Friday Afternoon

Friday, 3 July
by T. Wesley

The Montreal Guitar Show isn’t like NAMM. It is being held this year in the Palais des Congres de Montreal, or Montreal Convention Center. The facility is massive, several stories tall, and has enough room that the hallway between the two exhibitor rooms is lined with sound-resistant booths.

The big difference between a trade show like NAMM and the Montreal Guitar Show isn’t scale – it’s personality. NAMM is your overbearing, drunken door-to-door salesman uncle that looms over you like stormclouds. MGS is your cute, somewhat shy third cousin in from out of town for the family reunion. You deal with your uncle because, as a builder, you have to if you want to take that “next step”. You’d much rather deal with your distant cousin, because it’s going to be a lot more fun.

MGS is extremely well organized, with a small army of employees keeping watch over every aspect of the show. Security is tight without being oppressive, and the facilities are top-notch.

One side of the hall is dedicated to electric builders, while the other side is for acoustic builders. Additional rooms are set aside for seminars, workshops, and mini-concerts than run throughout each day of the show. Today I focused on the electric builders.

Any guitarist would be proud to own any of the instruments in the electric room. It all comes down to style – what you want to play, why, and when. There was a wide variety of traditional, semi-traditional, and avant-garde guitars by builders from all over the world.

built by Mike Potvin in Ontario, Canada

Potvin guitars run from semi-traditional to avant-garde. He builds an Iceman as well as a guitar that resembles the very odd Gretsch Billy-Bo. My attention fell on a pair of guitars that looked right at first, but then something caught my eye. The Jr Tele he calls the El Camino while the Tele Jr is the Ranchero.

They’re backwards. The LP Jr style guitar has the controls, bridge, and pickup from a Tele, while the Tele style has a P-90 and wraparound bridge. Potvin relies on Lollar pickups, Wilkinson, Hipshot, and Bigsby bridges as well as Gotoh and Planet Waves tuning machines.

Potvin uses traditional tonewoods – korina, swamp ash, mahogany, maple, and rosewood – and finishes them with water-based acrylic lacquers, which he says behave like nitro but cure faster. It’s a very eco-friendly finishing process compared to other lacquers and traditional nitro.

His korina El Camino (not pictured) has a chunky neck with ’59 Les Paul-style shoulders. It’s not excessively thick, though the shoulders might be a bit much for some players with smaller hands. The 3-piece set neck has a slight D shape. The electronics are like a ’52 Tele – the switch controls the tone circuit (tone cap, flat out, or tone pot). The guitar plays extremely well with nice, low action. It gets an aggressive rhythm tone when digging in, but yields a sweet, shimmering clean when backing off the volume slightly.

His Ranchero plays like a traditional Tele, but sounds like a monster thanks to the P-90. It fights back a little, benefitting from harder playing due to the higher action. It’s kind of a one-trick pony of a guitar, but it is a very impressive trick.

built by Allan Tomkins in Sydney, Australia

According to Tomkins, the country music scene demands a T-style guitar, so that’s why he builds them. His guitars are played by Red Volkaert and Keith Urban.

His Diamond Tina model guitars have 1 or 2 pickups and are available with piezo as well. He chambers his guitars, and uses native Australian woods for the bodies – woods such as red cedar, Queensland maple and Cary pine. He relies on traditional rock maple for his necks. Tomkins shoots his guitars with nitro.

Tomkins leaves his distinctive headstocks thick, choosing to countersink and stagger the vintage-style tuners to keep string pressure adequate across the nut. His pickups are custom-wound by Norstrand, and he makes his own pickguards, whether they’re made out of intricately tooled leather or brass.

His guitars feel and sound much like traditional Teles but play a bit easier. His piezo-only hollow red cedar acoustic has very convincing acoustic tones and is an extremely light guitar.

built by Nik Huber and three employees in Frankfurt, Germany

The Huber brand is well-known at The Gear Page, and his reputation is definitely earned. Huber brought four guitars to MGS, one Orca and three Dolphins – one in stunning spalted maple.

