By Michael Molenda
Classic shapes usually become classics for good reason—they’re striking, they’re functional, and they typically enjoy a vampire’s lifespan of coolness. Small wonder, then, that a fair number of guitarists are often reluctant to surrender the comforts of vintage propriety for a Frank Gehry-style revolt against conventional architecture. To seduce the retro eye, a new guitar must strongly evoke the past without actually Xeroxing it, and that is a pursuit that unleashes many devils in the design details. And yet Yamaha, with its usual quiet sophistication, has recast one of guitardom’s venerable profiles to craft an exquisitely modern twist on the single-cutaway, dual-humbucker theme.
The new AES620 ($499 street) isn’t vastly re-engineered on a Gehry level, but its beveled cutaway and radically contoured top (which was inspired by a desire to update the design profile of Yamaha’s AES500 and AES800 guitars) make for a stunning visage that telegraphs something different is afoot. Other cool features include recessed chrome knobs, a clever “mid-rump” input jack (at the guitar’s base; directly in line with the neck), two bottom strap buttons (for quick-and-easy position adjustments), and chromed anchors for the through-body stringing. The AES620 manages to look simulaneously classic and moderne/ tough and posh—no small feat—and it’s so artfully hip that it really deserves an edgy, cooler-than-all-hell name, rather than a dreary model number.
The Korean-made AES620 displays no finish or construction flaws. Even the crankiest judge at an international dog show wouldn’t be able to knock off points for this model. In fact, it seems that substantial effort has been made to beautify every appointment. The tiny abalone fretboard dots, for example,
appear as if they have been carefully selected to display interesting patterns and splashes of
color. In addition, the book-matched maple-veneer top shows off such a glorious flame pattern that you’d almost expect it was personally chosen for you from a number of less-satisfying options. The exposed wood “binding” is equally superb, and all hardware is gig-tough and firmly attached.
A chunky, vintage-style set neck and polished, finely rounded frets collaborate to offer a comfy playing feel that inspires heavy chording, aggressive riffing, and rapid-fire soloing with equal confidence.
This is another one of those guitars that simply invites bliss from the moment you pick it up. The only ergonomic snag is that those polished knobs are slippery, which makes on-the-fly adjustments difficult.
When running the AES620 full up and clean through a Vox AC30, Fender Vibroverb, and Jensen JD1 direct box (to a Mackie 32•8 mixer), the sound was rich, well balanced, and polite. There’s a chunky bite to the mids, and a tight low-end, but no frequencies explode. In other words, the guitar exudes a mannered toughness. I was able to get some spectacular tonal blends by adjusting the dedicated volume controls for the neck and bridge pickups, but the AES620 never traded its Hugo Boss three-piece for dirty leathers and jeans. That was totally fine with me, because I was too wrapped up in constructing idiosyncratic solo-guitar tones and developing diverse tonalities for guitar layers to care about machismo.
But the AES620 is far from a sissy guitar (and I apologize if I gave you that impression). Its detonation factor simply lies in wait until you plug into a high-gain amp, such as a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier or a Hughes & Kettner Warp 7. Then, watch out—the gloves are off, baby! The snappy mids and feral sustain characteristics alone are worth the price of admission. But you also get a massive booty wallop, an airy kerrang, and several bitchin’ tones in between. Turn down your guitar’s volume and things start to get somewhat polite again, but I consider such ying/yang versatility to be a tremendous advantage. The AES620 can follow you almost everywhere you want to go, from rock to metal to punk to modern cowpoke. This guitar is a nurturing creative partner, a stone looker, and an excellent value, and it absolutely deserves an Editors’ Pick Award.