Friday, October 26, 2007

Long necks, Big Bottoms

About 3 years ago, I came across a small boutique luthier who was beginning to make quite a name for himself. Thus began my great adventure...

Over the years I've owned or had the pleasure to play a great number of guitars. I was never much of a Gibson sort of guy, as my hands were never really into the whole 24.75" scale length. For awhile, I was pretty fixated on the idea of a PRS as I thought that the 25" scale was an interesting middle ground between the Fender and Gibson sort of sound, but after I tried a few I walked away unconvinced that they were for me, as great as they did sound and look. So, I've had a few 25.5" scale guitars pass through my hands over the years. My first electric guitar was one of these:

Fender Telecaster '62 Re-issue (Jap model)

It was a nice guitar and I got it at an unbelievable bargain. To this day I sort of regret selling it off when I did, at a point in time when I was smitten with the idea of a 7-string guitar. 'Til today, I still believe there's nothing *quite* like the snappy twang of a Telecaster. Sure, you can get close with some other gear, but nothing beats the real thing for *that* sound. I also loved the straightforward control layout, and the hardtail bridge. I believe I was mostly using .009 - .042 string gauge around this time.

At some point, my friend Ben and I came across a good deal on a Peavey Wolfgang standard, and we decided to split it. It was my first experience with a Floyd Rose tremolo, but it really wasn't the right guitar for me

I really don't remember much about this guitar other than what a pain in the ass a floyd rose can be...

Eventually I was bitten by the Ibanez bug, and was fixated on experimenting with new things. I dropped the coinage for an Ibanez RG2027X, which was one of those 7-string Ibanez guitars with the Lo-pro Edge tremolo that had the piezo pickup built into it. It was also my first Mahogany guitar :D Over the years I eventually had it fully scalloped by a luthier down in Thirroul, NSW, about 2 hours from where I was staying. Those were song long train rides... In many ways, this guitar foreshadowed what I would eventually be attracted to. It definitely had a neck profile that I was really digging. I remember swapping out the stock pickups for a DiMarzio Tonezone7 and Paf7. All in all it was actually a pretty nice guitar, but greater things were to come!
At some point, the piezo preamp just died on me and it was nigh impossible to get it fixed, which really annoyed me. Nobody I took it to seemed to know what to do with the preamp, and in the end I gave up entirely on getting it ever to work again. It was also the only guitar I've ever owned that was scalloped, and in some ways I miss the feel of a scalloped neck. It just made bending and vibrato so damned enjoyable! However, I do remember one pet peeve, and that was that the low-B never felt "right" on the 25 1/2" scale. I tried a thicker gauge to get the tension I liked but it felt like I was running my hands down a telephone wire. A lower gauge just proved too flabby and undefined for what I was going for. In the end, I was mostly playing this guitar with .010 - .059 gauge string sets.

Sometime in 2003 I think it was, I decided I wanted a 6-string to compliment the RG2027. I had toyed with the idea of getting an EBMM John Petrucci guitar, being the Dream Theater fan that I am, but in the end, I ended up getting something slightly different...

The EBMM Steve Lukather model started my love/hate relationship with EMG pickups. At the end of the day, they just sounded a little bit too "sterile" for what I was going for. It was a nice guitar though, and I eventually had it modded to put a Graphtech GHOST piezo/Roland GK system in the bridge and routed the body for the 13-pin output, and used it into a Roland VG-88. As much as I was having a blast experiment with all those quirky sounds, I hated the stupid Roland GK connection cable. It was cumbersome and not particularly well built, and after it crapped out on me twice I gave up. I was a little fanatical about string gauge at this time, and the guitar was strung with .012 - .056 strings, in standard tuning. I had quite the vice-like left-handed handshake for awhile...

And so, we finally come to the dynamic duo... as I said, about 3 years ago I came across a small boutique guitar builder who was beginning to make quite a name for himself. It was about this time that I was thinking it was time to get into some jazz, and I was prepared to sell off every piece of gear I owned for a fresh start. I had narrowed it down to a Gibson ES335 and a Pat Martino Custom, this despite my dislike for the 24.75" scale. And while I was asking around on some forums I frequented, someone pointed me in a direction that up til then I hadn't even considered.

And that was how I came to know Jim Soloway. He builds these guitars out in Portland, Oregon, and what I really loved about the whole concept was a 27" scale. I was a little worried about the scale at first, since I don't have particularly big hands, and I asked around a bit but at the end of the day I really went into the deal blind. I saw a great looking guitar, I heard some heavenly sound clips (which can sometimes lie...) and I was receiving completely impartial information from the man who designed it, and I just took the plunge and ordered one. Which basically set my bank account back to 0. And 3 years on I can't say I regret it one iota. The 27" scale makes it sound like no other guitar that I know of, and Jim's attention to detail is immaculate. I got it at a bargain price as well for what it is, as Jim had built a pair of these cut from the same piece of wood, with a Koa top, a black limba body, and Lollar Imperial pickups as a bit of an experiment, since most of his guitars are custom orders.

The first thing I remember about this guitar was that it sounded nothing like the sound clips, and I was rather disappointed. It was a nice guitar, but where was that magical sound that I had heard on the recordings? As it turns out, it was entirely user error... And that's when I first understood what "tone is in the fingers" meant. This guitar literally *taught* me to find the sound I was looking for, and made me think about playing and tone from a whole new paradigm. 3 years on, I'm still discovering wonderful things about music and tone through it. But it did have one small drawback for my purposes. It was a chambered guitar, and when playing out with my rock band, because of the chambers, it would always feedback at the volume levels and gain I was using it at, and also had a bit more of a "woody" characteristic than what I was looking for at the time. Of course, that's entirely my fault for using it in a somewhat inappropriate manner, but I devised a plan that would solve all my problems, and it materialized in this form:

A solid body 7-string with a 27" neck! This time it was a black limba body and a white limba(korina) top. Jim went out of his way to help me find some fantastic pickups for it, and got DiMarzio to make a custom wound 7-string Mo'Joe for the bridge as well as a 7-string Bluesbucker for the neck. The middle single coil is a Vintage Vibes single coil pickup. And all of them sound divine, especially with the 27" neck, which to me, overcomes the problem of a floppy low B while sounding unique and clear across all strings at the same time.

I honestly think that every guitarist needs to find at least 1 guitar that inspires them over the course of their musical journey. I was lucky to find not one, but two, a pair that compliment each other so well while managing to sound inspirational in their own right. A Swan certainly isn't for everyone, but if you're looking to try new things, open to the experience and not afraid to break away from tradition, you owe it to yourself to give one of these babies a solid test drive. Just remember that if you can't tear yourself away from it, you're going to have to buy one :p

You can visit Jim, and see, hear, and learn more about the Soloway Swans, at his website. My pathetic attempt at making his guitars sound good can be heard here.

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