I have been obsessed with these unique looking guitars for years. They are one of the first companies in my lifetime that created their own shapes, headstock, and designs that are really different. Even their take on the Les Paul Junior, the Sensei Jr, is just so eye catching. Combining Joe Naylor’s amazing pickups with the leadership of the Hess family and high quality overseas production has lead to a huge spike in their popularity. They even scored signature guitars for some pretty big names like Reeves Gabrels and Billy Corgan. The best part? Most of their models are under $1000, combining superb quality with accessibility. I’ll let the pictures and videos speak for themselves.
A new company that I was fortunate enough to review for this site, Howl has been teasing even better looking guitars than the wonderful Sirena 3 I got. Based out of California, they are churning out high quality guitars with unique features at shockingly affordable prices. Made overseas in a high quality South Korean facility, these LPs feature Korina body wood and Roasted Maple necks. Plus, that single chrome covered humbucker is coil splittable. If LP Juniors (and Customs) are your thing, this is the perfect marriage of simplicity and luxury.
I’m really not sure why G&L isn’t a bigger deal. It seems like everything they put out is well liked, well built, and it all looks amazing. It was even started by arguably the greatest guitar maker of all time, Leo Fender, and makes unique, modern improvements on his classic designs. As large as the company is, including both overseas and domestic made models, shouldn’t they be much more of a household name?? I don’t know, maybe they are and I just don’t know, but look at these stunning takes on classic designs.
Another wonderful brand I actually have had the pleasure of reviewing, D’Angelico should be on any semi-hollow player’s mind. I tried their smaller body, DC Premier Mini, a ES-339 style guitar with excellent looks and appointments. D’Angelico may not stay this size forever, as their recent purchase of Supro and Pigtronix could have them rising up the guitar ranks soon. Their guitars have been played by everyone from Melanie Faye to Bob Weir and will not disappoint those looking for pop, jazz, or blues-centric instruments. That’s not to say that they can’t rock out as well.
I first discovered Godin’s big hollowbody jazz box-type guitars and kind of wrote them off as the Canadian D’Angelico. However, recently I realized they have a ton of sick looking solid body guitars that would fit right in to my indie and garage rock rigs. Recently, this LP Junior style guitar has captured my attention and I’m really hoping they will lend me one to review. These are also really unique in the sense that they are built in Canada but are still really inexpensive. No boutique prices here, in fact they are closer to some Korean-made products than USA-made products in pricing.
Schecter may be really well known for their more metal, shredder, and high-gain instruments. But did you know they have an absurd amount of affordable and stunning vintage inspired models. Better yet, they are just plain out bizarre in the best way possible. Take the Ultra III I reviewed earlier this year, it plays like a Les Paul Custom, but has three filter’tron-style pickups, a bigsby, and jumbo frets. They are also constantly releasing new, sick looking guitars like the PT Fastback, Corsair guitar and bass, and many more.
Well the day has finally come where Gibson has sent me a guitar to review. Quick personal tangent, this guitar really makes me feel like I “made it” in the guitar review world. Nevertheless, Gibson’s rise in 2020 started on the back of the Epiphone re-launch and continues here with the new 2020 line of USA models. Gibson’s Les Paul Studio 2020 is powered by coil tapped 490R and 498T humbuckers with otherwise standard wiring configuration (2 tone, 2 volume, 3-way selector). The Mahogany body is even weight relieved beneath the figured Maple top, making it a real comfortable departure from heavy LP’s of the past.
The Mahogany neck features a return to Rosewood fretboards (yes!) and 22 medium jumbo frets. The neck shape is a slim taper, that still feels like a classic Gibson, just with a bit more utility and comfort than your vintage baseball bat. I fortunately received one featuring the gorgeous “Smokehouse Burst” finish featuring gloss nitrocellulose lacquer. This LP Studio sports Grover Rotomatic tuners, Gibson’s Nashville tune-o-matic and stop bar tailpiece, and a lovely soft shell case as well.
No surprise here, it sounds like a Gibson Les Paul and I mean that as a compliment! The neck pickup is creamy, bluesy, and has all that warm goodness we’ve come to associate with Gibson. While it is no ’59 burst, these LP Studio guitars really sound like the real deal, even though they are the more affordable end of Gibson USA. While this guitar is weight relieved, I didn’t really feel any loss of sustain or resonance compared to other, full weight Gibson’s I’ve played.
