Monday, 28 September 2009

Alden Full-Bodied Jazzer

Here's an interesting instrument, and one that may seem uncannily familiar to regular trawlers of the "Guitars For Sale" parts of EBay and other internet sales sites. Alden are a range of far-eastern built guitars distributed by Cranes, a huge, well-known and (as far as I'm aware, certainly) well-respected music shop in Cardiff.

A quick Google will inform you that: "Alden guitars are the result of a collaboration between UK guitar guru Alan Entwhistle and one of Korea’s leading guitar companies. Alan has been involved in guitar design since the early 60’s and his wealth of experience is showcased perfectly in the Alden range. Alden guitars are inspired by classic instruments of the last 5 decades though thanks to Alan’s creative design input none could be even remotely described as “copies” All feature top quality hardware, Entwhistle designed pickups, premium materials, and superb construction supervised by the man himself!"

However, as I mentioned above, eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a not-insubstantial similarity between this guitar (and various other Alden models) and the offerings of a number of other "makers", notably Jay Turser - take a look here for example and note the headstock motif, which is identical to that on the Alden jazzers. What we would appear to be dealing with, then, are off-the-shelf basic designs tweaked a bit hardware-wise to suit particular distributors. The Alden does feature some unique and rather groovy Art Deco-style pickups for example.

To the best of my knowledge, these rather cool pickup (covers) are unique to the Alden range.

Of course, there's nothing wrong, or indeed new, about this approach to marketing instruments - just think of all those catalogue-branded Stellas, Harmonys, Danelectros and so on out there for example. But there is a problem in that it's not always clear what it is you're dealing with. Is this Alden really an embodiment of one British guru's experience and design expertise? No, I don't think it is and I *do* think it's more than a little misleading to advertise it as such.

It would be great to be able to judge each individual guitar on earth on its own merits but this would clearly be an impossible task even if we could leave aside all the subjectivity that we know will come into the equation. From a practical point of view, we need pigeon holes to put things in. If someone tells me "it'd be great for a £500 guitar, but at £750 it's a rip off" I've got some idea what I'm going to be looking at and the standards by which I should be judging it. Meaningful judgements aren't going to be relative only to the very best, because that way anything but the very best is going to be "second rate" and that sort of rating system wouldn't help anyone.

Some rather lovely faux-abalone purfling sets off the very pretty top nicely.

The central issue is one of context. Whilst it may well be true that to some extent you're paying for the name on a "name" guitar you're also buying into history and a company you can understand and research. It's a little like the difference between buying any other generic vs branded goods, be they pharmaceuticals or breakfast cereals. So here we have a contextless jazz guitar or uncertain origin. What to make of it?

Well it's solidly built and well finished *for an inexpensive instrument*. The fretboard wood might be anything, but does its job just fine, though the fretting is best described as "adequate". The truss rod cover is functional but badly fitted, there are a couple of minor blemishes in the finish. The rather groovy multi-adjustable and lockable bridge has roller-shaped sadles which suggest a bigsby had been anticipated, but the absense of said device doesn't render the bridge any less effective. The allen-key locking of the sadle positions and the bridge height are excellent features, I think. The pickups and switch gear work fine and a range of suitably jazzy tones is forthcoming.

How it plays is, somewhat unsurprisingly, dependent upon your string choice. "Proper" jazz benefits from telegraph wires here, as you might expect. What you might not expect, though, is just how much fun a bit of Rock'n'Roll or Jump Blues can be with a set of .10s on there. All round, it's a flexible, enjoyable box and big on the "grin factor". But it's *not* an ES-175, nor indeed anyway near.

I've really enjoyed owning and playing this guitar and if I lost it and needed a replacement I'd be more than happy to buy another at the right price. But what is the right price? I think Cranes were selling these new for between £250 and £299 - the former is about reasonable, the latter a good bit too much, I think. Personally I'd think a tad under the £200 mark for a new one would be fair. This one'll be on EBay shortly, so take a look and see what it makes...

