Seagull Entourage Grand Rustic £455

The Grand has its own voice, tight in the bass, pronounced in the mids, but nicely balanced in the high-end

Numerous reviews start out from readers. One request for full-scale, smaller body guitars for use at home, for recording, practice or writing, but – an increasing caveat these days – affordable got us thinking.

Dreadnoughts proliferate at every price point, but smaller body guitars are a rarer breed, and even then the emphasis in the past couple of years has been on travel guitars with smaller scale lengths.

One perennial style, of course, is the parlour guitar, loosely based on Martin’s 0-style. Slightly bigger is the 00, which then grows to include things like the folk and grand concert – still small, but with more air.

Here, we have a new additions that ticks these boxes. Godin’s Seagull range has featured a parlour-sized Grand for many years. The new Entourage Rustic range features a Semi-Gloss Rustic Burst, which allows the use of less-than-perfect looking woods and, consequently, comes in at a lower price point.

This guitar is definitely in the parlour camp, the width of the inappropriately named Grand drops down to 330mm (13 inches), and the body length to 463mm (18.2 inches). However, it’s the width across the upper bouts (233mm), not to mention a trim waist (187mm), that really condenses the body.

The 14-frets-to-the-body neck joint, gives the illusion of a similar or perhaps increased scale length. And with a 35.5mm string spread, and condensed bridge spacing of 52.5mm, it less fingerstyle friendly than some rival models.

Aside from its thin cream body-edge binding, cosmetics are basic. But hidden under its fetching and old-school ‘rustic’ sunburst face (the wild cherry back and sides are mahogany stained), the solid cedar top actually looks like wide-grained spruce. Overall, the finish appears very thin.

There’s more shoulder to the neck profile here, edging it into a D shape. Fingerboard edges are nicely rounded and fretting is of a much smaller, vintage thin gauge, contrasted by the more compact, electric-like headstock.

Nut and saddle are Graph Tech Tusq. The saddle is compensated, and the action is 2.2mm on the low E, and 2mm on the high E at the 12th fret.

Sounds

The Grand has its own voice, tight in the bass, pronounced in the mids, but nicely balanced in the high-end. It’s not an overly bold projection, but its intimate sound (and feel) is rather endearing. Fingerstyle players may find The Grand feels slightly cramped in terms of neck width and string spacing, but its balanced, intimate voice is its trump card.

Seagull’s Grand is best thought of as an at-home practising/recording/writing guitar, a perfect companion to your larger gigging electro. It’s ideal for late-night, around-the- dinner-table sessions, not to mention open-tuning practice, and it’s a nice slide guitar, too.

Verdict

Virtually a travel guitar in size, the Grand’s full scale and balanced tonality is perfect for home and recording use.

4 of 5 stars

Vox Apache II £262

The Vox Apache II is based on the classic Vox Phantom shape

Most often seen on amps, the Vox logo has graced electric guitars since the late 50s. The latest line to bear this famous brand was launched in 2007 and, rather than relive the past, it adopts an all-new approach.

But the recently introduced Apache II contradicts such forward thinking, at least looks-wise, as its distinctive styling is borrowed from the oddly angular Phantom, one of the company’s iconic designs first seen in the 60s. Back then, it created quite an impact, and the shape still looks decidedly different today.

Apart from this retro flavour, the Apache is brought bang up to date by combining two concepts. It’s classed as a travel guitar, complete with an onboard amp and twin speakers, but also features a built-in drum machine. Although certainly novel nowadays, the idea of including rhythm patterns is almost as old as the 60s styling, being something of a fad during that decade courtesy of Japanese brands such as Fresher and Guyatone.

Indeed, self-amplified electrics would also become plentiful during the 80s, but neither notion caught on. Vox obviously feels that, by incorporating both into one instrument, it has created the ultimate takeaway electric.

While the rest of the company’s current guitar catalogue comes from Japan, Korea and Indonesia, these are the first Chinese-made examples. Vox initially used the Apache name in the mid-60s for a strangely shaped and short-lived solid. This new versions has nothing else in common with that oldie and, instead, the headstock’s biplane decal suggests an aircraft association.

The company is oddly coy about broadcasting the Vox name, and just a large Apache logo partners the plane. Gold graphics contrast with the black face of the spear-shaped headstock, the latter another example of 60s Vox styling. It boasts white-buttoned, vintage Kluson-type tuners, while a large rear sticker indicates maker and model identity.

The Apache II and its sister model, the Apache I, are identical. The latter being based around Vox’s old tear drop Mark-shape. Vox calls it a travel guitar, but this description must refer to its all-in-one attributes, as its measurements are actually almost full-size, unlike the significantly scaled-down dimensions usually employed on most manufacturers’ properly portable six-strings.

The bolt-on maple neck adopts a mainstream-style C profile and is only slightly foreshortened, with the 610mm (24-inch) scale rosewood fingerboard carrying a full complement of 22 medium-gauge frets. Also, the basswood body isn’t noticeably any smaller than normal, while the overall weight is an easily managed 3kg. Echoing its original inspirations, the Apache II’s awkward offset angles do make it unwelcoming to play when seated.

