Other Guitars

A Tale of Two Asian Semis

1

One way to increase one's satisfaction with the "hobby" - and to forestall the GAS pains which drive some of us to the acquisition of whatever it is we imagine might complete us musically - is to spend some quality time with the stuff we already have.

Which is what this report is about.


Sometime in 2003 (OK, it was over Thanksgiving break), after not having paid attention to the low end of the guitar market for some years, I wandered into a music store and discovered the astonishing value that Korean-made guitars now offered.

When I'd left retail music in the late 80s, Japan was the value leader in quality for the money, and Korea was just spinning up. The guitars were ... OK ... certainly better than the early Japanese electrics of the 60s, and priced right. But they weren't challenging the Japanese on build and quality.

Through the 90s I continued to play (though I'd stopped gigging or shopping), and was perfectly happy with my little collection. It's hard to believe that in that entire decade I bought only 3 or 4 guitars.

ANYway, WHAM. The strides made in Korean manufacture by 2003 whacked me right upside the head. Seemed like you could (suddenly, from my perspective) get pretty much any configuration you'd ever wanted to try for a fraction of the previous price of entry. Most didn't bear the original brand name, but that wasn't the point: it was just that you could try any body construction, any pickup complement, any combination, and not have to make a lifetime commitment to do it.

I really didn't need any more guitars (some things haven't changed), and hadn't been looking. But this changed things, and in 2004, I made up for my lost decade.

Most of my acquisitions were Korean - but China had already started competing favorably.

I remember being a bit daunted, from a cultural-historical point of view, when I got my first Chinese guitar. I'd grown up thinking of China (remember "Red" China?) as a vast, mysterious, and above all communist empire, almost isolated from the rest of the world, emphatically NOT a "capitalist" trading partner. The idea that the country was now making decadent, consumerist electric guitars just seemed unfathomable. It made me giggle. To hold a guitar manufactured in mainland China seemed at the time a rare and significant thing - like it ought to be in a museum.

Nonetheless, there it was. It looked great. It sounded fine, and played better. It was a new world, and I admit I liked it.


But how'd I get there? I'd gone from the Gibson semi to solidbody 25.5" scale mixed-pickup "2-1-2" guitars in the 80s. Through the 90s I played more acoustic, including resonators, and Godin's hybrid chambered acoustic. When I started gigging again, and strapped on an electric in earnest, I guess I started looking for a new favorite guitar.

Besides trying things I'd never had, I experimented with minor variations on themes I was familiar with. A 335 had been my number one through half the 80s, and I already had a superb Westone semi (the Rainbow) which gave it a serious run for its money. So...well, since I knew I liked semi-hollows (or are they semi-solids) with humbuckers, I tried a few more.

Along with a few more of various other types... as I did my part to support Korea's and China's guitar factories. (And not just theirs, you understand.) My quest finally ended in 2005 when I "discovered" the range of Gretsch voices, and they turned out to be perfectly suited to the way my playing had evolved.

But along the way I'd come into a few guitars I still have - because every time I get them out and ask them if they still want to live here, or if we've grown in different directions, it turns out we're still compatible. Even if they're similar to other guitars in the collection, there's something about them. Others down through the intervening years have not made the cut - but these are still here.


Now that we're done moving and I'm settling into my studio space and getting it organized, I'm getting some quality time with long-neglected instruments. They come out of their cases for new strings and some tender attentions; in the process, I discover their merits all over again (as well as their deficiencies, alas), and enjoy them. Nothing like rubbing all over something to develop (or revive, or strengthen) a bond...

For no good reason, a couple semis called out to me from their cases this weekend. They had more in common than I'd realized: both 24.5" thinlines with center planks (of course), both (kinda) doublecut, both bound front AND back, both with humbuckers and standard 2T-2V/3-way controls, both with Asian Tunamatics on studs, both with fancy fret markers mixing pearloid and abalone. (Real or faux, I don't knaux.)

For all their commonalities, one is Korean and one is Chinese. Oddly, both have headstocks with asymmetrical offset "scallops" - one cut to the left, the other to the right.

