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Archive for the ‘custom guitars’ Category

Gear-aholic. Tone Freak. Gear Maniac. At least that is what I have been called. I like to think of myself as a “Tone Crusader.”

I comb the ethers in search of implements to try to catch the unicorn called “Tone.” And since tone has so many faces, I need different kinds tools to help me catch the unicorn.  Thus, I have an arsenal of axes, both custom and commonly available; a bank of sound amplification devices to announce my presence with special foot pedals to alter my sound to affect a different response.

I spend hours upon hours developing and honing my skills, and learning how to most effectively use my tools. I am a warrior who must constantly be at the ready to perform.

And like the Crusaders of old, my quest for the tone unicorn is a life-long pursuit that has been fraught with both times of extreme joy and with days of dark dispair. But despite its ups and downs, I cannot even begin to imagine abandoning this pursuit! I’ve seen the unicorn! I have even come close to touching it! And until I do touch it, I will never give up. Never!!!

I fully realize that I may go to my grave without ever catching the unicorn. But it is not the goal that matters to me in any case; it is the journey that matters.

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It’s a huge step for that little shop in Fresno, CA called Saint Guitar Company. I’ve really gotten involved with Saint Guitars over the past several months, and I think Adam Hernandez on the verge of making the big time with his guitars. So to help him out, I asked Vinni Smith of V-Picks if he would do demo video of a Saint Guitar guitar to help get the word out, and he’s given it an absolutely glowing review! Check it out:

For more information go to the Saint Guitar Company web site.

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I recently started a friendship with Vinni Smith at V-Picks – what a cool dude! Not only does he make great picks, but that man can make an axe sing! Anyway, I was e-mailing him this evening about how his “The Snake” pickup has changed my life, and it got me to thinking about specific pieces of gear that have had a drastic effect on how I approach the guitar. I’ll share them here in kind of a loose chronology:

1. The Kyser Capo

Yeah, lots of people call ’em “cheaters,” but screw ’em. I couldn’t play lots of songs without one. But the Kyser capo in particular really changed my approach, especially after I saw James Taylor playing with one. For years, I used a standard nylon strap type of capo that just basically stayed in place. But then I saw JT playing with a Kyser. I always wondered how he did his mid-song key changes. I used to think he just changed his hand position and played barre chords. But I’ll be damned if he didn’t just slide the capo up, then just played open chords in another key. That was it! I was sold.

2. Ovation Celebrity Deluxe

After my beloved “Betsy” (a Yamaha FG-335 acoustic) broke in a terrible fall, I immediately went in search of a new guitar. I played all sorts in this used gear store and came across this gorgeous sunset burst Ovation. I wasn’t much of an Ovation fan – thought they were really tinny sounding. But when I played this one, it had a much deeper sound than the Ovations I’d played up to that point, and it was a shallow body, no less. When I plugged it into an amp, it sounded even better! That guitar got me into amplified sound. So of course, in addition to buying the guitar, I also got a small Roland 25 Watt practice amp. What a life changer that was.

3. Fender Hot Rod Deluxe

This was my very first tube amp, and an amp that I still use because of how good it sounds… er… I’ve had some modifications done to it, but nevertheless, being my first tube amp, it exposed me to a whole new world of tonal possibilities. Up to that point, I’d played only solid state amps from a Roland JC-12o to a Line 6 Flextone III to a Roland Cube 60 (which I still have – it’s an awesome amp). The Hot Rod showed me the wonders and beauty of tube amp distortion which is nothing like what you get with solid state amps.

4. Ibanez Tube Screamer

There are overdrive boxes, and there are overdrive boxes. But the Tube Screamer is THE classic overdrive box, and the oldest pedal on my board. I’ve of course fallen in love with other OD’s like the Creation Audio Labs Holy Fire, but the Tube Screamer had a real huge effect on how I looked at tone and established what pleases me the most with respect to breakup. It’s a great pedal (though I’m really psyched about testing the Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2).

