may 2011

"Premier Guitar" hops over the Atlantic to Frankfurt, Germany, to drool over teeming aisles full of attention getting new gear at Musikmesse 2011—the world’s biggest gear show.

Acres upon sprawling acres of instruments and ever-flowing taps of ale (or bier, as the locals say) aren't all that differentiate Musikmesse from its gear-show counterparts in America and elsewhere. Of course, the NAMM shows in Anaheim and Nashville have tons of titillating tone toys, too, but this annual gathering of music manufacturers in Frankfurt, Germany—which was held this year from April 6–9—is a refreshing opportunity to sample sonic and design flavors that aren’t quite as common at stateside gear shows.

Here, luthiers like Switzerland’s Claudio Pagelli and Hungary’s Balázs Mihályi, Zoltán Mihályi, and Zoltán Ughy (from Blasius Guitars) parade eclectic designs while heavyweight European manufacturers like Warwick, Framus, and Hughes & Kettner host visitors in huge, bustling, and often loud exhibit spaces. US-based outfits like Fender, Gibson, and PRS usually take advantage of Musikmesse’s springtime schedule to unleash at least a couple of new items, too. And then there are promising upstarts like Stark Amps and Nick Page Guitars turning heads with unique, beautifully built designs.

LEFT: This dashing dandy at the Gewa Bags booth had us wondering if we weren’t letting our sartorial standards slip. In the end, we decided our garb was rock ready but that we could also use a little more sun. Still, Gewa’s gigbags are pretty nice way to tote your axe. RIGHT: Frankfurt’s New.MusicAcademy promoted its forward-thinking educational efforts by deploying several young ladies with a portable Vox amp, a Vox Virage electric, and an iPad stocked with song transcriptions.

LEFT: While we totally dig classic instruments, we also contend there’s not enough envelope pushing going on when it comes to stringed instrument design. That’s why we were psyched to come across the ViolaFon, an axe that lets you play standard guitar on frets 1 through 9, and then rip like Stéphane Grappelli—in wicked fi ddle style—higher up on the neck. We couldn’t help wondering what Page would have done to “Dazed and Confused” with one of these. RIGHT: Bassist Alain Caron (left), drummer Damien Schmitt (behind Caron), and Frank Gambale tear it up for a big crowd at the plexiglass-enclosed Markbass performance booth.

LEFT: A crowd gathers to watch Hiwatt’s Alfonso Pinzon (back), an unnamed demo player, and PG’s Charles Saufley (right) and Shawn Hammond (middle) shoot a video demo of the new Hiwatt Custom 20 and Custom 50 heads (, which are now being handwired in the US. Watch this and other Musikmesse demo videos at

Premier Guitar perused all this and more as we tirelessly walked the aisles of Musikmesse to chronicle the newest, most intriguing guitars, amps, and effects we could find. Actually, “tirelessly” isn’t quite the word—our dogs were barking pretty hard as we journeyed back and forth from one cavernous hall to the next—but the coolness of it all, in addition to our steadfast commitment to bring you as many drool-worthy demo videos as possible from the floor, kept us trudging onward despite the blisters and parched throats. So be sure to visit to check out our lineup of professionally mic’d HD videos after reading about what we’ve assembled here. Enjoy!


Pagelli Andre Archtop and Ekolette Solidbody
Few luthiers design with so little regard to boundaries—real or perceived—as Swiss builder Claudio Pagelli. He builds inspired acoustics, archtops, and electrics with an irreverent aesthetic that rarely stays on one path very long. The Andre archtop (left) was built to celebrate his 30th anniversary in business and features a body and neck of Canadian maple, a top crafted from moon-cut Swiss alpine spruce, ebony binding, Schertler tuners with tagua-nut buttons, and a Häussel pickup. Like so many of Pagelli’s designs, it pulls off the tough act of being classic and deconstructionist at once.

As for the Ekolette (right), it seems to be a blend of the extroverted stylings of Italian electrics from Bartolini, Eko, and Gimelli. Its name, says Pagelli, is a mix of Eko and Echolette—a German amp company from the ’60s and ’70s—and the shape is based on a bass design from years ago. “We always thought it would be a great shape for an electric guitar.” Specs include a mahogany body and neck, a maple top, an Indian rosewood fretboard, Q-tuner neodymium pickups, Gotoh bridge, and Kluson-style tuners. “The back and sides match the color of the pickups,” Pagelli explains, “but the rest is covered with vintage-stock Italian mother-of-toilet-seat [pearloid]. The sound is very open and clear—almost acoustic—but with lots of sustain.”

