Review: Gretsch Duo Jet

20184092_1255977797858630_8443339013066063872_nGretsch guitars have always occupied a very specific space in my mind. Great for Chet Atkins, good for all that rockabilly jazz. A compromise for anything else.

You may already see where I’m going with this – I was wrong.

Despite placing them in such a small pigeonhole, there’s been an attraction to Gretsches for me which stems from seeing some of my favourite players use them to great effect.

David Gilmour proved the point that, despite my misgivings, they can amply handle a sustained lead tone, Pete Townshend made his entire signature sound with his own Gretsch, even employing both a Duo Jet and a 6120 for live work, and I don’t feel like I even need to mention the Beatles connection! Somehow the cover of George Harrison’s Cloud 9 is hard to shake from memory.

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With all of that, actually buying a Gretsch never entered my head given the lack of examples to play locally and the hefty Australian import fees. But as luck would have it, I sold a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe to my brother on the same night I found a prime example of a Duo Jet on eBay.

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VERY price reduced, due to “scratches, dents, rust and lifting paint” but with images (above) which showed no front-on view and seemed to reflect none of those issues, I was very wary, but reasoning that I wouldn’t have to worry about putting some dings in myself when gigging, I took the chance. I needn’t have worried.

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I’ll save you the time of explaining the condition of my Gretsch, but it’s about fifteen years old, and has the wear you might expect. You can see from the photos that there is no cause for alarm over the condition.

The bridge isn’t pinned, but some double sided tape ($3.45AU) holds it in place with no movement. You can throw this thing around and not move the bridge, and the synchro-sonic has no intonation problems, unlike some of the other Gretsch offerings.

The bigsby is not one of my favourite tremolo systems by design, but the flutter it gives the sound of this guitar is brilliantly subtle. I like to play a lot with the trem arm in my hand, and although it’s a bit more of a stretch to where it sits than a Strat, because the arm doesn’t do a full rotation, it’s an easy adjustment to get used to.

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The pickups are Dynasonics. They are single coils, unlike the more common Filtertron pickups, and the difference in tone is not insignificant. People often refer to the Duo Jet as sounding bitey like a Telecaster, and with Dynasonics, there’s good reason for that comparison. These are very dynamic pickups. If you play aggressive, you can get pretty close to the Tele sound, although these pups are a little fatter. But soften your touch and they sound more like a sweet, articulate Jazzmaster. The bigsby, too, puts me in mind of the more ‘reserved’ travel distance of the Jazzmaster tremolo.

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The Duo Jet body is chambered, but not hollow, so it resists feedback a bit more than fully hollow or semi-hollow guitars with similar specs. Having said that, you wouldn’t want to push it too far, this is still a guitar for subtlety rather than heavy distortion. It’s more well-suited to crunchy Pete Townshend drive, and it’s anywhere between here and it’s beautiful cleans that it excels.

It’s also worth nothing the strangeness of using the master volume which is here located below the neck pickup. It’s a position I’m not used to at all, but it feels very natural. This feeling extends to most aspects of the instrument, it’s extremely well made. It’s my understanding that all Duo Jets are now made in Japan or Korea, and this Japanese model is extremely comfortable. The neck is very similar to a Fender standard ‘C’, not particularly fat, but not uncomfortably thin, and the fit and finish is perfect. There’s no fretting out, no sharp edges on the frets and fretboard, and tuning holds pretty well with the Bigsby, at least as long as you don’t go too mad with it. There’s a little more meat in your hand at the high end, so it’s arguably not so good for quick playing up there as something with a more accessible heel like almost any Fender or Gibson option.

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The only problem I have in dealing with this guitar is the treble loss with the volume roll-off. It makes it hard for me to control the gain with my volume, because you lose clarity as you reach the cleaner sound you want. But if you prefer to change your dirt balance by tweaking or switching your pedals or amp, you won’t have a problem with this. And it’s probably quite easily fixed with a simple mod to the volume control.