But the main thing they had in common for my purposes this weekend - which occupied most of my time - was hardware with bad gold plating. We've all seen it - dulled, gritty, grodey and corrodey. Ooooogly. Ruining the appearance of the instrument, and shouting "I'm a cheap guitar! Dude won't buy a decent instrument."

But they ARE decent - they're just over 10 years old, and the hardware was no better than it should have been from the git-go. I won't be the only guy whose 10-year-old guitars have deteriorating hardware.

But what to do about it? I'd always figured I'd have to replace the tuners, the pickups (covers, at least), bridge, and tailpiece - with decent gear, 75.00-150.00 worth of stuff. But I wanted to play them, not wait, so I figured I'd try removing the gold plating. It might be a failed experiment, or it might prove a temporary fix (as the underlying metal might haul off and tarnish too), but there was nothing to lose but a few hours and some elbow grease.

Mothers Billet Polish (the same stuff I use to polish bridges before shipping) turned out to do a better job than the other half-dozen compounds and chemicals I tried.

Here was the drill: cut off the waaaay-dead strings, remove the tuners, Tunamatic, and tailpiece (though not the Bigsby). Grab a few rags, a rubber glove (an late addition to the process to save my fingers from blistering), the jar of Mothers, a screwdriver and toothbrush (to get down in the saddle slots of the bridges), and a bag of Fritos (for nourishment).

Turn on a halogen floor lamp to see what's what, camp on the couch and fire up original series Star Trek episodes on NewtFlix. Get to work. Dab and rub, dab and rub. Wipe it off. Dab and rub some more. Repeat repeat repeat. Again.

Between episodes (it took four), grab a guitar and treat its pickup covers to the same regimen. And, painstakingly, the Bigsby. Do you realize how many surfaces and curves there are on a tension-rod Bigsby? Man.

Before it's really done, thread a small cotton buffing wheel onto the Dremel shaft and carefully address any remaining blemishes.

Use emery cloth to polish the frets (which were, in truth, a little dull...). Oil the finberboards (I use clarinet bore oil or trumpet valve oil, whichever is handy). Polish the paint with 3M Perfect-It™ Ultrafine Machine Polish (unless there are scuffs and abrasions more serious than surface haze, in which case apply a more aggressive compound first).

Reassmble, string (Chet Atkins 11s, in these cases), re-intonate (a serious PITA on these Tunamatics, because I'd moved the saddles both all the way forward and all the way back in order to get down into the slots). Tune. Adjust bridge height. Tune again. Twist a truss rod as necessary. Tune again.

Play!


How'd they come out? I'm pleased. The hardware has definitely gone from degraded gold to brightenshiny silver. Not quite chrome, maybe, and we'll see how it wears - but it's a vaaast improvement. The pickup covers seem to be the worst of it - still showing some discoloration around the edges where the hand rests against them (or picks past them), and some pitting. And the surface of the polished metal isn't perfectly even in tone - there's some cloudiness here and there - but still.

Easily worth a few hours of Star Trek - and good quality time with a couple of old friends.

2

So what ARE they? Did you notice I managed to make a ridiculously long post above without identifying the guitars in question? (I'm sure one C. Vegas will count the words.)

From Korea, on the left, we have the ESP LTD X-tone Paramount Series PC-1V, and on the right a Jay Turser DC-134 (which is embarrassed at having such a short name.)

3

Couple of lookers you've got there, Tim! They'd give anybody a semi.

(Somebody had to make the joke, so I figured I'd get it out of the way early.)

4

The ESP LTD X-Tone Paramount has a maple-over-mahogany body - very thinline - and Seymour Duncan pickups. I remember it as having JBs - the Jeff Beck/Jazz-Blues pups - but later specs I can find online claim some other model. (The guitar changed specs over its lifetime, was discontinued a couple years ago.)

The offset body shape will not please everyone, I don't reckon, but I like it - especially the continuous line from the somewhat bulbous upper shoulder through to the lower cutaway.