The bridge is obviously more bright and aggressive, and in my opinion provides the real Gibson tone that I’ve always loved and tried to emulate. Huge, classic tones pour out easily from Led Zeppelin to The Clash and everything in between. Gibson seems to have (rightfully) prioritized a return to the vintage blues and rock basis that made the brand famous. This guitar is perfect for the sounds you expect to get from it, and honestly had a few atmospheric licks up its sleeve. However, it definitely isn’t the most versatile guitar for maybe clean Jazz sounds or rhythmic chiming sounds. But if you’re buying a Les Paul Studio from Gibson you probably know what you’re getting and will not be disappointed! Oh and the in-between setting on the 3-way selector switch was maybe the best I’ve ever heard from a Les Paul. I usually strictly avoid that setting but it was a real charm here.
Lastly I want to speak about the coil cuts. It is a really great feature that they’ve included here as it certainly makes the Studio a bit more versatile, but they weren’t the most impressive. The neck one sounded far more “coil split”-like than the bridge one. In fact, I could barely tell the bridge cut was anything more than a volume reduction. Not a major problem, but just something to think about and maybe I just got a dud.
Les Pauls have not always won me over because of their feel and Gibson has a well recorded history of quality control and tuning stability issues. However, this guitar has far superior tuning stability to my 2011 Gibson Les Paul. I was really happy to see this and I assume it is because they’ve put more effort into perfecting the nut and how it is cut on each model. Furthermore, the G string still goes out of tune fairly often, which is just a known and respected flaw in Les Paul construction. This isn’t ideal, but I can certainly live with it in return for the huge upgrade in playability on my older Les Paul. The action was great out of the box, and I really liked the feel of the slim taper neck. It sat comfortably in my hands, with some of that baseball bat chunkiness as you move around the neck.
Finish & Construction: 9
This is where Gibson is really making me happy in 2020. This Les Paul Studio is just built so much better than some of the 2010’s Gibson guitars that I’ve played and owned. The fretwork was great, the finish was spotless, the nut was cut correctly. Everything seems to be pointing towards increased quality control coming out of Gibson. Their PR faults aside, this certainly made me think that Gibson is on its way back to the top of the guitar world. Even if the guitar is far from the perfection of higher end Gibson models, it feels so good to get an off the shelf, relatively affordable Les Paul with a Gibson logo that feels great. The lightweight construction also should appeal to many players (like myself) who prefer to swing a light Fender guitar around the stage. Smokehouse Burst is also just such a beautiful finish, with more depth and nuance to the color than I’ve seen on older burst models. I’ve been super critical of Gibson but they earned praise with this one.
To be fair, there are some many great Les Paul guitars out there for less than the price of a Gibson. That Howl Sirena 3 I reviewed is one of them. However, I’m ultimately impressed with how Gibson seems to have put the attention to detail back into these lower priced Studios. While Les Paul studios have typically been the biggest offenders during Gibson’s leaner years, they got this one right. Overall you can get a real Gibson Les Paul with only a few minor, modern upgrades, for under $1500. That’s a win for everyone who can’t afford Customs, reissues, or vintage Gibson’s. Sometimes the name on the headstock does matter and if that is the case for you, Gibson has worked towards winning you back with this 2020 Les Paul Studio.
Good for:Blues, Classic Rock, High Gain, Players Looking For Lightweight Les Paul, Versatile Players
PRS took one of my top 10 favorite guitars released in 2019 and made it even better for 2020. Just announced by PRS this month, meet the SE Hollowbody II Piezo. This takes their beloved affordable line hollowbody II and adds a PRS and LR Baggs co-designed piezo underneath that wrap around bridge. This brand new SE Hollowbody II Piezo features 5-ply Laminated Maple top and back with Mahogany sides. On top of that Maple sits a Figured Maple veneer, mine came in this stunning Peacock Blue Burst finish.
The Mahogany neck is covered by an Ebony fretboard with their “Old School” bird inlays. This guitar features a 25″ scale length, 22 frets, and wide, fat neck profile that feels really solid and inviting. Nickel hardware includes the adjustable stop tail Piezo and PRS’s designed tuners. PRS 58/15 “S” humbucker grace the front of the guitar and are controlled by a 3-way selector switch and volume and tone pot. The SE Hollowbody II Piezo also features 2 input jacks, one for the magnetic pickups mentioned above labelled “mag”, and one that is labeled “mix/piezo”. That second input lets you blend in the piezo pickup using the third control knob, letting you go from full electric to full piezo, and everything in between both.
