There were two big stories that dominated the guitar booths at NAMM 2018 - namely Ibanez’s new millennial Suhr-alike range and Fender’s smart Parallel Universe range. My very first guitar was that original Super-Strat the Ibanez Roadstar RG 440 (1986) in black - with the slightly odd older rounded headstock shape. The new headstock is much nicer, and there are some genuine innovations at this price point - with dedicated and exclusive Seymour Duncan Hyperion pickups across the range and really smart alternative voicings toggle to go with coil-tap switches. All guitars come with roasted Maple necks - with the Japanese Prestige ones going through and extra special S-Tech Bake to ensure every trace of moisture is removed from the necks. High quality Gotoh hardware throughout - licking tuners and custom low-profile tremolo. Feels like you’re not just getting a better quality Fender-alike, but a significantly lower cost Suhr. John Suhr was meanwhile celebrating 10 years of independence with the ridiculously expensive new LP-style Aura - a snip at £8,000! It looks like it’s borrowed it’s headstock slightly from PRS, which is no bad thing, and it body looks like an uglier version of a Knaggs Kenai. I would much rather have a PRS or Knaggs single-cut at 1/2 the price of the artificially limited Aura - but go figure.
Meanwhile Fender has finally decided to spice up its act a little and cross-fertilise its back-catalogue of models to introduce some really cool Parallel Universe Hybrids - of which there were several designs I quite liked - including the Troublemaker Tele featured above. I still feel Fender and Gibson are largely resting on past glories, and have largely been bereft of innovation of late. Successive years just see minor variations in colour and material specifications, although Fender certainly through some interesting shapes into the mix. Yet as I did in 1986, I would still prefer to go with the superior quality of the Ibanez AZ’s - I particularly like the capabilities of the HSS models, although Tom Quail’s signature is rather pricey, but definitely nice.
I tend to have 4 favourite guitar brands - PRS, Music Man, Ibanez and Schecter in order of preference - and PRS certainly released a couple of gems this year. My favourite current guitar is my 2016 CE24 - so it’s nice to see quite a different variation of that in the much thinner neck, satin finish pro version that is Dustie Waring’s signature - featuring a blade switch rather than a toggle and a different layout for the controls with his signature pickups - a worthy competitor for the original Mark Holcomb then - at a slightly more pricey £2,459, but not beyond reach really though. Even more interesting to me is the new PRS S2 Studio which combines 2 Type-D single coil pickups from the Vela with the classic Starla humbucker - essentially an HSS Vela in a more conventional shape - offers up lots of different tonal possibilities, albeit not quite as clever as the Ibanez AZs.
I’ve long been a fan of the Ibanez S-Type too - an HSH DiMarzio Air Norton, True Velvet and Tone Zone -loaded pro chameleon guitar - much loved and supported by Alice Cooper guitarist Nita Strauss who now has her own signature version of that with her own signature humbuckers, yet retaining the superb True Velvet in the middle slot. I still want one of those Prestige S-types - they’re around £1,800 at the moment, and I guess Nita’s version may fetch a little more.
Eddie will always remain a chief among my guitar heroes and I so love his sound, that I would be quite happy to acquire one of the more high-spec’ed EVH Wolfgangs - like the new Black Stripe Version. I also have a liking for forest green guitars, and Stephen Carpenter’s new SC-20 signature for ESP LTD looks right up my street. Music Man have been real busy of late, so it’s understandable that the innovations this year were in the lower cost Sterling diffusion brand - with exceptionally high quality and high value versions of St Vincent, Albert Lee, and JP Majesty to name a few. I’m not the biggest fan of the sole blue current colourway for the Sterling St Vincent - even though that guitar plays fantastically - I would more likely go for the stealth black of the Sterling Majesty. Metal players have apparently taken to the St Vincent so the USA-models of that now have optional dual full-size humbucker models, while for me that guitar is all about the trio of mini-humbuckers. Would be tempted by a black Sterling St Vincent - perhaps one of those will materialise eventually - otherwise I am actually quite keen to acquire a high spec St Vincent too!
The final guitar I have yet to mention is the cool X-shaped Jackson WRX Warrior in natural woods - I’ve developed quite a liking to this shape of guitar and have considered out-of-production Ibanez Xiphos and BC Rich MK9 Warlocks too. I really like that X-shape - including the upper horn - in terms of practicality and grab-ability, I will always prefer guitars that have some other means to grab them than simply clamping onto the neck - fine if there are monkey grips or similar - but picking a guitar up by the horn is just something I’ve grown accustomed to!
