobacco sunburst. In any case, it's a gorgeous spray job, and the finish over top of the dye is in fantastic condition.

The body wood of this guitar is Ash -- not the light swamp ash tonewood a lot of recent instruments are built from, but a dense and heavy northern ash with a lovely grain.

The neck is maple -- a very nice, fast neck, with wide jumbo "schoolbus" profile frets with almost no fret wear. It even has a little flame of its own that you can see in the picture. You might notice that the neck is glued together from two pieces. That's how they installed the truss rods. The T-60 had some (for the time) amazing advances in guitar manufacturing, including CNC machining of the bodies. Necks were carved with a machine originally designed to carve gunstocks.

The nut is aluminum, and perfectly cut. This one has a rosewood fretboard. Having played a T-60 with a plain maple neck -- literally, with frets driven directly into the wood with no separate fingerboard unlike some maple necks -- I believe the less common T-60s built with the rosewood freboard give the neck additional tuning stability. My maple-necked T-60 with the always feels to me like the neck is slightly too flimsy, and when you apply any pressure at all to it while playing you can hear the pitch shift. But perhaps they aren't all like that; mine may just need some work. The rosewood also seems to darken the tone up a bit, which is a matter of taste and the style of music you like to play.

The inlays are not very attractive on this instrument (they are "mother of toilet seat"), but you can't have everything. Another one of my T-60s has real mother-of-pearl on a rosewood fingerboard, and while much more battered, the inlays are prettier.

The tuners are among the finest I've used on any guitar -- very tight and stable. I left this guitar in a climate-controlled storage unit for six months, and when I pulled it out to play, it was still in almost perfect tune. The only instrument I've got that has even more tuning stability is my Parker Fly, and that guitar's neck isn't just wood, but has a shell of fiberglass and other exotic reinforcing materials.

I really like the Peavey Limiteds, and some of the other Peavey designs, but for sheer quality of craftsmanship, playability, and durability, the T-60s are tanks. I like to say that T-60s are the guitars that, quite literally, could smash the competition.

While a bit heavy by modern standards -- back in the day players equated weight with tone and sustain -- these instruments still sound great and and very well-suited for blues, classic rock tones, or country. They won't give you that overloaded DiMarzio metal tone with octaves of squealing harmonics, and of course they are hardtails so if you love to dive-bomb, you'll be out of luck. But they are still very versatile, and it would take a lot to pry this instrument out of my hands!

If you'd like to find one of your own, start looking now. Peavey made a lot of them, and there are quite a few on eBay every week. But collectors are starting to realize just how nice these instruments really are, so prices are going up, especially for the instruments in the nicer finishes (including the somewhat rare white) and those built with rosewood fingerboards.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Guitar Pron 3: Steinberger XQ-4 Bass (v2)

Today's instrument is a Steinberger bass.

This is not an earlier Steinberger with a Newburgh-manufactured neck; it is a more modern instrument, probably built only a few years ago, while Gibson was marketing Steinbergers via the "Music Yo" web site.

It is a pretty good-sounding instrument, but it is not quite up to the standards of the older Steinberger instruments.

Or, to put it a little bit more cynically, since Ned Steinberger no longer has veto power over which instruments get his name stamped on them, Gibson can ship any kind of crap and try to capitalize on the reputation that Steinberger instruments once enjoyed, due to the incredible amount of hand work and attention to detail that went into their construction.

The neck was made by Moses Graphite. It has a matte finish and seems to be graphite (yes, you could write with it). The older Steinberger necks were molded out of fiberglass resin with various formulations of carbon fiber and what-not, and had a shiny finish.

Note that the Newburgh instruments were stamped "N," and the Tennessee instruments were marked "TN." Until recently, that is, when Gibson started re-using "N." This confused me; based on my research online, I thought I was buying an instrument with a Newburgh-made neck.

And, of course, that confusion is exactly the point. Gibson should be ashamed.

The headless bass is for those poor bassists who were circumcised. Unlike the older Seinberger necks, this one has an adjustable truss rod. This model requires strings with double ball ends.

