5 July – Sunday afternoon
by T. Wesley
As the Montreal Guitar Show drew to a close today, builders tired by three full days of non-stop standing and talking about guitars refused to flag. While the peak in foot traffic happened Saturday afternoon, Sunday was nearly as busy, with excited babble about this guitar or that guitar filling the Palais de Congres.
Having filled Friday and Saturday with constant conversation with builders about their guitars – as well as playing numerous awe-inspiring instruments – today’s focus shifted somewhat to the other things gear hounds pay attention to – wood, amps, pedals, and cases.
Nicholas Weber represented Maderas Barber of Valencia, Spain at the MGS. Maderas Barber supplies FSC-certified tonewoods to builders all over the world; the bulk of their customers are located in the United States, Japan and China.
Weber says that trends in tonewoods don’t have much to do with the types of woods being used, but rather the quality of woods being requested by builders. To that end, Maderas is able to maintain high quality woods from their own sawmills to their drying rooms, ensuring consistent quality no matter who they sell to – Martin, Taylor, or many of the MGS attendees and other small builders around the world.
Maderas had on display stunning examples of spruce, rosewood and cedar, many with half-tops drawn on them so builders and other curious attendees could judge for themselves how a particular piece of wood would look someday when it becomes a guitar.
Vidal de Teresa, the managing director of Madinter of Madrid, Spain greatly enjoyed the MGS and getting to meet many of the Canadian builders that buy his company’s wood.
Madinter carries hundreds of kinds of woods sourced from all over the world. In addition to their drying, storage, and CNC precision cutting facilities in Spain, Madinter has less technologically advanced operations in India, Cameroon, and the Philippines.
De Teresa says that European spruce is the most popular wood they sell for guitar tops. Madinter sells Madagascar rosewood as a substitute for Brazilian rosewood, which is restricted by the CITES regulations. Their Indian rosewood gets used for low- and mid-grade guitars, while the Madagascar variety goes into high-end instruments.
Another tonewood grawing in popularity is a Brazilian walnut called imbuia (pictured above). It has a very distinctive look but reflects a more traditional tone as a back and side wood. Other woods on display by Madinter were zebrawood, ovangkol, pao ferro, bubinga, sapele, Spanish cypress and ebony.
De Teresa says that Spain is very important for guitars, as there are major luthier schools in Madrid, Valencia, and Granada, all of which require large amounts of quality woods. In addition to supplying wood to US mass builders such as Martin and Taylor, Madinter has hundreds of small builder clients all over the world.
RED IRON AMPS
built by Paul Sanchez in Lockhart, Texas
As the sole amplifier builder attending the MGS, Paul Sanchez’s Red Iron Amps got a lot of attention throughout the weekend. Most players gravitated towards his small 1- and 5-watt amps that are visually reflect his background in hi-fi stereo amps.
Sanchez relies on Heyboer transformers and cabinets made from distinctive mesquite wood. Despite the fact that it is difficult to work with, its stability and beauty – not to mention that it’s native to Texas – appeals to his construction and aesthetic senses.
Raised on the RCA Tube Manual and having worked as an amp tech for Kendrick, Sanchez says about amps, “I just gotta do this. I want to build a distinctive amp, so I do things distinctively.”
Perhaps the most interesting or surprising choice Sanchez makes with his amps is that instead of 12AX7, he uses octal tubes in his preamps, a holdover from his hi-fi days. His choices are 6SL7, which is the octal ancestor of the 12AX7, and what he refers to as “THE tube” – 6SN7. These preamps sections based on octal tubes create a smooth, even and powerful tone at all volume levels. The brittle high end that some 12AX7 tubes can generate is absolutely absent, with no major peaks or dips in the tonal spectrum.
The 4-knob T Rex (vol/treb/bass/master) is Red Iron’s high gain capable amp, but it’s versatility is easy to overlook given that it only has 4 controls – preamp volume, bass, treble, and master volume. It attains anything and everything from spanky Tele clean to massive 8-string low-end thump with just a tweak of the knobs. The preamp shows three 6SL7 tubes and there’s a pair of 6L6 tubes in the power section of this solid-state rectified amp. Sanchez says that the T Rex is “browner, rounder, and smoother overall” than the average 12AX7-based amp no matter what guitar is plugged into it.