Huber’s Orca is visually a Les Paul style guitar, but the similarity largely stops there. The Orca is chambered mahogany with matching 1-piece flame maple top and back – both of which are cut from the same piece of wood. The rosewood fingerboard has crown-style inlays of snakewood outlined with sterling silver.

Huber favors local tonewoods such as Alpine spruce and maple when possible. Despite European ash being too heavy for a whole body, he likes to make a nice, light swamp ash body and put a hard Euro ash top on it. He uses mahogany from South America and Africa for his bodies and necks. His finishes are poly, but nitro is always available on request. Like the other builders, Huber uses a high-tech spray booth to protect both the environment and his health.

Despite having a backorder list well over a year long in 2006, Huber’s production numbers of about 10 guitars a month have brought his backlog down to a 4 to 5 month wait, something he’s pretty happy about given the worldwide economic downturn. He attributes a lot of his success to the aid of Paul Smith (of PRS Guitars), and he considers Smith both a mentor and a friend.

The Orca sounds hot and thick, with a nice mid bite. The neck is thick, but doesn’t have broad shoulders, so it’s smooth and easy to play for nearly any guitarist. With it’s incredibly three-dimensional top and back, it’s easily among the prettiest guitars at the show.

There’s a big difference between Huber’s chambered, cedar Dolphin II and his standard maple-over-mahogany solid body Dolphin II. The chambered one is bright and vibrant, with great presence and a slightly less chunky neck carve than his Orca. The solid Dolphin is a flat-out metal-head’s wet dream, with massive, well-defined low end and tons of attitude in the rest of the sonic spectrum. The Dolphin II’s body shape, which is somehow a cross between a Les Paul and a Telecaster, is very comfortable to sit and stand with.

built by Jean Lamarche in Quebec, Canada

Among the more intriguing and innovative designs at MGS are March Guitars. The shape and style are somewhat reminiscent of Steinberger guitars, but there’s more to a March than that.

Lamarche credits the idea for his guitar to his telecom consulting job, which in the 1980s required a lot of business travel. He grew frustrated not being able to bring a guitar along that fit in the overhead bin of many airplanes, so he set out to design and build a guitar that would not only fit, but sound and play well too.

He spent three years designing and developing his guitar – which will definitely fit in the overhead bin on ANY airplane – and the result is a toneful, easy playing guitar that has absolutely perfect weight balance at the upper horn strap button.

Lamarche uses mahogany and basswood for his bodies, maple for necks and tops, cocobolo and lacewood for tops, and ebony and granadillo for fingerboards. He shoots solvent-based lacquer, using top quality dyes to get bright, deep colors.

He relies on Lace and Bill Lawrence pickups, favoring humbuckers, but one guitar has new Lace Aluminum noiseless single coil pickups in it. Due to the innovative tail-end tuning design of his guitars, Lamarche has to have a custom-built tailpiece with rollers, though he uses a Sung Il saddle unit, complete with roller saddles. Grover locking tuners round out the hardware.

The Lace Aluminum pickups are punchy and sweet, but don’t sound like traditional single coils. They have more bottom than a regular single coil, but retain the top end sizzle and bite that guitarists expect from a high quality single coil pickup. Of course, they are totally noiseless.

The guitar sits perfectly on your leg, and once you realize which way is which on the tuners, it’s incredibly easy to tune the guitar; thanks to the multiple rollers in the string path, tuning is very smooth. The neck carve is a mid-range C, thicker than Fender but thinner than Gibson. The end of the neck where the strings terminate has a slightly wider piece of wood so the guitar can hang on a stand – but that wider area serves a much more important purpose, giving your fret hand a reference point like a traditional guitar so you know immediately when you’re in first position.

The guitar is incredibly easy to play and would be well at home in just about any genre of music that didn’t need a double-locking tremolo. It sounds much bigger than its physical size, no doubt about that.

built by the Benedek brothers in Hungary

The Benedek brothers – Attila (the oldest) and Arpad (youngest) in attendance at MGS and Csaba and Gabor left behind at home – produce the only handmade electric guitars and basses in Hungary.

While they have one traditional double-cutaway model they call the Basic Jazz, it is their Erotic model that immediately demands attention from anywhere in the room. They brought two of their 10th Anniversary models to MGS; the 10th Anniversary is a hollowbody based on their Jazz model.

