SoundControl in Major Shock!

Anyone familiar with this blog will know I have been less than impressed with Giant UK music chain Soundcontrol on a number of occasions. I have often berated both its sometimes high prices and what I percieved to be a shortfall in certain employees training & a lack of product knowledge in its London and Nottingham stores. I’ve also been less than impressed with the range of stock and have bought very little from there in recent years.

However, unlike Ishibashi Music or Chandler guitars, it is right on my doorstep, so they do get some custom out of me from time to time. So while in there buying some strings and plecs the other day I noticed my local Derby branch has appointed a guitar tech and were offering guitar setups and maintenance in a clear and very well laid out menu.

That evening I noticed that the Telecaster was rattling a bit and due to the recent seasonal changes, could probably do with a set-up. Now I have been known to do my own from time to time. But feeling lazy and also wanting to know if the service was any good. I booked the old girl in.

After chatting to SC Derbys resident guitar tech Mick, he told me he’d have it ready in a few days. I picked it up a couple of days ago and he was woried the action maybe too low. He basically said ‘see how you get on’ and if it wasn’t right I could bring it back.

After an afternoon with it. I noticed that the action was probably too low for my traditional tastes. So a quick phone call later and it was back on Micks workbench and he adjusted it to my taste perfectly.

In short I was impressed. I don’t know if all SC shops do this service, but top marks to Mick at SC Derby. It reminded me of the kind of customer service I used to see back when it was called Wishers in the 80′s. God I’m showing my age now!

I still think that with many times more outlets than Peter Cooks and Coda’s, they could be a mite bit more competitive sometimes. But it’s nice to see that SoundControl have taken a step back from trying to be like Currys and have decided to be a guitarshop again. I hope this trend continues.

The Stratocaster Shortlist: 2 down……2 to go.

The Challenge: With a budget of just £500, our intrepid Hero (of Switzerland) has to find a good used Fender Stratocaster or S-type guitar with modern pickup voicings and high build quality to use onstage and in the studio.

I went to Denmark Street on Thursday and had a couple of hours wandering about drooling and gurning to myself. Along the way I managed to play 2 guitars off my Stratocaster shortlist with suprising results.

First off Music Ground had an 1989 Fender Eric Clapton Strat in stock for £895, this is the mark 1 version with Lace Sensor pickups and TBX tone/boost controls. Although American made, the only difference I can see between this guitar and the current Fender J Craft (domestic model)ST54-100LS (unofficial) Clapton guitar is that the modern Japanese one has a 3 piece alder body as opposed to the American’s 2 piece alder body. Neck, frets, hardware, pickups, materials and colours all seem identical.

The supposed 1 piece maple hard ‘V’ neck was not as extreme as I’d heard. Comfy in the hand and very playable. My only niggle is I would prefer Jumbo frets as I’ve got used to them on my Kotzen Tele and I think they make the guitar more expressive to play. The Claptons vintage style small frets will soon wear down with the kinda punishment I give a guitar. So a refret may become a priority.

The scratchplate was 1 ply and nasty, and I’d replace that for a modern 3 ply in black. But the Fender Gold Lace Sensors are superb. The pickup tones were modern, clear and sparkly…..crystalline even. A hard on blues guy might prefer a set of Kinman AV100n’s or Fender’s own Texas Specials, but for the style of music I play, they really fit. Back in the late 80′s Lace Sensors were the archetypal competitor to things like EMG’s and although some may find them too much… almost brimming with fidellity. I really liked both the tone and the harmonic response, running through the test amp, a Hi-Watt 50 combo, every note felt warm fat and fluid.

Niggles? Well aside from that scratchplate and perhaps the small 50′s style frets…..its perfect. Definetly at the top of my list. However…not this one at £895. I can buy a new Japanese Clapton for around £500. I love Denmark Street, but I accept they have to price guitars a certain way. But blowing a grand on this when I can have a new one made by a bloke called Yuko as opposed to a bloke called Hank is meaningless.

I have, however, crossed off the Levinson Blade RH-4. It looks great….but….

World Guitars in Denmark Street kindly let me try theirs. Resplendent in Strawberry Red, it was a lovely colour. As I’ve been watching a used Blade RH-4 on Ebay which eventually went for just £410.00 used, I really saw the Levinson Blade as a very strong contender.

Essentially an upspecked high performance stratocaster. With 2 single coils & 1 Humbucker, VSC active electronics, Locking Sperzel machine heads and a fulcrum type trem. This would be a hell of a lot of guitar for the money.

Back in the late 1980′s Designer Gary Levinsons original marketing schtick was that as a Swiss industrial designer, he’d designed watches and cars and furniture and other machinery and so sorted out the few niggles in Leo Fenders original design, and so what remained was the ultimate S-type guitar, one that oozed pure performance. The adverts would read

“Blade, Original Concepts by Gary Levinson, Switzerland”.

Accompanyed with a picture of Gary in his trendy architects glasses holding his Swiss designed guitar. So people thought of Swiss Watches, even though all his original guitars were made under contract by the same people who make J-Craft Ibanez’s and Japanese Fenders. But as guitar makers are now brand management companies, he charged pretty high prices for them.

As expected I found this Japanese built example I tried to be of faultless construction and very tidy in fit and finish. There were 2….well 3 very very big issues…

1: The weight – The 2 piece Sen Ash body looked grainy and great under its strawberry finish but weighed about 9lbs, thats fine on a Les Paul, but on a Strat? Maybe if your sitting in the pit orchestra in the London Palladium, counting bars and waiting for your takeaway to arrive before the interval….. you can get away with it, but on a strap onstage for 90 mins? I think not!