True to its SE Hollowbody II base, this Piezo version did not disappoint. While it is still on the pricey side, this guitar brings PRS custom shop feel and tone down to a much more appetizing price. The two humbuckers can go from a quiet growl to searing leads with ease, and the tones compliment the fast neck well, as this isn’t a shredder’s guitar and is better suited for blues, jazz, pop, and classic rock riffs. Chords ring out beautifully, and while it isn’t the most crystal clear when overdriven, it has an awesome “space-filling” quality that lets it go from rhythm to lead with ease. The neck pickup is particularly fun to play with a slide, while the bridge has more punch and sparkle that cuts right through the mix.
If the electric tones are everything you could want in a classic PRS guitar, the piezo is the icing on the cake. I don’t have too much experience with piezo pickups but the SE Hollowbody II Piezo quickly won me over with its snappy, articulate tones. It sounded like all kinds of acoustic tones I’d ever want to use on stage, and I love that this guitar does the job of two. Especially with that piezo volume control knob, you can go from electric to acoustic in the same song by just rolling off the volume. As you’ll hear in the UG shot, it has a crystal clean clear tone with that piezo that should leave little doubt about the utility of this guitar. Click the instagram video below for a sound demo!
The neck on this SE Hollowbody II Piezo model is thick but extremely comfortable. Maybe it felt bigger because I reviewed the Sabre’s ultra-slim neck at the same time, but I personally much preferred the feel of this PRS. The guitar had an amazing, worn-in feel, without any signs of distress or wear on the neck. The tuning stability was also excellent, even without locking tuners. The PRS SE Hollowbody II Piezo is no doubt a player’s guitar, and would make an excellent live instrument thanks to the comfort, versatility, and tuning stability.
Finish & Construction 8.5
The Peacock Blue Burst finish was gorgeous, and I was incredibly impressed when I opened the case, not knowing what I was being sent on loan. I noticed a few, very small spots in the finish around the f-holes, but couldn’t find any other flaw on this guitar. The feel, tuning stability, and sound quality was nuts, it’s really a very well made guitar top to bottom. One of the things that most impressed me most about this SE Hollowbody II Piezo was just how nice it felt to play. It is a guitar that in a lot of ways is better than the sum of all parts, what I mean is that if you didn’t look at the price tag, you might confuse this for a USA-made custom shop PRS.
While I think some may be correct in pointing out that $1500+ is a lot for a foreign made guitar, this PRS simply has the quality of a USA-made guitar. It’s an amazing guitar that’s very versatile, especially if you’re the type of player who uses both acoustic and electric tones live. As someone who prefers Strats and Teles, the feel and sound that came out of this PRS had me convinced this could have been my new main guitar. While Gibson/Fender may always have the legacy, there is no doubt that PRS is at the forefront of improving guitar engineering and design. This SE Hollowbody II Piezo is a testament to that idea, and I think it is genuinely worth every penny.
Good for:Gigging Players Who Use Both Electric and Acoustic Guitars, ES-335 Fans, Classic Rock, Pop
When it comes to double cut aways with P90s it is pretty easy to win me over. Even so, I think Knaggs really got me with this one. Their newest release, the Keya J, came to me in their TV Yellow Gloss Relic finish and boy is this thing relic’d. Aside from the relic job, the other really note-able trait has to be their “Influence 2 in 1” bridge and string holder. While I was more than thrilled with the simple wrap around bridge on the Kenai J, they may be onto something with this piece of hardware.
Featuring a resonant slab of Mahogany for the body, the Keya J sports a Rosewood fretboard atop the Mahogany neck. 22 medium frets with dot inlays adorn the 24.75″ scale length guitar with Vintage Kluson tuners that even look worn in. A single dog ear P90 pickup provides all the tone you could want while being controlled by master volume and tone knobs. Much like its single cut sibling, a rather unique and eye pleasing pickguard wraps up the spec sheet here.
