Yamaha SGV800 & SGV300(2)

Seventeenth-century thinker Thomas Hobbes was addressing the human condition when he used the phrase "nasty, brutish, and short," but he might just as well have been talking about Yamaha's SGV series guitars. These small-bodied screamers aren't exactly instruments of refinement and finesse, but when it comes to attitude -- stand back.
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The SGV300 and SGV800 and are fun, funky flashbacks to Yamaha's very first electrics: the 1966 SG series. These new made-in-Taiwan models faithfully reproduce the original SG silhouette, but feature modern hardware and pickups.


Ever felt a perverse desire to sport one of those Z-grade import guitars of the '60s, but balked because you didn't want to sacrifice such niceties as the ability to play in tune? If so, then the radical looks, solid workmanship, and face-slapping tones of the SGV800 ($699) may make it the freak of your dreams. Dig the striking contours: the tiny body (less than 81/2" across at the waist), the asymmetrical horns (one a crooked dog leg, the other a sad little stump), and the Mosrite-style distended lower bout.

The tones are equally bold. The 800 doesn't sound precisely like a Burns or a Mosrite, but like those guitars, it offers a bright '60s-style tone that seldom gets shrill -- the biting attack is balanced by a plump midrange mass. There's not a great deal of sustain or low-end muscle on tap, so the 800 isn't a good choice for low-tuned metal or shred soloing. But the guitar's punchy presence is perfect for punk, surf, ska, rockabilly, and any other style where lack of sonic polish is a plus. And you may be surprised by the number of attractive tones you can unearth by varying the balance between the two volume controls.

The 800 is a well-made instrument. Our review model's sparkle-black finish looks gloriously gaudy against the mother-of-toilet-seat pickguard and retro-style knobs. The crisply bound neck has a decidedly old-fashioned feel. (Its shorter scale and narrow width will especially suit the small-handed.) The nut is expertly cut and fitted, and the smallish, vintage-style frets are nicely installed -- if a little rough around the edges.

For better or worse, the tremolo bridge is straight out of the '60s. The assembly -- in which a rocking tailpiece tugs the strings across the bridge's rolling saddles -- has the light, bouncy feel of a Bigsby. It's superb for surf-approved wiggles and dips, but that old-school buoyancy can also spell old-school tuning trouble. Fortunately, the locking Sperzels provide extra tuning stability.

The SGV800 is a terrific choice for anyone seeking '60s-style rock flavors from outside the Fender/Gibson sphere of influence. It's no smoothie in tone or feel, but it excels in genres where rough is the stuff.


Though the lower-priced SGV300 ($549) sports more modest cosmetics -- a plain, single-ply pickguard, an unbound neck, and a simpler metallic finish -- its workmanship matches that of the 800. In fact, the 300 boasts slightly smoother fretwork than the 800. The bridge and tailpiece are the same for both instruments, though the 300 has standard-issue, non-locking tuners.

But thanks to its high-output ferrite pickups, the 300 sounds like an entirely different instrument. There's a satisfying balance of highs and lows, and the combined-pickup settings have a pleasant, acoustic-style openness. An ingenious wiring scheme lets you fade the bridge pickup between single-coil and humbucker states, and there are many cool sounds along the way. The bridge pickup's coils are so widely spaced that the front-coil settings can even suggest the diffuse warmth of a Strat's middle pickup. A bold choice for metal and modern aggro-rock, the SGV300 is really a modern instrument in a Summer of Love shell. If powerful tones in pawnshop packaging suit your fancy, you'll want to give this low-cost guitar a try.