It doesn’t have to cost a lot to change your acoustic guitar’s tone and playability.
In my early days, all the guitars I played (which all happened to be pre-1950s) used bone nuts and saddles. I took this for granted, and so did my musician friends. With the exception of the ebony nuts on some turn-of-the-century parlors and the occasional use of ivory, the use of bone was a simple fact of our guitar playing lives, and alternative materials were simply uncommon to us.
It wasn’t until I started hanging around Quinn’s Music in the neighboring town of Big Rapids, Michigan, that I started seeing guitars with alternative materials for nuts and saddles, such as the plastic used on Kays and Silvertones. Unfortunately, these materials lacked the firmness of bone, and ultimately did not produce the clear tone I’d become so accustomed to. This is also when I started to encounter acoustic guitars with adjustable saddles, which were mostly mid-’60s Gibsons. Some utilized wood for the adjustable saddles, while others used porcelain, and both materials posed both acceptable but not-so-great alternatives to bone.
A vintage-style “through saddle” on a 1930 Martin OM-18. When made correctly, the saddle height and string break will greatly enhance the overall tone of the instrument.
Over the years, I’ve seen many materials that claimed to be better than bone. But better at what? Because other than pearl, nothing beats bone for tone. Even though there are other compelling material propositions, such as brass and graphite, they all have flaws. Brass, which was popularized in the ’70s, claims to add sustain to notes, but that possible advantage has been debated, and brass is not recommended to be used as a saddle since its weight can potentially have a negative impact on soundboard resonance. Graphite is commonly used by electric players and can help maintain tuning with vibrato use and heavy bending, but it’s far too soft to offer premium tone on an acoustic instrument.
In 1976, I bought a 1969 Martin D-28. After playing it for a bit, I noticed it was lacking in high-end and clarity compared to other guitars I owned, such as my Gibson B-25. I unstrung the guitar, removed the saddle, and was surprised to discover the saddle was pliable and soft, and the nut was made from this same soft material. I took it to my local guitar repairman, Dan Erlewine, who did a great job fabricating and installing a new nut and saddle made from bone. The guitar’s overall tone improved, and the guitar came to life. Once I started repairing guitars, I routinely made and installed bone nuts and saddles to replace plastic or composite materials. As I began specializing in acoustics, I also did plenty of neck sets and fret jobs, which included a bone nut and saddle replacement to round out the repair.
This experience helped me to realize that the most impactful and minimal change you can make to influence tone is a bone nut and saddle upgrade.
This experience helped me to realize that the most impactful and minimal change you can make to influence tone is a bone nut and saddle upgrade. In fact, after finishing the initial evaluation on a customer’s guitar, I would let them know that. However, if a customer is tight for cash, I always told them to “focus on the saddle, as it influences every note on the guitar.” On the other hand, the nut only dictates the tone of the six open notes. Of course, those are pretty darn important notes!
So, to me, a bone nut and saddle upgrade is a fairly low-cost improvement to the overall tone and responsiveness of your guitar. Additionally, a well-made bone nut and saddle will outlast a plastic version tenfold. Both can easily be installed by a qualified technician, and along with a proper setup, it’s still my recommendation as the biggest “bang for your buck” to improve your guitar’s tone and playability.
Fat tones from a sweet niche where Les Paul, Gretsch, and Telecaster share the limelight.
Copious, unexpected tones. Cool, useful bass contour control. Very nice build quality. Excellent value.
Reverend Flatroc Bigsby
If you only pay casual attention to Reverend guitars, it’s easy to overlook how different their instruments can be. Some of that may be due to the way Reverends look. There are longstanding styling themes and strong family likenesses among models that can make differentiation a challenge for uninitiated guitar spotters. For instance, the Flatroc reviewed here has more or less the same body as the Charger, Buckshot, and Double Agent OG (which has an entirely different body than the more Jazzmaster-like Double Agent W). If you don’t have an experienced Reverend enthusiast at your side, it can all be a bit mind bending.