5. Blizzard Pearl Fender 60th Diamond Anniversary Stratocaster

I love that classic, vintage sound, and this guitar delivered it from the moment I played it. Yeah, it’s made in Mexico, it cost me less than $400 new, but I chose it over Strats five times its price. Why? Because it kicked the shit out of the other guitars. It was THE guitar that convinced me that it’s not the price you pay but the tone you produce that matters. Since I’ve gotten her, I play “Pearl” every day. She’s the first guitar I go to when working on a new song. What a wonderful instrument.

6. Saint Guitar Company “Baby Blue” Benchmark

This isn’t my guitar, and I no longer have it in my studio, but this was the very first guitar that was made to my personal specifications. There is nothing like playing a guitar that’s made to order. The experience is surreal, and started me down this path of playing a custom guitar. Adam’s going to be building me one in the next few months – I’m keeping that one. 🙂

7. Reason Amps SM25 Combo

Even though I love my Hot Rod, the SM25 marks a time when I’ve gotten super-serious about my tone. I’d played a bunch of amps, but this amp showed me that sometimes you do have to pay to get stellar tone – and it’s worth every penny. Lots of manufacturers have created amps that run their channels in series, but I haven’t come across one amp yet that does it as well as Obeid Kahn and Anthony Bonadio. They’ve come up with an amp, cab, and speaker combo that’s like nothing I’ve played before – and I’ve played some awesome amps.

8. Creation Audio Labs Mk.4.23 Clean Boost

I used to think clean boosts were just to help punch a solo through the mix. I didn’t know that they could be used to slam the pre-amps of a tube amp to produce super-overdrive in an amp that no distortion or overdrive pedal can give you. But this one’s very special in that it adds no tonal artifacts of its own – it’s uncanny. What it does is boost the natural sound of your guitar, and when slamming the front-end of amp, gives you the true overdriven tone of your amp. This is a piece of gear that I cannot do without any longer, and it now has a permanent place on my board.

9. Red Bear Picks

I never thought I’d buy a handmade pick, nor pay $20 for one no less. But Red Bear Trading TortisTM picks truly changed my life. I now use Red Bears exclusively for playing acoustic guitar. They sound great with electric as well – I’ll get to that below when I talk about V-Picks – but no pick I’ve ever played has made my Ovation sound so good. These picks look and feel like natural tortoise shell, but they’re made from a polymer of milk protein. No matter, they’re awesome picks!

10. Aracom Amps RoxBox 22 Watt (soon to be released)

This diminutive amp oozes 6V6 goodness. It’s still kind of in the prototype phase so I can’t really write too much about it, but I think my friend Jeff Aragaki has hit a real sweet spot with this amp. Get this: It’s hand-wired, though it uses a solid state rectifier, and it costs less than $1000! The profound thing about this is you can indeed get boutique caliber gear at a great price. But for me personally, this amp is the very first boutique amp I’m buying. Oh, I’ll eventually get the Reason SM25 to run in parallel with this one, 🙂 but this amp is special because it’s the first boutique amp I will ever have owned.

11. V-Picks “The Snake”

As I mentioned above, I’ve befriended Vinni Smith, and I just dig the dude! He knows so much about guitar, and we’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, and love the same kind of music (his favorite guitar solo is the lead break in the middel of Frampton’s Do You Feel Like We Do – my favorite as well). When we first met, Vinni sent me a large sample of his picks, which I compared head-to-head with my Red Bear picks. Of course, I love my Red Bear Classic B-style Heavy, but when I played the comparable V-Picks Standard on my electric guitars, I just couldn’t believe this sound and action I was getting! So I decided to use my Red Bears for acoustic – as I said, nothing sounds better than a Red Bear on acoustic. But for electric, it was going to be V-Picks all the way. Then during a conversation we were having a couple of weeks ago, Vinni told me he’d send me his Snake picks. These are a whopping 4.1 mm thick, with a different bevel than his others. Since I’ve gotten them, I’m never going to use anything on electric guitar than the Snake! I use the rounded for a smoother, fatter tone, and use the pointy for bright attack tones – especially when I’m doing stuff on the bridge pickup! These two picks have totally changed my approach to playing electric. Thick picks in general did that, but these are the thickest I’ve played, and they absolutely ROCK THE HOUSE!