The finish is consistently high shine, with the various colour schemes contrasted by a large white scratchplate. The Apache II employs a new outline, compared to its spiritual predecessor the Vox Mark, necessary to incorporate all the onboard electrics. The onboard electrics comprise a single-coil pickup sited at the neck, plus controls topped with suitably shrunk, Vox-like pointer knobs.

The Vox Apache II is based on the classic Vox Phantom shape

An internal 0.07-watt amplifier is governed by volume, tone and gain pots, while two mini-switches select overdrive and power on/off. In the latter mode, the signal from the pickup goes into the side-mounted output jack, which allows the Apache to plug into external amplification.

Engaged via a touch-type button, the accompanying rhythm section features level and tempo controls, plus a rotary switch providing 10 different drum patterns and an extended song alternative. The range on offer spans various styles, including rock/metal, blues, jazz/funk, country, reggae and dance, while a second touch button supplies six variations for each of the 11 options, with choice denoted by three LEDs.

The latter also serve as sharp/flat indicators when the Apache’s E-string tuning function is selected by holding down the same button. A mini-jack input accepts an mp3 or CD player, while a second feeds stereo headphones, muting the instrument’s twin three-inch speakers in the process.

Hardware is more minimal, with a simple six-saddle bridge and through-body stringing. A sizeable rear compartment accommodates the six AA batteries that give 26 hours’ playing time. No provision is provided for an external power supply, although this would be a useful alternative when portability isn’t required.

Sounds

Powered up, the Apache’s onboard amp initially proves somewhat polite. Even with volume, tone and gain full on, the output isn’t enough to really offend anyone. At these settings, delivery is a bit fuzzy around the edges, tonality is on the boxy side and the speakers add flatulence when pushed.

Engaging the overdrive cures any low-level complaints, courtesy of a sizeable, pre-set dollop of trashy distortion. This significantly increases volume and sparks up performance, while the amount of extra gain now on tap easily provokes internal feedback. Far from being a problem, this introduces a random hooligan element that adds to the fun factor.

However, switching on the rhythm section shows the latter can go louder still, drowning out the guitar – just like a live drummer! The selections and patterns available should offer enough variety to please most players, while the results pack plenty of punch. Unlike the six-string side, they come through loud and clear on the internal speakers, ensuring a fairly realistic and dynamic delivery.

With the Apache plugged into an amp, the solitary single coil is supplied at full volume, sounding clear-toned and meaty. Engaging the onboard electronics immediately reduces output, even with the relevant controls at maximum, but the overdrive facility again rectifies the situation in its own dirt-laden way.

The Apache’s build quality is up to par for the price, likewise playability. In terms of performance, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. Apart from the flat-out or distortion settings, the onboard sounds are disappointing. External amplification improves things, but, of course, this then defeats the instrument’s self-powered, play-anywhere purpose. The rhythm section is useful in terms of variety, volume and tonality; it’s simple to use, so is an ideal play-along tool.

Cutting the gimmick factor back, you could, for example, buy a Squier Strat and a Line 6 Pocket POD for a similar outlay, but you’d be confined to headphones. Meantime, the Apaches do their intended job, offering something different and a whole lot of fun to boot. Serious, professional guitars these are not – it’s all about the fun factor.

Verdict

This distinctive-looking electric offers self-powered performance and play- anywhere portability. Most of all it’s great fun.

3 of 5 stars

Mad Professor Old School 21 £1799

‘Old School 21’ isn’t just a clever name. This 21-watt amp carries a trio of ECC83/12AX7 preamp valves and two 6V6 power amp valves.

Finnish company Mad Professor is best known among guitarists in the UK for its sweet-sounding, hand-wired boutique pedals such as the Little Green Wonder overdrive and the Deep Blue Delay.

In the past couple of years it has introduced affordable PCB-based versions of its illustrious pedal lines without compromising the company’s reputation for great tone, much to the delight of the less well heeled of us. Now, we’ve got one of its amps, a vintage-voiced combo that is neither pumped full of PCBs or in any imminent danger of being described as affordable.

‘Old School 21’ isn’t just a clever name. This 21-watt amp carries a trio of ECC83/12AX7 preamp valves and two 6V6 power amp valves. All that power shifts air thanks to a single 12-inch Celestion G12H 70th Anniversary speaker.

The amp’s name also reflects how it was assembled. “We wanted it to be built in the old-school way,” says Mad Professor founder Harri Koski. “The whole signal path is hand- wired, making this amp very durable and easy to service.

“The power distribution and fuses are on a small PCB,” he continues. “That is pretty much the only way to properly install the extra fuses. We have to make the amp safe for the player, and protect all the expensive parts in the amp. We didn’t want to go too far with this ‘old-school’ approach!”

All the research on the Old School 21 was done in Finland but the amp isn’t being built there. “To build it in Finland is not the cheapest way to do it,” says Koski. “When we found a manufacturer in the UK who could build these amps at as good (or even better) quality than we can, we were very happy. The UK has a heritage of making the finest amps in the world, and we’re happy to have our amps built there.”