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So, to sum up. I’m blown away by this guitar. It handles any sound I’ve heard anyone else get with these pickups easily, and even does a passable imitation of the Filtertrons with the tone rolled off a little. It achieves everything I thought it would, while remaining far more versatile than I gave it credit for in the beginning. As long as you aren’t trying to do heavy distortion, this guitar has a beautiful, eloquent voice. For the foreseeable future, it’s not going anywhere.

(And if you enjoyed the photos in this article, follow my instagram at https://www.instagram.com/thomaswilliamsmusic/ for more of the same, as well as sound and video of this guitar)

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Review: Fender Japan Rosewood Telecaster

I’ve got kind of a thing for Rosewood. Personally, I think the most beautiful guitars in the world are the all-rosewood Fenders, and it seems like of the various models, the most famous has to be George Harrison’s Rosewood Telecaster.

Of course, it’s not cheap to get your hands on one of the original 60’s production run, and still almost prohibitively expensive to pick from the present day Custom shop offerings. But the Japanese Rosewood telecasters are pretty plentiful, and very reasonably priced in comparison to other Japanese Fenders.

Naturally, there are some ‘interesting’ design features which separate these models from the more upmarket models (and their pricepoints).

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Firstly and most obviously, these guitars could never be produced at this cost with full rosewood bodies. So while the headstock face, fretboard and front and back of the body are covered with a rosewood veneer, the bulk of the neck and body wood is basswood.

The veneer seems to be bookmatched, and looks absolutely amazing. Ever since seeing George play his in the Let it Be movie, I’ve thought of these models as one of my dream guitars, and I lost my breath a little when I opened the gigbag on this one.

The model in the pictures is gloss finished, but they are also readily available in a matte finish (more like George’s) if the buyer is more that way inclined. The gloss finish also covers the fretboard, so if you like the feel of a vintage MAPLE fretboard (although this is clearly a VERY contentious issue), you’ll love this.

The full black paint on the rear of the neck and the body sides is also going to be a sore point for some people, but even if you hate it, it’s never going to be that noticeable in the dim lights of an ordinary stage setting.Picture1

So cosmetically, this is a fantastic guitar. But how does it hold up as a players instrument? Well to be honest, the answer IMHO is a resounding “Okay, I guess”.

Let me start by saying that on stage or on record, you’d be hard pressed to hear a difference between this or any other vintage Tele, and after all, these claim to come fitted with USA vintage Tele pickups. So sound wise, there’s no problem at all. But like a stereotypical starlet, gorgeous and seductive-sounding as she might be, a guitar is only capable of saying what you ask it to, and this is not the kind of guitar that makes that operation feel inspiring.

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The tuners are the vintage-style Fender ‘F’ stamped tuners, and (although I can’t speak as to whether this is the case for all ‘F’ tuners, or just these Japanese reproductions) they don’t hold tune particularly well. I’ve gigged a few times with this guitar and I find it holds tune less well than any of my Strats, and I’m a heavy trem user.

But machine heads are easy to replace. Not so simple to remedy is the fact that while the basswood may sound great, it doesn’t feel good. This again may be a matter of personal taste, because the result of this is that the whole guitar is extremely lightweight (There is almost as much difference between my Rosewood Tele and any of my Strats as there is between those same Strats and my Les Paul). But to me, that makes the whole thing feel a little too cheap and lacking in resonance.

Try as I might to get over this issue, this guitar never inspires me to play it particularly. Despite the fact that it sits in pride of place in my music room, I almost always find myself walking past it to reach for something else.

And yet…

Personally, I kind of regret selling my Squier Classic Vibe Tele to pay for the Rosewood, but I rarely play a Tele anyway owing to the fact that I miss having a trem arm, so the kind of “players inspiration” I am talking about isn’t necessarily the requirement it seems like it should be. If I ever have a part I want to play on a Telecaster, this one will deliver the sound in spades, and I have to admit that every time I pick it up, I smile a little at the fact that I’m holding one of my dream guitars.