The 3-knob Mil Spec (vol/treb/bass) uses three 6SN7 tubes in the pre section and a pair of KT66 tubes for power. Sanchez adds a specially potted transformer to run this amp, and the Mil Spec takes to pedals like a duck takes to water. It has a massive amount of clean headroom that responds well and quickly to changes in the player’s attack. Owner Mark Potvin says “this amp takes pedals better than anything I’ve ever owned.”
Sourcing the octal preamp tubes is no problem, and though Sanchez prefers new old-stock (NOS) examples, he says both Electro-Harmonix and Tung Sol have recently tooled up to issue octals of good quality.
Red Iron Amps are strictly point-to-point (PTP) wired, as Sanchez believes tag boards mean more wire and more wire means more RF interference – and that means more noise. The T Rex, which got the most use in my guitar tests throughout the weekend, is absolutely dead quiet with humbuckers, even with the volume and master on 10.
built by Guillaume Fairfield in Quebec, Canada
Throughout the weekend, attendees in the electric guitar room could hear the most bizarre sounds emanating from the corner of the room, sounds that were quite obviously coming from a guitar but sounded as if they’d be right at home in a science fiction B movie.
Those sounds came from Fairfield Circuitry’s Randy’s Revenge Ring Modulator. Simple controls belie the amazing variety of sounds attainable from the double-wide, true bypass pedal. The most useful of the controls is a simple switch that allows the player to choose between using a square wave or a sine wave. The sine wave gives a smoother effect, but the square wave gives a brighter tone, so there’s definitely uses for both choices.
Other controls on the pedal are Frequency, which depending on the other settings can actually allow the player to tune the pedal’s output to the key of the song being played; Hi/Lo, which selects the frequency range affected by the Frequency knob; Volume; Mix, which controls the wet/dry output; and LPF, which functions much as any other low pass filter, but in this instance it does so with complete interactivity with the other controls.
Randy’s Revenge can be used for subtle chorus or doubling effects or it can be completely tweaked out to provide an array of really odd sounds.
Fairfield’s Barbershop Overdrive isn’t a Tube Screamer or DS-1 style distortion box, rather, it gives a more transparent, organic overdrive sound. Fairfield achieves this by using JFETs instead of op-amps or diodes. The sound is crisp and immediately present and runs the gamut from lightly gritty clean boost to highly compressed fuzz.
The Barbershop has very simple controls – Drive, Sag, and Volume, all of which react interactively to give the player a wide variety of options.
Internally, Fairfield pedals are very clean, with well laid-out circuit boards, quality pots, and extremely neat wiring. Sound quality is top notch and the true bypass works cleanly on both pedals. The Barbershop would be at home on any single-channel-amp player’s board, while the Randy’s Revenge would serve just about anybody looking for a pedal that can run the gamut from subtle to completely, utterly over the top.
made by Philippe de Trogoff and his factory staff in Normandy, France
Bam Cases didn’t get their start in the guitar market; they make 95% of their technologically advanced cases for cellos. Now they’re making at attempt to attract more guitarists with their unique, high quality cases.
Philippe de Trogoff came up with the idea of sandwiching a layer of polyurethane – the same material some guitar builders use to paint electric guitars – between two layers of ABS. The result is a laminate that totals about a quarter-inch thick and yields a case for a dreadnought-sized acoustic guitar that weighs less than 6 pounds.
Severine Chavanne, who works with de Trogoff, says the cases look like carbon fiber because that’s what musicians expect. In addition to the dreadnought size, Bam also makes cases for classical, Selmer/gypsy, and 16-inch archtop guitars. They’ll soon be releasing cases for 17-inch archtops and various Martin sizes (OM, OO, etc.).
With the addition of a padded outer shell made with injected foam and cloaked in a cloth embedded with a repeating retro-reflective design, the Bam guitar case becomes a light, portable flight case suitable for travel. The case itself has D-ring attachments for included straps, while the outer shell has backpack straps for easy carrying.
built by Jim Laffoley and his factory staff in New Brunswick, Canada
Calton makes professional grade flight cases for any guitar under the sun. While they do have some stock sizes they make – such as Telecaster, Les Paul, dreadnought, and others – Jim Laffoley approaches each guitar case as a one-off project.
Anybody can make the claim that their case is airplane cargo hold proof, but Laffoley took that claim one step further by having two grown men – nearly 500 pounds of Canadian and American Grade-A Human Male – stand on top of one of his cases. It flexed – barely – and held strong, a very impressive display of the strength of the case.
