Yamaha SA503 TVL

From the funky and modernistic SA15 of the 1960s, to the beautifully made SA2200 of a decade later, Yamaha’s long-running semi-acoustic line has won deserved kudos in many of its myriad incarnations. The latest to surface is the new SA503 TVL, which blends a seminal American body shape with a handful of quirky Japanese and European design touches.

The TVL acronym stands for Troy Van Leeuwen—former guitarist with A Perfect Circle, sometime sideman with Korn and Limp Bizkit, and current axe grinder for Queens of the Stone Age—who helped design this Indonesian-made signature model. The major elements at play are pretty easy to define. The concentric dual-cutaway, laminated maple body has a solid mahogany center block, and carries a deep, transparent wine-red finish. The glued-in maple neck sports a bound 22-fret rosewood board that joins the body at the 20th fret. Diecast Grover tuners, a Bigsby licensed vibrato tailpiece, a modified Tune-o-Matic-style bridge, and three single-coil pickups round out the hardware details.

More eye catching are the slotted, swept-wave soundholes, and the control plate with its two 3-way switches on the treble-side horn. The former is purely a matter of aesthetics. Yamaha has used this type of soundhole elsewhere in recent years, and while it won’t appeal to all tastes, it certainly takes the SA503 TVL in a different stylistic direction. The switch configuration—referred to as the “All Access System”—is entirely practical in that it offers every possible combination available from the three pickups. The rearmost switch provides the standard selections between the neck and bridge units, and the forward switch selects the middle pickup only (down), middle plus whatever other pickup is selected (center), and middle pickup off (up). The pickups are Yamaha’s own, made with alnico II magnets and wound to a DC resistance of approximately 8.5k ohms—which is a pretty standard P-90 spec. Partnered with three Volume controls and a master Tone knob, it’s a versatile system.

The chunky, D-profile neck and 14" fretboard radius offer plenty of grip, and a sizeable volute behind the nut strengthens the joint at the pitched headstock. Combined with the rounded medium-jumbo frets and a medium-action setup, these elements yield an instrument primed for twanging, grinding, and digging in, rather than shredding at warp speed. The fret ends are beautifully smoothed, finished, and entirely hitch free, although a little bit of over-tapering left me pulling the high-E string off the fretboard edge on occasions—especially while executing pull-offs. Overall, the TVL’s neck is a sweet player, providing an easy ride from the lower reaches right up to nearly the 22nd fret. It’s worth noting that this is a pretty heavy instrument, and the considerable behind-the-bridge mass of that big mahogany center block makes the guitar a little tail heavy when played seated. However, its balance when hanging on your shoulder is good. The Bigsby unit functions smoothly and suits this model beautifully. Tuning stability is better than I’ve experienced on many other Bigsby-equipped guitars, although I’m a little surprised that Yamaha didn’t go with a roller-saddle bridge, as it would ease tuning snags even further.

The SA503 TVL exhibits a fairly typical semi-acoustic voice when strummed acoustically, offering decent volume and better sustain than most fully hollow archtops. A little rattle from the Bigsby can be heard when you hit certain strings hard, but this disappears in the wake of amplification. Through a TopHat Club Royale 2x12 combo set to the edge of breakup, the guitar oozes that honking, slightly compressed midrange grind that you expect from a semi-hollow with P-90s. Sonics here run from the slightly nasal, punchy bridge pickup voice to the fatter, throatier neck voice. However, given the variety on tap from the All Access switching system, you pretty quickly stop looking for pickup selections, and instead start thinking in terms of tweaking and shading. A lot of textural variety is available, and with a little fiddling you can find almost any sound you want. As the pickups provide much of the fat of standard PAF-styled humbuckers with less of the mud, you also get more slicing power at most settings.

I found the SA503 great for snarling rockabilly, the edgier side of alt-country, and raw rootsy blues. Despite Van Leeuwen’s pedigree, it doesn’t seem an obvious choice for heavier rock excursions, although it performs admirably well through a modern Marshall’s high-gain channel. You do get a little noise from these pickups—which is par for single-coils—and some body howl and microphonic squeals can occur if you get careless with your stage positioning at higher volumes. Of course, once you get a feel for this guitar, you can coax sweet, hovering, melodic feedback at will.

The SA503 TVL is a fun instrument with a lot of sounds and a ton of vibe. Coming up with a fresh take on the classic thinline is not easy, but with the TVL, Yamaha has created an instrument that holds its own and then some for style and sound.