Gibson Les Paul Classic Double Cutaway
By melding their archetype goldtop finish with their modern classic, the Les Paul Standard DC, Gibson has come up with the Les Paul Classic Double Cutaway ($1,399 street). Sporting a chambered body, a carved maple top, a 1960-style neck, and either humbuckers or P-90s, the Cutaway is, for the most part, a straight-up looker. My only niggle is with the “aged” fret inlays that adorn the rosewood fingerboard. Instead of imparting the years of use in smoke-filled bars, the seaweed-green color suggests the neck may have done time at the bottom of an aquarium. (Gibson tells us that they’re changing the inlays to a creamier shade.)
Still, none of that effects the Classic’s near-flawless playability—or its tone. Unplugged, you can really hear the benefits of the chambered design, as both Classics resonate with rich string-to-string clarity. Plugged in, they each sport that legendary Les Paul goodness—sustain for days, pugnacious midrange, and that killer sugary-sweet top-end bite. But the chambered body allows for a slightly more open, spacious tone that I found especially cool for the humbucker-equipped Classic. If you’re looking for classic Les Paul swagger, but with just the slightest bit of tonal refinement, one of these Les Paul Classic Double Cutaways is your ticket.
Soldano Space Box
Soldano set a new standard for tube-powered spring-reverb devices with its now-discontinued Surf Box—a rare unit that retailed for $1,500, and currently goes for around five grand on eBay. The new Space Box ($599 street for rackmount version; $775 with optional colored cabinet) provides much of the same vibe as the Surf Box (sans tremolo and vibrato) for considerably fewer clams. Beginning with the same basic circuit as the legendary ’63 Fender 6G15 reverb box, Soldano modified it to work with a 12AX7 tube, tweaked the high end to sound better with distorted tones, installed a hard-wired bypass, and added a line-level I/O to make the Space Box compatible with effects loops. There’s also a full-sized, 6-spring Accutronics reverb tank, a footswitch with a handy status LED, and, perhaps best of all, an awesome Space Babe graphic on the front panel.
I tested the Space Box by patching it in-line between a variety of amps and guitars, and also in the effects loops of the amps that were so equipped. Although the Dwell, Tone, and Mix knobs (which, by the way, go to 11) appear straightforward enough, they interact in interesting ways, providing a surprisingly wide range of sounds—from subtle, dark-hued puddles to splashy tidal waves of tubular tone. Compared with the built-in reverbs in several vintage amps, the Space Box easily held its own. My only qualm is that the unit was slightly noisy when used in the effects loops of some amps (a problem I didn’t have while using it in the effects loop of my recording mixer, so go figure). Verdict: the Space Box rocks!
Two-Rock Custom Reverb
I’m usually the first to argue that 90 percent or more of a guitarist’s tone comes solely from his or her fingers. But after playing a handful of rock, blues, and funk gigs using Two-Rock’s Custom Reverb ($3,499 street), I perhaps need to give certain pieces of gear more credit— particularly when it comes to chasing down that “Dumble” sound. Granted, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Sonny Landreth, and other great Dumble users will still sound amazing and utterly individual through any amp, but for those of us who will probably never own a Dumble (and that means most of us), the Custom Reverb gets you a lot closer to nailing that elusive tone. Powered by a pair of NOS Phillips 6L6s (current Custom Reverbs are shipping with Tesla/JJ 6L6s), the 50-watt head delivers an inspiring grind that’s extremely warm, yet is also toothy and completely kick-ass.
With almost as many features as a new Cadillac, the entirely hand-wired Custom Reverb comes with Bright, Mid-shift, Deep, EQ-shift, and channel-select switches, a feedback (negative feedback defeat) toggle for the clean channel, a buffered effects loop with return level knob (which also acts as a master volume), spring reverb, and a two-button footswitch that allows for channel switching and EQ bypass. Add to that cascading gain stages and powerful, shared tone knobs that have a dramatic effect on gain levels, and you have a pro rig that is capable of a kaleidoscopic range of sounds. The Custom Reverb won’t do nu metal-style walls of molten gain—nor will it approach the same clean headroom as a higher wattage Fender Twin or Roland JC-120—but, running through Two Rock’s semi-open-back 2x12 cabinet ($629 street) loaded with Celestion G12-65s, I was able to get just about every tone in between. Impressive!
Groovy Gear Under $500
Morley Mark Tremonti Power Wah
Dig it or don’t, but the critically beleaguered Creed has made millions of fans very happy, and their guitarist, Mark Tremonti, has probably inspired legions of kids to start playing guitar. You gotta love that. The Morley Mark Tremonti Power Wah Mark 1 ($119 street) is manufactured to his specs, and it’s one badass machine. The casing is Schwarzenegger tough, the electro-optical design terminates scratchy filter pots, and the diamond-plate-inspired footpad ensures no-slip action—even if beer or other liquid delights somehow splash onto the treadle.
One of the coolest features of this wah—and Morley wahs in general—is its lack of a mechanical switch. You just step on the pedal to activate the wah, and step off to go into bypass mode. This is a totally brilliant attribute with but one drag—the pedal can’t be left in one position for Mick Ronson-style tone tweaks because, as soon as you take your foot off the pedal, it’s off. (Users can adjust the wah’s shut-off time from instantaneous to 3.5 seconds.) The other genius trait is an adjustable, up-to-20dB wah boost that’ll send riffs soaring over a band’s rattle and hum.
The Morley’s pitch, sweep, and “Q” were tailored to Tremonti’s desires, and he opted for a very clean, vocal-like yowl. Pedal-to-the-metal treble is a bit clangy for clean-amp settings, but Tremonti doesn’t really live there. Fire up the distortion, however, and the pedal turns into a real firebreather that animates riffs, stabs, solos, and chords with absolutely vicious tonal sweeps. Whether you’re into Tremonti or not, if you’re a wah freak, you’ll love his pedal.