Update: It's gone for £127, which I think is a good deal both ways. That's a lot of guitar for not a lot of money, too!

Monday, 7 September 2009

Hofner Congress

A little piece of British Rock'n'Roll history, the Congress was the first guitar of a number of great players, none greater, perhaps, than the man who epitomises early British Rock guitar, Hank Marvin. It was the cheapest in Hofner's arch-top range at the time, its more expensive siblings being the Senator and the President. Quite why the UK got these US-themed names whilst identical models were available in the States with only numerical names isn't clear.

The guitar we're taking a look at here is one I've had for a few years now and which I thought it'd be nice to record a few details about for posterity before I - somewhat reluctantly, I have to say - sell it.

This particular example, serial number 2290, is a fairly early one and probably dates from 1954. For an inexpensive guitar that's over half-a-century old it's in remarkably good condition, though it has plenty of mojo-tastic playing wear.

It's an archtop acoustic, with a fairly small (14 1/2" across the lower bout) but relatively deep (sides are 3 3/8", and the curve of the top obviously adds to that) body. Possibly because of the relatively small body, the 24" scale length seems rather longer than it actually is. The neck could probably double as a baseball bat, it's *really* chunky by modern standards though not unduly unusual for instruments of its age, and joins the body at the 12th fret. The neck has no truss rod. The back of the guitar is flat. In versions not much later than this you'll find the neck joining the body at the 14th fret and an arched back, but a truss rod didn't make an appearance until 1960.

The photo above shows a classic piece of Hofner eccentricity - a lovely carved rosewood bridge with a matching faux-tortoiseshell pickguard attached with... a nail! It's nailed at the neck end, too, though the attachment to the side of the body is a somewhat more conventional bracket-and-screw affair.

The Hofner logo is, rather oddly, stamped on the top of the guitar adjacent to the bridge, and the model name and serial number are hand-written on the label within the body of the instrument. In later versions of the Congress the logo moved about somewhat: to the upper bout around 1956/57 (note that there is little consistency in things Hofner, so finding something you hadn't expected on an instrument doesn't necessarily mean there's something fishy about it) before finally migrating to the headstock around 1959.

The finish on the guitar is simply gorgeous, the colour helped no doubt by a fairly lengthy aging process, and has proven to be remarkably hardy. The three-on-a-strip tuners work fine (well, as well as they ever did); on my particular example the sixth string's tuner button has at some point been replaced with a similar but somewhat whiter one. The nut (only a string guide really, like many European guitars this one has a zero fret) is perhaps a bit shallow-cut and aggressive sixth string bends will pull the string out. I suspect this may not have been an issue likely to have been foreseen by the guitar's builders, to be fair.

It's great fun to play, although hard work once you venture past the third position. Dead cool with a slide, though, it really sings! At the end of the day this is a 50+ year old budget guitar and its worth is more in its historical interest than its function as a working instrument. But in the comfort of your woodshed it's just an absolute joy to noodle with. And that, my friends, is what it's all about.

Update: I know I'm not the only one that Gordon's got selling off the family jewels. For those of you looking to price a similar instrument you might like to know that this one sold for £230, which I feel is a fair price - bear in mind this instrument is in very good nick for its age - there are far fewer of these around now than there were even 18 months ago.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Right Side Up Please! Boss BCB-60 Pedalboard

Are you a lover of stompers but look on with envy when your mates whip out their plug-and-boogie multi-FX gizmos and are up and running before you've even got your Wah-Wah out of it's incresingly tatty cardboard box? A pedal board may be just what you need, then: the ease of set up of the multi-FX device with the sound quality and flexiblity of individual stomp boxes.

As with any good niche market, everyone and his dog seems to have jumped in with some or another product. Discounting high-end custom products like the Pete Cornish boards (which I would say are multi-FX units anyway), we have a number of broad categories: manufacturer/product specific boards, "controller" boards which aim to get the functionality of a multi-FX board but using stompers and general-purpose boards designed for use with just about anything. This last class is, unsurprisingly I suppose, the biggest and most popular. It's also the class into which the subject of this post, the Boss BCB-60, falls.

