Winter NAMM 2012 Special Report:
Guitars & Bass
By: Scott Kahn
There was a lot of great stuff on display this year for both the purists as well as the “big rig” guys, though most of it was evolutionary stuff. That’s fine with us, though. We’d really rather nobody reinvent the electric guitar as we’re still figuring out how to play the damn thing.
One of the more notable products we saw this year was the introduction of Steve Vai’s new Legacy III amp. It’s similar to the previous generation, with the same first two channels tone-wise, but in a compact form factor and with the inclusion of a new, third channel. Channel 3 is a second lead channel with a high-gain switch for heavier tones. It retains cool features like MIDI control, channel assignable reverb, and fun stuff like internal LED backlighting with assignable colors for your channels.
The popular V3 amplifier has been updated with channel assignable reverb, and we had a chance to set our hands upon the intriguing new Allan Holdsworth HH1 and HH2 signature guitars… headless! Featuring a custom bridge and a chambered body, these guitars are ultra-light, and we would have sworn they had to be shorter scale instruments had we not played them. Removing the headstock really changes your perception of the instrument, as the neck just looks smaller, but close your eyes and it plays great, with a familiar 25.5” scale and 24 frets. Of course players like Eddie discovered years ago some neat tricks you can do on headless guitars by playing over the end of the neck.
Charvel Guitars Wow. Charvel’s product line exploded this year, with a ton of new models. We were especially thrilled to check out the Jackson Soloist-style Charvels, which really took us back to the glory days of Jackson-Charvel history.
EBS Bass Amps
The new EBS Reidmar 250 marks the first lightweight bass head from the master Swiss amp makers. With features similar to larger EBS heads, the Reidmar has onboard compression, 4-band EQ with Bright and Notch filters, an effects loop, and 250 Watts (4 ohms) of power. EBS tone in a compact package for under $500 street? We have one headed to the studio for review and can’t wait!
The new ENGL E765 Retro Tube 100 Head was very cool, and not just because it has three interchangeable, colored faceplates. These two-channel heads have independent channel operation but share a solo boost feature and offer a range of tones from sparkling clean to warm overdrive. Modern ENGL features include user-selectable parallel or series effects loop operation, a mid boost switch, and fantastic onboard noise gates.
These bad boys from California were on fire — they introduced more new guitars at this year’s NAMM than we’ve seen in any given year from them in a long time. Cool new signature models and a wide range of options bearing the ESP logo from their Japan custom shop (vs. the Korean-made LTD line). New HRF NF-II and Horizon NT-II models were pretty sweet, including a new 27-fret model and 7-string Horizon.
If you were following our news reports, there were tons of new products introduced by Fender ranging from guitars to amps to a new multi-effects processor, but what made us really go, “Ooh. I want that!” was easily the Fender Select series of guitars and basses. It’s about time you could obtain factory-standard Strats, Telecasters, and P/J basses with gorgeous flamed maple tops and other premium appointments without having to order uber-premium Custom Shop instruments. Expect detailed product reviews soon.
Ironic that Fujigen appears immediately following Fender, as they were the OEM who built Fender’s MIJ instruments, not to mention they build for a ton of other leading brands. As one of the largest manufacturers of guitars (despite their name being mostly unfamiliar to the guitar public), it was inevitable that they would direct some attention to a line of guitars bearing their own identity, FGN, and they had a huge line of beautiful instruments on display at NAMM, ready for sale in the USA this year.
We especially liked their modern Strat-style guitars, with alarmingly Suhr-like headstock shapes, as well as their single cutaway Les Paul-derived instruments. Components are top notch, and they have implemented a unique circular fretting system that adds a subtle curvature to the fret placement — you don’t notice it with the naked eye or feel it in your hands — but the design goal is to enhance pitch accuracy as well as improve sustain and harmonics. You know we’ll have to put that claim to the test soon enough!
Hughes & Kettner
Lunchbox-sized amps are all the rage, and walking past this unusual looking half stack gave us pause to reflect… it’s just wrong! Show up for a metal gig and the groupies will definitely be going home with the bass player. But give the Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 18 head a chance and you’ll have a lot of fun. Two footswitch-able channels, 18 Watts with a power soak to reduce the output wattage, Red Box speaker simulated output for recording, series loop, two 12ax7 preamp tubes and two EL84 power tubes. This champ is clearly the midget who kicks the shit out of you for judging a book by its cover.
Leo Scala Guitars
The master builder behind Gary Kramer Guitars (the boutique stuff from Los Angeles, not the Gibson/Kramer line) introduced his own signature line of instruments, and unless you scoured the entire show, it was easy to miss the GKG exhibit that was stuck in the very first isle of Hall E.