Indeed, the amp’s build quality is well up to scratch, with only the silk-screened logo looking a little on the cheap side. It’s solid, too, with a footprint roughly the same as the vintage amps it’s inspired by.

“We like the Fender Deluxe Reverb, Vox AC30, Marshall 18-watt and so on, but these are all kind of limited to one sound, either clean or distorted,” he continues. “We wanted a classic-sounding amp, with nice firm clean, strong distorted tone and very solid tight tone with fat low end, nice midrange and cutting, but not piercing high end.”

Sounds

“This is an amp you can control with your playing touch or guitar volume, and with just a few pedals the number of tones is almost unlimited,” says Koski. “The amp is at home with pop, country, jazz, pop, classic rock, rockabilly and many other old-school styles.”

Well, this writer is rockabilly and country daft, but it actually takes us a little while to get acquainted with the Old School 21.

‘Old School 21’ isn’t just a clever name. This 21-watt amp carries a trio of ECC83/12AX7 preamp valves and two 6V6 power amp valves.

While at first earful it sounds a little flat, boxy even, fiddling with the controls soon reveals a more attractive Fender-like sparkle. Cranking up the volume unleashes a strong, almost Hiwatt-like overdrive with just enough oomph for classic-rock stuff – humbuckers help a lot here. This amp does its thing without really blowing our socks off although adding our Retroman ‘Beano’ treble booster into the signal chain really pulls out some old-school rock ‘n’ roll grunt and adds some complexity to the tone.

We’re not entirely convinced that we’d take this amp over the Fender, Vox and Marshall jobs mentioned earlier, but it does offer a solid approximation of all three. The Old School 21 is more tonally versatile than most of the classics from back in the day.

The feedback from guitarists who have already come face-to-face with the Old School 21 is generally along the line of ‘nice amp, shame about the price’. That’s the big fat juicy fly in this otherwise perfectly acceptable ointment. The Mad Professor lads have endeavoured to design an amp with a vintage vibe that also has a certain wider appeal.

The problem is, by giving the amp a price tag that’s the wrong side of £1,500, Mad Professor has put the amp in competition with some very tough opponents – the likes of Matchless, Suhr, Mesa… a cast of thousands of top-end amps from big-name brands.

While the Old School 21 feels a bit out of its depth in such illustrious company, it pretty much nails the objectives of its designers: to create a “gig-friendly, easy- to-set-up amp with great clean and distorted tones”. Well worth an audition if the usual names don’t appeal.

Verdict

It doesn’t quite live up to its rather hefty price tag but the Old School ’21 is well worth auditioning for those on a quest for tonal nirvana.

3.5 of 5 stars

Guild GSR F-30CE Cocobolo £2926

The F-30 has long been one of Guild’s most popular small-bodied guitars

Guild has been building guitars since 1953 and its F-series guitars (fingerstyle/folk) have proved to be flagship models.

In 2011, Guild Guitars staged a showcase event for European dealers. Only those attending the event could stock these unique GSRs, Guild Special Runs. Fender GBI selected two guitars, a D-40 Noir and a F-30CE Cocobolo (reviewed here), and duly dispatched them to us for evaluation.

One of the few things those two guitars have in common is the D-TAR (Duncan Turner Acoustic Research) Multi- Source pickup, a unit that combines the Wave-Length undersaddle system with a condenser microphone. The Multi-Source system starts with the Wave-Length unitary design, piezo, co-polymer, undersaddle pickup, which is coupled to an 18-volt, low-noise, high-input impedance preamp.

The pickup itself is wrapped in copper shielding. D-TAR claims running the system on 18 volts (which is achieved with a voltage power booster) provides twice the dynamic range of a typical nine-volt system. This is because the additional voltage gives the signal more headroom, removing ‘quack’ when strumming or picking with gusto.

Changing the two AA batteries is no easy task. The cells are housed within a casing that sits inside a fabric ‘pocket’ attached to the inside of the neck block with Velcro. We couldn’t access the batteries without slackening off most of the strings – annoying.

Seated just inside the lip of the soundhole is the omni-directional condenser microphone. To isolate it from unwanted vibration and handling noise, the microphone is embedded in a shock mounting. Interestingly, the mic signal has two stages of frequency roll-off, which work together in order to combat internal microphones’ tendency towards low-frequency feedback.

Low-profile rotaries fitted just inside the upper bout side of the soundhole control master and mic volume respectively. If you’re used to reaching for a shoulder-mounted control panel, rotaries located inside the soundhole can be fiddly to use, not least because they’re situated so close to each other. Adjustments mid-song, say for a solo, can be very tricky. That said, it’s a good thing that such a high-end guitar has not suffered intrusive surgery to accommodate a control panel.

F’n lovely

The F-30 has long been one of Guild’s most popular small-bodied guitars. Launched in 1959, the F-30 quickly became a folk favourite. Our review model ups the ante somewhat, featuring a solid cocobolo back.