Dig deeper though, and the Reverend world yields many surprises. And few Reverends typify the company’s we-go-our-own-way sound and aesthetic quite like the newly resurrected, Korea-built Flatroc with Retroblast humbuckers and a Bigsby. There are many reasons to assume that the Flatroc is an homage to Gretsch. The Bigsby and pickups (at least outwardly) hint at that styling direction. But the Flatroc sounds and feels, at many turns, more like a Les Paul. And the wealth of unique tones made possible by the clean-to-nasty Retroblast pickups and the powerful bass contour control mean the Flatroc covers the sonic range of several guitars. Indeed, this Flatroc is a compelling option if you have the same-old-solidbody blues.
Days of Future Blasts
Reverend’s Retroblast humbuckers, which look like a cross between a Gretsch Filter’Tron and a Rickenbacker Hi-Gain, are the heart of the new Flatroc. Reverend calls the Retroblasts mini humbuckers, and they are certainly that in the sense that they are smaller than PAF-style pickups. But where mini humbuckers of the Gibson variety are colored by an almost single-coil-like snap that could be a Stratocaster on steroids, Retroblasts sound and feel much more muscular, with a pleasantly compressed, big-cat-growl tonality and the capacity for volume-attenuated clean tones that align much more with a PAF.
While the PAF-ness of the Retroblasts is easy to hear, the Reverend bridge pickup is technically a bit hotter at 11k ohms than the average vintage-style PAF, which tends to be closer to the 7-9k ohm range. The Reverend pickup also uses alnico 5 magnets, which tend to be a touch livelier and punchier. The neck Retroblast’s 6.5k ohms is more in line with vintage PAF specs, but still uses the punchier alnico 5 magnet.
Burly Bass to Sweet and Smooth
If the Retroblasts were stuffed in some econo-punk version of the Flatroc without tone or volume controls, they would still be impressive and very colorful pickups. But they are made infinitely more flexible for the bass contour knob, which seems especially well suited for these units. The bass contour is a simple filter control, but it’s super effective. And it’s hard to imagine why more manufacturers don’t embrace some version of it—especially when situated in its easy-access location on the upper bout.
The control has expansive range, and in the bridge position alone you can move from beefy PAF-style tones and approximations of a Fender Wide Range’s big, bright colors, to thick, concise Rickenbacker Hi-Gain chime, Stratocaster zing, and even the charmingly thin tones of ’60s budget electrics.
In the bridge position alone you can move from beefy PAF-style tones and approximations of a Fender Wide Range’s big, bright colors, to thick, concise Rickenbacker Hi-Gain chime, Stratocaster zing, and even the charmingly thin output tones of ’60s budget electrics.
The bass contour isn’t just a powerful guitar tone shaping tool. It can also totally recast the personality of your overdrive, distortion, and fuzz boxes in ways simple volume and tone controls do not. Using just the neck pickup and the bass contour control, the output from a Supro amp-inspired overdrive readily moved between molasses-thick and mammoth-coat wooly to bright and hyper-articulate without any adjustment from the guitar volume or tone knobs.
Tone options are so copious in the Flatroc that it can be hard to find a perfectly balanced relationships between volume, tone, and bass contour knobs at first. But practice makes perfect, and ultimately the control setup is intuitive, fun, and almost painterly in its capacity to subtly shift tone shades over the course of an extended solo or in between song sections.
The Flatroc shares at least one other attribute with a Les Paul: Between the korina body and Bigsby hardware, it’s heavy—only a pound or so less than a Les Paul—so it’s worth investing the time in a few sessions with the guitar to make sure it isn’t a couple pounds too weighty. With mass, though, comes a sense that this an exceptionally solid and well-built guitar. It’s highly tuning-stable—especially for a Bigsby-quipped instrument—thanks to the top-notch setup and Reverend Pin-Lock locking tuners. The build quality verges on perfect, too. The transparent white-over-korina finish reveals just a hint of grain in the fashion of a late-’50s ash Telecaster—a classy and subtly luxurious look. And everything from the fretwork to the neck joint lend the feeling of an operation where cutting corners is an absolute no-no.
