After finding an old drawing in the attic, a North Carolina luthier builds the dream guitar designed by his teenage self.
Name: Madison BuntingHometown: Wilmington, North Carolina
Guitar: Gayle Snoopy
Rewind to the mid ’90s when I was a cocky 16-year-old wannabe guitar-slinger. Cobain was trashing the Fender Jaguar, the B.C. Rich Mockingbird was one of the few flamboyant guitars left that survived the grunge explosion, and Parker had just come out with an awesome two-page ad showcasing the then-new Fly.
I decided I was going to design my own guitar that showcased what I loved about the three aforementioned axes. Of course, I didn’t know anything about scale or even what a router was, so the guitar never came to fruition and remained a drawing (pictured) I occasionally drooled over.
Fast forward to 2015: I’d been doing string-instrument repair for 15 years at a music store in North Carolina and decided to venture out and start my own lutherie business, Gayle Guitars. While visiting my parents, I found my original drawings tucked away in the attic. Knowing what I know now, I figured, why not? So, I set to the course of making a playable and ergonomic version.
This guitar (dubbed “Snoopy” by my wife) is a 2-piece swamp ash body with a black walnut drop top, a 25.5" scale rosewood neck with medium jumbo frets, three on a side headstock (an obvious homage to the Peavey Wolfgang), HSH pickup configuration with a volume/tone and series-parallel switch for the humbuckers, and 5-way super switch for the “Strat-o-Tele” treatment.
The swamp ash/walnut combo creates a great midrange “bark” that cuts through the mix without being obnoxious. The wiring creates tones for a wide range of styles, and the guitar turned out to “fit” me amazingly! It’s since become my main axe, and catches a lot of eyes at shows.
I’m glad I built this guy. It realizes a vision I always had, and it bridges the gap between my 16-year-old rocker self and the late-30s musician I’ve become. Plus, it makes me laugh every time I look at it, because you can clearly see where my head was at that age.
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A studio ace's decades of session experience informed this combo's galaxy of tones—and all without a traditional tone stack.
What would you expect from an amp named JOAT—an acronym for “Jack of All Tone?” I’d imagine some bloated monstrosity overloaded with cascading channels, switchable tube configurations, and an appalling number of knobs and switches. You know, something that promises the sounds of everything from a Fender Champ to a Bogner Uberschall, while never sounding as cool as either.
Thank heavens, this 1x12 combo version of Sharp’s JOAT 20RT head-and-cab model is nothing of the sort. The “T” stands for tone, singular—as in, “this amp is all tone.” Sounds like total marketing B.S., right? But amazingly, this 20-watt, dual EL84 amp delivers on the promise of its name.
The JOAT 20 Combo is masterfully made from great materials. But what sets it apart from other ultra-premium amps is its radical approach to tone control. Almost all guitar amps (and, for that matter, most distortion pedals) rely on passive tone stacks. That is, they trim frequencies by shunting parts of your signal to ground. Being passive, conventional tone controls can only shape sound by subtraction, never by addition. You build up massive energy with the tubes, and then sculpt it down with the tone controls, sort of like carving a statue from a block of marble.
Sharp omits conventional tone controls, employing instead an ingenious array of biasing, phasing, and feedback tricks to conjure a broad palette of tones without energy-sucking shunting. Yes, you can cut bass, but you don’t use a conventional high-pass filter. Instead, the bass cut knob alters how components are coupled downstream. The treble cut knob doesn’t dump treble frequencies to ground. Instead, it activates a feedback circuit across the output tube plates, trimming top end via varying amounts of phase cancellation.
In lieu of midrange controls, there’s a 5-position attitude switch. It alters the biasing of the initial tube (a 6AU6 pentode, instead of the more common 12AX7 dual triode). The settings vary in midrange contour, compression, and attack.
But what does Sharp’s circuit sorcery actually sound like?