Cocobolo is an oily, tropical hardwood found mostly in Central America and, because of its inherent strength, is often used for gun and knife handles and police batons! Bass guitar manufacturer Alembic is credited with pioneering its use as a tonewood and, famously, Stanley Clarke’s signature tone was attributed to using basses made from cocobolo.

The F-30 has long been one of Guild’s most popular small-bodied guitars

The F-30CE’s decorative cupboard is not exactly over-stocked, but an ornate centre strip of parquetry sits between what is a sumptuous selection of bookmatched cocobolo.

The F-30CE’s top is constructed from Carpathian spruce, which boasts a tight, almost ruler-straight grain. Simple black coachlining and ivoroid binding follow the sweeping lines of the F-30CE and a five-ring soundhole rosette includes an abalone strip.

The Martin-esque bridge is ebony and home to bone Parisian eye-topped bridge pins. The ivoroid bound, three-piece, slim-profile mahogany neck features a walnut ‘skunk stripe’ centre strip while the headstock possesses a cocobolo faceplate.

The F-30CE is tastefully bedecked and the use of exotic woods creates an aura of class and style. The only slight negative construction-wise is the weight of the guitar. It’s clear, though, that quality control is exceptional: the scalloped Adirondack red spruce bracing is smoothly sanded and imperceptibly glued in place, while the gloss finish is impeccable.

Sounds

The F-30CE is a fantastic fingerstyle guitar. Offering an airy, smooth timbre, the F-30CE purrs with rich, complex overtones and sustain to boot. The full output results in a less-is-more approach to playing and it seems somehow irreverent to give the F-30CE a thrashing with a heavy pick. The lower registers possess strength and presence without a hint of boom, and the mid and top end boast warmth while retaining clarity and sharpness.

Plugged in, the D-TAR system performs admirably and offers a very credible reproduction of the F-30CE’s acoustic tone. The mic blend control has more influence on the output and this provides greater versatility in the amplified tone. The depth and character of the originating acoustic tone results in keeping the amplified version from sounding thin and nasal. Overall, the F-30CE’s sonic performance is impressive, whatever the setting.

Verdict

For those sufficiently well heeled and able to track one down, the F-30CE Cocobolo is pretty much as good as fingerstyle guitars get.

4.5 of 5 stars

Music Man Reflex Game Changer HSH £2539

The Game Changer promises automated access to “any order of pickup coils in series, parallel, in or out of phase”, without digitising or modelling the audio signal

The phrase ‘game changer’ is an example of inelegant contemporary jargon most accurately reserved to describe hi-tech gadgets such as Apple’s iPhone that have genuinely upended the market and revolutionised the way that a product is thought about. In simple terms, if you are going to call your new product the Game Changer, it had better be pretty special.

Music Man clearly has lofty ambitions for this technology, and its launch is a bold move in an industry still head over heels in love with the designs of the 50s and early 60s and openly scornful towards modernity. Don’t believe us? Simply search for the words ‘Firebird X’ on any guitar forum you care to think of.

Music Man’s Game Changer pickup switching system was first announced with a fanfare at Winter NAMM in January 2011, so it’s fair to say that it has taken quite some time for the company’s marquee product to make its way over to us from its San Luis Obispo facility in California.

Arguably, Sterling Ball and co should be applauded for having the stones to put their weight behind a product that boasts hundreds of thousands of potential pickup combinations when the overwhelming majority of guitar players are perfectly happy with five, or even three.

That aside, a cursory glance at Music Man’s impressive artist roster, which includes such heavyweights as Steve Lukather, John Petrucci and Steve Morse, indicates that the company doesn’t necessarily build instruments to appeal to the ‘set and forget’ school of tonehounds.

And in a wider context, for every Billy F Gibbons or Leslie West, there have always been major league guitarists for whom ‘standard’ wiring fails to deliver enough variation: Brian May carved a unique sonic niche with a bespoke instrument that delivers unconventional in-series and out-of-phase tones, while Jimmy Page used pull-push pots to bring more variety to the Les Paul without disrupting the classic 1950s lines of his axe of choice.

Until now, the only way to unlock a similarly rich array of sounds either involved a more than rudimentary command over a soldering iron or digital processing. The Game Changer promises automated access to “any order of pickup coils in series, parallel, in or out of phase”, without digitising or modelling the audio signal.

Lead engineer on the project, Drew Montell, explains that the key to the whole concept was the idea of unlocking the limitations of the traditional pickup selector switch. He says: “We have always been developing new ways to expand the tonal possibilities of our instruments. However, during the development of our 25th Anniversary guitar and bass, we sought ways to break free from the mechanical limitations of the industry standard three- and five-way switches.

The Game Changer promises automated access to “any order of pickup coils in series, parallel, in or out of phase”, without digitising or modelling the audio signal

“It started with the push-button switches on the bass, allowing for up to eight active and/or passive pickup wiring schemes, but we still knew there was so much more to offer, and we didn’t want to keep adding switches and confusing controls to the instruments to make it happen.