Besides impeccable fret work and his killer artistic flair, Scala introduced a new neck joint design (compared with the traditional bolt-on design used in GKG guitars). It looks like a typical bolt-on design until you realize that some of the instruments have no screw threads around Scala's stylized heel plate. A look at the cutaway illustration on his website reveals the tongue-and-groove design in which parts of the neck wood align themselves to mated slots in the body’s neck joint, eliminating any potential for movement and creating response that is more like a set-neck guitar. The guitars played great and sounded great based on our limited time with them.
NS Design Bass
You know a bass is hot when you run into NYC session ace John Montalbano. Sure enough, Ned Steinberger was showing off prototypes of his company’s new chambered-body electric bass guitars, built by Jonathan Kelsey — headless, like Ned’s classic instruments of Steinberger fame, and a departure from the NS Design familiar electric upright bass instruments. They feature both EMG pickups as well as Piezo pickups in the bridge. We’re looking forward to getting one of these in our studio soon.
Palmer Musical Instruments
Mostly known to players for their widely used cabinet simulators and other rig-building hardware solutions, Palmer introduced a very cool triple single-ended amplifier, the DREI. It gets our ugly-as-sin vote, looking like a piece of machinery from a Cold War-era radio operator’s desk, but this compact box houses one EL84, one 6V6, and one 6L6 tube. Three controls let you dial in a mixture of the three tubes to create truly unique tube amp tones — innovative!
Of course for those of you looking to push your tubes a bit harder, the Power Pad PDIO6 MkII Power Attenuator is a great addition to the Palmer lineup. We like that rather than having a continuous variac control, the box features preset levels of load resistance, which enables you to dial in a constant, fixed amount of volume reduction without risk of slight level changes, essential for touring rigs.
Our regard for the Parker Fly guitar is certainly no secret (as our reviews indicate), but no Fly ever prepared us for the hot yellow MaxxFly Bass PB12 Fretless we handled at NAMM. To say that it played “like butta’” would be the understatement of the decade, as the carbon glass epoxy fretboard and nylon strings transformed this instrument into something that had our entire guitar team enraptured. Besides the feel, we also noted just how alive the instrument was, resonating strongly in our hands and against our bodies.
Paul Reed Smith
Yes! We were thrilled to see and hear the PRS P22, the company’s first solid body electric guitar with Piezo acoustic output! It utilizes a Piezo system developed with LR Baggs for PRS hollowbody guitars, but the new design was compact enough to build into a solidbody. The guitar has great specs including a figured maple top on top of a mahogany body, and the neck is mahogany topped with a 22-fret rosewood fingerboard. But ok, let’s cut to the chase… we’re lusting for an inevitable P24!
Finally, some exciting news for you big rig guys. First, Rocktron introduced the MIDI Raider, a new foot controller that features the brain/guts of the popular All Access foot controller in a new, smaller, lighter weight case… for half the price of the original! At less than $400 street, expect to see these in front of a lot of guitar players.
The other cool product introduction: VersaTune rack tuner! This tuner has onboard support for alternate tunings, so if you select Drop D tuning, but with the entire guitar tuned down a half step, for example, the tuner displays the proper notes for your open strings and tunes to them appropriately. Sweet.
When Shure introduced their first digital wireless system at the 2011 Winter NAMM, we were excited by the promise, but lamented that the introduction was limited to the low end of the product line. This year, Shure delivered on their next generation of wireless technology with the ULX-D digital wireless system.
Shure introduced a variety of new wireless products for vocalists, but our lust was for the new ULXD14 guitar/bass instrument system. It features 24-bit/48 kHz converters, 20 Hz—20 kHz frequency range (yes, bassists are now well covered), 120 dB dynamic range, and world-tour worthy ULX system appointments including a very cool, rechargeable battery system and networked, computer-based wireless systems management.
Two Notes Audio Engineering
The incredible mad scientists from France were at it again, with a killer new load box sure to excite many of you. Rated for use with 100 Watt amps, the 1U-sized Torpedo Live combines a reactive loadbox with Two Notes cabinet and mike modeling technology to provide outstanding sound quality for both live/front-of-house applications as well as quiet rehearsing and recording with your prized tube amp.
It’s sort of like a baby brother to the original VB-101, and it can hold up to 32 different cabinet models and eight different microphone choices. Even better, you can capture your own impulse responses from your speaker cabinets and load them into the Torpedo Live, and MIDI control lets you select different cabinet/mic setups as needed for different songs. Expect a full review later this year.
We could probably run an entire report focused only on effect pedals, and investigating all the new pedals at NAMM would have sucked us into a time vortex from which we might not escape. But there was one pedal that stood apart from the masses: the Visual Sound Time Bandit.
This $99 pedal is an obvious innovation that will be welcome on the pedal boards of so many guitarists. When used with any delay pedal that has an input jack for Tap Tempo, the Time Bandit lets you dial in tempo via BPM on the LED display and then it outputs a tempo click track to the pedal. If you’ve ever struggled to nail delay tempos when recording or playing live with backing tracks, this handy device frees you from having to rely solely on delay pedals that feature digital readouts. Now why didn’t we think of this?