Kawai evaluation. Spoiler alert: It’s pretty knackered.

So I found an hour the other day to start really examining my cheesy late 60s guitar purchase, the Kawai SS4L I bought last week.

The first impression that this could be a mighty fine guitar still holds, but I am now more intimidated by the amount of work needed to get it into playing shape.

Let’s summarize what I know so far.

Hardware

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The mounting plate on the back is in horrible shape and there seems no saving it. I have already taken it off, probably permanently.

As noted previously, the tuners are missing. Or in fact it looks like bits such as the posts, keys, gears have been ripped off for use somewhere else. The nice front mounting plate remains though. So I will try to keep it. The sub-assembly on the back is knackered and bent and probably not useful once I buy new tuners for the guitar.

Like the tuner mounting plate on the front of the headstock

The tuner mounting plate on the front of the headstock is nice and distinctive. I hope I can buy tuners to fit through it

Further down the neck the string guides and truss-rod cover look OK. But who knows what the nut is like.

Sting guides, truss rod cover and nut

Sting guides, truss rod cover and nut

The frets are really really small and low profile. Maybe this is why it is used so much for slide? But I will want the option to play it normally. So let’s see down the road if that is possible. If not then a re-fret by a professional will be necessary.

Semi floating bridge

Semi floating bridge

The bridge is there and not attached. Unlike the Fender guitars I am more used to, this is semi-floating and will rely on string pressure to keep it down. I say semi-floating because i also have my Ibanez ES175 copy where he bridge is not attached in any way. The thumb wheels remind me of a Tunomatic.

I don’t understand the vibrato system at all. It looks cool from the outside, but when I take off the cover I don’t get how it moves. It doesn’t feel springy. Maybe with strings on?

Vibrato assembly from above

Vibrato assembly in context

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Vibrato assembly

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Inside the vibrato assembly: What is going on?

The neck plate is has a nice “Japan” stamp on it. I read on a forum that it might actually be a set neck and not bolt-on at all, but Teisco / Kawai just wanted to make it look like a Fenders, so they screwed on a plate. I haven’t taken it off to check.

Neck plate stamped "Japan" Merely cosmetic?

Neck plate stamped “Japan” Merely cosmetic?

Whole lotta switches

The front of the guitar is taken up with three metal scratch-plates. One in the centre of the guitar holds the four pickups. Another chrome plate on the upper bout has holes where two pairs of rocker switches used to be. The third on the lower bout holds the master tone and volume, plus four toggle switches. That is a lot of switches.

Upper bout. Missing the rocker switches.

Upper bout. Missing the rocker switches.

Lower bout. With tone, volume and four toggle switches.

Lower bout. With tone, volume and four toggle switches.

If the toggle switches are original, then this means there were 8 switches in total on the guitar. That’s pretty crazy. But it could mean that, if each pick up had a switch in both signal and ground, any combination of the four pickups in series and parallel would be possible. This is something like the way Brian May’s Red Special is set up.

Looking under the hood of the lower bout chrome plate then it seems like even though the rocker switches have been removed, the wiring seems pretty complete.

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There is also a lot of really thin paper-backed foil inside the electronics cavities. A theory emerges. I wonder if the guitar suffered from a lot of hum picked up by its single-coil pickups? Maybe someone thought that the wires running up from the output jack to the pickups to the rocker switches on the upper bout were part of the problem. There is also some really pathetic paper-backed foil lining the guitar pickup cavity, which might be trying to address the same problem. But if so, they clearly didn’t know what they were doing, as the shielding material seems inadequate and no attempt has been made to ground it. But anyway, I’m guessing the toggle switches were added later and replaced the original rocker switches. The wiring certainly seems amateurish.

There are no loose connections and it could be that if I am lucky, the electronics will work as they are.

In terms of values, it seems to be difficult to read the pots, but If I desolder them I can take a reading with a multimeter. The tone capacitor seems to be 0.05uF.

Pots. 500k?

Pots. 500k?

Tone cap. 0.05 uF ?

Tone cap. 0.05 uF ?

Pickups

The pickup wiring all seems OK. But there was some crazy stuff going on underneath that middle scratch plate.

Firstly, a previous owner had taped — using basic clear sellotape type tape — a big black magnet to the underside of the bridge pickup. To boost its output? Is there any reason to think this would work?

Underside of pickups with extra magnet piggy-backed on bridge pickup

Underside of pickups with extra magnet piggy-backed on bridge pickup

I also found that most of the pickup height adjustment springs were missing and half that were left were in bad shape. One was even straightened out somehow.

Crazy messsed up pickup height springs.

Crazy messsed up pickup height springs.

So that was pretty much it, except to mention that someone has signed the inside of the volume and tone cavity, and put a date? 2000.

At least I know that someone who owned this guitar before really cared about it. At least enough to do mods to the electronics and try and boost pickup output. And maybe they also signed their name?

