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2012 Premier Gear Awards

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2012 Premier Gear Awards

Jackson Ampworks Newcastle
June 2012
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Simplicity can be a rather daring gesture. It can also paint you into a corner. But in the case of Jackson Ampwork’s diminutive, 18-watt, EL84-powered Newcastle, simplicity is paradoxically the ticket to an expansive tone landscape. With just volume and tone knobs, the Newcastle is streamlined enough that a three-toed sloth on cough syrup could dial in a sweet tone. But as our reviewer Dimitri Sideriadis discovered, those tones can range from mellow and rich jazz colors to classic-rock crunch—with a strong midrange and a tight bottom that make up a sweet and versatile baseline voice. The Jackson also exhibited a knack for classic EL84 chime that works well for country and folk-rock textures. And with its piggyback configuration dressed up in copper-and-crème vinyl, the Newcastle has few contenders when it comes to looking sharp. jacksonampworks.com


Jason Z. Schroeder Chopper TL "T-Pine"
June 2012
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Jason Schroeder’s wraparound bridges and unique guitars have helped the up-and-coming luthier build a reputation for top-quality axes and parts. But it’s guitars like the beautifully built Chopper TL “T-Pine” that could establish Schroeder’s identity as an out-of-the-box-thinking traditionalist. The pine body isn’t just handsome in a cool, almost downhome, American-high-craft way, it’s also a vehicle for a stunning range of sounds—from archetypal Tele tones to a midrange-rich and almost- Gibson-like harmonic muscularity. The Lollar pickups provide an airy, complex voice, delivering tones that move from rude to civilized. But reviewer Dimitri Sideriadis summed up the T-Pine’s classic-meets-modern attributes best when he said, “though much of the Chopper T-Pine’s success is attributable to Schroeder’s knack for taking the best from proven platforms, judiciously chosen tweaks, styling twists, and a penchant for quality and tone make the T-Pine a very special guitar.” Sounds like a recipe for success to us—and a great reason to watch Jason Schroeder in the years to come. schroederguitars.com


Fender Select Telecaster
July 2012
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How do you improve an electric-guitar design that was born almost perfect? Even if you’re the company that built the original, which Fender did back in 1949, making a truly, measurably better Telecaster is no mean feat. With the Select Telecaster, however, Fender successfully refined what’s arguably the classic electric-guitar design without sacrificing any of the design elegance or intrinsic beauty that made the Telecaster an article of mid-century design genius. While some purists may blanch at the flamed-maple top—which definitely looks a bit flash on a Telecaster—the Select Tele is unquestionably handsome and manages to look deeply luxurious without being ostentatious. Other breaks from tradition are a little more practical, like the belly cut, a chambered body that keeps the weight under eight pounds, and a compound-radius fretboard that’s great for fleet-fingered leads. But the Select Telecaster also proved a versatile and refined beauty that could range from open and up-front with the no-load tone knob engaged, or civilized and refined in jazzier situations. Who says you can’t top perfection? fender.com


J. Rockett Audio Designs Alien Echo
July 2012
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Call it echo. Call it delay. But by any name this very simple phenomenon of audio physics can engender a whole lot of debate among guitar slingers. Modern, icy, and clean? Smoky, warbly, and imperfect? J. Rockett’s Alien Echo is clearly designed to accommodate the predilections of players that savor the hazy, modulating repeats of tape echo. But this digital circuit can just as easily help you sculpt crystalline and precise echoes. Better yet, the cool, two-footswitch layout lets you move between the two worlds in a flash. The random modulation function is organic and expressive sounding, moving reviewer Dimitri Sideriadis to praise its “gorgeous, watery character.” But we had a ton of fun exploring its more radical and otherworldly side, its wonderful dynamic sensitivity, and even its mellowing effect on bright pickups. It’s a delay that not only does a lot, but it’s also one that doesn’t require you to pick a side in that great digital/analog divide. rockettpedals.com


Walrus Audio Voyager
July 2012
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As our reviewer Tyler Green noted, space travel and the search for tone are not that dissimilar—with both, there’s a lot of glamour, fire, flames, sonic booms, and money shots. But behind the fireworks, utility reigns supreme. With an image of a Soyuz spacecraft adorning the enclosure, the Walrus Audio Voyager overdrive acknowledges both sides of the tone equation with a beautifully nuts-and-bolts affair that lends its own subtle but lovely colors. In the crucible of a weeklong tour, Green found the Voyager capable of superb note articulation that enabled him to cut through cluttered stage mixes. It demonstrated an uncommon knack for bringing out the best in other pedals, and even in the most basic overdrive applications, the Voyager added worlds of harmonic complexity and richness to otherwise pedestrian amp tones. So while the Voyager might not make you a master of interstellar, sonic madness, it might just become the foundation of a great tone from which you can venture much further afield. walrusaudio.com


