Thursday, September 29, 2011

Snark SN-1 Tuner Review


I promised last month to do a review of the Snark SN-1 guitar tuner, which is my favorite of the new crop of clip-on instrument tuners. This tuner is designed to be used primarily for guitar or bass, but Snark has other tuners that can be used for other instruments.

The Snark has the same features of the other tuners I have tried; it has a nice clamp with padded jaws to hold it in place, and uses the instrument’s vibrations to determine the state of tune. Like the others out there It is also simple to use and has an easy to read display.

The SN-1 has more to offer, though. Instead of a simple swivel, it uses a ball joint so you can adjust the head to whatever angle is best. The display is also more colorful (and useful) than its competitors, and is quite a bit larger because they put most of the buttons on the back and side. These switches are for pitch calibration, the metronome and two arrow keys for adjustment.

Metronome and pitch calibration? I’m sold! The metronome is pretty basic, but works great for me to provide a basic visual beat for practice. The calibration is adjustable from 415 to 466 Hz; accuracy is tight at +/- 1 cent. And lastly this Snark tuner has is the ability to either flat tune or transpose. That is a lot of features for a small (and inexpensive) package.

The SN-1 uses a 3V lithium battery, which is accessed through the bottom of the case. I have not killed this one yet, but it is a common size and they are

Inexpensive is a good word for this tuner, too. The list price on the SN-1 is $29, and I easily found them online for under $15, which is a good price for what you get.

So, I plunked down my hard-earned cash and bought one. Unfortunately, the first Snark I bought was dead on arrival, which was a bad way to start our relationship. I returned it for one that did work, and it works very well.

The tuner responds quickly when a string is plucked, and the color display makes easy to tell quickly whether a string is sharp or flat and by how much. There is no external microphone, so it has to be attached to the instrument to work, but at this price point I am ok with that. I do not have a high-zoot tuner to compare it to, so I cannot vouch for their accuracy claims.

The metronome works fine and is not too hard to adjust. The markings for the buttons are pretty small, and as I get older it gets harder to see stuff like that, but that is not the tuner’s fault.

So, the Snark SN-1 is easy to use and has plenty of features that you will not find in the other clip-on tuners that are available today. It is a winner and well worth the $15.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rickenbacker 4003 Bass Review

Buenos dias, amigos!

Today we are looking at my second Rickenbacker bass: a 4003 model. I did a write up of my old 4001 a few months back, so I thought it would be nice to provide my impressions of the this one too.

The 4003 model bass was introduced in 1981, with many of the same features of the 4001 as well as a few improvements, including:

A. An improved truss rod system. The 4003 still uses dual truss rods, but now has nuts at both ends of the neck.

B. The 4003 has no capacitor on the bridge pickup. This allows full tone from the bridge pickup which is rather tinny on 4001 bases.

Other these changes, the 4003 has all of the usual 4000-series bass features.

The 4003 has a bound neck-thru body, and a has a bound neck with the curlicue headstock tip. Other distinctive Rickenbacker features are the signature triangular fretboard inlays and wacky trussrod cover. They also have the dual trussrod system “for added strength and adjustability” and Schaller tuners. I am still not a fan of the thick clear finish that coats the fretboard on these.

The electronics need a little explaining. There are two pretty hot single coil pickups, a selector switch, two volume and two tone knobs. But, the way they are wired is kind of whacky. Rickenbacker installs a push/pull pot that routes the bridge pickup signal through a capacitor to suck out the bass tone, and I guess the idea of this is to make better use of the Rick-O-Sound feature.

Rick-O-Sound is a stereo output effect that allows the player to divide the pickup signals and send them two different amps. Ideally this would send the bridge signal to a guitar amp and the neck signal to a bass amp. The output jack plate on these basses has a jack for a stereo guitar cord (for "Rick-O-Sound"), and a jack for normal mono output. Meh.

This one is a 2010 model, finished in Midnight Blue. The photos do not do the color justice, as it has a gorgeous pearlescent sheen to it. I bought it new from Musician’s Friend when they had a clearance on them a few months ago.