While it clearly isn’t the most versatile or featured packed guitar, this Keya J has the sweetest sounding pickup of anything I’ve played this year. It beats out the Silver Sky, the Sabre and Majesty, and everything else. It is honestly just the best sounding guitar to my ear specifically. Well dialed-in control knobs also do make this guitar a bit more versatile than you’d expect, especially if you move your picking position up and down the body of the guitar. For the price, there should be no surprise, but this guitar is crazy resonant and sounds absurdly good unplugged, just strumming chords. The unique bridge also adds quite a bit more sustain than I anticipated, especially without the output of a humbucker. I mean, I’m certainly biased because I love Les Paul Juniors, but this is by far the best one I’ve ever played from any brand. The dog ear sits perfectly between a single coil and humbucker, with a bit more bite and output, but with some surprising clarity and snap.
Two words, “broken in”. Knaggs’ Keya J is wonderfully relic’d to the point that it isn’t just for looks, it is for feel. This guitar just sits so nicely in your hands and feels like something that has been played for years, without taking any real damage. I think skeptics and anti-relic players will say this is just a fad or marketing ploy, but it feels awesome to pick this up and feel like I’ve owned it for 20 years. The tuning stability was also great, feeling a bit better than your average LP-style guitar, which are famous for some tuning problems. The neck also feels a bit slimmer than expected, much like the Kenai J, which is a plus in my book as I think it opens up the guitar to a wider variety of players, not just baseball bat neck fans.
Finish & Construction: 10
I know the relic’d look is a pretty contentious topic but I loved it. It looks and feels broken in, all under a solid gloss finish and clear coat. To be sure they didn’t miss any spots I did a solid wipe down of the body and neck and found zero real chips or scratches. All the apparent relic spots are actually covered in a smooth gloss like I said. The single dog ear P90 was perfectly installed and adjusted under the strings too. This Keya J was a perfect example of the attention to detail you get from these smaller, boutique builders. Whether you think it is worth it or not, that is what that extra cost gets you, a perfectly built guitar. TV Yellow is a pretty iconic Les Paul DC Junior finish, and even this faded version perfectly captures the feeling and vibe of my dream guitar. Plus, I’m really into the exaggerated horns that give this guitar a DC Junior vibe without making it just another copy of the iconic guitar. It feels both familiar and not, and that works for me.
As much as I personally love this guitar, I still to this day, find it ironic when Les Paul Junior-style guitars are expensive. This guitar is worth every penny, which is why I still am giving it a high value score, but most of that price and value is derived from the looks, craftsmanship, and USA origins. Sonically, the guitar is phenomenal, but to say you get more tone for the $3k price tag is a bit egregious. Simple electronics mean you’re not paying for fancy features or versatile wiring and in true punk spirit, I think you get 75% or more of this amazing tone at a cheaper price. At the end of the day this guitar is worth the price, but it isn’t one of those guitars that will make you say “how is this only x amount of dollars?”. Overall however, Knaggs killed it with the Keya J and this guitar will absolutely be mine in the future no matter how much it costs me.
Good for: Garage Rock, Punk Rock, Johnny Thunders/Mick Jones Fans, Gigging Musicians, Players Looking For Better Engineered Les Paul
A few notes of interest for players and fans of some well known brands!
D’Angelico Acquires Supro Guitars & Amps and Pigtronix Effects
I have to admit I didn’t see this coming or hear anyone talking about this until today. D’Angelico released this press release today announcing the acquisition of the Long Island, NY based brands Supro and Pigtronix, formerly run by Absara Audio. For the time being, Supro and Pigtronix will continue to produce their own line of products, despite this buyout apparently being planned prior to the Covid pandemic. Interestingly, Supro showed up at NAMM 2020 and released new guitar models, which was likely while this was coming together, so that should bode well for modern day Supro fans. D’Angelico did state that they would also be collaborating on future products.
Lastly, the brands will exist in a transitional period until a large restructuring plan is enacted in 2021, which could bring sweeping changes or potentially re-branding for some of these products?
On a personal note, Absara Audio has not exactly been the most active communicator in recent years and Supro guitars have continuously (almost yearly) been part of huge blow out sales for major retailers. Could this have been a sign of troubling times? Ehh that could be a stretch, but they certainly had some unique quirks that I noticed. Hey, at least D’Angelico returns my emails!
Peavey Electronics To Stop Making Guitars
People keep telling me that this is a known piece of news but as of this Spring, I had communicated with a PR rep about getting a guitar to review when their replenished stock arrived at the warehouse. New stock doesn’t sound like they stopped that long ago for it to be widespread news. Either way, they’ve been incredibly silent and were noticeably quiet at NAMM aside from an artist meetup. While I can confirm they have moved their focus to non-guitar avenues, I personally (just an opinion) have been really suspicious about their state of business for the better part of two years. They’re an exceptional company with a long history great products so I’m hoping this transition leads to a fruitful future for them!