You can make your own call on what that says about me, but I won’t be getting rid of this guitar any time soon. And I don’t think anything else is going to replace it on the wall. Just make sure you have your priorities in order before you buy one 😛

 

(Apologies for the high contrast on some of these pictures. It’s a 42 degree day in Adelaide and my phone isn’t the best camera in the world.)

 

Review: Roger Waters’ “Amused to Death”

I don’t write very many reviews.

This is, at least in part, due to the fact that I have a strong tendency to wonder why anyone should care what I think. Of course, I can’t answer that for you.

Having said that…

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Once in a while an album comes along which demands to be spoken about, particularly when it seems to be neglected by the masses. Roger Waters’ Amused to Death certainly filled that criteria when it was first released in 1992, and it remains to be seen how its 2015 reissue will be received publicly.

Certainly, the discrepancy between the sales of Roger’s solo career and that of the ‘Pink Floyd’ he left behind would be weighted rather differently if the works produced by both were judged on musical merit alone, even moreso if they were judged on lyrical content. Your mileage may vary, but to me this seems to speak of the worrying tendency of the modern listener (indeed, of any modern consumer) to allow so much of their taste to be dictated by brand, rather than the product itself. A cursory look at almost any current music video should instantly reveal what the true focus is. If you can perform this test and still claim it’s the music or lyrics, you’re a less cynical person than I.

This is the age of the video medium, where image is everything. Why put money into selling a ground-breaking album and risk a loss when trotting out the same dull shit as before with a shinier gloss will yield a more lucrative return?

Though he was making a slightly different point, Neil Postman noted in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death that the medium is everything.

            “While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of the American Indians, I can safely assume it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence…

…You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.

…it is impossible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, rather than words…

…You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.”

This message clearly resonated with Roger Waters, since ultimately Postman’s book would inform recurring themes on the album, even to the point of borrowing the title Amused to Death.

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Of course, the idea expressed in this title was not entirely new. A favourite of Waters’ (and indeed, Postman’s) was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which he lamented the idea that, far from the tale of subjugation in George Orwell’s oft-compared 1984, the human race would be only too happy to be exploited by the government in ignorance, minds occupied with the instant pleasures of the modern age, and unconcerned with world events or the lives of fellow human beings.

These are the images that Roger Waters’ Amused to Death paints in such vivid colour.

This is not an album for the passing fancier of throwaway pop. This is serious music.

Waters holds back no punches as he sings of man’s greed, the invocation of God to exploit those who believe, the horrors of war and the horrors of a world where war can be packaged as a consumable on television and of course, as always, empathy.

It seems that throughout his career, some people have always been quick to denounce Roger’s lyrics as dark and cynical, offering nothing to lighten the heart. He quite often, therefore, suffers the injustice of being labelled a depressive lyricist when nothing could be further from the truth. The strength in Roger’s lyrics comes from an ever-present theme of human compassion and understanding, in the face of the worst the human race has to offer. He once said himself that his line “Strangers passing in the street, by chance do separate glances meet. And I am you and what I see is me.” heard on Echoes represented a theme which continued throughout his work to the present day. His openness about such humanitarian issues is almost unparalleled in popular music and this is never more evident in his work than on very personal albums like The Wall, The Final Cut and Amused to Death.

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In Too much Rope, he sings of an image of a soldier returning to Vietnam to survey the destruction his endeavours helped to cause:

              “What does it mean, this tender TV, this tearjerking scene beamed into my home? You don’t have to be a Jew to disapprove of murder. Tears burn my eyes. Muslim or Christian, Mullah or Pope, preacher or poet, who was it wrote ‘give any one species too much rope and they’ll fuck it up’?”.

Unremarkably, considering how plainly the words are written, one never gets the sense that they aren’t heartfelt. Roger Waters is not a man to shy away from wearing his heart on his sleeve. And without a doubt his voice gets put through its paces. There’s no autotune or electronic trickery to be found here. Just honest and incredibly emotionally charged performance.