Dunlop CryBaby Classic
The timeless tones produced by the original CryBaby wah are an indelible part of the electric guitar lexicon. Numerous reissue pedals have promised to deliver the sweet, vocal-inflected sounds produced by the early Thomas Organ and Vox-made wahs on all those Cream and Hendrix records. But a key element missing from their circuits has long been the Fasel inductor—an Italian-made cylinder of iron and wire that, for some reason, became “unobtanium” decades ago. Now, following its purchase of the Fasel company, Dunlop has introduced the CryBaby Classic ($196 retail) which features, what else? A genuine Fasel inductor covered in wine-red plastic. Mama mia!
Okay, so an inductor isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. But there’s no denying that it makes this new Dunlop pedal sound like a million lira. The Classic offers just the right amount of high-end sparkle without being piercing, it has the pukey mids we all cherish, and its round, clear bottom makes working the low end of the pedal a total blast. Used on a recent club gig with a Les Paul and an old Fender Super Reverb, I could use the full sweep of the pedal without ever feeling like the lower-frequency tones were disappearing in the mix, or that the full-bore highs were pulverizing anyone’s fillings—the balance was just right. Sure, you can spend lots more on a wah pedal and justify the investment, but, dollar-for-dollar, the Classic is simply the coolest new wah you can buy if you’re after that classic sound.
Bad Cat X-Treme Tone Pedal
Designed by Matchless founder Mark Sampson, the all-tube Bad Cat X-Treme Tone ($349 street) provides two footswitchable levels of gain boost and a hard-wire bypass. While its outward appearance resembles Sampson’s previous Matchless pedals, the X-Treme Tone’s circuit was derived from Bad Cat’s high-gain Hot Cat amp. Protected by a rugged, chrome-plated steel chassis, the X-Treme Tone’s circuit is wired point-to-point on terminal strips and features carbon-comp resistors, proprietary capacitors, and two Chinese-made 12AX7s.
The X-Treme Tone’s Yellow mode employs three gain stages to provide textures ranging from crisp and clear to raw and raunchy. The bass and treble knobs provide ample tone-shaping, and the treble-cutting Edge control is especially effective for subduing the top-end fizzyness that can occur at high-gain levels.
While the Yellow mode offers plenty of bold and dynamically sensitive overdriven tones, the Red mode’s additional gain stage (for a total of four) puts enough overdrive on tap to satisfy all but the most insatiable saturation seeker.
Badass Bargains Under $50
George L’s Electric-Acoustic Stainless-Steel Guitar Stringsand that’s why George Lewis introduced guitar strings made of the metal shortly after he became a part owner of GHS Strings from 1970 to 1974. George L’s strings are still made by GHS, and according to Kimberly and Leesa Lewis (George’s daughters, who currently run George L’s), the .010-, .011-, and .012-gauge strings are still pull tested to pedal-steel specs just as they were when Lewis Sr. was involved.
Stainless steel has long been used where resistance to oxidation is important,
I recently tried a set of Electric-Acoustic stainless-steel strings ($9 retail) in Light Light gauge (.010-.046) on a Godin Multiac Duet thinline acoustic-electric, which, while a little thin for this guitar (a Medium Light set would have been preferable) sounded excellent amplified—though not particularly bright acoustically—and felt noticeably earthier-in-a-good-way than standard phosphor-bronze strings. According to the Lewis sisters, the stainless models are favored by many touring country guitarists because of their imperviousness to the grit and grime that gets kicked-up at rodeos on the summer circuit. If coated strings aren’t to your liking, give these natural-feeling stainless wires a try—you may find they have the mettle to suit your needs.
D’Addario EXP12 80/20
D’Addario’s EXP12 80/20 bronze acoustic strings ($10 street) are the company’s latest entry into the exploding coated-string market. By coating the string’s core before it’s wound, the EXP’s are purported to keep their brightness three to four times longer than D’Addario’s uncoated 80/20 acoustic strings. And that, my friends, is a ringing endorsement, considering the EXPs are very satisfying tonally, with crispy highs and a balanced low-end. The only difference I noticed from their non-coated counterparts, were that the EXPs feel a tad slicker on the wound strings—not a bad thing, just different. Also available in phosphor bronze, the EXP 80/20s are worth exploring if you’re in the market for a long lasting, tonally happening set of strings.
Fender Instrument Care Kit
Let’s cut to the chase—this stuff is damn near miraculous. The Care Kit ($24 street)—which was formulated for Fender by Meguiar’s, one of the foremost makers of car care products—includes Swirl &Haze Remover, Polish &Conditioner, and Mist &Wipe Finish Enhancer. When I saw a demo of the Swirl & Haze Remover at Summer NAMM, I was wowed by the disappearing act it performed on a Pollack-esque melange of pick scratches I inflicted on a Strat. Back home, I tried the stuff on a Tele-style mutt that only saw action as an “enforcer” in my ’70s punk days. (Hey, spit on me too many times and something is gonna happen!) Except for a few suspected cranial gouges, the magic potion obliterated belt-buckle scrapes and unidentified gooey bits. It also cleared up performance nicks on my treasured Guild X-160. If a scratch is too deep into the finish, you’re outta luck, but all other blemishes will fade right before your eyes. Marvelous! (I also recommend popping for the Fender Ultimate Wipe detailing cloth—it’s just $9, and it really gets deep into the muck.)
The Mist &Wipe is a delightful way to keep your guitar shining between “detailing.” One spray, one wipe, and your finish is gleaming again. The polish seems comparable to other such products, but it certainly does its job. If you’re a clean freak, the Fender Instrument Care Kit will keep your babies dazzling.