Shot of the back shows thin body, angled heel for unimpeded upper fret access. It looks black in the pic (except for reflections of the floor); it's really a dark brown mahogany stain.

Can you see mottling and remaining blemishes on pickup covers? Annoying. I think covers are generic enough that I can replace them. Otherwise, I'll get them from SD. Bridge and Bigsby aren't perfectly chromey - but they'll do for now. If I do end up having to get new hardware, don't know if I'll go chrome or back to gold; the knobs (my additions) probably look better with gold.

Tuners likewise. They look great in this pic - maybe better than in person. But a huge improvement over grodey-corrodey.

The Paramount probably has a flatter-than-12" radius - it feels flatter, maybe 14". Thinnish neck (as you'd expect from ESP), but comfortable. The guitar sits against the body nicely and is well balanced; as a "verithin," it's as easy to get around as most Jr-type slabs. The body feels small compared to a 335.

Tonally, it may be a bit brighter than a 335, but the Seymour pickups are very smooth and lush in tone. It has the classic attack-compress-bloom of a semi, an ideal jazz-rock/fusion guitar, but plenty versatile for any other purpose as well, from rock to fingerpicking to what-have-you. I had (and have) a Bigsby on my 70s 335, so this one feels familiar - though it needs a 1" spring as it's the import model and a little stiff.

All in all, a sweet guitar! I think it listed somewhere near a grand when new; as I recall, I got it off Ebay for less than 400.00, and felt like I'd stolen it.

5

The Jay Turser DC-134 is, for me, one of those guitars I couldn't not buy. At the time I had a thing for blue guitars, and a smaller-bodied doublecut was just irresistible. Ever see a guitar and it just looks like it's your guitar, even before it is? That's what happened here.

The Jay Turser line was much deeper and more interesting 10-12 years ago than it is now; I think the importer (Music Products?) was experimenting with lots of models, figuring out what would sell. I was attracted to the pricing, and curious about the quality for the money. This one leaped off the screen at me, and was my first Turser. For 209.00, I didn't think I could get hurt too badly...

And I didn't. Right out of the box, this guitar played like the proverbial buttah. It's tone is ridiculously FAT, if a bit muted: the bridge pickup sounds like some guitars' neck pickups! It would be too dark in tone for a general-purpose utility guitar (and I'm sure better pickups would "fix" it), but I have other brighter semis (see above) and it slots nicely into my tonal palette. Rich and creamy, great for clean jazz/fusion duty - and a natural for Claptonesque womantone with drive.

Looks to be (just flamey enough) maple top over mahogany back and sides; the blue is just barely transparent. Binding on top, back, neck, headstock, f-holes is very nicely done.

The pickups actually cleaned up better on the less expensive Chinese Turser than on the Korean ESP - and those are Seymours. No pitting into the surface on these. Tailpiece and bridge look almost new.

Likewise the tuners. Other than their cheesy plating, they seem to be of high quality. Very smooth, very stable. Never a problem holding tune.

Given its overall dark timbre, the guitar responds evenly through all registers. No dead spots. Sweet low action, and the neck has been rock solid for 12 years. When I got it, I was practically giddy at its quality and value. I have several other Tursers - all judiciously chosen from the less common models - and am pleased with them all. It would be hard to complain about this guitar at four times the money.

A good guitar is a good guitar, no matter the cost, and this one's a keeper!

6

Cool "tools". Especially that ESP. I love semis myself and own a beautiful 2011 335. A "real" one of course. All kidding aside, I'm kinda glad that I'm such a snob for the more traditional Fender/Gibson and Gretsch builds. It helps keep me from being easily taken in by all those other pretty faces, such as you have here. Five wives are definitely enough for this semi-retired (no pun intended) musician. Still, no harm in looking eh?

Actually, now that I've taken the first of the 12 Steps by admitting to myself that, yes, I too have become an "Hobbyist", perhaps I might also admit to the guilty pleasure I take in the spit-and-shine preoccupation of keeping my own herd in top physical/visual form. Both prior to, and following a proper playing session of course! Quality time? - Yes, I've got to keep telling myself that.

