Gretsch G400JV Jimmie Vaughan Synchromatic

August 1, 2007

Such is the new G400JV Jimmie Vaughan Synchromatic Archtop—a somewhat surprising look and sound for its namesake, who is more familiarly seen with the Stratocaster that he also endorses for Gretsch parent company Fender. Nevertheless, the G400JV embodies the subtle, timeless groove of the former Fabulous Thunderbirds licksmith. This is jazz turning the corner toward rock ’n’ roll with the blues riding shotgun, top down, in a gleaming Fleetwood.

Of course, if Gretsch wasn’t making the Jimmie Vaughan connection, you’d be forgiven for thinking more of Freddie Green comping the changes with the Count Basie Orchestra—or even further back to an era when the Brooklyn guitar-maker was competing withGibson and Epiphone to be the jazz box of choice up on the bandstand when swing was still king. In fact, the G400JV isn’t a reproduction or reissue of any one vintage Gretsch in the strict sense, but it does employ a broad basket of elements to embody an all-round example of the form. It has the general look of the 18"-wide Synchromatic 400 that Gretsch introduced around 1940 to rival Gibson’s big Super 400, but the slightly smaller 17"-wide body of models in the Synchromatic Series, such as the 160, 200, and 300 (all of which had 26" scale lengths like the big 400). To accentuate the look, this new Japanese-made Gretsch wears archetypal art-nouveau adornments such as cat’s-eye soundholes, a stylized Synchromatic headstock with old script Gretsch logo and model name in mother-of-pearl crossed against a green abalone cat’s-eye slash, gold-plated Grover Imperial tuners, split-hump-block mother-of-pearl position markers, a gold-plated Chromatic tailpiece, a compensated rosewood bridge with synchronized (stairstep) base, and a bound mock-tortoiseshell pickguard.

A closer look at the latter two of these, however, provides the first and only real clues to this instrument’s contemporary origins: a lead for the piezo pickup descends from the bridge saddle to its base, and from there to the pickguard, under which is mounted the rest of the Fishman Archtop Pickup System. This comprises an active preamp and roller controls for Volume and Tone (the latter provides treble boost when turned clockwise from the center detent and bass boost when rolled counterclockwise from the detent), along with a 2-position switch that attenuates the midrange to reduce honkiness and/or improve resistance to feedback. Power for the circuitry is via two 3-volt lithium batteries that are held in a plug-in card mounted under the pickguard.

Solid spruce tops are a rarity on new archtops at anything under $5,000, and Gretsch has helped to keep costs down by using a pressed arched top, rather than a carved one. But it’s still an impressive piece that looks great under its thin nitrocellulose lacquer finish. The G400JV’s timber contingent further impresses with its solid-maple back and sides. The guitar also employs X-bracing, rather than the parallel bracing more common on lower to mid-level archtops—which indicates Gretsch approached this guitar’s design with acoustic considerations at the forefront, and most other details uphold that theory. The use of a piezo-based pickup system is a little unusual in an archtop, but further supports a desire to capture this guitar’s acoustic sound, rather than the slightly more neutral yet electrified sound that a traditional, neck-mounted floating pickup presents. Of course, such pickups were the only practical means makers of the ’30s and ’40s had for amplifying the acoustic sound of these instruments, which is essentially how the “jazz-guitar sound” was established. So while this Fishman system breaks from tradition, it’s also aiming at much the same goal that any player of the late 1940s had when, for example, they mounted a floating DeArmond pickup on his D’Angelico New Yorker. Perceived goals aside, the sonic results of magnetic and piezo pickups are quite different, and Gretsh’s inclusion of the latter makes this a very different guitar with a tone set that’s more in the flat-top electro-acoustic camp.

The G400JV’s three-piece neck is made from two large portions of maple with a thin rosewood fillet down the center, and wears the smooth, medium-shallow “C” profile that is fairly standard for contemporary archtops. Its ebony fretboard is bound in three-ply cream/black/cream like the headstock— in contrast to the top’s eight-ply, and the back and pickguard’s four-ply. Together, it all enhances the presentation beautifully, and adds to the instrument’s vintage-look credibility. The neck heel cap carries the guitar’s only hint of the Jimmie Vaughan connection: a subtle “JV” in black against the cream ivoroid. I think it’s a great touch—letting the G400JV’s great looks speak for themselves rather than shouting “signature model” from the headstock.

Our review sample arrived set up with a comfortable, but slightly low action, which was easily tweaked to raise the phosphor-bronze strings out of the buzz zone. This neck is a smooth ride, although a few fret ends are just a tad sharp—not so much as to impede your fingering, but a little more time under the file would have helped. These minor notes aside, it’s a sweet, easy player, and it doesn’t demand quite the effort or muscle that many big archtops of old require. Played acoustically, the G400JV exhibits reasonable volume behind a voice that couches decent treble zing and definition amid a round and not overbearing warmth. Given the solid woods, it should mellow and deepen with time and playing.

I also tested the G400JV through a Fender Acoustasonic Jr. acoustic amp, Victoria 45410T and Dr Z Z-28 tube amps, and direct to the board of a club-sized Mackie P.A. system. Into either of the standard guitar amps, it presented a biting, punchy performance with exemplary note definition, and a somewhat aggressive attack. As such, some care with amp EQ was required to keep its performance from getting harsh, and, overall, it remained snappy, taught, and predominantly bright without the guitar’s own Tone control rolled to favor the bass end. This being a piezo-equipped instrument, the acoustic amp and the P.A. board proved better equipped to handle its frequency range, which, with all EQs left flat, presents a voice that is nothing like the traditional electric jazz-box tone. This is not a criticism in itself. The G400JV is an archtop acoustic-electric that offers a new alternative in acoustic tone, as well as the potential for some inspired genre hopping. That said, it does indeed sound more flat-top than archtop when plugged in—at least with the factory strings—so players lured by its looks should be aware of the sonic discrepancies. (Flat-wound strings would be a better option if you seek jazzier tones.) Also, while it’s a cool new system for amping up an archtop, the piezo-loaded floating bridge does tend to amplify the atonal behind-the-saddles string ring that almost any archtop guitar with a trapeze tailpiece produces. When playing flat-out through uptempo passages this wasn’t really a problem, but the dissonance it created did intrude somewhat on gentler tunes.

Overall, this is a good sounding, great playing, and exceedingly cool-looking guitar that is sure to bolster the under-represented Gretsch acoustic line. Blending classic styling with crossover sounds, the G400JV offers a new voice packaged in a groovy revamping of the oldest look in electric guitars, and will no doubt win some fans for these achievements.

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