Even if you think you’ve got Reverend guitars figured out, you should not underestimate how unique the Flatroc Bigsby sounds and feels. The impressive pickups and controls fill unique tone niches that lurk between Gretsch, Les Paul, and Rickenbacker sounds—putting everything from low-octane indie jangle to corpulent, smoky sounds of doom at your fingertips. Creating and re-shaping tones feels effortless, inspiring, and exciting. It’s one of the most tuning-stable Bigsby-equipped guitars I’ve ever played. Factor in the extra-expressive potential of the vibrato, plus the guitar’s intrinsic, inviting balance, and it adds up to a reliable, stable, performance-centric instrument that can soar in live situations and reward meandering creative spirits in pursuit of new songs and sounds.
Diatonic sequences are powerful tools. Here’s how to use them wisely.
• Understand how to map out the neck in seven positions.
• Learn to combine legato and picking to create long phrases.
• Develop a smooth attack—even at high speeds.
I prefer to not teach each position based on a modal name, as sometimes they are taught. Personally, I’ve found labelling of positions like that can lead to confusion when learning the modes in a harmonic situation. To further emphasize this, no harmonic context has been given (aside from the fact that these are all based around the parent scale of G Major to give us positions to work with).
The goal here is for you to learn the sequence, pick out what you like from it and then work it into different applications. These applications could be taking a sequence from one position into another position, seeing if you can keep the same contour. Most importantly, you can spend time starting and ending the phrases around certain intervals to emphasize the chord that you’re playing over.
A technical note before we get started: I’ve transcribed the various hammer-ons and pull-offs that I use when playing these phrases at full speed. However, the secondary goal here is for you to find your own way of playing the examples that suit your style and sound. I use a mix of legato, hybrid picking, and sweep/economy picking. My advice is to look at the lines and listen to them. See what feels right for you.
Despite what angry YouTube comments might say, technique is feel (and vice versa) We can talk about technique and all the ins and outs of it, but unless we try it and feel how it is to play, we won’t find our own path and sound. We won’t develop our own confidence. As the Zen saying goes, “The thought of your mother is not your mother.”
Let’s start in 3rd position, a fitting way to begin our exploration in G. Ex. 1 is a legato phrase that starts off with an eight-note pattern that repeats across adjacent strings sets. The final measure outlines a G major triad with a trick string-skipping phrase on beat 2.
Working through the diatonic arpeggios is a great way to create new lines and sequences. In Ex. 2, I go through Em7, Bm7, F#m7b5, and Cmaj7 before I outline an Am9 arpeggio.
Rhythmic variety is a crucial part of any well-rounded vocabulary. Moving between different subdivisions is a great way to inject new life into a lick. Ex. 3 moves between straight 16th-notes and sextuplets (or 16th-note triplets). Although the pattern is relatively easy to hear, it moves fast, so focus on discovering the best fingering for you.
Ex. 4 moves around quite a bit, between legato fragments and arpeggio fragments. In the middle we have a classic displaced ascending sequence of fours through the scale that starts in the end of measure 1. We also utilize some slides on different strings. Watch out for this! I’ve found in my playing that timing can go astray on slides.
Ex. 5 is built around finding 3-1-3 and 2-1-2 patterns within this position. These terms are based on the number of notes before you change strings. A 3-1-3 pattern consists of three notes on a string, then one note on the next string, and finally three more notes on the final string. A great example starts on the second note of the phrase (G) and ends on the F# before beat 3.
There are some shifty slides like the last phrase (watch the timing!) and there’s also a mix of legato and picking to emphasize certain parts of the phrase. The line ends with a large arpeggio based on Em7 and F#m7b5. Dig the 2-1-2 phrasing here!
Since we are roughly thinking in the key of G major, Ex. 6 is sometimes referred to as the “minor” position since we start on E, the relative minor of the key. This phrase is built on a sequence based around a 3-1-3 pattern and we aim to keep this sequence going throughout the whole position. This lick is a great one to move around the neck.
Ex. 7 runs away with an initial legato sequence similar to the one found in Ex. 4, however we keep it going through the whole position before ascending through a fragment based on Ex. 1. Then I fill in the gaps of each phrase with some chromatic notes. The goal here is to aim for evenness of timing on the 16th-notes.
With these licks—or even parts of them—you will be able to navigate the fretboard with ease. Just remember: These licks are simply raw materials. It’s up to you to make music out of them.