Affordable Wonders from Dean, Fernandes and Yamaha

A dollar ain't what it used to be -- or so the saying goes. But these new guitars from Dean, Fernandes, and Yamaha defy a trend that sees just about everything that's either hip, fun, or absolutely essential escalating in cost. Each guitar brings something different to the party, and whether you're a hard-working player or just getting your first band off the ground, you'll dig what these low-cost beauts have to offer.

Dean Tonic S

With its sculpted body and two-tone paint, the Tonic S ($369) exudes a "southside" vibe that's vastly different than the Maserati-inspired Deans of the '80s. The lightweight, Korean-made guitar sports quality details such as die-cast Grover tuners, a Tune-o-matic-style bridge, and neatly installed, diamond-shaped position markers. The body carving on the top and back is cleanly executed, the metallic copper finish is flub free, and the rosewood board sports 22 gleaming, nicely trimmed jumbo frets. The handsome headstock even incorporates a tuner arrangement that maintains a straight string path north of the nut.

The Tonic's maple neck is sleek, yet substantial, and playability is enhanced by the smooth, unobtrusive neck joint and deep cutaway. With its thin body, the Tonic feels extremely compact and handy -- the only ergonomic downer is the location of the pickup selector, which can be hard to avoid when strumming.

The two Dean Silver Rail humbucking pickups and 5-way selector provide the following configurations: Position 1: neck Position 2: tapped neck Position 3: neck and bridge Position 4: tapped bridge Position 5: bridge

While the control bay is less than inspiring with its rough looking cable openings and sloppy shielding paint, the Tonic's tones are happening. Plugged into a crisp-sounding amp such as a Fender Super Reverb, an old Marshall, or a Dr. Z Route 66, the Tonic delivers a palette of sounds that encompasses the snap of a Tele and the fat punch of a Les Paul. The output level is very strong, and it's easy to dial in everything from rich clean sounds to grinding crunch to rabid lead tones. The tapped-neck setting is the weakest of the bunch, but the bridge position packs an upper-mid boost that power-hungry players will appreciate. If you're in the market for a raging blues-rock ax, you'll want to taste the Tonic S -- it's a wolf in chic clothing.

Fernandes Revolver Pro Sustainer

The sleek Revolver Pro ($849) is a rock-ready design that features solid workmanship, rugged hardware, and an active Sustainer circuit that lets you create infinite sustain with the flick of a switch. Finished in mirror-like metallic black, the Taiwanese-made Pro looks as sharp as it plays. The silky neck sports 24 polished, extra-jumbo frets, and the moderately low string action makes for easy, buzz-free bending in any position. The contoured heel and generous cutaway let you zip to the highest frets with ease, and though the Pro is fairly heavy at a shade over 8 lbs, its excellent balance and inviting ergonomics give it a fast, powerful feel.

The guitar's mass may also explain why the Floyd Rose-licensed trem doesn't cause the bottom to thin out as can happen on lighter guitars. With three springs on the claw, the trem responded beautifully to almost any degree of bar motion (from sagging strings to almost a fifth above pitch), and though the strings tend to kiss the uppermost frets when the bar is pulled to its limit, no gargling sounds were noticeable when yanking notes or slamming out power chords.

The unshielded control cavity houses a small PC board that grips the active Sustainer circuitry. The single 9-volt battery is located in a snap-open compartment on the back of the guitar. A battery-status LED is visible through a hole in the cavity cover plate when the guitar is plugged in.

The Revolver's 3-way pickup selector may seem somewhat limited, but with the Sustainer function off, its settings yield a surprisingly broad range of tones. The neck pickup sounds clear and round, the bridge unit packs plenty of amp-walloping crunch, and the dual-pickup setting yields everything from deep rhythm tones to smooth, sweet lead vibes. Playing though a highly distorted channel, the Revolver dishes out the chunk while remaining remarkably defined -- there's just a slight treble rolloff when the volume is turned down.

The Sustainer is truly what separates the Revolver from the rest of the crowd. Selecting this function engages the bridge pickup and activates the front humbucker's neck-position coil -- which is actually an electro-magnetic string driver. You control the amount of sustain via the rear knob. Turning the control up a little adds a mild singing quality to the notes, and the max setting allows tones to blossom into unending sustain. Pulling the volume knob activates a Harmonic mode in which the upper partials are enhanced -- very cool for pseudo whale calls and spooky, theremin-like sounds.

A flexible guitar that could work for almost any style, the Revolver Pro is particularly adept at whipping out the wicked grind through a hot high-gain amp. If you're a rocker who seeks a raging ax with a righteous twist, you'll definitely want to give this six gun a shot.

Yamaha RGX420S Drop 6

Sporting a 261/4" scale, stock .011-.064 strings, and B to B baritone tuning (a fourth below standard), the Drop 6 ($649) offers 7-string-style rumble while preserving the familiarity of a standard 6-string neck and chord shapes. The Drop 6's thin, 24-fret neck has a fast feel, and the strings glide across the beautifully shaped (but not highly polished) jumbo frets with buttery ease. Sporting the most even fretwork of the bunch, it's no surprise that the Drop 6 plays buzz-free in all positions.

Like the Fernandes Revolver Pro, the Taiwanese-made Drop 6 has a fairly thick alder body and a comfy back contour. But here, a crescent-shaped area around the cutaway is recessed to enhance access to the upper frets. The neck pocket is razor tight, the unshielded control cavity sports neat wiring and quality components, and the two-piece neck is perfectly smooth. The gray satin finish echoes the guitar's clean, no-nonsense vibe. The only noticeable goofs were some rough edges around the bridge and trem-spring routs.

The Drop 6's Floyd Rose-licensed trem works flawlessly -- its three springs bring the strings reliably back in tune after being completely slackened or pulled as much as a fourth above pitch. You can yank the bar as hard as you want without grinding the strings into the frets, but the gargle factor is pretty noticeable when slamming chords or snapping the strings.

In spite of its heavy wires, the Drop 6 plays very easily. Yamaha claims that the string tension is the same as that of a standard guitar strung .009 to .042, and that's essentially the case -- at least for the unwound strings.

The Drop 6's mission is massiveness, yet for all its industrial-strength roar, it's a surprisingly flexible guitar. The 5-way selector provides myriad textures -- three series-humbucker flavors (neck, both, bridge), plus a parallel-coil neck setting and a split mode. You get a groovy assortment of crisp, big-bottom rhythm tones, and you can instantly snap to the full-volume bridge 'bucker with a flick of the "blower" switch. And if all else fails, just grab a high string and squeal up a minor third with a quick tug of the bar.

As with any alternately tuned instrument, using the Drop 6 along with standard guitars demands that you quickly figure out where you have to finger to make that deep voice fit. It may take a while to feel at home playing this guitar with a band, but the result will be worth the effort. While doubling bass lines is a standard lick these days, adventurous types will find the Drop 6 ideally suited for heavy rhythms, sledgehammer leads, or wild, growling effects -- just add fuzz for the ultimate in low-down crunch.