12. May 30, 2010 – I know, a bit late on the uptake here with this one, but life-changing nonetheless, and that is my Aracom Power Rox PRX150-Pro attenuator. This is the first attenuator that I’ve used that truly stays transparent down to bedroom levels. It is the only attenuator that accurately gives me my cranked up tone at low volume levels, and it is absolutely wonderful! I know there are others out there, but knowing that they’re modeled after existing attenuator designs that I know don’t sound very good at low volume levels, it was a no-brainer for me to choose this one. As Doug Doppler said to me in a recent visit to his home, “This thing has saved my ears!” Even Joe Satriani uses one of these units and loves it! That’s how good it is!

Okay, that’s it for me… Anyone care to share what gear has changed their lives?

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SAINT Guitar CompanySaint Guitar Company just released its first set of inventory guitars to the public today on its site (http://www.stguitars.com)! OMG! These guitars are gorgeous! As I test guitars for Adam, I’ve had the privilege to play both Messengers (double-cut): the Vintage Metallic Green Messenger, and the Solid Walnut Baritone Messenger. Both of these guitars are just super sweet to play. The two Benchmark (single-cut) and the Green Messenger guitars actually hung on a rack at the Mesa Boogie store in Hollywood for a few months, but Adam decided to take them back for inventory to sell them directly from his site.

This is a huge step for Adam. For the last ten years, he’s been selling his guitars to individuals purely by word-of-mouth. With the new site, he’s opening up a whole new way to get these excellent pieces of playable art! I’m so excited for him.

In the next few days, Vinni Smith of V-Picks will be releasing a video review of one of Adam’s guitars. I’ll keep you posted!

For more information, go to http://www.stguitars.com!

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Saint Guitar Company Goldtop Benchmark

Saint Guitar Company Goldtop Benchmark

You ever pick up a guitar and just can’t seem to put it down? For the past few years, that has been “Pearl” my Blizzard Pearl Strat. I just love the way she sings, and she sings oh so sweetly. But ever since I got “Goldie,” a Saint Guitars Goldtop Benchmark to test out, I just can’t seem to put her down. It’s tough because ever since she arrived, I’ve been splitting my time between the two… Wish I had the problem with women when I was single. 🙂 <sigh> Oh well…

“Goldie” is a very special guitar, with a mahogany body, maple top, and solid rosewood neck. I know, I’ve already reviewed her, but she’s absolutely the perfect guitar – at least to me. The tone from the woods are so balanced and warm that when you play her, you have to just close your eyes and let her take you for a ride. And her neck… ah, her neck! What a thing of grace and beauty. The open-pore finish of the rosewood is so wonderful to the touch, you just want to run your hands up and down the fretboard and feel the sensuousness of her gentle curves. I know, I’m sounding kind of weird, but it’s the best I can come up with to draw a metaphor of how it feels to play this guitar!

Tonight, after I returned home from a quiet date for a cup of tea with the love of my life for Valentine’s Day, I retired to my studio to play around with Goldie. I was just noodling when I played a phrase that just begged to be laid down. So I figured out the chord progression that would go with the phrase, and here’s what I came up with:

Goldie has a bright, big voice, and true to all Saint guitars that I’ve had the priviledge to play, she has an even, dynamic range in all strings, up and down the fretboard. Unlike other guitars where you pluck the top two strings, and you get a loss in volume, forcing you to dig in when you play those strings, especially about the 12th fret, not so with any Saint guitar – it’s uncanny, and a mark of the care Adam Hernandez has put into his designs to ensure his guitars are resonant in any frequency!

Having a great amp to bring out the best in a guitar doesn’t hurt either. The amp I used is a soon-to-be-released prototype Aracom Amp, based upon the RoxBox 18 Watt, but with different tubes, and slightly different power handling. Sorry, I can’t be more descriptive at Jeff Aragaki’s request. You can be assured that once Jeff gives me the go-ahead, I’ll be writing a review of it, and it will be good. 🙂 This amp in particular is very pedal friendly, and I used a Tube Screamer to give me some grit on the lead, plus my new Hardwire Reverb.

In any case, I just wanted to share my excitement about this guitar. It simpy kicks ass, and paired with a dynamite amp, I’ve got a winning combination on my hands!!!