“Through hours and hours of many brainstorming sessions,” he continues, “we realised that there was a way to use the power of digital controls to manipulate an analogue audio circuit, which allowed for more tonal options than we ever imagined. Since then, we have yet to stop the research and development on all that the Game Changer can do.”

Does Drew worry that some players might find that very flexibility intimidating?

“Many people initially express that the Game Changer is ‘too complex’, or that all they need is their single favourite tone,” he admits. “The beauty of the Game Changer is that the player doesn’t have to know of, or utilise, any of the technology built in, and they will have a fantastic instrument with all of the ‘classic’ tones they crave.

“However, if they work with the Game Changer for a bit, they will quickly realise it can be programmed to be as simple or complex as they like, with classic or completely unheard of tones. The pickup selector switch can be programmed to have only one tone, if desired, so no matter which position it is in, the tone is the same. It can also be programmed to have five different ‘crazy’ tones that change things up a bit. The best part is, it can be changed at any time by the user so that the instrument is the right tool for the job, no matter if in a studio or live setting, with any style of music that is desired!”

The aforementioned digital control over the analogue world of pickup wiring is something the Game Changer places in your hands via MIDI switching, or more simply through a web browser application and USB lead that is used to connect the instrument to a computer.

The app can be accessed at gamechanger.music-man.com (there’s also a device emulator mode, allowing you to play with the interface sans guitar) and it doesn’t take long before you are auditioning and saving sounds in one of three onboard banks accessible via the guitar’s standard five-way pickup selector in conjunction with the pull-push tone control, and the momentary Bank Z toggle switch. If you are stuck for inspiration or confused, the web app also features banks of genre-specific and artist sounds to get you started.

In the physical world, we’re not sure about the wisdom of locating a momentary switch on the guitar’s upper bout. Sounds change just as instantaneously as they do when using a wholly analogue circuit, so it’s very easy to flick the switch accidentally in the midst of live performance. However, in the main, the Reflex is the kind of well-sorted electric you would quite rightly expect of Music Man USA, or indeed any guitar with a retail price in excess of £2,500.

The Game Changer promises automated access to “any order of pickup coils in series, parallel, in or out of phase”, without digitising or modelling the audio signal

The chambered basswood body with a maple top and mahogany ‘tone block’ contributes to a highly resonant acoustic voice with a surprising amount of zing and sustain for a vibrato-equipped guitar.

Although the 12-inch (304.8mm) fingerboard radius and skinny 41.3mm (1.63-inch) nut width might not be the most comfortable combination for playing 1st position chords and classic rock riffing (especially if you have large hands), the rather flat radius comes into its own at the other end of the neck, allowing for expressive, fluid lead playing.

In line with Music Man convention, where the gloss headstock finish meets the satin oiled neck there is an unattractive lip. It doesn’t interfere with the playing experience, of course, but it would be a much more elegant solution for the finish transition to follow the line of the headstock’s rear carve.

Derived from the 25th Anniversary instruments, the Reflex outline is a shade under 4cm longer than the Music Man Axis – good news for those of us over 6ft tall who don’t want it to look like we are playing a toy guitar to the untrained eye – creating sufficient space for the substantial internal circuit board on which analogue sound meets digital switching inside the rear control cavity.

Around the back, there’s also an easy-access compartment for the trio of AA batteries required to provide the Game Changer with juice for up to 100 hours of live performance use. Would gigging guitarists prefer a system powered by a nine-volt PP3? We’re more likely to have spares kicking around in our gigbags, but that said, you can usually find AAs easily at petrol stations, corner shops and the like while on the road. And AAs are a lot cheaper, of course.

Sounds

“The purpose of the Game Changer was not to reinvent the guitar as a new instrument,” claims Drew Montell. “It was not meant to emulate or synthesise what a guitar could sound like. It was meant to completely unlock the tonal capabilities of the instrument that players have enjoyed for decades.

“If someone were to design a car stereo that only received five radio stations pre-programmed by the manufacturer, people would think it was ridiculous. With millions of broadcasts and listening preferences, why not add a dial that allows the user to tune into what they prefer?”

Don’t like what you hear? Then pick one of the hundreds of thousands of other selections. It’s an exciting thought, and one that makes any statement about the nature of this instrument’s sounds somewhat moot. That said, Game Changer switching aside, the basic tonality of the Reflex’s custom DiMarzio pickups is balanced and contemporary, allowing plenty of acoustic resonance from the chambered body to be translated into its amplified tones.

With this in mind, this guitar is a better vehicle for creating and refining original sounds of your own rather than trying to ape classic guitar tones of the past in the way you might expect to with a digital modelling instrument such as the Line 6 Variax. Just how many sounds are on offer? Well, Music Man’s marketing literature varies, with quotes ranging from “over 250,000” to millions of possible wiring combinations, so you are unlikely to get through them all any time soon.

