Another year, another dazzling parade of pedals, guitars, amps, modelers, and accessories that made our noggins spin.
TWA Hot Saké
The TWA Hot Saké delivers tons of tone-shaping power for its size and price. From luxuriantly transparent boosts that rival some of the best Klon clones (thanks to the fantastically tunable EQ) to woofy grind when you max the drive and rein in the mids and tone, Hot Saké offers exceptional flexibility for a small, straightforward, and reasonably priced stomp.
This year’s Premier Gear Award winners are, as usual, an eclectic set—full of old-school vintage homage, leading-edge digital developments, and imaginative meetings of those worlds. Dig in and dig it as we revisit the gear that fired the enthusiasm and wonder of our editors and contributors in 2017.
For these new recreations, Fender focuses on the little things that make original golden-era Fenders objects of obsession.
If there’s one thing players love more than new guitars, it’s old guitars—the unique feel, the design idiosyncrasies, the quirks in finish that all came from the pre-CNC era of instrument manufacturing. These characteristics become the stuff of legend, passed on through the years via rumors and anecdotes in shops, forums, and community networks.
It’s a little difficult to separate fact from fiction given these guitars aren’t easy to get your hands on. Fender Telecasters manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s sell for upwards of $20,000. But old is about to become new again. Fender’s American Vintage II series features 12 year-specific electric guitar and bass models from over two decades, spanning 1951 to 1977, that replicate most specs on their original counterparts, but are produced with modern technologies that ensure uniform build and feel.
Chronologically, the series begins and ends, fittingly, with the Telecaster—starting with the butterscotch blonde, blackguard 1951 Telecaster (built with an ash body, one-piece U-shaped maple neck, and 7.25" radius fretboard) and ending with the 1977 Telecaster Custom, which features a C-shaped neck, a CuNiFe magnet-based Wide Range humbucker in the neck position, and a single-coil at the bridge. The rest of the series spans the highlights of Fender’s repertoire: the 1954 Precision Bass, 1957 Stratocaster in ash or alder, 1960 Precision Bass, 1961 Stratocaster, 1963 Telecaster, 1966 Jazz Bass, 1966 Jazzmaster, 1972 Tele Thinline, 1973 Strat, and 1975 Telecaster Deluxe. The 1951 Telecaster, 1957 Strat, 1961 Strat, and 1966 Jazz Bass will also be offered as left-handed models. Street prices run from $2,099 to $2,399.
Fender '72 American Vintage II Telecaster Thinline Demo | First Look
Spec’d To Please
Every guitar in the series sports the era’s 7.25" radius fretboard, a mostly abandoned spec found on Custom Shop instruments—Mexico-made Vintera models, and Fender’s Artist Series guitars like the Jimmy Page, Jason Isbell, and Albert Hammond Jr. models. Most modern Fenders feature a 9.5" radius, while radii on Gibsons reach upwards of 12". Videos experimenting with the 7.25" radius’ playability pull in tens of thousands of viewers, suggesting both a modern fascination with and a lack of exposure to the radius among some younger and less experienced players.
T.J. Osborne of the Brothers Osborne picks an American Vintage II 1966 Jazzmaster in Dakota red.
Bringing back the polarizing 7.25" radius across the entire series is a gamble, and it’s been nearly five years since Fender released year-specific models. But Fender executive vice president Justin Norvell says that two years ago when the Fender brain trust was conceptualizing the American Vintage II line, they decided the time was right to “go back to the well.”
“We’ve been doing the same [models], the same years, over and over again for 30 years,” says Norvell. “We really wanted to change the line and expand it into some new things that we hadn’t done before and pick some different years that we thought were cool.”
“It takes a lot of doing to go back in time and sort of uncover the secret-sauce recipes.”—Steve Thomas, Fender
To decide on which years to produce, Fender drew from what Norvell calls a “huge cauldron of information” from Custom Shop master builders to collectors with vintage models to former employees from the 1950s and 1960s. The hands-on manufacturing of Fender’s golden years meant guitars produced within the same year would have marked differences in design and finish. So, the team had to procure multiple versions of the same year’s guitar to decide which models to replicate. Norvell says some purists would advocate for the “cleanest, most down-the-middle kind of variant,” while others would push for more esoteric and rare versions. Norvell says that ultimately, the team picked the models that they felt best represented “the throughline of history on our platforms.”