Whilst a lot of use-with-anything boards rely on velcro to attach pedals to the board - the board is faced with velcro and strips of the stuff are then stuck on the back of each pedal to allow them to be secured in place - the BCB-60 uses a fairly rigid half-inch thick foam sheet with cut-outs in which the pedals sit. This has the advantage that you're not lumbered with sticking velcro on the back of your prized pedals but the disadvantage that the pedals are not actually attached to the board - they just don't slide about. In use this is absolutely fine, but you will need to remember not to open the thing upside down. I've done this twice now and, yes, it is very annoying.

The supplied foam sheet (actually it's made of three bits which can be independently removed) has pre-cut shapes for Boss pedals, naturally enough, but can be cut to accomodate pretty much anything you like - the board will quite happily accept a Wah-Wah pedal too. Replacement sheets are available should you change layout, but aren't cheap, hence my current set-up uses sheets rebuilt with the aid of considerable amounts of gaffa tape - this works fine, though it's not particularly pretty.

The BCB-60 comes complete with a PSU and both power and signal hook-up cables. I know some people replace the PSU with a beefier device but I've always found it to be perfectly adequate for my needs. The thing doesn't exactly hold hundreds of pedals: it does hold more than enough for your average gigging guitarist though - you may need to give things a bit of thought but how many pedals do you *really* need/use?

So is it worth the money? Yes, I think so. It's flexible, built to survive (though be a *bit* careful with the latches) and is eminently practical. Provided you can avoid opening it upside down you'll soon wonder how you ever coped without it - I've been using one for three years now and am still very happy with it. There are plenty of alternatives out there but this really is an "all there in one box" solution. Recommended.

Project: Fuzz Face Clone, Part One

I'm not entirely convinced by the boutique crowd's obsession with the Fuzz Face. I've owned a few of them over the years and have never exactly been bowled over by the things. I suppose there's the "rarity value" of the germanium transistors used in the originals and now in the more exotic (read "expensive") boutique clones, but I don't recall the germanium ones I've heard sounding particularly awesome - indeed, part of the problem with germanium transistors is their inconsistency example-to-example and their tendency to behave differently (and even stop working entirely) as their temperature changes, rendering them exceedingly unreliable as a live tool. At least silicon examples tended towards consistency and were prone actually to work. And they *still* sounded like cheap fuzz boxes.

However, there's no denying that the "cheap fuzz box sound" has its uses (even if it's just the guilty pleasure of wigging out with one in the privacy of one's own woodshed). But the little chaps are more than a little expensive these days, particularly when you consider what's actually in them. What better a project for the regular rainy days we've been getting, then, than building one's own?

There are no shortage of "how to build your own effects pedal" articles on the web. I'm not intending for this to be such an article. This series of posts will be from the perspective of an interested novice - me - researching the project, getting the bits and making the thing. More of an electronic travelogue, really.

The journey begins with me looking for the design I'm going to build. After a fair bit of Googling I've settled on the "Pelusa Face", which I found on the excellent TonePad site. Stage one of my plan is just to get the PCB made. There are a whole host of ways of going about this, I'm going for the most basic I can. If I get into this then maybe later I'll chance spending some money, right now "as cheaply as possible" is the rule.

The first stage essestials now sit on my desk, the hardware freshly purchased from my local branch of Maplins. Here we go!

UPDATE: Well I've now got a PCB I think I can use. I drew the design on by hand (taking, as you may be able to tell, a few liberties with the shape of the tracks) and then drilled the holes with a Dremmel and a 1mm metal bit. I reckon I've just about got away with this, but on a more complex circuit I suspect a tower drill would be a must.

It's not a work of art, that's for sure. Perhaps it'll look a tad groovier when it's populated. Next task is to order the electronic bits, and then we can see.