The Game Changer promises automated access to “any order of pickup coils in series, parallel, in or out of phase”, without digitising or modelling the audio signal

Auditioning 250,000 sounds for just 15 seconds each would take more than 43 days, and that’s without stopping for food or sleep. Also, bear in mind that for all the modernism under the hood, these are honest-to-goodness analogue sounds, so single-coil sounds will hum a little. It’s actually quite reassuring.

Although its potential is kaleidoscopic, in a practical context, the Game Changer technology really comes into its own when you need to find space in a dense mix. One example might be how nasal reverse phase settings that seem thin in isolation can be just the ticket for slicing laser-like through thunderous heavy rhythms.

It’s definitely not all about rock and metal, though. If you are the guitarist in a busy function band with even the most diverse setlist, the Game Changer can likely furnish you with all of the sounds you need, and the scope widens even further if you opt for the piezo-equipped model.

The Reflex Game Changer HSH is not designed to mimic the complexities of a ’59 Les Paul neck pickup, or the unmistakable raunch of a Nocaster bridge unit. However, you can dial in and save your own fat neck pickup and strident bridge pickup voices that are equally valid in the same musical context, and so much more besides.

Priced in the pro and serious amateur bracket for the time being, the Game Changer is an undeniably significant investment, but for your hard-earned cash you are not only getting a near-bulletproof modern electric guitar, you are also buying into a concept that will continue to evolve and develop, because Music Man is committed to refining the software and firmware on an ongoing basis.

The retro-obsessed need not apply, but if a vintage aesthetic isn’t a priority and you find the open-ended nature of the technology appealing, it might just be time to make a change.

Verdict

Time will tell whether this technology will be a real-world game changer or an interesting footnote. Regardless, this is a very good electric guitar with which to broaden your sonic horizons.

4 of 5 stars

The wide string spacing of the Capstan, especially in lower positions, makes for easier fingerstyle

Numerous reviews start out from readers. One request for full-scale, smaller body guitars for use at home, for recording, practice or writing, but – an increasing caveat these days – affordable got us thinking. Dreadnoughts proliferate at every price point, but smaller body guitars are a rarer breed, and even then the emphasis in the past couple of years has been on travel guitars with smaller scale lengths.

One perennial style, of course, is the parlour guitar, loosely based on Martin’s 0-style. Slightly bigger is the 00, which then grows to include things like the folk and grand concert – still small, but with more air.

Here, we have a new addition that tick these boxes. Mariner guitars are designed in the UK but made in China, and one of 2012’s new additions in its Green Series is the Capstan, classed as a grand concert. This is an all solid-wood guitar using some unusual timbers.

Despite our small-body brief, the Capstan is fairly spacious. At 371mm (14.6 inches) in width and 487mm (19.2 inches) in body length, its grand concert design puts it into 12-fret Martin 00 territory. The 12-fret neck joint increases the body length compared to the 14-fret 00 style, and the roundness of the upper bouts makes it close to a modern classic guitar.

The top is solid spruce and finely grained, too; the back and sides are paulownia that’s attractively grained, a sort of cross between the hue of korina and the grain of ash. With minimal cosmetic detailing, the body finish is a tinted gloss, giving a nice aged appearance.

Internally, things are fairly tidy, although, while the visible back braces are nicely sanded, those under the top seem rougher to the touch in pretty typical X-braced layout. The solid sides have small mahogany-looking side reinforcement bars, too.

Welcome here is the spacious nut width and 39mm string spread, with a slightly tighter bridge spacing of 54mm. It’s got fingerstyle stamped all over it.

The satin-finish neck is one piece, save for the slightly mismatched single-piece heel stack, with an old-style quite deep C-shaped profile, slotted headstock and rather out of place electric-like Kluson-style tuners.

Another more electric-like feature is the slightly rough-topped wide frets. Nut and saddle are bone; the saddle is nicely compensated, although the bridge, with its pyramid-style ends, seems a little over-thick. Overall, though, at this price, there’s a lot to like here.

Sounds

The Capstan impresses with a crisply textured voice that sounds new and raw. It’s well balanced, with roomy (but not boomy) low-end, strong but not over-dominant midrange, and reasonably powerful highs.

The wide string spacing of the Capstan, especially in lower positions, makes for easier fingerstyle, although the neck is pretty chunky if you’re used to an electric neck. It’s also quite chameleon-like: there’s a raw blues edge to it, but its tighter bottom end would help plectrum rhythm styles, especially when playing with another guitarist or tracking on recordings. It sounds good with open and altered tunings, too.

Mariner’s Capstan is a good addition to its evolving range. These guitars have their rough edges, but they also tick the green box. This one is very versatile, and would make a fine all-rounder, with the emphasis on the fingerstyle player. Add a soundhole pickup and it’s a perfect open-mic guitar, too.

Verdict

Mariner is still a new name in the affordable market, but the Capstan is a fine fingerstyle-friendly performer.

4 of 5 stars

A humbucker, plus a Strat and Tele singlecoil mean this pine slab can handle most styles

Aside from its Swiss Army knife line-up of pickups, the new Tele Plus features an unusual pine body. Most Teles are hewn from alder or ash, but Leo Fender built some early Esquire models using pine.