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Agile Pics

So here it is. Pretty cool, huh? Especially for the money. Feels GREAT to play. I love it.

Son of El Cheapo: Agile AL-3010SE

So here’s the thing. I hate spending more money than I have to and I like to think I am fact based in my decision making when it comes to buying stuff.

Since El Cheapo left for a new home I have definitely felt that the guitar rack at home has been a little empty (ironic because due to one thing and another I have hardly managed to pickup a guitar in the last 4-5 weeks) and I figured I wanted to get another Les Paul type guitar; mahogany body with dual alnico humbuckers, but this time with a set rather than bolt-on neck. I began researching the options.

The obvious choice would be a Gibson Les Paul Studio. The Studio model is about the same as the classic Les Paul Standard (which is way out of my budget at around $1200 used), but the maple cap that sits on the mahogany body does not have the same kind of figuring, the finishes used are plainer and there is no binding on the body. It’s a Made in the USA Les Paul without the bling. The cheapest of these guitars retail for about $800 new, so let’s say $720 after tax and a bit of haggling.This should put them in the $450-$550 range second hand. Add a case and we’re talking $500-$600. With the $250 I got for El Cheapo and the little Mustang amp, plus maybe another $150 from selling my bass and I would still be at least $100 short.

So then I started thinking about Gibson’s budget brand; Epiphone. You can get a very cheap Epi Les Paul Special II for as little as $150 new, but they are unworthy of the name, being made out of plywood, having a bolt on neck and cheap ceramic pickups.

In order to get a mahogany, set neck Epiphone, you have to look at the Studio or Standard models starting at about $400 new. In theory it should be possible to pick one of these up for $300 or less, but whenever I have tried these guitars out in the store I have been deeply unimpressed.

So I started casting the net a little wider. Ibanez, ESP-LTD and Schecter all do nice looking Paul-alikes starting at about $400. But in the entry models, ceramic pickups seem to be the norm and I really want alnico. You also have to add in the cost of a hard case. These brands also seem to gravitate to metal/shredder guitars as you go up in price point, adding active EMG pickups. This is not the classic Les Paul vibe I’m after.

Michael Kelly do a nicely specced line of guitars called the Patriot, but the body shape is somehow a little off. A Paul Reed Smith Singlecut SE also could’ve been an option, used. But they are pretty rare and are also reputed to have a tone which is lighter and airier than a ‘real’ Les Paul.

But while surfing the web, doing searches such as “best Les Paul under $1000”, then one particular brand kept on popping up– the Korean made Agile guitars, in the US only sold on-line via Rondo Music. The higher end AL-3XXX guitars have specs that you would find on Gibson/Epiphone guitars costing twice as much. Agile has won a devoted following on the web. The quality of the intstruments is said to be excellent. They also, right now have a discounted line of Les Paul style guitars, the AL-3010SE, which seems to be the same as the regular AL-3010, but with plainer appointments (binding, maple top figuring) and a different bridge, but selling for $299. With a flame maple top and ebony fingerboard (as opposed to rosewood), you’d have to compare it to the higher end, Korean (rather than Chinese) made Epiphone Les Paul Plus Customs, which start at about $600.

But after adding in a case and delivery I ended up paying about $380. I should receive my new Agile TODAY! Can’t wait!

ATG Live And Unedited from a Pub in San Diego Airport

Yeah that’s me in the middle in the shiny suit saying “You know if you hurry you could get a haircut” to the muppet on the right.

I really don’t have much to write about at the moment, but I find myself with time on my hands and alcohol on the brain at the airport in San Diego, way to early too early for my flight home to Phoenix and I realize that I haven’t written anything for a while. So I figured I’d just ramble a little.

My guitar playing has kind of stalled recently. I finished a song called Winter Storms about 2 weeks ago and since then I haven’t done much at all. (By the way, if you find yourself clicking through to Soundcloud on that link go check out this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this. (and of course this and this) It’s frickin’ nuts how much good stuff is being cranked out by amateur/semi pro musicians there. (sorry about the nested parentheses there, I don’t want this blog to start looking like C# code…))

Winter Storms contains a guitar break. I hesitate to use the word ‘solo’ as I am clearly no Jimmy Page. And that is my problem. Right now I feel like my creativity is limited by technique. I have more ideas for songs, but I am hesitant to ‘finish’ them. I plan on working more on guitar technique for the rest of the year, getting into a nice practice routine, rather than cranking out the songs. Hopefully by doing this, when I go back to writing again I’ll be doing more interesting songs.

Of course GAS continues to gnaw at my bones. Although I like my Cheapo Les Paul, I worked out that if I could sell that for approximately what I bought it for, plus offloaded my Fender Mustang I amp that I hardly use and maybe sacrificed my Squier P-Bass then I might have the funds to get a Gibson Les Paul Studio second hand. Upon realizing this, I began advertizing El Cheapo and the Mustang on Craigslist. So far no takers. But let’s see.