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Saint Guitar Company Goldtop Benchmark

Saint Guitar Company Goldtop Benchmark

Saint Guitars Goldtop Benchmark

Summary: I never ceased to be amazed at the guitars Adam Hernandez builds. Here is yet another incredible tone machine but with classic looks and even better sounds.

Pros: This guitar oozes both visual and tonal bliss. The rosewood neck, mahogany body, and maple top combine to create thick but bright resonance that just stirs the inspiration juices.

Cons: None. None at all.

Price: $5000

Specs:

  • Mahogany Body
  • Maple Top
  • Brazilian Rosewood Neck
  • Rosewood Fretboard
  • Seymour Duncan SH-TB-PG1b Pearly Gates Humbucker (Neck)
  • Seymour Duncan SH-14 Custom 5 Humbucker (Bridge)
  • 25-1/4″ Scale
  • Wide, C-shape neck
  • Dual-action truss rod
  • Wide/Pyramid fret wire
  • Blind Dovetail neck joint
  • Gotoh bridge and tuners
  • Volume and Tone Control
  • Cleverly placed pickup switch

Tone Bone Rating: 5.0 – There is literally nothing not to like on this guitar. It truly rocks the house!

Like a lot of folks, I love vintage and vintage-style gear. There’s a certain, je ne sais quoi, perhaps mojo (I know, it’s an overused term) about vintage gear that seems to harken back to the “good ol’ days” when things were handmade and sturdy. But when that style is expressed in a modern way, at least for me, something stirs in my soul, and I’m totally inspired. It has been this way with every Saint guitar I’ve had the priviledge to play, and that continues with the Goldtop Benchmark.

The Goldtop's Bridge

The Goldtop's Bridge

When I did my first Saint Guitars review of the Faded Blue Jeans model, I couldn’t believe how perfect the guitar was. The walnut body and neck, combined with the quilted maple top produced a bright and resonant tone that just begged to be explored to eek out all the possible tonal variations. With the Goldtop, the experience is still the same, but with that absolutely gorgeous finish, I’m experiencing a bliss that’s coming from both visual and aural sources.

Fit and Finish

The Goldtop's Body and Neck

The Goldtop's Body and Neck

I’ve come to realize that there are some things in life that you can’t avoid describing with the heavy use of grandiose phrases, and the Goldtop definitely falls within this category with respect to how it looks. It’s perfect in every way. The creamy gold finish that almost looks white under light is a wonder to behold, but that’s just part of the equation. The gloss-finished mahogany body and open-pore rosewood neck add a certain sensuousness to the look of the guitar. I love that Adam had the foresight to keep the rosewood in as natural and organic state as possible. It feels absolutely wonderful when you grip the neck.

If I were to come up with a metaphor for how this guitar looks, it’s like admiring a beautiful woman that’s nicely dressed, but doesn’t need any makeup or other adornments to enhance her beauty. She’s self-aware and confident in how she looks, but doesn’t come across as aloof or unapproachable. In other words, this is a woman that has a purely natural and organic magnetism, and someone to whom I’d want to be close. That’s the response I have to this guitar.

Playability

I love the feel of natural grain, which is probably why I love my Strat so much with its maple neck. Again, for me there’s a certain sensousness in feeling the wood’s grain in my hand, and the Goldtop doesn’t disappoint in this department. When I first held the guitar, I was surprised and a little worried about the neck profile, which is wide by design, but add to that the C-shape, and I didn’t know if my relatively short fingers could reach all the frets, especially in the upper registers to hit the 6th string. But to my very pleasant surprise, I could get to those notes with ease.

As with all Saint’s that I’ve played, the Goldtop has a fast neck. The frets are just how I like them: Not too deep, but really lending themselves to a nice vibrato when you dig in a bit. And moving up and down the fretboard is a pure joy. The fret spacing is just right. As a guitar player himself, Adam really took great pains to get this part of the guitar right. For me, as I’ve said in the past, I’m not a really great improv guy, but I do play chords up and down the fretboard, and being able to move and nail the chords is very important. It’s as if precision was built into this guitar!