As a result, there are many pine-Tele obsessed toneheads around the world. Those old-schoolers would be less comfortable with the new Tele’s humbucker (bridge), Strat single-coil (middle) and Tele single-coil (neck) set-up.

Still, this is a Tele for modern players looking to pull as many tones as possible from that classic chassis. Plus, like the other models here in this round-up, the Tele Plus has a modern feel, with its jumbo frets, slim-profile bolt-on maple neck and flatter-than- vintage fingerboard radius.

Sounds

Running this Tele’s ‘bucker on full will satisfy any gain junkie, with enough power to pull off old-school rock and modern metal tones.

Coil split the ‘bucker and combine it with the middle single-coil for Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix and Curtis Mayfield vibes, clean and with overdrive. In classic Tele style, the neck pickup is the right address for overdriven blues and jazzy chords.

However, the lack of a traditional Tele bridge set-up makes it tough to judge what contribution this Tele’s pine body makes to its tone when compared to a more traditional alder or ash-body model.

Verdict

It’s not the prettiest example, but if your tastes run to country and metal, this is one Tele that comes up with the goods.

4 of 5 stars

Crucially, the C50 achieves everything the cash-strapped young buck with three chords in his pocket could ask for

Rock ‘n’ roll is all about the simple things. It’s an indisputable fact. Whenever a band strays too far from the basics – no-nonsense drumming, pounding bass, a shoutable chorus and, of course, a loud guitar or two – something is lost.

It’s a dangerous road; you might end up playing angular jazz to intense Belgians, and no-one wants that, not even the Belgians. That’s because humans are genetically predisposed to enjoy rock ‘n’ roll.

The sort of people who make rock ‘n’ roll – young, broke, pissed-off (that’s you, right?) – need guitars like the Eagletone South State C50. Instruments like these are catalysts, transforming garage-band intent into the sort of three-minute adrenaline bursts that frighten small children.

This is a basic, no-frills Les Paul-a-like that takes the template made famous by Gibson and does what a thousand other cheap and cheerful manufacturers have done. Namely, approximate the shape, bolt on a neck and a couple of humbuckers, and hope for the best.

Crucially, the C50 achieves everything the cash-strapped young buck with three chords in his pocket, and not much else, could ask for. The body is a flat-topped slab of ginkgo – not a species of wood you might immediately recognise, but a quick strum reveals a healthy resonance that gives your ribs a good shaking.

Together with a well-finished and comfortable bolt-on Canadian maple neck, it’s almost ruthlessly utilitarian. The screwed-down scratchplate is the only design quirk that looks outside of the low-cost Les Paul norm. Everywhere else, things are understated and functional, from the logo to the headstock shape.

The chunky strap buttons and industrial-grade machineheads aren’t exactly top of the range, but they get the job done. Controls are boiled down to volume, tone and pickup selector, the essence of simplicity. A wraparound bridge completes the adornment, and, frankly, what else do you need? Some of rock’s greatest tracks have been recorded on guitars with less.

Plug it in and the C50 is quickly revealed to be a thoroughly capable little guitar. Clean, the twin humbuckers are basically inoffensive, and more than able to deal with your light strumming needs, but it’s through a dirty channel or a nasty little fuzz box that it’s most fun. It’s a surprisingly resonant beast, and with that all-important buzzsaw edge, it’s enough to make beginners feel like rock stars, and more experienced players to forget the posing and indulge themselves.

This is a guitar that has been built with care, and to last, and that will not embarrass you (you’ll have to do that yourself). There are some shoddily made electrics out there, but this isn’t one of them.

Verdict

It may not be a heart-stopper, but empires have been built with guitars like this.

4 of 5 stars

A new rack-based solution for digital defectors

Every guitarist has their own approach to using effects: some like to have individual pedals they can turn on and off at will; others prefer a patch-based approach where they can turn several effects on simultaneously, either by using a digital multi-effect unit or by using a switching solution such as those made by TheGigRig, which can instantly recall your hardware pedal combinations.

Dutch company Vintage Revolution favours the patch-switching method, but has come at it from its own unique angle with the PedalPro system. What you get is a range of pure analogue effects – equivalent to a load of vintage or boutique stompboxes – with digital control over them, built into a rackmount unit with mono or stereo output.

These effects can be arranged into nine different effects-chain configurations, with full parameter adjustment and stored as presets (500 memory slots are available) that can be recalled with the included Pedalino foot controller.

The PedalPro rackmount system is constructed to a high quality, as is the Pedalino, which connects to it via a cable but needs its own nine-watt power supply. The Pedalino is, in fact, quite unique among pedal controllers in that it has no mechanical parts, its functions taken care of via four large switch pads that are pressure-sensitive and can be set up to carry out different functions depending on how hard you press them. There can be up to three levels of pressure – level one, level two and level three – indicated by how many of the three red LEDs in the centre of the unit light up.