BTW, I've recently discovered a new cleaning accessory: MusicNomad's String Instrument Polishing Cloth. Particularly handy for quick removal of fingerprints and oily skin smudges, or providing a quick and easy polish. For heavier work I use "Virtuoso" cleaner and polish. Amazing stuff...

7

Oooh! ESP Paramount Xtone! You're a good boy! I almost bought one of those used back in 2008 for a small guitar shop in Milwaukee, near the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee campus. According to the shop owner, the guitar had been traded in by the guitarist for Earth Wind and Fire, when they had stopped off in Milwaukee a short time ago, to do a show. It sounded and played absolutely killer, but the price seemed a little steep to me. I thought about it for a couple of days, and decided to buy the guitar, only to find out it had been sold.

Occasionally, I debate with myself about getting a Paramount Xtone. I think the only reason I haven't, is due to the fact that I usually like larger bodied hollow, and semi-hollow guitars.

8

I ogled the white version of that Xtone for awhile. I had a similar experience lately and ended up buying a Peavey FJ-1 semi. At $300 shipped with a hardshell case I couldn't not buy it.

9

I noticed the white one in trying to find the specs for mine. I don't think white was an option when I bought (and in case, mine was a used-on-EBay opportunity, where you don't get to choose).

The white is very striking, especially with gold hardware. Made me want one all over again.

10

Great wisdom in this:

"One way to increase one's satisfaction with the "hobby" - and to forestall the GAS pains which drive some of us to the acquisition of whatever it is we imagine might complete us musically - is to spend some quality time with the stuff we already have."

MD

11

I like that ESP shape and finish. Nice job de-gold-funking them.

12

For whatever it's worth, Jay Turser's current website is here. Most trails of digital breadcrumbs lead to a "U.S. Music," in Illinois (who also "manufacture" Washburn, Randall, and Oscar Schmidt - and distribute Warwick, Eden, Marshall, Hagstrom, Framus, Digitech, etc.). It, in turn, is owned by Jam Industries, who describe themselves with this meaningless mealy-mouthed corporate doggerel:

For over forty years, the JAM Group of Companies have been building line cards that add value, sales synergy and horsepower to every new vendor we take on.

With over 40,000 SKU’s under management, JAM Group is the “go to company” for music, sound and audio distribution in North America – whether it’s Musical Instruments, Pro Audio and Lighting or Consumer Electronics.

Look to JAM for iconic product lines, the latest in DJ hardware, video walls or market leading consumer products. We’ve got virtually every single channel covered.

Blah blah blah blah blah.

At the very bottom of Jay Turser's webpages, a reference appears to Davitt and Hanser, another division of JAM. D&H is based in Cincinnati, and was one of the primary jobbers (along with St. Louis Music) supplying the central Ohio music store where I worked in the 80s. A thoroughly professional and congenial old-style salesman called on us at least monthly, always in pleated dress pants, white shirt, and tie, his graying hair and crisp moustache neatly groomed. A classic operation, run from a rambling old warehouse. They occasionally tried to recruit me. If I'd gone there, I suppose I could be hawking Jay Tursers now...

All that being as it may, Turser has only one semi in its line now, and it's nothing special in a big way. Other than their bog-standard Stratalikes, Teletypes, Less Pauls, and Less Gees, they are knocking off some more interesting planks: Mosrites, Silvertone/Danelectro, Fender Mustang (!) and sortaJazzmaster - and one "late-50s type" solidbody with what look like foil-top mini-buckers and a body that could be a Jet.

But US Music didn't own Jay Turser originally. The brand was developed by Ernie and Dennis Briefel, of Music Industries Corp. I spent some time with one of these fellers at a NAMM show around 2005, and he told me the story - including how the name itself was completely fabricated to suggest a custom-shop luthier working in his shop.

He seemed to be second-generation music wholesale, well understood that he was providing economy instruments - but seemed sincerely enthusiastic about guitars and determined that his product be as good as possible for the money. He spent a few minutes complaining about quality control, rampant design and product cannibalism among the Asian manufacturers, and the general difficulty of doing business in that domain.

