Monday, July 30, 2012

Short takes: Airline Bighorn, Squier Affinity Tele, Fender Mustang II

I went to Guitar Center again this past weekend to waste time while my wife got her hair done, and I ended up trying out some gear. I played an Airline Bighorn and a Squier Affinity Tele through a Fender Mustang II amp. I'll share some quick first impressions of each one, starting with the amp.

Fender Mustang II

Fender's Mustang range of solid-state modeling amps has been very well received in the music press, and I've been eager to try one out. I recently bought a Roland Cube 40XL that I love, but the 40-watt Mustang II was on my short list of amps to buy, and after playing it, I know that its place on that list was justified. It wasn't enough to make me regret my Cube purchase, but if I would've bought the Mustang instead, I wouldn't have been disappointed.

For each guitar, I used mostly the British 80s model, but I also used the American 90s model for heavier gain and the 65 Twin Reverb for clean. They all sounded very good, especially with the effects off (the orange/amber lights on the presets were mostly dry with a little reverb). Like the Cube, it has separate gain and volume knobs to control the amount of distortion on each model, and they worked well. I had the gain on about 7 and the volume on about 3 or 4. The tuner worked very well, too, and was more intuitive than the one on the Cube. Overall, this is an outstanding amplifier and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it alongside the Cube, especially as it's $50 cheaper.

Airline Bighorn

I've been a fan of Eastwood Guitars for a while. I like how they take obscure (and sometimes very strange) guitars from the 60s that were found in catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Ward and reproduce them using modern electronics and techniques. Eastwood owns the Airline brand, and the guitars put out under that name have gained respect in the guitar community as well-built, affordable, eccentric guitars for those who want something different than the usual Strat/Tele/Les Paul.

It ain't easy being green, but it can be cool.
One of their newest guitars is called the Bighorn, which is based on a student model that was sold under a few brands including Airline, Supro and Kay, as stated on their Web site. As soon as I saw this guitar I loved it, and I really wanted to play one. It's a strange looking guitar, kind of a cousin of a Gibson Explorer but more compact. I especially like it in green, so when I walked into Guitar Center and saw a used green Bighorn sitting on a stand I had to play it.

My first impression of the guitar is that it's a lot smaller than it looks in pictures. It fit very comfortably on my lap and was very easy to play. The bolt-on neck was painted the same color as the body, but it didn't feel sticky. I expected this guitar to have a thick neck, but I was surprised that it was a very comfortable C, very similar to a modern Fender Standard Stratocaster.

I plugged it into the Mustang and dialed in a nice overdriven tone using the British 80s model. This model sounds a lot like the Classic Stack model on my Cube, which is the one I use most of the time, so I really liked the tone. The metal-foil single coils had a very clear sound with tons of top end. I loved the bite coming from those pickups as I tend to be more of a fan of single coils. All three positions sounded great with the volume and tone maxed out, but I really liked the neck pickup. It's creamy and smooth and perfect for blues and blues rock. Moving to the higher gain model, the guitar still held its own, although it's not a metal guitar.

The controls were a bit of an issue, though. Although they felt very solid and had a nice taper on both volume and tone, the layout made it difficult to pull off volume swells. All four knobs are placed in a row and are volume-tone, volume-tone, first for the neck, then for the bridge. So the closest knob to your playing hand is the neck volume, which makes bridge pickup swells very difficult. The knobs are also quite small and close together. This is the kind of guitar where you set your controls and leave them alone, using the three-way switch to change tone.

The Achilles heel of this guitar, though, is the fingerboard. It's nice to play and the fret work was very good, but there are only 19 frets. This was probably done to keep it true to the original, but it's really a hindrance. Many players debate the need for 24 frets, and there is even a split between 21 and 22 frets, but 19 frets are just not enough. Because of this, the Bighorn is not a guitar you can use for all songs, and therefore is more of a specialty instrument. It's even more troubling that there is plenty of room between the neck and the neck pickup, so putting at least 21 frets wouldn't be difficult to do.