So these are the 10 guitars that stood out for me this year. Last year I was considering a PRS S2 Sating Singlecut, but became slightly overcome with pedal-mania. The Pedal Tone-Quest continues into 2018, with my being particularly enthusiastic about all manner of fuzzes - so I am unlikely to add any further guitars any time soon - If I were though, I feel it would be either a PRS S2 Studio, Ibanez HSS AZ, or an Ibanez Prestige S-Type. I quite like the idea of getting the Jackson X too and pimping it up with better hardware, pickups and electronics. Then again, even though my PRS CE now contains mostly US-parts - I switched out the bridge almost immediately, I do wonder about the quality of the pots and switches - so I may upgrade my main workhorse rather than get a new one - still like the idea of souping up the Jackson X-type - but my focus is still really too heavily on pedals - once I cover all the bases, I will settle down and take on some more instruments and amps!
Guitars listed roughly by preference / likeliness of acquisition!:
What can I say - I do love the look, quality and tone of PRS Guitars - they are usually the first brand I look to, and the new PRS S2 Studio gives you something pretty unique for a PRS - 2 D-Type larger single coils from a Vela, alongside a Starla Humbucker in HSS arrangement. You can coil-tap the humbucker and there is a 5-way blade selector for a plethora of tones - including an interesting combination of neck and bridge pickups. Body wood is Mahogany, as is Neck, with a Rosewood board. Usual locking tuners and PRS Tremolo Bridge. Also at a a pretty reasonable price - I'm rarely a fan of scratch-plates - but love this one, particularly in the McCarty Tobacco Sunburst colourway.
The Ibanez Premium AZ models (Made in Indonesia) provide an even better price point that the PRS S2 Studios, and my preferred versions are the HSS format ones. They come with unique Seymour Duncan Hyperion pickups, exclusive Gotoh hardware, baked maple necks and boards, and a really clever voicing toggle which gives 4 of the blade positions a unique second tone - for instance combining the two single coils into a very jazzy sounding humbucker. You get stainless steel frets, locking tuners etc. - loaded with high quality components. I'm always intrigued to by what electronics get shoved into the interior cavity, I'm not convinced my made in the USA CE necessarily has the best pots, switches and electronics - will get that looked at at some stage. So the Ibanez AS is slightly lower cost, possibly slightly higher spec'ed and slightly more versatile than the PRS Studio, but the combination of everything still makes me prefer the PRS somehow.
I've recently decided I really like these X-type guitars, like this one and the discontinued Ibanez Xiphos. This is for sure one of the more lower cost ones, and while the bodywork is fantastic, I might like to buy this one to soup it up a touch - swap in locking tuners, better bridge and pro-spec humbuckers, possibly update some electronics - really great looking for me in its natural wood finish. The guitar comes with Duncan Designed HB-103B and Duncan Designed HB-103N pickups - which I understand are OEM versions of the Seymour Duncan JB/59 combo. In acquiring this guitar - I would most likely upgrade to those pickups.
Again as per the intro, I will reiterate that I've long been a fan of Ibanez's Prestige S-Type guitars - like the S6570Q (c£1,800) - with its combination of DiMarzio Air Norton + True Velvet + Tone Zone. One of the artists that has long championed this type of exceptional pro journeyman guitar is Alice Cooper's lead guitarist Nita Strauss. Her loyalty has now been rewarded with a signature model of her own - this unique black to blonde burst colourway 'JIVA 10' - featuring Nita's own signature DiMarzio humbuckers - and her signature 'Beaten Path' EKG fret markers. It's a really cool guitar - and I'm interested to see how much more than the standard Prestige S's it will retail at - I'm guessing similar level to Tom Quail's and Martin Miller's new ones.
So my main current guitar is my 2016 Whale Blue Smoke Burst PRS CE - and I really love it's feel and action - and as a bolt-on mix of humbucker and single-coil tones - these guitars are crisp, clean, versatile and really dynamic. Dustie Waring mixes it up a touch more with a blonde Maple board, his own signature Mojotone DW Tomahawk humbuckers, a Floyd Rose bridge, and a different arrangement of dials and switches - using a 5-blade switch instead of the customary toggle. PRS CE's currently retail at £1,999, and with my USA bridge swap-out adding a further £310 and some additional hardware changes - my own model is not far short of the Dustie Waring version - so all things considered, it's pretty much in line with expectations. The icing on the cake here is the same sort of satin Nitro finish that Mark Holcomb had on his original signature edition - of course - with a different coloured burst!
Stephen Carter of Deftones fame has great taste in guitars - his new signature Korean WMI-made SC-20 in See Thru Green is both beautiful and unique - featuring Alder body, 3Pc Maple neck and Ebony board - and with Seymour Duncan JB humbucker at Bridge, ESP LH-150 humbucker in the middle, and an EPS LS-120N single coil at the neck - for a very unusual HHS configuration. The guitar features locking tuners, and conventional 5-way blade and separate Tone and Volume knobs. This is a really cool guitar! Note that the above demo is of the original twice as pricey Custom Shop edition - but you get a good idea of what the new one could sound like.