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A story of love and compromise in the life of a musician

No worries—this Tele cuts through the mix. Photo of Brent Mason’s well-worn axe by Andy Ellis

Duane was questioning his own sanity. He was a working guitarist and against his better judgment, he’d invited Sandy to meet him out on the road while touring the Southwestern part of the country. Now he was sitting at a roadside café having a leisurely breakfast with her.

The couple had met at one of Duane’s gigs a few years before and sparks flew immediately. Sandy would sit right in front of Duane while he played and sang. She loved the way he stroked his gold-colored guitar and imagined that every note he played was for her alone. At first, Sandy would travel long distances to see Duane play with the band—sleeping in her car or renting a motel room with Duane. She loved the music, but shortly after they were married Sandy stopped coming to Duane’s gigs. Duane was worried that she was no longer infatuated with the idea of a musician husband.

Maybe it was like when he fixated on a new piece of musical gear—as soon as he got it, he was thinking about something new. His idea was to get Sandy out on the road to rekindle their romance in the environment where it had started. Unknown to Duane, it was Sandy who had actually put the idea into his head. Secretly, she was worried that he was seeing other women on the road, and wanted to check up on him. By the time Duane got a vague notion about her true motivation, it was too late to change course—she was on her way.

Duane had rented a car purportedly to spare Sandy the displeasure of traveling in the band van with the guys and gear. The rented car was a safety precaution— at least he could shield her from the band. The guys had a way of passing the long hours of traveling by talking trash about each other, their significant others, and the girls they knew in each town. Duane had shifted into survival mode and his bandmates could smell it.

As Duane and Sandy pulled into each town, Duane would suggest they take in the local sights or stop in a pawnshop so he could look at guitars. Sandy used to enjoy watching him try out new instruments, but he realized that now it just meant a possible expenditure to her. He was very careful to arrive at soundcheck slightly late to avoid too much idle time with the rest of the band. He was constantly sending Sandy out for 9-volt batteries for his pedals. After a while she wondered why he didn’t buy them before it was time for him to play. As soon as soundchecks were over, out the door they went to explore the area or check into a motel room. The stress on Duane was beginning to show, which made Sandy edgy, and in turn made Duane even more stressed.

So, there they were—killing time in the café with their huevos rancheros, fried potatoes and coffee. Sandy was talking excitedly about redecorating their apartment, and Duane was thinking about the Telecaster he had on hold at a store in the next town. His Les Paul wasn’t cutting through the mix well enough, but he couldn’t stand to part with it. So against his wife’s wishes, he’d bought the Tele instead of trading for it. He wasn’t sure how he was going to break it to her, but he wanted the band van to get as far ahead down the road as possible before shoving off in pursuit. He’d wing it once they were in the car.

Back out on the highway, there had been about 40 minutes of silence, and the tension was getting unbearable. Duane was just about to bring up the Telecaster when they crested a rise, only to see the band’s van at the side of the road. The entire band was standing outside with their hands on their heads, surrounded by cops and drug-sniffing dogs. Duane slowed slightly and saw the drummer shake his head indicating that stopping wasn’t a good idea. They cruised on for a few minutes in silence—then both broke out into hysterical laughter. For a moment it felt like the old, carefree times. “Screw it,” Duane shouted. “I quit.”

Sandy threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. They were both in the moment, and the whole thing seemed like a sign. Sandy turned and faced forward, her eyes focused down the road somewhere. “I’m pregnant,” she said softly.

Back down the road the rest of the band had lucked out. The drummer had shoved the bag of pot down his underwear and several days of showerless giging must have thrown off the drug-sniffing dogs. They got off with a ticket for a broken brake light, but that was the end of the band. They’d all had enough.

Today, only two of the guys have jobs related to the music business, but they all keep in touch. The anger at Duane for “breaking up” the band has been forgotten and they all laugh about what didn’t seem funny at the time. They still get together and jam from time to time—the wives and their kids sit around the back yard and listen just like the old days. Duane smiles at Sandy from behind that Telecaster as their daughter dances with her friends. Duane wonders if the Tele is cutting through the mix.

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We began looking at the origins of steel-string guitars in February. This month, we continue by comparing nylon and steel-string instruments.