Adding to the playability is the arrangement of the neck and body. It’s very Les Paul-like, and that’s a good thing, which means that the higher frets are very easy to reach when the guitar hangs naturally from the straps. With my Strat, to get to the high frets, I have to physically shift the guitar to the left a couple of inches. Of course, part of that has to do with my gut 🙂 and it’s not really a problem, but I don’t have to shift the Goldtop at all.

How It Sounds

This is one of the best pickup combinations I’ve ever heard. The Pearly Gates in the neck has a nice, sweet, and smooth vintage tone. I liken it to a sip of a 25 year old Scotch. It’s warm and sweet and totally comforting. The Custom 5 is bright, but with a nice, taut low-end. When you turn up the gain on this pickup, you get the expected bright bridge tone, but because of the solid bottom-end, there is absolutely no “tinniness.” It’s just brighter sounding. This is a trait I’ve become accostomed to with all Saint Guitars. They’re the only guitars I’ve ever played that at least to me, have a usable bridge pickup. Combine the two in the middle switch position, and it’s pure heavenly tone. I could keep the guitar in this setting for practically everything I play, unless I wanted to get a super-smooth tone (neck), or need a bright tone to cut through the mix for a lead (bridge).

To me, the mark of a truly great guitar is balance in the dynamic response; more pointedly, that when you play high notes, the guitars volume doesn’t suddenly dive down. I don’t know how many guitars I’ve played that when I get above the 12th fret, the first three strings’ volumes literally sink, forcing you to really dig in with your pick to make them sound louder. That makes for a much more difficult playing approach, and is one thing that bugs me about my PRS SE II Soapbar. With that guitar, the first three strings are quite a bit lower in volume than string four through six. I’ve learned to compensate with my volume knob which thankfully is in a good position for on-the-fly tweaking. But with the Goldtop, and all the Saint’s I’ve played, this is not a problem. The dynamic response is balanced through all strings. It’s a testament to the resonance of the guitar. It picks up all the frequencies!

One thing I’ve learned about testing guitars is that the really important tonal properties are exposed when you play the guitar clean. I’ve played a lot of guitars that sound great when they distort, but just sound weak and hollow when you play them clean. Remember the beautiful woman I described above? This is her speaking voice: It’s rich and sensuous, and something you can listen to and never tire of it. Here’s a clip to prove the point:

I used an Aracom Amps Custom 45R that was re-tubed with 6L6’s from the stock KT-66 tubes, and Jeff kindly installed a Jensen Alnico speaker, replacing the Governor that I was testing with it. Both served to really open up the tone quite a bit with much more midrange – it started out very low-end focused.

What was amazing about this clip was that I wrote it earlier in the day, then recorded it 15 minutes before I had to leave to take my son to his lacrosse game, and just saved the audio file. When I finally sat down to listen to it, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Mind you, the clip is not EQ’d or mastered in any way. That’s the natural sound of the guitar out of the Custom 45R. I added just a touch of reverb on the amp, but other than that, it’s just the guitar, and the tone is – at least to me – amazing! It almost gives off a chorus effect. I thought it was due to the reverb at first, but when I came home, I played the song without any effects, and that chorusy tone was still there! I was blown away!

Overall Impressions

I didn’t think you could improve upon perfection, but the Goldtop is now my standard of perfection. As I wrote in a previous article, I’ve been in a bit of rut with writing music as of late, but with the Goldtop, I’m getting inspired again. It’s a marvelous guitar!

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saint_msgr_brown

Imagine, if you will, that guitar to the left, in a glossy, goldtop finish. That will be the guitar that Adam Hernandez of Saint Guitars will be building for me. It was by no means an easy decision to make. As a tester for Saint Guitars, and ostensibly a rep for Saint Guitars (I’ve been careful about keeping that separate from this site – though news about it will be out within the next few weeks), I love every single guitar I’ve gotten my hands on. I dig Adam’s approach to guitar-building, and of course, I simply love his designs.

But despite the relationship, I was a little wary of actually purchasing one. Why? There are lots of factors, which I’m going to share here. But first, the juicy back story…

As some of you may know, I’m a huge fan of G & L Guitars, especially the Comanche line. Yngwie Malmsteen calls the Strat a perfect guitar, but I believe the Comanche improves on it even further, especially with its Z-coil pickups that still offer that gorgeous single-coil feel, but with much more output.

