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NAMM Show 2020

Hello Troubadourians! January brings the NAMM show to the Anaheim Convention Center every year. The NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show is actually an international trade show that is exclusive to the music trade and is reportedly the largest trade show on the West Coast if not the entire country, and it gets bigger every year. So many people… and a lot of noise. In fact, that constant din is one of the more fatiguing things about the NAMM experience. It seemed that there was an abundance of new instruments this year, mostly from lesser-known makers, but truthfully there wasn’t much that called out “play me.” I’ll describe some that did and some that didn’t.

The “new” Gibson had a huge hall to display all of their Gibson and Epiphone instruments. I’d say that the quality has definitely improved over past years since the new management took over. I played a variety of different instruments from Gibson’s regular, non-custom shop models that included Les Pauls to 355s to Explorers, and I found them to be good instruments if somewhat unremarkable. I also played a couple of the custom shop ’59 and ’60 anniversary reissue Les Pauls. They felt some what more broken in than the regular models, mostly due to the aging that these models receive. I do think that Gibson offers too many variations of the basic models but maybe that is necessary for them to offer more price points to choose from. I wasn’t able to evaluate the tone of any instruments beyond using the headphone setup that was provided at each station where the instruments were displayed. Also, while I was there, there was a full band performance by Joanna Connor, which contributed to the difficulty in hearing the subtleties of the instruments. Overall though, I do think that after all of the tribulations that Gibson has experienced over the last few years, things are finally looking up.

Fender was showing off their new American Acoustasonic Stratocaster. The guitar features Fender and Fishman pickups and the Fishman-designed Acoustic Engine powers the acoustic tones and also offers a unique set of Strat-inspired electric lead and rhythm tones. The American Acoustasonic Stratocaster has a mahogany Stratocaster neck and signature body cut, with the look and feel of a regular Stratocaster. Well, mostly. I felt that the neck width at 15/8″ at the nut was a bit narrow, especially for an “acoustic” guitar. I would have preferred at least 111/16″. In my opinion, it is a bit of a compromise between a real Stratocaster and a real acoustic. If you already switch between your Strat and a good acoustic guitar, I don’t think that the American Acoustasonic Stratocaster will replace either one. But if you have a guerilla gig where you had to cover both with minimal gear, you could get away with just bringing this one guitar. Fender also debuted a new ’64 custom Princeton Reverb amplifier. I really love Princetons and this amp is a fine example. Essentially the difference between this amp and a regular ’64 Princeton Reverb reissue is that this one is a hand-wired AA1164 circuit with tube-driven spring reverb and tremolo, Fender vintage blue tone capacitors, three 12AX7 and one 12AT7 preamp tubes, 5AR4/GZ34 rectifier tube, a matched pair of 6V6 power tubes providing 12 watts of output power, and a 10″ Jensen alnico P10-R speaker, all in a solid pine cabinet. Cosmetics include extra-heavy textured vinyl covering and lightly aged silver grille cloth. Yeah, it’s pricey ($2,299.99!), but if you have to have a hand-wired, all-tube amp, this is a good one for that price.

PRS recently reissued its original McCarty model guitar that retains all of the specifications of the original instrument and adds binding on the fretboard. I was able to briefly play one acoustically at the PRS hall and found that this new version was essentially—and refreshingly—the same as I remembered the original to be. I would have liked to play it through an amp but that wasn’t available in the PRS hall. Not being able to play an instrument through an amp was a common theme throughout the show. The NAMM officials were very on top of the noise levels everywhere in the show, particularly where the booths were open. Only the large halls in the upper levels of the complex were somewhat immune to the noise police and were the only places where full band shows could be held.

Collings Guitars has an artist relationship with Julian Lage, which started with the acoustic Julian Lage Signature OM1. Now they have introduced an electric guitar—the Collings 470 JL. This guitar is essentially Collings’ take on a Gretsch Duo Jet while remaining decidedly Collings. The 470 JL features specially designed Ron Ellis pickups, a unique trestle block design, A Bigsby tailpiece, and a two volume, master-tone control layout. I played the 470 JL and I really liked the way it played, especially when I compared it to an actual Duo Jet at the Gretsch booth later in the day. I will say that having played both Julian Lage Signature guitars, he prefers a very narrow neck profile as evidenced on both guitars. As I’ve written here many times, I prefer a wider than standard neck and have custom-ordered all of my Collings guitars that way so the narrow neck on the 470 JL wasn’t to my taste, but it was nevertheless a well-executed instrument. I’m really into baritone guitars—I own three, including a Collings acoustic version—and Collings brought a one-off baritone SoCo 16 Baritone. It was quite popular and it seemed that everyone wanted to play it. The SoCo 16 Baritone features laminate construction with a newly developed trestle-block design and Collings’ original trapeze tailpiece, ThroBak 52/54 Dog Ear P90 pickups and the same 27.5″ scale length as their 360 Baritone. Tuned B to B, I found the SoCo 16 Baritone to be a lot of fun to play. Being essentially a hollow body guitar, it has a really cool blend of electric and acoustic tonalities and resonance. It wasn’t clear to me if the guitar would become a standard model but I certainly hope it does. It is a beautifully executed guitar.

One thing I’ve mentioned before in my NAMM columns is my surprise at the setup—or lack thereof—on the majority of the instruments I played. I suppose that manufacturers have to have a standard specification for setting up their instruments from the factory, but I doubt that a professional player would use a guitar set up like that. Of course, I’m really picky about how my instruments play and feel, and all of the parameters have to be dialed in, especially how the pickups are adjusted. A very small change in the height of the pickups relative to the strings can significantly change the volume, tone, and responsiveness of a guitar. It’s those little things that can be the difference in a guitar being a fine instrument or just a collection of parts.

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