All the AZ range of guitars - of which Tom Quail's signature guitar is one too - come with largely the same hardware, pickups etc. The main difference being the extra S-Tech baking process on the maple neck and board, and the fact that the higher-end Prestige models are made in Japan versus Indonesia for the Premium Range. The Premiums are at £1,069, The Prestiges at £1,779 and £2,229 and the signature Tom Quail and Martin Miller models are at £2,250. I prefer the colour and look of Martin's guitar, but the HSS pickup layout of Tom's. I have enough HH's for now, want to add some HSS, HSH or even HHS's to the collection - eventually - and when the pedal collection reaches critical mass!
Music Man has been great at introducing cool new shapes recently, so it's fantastic to see those filter through to the more affordable Sterling diffusion brand. My 3 favourite shapes of recent years have been the Albert Lee, John Petrucci Majesty and St Vincent Signature and all have their Sterling equivalents - some available already, and some still forthcoming. The current version of the the St Vincent is Bright Blue and White, which is not really my chosen colourway - although I believe Stealth Black is forthcoming, and the Albert Lee has yet to materialise - so I went of the mid-priced John Petrucci Majesty in Stealth Black. It is not quite as authentic as the St Vincent - which is almost an exact copy - the Sterling Majesty for instance does away with the toggle switch on the horn (Piezo), but it still looks pretty cool - my current guitar of choice for what's out already. If the St Vincent Stealth had been out - I would have gone for that - and it would likely have been higher up the pecking order. The Blue and White one retails at £739.
As I said in the intro, the Fender Parallel Universe range made quite a splash at NAMM, and was a nice surprise over the tiny colour changes and new ways of relicking we usually have to put up with. As a staunch modernist, I have always shied away from the classic original guitars for some reason - preferring an Ibanez over a Fender originally, and not ever really falling into the Gibson camp of flawed headstock shape, quality issues and various product idiosyncracies. Much rather refined and improved PRS, Music Man, Ibanez and Schecter! Yet even I was somewhat enamoured by the new hybrid range, and liked several of those models - including the Troublemaker Tele. I still think they are somewhat pricey for what you get, and you can get better quality for less! Both Fender and Gibson use their market-leading positions to demand higher prices, which is kind of fine for Gibsons - as they've always been pricey. But Leo Fender designed the Tele in particular to be low cost and affordable - which is why I always see it as something of an incongruity when some Fender models are priced so high! I still think you are paying quite a lot for the heritage. I recently watched Darrel Braun assemble his own deluxe 'Partcaster' using an original Deluxe Strat neck, Body from Warmoth, Hardware from Hipshot and fully installed Pickups / Electronics / Pickguard from Darkmoon - for a spectacular Super Strat - perhaps that's the way to go! See following -
I'm still a huge fanboy of Eddie Van Halen - at some stage would just love to have a complete version of his pro-rig - Guitar, Amp and Pedals. For now though my needs are more versatile - so I typically look to other manufacturers ahead of EVH. There are in fact 3 EVH-alike guitars available at the moment - obviously the EVH line, then the renamed predecessors - Music Man's Axis, and Peavey's recently reintroduced HP2 ST. I could really go for any of those - even thought the body shape is not necessarily my favourite, and I may lean toward the officially endorsed version - or the Axis! - or possibly the more Fender style Striped series even though they only contain a single pickup.
Looking at all those guitars, it's still fairly evident that not much has changed of late - these are still largely familiar shapes with familiar fixtures and fittings. Recent advances in Guitar Tech include things like the Evertune bridges, Fishman Fluence pickups and Line 6 Variax and Boss Strandberg modelling guitars. Yes there are some increasingly more headless guitars on the market, but nothing totally new this year.
I often think I would like to do a Darrel Braun and assemble my own guitar from ready-made parts, but even then there is still soldering involved. I wish guitar-makers did more to make their guitars more easily upgradeable - with plug and play components - so you can easily update pickups and electronics for instance!
Guitar manufacture is increasingly moving towards Asia, with a lot less production in Japan now, decreasing production in South Korea, and China and Indonesia in particular growing swiftly. There's more variety and choice than ever before, but there's also more pitfalls. Most guitar manufacturers are still totally opaque about what electronics they use in their guitars - with many still using cheap pots and switches in really quite relatively pricey guitars. We need more transparency, and more ease of being able to update and upgrade key parts like tuners, bridges, pickups, switches and pots!