Volkswagen GTI and First Act GarageMaster

Slash blasting through a triple-stack of Volkswagen GTIs? John Mayer getting all kinds of bluesy with a convertible Beetle? A shredding Nigel Tufnel—in kilts—slipping off his wah pedal and tumbling down the backside of a Jetta? Ya gotta give First Act and Volkswagen credit for forging a stunning advertising campaign—especially as it’s more than wonderful to see guitar heroes, rock licks, and cool 6-strings employed as international marketing icons.

But the Volkswagen/First Act collaboration is more than Madison Avenue fairy dust, as First Act’s GarageMaster guitar is no mere toy, and, thanks to its onboard V-Stack amp-modeling preamp, it can be played directly through a VW’s sound system. In fact, although the GarageMaster is provided with new Jettas, GLIs, GTIs, Rabbits, New Beetles, and New Beetle Convertibles, the guitar works with any car-stereo system equipped with a miniplug jack and an Aux feature (basically, your standard automotive iPod interface). However, as the GTI provided by Volkswagen as our “test amp” boasted ten speakers, a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, a navigation system, and a six-disc CD changer, it seemed impolite not to plug in and rock. After running the supplied 14"-to-miniplug cable from the GarageMaster to the aux jack installed inside the glove box, it was apparent the setup is designed more for parked, rather than mobile concerts. As GP Associate Editor Jude Gold and I traded licks in the back seat—taking care not to pummel designated driver and GP Senior Editor Art Thompson with the GarageMaster’s headstock—the glove-box door bounced merrily across Bass Player Art Director Patrick Wong’s knees. Ouch. That was a shame, because with the car’s interior acting as an acoustic chamber, you’re enveloped in the GarageMaster’s clean and distorted V-Stack sounds—much like the surround sound effect of some Disney-esque thrill ride. The effect is less awesome with the doors or windows open, as you lose a fair amount of the sonic impact to signal reflections and the open air. The sound is still loud and proud enough to rock a picnic or other outdoor activity, it’s just not as ballsy. It’s kind of like the difference between playing a small club where your sound is just booming off sweat-drenched walls and rafters, and an arena gig where everything gets sucked up into the heavens.

As for the vibey, retro-inspired GarageMaster, the VW elements (VW logo inlays at the 12th fret and control knobs, your car’s VIN number inscribed on the back of the headstock, etc.) are “collectible” cute without tanking the guitar’s cool factor. Features include a 25"-scale maple neck with a rosewood fretboard, a poplar body, 22 medium-jumbo frets, and custom First Act tuxedo humbuckers with alnico 5 magnets. The guitar’s slim-profile, satin-finished neck makes for fast and easy playing, and it sounds incredibly lively—with excellent note articulation and a buoyant, Strat-like snap—in all pickup settings. The onboard V-Stack preamp offers reasonable control (preamp on/off, distortion on/off, and mid scoop switches, and a dedicated Volume knob), and, through the VW system, the distortion tones are nicely aggro, but a tad sterile (perhaps Volkswagen could include an effects plug-in for its dash-mounted controls on future models). When plugged into a Fender Super Reverb, the overdrive tones became a bit spitty, and, onstage, I’d likely opt for a stompbox over the preamp.

At the end of the business day, the Volkswagen/GarageMaster may be remembered solely as savvy marketing. But a pretty cool guitar came out of the deal, and I was thoroughly impressed with the zippy GTI, as well.

First Act, (617) 226-7888;
Volkswagen, (800) 374-8389;