Simple and agile, the Fender Precision Bass—here in its new American Vintage II ’54 incarnation—earned its reputation in the hands of Bill Black, James Jamerson, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and other foundational players.
Norvell says the American Vintage II series was developed, in part, in response to calls to reproduce vintage guitars. Just like with classic cars, he says, people are passionate about year-specific guitars. Plus, American Vintage II fits perfectly with the pandemic-stoked yearning for bygone times. “For some people, these specific years are representative of experiences they had when they were first playing guitar, or a favorite artist that played guitars from these eras,” says Norvell. “These are touchstones for those stories, and that makes them very desirable.”
Fender’s electric guitar research and design team, led by director Steve Thomas, dug through the company’s archive of original drawings and designs—dating all the way back to Leo Fender’s original shop in Fullerton, California. They found detailed notes, including some documenting body woods that changed mid-year on certain models. Halfway through 1956, for example, Stratocaster bodies switched from ash to alder. That meant the American Vintage II 1957 Stratocaster needed to be alder, too. That, in turn, meant ensuring enough alder was on hand to fulfill production needs.
Among the series’ Stratocaster recreations is this 1973-style instrument, with an ash body, maple C-profile neck, rosewood fretboard, and the company’s Pure Vintage single-coils.
Thomas and his team discovered another piece of the production puzzle when researching how pickups for that same 1957 Strat were made. “We realized that if we incorporated a little bit more pinch control on the winders, we could more effectively mimic the way pickups would have been hand-wound in the ’50s,” says Thomas. “It takes a lot of doing to go back in time and sort of uncover the secret-sauce recipes.”
Thomas proudly calls the guitars “some of the best instruments we’ve ever made here in the Fender plant,” pointing to the level of detail put into design features, including more delicate lacquer finishes which take longer to cure and dry, and vintage-correct tweed cases for some guitars. New pickups were incorporated in the series, like a reworking of Seth Lover’s famed CuNiFe Wide Range humbuckers, which were discontinued around 1981. Even more minute details, like the width of 12th fret dots and the material used for them, were labored over. Three different models in the line feature clay dot inlays at unique, year-specific spacings.
Ironically, modern CNC manufacturing now makes these design quirks consistent features in mass-produced instruments. While the hand-crafted guitars from the ’50s and ’60s varied a lot from instrument to instrument. “Everything needs to be located perfectly, and it wasn’t necessarily back in the day,” says Norvell. “Now, it can be.”
Don’t Look Back
With this new series so firmly planted in the rose-tinted past, Fender does run the risk of netting only vintage-obsessed players. But Norvell says the team, despite being sticklers for period-correct detail, sought to strike a balance between vintage specs, practicality, and playability. The 1957 Stratocaster, for example, has a 5-way switch rather than the original’s 3-way switch. Norvell also asserts that the “ergonomic” old-school radius feels great when chording. “It might not be [right for] a shred machine, but it feels great and effortless.”
The 1966 Jazz Bass is also represented, shown here in a left-handed version.
Norvell also pushes back on the notion that Fender is playing it safe by indulging nostalgia and leaning on their past successes. He says that while the vintage models are some of the most desirable on the market, the team “purposely did not stick to the safe bets,” citing unusual year models like the 1954 P Bass and the 1973 Stratocaster.There’s a good reason why anything that hails back to “the good ol’ days” hits home with every generation. We’re constantly plagued by a belief that what came before is better than what we’ve got now. But with the American Vintage II series, Fender makes the case that guitars from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s can very easily be a relevant part of the 2020s.
Module 4 was designed to be a highly versatile take on a classic vintage compressor - Dan Armstrong's Orange Squeezer from the ‘70s.
The Module 4 can be transformed to a standard 'Full Frequency' range compressor by pushing the Orange button. Basically, the user gets two compression flavors and they are easily distinguishable. Orange brings a warm, vintage sound and feel while 'Full Frequency range' brings a more modern, brighter, clearer tone. The pedal is equipped with several colorful, and practical options, all packed into the new DryBell enclosure line.