2: The Neck – Characterless it perhaps the best description. A slim, but wide ‘D’ profile, it felt less “stratocaster” like than one could imagine a strat type guitar to be. If I closed my eyes I felt like I was playing a mid 80′s Japanese Charvel/Jackson clone like a Washburn Mercury or Aria Pro II. Y’know a cheap 80′s pointy headstock widdly widdly guitar. Fast maybe…..but not nice. It was well put together, but the weighty Sen Ash body just reminded me of a very bad 70′s Strat.

3 :The Electronics – They seemed confusing at first, versatile yes, but I’d sooner have 5 useable tones than 24 crap ones. A 5 way pickup selector with 1 volume, 1 tone and a 3 way mini toggle with a choice of cut/boost or standard. Some of the glassy clean tones were nice, but as soon as I changed to an overdriven sound the guitar lost it big time.

All the rumours I’d heard about the pickups being crap were spot on. They lacked bite and for high gain work failed to overdrive the test amp, the shops Orange AD30 combo. They really sounded too bright and again characterless. Normally with a humbucker in the bridge I would expect a big Fat strident sound….nothing of the sort here. I’d seen quite a few used Blades retrofitted with EMG’s, but even if I changed the pickups, the neck felt horrible and it was way too heavy. It looks beautiful….but like a pretty dress and good makeup on an ugly girl, the truth came to the surface after a very short time together.

With a new price tag of £1225.00 I was dissapointed. What surprised me was that Blade do a cheaper Korean made range of guitars. The korean made S-type on display next to the RH-4 looked as though it had the same electronics and pickups for just £500 new, so why on earth you’d pay any extra for the RH-4 is beyond me. The new style headstock is ugly too. Like a kitchenknife gone wrong.

Looks like Fullerton are ahead of Switzerland on this one. To be continued…

A used Strat on £500 Budget?

After having had My Gibson Les Paul set up at Chandlers and consiquently falling back in love with it, I’ve decided not to sell it. I did actually tried gigging it on Saturday night in Blackpool and I’ve come to the conclusion that while its a fine guitar, it does not cut through the mix as well as my Telecaster and is therefore no use as a gigging axe in my current band.

So needing a good backup guitar soonish. I’ve decided my next guitar will likely be a Stratocaster or good variant, however I want one with certain specifications. My ideal Strat if I had the cash to splash at the Fender Custom Shop would feature.

A 22 Fret neck, ideally with Jumbo Fretwire (string bends are easier and it feels more expressive)

Either a humbucker in the Bridge Pickup, or an active boost of some kind, maybe those nice SCN pickups and S-1 switching of the American Deluxe Strats.

A modern Radius (ie:flatter) fingerboard profile on a traditional late 50′s, soft ‘V’ neck profile.

Locking machine heads and a modern Trem

It would be black with a black scratchplate and look all mean

A vintage tinted neck with a Brazilian Pau Ferro fingerboard (ok I’m getting really silly here)

However I don’t have £3000.00 to spend! The most I’m gonna spend on said instrument is likely to be around £500….. ish , so in order to get maximum bang per buck, I’m going for either the secondhand market or the grey import one.

So far I’ve narrowed it down to the following instruments

1: Fender J-Craft Clapton. The japanese version of Erics signature strat has a V neck, active preamp and Lace Sensors which IMHO piss all over the current Clapton models choice of Fenders own “Noiseless” single coils.

Basically its a japanese built mark 1 Clapton Strat. Now these are so cheap I can get a new one for £500. Its got the active boost to give me fat humbucker type tones and a V neck. Would change that shitty 1 ply scratchplate though.

2: Levinson Blade RH2/RH4. A japanese built classic from the late 80′s. Blades are very popular with session musicians and working pro guitarists alike, they don’t have many rockstar endorsees but chances are, if your in the pit band in Miss Saigon, you own one of these.

Featuring a 22 fret neck, Jumbo frets, a fabulous build and Blades own VSC active electronics. The Blade is the dark horse here. The biggest drawback is their residual value. The prices seem all over the place used. A quick scan of Ebay shows used prices from £500-900 depending on condition. Thats a lot of variation for a rather unfashionable guitar. But its a lot of guitar for the money.

Downsides? I’ve heard that the pickups are a bit clinical sounding and seen quite a few guitars retrofitted with EMG’s. Lookswise its a bit dated now. But its features in this price range make it a serious contender.

3: Used American Deluxe Strat. The V neck version is probably my ideal guitar but think some of the the colour schemes are rank. That gold adonised scratchplate looks nice in the dealership, but wil look like shit after 3 months of gigging.

Plus factors? Loved the SCN pickups and S-1 switching, the soft V neck was ace on the guitar I tried last year. However most guitars on the used market will have a modern C profile neck, which feels too small for my big hands. The credit crunch in Britain means I am seeing quite a few of these in the classifieds going for reasonable prices as Barry defaults on his mortgage payments and under pressure from the wife decides to use his Squier silver series instead.

Downsides? The earlier American Deluxe Strats feature the same Fender “Noiseless” pickups as the later Clapton Strats, these are best described as tight sounding and scratchy and are to be avoided, unless you factor a complete pickup retrofit into your budget, and that would be at least another £150. EEEEK!

And finally

4: Fender Lone Star/Texas Fat Strat. A late 90′s classic variation on a theme. Its also the devil I know as a mate of mine owns one of these and they are amazing tonally. The Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates HB + 2 Texas Special single coils give incredible versatility. It literally can do anything tonally, one of the few guitars made with hot pickups, where an element of thought has gone into how the pickups interact with each other.

Downsides? As with the American Deluxe, I’m not a fan of Fenders modern C shape Profile. Also the body carve looks a bit boxy and square on the examples I’ve tried. Also its getting on for a 10 year old guitar, so finding a clean one may be difficult.

I’ll update this blog as I try these beauties out and give my conclusions here.