It showed up with a surprisingly good set-up, and plays better than any Rickenbacker bass I have ever tried. The neck is dead straight with a low action and no lift to the bridge (yet). The pickups have even output, though the pickup cover is a bit of a hindrance to my playing style.

This 4003 is pretty light for a neck-through bass, coming in under 9 ¾ pounds.

There are no problems with this bass at all, which confirms that I am really not a Rickenbacker guy. The ergonomics are still awkward for me, but I am not surprised or disappointed, as I bought this bass with the sole intention of flipping it for profit.

As these basses have street price of $1949 when bought new from a dealer, the low Musician’s Friend closeout price (plus extra coupon discounts), meant that there was plenty of money to be made by re-selling these basses, especially to overseas buyers.

Anyway, if you decide you want a Rickenbacker bass, and if you are not be hung up on getting a vintage 4001, you should pick up a 4003 instead as it is a more versatile and better built instrument. But really, you should try one out before you buy as it may not be your cup of tea.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fender Custom Shop Nocaster Guitar Review

Good day!

Today we are looking at a Fender 1951 reissue Nocaster that is a real peach. It is finished in Honey Blonde nitrocellulose lacquer over an ash body, and it was built by the Fender Custom Shop.

I had better start with a short lesson on what a Nocaster is in case you have not heard of them.

Fender originally called this model the Broadcaster, but in early 1951 Gretsch let them know that they had already registered a name very similar to this, so Fender made a production change. The change being that Fender started cutting the Broadcaster name off the headstock decals. These guitars with only the spaghetti Fender logo on the headstock are referred to as Nocasters.

Fender renamed the guitar as the Telecaster, but used up all of the old modified Broadcaster decals first, so the last Nocaster was built in August of 1951. It is estimated that about 200 of these guitars were built, so your chances of getting your grubby mitts on one are pretty slim.

Fender re-issued the Nocasters in the mid 2000s via their Custom Shop, and it is a very faithful reproduction of the original. Subsequent re-issues have more modern features and do not capture the spirit of the 1951 model.

The guitar we are looking at today is an original re-issue Nocaster Relic that was built in 2005. This would be model 015-0302-867, in Fender-speak.

The neck does not have a normal Telecaster profile, with more of a chunky “U” feel to it. The profile is consistent down the length of the neck, making for a more Les Paul-like experience. There is not much of a radius to the fretboard, and there are 21 skinny frets seated into it. The truss rod adjusts at the heel, so the single-ply pickguard has to be removed to adjust it.

The hardware is also faithful to the original. This Nocaster has nickel/chrome hardware with Fender/Gotoh vintage style tuners with small knobs to imitate the 1950’s Kluson Deluxe units. These tuners have slots across the capstans instead of holes, so they really capture the look. The bridge has 3 brass saddles, and it strings though the body. Of course there are flat head screws everywhere, with not a Phillips head in sight.

The pickups are low-output compared to other modern Telecasters I have played. This is apparently how they are supposed to be. Stay tuned, as the electronics get weirder.

Weirder, as in I have not seen a guitar wired this way before. There are two knobs and a three-way switch, but here is how it is wired:

In position 1, the volume control works normally, and the bridge pickup is selected. The “tone” knob blends in the neck pickup as it is turned up.

In position 2, the volume control works normally and the “tone” knob is disabled. Only the neck pickup is selected and it has a very bright tone.

In position 3, the volume control works normally and the “tone” knob is disabled. Only the neck pickup is selected, and there is a very dark and bassy tone.

Apparently, this is how the guitars were wired in 1951, and they were changed to a more conventional set-up in 1952. The newer reissue Nocasters also lost this goofy wiring and are now wired more normally too. Hmmm.

As far as the appearance of this Nocaster, it has been factory reliced, so there are scratches, lacquer checking and finish wear all over it. But it is tastefully worn and not over the top, as some their later relics are.

Overall, it is very well made. The frets are well done and the action is very low and playable, which is a great complement to the fatter neck profile.