- Output - Controls the output volume (make-up gain) of the compressor. It also acts as a high headroom and distortion-free clean Boost, thanks to the high internal power supply voltage
- Tone - Controls the overall high-frequency spectrum of the unit Blend - Sets the mix of dry and compressed signals
- Attack - Controls the reaction time of the compressor
- Release - Controls the time before the unit releases or stops compression
- Preamp - Controls the input gain of (any) instrument
- ORANGE pushbutton - Enables/disables the ORANGE mode. When the ORANGE mode is off, Module 4 becomes a 'Full Frequency range' compressor
- Expander - Automatically attenuates incoming background noise
- 3-color compression level meter - A visual representation of gain reduction and input signal level
- LOW END cut – Option to keep or remove certain low-end frequencies
- True bypass or buffered bypass options
- Orange button also works in buffered bypass when the pedal is turned off. In that case, the buffered bypass reacts like the Orange Squeezer’s Front-end, keeping the bypass EQ very similar to the EQ when the pedal is active
- Power on settings save option
- Dot marks around knobs - Represent the settings of the original OrangeSqueezer
- Standard power supply 9-18V DC, 100mA minimum
DryBell Module 4 is available for $315.00. The first batch of Module 4s is available exclusively from the DryBell webshop.
For more information, please visit drybell.com.
DryBell Module 4 demo (official)
The Flat Earth has minimal knob count and feed-forward compression circuitry.
The Mayfly Flat Earth uses Feed-Forward circuitry which determines the amount of compression by analyzing the signal before it’s compressed. Old school compressors (you know: the Red one, the Orange one, the Grey one)use Feed-Back circuitry which looks at the signal after it’s already compressed. This results in noise, pumping, and tone-loss.
Boutique pedals based on older designs try to get around these problems by adding more knobs: blend knobs, tone knobs, etc. According to Mayfly Audio, "The Flat Earth has minimal knob count to allow guitarists to get to ‘wow’ quicker."
- Feed-forward compression circuitry: great compression that’s easy to setup
- No pumping or other compression artifacts
- Very low noise floor, very low distortion
- Level, sustain, and attack controls. That’s all you need
- Full bypass using relays with Fail Safe (automatically switches to bypass if the pedal loses power)
- Cast aluminum enclosure with stunning artwork
- MSRP $149 USD ($199 CAD) direct online
Introducing the MayFly Flat Earth Compressor
For more information, please visit mayflyaudio.com.
This pedal combines boutique high gain & Swedish chainsaw mayhem in collaboration with award-winning metal engineer Glenn Fricker.
The Canadian metal masters are on a mission with award-winning engineer Glenn Fricker to inject some mayhem back into your metal. One half of the Northern Mauler is an unforgettable sonic assault inspired by the iconic HM-2 sound of Swedish Death Metal & American Hardcore. The other is the punchy high gain Revv is known for;custom-tuned to Glenn’s specs. Blend freely between the 2 circuits to find your own unique, memorable sound into a wide variety of setups.
"I've been wanting to mix the Swedish Chainsaw into modern metal tones for quite a while now. So I reached out to the guys at Revv, & after many months & many revisions, we've come up withThe Northern Mauler. This combines the best of Revv's wonderful super-tight metal tones with the out-of-control nastiness of the Chainsaw... & the results are better than I could have hoped for! We even kept the labeling simple so even the bass players could use it!” -Glenn Fricker
The Revv Glenn Fricker Northern Mauler features:
- Seamlessly combine Revv’s boutique high gain & Swedish chainsaw mayhem in collaboration with award-winning metal engineer Glenn Fricker.
- Embrace the chaos by blending in a grimy, out-of-control sound that gives your tone character & makes it memorable.
- A punchy new voice of Revv high gain amp tone & Revv’s homage to the legendary HM-2 in one pedal.
- Optimized for use with clean amps, high gain amps, power amps, &direct to interface with impulse responses.
- True bypass, top jacks, & 9v (20mA) center negative external power supply operation.
- Gloss white finish w/ custom bear graphic & Glenn Fricker signature.
- Manufactured in Canada to rugged quality standards w/ 2-year registered limited warranty.
Revv Glenn Fricker Northern Mauler | Performance Demo & Specs
The Revv Glenn Fricker Northern Mauler has a street price of $249. For more information, please visit revvamplification.com.