Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fender Eric Johnson Stratocaster RW

A new signature model with a series of tweaks
Neville Marten, Thu 5 Mar 2009, 4:10 pm GMT

Any mention of Eric Johnson invariably – and perhaps rather tediously for Johnson himself – concentrates on his status as a tone-hound of legendary credentials.

It will inevitably state how he goes through his equipment microscopically, making sure the polarity of each internal component faces the same direction so the current passes as smoothly as possible. Mention is unfailingly made of his preference for battery power over mains, while his predilection for Duracell is reiterated.

Thankfully, writers do then go on to talk about his astounding musicianship and an almost unfeasible knowledge of what makes great guitar tone. But sometimes it's forgotten just how into guitars and amps Johnson truly is – to the point where he probably knows as much about Strats as the people at Fender, and could likely give Marshall's amp engineers a run for their money.

"Even though you'll need to re-learn how to use a Strat to some extent, we can heartily recommend it."

Most importantly, some ignore the fact that Johnson's love for detail is never for the sake of it, but to extract the last drop of musicality from whatever equipment he chooses. So a signature Stratocaster, spec'd to Eric's exact requirements and built by Fender – whose reputation for quality is currently better than it's ever been – warrants close inspection here.

Of course this isn't the first EJ Signature Strat. We loved Eric's original, all-maple-neck model for its balance of vintage vibe and modern playability.

We were bowled over by the attention to detail that Johnson personally brought to bear over all aspects of its design and production; the two-piece alder body with deeply scooped contours, the delightfully smooth neck-to-headstock shaping and the thin-skin nitrocellulose finish.

All these features from the previous instrument have been retained for the current one. Others that have also been carried over include the slimmer headstock design and staggered-height tuner posts that negate string trees; Johnson-voiced pickups with a tone control on the bridge single-coil; and no vibrato cavity cover – Eric reckons they sound better without it and who are we to argue?

Of course, the main point of the new model is that it comes with a rosewood fretboard – a result of requests from players. But Johnson stipulated that other changes would be needed if a rosewood version were to be produced. Visual changes include a white three-ply pickguard with countersunk pickup height adjustment screws: the 'right' choice for classic '60s Strat aesthetic.

Rather than go for the classic 'slab' fingerboard originally introduced in 1959, Eric has chosen the 'round laminate' that Fender switched to around 1963. At the time slab 'boards were deemed too 'dark' sounding, so the use of a thinner slice of rosewood over a pre-cambered maple neck addressed the problem to Leo's satisfaction. Some people say that it also made for a more stable assembly.

The prime visual detail about the new guitar is the fact that the 'board is bound – the most famous bound-necked Strat being the blue one owned by Ry Cooder. Apparently, the reason that Strats briefly sported bound necks during the mid-sixties was because the model shared an identical neck to the Jazzmaster (around this time both were code number 13).

And when the Jazzmaster switched to an edge-bound, dot-inlaid rosewood 'board it made sense to Fender's new owners, CBS, for the Stratocaster to follow. Before long the Jazz changed again, to block inlays, and so the Strat reverted to the more classic unbound look.

What's not immediately apparent is that the guitar's fingerboard has a flatter, 12-inch (305mm) radius. That's the same as a Gibson Les Paul and, therefore, markedly different to Fender's vintage-style 7.25-inch (185mm) camber, which can make string bends choke out and enforce an unwieldy action.

Frets are medium jumbo and have been seated, profiled and polished to perfection. Their ends overlap the binding but there's no hint of sharpness: this is an exceptional fret-job. Position marker dots are real pearl and add that final touch to what is already a very classily put-together guitar.

In playability and set-up terms, a guitarist with Johnson's extraordinary facility requires perfection. Nothing less could handle his speed and articulation. And so it is that our EJ is flawlessly set up.

With all five vibrato springs installed the bridge lies flat on the body and the action is set low for speed, but with enough purchase to allow for positive string bends and vibrato. It would certainly go lower should that be your personal preference, but we'd happily leave it as it came.

With its slight 'V' profile the quarter-sawn maple neck feels modern – it's the fingerboard's flatness that does it. Ibanez comparisons are odious though; this is a Fender through and through, and yet it feels like no other Strat we've played – not even the previous Johnson model. It's super-slick, extremely fast and, above all, totally capable at playing anything and everything.

When we reviewed his first signature guitar Eric told us that he had voiced the pickups – especially the bridge unit – even brighter than usual.

Now that's surprising at first; but when you consider Johnson's non-lead work – which often consists of super-bright, chorused, delayed and often harmonically complex chords – it starts to make sense.

Then bring in the tone control on that bridge pickup – back it down to halfway or even further and pile on the overdrive – and Eric's 'violin' tones emerge already fully formed.

It makes for a completely different Strat experience. Clean, all of the settings seem to provide exaggerated versions of the expected sounds, but get used to using the neck and bridge pickup tone controls and you'll never go back. Even though you'll need to re-learn how to use a Strat to some extent, we can heartily recommend it.

The Johnson's broader extremes of tone make it an extremely versatile guitar, and with the middle pickup's lack of tone control there's an extra funky edge to be had with it on its own, or in tandem with either of the other two. It's really hard to argue with Johnson's logic.

Reviewers ponder over the verdict of their musings for days before a piece is finished. Who is the guitar for? Who will like it? Does it fulfil its stated remit? Is it what it says on the tin – or less, or even more?