With EMG pickups, two 9-volt batteries, and HAZ Labs active EQ circuitry, It is a very nice-sounding instrument. The tone settings are very usable and musical. However, I am not all that impressed with the construction of the neck. If you look closely, you can see that some of the slots to hold the fret tangs are cut crooked. This means that a small number of the frets above the 12th are audibly out of tune; in other words, I can get the intonation pretty well perfect everywhere, with my Peterson virtual strobe tuner, except for those frets. That's a pretty glaring quality control gaffe. If I had bought it new at full price and it showed up like this, I would have returned it.

Come to think of it, I have a lot of respect for Moses Graphite (I've been very impressed by the Chapman Stick bodies they manufactured for Stick Enterprises). And I doubt they did the fret work.

This particular incarnation of the Steinberger bridge design uses (I think) steel string saddles on height-adjustable aluminum blocks, which ride on two diagonally-mounted set screws, and are not actually attached to the bridge. If you remove the strings and loosen one set screw, you can remove all the blocks to adjust them. They are wobbly, though, balanced on their diagonally-mounted screws, and don't really stand up on their own.

I found this to be an irritating and fiddly arrangement because tuning to intonate the strings causes the blocks to move, and only the string pressure keeps them in place during this process. When you get them where you want them, push them into as square and upright a position as you can, hold them that way, and tighten the set screw, and it clamps all the blocks together. But since you've just positioned all the blocks so that they aren't aligned with each other, that seems a little precarious, like trying to pick up a horizontal row of cubes that aren't quite lined up with each other by squeezing the ones on the end.

Unfortunately I think this fiddly bridge design is Ned's, not Gibson's, although I don't know all the incarnations of the Steinberger bridge in detail. In other words, I'm not sure the older instruments are any easier to work with. And they all tend to have the well-known problem with the tuner jaws. There's an eBay seller that will sell you stainless steel replacement jaws, but they seem awfully expensive at $35 per string.

This instrument also has a zero fret -- which can help with intonation -- although since the strings rest right on the zero fret, bending and tuning them seem to be leading to a zero fret that is quickly developing notches, while the rest of the frets are still in good shape.

With the very light neck and the tuners at the bridge, the instrument is very well-balanced. The basswood body is also very light for a bass body, and the curved body carve makes it very comfortable to play for extended periods of time. Although from what I hear, the bodies are made overseas. And there were some paint flaws that indicate, again, that Gibson's quality control is just not quite what one would expect from an instrument bearing the Steinberger name.

Given these issues, I can't whole-heartedly recommend this instrument, unless you can get it for a really good price. It remains unclear how long I'll keep it. I'm keeping an eye out for an older Steinberger, if I can find one at a price I can stomach. And I'm very hesitant to try one of the newer ZT-3 guitars, or a Synapse Trans-scale guitar.

I have another Steinberger bass -- a fretless "Synapse" model -- which I will show you in a future entry. It is a very different, and quite decent, instrument, but has some of the same attention-to-detail issues that make it frustrating attempting to deal with the "modern" Steinbergers.


I have another instrument now, which is one of the "version 1" Q basses. This gives me an interesting opportunity to directly compare and contrast the two instruments. The quick summary is that my son now has custody of this instrument and I'm playing the older one. Here is the full article. According to Steinberger World (an unofficial fan site with a lot of information on the older instruments), this bass is a "version 2" member of the Q series -- one of the later ones, from the Music Yo (around 2003-2007) years, around 2003-2007. There also exist "version 2" instruments made after Gibson purchased Steinberger, maybe between 1995 and 1998 or so; I'd like to see one of those someday, although I've read that during those transitional years, quality had a tendency to vary more than it did during the pre-Gibson Newburgh years.

Update 22 Dec 2009

I've had the opportunity to work with my "version 1" XQ bass a little bit, and I can verify that although the bridge design in the old model is similar, it has some features that make it much nicer to work with. For one thing, the cubical string saddle blocks are attached to the bridge using an interesting angled bolt that. It's one of Ned's little imaginative design touches. You don't have to balance them on two separate screws to adjust the block height. That makes it far easier and less fiddly to adjust the intonation. The down side of the older DB bridge on that instrument is that it is lacking the steel inserts, which was a design improvement to make the saddles more durable. There is an entire evolutionary series of Steinberger bridges; it is a subject that warms the obsessive-compulsive heart of a geek like me, but I will spare you. Unfortunately, I also found that the bridge on my older XQ has suffered some abuse. I'll go into more detail over on the post about that bass.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Guitar Pron 2: Godin LGX-SA