In Calton’s process, the color and any other design work are part of the molding process from the start. Inlay and other designs are laid into the mold, as is any color layer, before the proprietary materials that form the hard outer shell of the case are introduced into the mold. The result is a truly one-of-a-kind case.
Laffoley has built relationships with dozens of small builders, most notably Linda Manzer, and has extended the design aesthetic of her 30-piece run of Pat Metheny signature guitars to the cases for the unique instruments.
Though Calton makes 85% of their cases for guitars, they also makes cases for mandolins, banjos, and violins. Calton makes about 2000 cases each year, and current wait time for a custom-made case is 4 to 5 weeks.
built by Chihoe Hahn in New York, New York
Chihoe Hahn isn’t trying to build guitars that are all things to all players.
He’s simply trying to build the best Telecaster in the world. His obsession is staying true to the vision Leo Fender had in the 1950s and creating the best sounding and playing guitar he can. “Building and business are entwined, and that’s why big companies cut corners,” says Hahn. He continued, “but I don’t care much about the business, just the building, so I don’t have to cut corners that are easy to cut just to get the cost down. That means I don’t have to get into the cycle of reducing costs to achieve an approximation of quality.”
Hahn uses classic Tele tonewoods for his 228 model – swamp ash and alder bodies, maple necks, and maple and rosewood fingerboards. For his 1229 model, he uses mahogany for the body and neck and rosewood for the fingerboard. Hahn shoots nitro in extremely thin layers on all his guitars.
All his hardware is made in-house with the exception of some use of Fender bridges, but Hahn still fits his own saddles to those bridges. He uses Fralin, Lollar, and Seymour Duncan pickups, deciding which is best by getting into the customer’s signal chain, exploring their amp, pedal, and even string choices to determine what parts will work best on their guitar.
These subtle differences are apparent in the two 228s he brought to the MGS. Both are ash bodied with maple-on-maple necks, but one has Fralin pickups and 10 gauge strings, while the other has Duncans and 9s.
Both guitars sound excellent and play extremely well – better than many of the original 50s and 60s Telecasters I’ve encountered. The Fralin/10 guitar has a large amount of presence, with stellar attack and that trademark snap that Tele players expect.
The Duncan/9 guitar has a little more subtlety to it, almost a more refined tone, yet it still sounds 100% Telecaster. Even played with both volumes maxed out on the Red Iron T Rex amp, the neck pickup retained its clarity and string-to-string definition, almost refusing to let the amp win the high gain battle.
The mahogany 1228, by comparison, has a more mid-present, smooth tone – yet still retains that typical Tele attack.
ROIRON GUITARS & BASSES
built by Pierre-Antoine Roiron in Lyon, France
When the sound leaking through the soundproof booth makes the floor under your feet rumble, you simply have to know what guitar is doing that and – more importantly – why.
Pierre-Antoine Roiron’s 8-string behemoth guitar shakes your guts like no other instrument you’ve ever encountered. Strung up with a normal 6-string set plus two lower stings tuned to B and F#, the 8-string has technique and sonic capabilities that would really baffle most guitarists.
Despite the necessary wideness of the 8-string neck, the guitar is easy to play. Custom Crel pickups, made by the same builder that makes his bass pickups, capture the brutality of the two lowest strings while maintaining the normal string set’s sonic balance.
Because Roiron prefers to import as little wood as possible, he uses some unique woods for his guitars, including pear and olive as well as maple from the Jura Forest in eastern France and salvaged mahogany. He uses traditional maple and ebony for his necks and fingerboards and finishes his guitar with hand-rubbed oil finishes.
His 6-string guitar is very pleasant to play and is wired up with a Seymour Duncan Screamin’ Demon in the bridge and a Duncan P90X, reversed to get the P-90 portion of the pickup closer to the neck. With a Kahler tremolo system and its distinctive shape, the 6-string is a shredder’s guitar, ready to stun any crowd with its looks and sound.
The wide upper bout that connects with the body doesn’t hinder playing high up the neck, as it has a cutaway on the back side that allows the player to slide his hand up more or less unencumbered into high positions.
built by Ryan Thorell in Utah
Ryan Thorell’s unique and toneful Frank Vignola signature model has a carved top that is only about half the depth of a traditional archtop guitar; add to that hybrid gypsy guitar bracing and Thorell has a guitar that is both loud and stable while maintaining a bright, pleasant tone whether the player is comping chords or playing a melody line.