AXL USA Bulldog AL-1090
August 2012
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We’re used to giving Premier Gear awards to products that are exquisite, rare, and—for many of us—financially out of reach. So it’s a joy when we get to reward an instrument that delivers so much in terms of vibe and value. And if that’s your measure of a great guitar, the AXL Bulldog may be this year’s reigning champ. At just about 550 bucks, the Bulldog—which, incidentally, is assembled in Music Link’s Hayward, California, facility—is a beautifully bare-bones budget wonder. Despite the bargainbasement price, it’s still bristling with top-quality components like Kluson tuners and CTS pots, as well as smart features like a push-pull pot that bypasses the tone circuit. But as reviewer Jordan Wagner found, it’s what this gorgeously simple axe does plugged in that will you leave you slack jawed. Wagner found the clean tones “powerful and, at times, stunningly detailed” and was repeatedly surprised by the clarity and sparkle. In more aggressive settings, the Bulldog was no less surprising, delivering classic P-90 punch and harmonically rich growling tones. Handsome, tough, sleek, and cheap. Heck, why not buy two? axlguitars.com


Fractal Audio Axe-FX II
August 2012
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Dweezil Zappa knows a thing or two about electric guitars and how to make them sound extraordinary. So when he declared to us at the L.A. Amp Show that the new Axe-FX II was “the greatest invention ever for electric guitarists,” our interest was piqued (not that we wouldn’t have been paying attention anyway). The original Axe-FX was an amazingly powerful application of digital modeling and effects processing. This version, however, uses twin Tiger SHARC processors to pump out insanely detailed models of the most desirable amps and effects—and all with stunningly realistic touch sensitivity and playing dynamics. It also has incredibly cool features like tone matching that enable you to sample the performance characteristics of a favorite amp. Joe Charupakorn remarked that, “what it offers practical and adventurous players alike in terms of sonic potential is hard to put a price on.” And even though the Axe-FX II far from cheap, we’d be inclined to agree. fractalaudio.com


Hahn Model 1229
August 2012
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There are few things more beautiful in the guitar galaxy than a beautifully executed T-style electric. And since Leo Fender cast the die 60 years ago, perhaps no modern luthier has built a finer T-style than Chihoe Hahn. Like all of Hahn’s work, the 1229 is deeply reverent of Leo’s genius, but the 1229 deviates from the classic T-style template with a few moves more aligned with Gibson’s world—and those deviations are a big part of what makes this guitar extraordinary. The relatively thin mahogany body is based on an old Melody Maker, of all things, and the mahogany neck adds another measure of Gibson flavor. Despite these Gibson-inspired elements that sometimes add up to some extra heft, the Hahn is also surprisingly light. And the tonewood recipe and classic T-style design elements—including brass saddles and a 25.5" scale—add up to a fantastically resonant guitar that’s everything from bright to jazzy and super responsive. Looks mighty fine in red, too, wouldn’t you say? hahnguitars.com


Deimel Guitarworks Firestar
September 2012
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So many guitars now play off retro templates that it’s hard to tell where the substance starts and style ends. But the Deimel Firestar not only unites a fairly original take on Firebird and Jaguar design cues and exacting quality, but also adds some very contemporary features with fascinating musical potential. The combination of hot Novak P-90s, a compact body, a substantial neck, and a cleverly cool Duesenberg vibrato makes it the kind of guitar that can turn a single, screaming sustained note into a musical voyage. And the bevy of pickup-switching options—including series and parallel settings and a piezo pickup—mean this might be the only guitar you need to pack for a gig for a long time to come, whether you’re a free-form experimentalist or roadhouse rock player. Looking backward never felt so totally futuristic. deimelguitarworks.de


Kemper Profiling Amplifier
September 2012
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As we noted in our review for the Kemper Profiling Amplifier, doit- all amps have been promising the world for … well, it seems like forever. But the Profiler’s approach to being all amps to all people comes through very different means: It samples the sonic signature of your favorite amp and adds powerful tone-sculpting tools to the equation. With the Profiler, you can sample and store not just your own favorite amps, but sample the sound and performance attributes of, say, that ’68 plexi that your best friend laughs in your face about when you ask if you can borrow it for a gig. It also facilitates cool stage scenarios where you can switch between not just the usual suspects you hear in most modeling amps, but positively eclectic and bizarre models. Virtually any amp you can slap a mic in front of can potentially become part of your tone palette. And if you think we’re not going to use this thing to power a solo that moves between a decrepit old solid-state Vox with built-in fuzz and a cherry Princeton, well, you don’t know us very well ... kemper-amps.com

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