Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Hagstom II: Swede or Super Swede

Yeah, I know, cool looking Guitar right? That's what I said when I saw this red royale. Is it a Teisco? Or, maybe an Eko? Awe, yes, Hagstrom.

I'm a sucker for weird looking Guitars, especially ones from this time period, which is about 1965. Hagstrom, along with other European manufacturers were starting to pickup on the phenomenon that was rock-n-roll, and revamping their music manufacturing facilities to switch from producing accordions, the biggest market at the time, to producing Electric Guitars. In the changeover and retooling of production, the manufacturers combined some of the "aesthetics" of the accordion, sparkly covering, lots of switches on the control plate, polka-dots and blended them into their own unique designs. These funky European designs were a unique contrast from the U.S. style of the time, Fenders utilitarian Telecaster, the more advanced Stratocaster (which was by all means non-traditional), or Gibson's "old world" style arch top/solid body designs. At first glance the Hagstrom II looks like a mix between Fenders Jaguar Guitar body style, along with the Fender style headstock shape, but with a double cut away horn and body contours of a Gibson SG. Aside from other subtle design features, lets take a look at what really differentiates Hagstrom Guitars from the others and that is the neck.

One of the first things that you notice when picking up this Guitar to play, is that the neck is really, really thin. Hagstroms were marketed to have really fast playing/feeling necks compared to other instruments and they were able to achieve this through their design of the truss rod. The truss rod is a steel threaded rod that runs through the center of the neck and is used to make adjustments in neck relief, or how much bow occurs when string tension is applied. A Guitar tuned to pitch averages about 120lbs. of pressure to the neck, making the truss rod a key component in counteracting this pressure, not having the neck resemble something like a ski-jump and more like a flat playing surface.

While most manufacturers were content with using a single truss rod, Hagstrom had to come with a new design in order to keep their thinner necks more stable. What they came up with is the "H" bar design. This design takes the existing truss rod, wrap it in steel and shaped to resemble the letter "H" (check out the photo). Not only does the "H" bar take care of potential Neck bow, it inhibits the Neck from wanting to twist as well ( a potential problem, if the wood wants to revert back to it's pre-Guitar form). Necks with this style of truss-rod are very stable and what I think is a clever design solution. So, how does it sound?

This Guitar came in with the electronics not working properly. Once I got the minor bugs worked out and proper components replaced, I plugged it into my Blackface Fender Bassman amp on a clean setting. The Swede sounds very Fender Mustang/Teisco Del ray like. The pickups visually resemble a p-90 but sound very Fender style single coil, with very low output. The neck pickup I particularly enjoyed as it had a scooped mid range with a more rounded top end and in adding the bridge pickup brought on more defined sparkly highs. The bridge pickup by itself sounded more along the lines of an am radio, which is par for the course with this style of pickup. The controls consist of an overall on/off switch, neck pickup on/off , bridge pickup on/off, tone on/off (instead of the usual tone control knob), a mute switch (which acts more like a rhythm/lead switch) and a single Volume knob. I was able to get sounds ranging from low-fi garage rock to a grittier blues sounds and everything in between.

The Hagstrom II is just a fun Guitar to play, backed by some serious design consideration. I would recommend anyone to pick one up, if they get the chance.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ibanez Tube Screamer and the Maxon OD-9

I have never really cared for the Ibanez TS-9. I've just never understood what people liked about them. But be fair, my first encounter with the little green box of voodoo was quite a few year after its historical debut. Let us start our discussion with a excerpt from a great book that we have at the shop on vintage effects pedals, titled The Stompbox.
The Ibanez story dates back to 1908, when Matsujiro Hoshino opened a book and stationery store in Nagoya, Japan. By 1932 Hoshino was producing guitars under the Ibanez name, and 30 years later the Honshino Guitar Company purchased half interest in a small American guitar firm called Elger that had been importing guitars from Hoshino and other Japanese companies.

Marketing manager Roy Miahara describes Ibanez's early pedal efforts: "When Ibanez CEO Tom Tanaka saw MXR stuff. We began making copies of it. In those days the Yen was 260 or 270 to the dollar. You didn't have to worry about marketing anything, You could just bring it over here and make tons of money on it. Nisshin made all of Ibanez's pedals, and they also owned the name Maxon.

One of Ibanez's most famous effects was the TS-9 Tube Screamer, medium-gain overdrive unit designed to emulate the sound of a tube amp. Designed by Nisshin in the early '80's and made legendary by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson, the TS-9 was essentially a repacked version of an earlier Ibanez/Nisshin hit, the TS-808. The only difference between the them are the values of the two resistor in their output; a TS-808 has a 10kΩ resistor and a 100kΩ resitor, while the TS-9 uses 100kΩ and 470kΩ resistors. "I don't think I used the TS-9 the way they made it to be used," Stevie Ray told Guitar Player in 1983. "I have it set so it makes everything sound turned up."

Back to present day, we can find the Tube Scream of legend and myth in the Maxon OD-9 Made in Japan by Nisshin to the original spec complete with the JRC4558 IC chip. We ordered a few in at the shop to check them out. They are very well made and sound like the best examples of the vintage Tube Screamer that I have heard. But I still do not like the compressed high end and lack of clarity. The circuit itself is not a bad design, that I like. What I do not like is the JRC4558. Yes, I know that chip has more voodoo rubbed on it than a team of Haitian witch doctors could supply. But Nisshin didn't select that IC for any other reason than that it was inexpensive, stable and readily available. There were other ICs used in the TS-9 but the JRC4558 was the best IC chip that Nisshin used and is very appropriate for a reissue.

My taste is to upgrade this pedal to something a little more refined. We tried a modern IC chip by Burr Brown with a few other tweaks. The results were very pleasing. Opened up the high end, clearer mids, fatter lows, plus a touch more gain.

Our research has convinced me that the Maxon OD-9 deserves a home at Full Custom Music Repair both modded and stock. We also have a few other effects pedals in stock as well, some used and some new. We will be expanding our inventory of vintage, new and modded effects as per customer demand.