This is true of the other musicians as well. P.P. Arnold does a stellar vocal turn on part 2 of Perfect Sense, (in which a stadium joins in a chorus of ‘Can’t you see, it all makes perfect sense. Expressed in dollars and sense, pounds shillings and pence.’). Lead guitar duties are shared throughout by Jeff Beck and Steve Lukather, with Beck lending technically proficient and eerily vocal like solos to no less than seven tracks*.

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It would be easy to say that the final (and title) track is one of the finest of Waters’ career, but frankly the same could be said about almost every other track as well. With no exaggeration, this album truly represents one of the most individual, skilled and honest songwriters in the world at the peak of his abilities. Which is not a statement intended, by any means, to play down the role of the music or other musicians, on this front, too, the album is superlative. Yet when each song presents such a strong, truthful view of the world of its time, however depressing it may be (and remain; the themes of the album are perhaps even more relevant today than they were at the time of writing), that becomes the main draw card in my eyes. If music is the surface beauty of a track and lyrics the depth that makes it stand up to repeated listening, then Amused to Death could last forever.

What’s more, the 2015 reissue brings even more depth to the production side of things. Everything is so much crisper than before. The mix is much better balanced, with new instrument tracks audible in most songs, but never to the detriment of the album as a flowing ‘piece’, something which seems to be common to almost all of Waters’ work. Multiple tracks also receive new guitar solos from Jeff Beck, and The Bravery of Being out of Range receives the most radical remix of all: An entirely new Jeff Beck part has been reintroduced to the entire song, keyboards dropped and Roger’s vocals brought more to the forefront, resulting in a much tighter song than the older version. Of course, the sting of the lyrics remains.

“Just love those laser-guided bombs, they’re really great for righting wrongs. You hit the target and win the game from bars three thousand miles away. We play the game with the bravery of being out of range.”

I could quote easily from the rest of the songs to bolster my point, but I will leave it up to the reader to take that challenge instead…

So if you’re thinking about buying this album, go ahead. You won’t be disappointed. It’s up there with any of the albums Pink Floyd made in any terms you care to measure by. For my money the 2015 version offers significant improvements over the original release, and if you’re a fan of the original, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest you seek out the new one too.

But when you listen, don’t just listen once. And don’t just listen to the music. Listen to a man bearing his soul.

“No tears to cry. No feelings left. The species has amused itself to death.”

  • You can see Roger talk about the album in a 2015 interview HERE

*On the reissue, that is. On the original release (as mentioned in the above article), Jeff Beck’s solo and other contributions are excised from The Bravery of Being out of Range.

Review – Squier Classic Vibe 50’s Telecaster

As the keen-eyed among you may have guessed, the Squier classic vibe 50’s Telecaster is based on the iconic design of the 1950’s ‘blackguard’ era Fender Telecasters, but with compromises for the sake of cost and a selection of modern features to improve playability.

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The tuners are vintage style and hold tune very well indeed. In fact, the ones you see on mine in the pictures are locking tuners the previous owner installed which actually seem to hold tune less well than the stock tuners. The neck has a modern fingerboard radius of 9.5” and medium jumbo frets to improve comfort and facilitate easier string bends.

The black pickguard remains single-ply as on original ‘50s Fenders, but as a result of age and over-tightening of the screws, these original guards would commonly crack around the screw holes. To combat this, the classic vibe series pickguard has a more modern three-ply thickness.

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The vintage lacquered neck will divide opinion. Some players don’t like lacquered necks on the basis that they find them sticky under certain conditions i.e. heat and sweat. This is not a problem I have ever encountered and frankly I think the finish makes the guitar feel much nicer under the fingers, as well as giving it a more vintage appearance.

The combination of the brass saddles (again, in the example pictured, the saddles are not original), original style bridge and custom vintage pickups give this guitar a classic vintage Tele tone.

For the price, these are a very hard guitar to beat in terms of build quality and sound and in my own opinion if you get a good example, they easily outperform the more expensive Fender Mexican standards. In particular, if the vintage look is something you are interested in, you will find it very hard to beat any of the classic vibe series models on price, and the 50’s Tele is no exception.