In terms of live functionality, one pad operates bypass while two scroll up and down the preset list – utilising three pressure levels you can scroll through the presets one, 10 or 50 at a time. The fourth pad loads the selected preset, so two pads must be pressed to change sounds in this mode.

There is, however, another mode that allows you flexible access to 18 favourite presets. A bank of presets is selected with the first pad, while the other three pads directly access the presets in the bank. There are two variations on this mode – presets can be split into three banks of six, so each pad has a different preset at levels one and three. Alternatively, presets can be split into two banks of nine, with each pad accessing a different preset at levels one, two and three.

While the pressure pads are innovative and space-saving, they do take some getting used to, particularly if you are trying to get to level two. We got quite frustrated at hitting a pad too softly or too strongly and going to the wrong level.

Of course, this is the sort of thing that you get better at the more you do it, so we’d be wrong to dismiss it out of hand after just a small amount of time with the unit. However, with all the other things you have to cope with onstage, some may find it one level of complexity too far compared to the no-brainer of a conventional footswitch that’s either on or off.

A new rack-based solution for digital defectors

Sounds

Without getting into an analogue versus digital debate here, Vintage Revolution’s view is that analogue is definitely the way to go for the optimum sound, and the purely analogue signal is at no point digitised. The company tells us that only the best high-end audio components are used in the effects chain, and that appears to be borne out by the sound quality, which is excellent.

The effects are placed in a set order – compressor, preamp (boost), distortion, tremolo/ panner, phaser, post effects (chorus, flanger and delay), noise gate – but there are also a couple of filters that can be placed at various points in the chain, creating the previously mentioned nine configurations, one filter being an inductor filter for wah effects, while the other has a wide range of sonic capabilities, including vowel effects.

Both filters can operate in manual (via an expression pedal connected to the Pedalino), auto or envelope modes. In addition, there are external effects loops, so you can add extra effects both before the preamp and in the post-effects section, just before the noise gate.

There’s a massive array of editable parameters – many more than you would get with a chain of conventional analogue pedals, including a choice of modulating waveforms, so there’s opportunity to create and store a wide range of original sounds. Those who must have an analogue signal path will be excited about the sonic possibilities on offer.

Whether it’s a patch dedicated to a single effect or one with several effects active, there are some very usable sounds here – plenty of phasing, chorus and flanging variations reminiscent of classic vintage pedals, plus authentic amp- style tremolo.

Then there are several shades of very natural and valve-like distortion, and a wah that sounds and behaves like a nice vintage Crybaby when used with an expression pedal, which can be assigned to a range of analogue parameters.

The idea of putting multiple analogue effects in a rackmount unit is not entirely new – we had the likes of the MXR Omni and the Ibanez UE400 and UE405 in the eighties – but could be seen as quite radical in 2012 and has never been seen with this level of control.

What you’re buying is a deep resource of timeless analogue sounds that work brilliantly as part of your overall guitar tone, and Vintage Revolution is to be applauded for trying to create something different.

However, the practicality, particularly for onstage use, leaves something to be desired. Firstly, the system is currently entirely patch-based, which doesn’t allow individual effect-switching flexibility; most digital multi-effects pedals from major manufacturers include some sort of ‘manual’ mode to give you access to individual pedals within patches.

The PedalPro system doesn’t do that at present, but functionality will be extended with a ‘solo’ mode, to be implemented in a firmware update later this year, which will allow the switching of one or more effects on and off within a preset.

Secondly, switching between patches either requires two footswitch presses or applying the right amount of pressure to the pad, which, although it’s the sort of thing that comes with practice, is not something we’d want to be concentrating on in the middle of a gig.

The bottom line is that, while the PedalPro could be a real asset for recording, it may not be the most practical of options for onstage performance.

Verdict

The world’s first hybrid analogue multi-effects – pure analogue sounds with digital control.

3.5 of 5 stars

Despite its looks, you don’t need to be a doctor or a scientist in order to operate The Elements

Like any good boutique drive pedal, The Elements is built like a tank, has a fabulously quirky paint job and enough controls to make an airline pilot pause for a moment.

The Elements is a clever blend of boost, overdrive and distortion with controls for nearly every aspect of your tone. Aside from the three-band EQ, gain and volume there’s a mix control that enables a more gradual changeover between clean and dirty tones.

The real fun starts when you start playing with the four toggle switches, which include a low/high-gain selector along with a three different bass cuts, a mid frequency shift and a choice of three different clipping modes that each alter the character and harmonic overtones of the distortion.

In low-gain mode, you can start with a clean boost before making your way through to smouldering bluesy break-up tones and a generous rock crunch. High-gain mode takes things even further, and works very well with the clipping toggle, letting you choose a harsher or more open drive. And as for harmonics, The Elements is positively brimming with them, even with crushing gain levels.

At £199, this pedal is a serious investment, and it’s not the easiest to go out and demo. While the sheer quality and versatility of the pedal arguably justifies it, we’d love to see a larger dual-footswitch version for easy switching between high- and low-gain modes. It’s not a deal-breaker, though.

Verdict

We’d buy one in a heartbeat.

5 of 5 stars