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2012 Premier Gear Awards

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2012 Premier Gear Awards

When it rains it pours. That’s what we learned while assembling the roster for this year’s Premier Gear Award winners. After all, this glut of gear goodness meant we tickled our ears—well sometimes pummeled our ears—with tones dulcet, dangerous, daring, and delectable. It also means that you, faithful reader, will be swimming in possibilities—which is a damn good thing when it comes to making music. Traditionalist, futurist, minimalist, maximalist … no matter where you fall on the guitar geek chart, you owe it yourself to test-drive at least one of the instruments or gadgets among the winners’ ranks. Heck, we think you should try ’em all. So rip it up, readers—let those furious notes fly. This is the crème de la crème of 2012, and it’s there for the pickin’!


Verellen Meatsmoke
January 2012
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While the Verellen Meat Smoke’s odd moniker and charred visage conjures thoughts of feasting on brisket and pulled pork, the heavyas- heck sounds lurking within this 300-watt monster are more mouth watering than the biggest Memphis BBQ banquet. Like the Marshall Major and Sunn Coliseum back in the ’70s, the Meatsmoke is equally suited for guitar or bass, and the six 6550 power tubes will give any player enough headroom to shatter glass with sweet clean tones. But it also has an overdrive channel that generates heaps of midrange grunt and grind that will spin the heads of metal fiends and stoner rockers out to do major damage. In our review, we suggested it might be the best new amp on the market for doom rock, sludge metal, and postrock players for whom massive volume is an essential musical texture. And though that may remain a subjective assertion, you can be certain the Meatsmoke will be too beautifully deafening for you to hear anyone arguing the point. verellenamplifiers.com


3 Monkeys Virgil
February 2012
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Born from a brain trust cofounded by Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, Greg Howard (guitar tech for Aerosmith and Green Day), and former Blockhead Amps mastermind Ossie Ahsen, Virgil is a 30-watt, two-channel, 6V6-powered amp designed to deliver a cool hybrid of Hiwatt and Marshall tones, as well as a menu of blackface Fender tones. With its articulate character and surprising amount of headroom, we found it unsurprising that highly particular players like Steely Dan’s Walter Becker have turned to this elegant Swiss Army Knife of tone. And the trapezoidal, Marshall-meets-AC50 styling is about as cool looking as they come. We found the Virgil to be equally capable of beautiful, high-headroom clean tones and blistering overdrive. And that capacity for being an amp for all occasions for so many players made it impossible to not bestow a Premier Gear award to this lovely simian sound machine. 3monkeysamps.com


Echopark Downtowner Custom Koa Limited
March 2012
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Gabriel Currie is a veritable whirling dervish of guitar-building energy, and that energy has sustained a career in lutherie that spans four decades and includes stints with G&L and Hosono Guitar Works. Given that, it might come as a surprise that his Downtowner is a guitar of such sedate design, a synthesis of Supro and Les Paul Jr. that’s understated enough to seem anonymous—at least until you pick it up and play. The hefty, C-profiled koa neck and mahogany body make the Downtowner feel rock solid and stable. And the PAFspec’d, handwound Amalfitano humbuckers ooze burly, late-’50s humbucker vibes and a range of strong mids, round lows, and bristling high end that knocked our socks off. echoparkguitars.com


Carvin Brian Bromberg B24P Signature
March 2012
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Jazz bass giant Brian Bromberg has gigged with enough legends—Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bill Evans—to know a great bass sound and how to get it. So it’s little wonder the Carvin Brian Bromberg signature bass delivers so extraordinarily on so many levels. The 8.8-pound, 34"-scale hot rod of a 4-string proved exceptionally comfortable and playable with its neck-through design. And the range of tones lurking within its dramatically styled body is enormous, thanks in large part to its super-flexible EQ section and Carvin’s own RJ2 alnico single-coils, which can be blended with an onboard piezo pickup. When combined with active circuitry, the output from the Carvin proved refined and focused. And while it probably wouldn’t be a metalhead’s go-to bass, just about any other type of player that values nuance and warm detailed tones will savor the possibilities of this shapely Carvin. carvinguitars.com


Lollar Pickups El Rayo Humbuckers
March 2012
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Few names in the aftermarket pickup trade carry the clout of Jason Lollar. The bearded madman from the Northwest is renowned for both dead-on vintage reproductions as well as inspired and original evolutions of the classics. And the list of builders and players that make his pickups integral to their own designs and sounds reads like a roll call of the guitar elite. Given all that, it makes perfect sense to see the El Rayo among this year’s Premier Gear award winners. The El Rayo takes on the ambitious task of delivering P-90-punch and girth from a humbucker and succeeds in spectacular fashion—serving up throaty, focused, super-present tones along with extraordinary pick sensitivity and response. lollarguitars.com