He likes to use myrtle wood from the Pacific coast of Oregon for the backs and sides of his guitars because, as he says, “it rings like maple on steroids.” He also uses mahogany for his bodies and necks, as well as spruce tops. Some guitars have big leaf maple bodies or birdseye maple necks, and he uses both ivoroid and koa for binding on different models. Thorell finishes his guitars with nitro.
The pickup on the Frank Vignola Signature is custom wound for Thorell by Pete Biltoft. He uses minihumbuckers and humbucker-sized split-coil single coils by the same winder. He sometimes puts oil-and-paper capacitors into his tone circuits, and has his electronics integrated very cleanly into his hand-carved ebony and rosewood pickguards.
Thorell’s guitars are loud and have a lot of presence, but they are not harsh or brittle sounding. The harder they’re played, the more bass comes out, but the sound never breaks up or suffers imbalance. The necks are fast and clean, with hidden fret ends to keep the look clean.
built by Marc Saumier in Quebec, Canada
Marc Saumier got his start as a carpenter; his love of music and guitars brought him around to building instruments. Building guitars and basses is simply a collision of his passions. Saumier is unique among luthiers in that he husbands his wood from harvest through to the completed instrument.
He uses Adirondack spruce for tops and a variety of woods for his backs and sides – maple, cherry, butternut, poplar, and Eastern hop hornbean (otherwise known as ironwood). Water-based lacquer is his finish of choice for most instruments, but only because that seems to be what customers want. “Nothing beats French polishing for tone,” Saumier says.
He makes his parts in batches rather than making one guitar at a time; he’ll make ten tops, ten sets of sides, ten backs, and then carefully store the parts until he’s ready to start assembly, which he then does one guitar or bass at a time.
Saumier’s archtop is bright and lively, with exceptional top end and high mids. The low end is tight and well defined, but not quite as loud as the rest of the sonic spectrum. It plays easily and projects well, making it ideal for unmiked and studio applications.
His fretless acoustic bass really shines, with deep, clear tone and excellent sustain. The large body is shaped similar to Linda Manzer’s Wedge guitars, creating a big tone without playability issues. It’s very well executed, easy to play, and sounds great.
built by Rolf Spuler near Zurich, Switzerland
Getting to Rolf Spuler’s booth at the MGS proved difficult, as his guitars drew more attention than just about any other instruments on display. “You’ve got to check out the guy from Switzerland,” I heard at least a dozen times.
Spuler has created an electric-acoustic guitar that has an arresting look, no doubt about that. The long horn helps with balancing the guitar on your lap, and the gently contoured body is very conducing to both sitting and standing. The cutout motif repeats on the headstock’s magnetic wings.
Dennis Hartmann, who works with Spuler, calls this guitar “an acoustic in need of electrification.” Spuler says his desire was to create a “truly beautiful and ergonomic instrument.”
Spuler uses maple, mahogany, and nogal for his chambered bodies and finishes them with oil and wax. He uses birdseye maple for necks, as well as 50-year old, certified pre-CITES Brazilian rosewood. He uses the same woods for the saddle housings, while the saddles themselves are the piezo pickups for the guitar.
For the 25.5 inch scale necks, he makes his own 1-3/4 inch nuts from a graphite-impregnated polymer. While he uses Gotoh gears for his tuners, his headstock design necessitates custom, in-house locking shafts. The neck also features a push-push mechanism that opens up an extra 2 frets on the low E string, giving the player access to Drop D tuning without having to retune or rethink common chords.
The guitars can be ordered with MIDI control capabilities and the 13-pin Roland output. MIDI controls for volume and bank up/down are integrated into the saddles, as are the volume slider for piezo output and, if included, the volume slider for a body pickup.
Plugged in is where the magic happens – literally. Next to the long volume slider is another long slider that Hartmann calls “The Magic”. The Magic is a kind of octave effect, adding a note one octave down on only the bass strings. The player can add it in gradually, using it as a subtle thickening effect or bring it in all the way, creating a massive amount of low end.
The piezos push clear, crisp acoustic tone, and Spuler has integrated a special, proprietary preamp into the guitar’s electronics that give it excellent acoustic tone; both the steel and nylon string versions of his guitar benefit from this circuitry, including The Magic.
With this report, The Gear Page’s coverage of the Montreal Guitar Show 2009 ends. This reporter considers the MGS 2009 a smashing success and looks forward to continued discussions with many of the builders mentioned over the last few days. MGS 2010 should be even better – so start planning to attend now!