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MJ Guitars GrooveMaster Electric Guitar Review

January 10, 2012

Montana-based luthier Mark Johnson has been repairing and building custom guitars and basses for over 35 years, and has no shortage of experience crafting premium-quality instruments. In the mid ’70s, Johnson started his career working for Alembic—one of the great crucibles of guitar innovation in history—and he has put this experience to good use. The company he now runs with his son Ethan, MJ Guitar Engineering, is perhaps best known for the Mirage series, a line of handmade instruments boasting dramatic top carves and a unique reinforced split headstock design. Collective Soul’s Joel Kosche is among the high-profile pros who play Mirage series guitars.

MJ’s newest creation is the Groovemaster, a P-90 equipped solidbody that melds the company’s distinctive, curvaceous designs with elements from vintage Fender and Gibson axes.

Getting into the Groove
The Groovemaster’s distinctive shape is bound to turn heads at a gig. The slanted lower bout and exaggerated bass side horn of the flat-topped poplar slab read like a tweaked and slenderized Jazz bass body with Tele-style knobs, switching, and input jack. The intonated wraparound bridge from Wilkinson and Seymour Duncan P-90s (P-90 Vintage in the neck position and P-90 Hot in the bridge) inject this MJ with a healthy dose of Kalamazoo heritage as well.

The bolt-on mahogany neck conceals a dual-action truss rod and features a rosewood fretboard for added sonic warmth. The headstock features a near-straight string pull over the nut, and the guitar’s keystone tuning keys add a classic touch. It’s a fine combination of hardware, electronics, and adventurous styling all-in-all, though I couldn’t help but think that the wonderful split headstock found on MJ’s other models would assert MJ’s own worthwhile aesthetic amid the classicism of the design.

I was impressed with the instrument’s build quality and its honest, heavy-duty feel—the neck bolt holes were reinforced for rigidity, the Wilkinson bridge was beefy and simple, the knobs turned with a smooth resistance that just felt expensive, and the thin satin finish on the neck provided a great blend of silky smoothness and barely perceptible woody texture. The neck is a fairly thin but comfortable C shape with jumbo frets and a 12" radius that felt great on everything from fast leads to cowboy chords. Fret ends were nicely rounded and the leveling job on our review model was excellent, but this Groovemaster begged for that last stage of fine fret polishing.

Master of the House
The acoustic musicality of the Groovemaster is easy to hear. It’s exceptionally loud, and this actually had me wondering at times if the body was chambered. Those potentially put off by the use of a body wood outside of the usual ash, alder, or mahogany should take note—this poplar slab resonated like crazy in my hands, straight through to the headstock.

I plugged into a Fender Champ and experimented with some clean tones. The Groovemaster’s neck pickup communicated everything I love about a P-90—clear, ringing highs, a syrupy midrange, and ample low-end warmth. This smooth single-coil had the added benefit of living on a 25.5"-scale guitar, which lends additional percussiveness and bass articulation. Dense chord voicings benefited from this combination, and there’s an excellent transparency between notes.

The middle position was warm and sweet—a cool variation on the classic dualpickup Telecaster sound. It was outstanding for funky stabs, but packed enough twang and snap for chicken pickin’.

Switching to the bridge pickup opened up some bluesy, cutting lead tones that rang with a bit of natural overdrive when I dug in, as well as enough low-end foundation to feel punchy. The overall tonal character was complex and three-dimensional, and as I sustained chords or ran through Radiohead-inspired arpeggios, the Duncan P-90 rang through the Champ with long, almost pulsing sustain.

With the Champ cranked up, the bridge P-90’s harmonic complexity increased. I heard an appreciable gain in fatness without any of the unwanted midrange honk I occasionally get from my Les Paul. The combination of the Groovemaster with the classic Fender combo was killer, with crisp cutting grit and tasty overtones all over the frequency spectrum.

I plugged into a Carvin V3M for some modern distortion, noting the guitar’s ability to remain articulate as the tubes saturated to thrash levels. With a slight scoop in the EQ, I got a punishing grind with ample harmonics and good clarity across almost all the gain ranges. The bridge P-90 exhibited a controllable, slightly microphonic quality at the highest levels of gain that let me squeeze an extra ounce of angry intensity out of the instrument.

The Verdict
It’s cool that MJ combines bold new curves with a vintage flair and proven, quality components, because the result is a guitar that, in many ways, transcends genre. The range of clean tones on this guitar is exceptionally wide, and the 6-string can move from warm to concise in ways that make it an excellent choice for use as a funk, blues, or even a solidbody jazz vehicle. It’s a showcase for the often overlooked P-90 pickup, and its ability to bring together the toastiness and midrange girth of a humbucker with the clarity and percussive response of a single-coil, makes it a beautiful rock machine for anything from Mountain to Wolves in the Throne Room. Cool, classic, and forward looking, the Groovemaster is a master of the multi-faceted as well. Players not hung-up on tradition are going to love what this thing can do.

Buy if...
you want a freshly styled solidbody that retains key vintage appointments and delivers feel and tone beyond what you expect for the price.

Skip if...
you can’t handle the curves.

Rating...

Street $1,279 - MJ Guitar Engineering - mjguitar.com