His dad was a jazz guitarist, though, and he had a particular nut for hollowbody and semi-hollow guitars - which is probably why they had more interesting offerings in that area at the time.

As always, it was interesting to meet the people behind the name, and to find there was a bit of heart and soul in it.

The almighty internet tells me that Music Industries Corp. sold out to American Music & Sound in 2006. The Briefels were going with the deal and "looking forward to continuing the development of..." etc.

I remember this about Music Industries: when I had trouble with a pickup on my JT thin-body electric resonator, I was able to contact the company on the phone, and they sent me a replacement pickup.

13

I noticed the white one in trying to find the specs for mine. I don't think white was an option when I bought (and in case, mine was a used-on-EBay opportunity, where you don't get to choose).

The white is very striking, especially with gold hardware. Made me want one all over again.

– Proteus

Yeah, the one I tried out was white. A classy looking instrument.

14

You mentioned the progression going from Japan, Korea, and finally China in making fine instruments. With the latest Gretsch Streamliners, being made in Indonesia is the next up and coming country. My Streamliner leaves NOTHING to be desired - and it's from INDONESIA!

I guess in the days of CNC this and Automatic that - the entire Guitar word is changing...

16

I looked.

The structure of the website annoys me - can't see the guitars for a quick overview without looking up each one individually.

I'm provisionally attracted to several, mostly the Gran Majesto and the Gran Whatever Else it Was. Effective mesh screen wrap over the pickups; why has no one thought of that before? Both very elegant in appearance. (But I can't get "Catalina" [not even Dieter would go ahead and call it "Cadillac?] green with a Wigglestick?)

Fullterton Series? Fullterton Series? Wha? Duecy believes the history of the electric guitar began in Fullerton (and we know what that means), so he's going there too...but the guitars in the series don't begin to suggest anything actually from Fullerton? I'm just mystified.

The ad copy. OMG. Oh the horror. Surely the company has access to native English speakers. I'd fix it for a wobblerod-equipped Cadalina Green Gran Turino. I mean Majesto.

I guess I'm just not over it yet.

In what way would one of these change my life?

17

Other than my Spectrasonic, they are the best feeling, looking and playing guitars I own (replaced pups with TVJs in all but the 440 and GM models). The Starplayer tv models are my favorite. I now own 6 of heir Deiter's creations.

As far as life-changing, just giving you a hard time given your past opinion of Duesenberg. Remember the Wiener schnitzel thread many moons ago? I wanna say 2007? Right after I bought the Outlaw...

I'll make you a convert yet!

18

I do remember it, of course. Almost as good as the Phil Hartman extravaganza.

As we know, I'm picking nits (some of them boulder-sized) over marketing presentation and the very name of the company. No need to rehash that.

I don't have anything against the guitars - why, they're mere inanimate objects, not responsible for their parentage. Love to get my hands on them sometime and try to make a dispassionate, objective judgment.

If Dieter could just send an acknowledgement to Denny Duesenberg. A Christmas card. A "hey, thanks for your last name and its heritage, hope you don't mind we're honoring it." SOMEthing.

19

I do remember it, of course. Almost as good as the Phil Hartman extravaganza.

As we know, I'm picking nits (some of them boulder-sized) over marketing presentation and the very name of the company. No need to rehash that.

I don't have anything against the guitars - why, they're mere inanimate objects, not responsible for their parentage. Love to get my hands on them sometime and try to make a dispassionate, objective judgment.

If Dieter could just send an acknowledgement to Denny Duesenberg. A Christmas card. A "hey, thanks for your last name and its heritage, hope you don't mind we're honoring it." SOMEthing.

– Proteus

As we've discussed, I kinda understand your point about the name, but if Deiter was to do as you suggested, no matter how limited any possible exposure could be, why go there? There's no violation of anyone's rights and like many corporations and marketers, Deiter understands branding and leveraging.

You know my personal history with Deiter - that notwithstanding, those are some damn fine guitars. Just visit the USA website to avoid most things Dieter,etc.


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