The Benedeks rely on traditional tonewoods – alder, limba, mahogany and maple, but they utilize local woods as well – Hungarian poplar and ash – for tonal variety. Farming wood in Hungary from the forests along the Danube River is tightly controlled by the government, so they are only able to collect wood from trees down by natural causes. They use polyurethane finishes.

Because it’s difficult and costly to import guitar parts in Hungary, the Benedeks make their own bridges and pickups. While they started with hot pickups in the late 1990s, they have recently shifted towards more vintage-voiced pickups. Attila believes most guitarists are relatively conservative and therefore seek more vintage sounds when it comes to pickups.

The Fibenare take on the classic Strat sound is both visually arresting and sonically diverse. A three-way selector switch – a chicken-head knob on this particular guitar – has multiple uses. When two pickups are selected, it affects phase and series/parallel. When only one pickup is selected, it affects the overall “thickness” of the tone – extremely versatile. I was able to wring tones from this guitar ranging from screaming Brian May to the peaceful Eric Clapton.

Their 10th Anniversary guitar is light – I’d estimate in the range of 7 lbs or less – and very toneful. Their in-house humbuckers are hot, but in a more vintage way than a modern way. It’s a pleasing tone that can be dialed in to be aggressive or more laid back.

built by Teye in Austin, Texas

These obviously Zemaitis-inspired guitars are meticulously handmade, piece by piece, in Teye’s (pronounced TAY-uh) one-man shop. He makes – and engraves – every bit of hardware on his guitars, professing that attention to every detail is what makes them play and sound as good as they do.

He has a unique tone circuit that is highly interactive, with a Mood control that shapes the tone without the benefit of a powered preamp.

Teye uses mahogany backs and necks, with maple and/or aluminum tops. He also uses resin-impregnated turquoise, abalone, and mother of pearl extensively on some tops. An ebony fingerboard “for zing” rounds out the tone selection.

Teye’s innovative switching and interactive volume/tone/mood controls give a wide varity of tones from near-acoustic to flat-out grind and everything in between. Given that the weekend saw so many Teles, I was even able to get a good twang out of Teye’s guitar. Each guitar comes with a quick reference chart showing how to achieve various sounds – a valuable resource if you’re the kind of player that doesn’t just turn everything up to 10 and hit the bridge pickup for the duration of the set.

built by Juha Ruokangas in Hyvinkaa, Finland

When your first love is a Les Paul but you suffer from an incredible urge to tinker, naturally you grow up to be a guitar builder. So it was for Juha Ruokangas. His drive to improve the playability of his favorite guitar as much as possible led to the design of his Unicorn model.

The Unicorn looks immediately Les Paul like, but at the same time there’s something different about it. The cutaway is more rounded, more like an ES-335 than the sharp LP cutaway. The guitar sits better on your lap due to Ruokangas’ discovery that if he moved the waist a little closer to the butt of the guitar, it balanced better. He retained the traditional neck joint to maximize wood contact between neck and body.

His headstock is unique however, featuring a separate piece of cedar, with its grain parallel to the strings, and maple reinforcements to prevent the dreaded Gibson head-snap while retaining as much of the traditional look as possible.

Ruokangas relies primarily on tonewoods available in Europe – Spanish cedar for bodies and necks and Arctic birth for tops. His bolt-on necks are made from maple. He shoots poly or nitro depending on the customer’s specification when the guitar is ordered. He uses a custom blended lacquer made specifically for him by a small manufacturer in Finland. The unique thing about this lacquer is that it contains no plastics, which not only cuts down on environmental concerns, but allows the lacquer to dry more quickly and evenly.

He uses Tone Pros, Schaller, Gotoh, and Wilkinson hardware at both ends. Harry Haeussel in Germany custom-winds his pickups.

The Unicorn is one of the best Les Paul style guitars currently on the market. Its tone is thick and sweet with excellent clarity across the sonic spectrum. The mids are nicely blended without being overpowering, the highs are crisp without being strident, and the low end is everything a Marshall needs to push air.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading into the Acoustic Room. Sunday’s article will include information about the amp used for the electric guitar play testing.

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