The differences in tone and feel relative to conventional amps aren’t subtle. I’ve never encountered a more present and touch-responsive amp. It produces a remarkably loud 20 watts. Notes have rock-solid fundamentals. The touch sensitivity is off the charts—notes seem to blast from the custom-spec Vin-Tone speaker (a fab-sounding model in the Celestion Alnico Blue vein).
Every design choice contributes to the amp’s harmonic richness, clarity, and impact. Pentode tubes overdrive less readily than 12AX7s. The EL84s deliver their famed, electrifying treble presence. The alnico speaker performs its expected magic, rounding off nasty highs without sacrificing lively sparkle. And yes—the absence of a conventional tone stack makes everything bolder and brighter.
Actually, such extreme dynamic response won’t be an ideal fit for all players. I had to play for an hour or so before feeling comfy with the combo’s hair-trigger response, and getting it to bark in the right ways. Likewise, you may need experimentation time before you can deploy the alternate tone controls in repeatable/predictable ways. (I wound up simply flicking through the attitude settings till something sounded appropriate for a particular guitar and/or part, and then applying treble and bass cuts as needed.) Don’t be surprised if you dial in and use relatively deep treble cuts. This thing emits intense top-end energy.
The amp highlighted the best qualities of every guitar I connected. Lipstick tubes pickups maintained their airy high end. Baritone guitars retained as much bass mass as if they’d been recorded direct. Strats shone exquisitely. Pauls were perfectly Pauline. JOAT 20 doesn’t impose its own sonic agenda. It just delivers more of whatever you plug in.
JOAT 20 is slower to distort than most 20-watt combos. But with so much harmonic intensity, you might find yourself playing a bit cleaner than usual. When you push things, the overdriven tones are gorgeous—focused and rich, with extraordinary harmonic coherence, string separation, and note attack. And while I recorded the demo clips without stompboxes to highlight the amp’s innate character, JOAT sounds smashing with any good overdrive or fuzz.
The amp offers more tone-shaping tricks: Its dual inputs are optimized for single-coils and humbuckers, but both pickup types sounded superb through both inputs—one is just a bit hotter. A switch lowers the power from 20 watts to 10, and you’ll probably use it—this thing is loud. The 3-way “bite” switch is Sharp’s take on a traditional bright switch. It’s not a conventional filter, either. It manipulates the 6AU6’s grid, exploiting varying degrees of the tube’s natural brightness. There’s also a fine-sounding bias-based tremolo circuit with a click-off position (again, for minimal circuit loading). A rugged metal footswitch is included.
The JOAT 20 is phenomenally well made. The chassis is heavy-duty powder-coated aluminum. Magnetic Components made the hefty transformers. The pots, jacks, and fittings are strictly top shelf. The vinyl covering is immaculate. The isolation mount for the initial tube performs superbly. I’ve always dug the core color of pentode tubes, but man, can they be noisy! (I’ve got a sizeable collection of expensive EF86 pentodes that were too fussy to use in a Marshall 18-watt kit I once built.) Here, though, the tubes are dead quiet. There’s just one downside to that stout construction: The amp weighs a hernia-poppin’ 48 pounds.
Between its near-$3K price tag and hypersensitive feel, Todd Sharp’s JOAT 20 Combo won’t suit all budgets or playing styles. Still, I gave it an unusually high value rating for an amp in this price range because of the staggering amount of R&D its design surely demanded. But guitarists whose playing relies on fine nuances of touch are unlikely to find an amp with greater sonic detail and explosive touch response.
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A budget-friendly semi-hollowbody with something rare in its price range: a unique personality.
In the electric guitar market, there’s often a no man’s land between budget-priced Asian instruments and pricier models from the U.S. and E.U. But since the quality and consistency of low-cost imports is better than ever, purchase decisions often come down to a simple calculation: Is it wiser to buy a costlier instrument from Europe or the States, or go Asian and budget a couple of hundred bucks for upgrades?
Some savvy manufacturers are undermining that two-tiered system. At least that seems to be the strategy of Florida-based Sublime Guitars. Their instruments’ parts are made in Asia (sourced, they say, from smaller, hand-picked production facilities), with final setup done in the U.S. Sublime’s initial offerings are the offset solidbody Tomcat and the semi-hollow Chieftain Deluxe reviewed here.