For the last few months, I had been saving my pennies to purchase a Comanche from my local G & L dealer. I’ve been skrimping and scraping every extra buck I could because I just had to have one. It’s an incredible guitar that just speaks to my soul. And about a month ago, I had enough to get my beloved guitar. Then Adam contacted me via e-mail a few days before I was all set to buy the guitar and said he wanted to construct a guitar for me based upon this “dream” goldtop I had described to him a month before that when he asked me what I think would be my dream guitar.

Now you might think I just up and dropped all my plans to get a Comanche. I didn’t. I’ve been very drawn to the Comanche for a long time, but as I’ve shared, I also love Saint guitars. In fact, though I received the e-mail early in the morning, I sat on it for the whole day, and didn’t reply until late that night. In short, I was seriously conflicted, and for several good reasons, which is why I’m sharing this experience. And perhaps by sharing this experience, I can shed some light on helping you make your own choice in whether or not to go with a custom-made boutique guitar.

Most people who come to GuitarGear.org have a serious and virtually incurable case of GAS. Several have custom guitars – a few even have a few Saint guitars to their name. So there is no doubt that what you ultimately get is high-quality, and tailored to your specific tonal requirements. But the conflict in my mind was something entirely different than cost, quality, build, tone, etc.. I know what Saint Guitars sound like, and they’re some of the most gorgeous-sound guitars I’ve ever played; cost would be an issue, but if I made the decision, I’d make it happen; rather, it was dealing with the “known” versus the “unknown.”

So, to boutique or not to boutique? That is the question I posed as the title of this article. If it wasn’t cost or quality or tone that was the issue, what do I mean by the “known” versus the “unknown.” I’m going to bullet-point the known issues first:

  • First off, the Comanche was a known quantity to me. I have played several over the last couple of years, and while each is slightly different – after all you’re dealing with wood which is by no means uniform from instrument to instrument – they’ve all generally fallen within the same range of playability and tone.
  • And because I’ve spent a lot of time playing that model of guitar, I knew how I’d fit it into my stable and what it could do for my tone, and how I’d use it in my compositions and performances.
  • The Z-coil pickup is what I believe to be Leo Fender’s finest achievement. Even though Leo was known for creating the Strat, what a lot of people don’t know is that he didn’t play guitar – at all. He didn’t even tune them until late in life! He was all about the pickup, and he built the Strat around his pickup invention. So there’s a bit of history behind the Comanche.

So what about the “unknowns?”

  • Being that a custom-made is a unique creation, I don’t have a precedent from which to follow. There aren’t any previous guitars made with the EXACT specs my guitar would have. In other words, I don’t have any similar models from which to reference.
  • I suppose there are reasonable facsimiles, and since I’ve had the fortune to test Saint guitars, I know how well they’re made, but the guitar I have in mind isn’t made of walnut, which is Adam’s choice of wood. It’s a solid mahogany body with a maple neck – similar to a Charvelle I played a few days ago – very nice playing guitar.
  • Also, with a custom guitar, what I found was that I really had to think and on top of that do research on tone woods and pickups and hardware. That’s something that I wouldn’t have to do with a Comanche. I’ve just had to play a bunch to find the one that I like. That kind of leads back to the first point that there are no previous guitars with my exact specs from which to reference.

But despite all that, I’m still going to have Adam build me my guitar. The uniqueness certainly plays into it, but I’ve been playing long enough now that I have a good idea of how a guitar sounds with a particular type of tone wood, so tone is not quite as unknown as I might have originally thought. But I think the thing that probably was the scariest thing for me was having to specify the different pieces. In other words, all the effort I’d have to put into getting the guitar created. And even though it’s a bit of a moving target, here are the specs I so far:

Finish: Glossy Goldtop

Body: Double-cut Mahogany
Neck: Maple
Fretboard: Ebony
Headstock: Maple

Hardware: Gotoh wraparound bridge, Gotoh 510 tuners (locking)

Pickups (still kind of deciding): Either Seymour Duncan ’59 in neck, Alnico Pro II bridge or 2 ’59’s or 2 Alnico Pro II’s. Both coil-tapped.

Let me know what you think!

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