It might have been easy to conclude that the rosewood 'board version of Eric Johnson's signature guitar is for players who like the idea of Strats but prefer playing Gibsons. But the EJ doesn't play like a Gibson; it plays like a Fender, but a Fender with an even flatter fretboard than the 9.5-inch radius of many guitars in its current range.

Without resorting to active electronics or humbuckers, Fender and Johnson have managed to broaden the Strat's tone at both ends of its sonic spectrum, giving dark, tight distorted sounds and huge clean or chorused chords. It's flawlessly made, albeit knocking very serious money thanks to the current US Dollar exchange rate.

Eric Johnson is a charming and intelligent man, and a sophisticated guitarist capable of playing almost anything extraordinarily well. The fact that his new signature Fender is designed on exactly these premises and succeeds on every intended level, probably says as much as we need to.

When a musician of EJ's calibre puts his stamp on the best electric guitar design of all time, every serious player needs to check it out!

Roland TD-4K

An entry-level electronic kit with sophistication
Jordan McLachlan, Wed 22 Apr 2009, 11:50 am BST

Fizzy drinks, miracle age-repair make-up – everything is sold today with the promise of it being the 'best ever recipe'. Most of this stuff is so boring that, really, who cares? But when electronic drum makers make similar claims for their new products, it's a rather different kettle of fish.

This happens on a regular basis, of course – in fact every time a new kit is launched. But the posturing is justified more often than not where digital drums are concerned.

The simple fact is that technology continues to move on at such a pace that, even now, improvements in tone and responsiveness are coming in leaps and bounds. Roland has, of course, set a shining example of how to refine a product line over the last 10 years, so you'll be wanting to know if the new TD-4K continues this...

"Even if you never switched on the Coach Mode, you'd still be spoiled by what is an array of exemplary, all-new, on-board sounds"

Before we get into the tonal developments that the TD-4 module presents, the rack on which it (and the now familiar array of pads) is secured is worthy of a quick once-over.

Those well-versed in V-Drum evolution will notice that the black metalwork sports an extra couple of legs as compared to the simpler, flatter TD-3K rack. It's a feature that brings the TD-4 set-up into line with the pricier TD-9K rig, and to our minds, makes for a rather more rewarding physical interaction with the kit.

It's a simple thing, but having the two 'proper' extra rack bars to your left and right adds a higher end feel to the TD-4K. The TD-6K and TD-3K may have perfectly sturdy sections for hi-hat and 'floor tom', but we're all for the new legged look.

The kit wraps around you in snug fashion now too and, as with the whole V-Drum range, once you've got everything locked down, there are absolutely no concerns in terms of rigidity.

Roland td-4k brain

Hands On
In practice, even with the TD-4 smack in the middle of the front bar, the kit proves immensely capable and usable. The brain is super-simple, so the fact that a few buttons might be obscured by the toms is less of a problem than it would be with more fully-featured modules.

But the TD-4 nevertheless offers handy sound-altering features in the form of Tuning and Muffling parameters, easily accessed and edited in seconds. Just press one of the dedicated buttons, hit the pad you want to tweak and spin the data dial on the right on the TD-4 to either increase or decrease the pitch or, er, mufflisation.

On the right hand side of the module lie the controls for the TD-4's training functions. Roland clearly has the 'improving drummer' in its sights with the kit; the company has a good track record of offering useful practice functions in its V-Drum sets and this one is no different.

Coach Mode features five different training exercises including the funky new Tempo Check, which lowers the click volume when you're bang in time, and raising it when you're out of time.

"Whether you're a metronome-obsessed shredder or simply a weekender groover, there is not much for you to dislike here"

Quick Record also allows you to put your efforts down on the TD-4's internal memory with one touch. It's an unfussy sequencing function, but one that keeps you honest about your feel and timekeeping – if you're serious about practice the TD-4K is a great partner.

But don't let the 'personal trainer' bits fool you into thinking that the TD-4 might sport only perfunctory sonic abilities. Even if you never switched on the Coach Mode, you'd still be spoiled by what is an array of exemplary, all-new, on-board sounds.

There aren't hundreds to choose from – the TD-4 has 25 acoustic, electronic and percussion kits – but they really are fabulously playable. It's the responsiveness of sets like our personal favourite 'Coated' that immediately impress.

Yes, the sounds are great, indeed the reverb is smooth and natural, but it's the extent to which ghost notes can be coaxed from the pads (particularly the PDX-8 mesh snare) that makes for such a 'real-feeling' dynamic sensation. A few years ago even the top-end V-Drums weren't this good.

If the selection of kit sounds within isn't quite doing it for you, there is a certain amount of editing available too. But there's not much menu-wading to do. Ambience type and level, kit set-up and so on are all just a couple of button pushes away.

And although there's no deep-level tweakery to be had, we actually like the immediacy that the TD-4 allows. The basic sounds are so good that there's little that needs to be done to enjoy the kit, so it becomes more about the playing experience than programming the elusive perfect set. And there's much to be said for that.

Boringly predictable or reassuringly consistent depending on your viewpoint (not that the former is particularly valid), Roland has done it yet again with the TD-4K. And while the functional focus is on practice, rather than heavy-duty editing of sounds or production capabilities, the kit is a million miles from a sterile learning tool.

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