Sleek and Semi-hollow
The Chieftain is a fetching fantasia of vintage-flavored design details. It’s a sleek, set-neck double-cutaway. The molded-maple body’s top and back are subtly arched. It’s comfy in all playing positions. The neck meets the body at the 20th fret, making it easy to access the top frets. The faux-ivory top, back, neck, and headstock binding is attractive and even. The headstock has classy Grover “stair step” tuners and an elegant profile with a top contour that suggests a bird with spread wings. The onyx black finish is deep, consistent, and lovely.
Another striking touch is the Epiphone-style bifurcated trapeze tailpiece. (If you like plucking behind the bridge, you’ll love the substantial string length between tailpiece and bridge, as heard at 01:47 in the demo clip.) The bridge is a standard Tune-o-matic, but with roller saddles. These will aid tuning stability if you opt for the $1,119 Bigsby model (not reviewed). But you’d better be cool with gold: The Chieftain comes in black or white versions, and gold is the sole hardware option. Sublime also offers a classy Gator hardshell case for an additional $130.
No Upgrades Required?
Sublime lavishes special attention on the traditional weak links of Asian production-line guitars. The medium-jumbo frets are expertly seated, their ends comfortably rounded. The fretboard feel is exceptionally smooth and buttery for a model in this price range. A GraphTech TUSQ nut is another welcome upgrade. The review model arrived with low, comfy action, though the intonation wasn’t perfect. (But that’s a quick fix if you know what you’re doing, and an inexpensive shop task if you don’t.)
Instead of the blandly generic humbuckers you usually encounter on equivalently priced imports, Sublime offers something interesting: a pair of Gatekeeper H90 pickups. These are licensed Korean-made versions of Porter H90s. (Porter is a boutique winder based in Idaho.) And that brings us to what will probably be the Chieftain’s most controversial feature.
Personality vs. Power
H90s are P-90-influenced single-coils in a humbucker-sized housing. This format accommodates fewer winds than a traditional P-90 soapbar housing. That means less output. With D.C. resistance of between 5k and 6k, H90s are noticeably quieter than traditional P-90s, whose resistance is usually around 8k. In fact, they’re a bit quieter than, say, vintage Stratocaster pickups.
I happen to dig lower-output pickups, and I wish more guitars employed them. These sound cool and unique to my ears—and how often can you say that about today’s budget guitar pickups? But players accustomed to hotter pickups should probably test-drive these before committing.
Gatekeeper H90s aren’t as low-powered as Gibson’s historic Charlie Christian pickups, but they remind me of them in some ways. The H90 pickups don’t overdrive amps as readily as hotter pickups, though you can always turn up the amp gain or plug in a pedal. But paradoxically, they often sound rough-edged even with fairly clean amp settings. It’s a distinctive flavor, rich in character. It probably won’t suit all tastes, though I find it attractive and engaging.
The H90s can add a gravel-voiced grind to roosty/bluesy music, and they’re gorgeous for old-school R&B. Pulling back the tone controls yields full, fat jazz sounds. (The knobs are wired Les Paul-style, with individual volume and tone controls per pickup.) The pickups sound great with distortion, too, though tones tend to be relatively spiky and pointed. (The guitar’s innate brightness contributes to the effect.) Still, they rarely get harsh. When playing bright, Beatles-esque chords, for example, the rough edge offsets the stab factor (as heard at 02:38 in the demo clip).
The Chieftain Deluxe offers sharp looks and tones at a terrific price. Its sleek neck and smooth frets are a pleasure to play. Sublime Guitars smartly addresses the traditional weak links of budget Asian guitars: notably the fretwork, hardware, setup, and pickups. And the instrument recalls an era when budget guitars were unique, quirky, and cool—not just cheap-as-possible knockoffs. Strong character elicits strong reactions, so not all players will relate. But I’m thrilled to encounter so much personality in such a reasonably priced instrument.
Watch the Review Demo: