Super Splurges Over $500
Carvin Contour 66
Considering the company’s factory direct pricing, ubiquitous catalogs, and easy online ordering system, it’s understandable that many players mistake Carvin as a conventional manufacturer. In fact, Carvin is one of the industry’s most accessible and relatively affordable custom guitar makers. From a basic design, a buyer can hot-rod his or her choice with different woods, frets, pickups, electronics, and even an engraved trussrod cover.
Carvin’s latest mean machine is the Contour 66 ($825 direct; $995 as tested with gold-plated hardware, an emerald green finish over a quilted maple top, and a matching headstock)—a slim, shapely solidbody with a 25 1/2"-scale ebony-on-maple bolt-on neck; an alder body; a 1.68" nut width; 22 polished, medium-jumbo frets; a solid, feed-through-body bridge; two Carvin C22 humbuckers; volume and tone controls; a 5-way pickup selector; and Sperzel locking tuners. The 7.25-lb Contour 66 melts into your body whether you sit or stand, and the flat neck and responsive fretboard invite cascading note flurries and heavy chording with equal delight. It almost feels like your fingers fly off the board. All controls are solid and ergonomically placed.
The Contour 66 is an extremely articulate guitar with bountiful tonal options. The ebony fretboard and C22 humbuckers impart snap and sting to note attacks and chord definition, making the 66 a brilliant choice for both distorted bombasts and country picking. The tones can seem a tad clinical if you simply plug-in-and-play, but experimentation yields everything from clunky thuds to piercing wails. And did I mention that this is a beautiful guitar? The materials are stunning, and, for the most part, the craftsmanship is flawless (the exposed pickup cavities do exhibit uneven routing). The Contour 66 really does look and feel like a custom shop edition. —Michael Molenda
Pros: Sleek. Articulate. Supermodel looks. Myriad custom options. Cons: Custom upgrades can get pricey and skew value proposition. Funky flavors are not an option. Contact: (800) 854-2235; carvin.com.
Godin LG Signature
With its 25 1/2"-scale bolt-on neck and flame-maple capped mahogany body, the Godin LG Signature (with AAA top, $1,495 retail; with AA top, $1,095 retail) reveals both Fender and Gibson Les Paul influences. But the LG Signature isn’t just another copycat guitar. Details like the unusually deep neck pocket, sunken bridge, unique through-body “invisible” tailpiece, and versatile 5-way coil-splitting pickup selector indicate fresh thinking. The seemingly diverse influences combine synergistically to produce an instrument that plays with uncommon ease and rings with remarkable bell-like clarity and resonance.
Now’s the time to reveal the LG Signature’s true origins: it’s the stripped-down version of Godin’s LGX, LGX-SA, and LGXT guitars. These piezo-bridge-equipped guitars were designed for lively acoustic-like response and accurate synth tracking, and these same characteristics contribute to complex and responsive “conventional” guitar tones, as well.
The LG Signature sports two Seymour Duncan pickups— an SH-2 Jazz in the neck position, and a modified SH-11 Custom Custom for the bridge. A Fender-style 5-way switch provides three humbucker modes, plus two single-coil options. With the neck pickup in single-coil mode, the tone was surprisingly wiry, bright, and Strat-like, and in humbucking mode, it adopted a weightier Les Paul thickness while retaining its inherently complex texture and chimey top-end. The powerful bridge pickup can sound clucky in single-coil mode, or forceful with both coils engaged. —Terry Buddingh
Pros: Sweet single-coil and strong humbucker tones. Cons: None. Contact: (514) 457-7977; godinguitars.com.
Constructed from a one-piece carbon-fiber graphite composite, the PalmGuitar Standard ($1,499 direct) is practically impervious to extreme temperatures and other factors that threaten “travel” guitars. And at 3.4 lbs and a diminutive 26"x6"x1.5", the Palm is about as portable as a guitar can get. But the PalmGuitar is no plaything. It sports a Seymour Duncan SH-3 Stag-Mag humbucker that can be switched between single-coil and parallel/series humbucker sounds, and the width of the neck at the nut is proportional to scale length (it plays like a full-scale instrument with a capo on the fourth fret). Additional features include LSR Precision Locking Tuners, Dunlop flush-mount Straploks, a custom leather strap, and a nylon carrying bag.
The Palm has a 20.239"scale length, so strings have a much lower than usual tension when tuned to concert pitch. The stock .011 strings felt more like .008s, making outrageous three-step bends a breeze, but the tension also requires some getting used to. The Palm’s top-heaviness made it difficult to find a comfortable playing position—a problem that can be addressed by ordering the free knee rest and strap arm extension options.
The Palm sounded good through a variety of amps, though it emphasized high-end clarity over midrange warmth. Surprisingly, the single-coil setting was the most full-bodied, with both of the humbucker configurations sounding thin in comparison. The PalmGuitar isn’t for everybody, but it comes with a 60-day return policy if you aren’t satisfied, and a lifetime warranty if you are. - Barry Cleveland
Pros: Ultra-portable. High-quality components. Nice single-coil sound. Cons: Unevenly distributed weight. Lacks warmth. Weak humbucker sounds. Contact: (203) 264-1413; palmguitar.com.
Fender Champion 30 DSP
Here’s a great addition to the trunk of your car—the Fender Champion 30 DSP ($229 street). Versatile and extremely portable, this ambitious practice amp not only boasts a host of balanced tones, it weighs a modest 25 lbs, making load-ins at rehearsals, jam sessions, and small gigs a breeze. And if you don’t want to be caught onstage with a blown rig, the Champion is also worth bringing along to important gigs as an emergency backup amp. Bonus features include a headphone jack and onboard reverb, flange, delay, chorus, tremolo, and vibrato, not to mention some combined-effect settings. Of all these digital effects, though, guitarists will likely find the reverbs to be the best sounding and most useful of the bunch. In addition, switching patches can be tedious because it involves squinting at the fine print surrounding the 16-position effects selector dial.
In the spirit of its legendary, all-tube ancestor, the Champ, the Mexican-built Champion overdrives quite nicely when cranked, delivering an inspiring snarl that’s surprisingly warm for a solid-state amp pushing a 10" speaker. And that’s just the clean channel. The Champion also has a raging, footswitchable lead section that produces thick, sizzling distortion that cuts nicely (provided your bandmates aren’t bashing at thundering volume levels). There’s only one part of this amp that could arguably be reworked, and that’s the treble control. Voiced entirely on the highest end of the EQ spectrum, I rarely found a need to turn this knob past 1. —Jude Gold
Pros: Punchy tones. Clean and overdrive channels. Digital effects. Cons: Treble knob voiced too bright. Footswitch not included. Contact: (480) 596-9690; fender.com.
Time Machine Boost
The Time Machine Boost ($289 street) features two independent signal-boosting circuits: Vintage and Modern. The Vintage channel is driven by a single AC187/01 germanium NPN transistor that’s similar to ’60s- and ’70s-era British treble boosters used by Eric Clapton, Brian May, and Tony Iommi. With the toggle switch set to 1966, the Vintage channel replicates a Dallas Rangemaster’s treble-tilted frequency response. Switching to 1973 reshapes the response for more bass and midrange. The Vintage channel’s Intensity knob rolls-off the highest frequencies.
The Modern channel was designed for flat frequency response and plenty of clean headroom, and it can boost the level as much as 23dB. A voltage doubling circuit insures that its two 2N5484 silicon JFETs will withstand the hottest input levels without distorting. The Vintage/ Modern footswitch lets you toggle between the two channels (but you can’t run them simultaneously).
Don’t expect Fuzz Face rasp or Tube Screamer grind; the Vintage channel is most effective at pummeling a reluctant tube amp into submission while retaining an uncompressed dynamic response and a natural feel. The 1966 mode is voiced perfectly for a Les Paul’s neck pickup, and through a vintage Marshall half-stack, I was able to evoke some convincing Bluesbreaker-era Clapton tones. Switching to 1973 added just the right amount of fatness to the bridge pickup, and this setting also worked well with single-coils. The crystal-clear sounding Modern channel is handy when you need to increase the volume without altering the tone, and it provides another useful boosting option. —Terry Buddingh
Pros: Vintage treble booster. Clean-boost tones. Cons: Wall-wart powered. Contact: (408) 482-8605; timemachineboost.com.
Hand-built in Denmark, the Replica ($399 street) provides up to 2000ms of studio-quality digital delay at an astonishing 200kHz sampling rate by routing input signals directly into and out of RAM via 24-bit Burr Brown A/D/A converters. And that’s not all that distinguishes the Replica from other delays. You can tap-in delay times using the built-in Tap Tempo footswitch (with corresponding rate LED), press the Subdivision switch to generate quarter-note triplets of the selected delay time, and even sync tempo to an external MIDI device using the built-in MIDI input. True bypass switching insulates you from unwanted tone sucking, but in case you’d prefer the slightly muffled sound of a ’50s tube tape echo, engaging the Brown circuit (a high-cut filter) will get you there faster than you can say “Duane Eddy.”
The Replica not only sounded fabulous with a variety of guitars and amps, but also as a studio processor (its switchable +4/–10dB input sensitivity makes it compatible with pro-studio gear). The delays were fat and warm—with and without the Brown switch engaged—and remained clear and undistorted even at the full two-second delay time. The built-in AC power supply is another pro touch, and the MIDI input (which actually works) is totally off-the-hook. Knobs for Echo (wet/dry blend), Level, Repeat, and Tempo do just what you’d expect. The Replica is simply one of the best-sounding delays I’ve heard—in pedal or rack-mount form. Combine that with its over-the-top feature set, and you get a pedal worthy of an Editors’ Pick Award. —Barry Cleveland
Pros: Gorgeous sound. Outrageous feature set. Stage and studio worthy. Cons: None. Contact: (201) 594-0817; europeanmusical.com.