The good thing about this particular guitar is that it's used, but it's in like-new condition, and it's being sold for $199, a full $200 cheaper than a new one. Since this guitar just came out last year, it can't be more than a year or so old, so it's a steal. The bad thing is that, with the fret shortcoming, it is only justifiable as a second guitar for a specific purpose, so it would take a lot to justify the purchase. Still, if you like the way the guitar looks (like I do) and are OK with 19 frets, go to Guitar Center in Des Moines (or go online and have it shipped to your local GC) and pick it up. It's worth it. Just because it's a difficult purchase to justify doesn't mean I wouldn't buy it in a heartbeat if I had an extra 200 bucks lying around. It's that cool.

Squier Affinity Tele

I really want to get a Telecaster at some point. I heard good things about this cheap Tele, and I've wanted to play one for a long time to see if those statements are true. In a word, they are. Wait, that's two words.

This cheapo Tele doesn't play cheap.
Anyway, the guitar I played is the Affinity Tele special edition with a natural finish and black pickguard, meant to evoke the original Telecaster from the 50s. It's a Chinese-made (crafted, according to the headstock), entry-level guitar, so it's not going to compare with an American, Mexican, or even high-end Chinese Telecaster. But for what it is, it's impressive. The finish doesn't look as bad as I thought it would based on the picture. Whereas other natural finish Telecasters (including 50-year-old ones) have the same finish on the guitar body and neck, this one doesn't. It has the same very light maple neck that is put on the other Affinity series Telecasters, so the finish on the body is much darker. I didn't think I'd like it, but it actually looked pretty good.

Cost savings are evident on this guitar, though. The bridge is a top load, so the strings don't go through the body, which is cheaper to build. The body is thinner than a regular Telecaster, so in theory it won't transfer string vibrations as well, but I like the thin body. I think it's more comfortable to hold than a regular Telecaster as it doesn't dig into your body as much (there's no body contour). The neck also has a very narrow nut, which I'm guessing is to accommodate smaller hands, as this guitar is meant for beginners.

After playing the guitar, though, I completely forgot that it only cost $179. The smooth maple neck and narrow nut reminded me a lot of my DGW Contender, but with a standard 25.5" scale. It was really nice to play, very fast, with a comfortable C profile and nice frets. In fact, I was really impressed with the fit and finish on this guitar. The switch and controls were also surprising. I've read that the switches on the Affinity Teles are hit and miss, and if that's the case, this one was a hit. It worked fine and felt solid. The volume and tone controls also felt solid and had good taper. Many times on cheaper guitars, the knobs are more like on-off switches, where there isn't any noticeable difference as the knob is moved, only to suddenly change at the very end of the knob's range of motion. Not so on this Tele. Both the volume and tone responded to subtle changes and didn't feel like they were going to fall off.

The pickups are obviously cheap at this price point, but they still sounded great. Maybe part of it was the amp, but I didn't feel like the guitar was lacking at all. They sounded just as good as the ones in my old Mexican Telecaster that I sold a few years ago. They handled all the gain I gave it (within reason of course, as it's not a metal guitar) and still had good clarity. They didn't sound quite as good as the Airline's single coils but they were good enough, especially for an entry level guitar.

This guitar is a hard one not to justify, especially for a beginner or someone like me who wants a Telecaster but doesn't want to spend a lot of money. Since this guitar is so cheap, it's important to know that they can be hit or miss, but if you find one that's a hit, pick it up. It's more than worth the money.

1 comment:

  1. The Eastwood gives me GAS, especially the green one. Green guitars are a rarity and this one is so odd and ugly it's beautiful again. I'm currently looking for a third guitar and though Eastwood's are not easy to find in Germany I could order it from France for about 425 Euros (incl. VAT). That's about the same price as a 7ender Modern Player Thinline Tele Deluxe or a Hagström Viking II P, the other two hot candidates on my list.
    I have a 7ender Tele and a 7ender 72 Pawn Shop. What I'm looking for right now is something with high output single coils and a jangly tone to get a Black Keys-esque sound.

    It's hard to not fall in love with the green Airline BigTone and the more I read about it the more I want it...