Left: This Ramirez Limited Edition 125th Anniversary model embodies traditional Spanish guitar design. Right: Steel-string builders often explore new shapes and materials, as evidenced by this Breedlove CM Custom flattop.
We began looking at the origins of steel-string guitars in February (read it at premierguitar. com/feb2011). This month, we continue by comparing nylon and steel-string instruments.

The difference in stringing is obvious, but this is only superficial. The most meaningful differences are internal and structural, and have to do with the fact that the steel-string guitar must be built to withstand relatively great string tension compared to the nylon-string or Spanish guitar. (Before nylon strings were invented, Spanish guitars were strung with gut strings.) And being built differently, these instruments produce tone differently. As a matter of fact, from an engineering standpoint, nylon- and steel-string guitars are totally different instruments that simply share the same name. The principal elements unique to the steel-string guitar are its neck design and size, the bridge, and the X-bracing under the face or soundboard. Let’s look at each of these elements in turn.

First, virtually all steel-string guitars have adjustable tension rods that are designed to counteract the pull of the strings. These truss rods have access ports either behind the nut or through the soundhole. The neck on nylon-string guitars are under much less of a load and do not need reinforcing rods.

The necks on steel-string and Spanish guitars are sized and shaped to support very different playing styles. Spanish guitars work best for a technique that anchors the fretting-hand thumb behind the neck, while the wrist bends and extends the fingers over the fretboard. Accordingly, this neck is wide and its back is shaped with a somewhat flattened, gentle curve.

The steel-string guitar was originally developed for a playing style in which the fretting-hand thumb wraps around the neck, while the picking-hand attacks the strings with a plectrum. Therefore, a steel-string guitar’s neck is narrow with closer string spacing. It also has a somewhat triangular cross-section with a softly rounded “peak” in the back. This design is optimized to allow players to wrap their hands around the neck, as the “V” shape fits into the valley between the thumb and the other fingers.

The steel-string bridge differs greatly from its Spanish counterpart. For starters, the strings tie directly onto the Spanish guitar bridge. This design works well within the holding power of the glue joint that keeps the bridge on the guitar face. Metal strings, however, exert so much pull that merely glued-on bridges will lift off. Steel-string luthiers realized that a better solution was to anchor the strings to the underside of the face itself, and bypass the possibility of glue failure at the bridge. This explains why the strings pass through the bridge into the body cavity on a steel-string.

Also, the Spanish guitar saddle is parallel to the frets, while the steel-string saddle is at an angle. This is necessary because the very stiffness and mass of metal strings create intonation problems, which increase with string diameter. Heavier strings need to be slightly longer to achieve correct intonation, and slanted saddles are called “compensated” saddles for this reason.

Both the layout and amount of bracing control a guitar’s sonic characteristics. I wrote about this in my August 2010 column, “What Makes an Acoustic Tick.” You can read it online at and view photos that illustrate various bracing patterns. There are many factors that go into a guitar’s internal bracing, and the importance of these factors far outweighs the instrument’s structural characteristics when discussing sonic traits.

I’m often asked, “Why are there so many sizes and shapes of steel-string guitars to choose from, while classical guitars all have very nearly the same size and shape?” The classical guitar is considered almost perfect by its adherents, and builders are encouraged to refine the design, but not change it. The steel-string guitar world, however, is not bound by such thinking and steel-string builders are free to invent new versions and features as long as someone will buy their instruments—much like the automobile industry. Consequently, with both cars and guitars, models are sometimes released that are not on par with their predecessors.

Another and more interesting reason is that steel-string guitar music and its playing techniques are changing. In the classical guitar world, these factors are moving ahead slowly as technique, repertoire, and accepted design are comparatively frozen. Because the flattop guitar is so relatively new—virtuosic steel-string soloists, interpreters, arrangers, and composers only really began to emerge in the 1960s—we’re experiencing an explosion of musicians who are exploring and discovering new tonal, dynamic, and compositional possibilities for their chosen instrument.

Consequently, guitarists are demanding higher levels of responsiveness, tonality, playability, and fidelity of intonation from their steel-strings. Most recently, ease of amplification and recordability have also become essential considerations. This is a very exciting time for the steel-string guitar, and there’s no reason to think these factors will not continue to grow for decades to come. Next month, we’ll wrap up our exploration of the steel-string with thoughts about its cultural significance.

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