And, despite the goofy wiring, I like the way it sounds. I mostly use position 1, and I like being able to blend the two pickups without changing the tone setting. I think this provides a lot more character than rolling off the highs with a tone potentiometer. Position 2 provide a nice harder rock and blues tone, but I miss having the tone knob a bit as it can get harsh. Position 3 is unusable in my book, being muddy and weird.

But the goofiness makes it more authentic, and I appreciate the trouble the guys at the Custom Shop went through to recreate this guitar. And these guitars did not come cheap. This Fender Custom Shop ’51 Nocaster Relic had a list price of $3579.99 back in 2005, but you can pick an original re-issues for $2000 to $2500 nowadays.

It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cordoba 25 TK-CE Ukulele Review


Today we are looking at a very nice Cordoba 25 TK-CE ukulele. I am not sure what the 25 stands for, but the T is for tenor, the K is for the solid Koa top and back, the C is for the cutaway body and the E is for the electronics. There is a lot in a name, I guess.

I am impressed by the sound and the build quality of this ukulele, and even more by the price, which is quite reasonable for what you get. It is a classy-looking ukulele, with a clear satin finish, and classy body binding. There are also nice touches like the inlaid wood rope pattern in the rosette and the bridge.

The neck is mahogany with an ebony fretboard and a wenge headstock veneer. The tuners are gold-plated (ick), and seem like they do not hold terribly well. It might be the stretch from new strings that are on this one, so I will keep an eye on it. The bridge is made of ebony with a synthetic saddle.

The electronics package includes a piezo pickup and a Cordoba pre-amplifier with a volume control and 2-band equalizer.

These ukuleles are handmade in Portugal (not China) and the workmanship on this one is excellent: all of the joints are solid, and the fretwork is nice. The frets are level and the edges are neat. It one is in great original condition, with no modification or repairs. I believe it was made in 2008, judging by the date code inside.

So, this Cordoba is a nicely-made ukulele that is made with solid materials. But, it sounds good and plays well too! It has a sweet, balanced tone. It is has impressive volume when plucked hard, and has a nice low-end tone. It is pleasant to play, and would be great to gig with. It seems a bit heavier and more solid-feeling than my Kala ukuleles, coming in at almost 2 pounds.

These ukuleles come with a nicely padded Cordoba gig bag, but if you buy their humi-case they will upgrade you to a lifetime warranty. I might need to find one of those cases.

The MSRP for the Cordoba 25 TK-CE is $480, with a street price of $379.99. You will not find a better solid koa ukulele with electronics for the money.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meinl Headliner Cajon Review


I have been messing around with a cajón for a few months now, and it is a blast. Of course this smells like blog post material to me…

The cajón is an Afro-Peruvian percussion instrument that has been around since the late 1700s. Cajon translates from Spanish to English as "crate" or "drawer", and it is pretty much a wooden box that the player sits on top of while tapping or slapping the frontplate.

It evolved from instruments from west and central Africa, and was adopted by Peruvian slaves using Spanish shipping crates. I have heard that these boxes became popular as musical instruments because the Spaniards had banned music in predominantly African areas of their colonies. Cajóns were easily disguised as stools or tables and thus were not identified as musical instruments.

Modern cajóns are popular in Peruvian and Cuban music. They are made of nice plywood for the sides and back, and may have different tonewoods for the front plate. The fronts are usually attached with screws, and the tone can be altered by tightening or loosening the screws.

They also have a mechanism similar to the one found on snare drums to give a sizzle sound. The tension of the snare can be adjusted, and more expensive cajóns will have a lever to disable the snare mechanism.

I have experimented a bit with my cajón and have gotten some great results with brushes and drum sticks, and even tried out my bass drum pedal on it. The pedal worked great, but I was afraid I might crack the wood, and it made me feel a little bit like a creepy one-man-band.

The cajón we are looking at today is a Meinl Headliner, model HCAJ1NT. It has a rubber wood (whatever that is) frontplate and body sprayed with a matte finish. This is a small-sized cajon, measuring about 18 inches tall by 12 inches wide and deep. There is a non-slip seating surface on top, little rubber feet on the bottom and an adjustable snare inside.

If you want to try out a cajón for yourself, this would be a good choice. The Meinl Headliner has a list price of $196 and a street price of $99. It is a lot of fun and makes a nice end table too.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

1961 Gibson SG Re-issue

Como estas?

Today we are looking at a real peach of a guitar I borrowed from a friend of mine a while back. It is a 2010 Gibson SG 1961 re-issue finished in Heritage Cherryburst. This is, of course, a reissue of the first run of SG’s that were ever made.

I have owned a few SG Standards over the years, but this one is quite a bit better, mostly due to the neck and the electronics.

This 1961 re-issue plays the role of an iconic rock instrument, and has a first-class list of specifications and hardware.

For starters, it has a mahogany body that has been sprayed with a very thin layer of nitrocellulose lacquer. You can see the ripples in the grain, and that is a good thing in my book. This SG has a beautiful natural resonance and sustain when it played unplugged, and I think it has a bit to do with thin finish. That and that this guitar comes in at around 5 pounds, 12 ounces, which is ridiculously light for most any electric guitar.

The body shape is a little different, so that the neck heel meets at the 22nd fret instead of the 19th fret, giving a little more access to the notes that I never use. It also gets a different pickguard shape.

The one-piece mahogany neck has a 60’s slim taper feel with a 1.695-inch wide nut, and it is thinner and flatter than any SG (or Les Paul) I’ve ever played. It is very comfortable and has a similar profile from the nut to the heel. It has some nice-looking cream binding and the 22 frets are level and well-done, unlike a lot of newer Gibson products I have played. They seem a little more flat than crowned, but I am putting that aside as an eccentricity of it being a re-issue. It has the classic trapezoidal inlays in the rosewood fretboard, which is another design I never tire of looking at.

The 1961 re-issue gets Gibson 57 Classic humbuckers, and I never realized how much better sounding they are that the Regular 490 series pickups that come in the SG Standard. I A-B’d this one with my Standard, and the 1961 has a fuller sound and loses the tinny-ness that I have in my guitar. I was so impressed with these pickups that I picked up a set to throw in a Japanese Les Paul I have. It has the expected 2 volume pots, 2 tone pots and a 3-way switch.

The rest of the hardware is as expected, with Grover Kluson-style green tuner keys and a tune-o-matic bridge. It has the vintage look nailed, for sure.

And the vintage sound. This guitar plays very well and sounds incredible. I played a little Doors, a touch of Cream stuff and some AC/DC and this guitar sings. It is the real deal.

These guitars are definitely a step up from the everyday SG Standard models, but so is their price. The list price for a Gibson 1961 re-issue SG is an astounding $3299, with a street price of $1999. Start saving your money!


Monday, September 12, 2011

1983 ESP PJ Bass


Today we are looking at a rare ESP bass: an early production Japanese-made model that I have never seen anywhere else before.

It has a wonderful mixture of design and styling elements: the versatile PJ pickup configuration, a Precision Bass body shape, and a Telecaster headstock. The body is finished in its original Pearl White.

My research found that this bass was made by ESP in Japan (pre-NYC production) for Loudness bassist Masayoshi Yamashita in 1983. The neck is marked NY-49, and the serial number is 0008. That is pretty low…

It appears to be all-original, and it shows some wear and dings, but it is not too bad for a 28 year old bass.

It has its original electronics, with volume and tone controls, and a 3-way selector switch. The pickups look like Dimarzios, but were actually custom wound by ESP for Yamashita.

The neck is a peach, with very little fret wear. It is 1 5/8-inches wide at the nut, and I think it is a bone nut. The truss rod adjusts at the heel, and it works well.

The hardware is all gold-plated and is original to the bass. Like all gold hardware, is has faded over the years. The adjustable-tension reverse tuners work fine, none are bent and they do not bind. The bridge is a high mass unit, and I believe that it and the tuners were made by Gotoh. How about those cool pointy strap buttons, huh?

The overall craftsmanship is very good, and the neck is still true and playable. The pickups have a lot of output, and each of the 3 pickup selections sound very different from each other. This is a versatile instrument that would be great for most any tone you would want from a bass, and it is quite a looker too.

It weighs in at around 8 pounds, 9 ounces, according to my scale.

I usually do not keep things around very long, but this one might stick. It is nice to have a decent PJ bass again.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

10th Anniversary of September 11th, 2001


I hope all of you are able to take a chance today to think back on the events of September 11, 2001.

Please think about how you view the events of that day, as well as their effects on our society. The way they have changed the way you view terrorism, politics, government, religion, war, peace, security, safety and discrimination. Consider the roles and responsibilities your country has on our planet. Try to do one thing that makes this world a better place to live in.

I will also be thinking about these things today, and will be remembering that life is fragile and that nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.



Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fender 51 Precision Bass Re-issue


I was searching through some old posts and thought I had written about these basses before, but I guess I had not. So, for your consideration today we are looking at a Japanese Fender 1951 Re-Issue Precision Bass, finished in 2-tone sunburst with a maple fretboard. This is one of the Made in Japan models that put the US made Fenders of the time to shame, and therefore were not originally imported to the United States. I found this one in Japan on a business trips.

Please note that this is a “Made in Japan” bass (not “Crafted in Japan”) with a serial number of K020XXX, which dates it to around 1990. This is the earliest Japanese 51 re-issue Precision I have seen, and there are a few notable differences between this and the newer ones. Including:

The ferrules are larger and are recessed into the body, more like the originals.

The wiring harness goes through the body, not through a route under the pickguard.

It uses higher-quality large potentiometers, unlike the mini ones on the currently produced basses. Accordingly, it has a larger cavity for the pots, making it like the originals. It would be hard to fit the larger pots into one of the newer ones, due to the smaller cavity.


A thicker, higher-quality pickguard that looks more period correct.

The super-chunky neck is really nice -- it is true, and the truss rod works freely. The neck to pocket fit is excellent too.

The frets are fantastic, with only light wear despite its age, and are nicely finished on the edges, unlike many of the newer Fenders I have seen. It has American reverse-style tuners which are as solid as a rock. I have been unable to determine if Fender Japan used this style of tuner or not, but I’ve had other early 51 reissues with the same tuners. These tuners have tarnished quite a bit, lending it a nice vintage vibe.

It has the original finish, and it is in very good shape. There are just a few small nicks and scuffs as a result of normal use, not abuse. It has a nice vintage vibe to it. Pickup and bridge covers were added at some point along the way.

This Precision Bass has its original electronics, which include one single coil pickup along with volume and tone controls. This is about as simple as it gets.

It plays well, and has a great Motown sound and vibe, but I can never get into these basses, and there are a few reasons: 1. they are always really heavy (nearly 11 pounds) 2. I prefer contoured body basses 3. single-coil Precision Basses sound so different than split-coil P basses that I do not connect with them.

But, I am a gear freak, and realize that everybody is looking for something different. For the single-coil Precision Bass fans out there, this instrument would be the prime ticket.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Walk Thee Invisible Album Review


I saw Sean Wheeler and Zander Schloss perform at the Mariachi El Bronx record release party, and had to check into them a little further, because they put on a great show.

For those of you that have not heard of these guys, you should know that they have seen the elephant. Zander Schloss is an industry heavy and punk rock icon from way back (Circle Jerks), and Sean Wheeler is the frontman for Throw Rag (among others).

They both have a ton of talent and work seamlessly together, making their album, Walk Thee Invisible, a real treat to listen to. You might expect a hard rock/punk sound but this is actually an acoustic alternative folk/blues album.

Sean’s voice is pure soul and Zander is a very competent guitar player, and he uses virtually every type of acoustic guitar somewhere on the 9 songs on this album. The songs are not overly long or self-indulgent and are well written with thoughtful lyrics.

This album is a peach, and I really think you ought to give it a try.