PS As I am now sat in an airport pub with all the other cattle class passengers, I feel obliged to point out that I wrote a bitter and sad song about how horrible it is to fly in planes these days and then I tried to do an experimental remix of it which has some good elements, but doesn’t really work. But I’d hate you to think I only write miserable slow songs, I also did a funky little one recently that I’m quite proud of.

Prince plus Fender Stratocaster (This counts as news in my world II)

I’ve been a Prince fan since I was a teenager, although I have to admit to losing interest in his records during the 1990s, he’s still in my book one of the greatest artists of all time. Back in the days of Parade and Sign O’The Times I was actually a pretty obsessive Prince fan. Those records from Dirty Mind to SOTT (and probably 50% of Lovesexy) were just fantastic.

Was just scanning the news and found this nice article on Prince’s lost gems by The Guardian.

At the top of the article is The Wee Purple Groove Hobbit with a Fender Stratocaster.

Photo hotlinked from The Guardian website

Although Prince is a famous Telecaster player, his classic instrument was actually a  Hohner Madkat Tele copy. So it’s interesting (if you are a guitar geek like me) to see him with a Strat. You can tell it’s a strat because of the pointy angle on the headstock opposite the tuning keys. The Tele headstock is thinner and more rounded. But it could also be he has some kind of partscaster or special edition he had built for him by Fender or a minion luthier.

Anyway. Prince and a Strat. That is all.

Cheapo Les Paul addition — what was I thinking?

So, despite saying I was going to hold back on a Les Paul for the time being, I went and did it. I was perusing Craigslist and a PRS Soapbar 2 SE came up for $175, Although I don’t own one, I am a big fan of PRS guitars and getting a solid mahogany, set neck example for less than $200 just seemed too good a chance to pass up. It’s difficult for me to track down the new price for this guitar as it is no longer made, but a similar PRS Single Cut SE is a $600 guitar when new. So $175 seemed an absolute steal for this one. By the way the ‘Soapbar’ name comes from the fact it has a pair of P90-type ‘hot’ single-coil pickups rather than humbuckers. But it’s quite easy to get ‘buckers that fit those slots. P90s have also been used in Les Pauls since the 1950s and punk rockers such as Mick Jones of The Clash actually preferred these examples to the humbucker versions because of their cutting tone.

I exchanged emails with the owner and he agreed I could come and see it, but didn’t specify when or leave a phone number. Then he went quiet. I assume he found another buyer. Would’ve been nice of him to let me know, but he didn’t.

By this time I was of course GASing bad. After a couple of days I began to scour Craigslist again, looking for Les Paul type guitars. I had two criteria; the guitar had to be mahogany with a set neck and less than $200. Ideally with humbuckers, but OK with P90s (like the Soapbar).

This should put me in Epiphone Les Paul Standard territory, but ownership of these budget, Chinese-made Gibson versions seems to indicate a tenuous grasp of reality. Unlike Telecasters there is always quite a few on sale, but the prices sought are usually unrealistic: “No I am not going to pay you $350 for a used guitar I can get for $400 new, even with a ‘deluxe gig bag’ “.

But I found one interesting option; a dude selling a Chinese-made Les Paul copy for $200 including a hard case. Mahogany, set neck. Checked all the boxes.

From the description in the ad it appeared to be a SVK ELPC400. From some sniffing around the web I found out that these guitars seemed to be highly regarded. They’re also no longer made as the manufacturer had been sued by Gibson for copying the Les Paul design too slavishly. When available then they seemed to sell for $350…$400 without a case. Here’s the spec run down which the seller had clearly copied from the importer’s webpage:

SVK Guitars ELP-C400 Single Cutaway Electric Guitar Features:

Set-Neck 50’s Body shape
Solid African Mahogany Body
Maple Top
Canadian Hardrock Maple Neck
1960’S Neck Profile
Bound Indian Rosewood Fingerboard
24.75 Scale
Thin High 190NS Fretwire Exclusive
Pearl Block Inlays
Bound Top and Back
Bound Head
Two Way Truss Rod
Tune-O-Matic III Die-Cast Bridge Tailpiece
Die-Cast Vintage Tuners
EVJ-Alnico 5800 Humbucker Pickups

The above basically equates to a Les Paul Standard, with the exception of the maple neck. Gibson use mahogony on real LPs. I figured that this would be at least as good as an Epi Standard. Possibly better.

I went to play it, thought it was OK and then tried to haggle. The seller was claiming he had paid over $300 new for the guitar plus another $100 for the case. I was GASing and I caved, giving the guy $200 and took it home.

