By Bob Cianci
Pure Salem Guitars specializes in reissues of lost and obscure guitars from the 1960s, has been in business now for about eighteen months, and with their catchphrase, “Bow Down Upon Our Church Of Acid Rock,” have begun to win converts with their oddball ‘60s reissues and original designs, many of which are shall we say, most definitely left of center.
Pure Salem is owned and operated by a former Florida police officer named Rick Sell, a self-confessed fan of psychedelic and garage rock from the ’60s. When his career in law enforcement came to an end, it was a natural move for him to go into business offering Asian-built reproductions of weird, quirky guitars from that psychedelic era he liked so much. With no dealer network, but an active website, social media and just plain word of mouth, the Pure Salem story is getting around, and many guitarists have fallen under the spell of these instruments, yours truly included. The one design that immediately caught my attention was the model Rick calls the Tom Cat, a refined reproduction of the doomed Gumby-shaped Guild S-200 Thunderbird, favorite axe of Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and also used by Muddy Waters. The S-200 is now a very collectible and pricey guitar, partially due to the fact that less than three hundred were made back in the ‘60s. Original S-200s now fetch up to $5000 on the vintage market.
The Tom Cat’s shape is perhaps a love-it-or-hate-it thing; there’s not much grey area here, in fact, noted writer Tom Wheeler once described the shape as a Hershey bar left out in the sun, but it’s always held an attraction for this writer, as I actually owned two original Guild S-200s back in the late 70s, both now sadly gone. I should have kept one of them, even though they were both modded and stripped of the original finishes. With the Pure Salem Tom Cat, I can recapture the vibe of those lost classics I once owned. It’s notable to mention that various guitar makers have recreated the S-200 shape over the years, including Veillette/Citron, DeArmond, and lately, luthier John Bolin, who builds Billy Gibbons’ stage guitars.
This review guitar is version two of Pure Salem’s Tom Cat. Rick Sell sold out the first run, then switched Korean manufacturers and has instituted major upgrades to the guitar. Let’s take a look at some basic specs.
The Tom Cat has a mahogany body and neck with a rosewood fretboard, binding and block inlays. The bolt-on neck is a satin finished Modern C shape and the scale length is 24.75.” String spacing is 2 1/16” with a 12” radius. Grover tuners are standard. A licensed Bigsby B5 vibrato is featured on right hand models. Left-handed models (all Pure Salem guitars are available left-handed, by the way) feature a stop tailpiece. The roller bridge is a thoughtful feature that helps maintain tuning when using the Bigsby. The pickups are custom-wound Pure Salem “Jimmy” P90s. No specifications are available as to their construction at this time, so we’ll judge them purely on tone. Vintage style cloth wiring is also standard, as is a 3-way toggle, with two volumes and one tone control. A dual truss rod completes the package. The guitar is available in two finishes; white with a white pickguard, and black with a black pickguard. Every Pure Salem guitar is set up in the USA and inspected before shipment.
Now, let’s give the Tom Cat a real test. I’ll try it first in a small Vox V9106 solid state practice amp, then run it through a Sommatone Slick 18, my hand wired, Class A boutique tone monster, built by New Jersey native and amp guru, Jimmy Somma.
Run clean through the Vox, the sounds from the Tom Cat favored highs and mids, and that’s most likely a result of the hot P90s and the limited tonal peculiarities of the amp itself. The bridge pickup gave me a pleasing trebly, throaty tone. When I engaged the neck pickup, the sound softened a bit, and there was no noticeable gain or loss of volume. This would be a good jangly combination for straight rhythm playing, but I rolled off the neck pickup volume to seven for a little extra high end. The neck pickup alone was fine, but you’re not going to get anywhere near a Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery jazz tone from it. This is a rock guitar, plain and simple, with no pretense at being anything but that. The pickups’ output is very well balanced overall, the sounds are basically good, and I saw no reason to change them.
When I plugged the guitar into the Slick 18, the Tom Cat predictably responded even better when played clean, and when I activated my J. Rockett Archer Klon klone, the Tom Cat became a fire-breathing dragon. With the crunch set at about eight, this big, bad cat roared. The neck pickup gave me a sound resembling Carlos Santana when I rolled off a little volume and added compression; both pickups were reminiscent of Pete Townshend’s Live At Leeds tone, and the bridge pickup alone was just slammin’ rock ‘n roll nirvana, with great sustain and cut. It almost felt like the ‘60s again. Pinch harmonics came easily, and the guitar responded well to pick attack. And if you rolled off the volume on either pickup, the tone cleaned right up. Very impressive.
From an ergonomic standpoint, the Tom Cat might feel a tad strange to anyone who has never held or played a Guild S-200, but it won’t take long to warm up to the contoured shape and feel. It’s very comfortable and ergonomically sensible, and the guitar is well balanced, with no neck dive whatsoever. I’m generally not a big fan of today’s Modern C shaped necks (I prefer a chunky neck, to be honest), but I could live with this neck. The hardware and electronics are sound and everything works as it should. The body and neck finish is near flawless, the binding and fretwork is excellent, and the Art Deco-inspired half white headstock is a classy touch. A plastic PS logo is glued to the headstock, and that’s the only feature that looked out of place. Something with a little more class would be in order, but it’s satisfactory the way it is.
I’m a real bug about guitars that maintain tuning while being played hard. The Tom Cat responded well, but had a tendency to go a little sharp after aggressive chording, bending, and after use of the Bigsby, pointing to the nut as the likely culprit. It’s nothing a professional setup won’t cure, and this is to be expected with any new guitar straight out of the box. A little Nut Sauce applied to the nut slots and on the bridge rollers would be advised, and perhaps widening of the slots themselves, an easy fix.
The Tom Cat is a nasty rock ‘n roll machine that brings back memories of one of those lost designs from decades ago. Even the unique headstock design of the S-200 has been faithfully recreated. The Tom cat sells for $1045, and is available at the moment directly from the Pure Salem website, www.puresalem.com. Check out their full line of guitars while you’re there. You just might be amazed. Some of Pure Salem’s endorsers include Wayne Coyne and Stephen Drozd of Flaming Lips, Elliot Easton of The Cars and The Empty Hearts, Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe, and the notorious and mysterious Gearmanndude.
It should be noted that Pure Salem does not, at this time, offer cases or gig bags for any of their guitars; perhaps next year. Rick also told me he will be attending the annual Levitation Festival on May 8-10 2015 at the Carson Creek Ranch in Austin, Texas, a celebration of psychedelic music featuring the first appearance in fifty years of those acid dropping Texas badboys, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, featuring Roky Erickson. Pure Salem was the only guitar company invited.
As Rick says; “It’s rock ‘n roll. Not rocket science.”