You can pick up a digital copy from iTunes for $5.99 or go find their CD for 12 bucks at Best Buy. It will be money well spent, and I would love to see these guys get some props.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fender Blues Junior III Guitar Amplifier


Today we are looking at a really neat amplifier: the Fender Hot Rod Series Blues Junior III. I picked this one up a few months back when I was looking for something with a little more oompf. I had the previous version of the Blues Junior a few years back and sold it for some reason, but I really do not remember why.

There were a few updates when Fender introduced the renamed Blues Junior III last year. Some of these changes were visual, such as new knobs, an easier to see black control panel and a bigger red power light (whoo!). Other changes improved performance, including a new speaker, rattle-reducing shock absorbers for the power tubes and a new circuit modification.

The Blues Junior III is a small-sized combo amp, measuring about 10 by 18 by 16 inches and weighing around 30 pounds. It is plenty loud, though with 15 watts of output into a 12-inch 8 ohm Eminence speaker. This is via two EL84 output tubes after coming through three 12AX7 pre-amp tubes, all of which are made by Groove Tubes.

The controls are simple, with one input, volume, treble, bass, middle, and reverb. And it has a very sweet spring reverb. There is also a Fat switch to increase pre-amp gain, and it is footswitch controllable (footswitch not included).

This latest version of the Blues Junior works well too. It has a great vintage Fender tone and a warm overdriven tube sound so it will do whatever is needed for classic blues or rock music. But if you are looking for a metal amp or something to go with your massive pedal board, you might want to think Marshall instead.

It is well built, and if anything goes wrong Fender backs this amplifier with a 5-year warranty, which is transferrable (I think).

The Fender Blues Junior III amplifier is a great value, with a street price of around $475 (list price of $699). Of course you will have to decide if the classic Fender tone is what you like, as you can get a Marshall 18-watt clone in this price range too. Maybe you need both…


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Nash PB-57 Bass

Hi there!

Today we are looking at a fabulous Precision Bass copy: a Bill Nash built PB 57. It is a great bass, but it won’t be sticking around too long.

Bill Nash has been assembling vintage-style guitars since 2001, and has gained a lot of respect and a faithful following because he builds guitars that play very well and sound incredible. These guitars have all received the relic treatment, and they will not build you a shiny new guitar. I’ve asked…

By the way, Bill Nash initials and dates the headstock on each guitar they build, and writes the serial number on the tip of the headstock. And the serial number convention is something I have not seen before. The first two letters of the serial number denote which dealer the guitar was shipped to. In this case it starts with “MB”, because it was originally shipped to the Mesa Boogie store in Hollywood.

Spec-wise, this PB-57 is a fairly faithful reproduction of a 1957 Precision Bass. It has an ash body with a Mary Kaye lacquer finish and an anodized pickguard. The beefy maple neck has a C shape and a 10-inch radius with a 1 ¾-inch width nut. They installed medium large frets on this one, which is a departure from the 1950s standard.

The hardware is also true to the theme, with reverse tuners and a serrated-saddle bridge. Nash went with Jason Lollar pickups, which I think are the best choice for a P-bass these days. There is no pre-amplifier, just the expected volume and tone pots.

And all of these fabulous things were put together very well by the folks over at Nash Guitars. The craftsmanship is very good, with a comfortable neck and great fretwork. I have not found any dead spots, and the Lollar pickups sound very rich. It does not hurt that it is relatively light, coming in at a touch over 8 ½ pounds (with the pickup and bridge covers installed).

This is one of the best P-basses I have ever owned, and it should be for a street price of around $1700.

But I am a little hung up on the way this one looks, so I will not be keeping it. The bass looks better in person than it does in these photos, but I think the relic process goes a little too far on this one. The vintage tint on the neck is a little too orange, and the wear marks on the body and neck go beyond what you would expect to see on any guitar. I must say that the aging on the hardware is very tasteful and realistic, though.

Anyway, a friend of mine is interested in this one, so I will be moving it along to him for what I paid for it. And, I have picked up a Fender Custom Shop Closet Classic with the same Mark Kaye finish to replace this one. Stay tuned for a review of that one!