TC Electronic PolyTune Mini
March 2012
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Needless to say, pedal tuners don’t rank too high in the glamour sweepstakes, so when one comes along that does that simple and essential job a little bit better, we tend to take notice. For one thing, the PolyTune Mini is really, truly small—1.7" x 3.7" x 2", so it’ll fit even the most crowded pedalboards. Depending on your current tuner pedal, switching to the Mini very well may free up enough room to bring out some other stompbox you’ve been keeping out of the mix for space reasons. But size is only part of the story here. The new PolyTune software—which is most notable for its polyphonic capabilities—also features new settings for polyphonic capo and dropped-D tuning. It ain’t easy to make a tuner sexy, but TC Electronic’s PolyTune Mini definitely gets us a bit worked up. tcelectronic.com


BiLT S.S. Zaftig
April 2012
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Is it just us, or does it seem like you could rule the guitar-playing universe with a guitar called the S.S. Zaftig? There’s no doubt that BiLT’s most beastly axe feels and looks mighty formidable, and the Iowa-based luthiers were clearly inspired by some classic guitars from Southern California when they put this hefty semi-hollowbody together. But the payoff comes when you realize its tones are as fat as the guitar itself. The semi-hollow construction combined and Lollar Regal humbuckers (Lollar’s take on the Seth Lover-designed Fender Wide Range humbucker) give it a sound that leans more toward the Gibson SG or ES-335 side of the tracks than anything traditionally Fender. What the S.S. Zaftig does uniquely well is deliver a very Fender-like playability and expressive potential, thanks to the cool, Jaguar-style vibrato unit, Mastery bridge, and comfy neck profile. But it also serves up a Telecaster Custom/SG-style muscularity that makes everything from Chicago blues to experimental open-tuned droning sound monstrous and unique. biltguitars.com


M-Tone Slipstream
April 2012
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Matt Proctor was a sculptor before he became a luthier, and one look at the Slipstream tells you that this is an instrument more-or-less unencumbered by the styling dogma that often plagues the electric guitar universe. But the Slipstream is more than an exercise in styling originality. As its presence among this year’s Premier Gear winners suggests, this is a superb all-around instrument that, despite its outward originality and break from tradition, pays tribute to the ingenuity of the space age. With Lollar P-90s (yes, there they are again), a handcarved pao ferro neck, and a mahogany body, the 25 1/2"-scale Slipstream is an interesting convergence of boutique materials and Fender and Gibson tonalities—though that proved too simple a formula to describe the capabilities of this instrument. Reviewer Dimitri Sideriadis noted how easily the guitar moved from Zeppelin-esque and Live at Leeds heaviness to clean, lean, and complex funkiness. Sideriadis also said, “you just might feel inspired to take musical leaps you might not have taken with a more traditional guitar,” adding that, “the pickups, balance, and playability just inspire confidence.” Sounds like a ticket to interesting territory to us. m-tone.com


Fender Johnny Marr Jaguar
May 2012
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Fender’s Jaguar is too quirky to earn the level of popularity enjoyed by the Tele or Strat—near-perfect guitars that work for beginners and masters alike. But for the Jag faithful, its perceived design shortcomings have always been a world of possibilities. Johnny Marr, who favors cool chords and textures and almost never plays a solo, is certainly among those ranks. While the design optimizations on his signature Jaguar certainly make it more friendly to players appalled by the original’s unusual bridge and difficult-to-decipher switching array, it’s still an impressive platform for sonic adventurism. The pickup switching is still complex, but it’s also practical—it includes parallel/series options, and the latter enables brawny humbucker tones if you so choose. The Bare Knuckle pickups are gorgeous sounding. The neck pickup is capable of some of the most complex Fender single-coil tones you’ll ever hear. With a vibrato arm that actually stays secure and a Mustang-style bridge, this might be the best-playing Jaguar yet. But fear not adventurers—a whole world of weird still lurks within. fender.com


Fargen Retro Classic
May 2012
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Vintage Marshall clones are far from uncommon, but packing so much, well, Marshall-ness into a head with just 25 watts of oomph isn’t something you see or hear every day. Ben Fargen, however, is a connoisseur of all things Marshall, and with his beautiful KT66-powered Retro Classic celebrates the style and substance of ’60s-era Marshalls as well as the ties that bind the earliest Marshalls to Fender’s tweed heritage. In addition to the flexibility that comes from a more manageably sized Marshall-type amp, the Fargen stoked us with a cool and practical 3-way voicing switch that transforms the amp from a very late-’60s-styled plexi-inspired voice to a mod-era JTM-45 sound and a squishier tweed Bassman-like personality. We found precious few drawbacks to exploring these typically very big voices in a less-deafening package, and a small loss in high-end pick articulation was about the only one. Otherwise, the Retro Classic is classically Fargen—ingenious, reverent, and built to last an eternity. fargenamps.com

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