On opening the case at home I felt sick to  my stomach. I’d made a mistake. Because the ad had said ‘set neck’, I hadn’t even noticed that in fact the neck was bolt-on. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid that I hadn’t noticed. After some research I realized that the guitar was actually the slightly cheaper ELP-C300 like this one but in black. Identical specs to the 400 but with a bolt-on neck.  Man I was pissed. I only blamed the seller slightly (could even have been an honest mistake, copying the wrong specs to his ad) but I was really angry at myself. The only criteria I was really focusing on was that set neck — supposedly essential to true Les Paul tone, but I hadn’t noticed the bolts. Dammit.

I nearly re-listed the guitar on Craigslist immediately. But then I calmed down a bit. It’s a great looking guitar. It’s in good condition. It has a pair of supposedly Alnico humbuckers and perhaps a fair price for what I got would still have been about $150, so I haven’t done too badly. It’s also a nice addition to the arsenal of guitars. It does sound like a Les Paul. It doesn’t feedback like my other humbucker guitar, the Ibanez Artcore hollowbody. I cracked open the can marked Jimmy Page riffs and started to enjoy it. I then put a lead line on a Garageband track I’d been working on and enjoyed it some more.

So now I figure I’ve got a guitar I quite like. I paid more than I should for it, but it’s not going to kill me. I can also use this as a guitar to experiment with doing home setup and modifications without getting too scared I’m going to damage something valuable. I could even swap out the pickups. Put on a Bigsby tremolo. Whatever I feel like.

Also as a bonus, that slot for a ‘real’ Les Paul style, set-neck all-mahogany guitar still remains open in my collection, waiting to be filled at some point down the line…

Bradley Wiggins celebrates! Now he can go home to his guitar collection!

Although a Brit, I haven’t lived in Blighty since the beginning of 1998, having moved to Denmark, then Finland and now Arizona. Although I read The Guardian on a daily basis online, many things that grip and obsess the nation totally pass me by. Today however, I find myself at one with my country men and women – Bradley Wiggins has become the first British winner of the Tour de France. Although I love football, Wiggins’ victory gives me more pleasure than seeing England winning Euro 2012 would’ve done. And that’s saying a lot.

Although I’ve never raced a bike myself, I do like to occasionally go cycle touring and I often commute to work about 45 minutes each way, even in 110F heat. I’ve also followed the Tour de France since the famous showdown in 1989, when Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by just 8 seconds on a final day time trial finishing in Paris.

I was fortunate as a teenager that one of my best friends was a keen bike racer (@DrRobLamb on twitter). After seeing the drama of the Fignon-LeMond battle, I started asking him about tactics, who the riders were and so on. Once you develop some understanding, of the sport you begin to appreciate that a stage race such as the Tour is more than just who has the strongest legs and lungs. It’s about teamwork, psychology and racing intelligence. In some ways it’s a game of chess (or maybe poker) played out at 40 mph and at the limits of human endurance.  At university I met more cycling fans and learned from them too (one of my uni pals now writes the excellent blog Cyclostyle).

So it gives me immense pleasure to see Bradley Wiggins win this year’s Tour. Not only for the huge magnitude of the achievement, but also because of the nature of the man. Team Sky’s stated mission when formed was to win the Tour with a “clean British rider within five years”. They’ve done it in three. Wiggins’ performance this year has been a  big improvement on previous seasons and some cynics have questioned his integrity. He has responded powerfully and eloquently. Today, instead of hiding in the peloton to avoid potential accidents, he risked everything, battling to the end to lead out his teammate Mark Cavendish (Britain’s other male cycling superstar) to win the sprint on the Champs Elysées.

And on top of all this, the man collects guitars!!!

Today, The Guardian writes of how the French have warmed to ‘Colonel Wiggins’ or ‘Le Gentleman’ during this year’s tour

They have been told about his collection of Gibson and Fender guitars and Lambretta and Vespa scooters, and about the roundel on his helmet – originally the RAF insignia, appropriated in 1964 as a pop art device on a T-shirt worn by Keith Moon, drummer with the Who, and then adopted as a symbol of the Mod revival.

A bit of Googling has led me to this article from Cycle Sport magazine, where Brad talks about his favourite bands and a favourite guitar.

I just spend ridiculous amounts of money on guitars, it’s the one real indulgence I have – that and clothes. I really got into vintage guitars, and to be honest right now it’s probably safer than keeping your money in a bank. They never decrease in value.

If there was a fire in my house and I could only save one, I know exactly which one it would be. I’ve got a Gibson ES-335 in ebony black with a Bigsby which is 20 years old and in mint condition. I kind of love that guitar. Those 335 Gibsons are my favourites – mine’s my pride and joy.

Some more Googling also turns up Le Gentleman cradling a nice looking Tele in classic butterscotch blond

Colonel Bradley Wiggins. 2012 Tour de France Champion. Scholar, gentleman, guitar geek, legend.