The second guitar for your viewing pleasure is a Godin LGX-SA, a hard-tail instrument with a Gibson-style tilt-back headstock. Another eBay find, these guitars are assembled in the USA from Canadian-made parts. This one is another flame maple top with a routed edge that is similar to the Peavey Limited. The flame isn't quite as spectacular -- the finish is quite dark in ordinary room light -- but still very pretty. In bright light it appears that the parts are floating on a deep blue sea.

Like the Peavey, this instrument is beautifully constructed, with a lot of attention to detail. The neck joint is a work of art. It came to me in excellent condition, with only a couple of very minor dings and scratches. I paid less than half of the selling price for a new LGX-SA.

This one features an ebony fretboard, and the older Godin "tetrad" pickups which can be coil-tapped by popping up the tone control.

Besides being a very capable and polished Les Paul-style instrument (but lighter, and nicely sculpted in the back for greater comfort when playing), this is a very geeky instrument -- it is a 3-voice guitar. There is a 13-pin output for running into any type of guitar synth that accepts this output; I use a Roland GR-30. The tracking is excellent; it seems to work better than the usual GK pickup arrangement. There is a piezo output which provides a fairly credible acoustic sound, and which can be EQ'ed using a little 3-band EQ. And it has two humbuckers to produce a more usual electric guitar output, which can be coil tapped for a wider range of tones.

The routing options are somewhat complex, as it has two 1/4" outputs and the 13-pin output. The 13-pin output can actually be used alone and will still give you access to all of the guitar's sounds. The Roland GR-30 has a guitar out that will pass through the piezo and electric sounds. By combining the synth level (one of the sliders) together with the piezo level knob and another slider you can adjust levels to blend your synth patch, electric tone, and piezo tone. In this configuration you can't process the electric and piezo tones through separate effects chains, but there are more options if you are willing to use more than one cable.

It's a very playable, very comfortable instrument and one of the best pieces I've found on eBay to date. And last but not least, it came with a plywood (not plastic) case!

I used this guitar to record the electric part for the Mandelbrot Set's cover of "My Monkey" -- at least for my first take, although I wound up using a T-60 on the second take. I expect to make a lot more use of this instrument in the future.

Guitar Pron 1: Peavey Limited ST

Peavey Limited ST, 91026549. This is one is one of my absolute favorites. It has the prettiest finish of any of my instruments. It isn't quite as gorgeous as some of the PRS "10 tops," but I'd say it is at least a 9. And the "binding" -- which is really an un-stained routed edge -- adds a very attractive line of contrast between the face and back of the guitar.

My to-do list of things to fix or adjust on this guitar is blank -- it is perfect. It is currently set up with Ernie Ball 10s and it is a joy to play.

The Limiteds are solid-body electrics, but they are much lighter than similar designs like the T-60. I think they have hollowed-out cavities in the body, under the maple top, that make them quite light and add to their resonance.

It has a 25.5-inch scale length, quilted maple top in Tiger's Eye finish, Grover self-locking tuners, hipshot bridge, tremolo, and oversized strap pegs; shielded electronics cavity, and five-way switch. I recently had the frets leveled and dressed at Elderly Instruments in Lansing.

I got this one at my local Music-Go-Round for a very low price. These are fantastic guitars, built in the Peavey USA custom shop in Mississippi. It isn't widely appreciated what fine instruments they are. The attention to detail in the finish and fret work is amazing. They have extremely tight and well-crafted neck pockets and a smooth, rounded heel with five bolts. It's among the best-built bolt-on neck guitar I've seen, with the exception of some extremely expensive boutique instruments.

Because they are not considered collectible, very nice examples can be found on eBay at excellent prices. I own one more, an HB with two humbuckers and a blue quilt finish, that I will feature later. I'm also on the lookout for the third type, the VT, with three single-coil pickups.

UPDATE: I have a new Peavey Limited with a blonde flame maple top. It's a much subtler look, but still very pretty. Check it out (the link jumps to another entry in this blog).