Everly Music B-52 Rockers
Utilizing Alloy-52, a material more commonly found in the construction of medical tools, Everly Music’s B-52 Rockers ($5 street) are manufactured in the company’s state-of-the-art string factory in Burbank, California. Alloy-52 is known for its tarnish-resistant properties, which means a longer lasting string—a boon for players who may be resistant to coated strings, or whose pH has the corrosive properties of, say, a bottle of Drano.
After I strung-up my Gibson SG with a .010 set of B-52s, I immediately noticed all of the hallmarks of a fresh set—more output, better intonation, and better overall tonal clarity. However, unlike many of their nickel-plated brethren, the B-52s lack some of that “new string zing.” Instead, they sounded like they had been on my guitar for a few days, yielding a slightly warmer, more broken-in tone. (A mammoth relief if, like me, the strident, squeaky high-end transients of a virgin set drive you bonkers.) Available in .009-.042, .009-.046, .010-.046, and .011-.048 sets, the Everly B-52 Rockers are a formidable contender in the already crowded world of electric guitar strings. —Darrin Fox
Pros: Warm tone. Resistant to tarnishing. Cons: None. Contact: (818) 842-1700; everlymusic.com.
Tech 21 American Woman Overdrive
When it comes to lead tones, the sustained, flutey glory of Randy Bachman’s lines on “American Woman” and other Guess Who hits—not to mention all those Bachman-Turner Overdrive smashes— deserves to be immortalized within rock’s altar of ultimate coolness. As Bachman himself states in the instruction manual for the marvelous American Woman Overdrive ($109 street), he needed a ’59 Les Paul with a Bigsby, a custom tube preamp, a Garnet amp, an RCA ribbon mic and compressor/limiter, tape compression, and other pro-audio mojo to construct that classic tone. All you need are a few sonic smarts and this pedal.
Well, actually, you don’t even have to be that smart. Tech 21 serves up the tone recipe in the manual, and the four simple controls are extremely musical and intuitive. (Bonus—you can easily move the star-shaped knobs with your toe if you need to tweak settings on the fly. Bravo!) Even in (artificially generated) spaz mode, I couldn’t screw up enough to produce a tone that sucked. The Drive control whips up an early Who or AC/DC kerrang at minimal settings, and then spins from ’80s shred to thick and succulent as you crank it. (You can even fake EBow-like bowing effects at the knob’s maximum setting.) The Tone control is actually a low-pass filter that moves the high-cut frequency from 10kHz to 1kHz. In real-world terms, you can elicit everything from a nice, n¨-metal growl to a Tom Morello-inspired shriek—and all settings are useable. The Gate is satisfactory—I didn’t really have much need for it, but I don’t freak out over hiss—and the Level control pumps out a full 10db of boost. That’s pretty massive!
I couldn’t stop having fun with this pedal. The American Woman’s facility at giving up everything from soaring gobs of sustain to cranky, semi-clean spittle kept me inspired, goosed my creative muse, and heightened my riff lust. All I needed was a Randy Bachman button to upgrade my talent! —Michael Molenda
Pros: Mammoth boost. Sustains for days. Overdrive tone is sexier than Halle Berry and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos combined. Cons: None. Contact: (973) 777-6996; tech21nyc.com.
Rebel Sound Black Dog
Looking for a 12" speaker with a bad attitude? Consider the Canadian-made Black Dog ($140 street), a 60-watt, ceramic-magnet unit that comes in closed- and open-back versions. I loaded an “O” model Black Dog into an open-back 2x12 cabinet alongside a Celestion G12M “greenback,” and compared the sound of both speakers using a Mesa/Boogie Blue Angel and a Marshall plexi reissue. Played at low- to-medium volumes with a Fender Strat and a PRS McCarty, the Black Dog delivered similar bass, mids, and volume as the Celestion, but sounded noticeably more compressed and distorted. This was particularly true with the humbucker-equipped McCarty, which elicited fuzzy grind from the Black Dog at settings that were almost dead-clean with the Celestion.
Though Rebel Sound says that some of this distortion will disappear after break-in, it’s not a completely unwelcome aspect of these new speakers. In fact, guitarists have intentionally punched holes in their speakers to get the cone breakup the Black Dogs deliver so naturally. If you’re looking for an “all purpose” speaker for your cabinet or combo, the Black Dogs probably aren’t the best choice. But if you’ve ever thrilled to the frazzy tones Jimmy Page obtained by close-miking his Champs and Supros, you may dig what the appropriately-named Black Dogs have to offer. —Art Thompson
Pros: Sounds like a classic Celestion G12M, but with more compression and breakup. Cons: Not a good choice for clean tones. Contact: (780) 963-0320; rebelsound.org.