Gibson Poised For A Fender-like Expansion?
More a proposition than straight news but something seems to be brewing at Gibson. The success of Gibson TV and the virtual guitar tech program has Gibson moving ever closer to a Fender Play-like state of guitar lifestyle existence. Fender has been lauded for using their affordable guitar lines and lesson website to leverage the beginner guitar market in their favor. Young players can now turn to Fender for content like lessons, artist interviews, gear demos, and more in addition to just purchasing gear. I believe Gibson is gearing up to follow this approach with their own touch of ingenuity. Perhaps a lesson site or app?
Also consider their recent re-investment in Kramer, who they are reportedly planning to push as another lifestyle brand. Pair that with the expansion of their Epiphone line and suddenly you can see how they would building up to a sort of re-birth of their image. Something that is both exciting and much needed after some major PR flops. And hey, while we’re making comparisons, it makes sense for Gibson to have a shred-ready line like Kramer to compete with Fender’s Charvel and Jackson products.
More Companies Moving Towards “Silent Production & Operation”
When a company doesn’t respond to my emails or calls, I’m not offended nor do I think that it indicates the company isn’t actively promoting their products. But every now and then, continued inaction across major publications, YouTube, Instagram, and magazines makes me think I’m not the only one stuck in their inbox.
More and more we’re seeing small to mid-size companies, generally making guitars overseas, move into “silent production”. “Silent production” essentially means they product guitars en masse overseas, sell them to dealers in tightly regulated contracts, and produce no content of their own. This means they produce no in house demos, don’t review units sent out to YouTubers for demos, and are basically quiet on social media aside from posting occasional stock photos.
Now this isn’t a judgement, just an observation. These companies may be incredibly successful and reserve the right to operate as they wish, I just think it is interesting that more and more companies are shifting to this practice. Noticeably Silvertone Guitars (owned by Samick), Hamer Guitars (owned by KMC Music), and a plethora of budget makers (SX, Austin, Dillon, Agile) have enacted this practice.
For overseas-based companies this does make sense. They may not want to spend the money to put into artist relations, PR, marketing, etc…but I’m curious if this will help or hurt them long term. YouTubers (which I am not) are becoming one of the major drivers of the guitar market, showing off cool instruments, no models, and honestly driving marketplaces. As guitar prices continue to rise, will these brands all by the wayside? It seems Hamer may already have despite boasting new models on their rarely updated website….
I’ve reviewed guitars spanning the entire price spectrum, but which would I take on stage in 2020?
Something that I think gets lost in the shuffle of guitar reviews is how gig-worthy instruments are. Often times I (and other gear fans) are drawn to praise studio ready guitars or instruments that make us want to write a song. Even so, while I view guitars as tools not artwork, I’m still sometimes so hesitant to look at some gorgeous, $4000+ guitar and say “wow, I’d love to play a gig with this!”.
The truth is, I love cheap gear, and I loved having really reliable but affordable stuff to play when I was younger and gigging more. With that note of bias out of the way, I thought it would be fun to look at everything I reviewed in 2020 and pick the guitar I would take up on stage if I had a gig to play tonight.
I’ll post a list of every guitar I’ve reviewed to date at the bottom of the article so you can yell about how I made the wrong choice too!
Not the most expensive or highly rated guitar of 2020 but honestly, I can’t put it down. It’s not perfect and certainly no 10/10, but the neck is so comfortable to me as an avid Fender player and fan. I’m also a huge fan of how hot the pickups are, making it a perfect guitar for live garage rock, punk rock, or anything really in the rock world. The coil split functionality makes it even more versatile. I feel like it also cuts out so much of the added gain provided from the hot wound pickups. Fender’s Lead III could easily go from Young The Giant atmospherics to SWMRS punk snarl with ease through my rig, which is why I’m such a fan. But most of all, it’s pretty cheap, which makes me feel 100 times better about damaging it, or modding it, or replacing it if something were to happen. I’m not sure I’ll ever be in a financial place where I can take the amazing John Petrucci Majesty in Purple Nebula (almost $5k) out and risk losing it, getting it stolen, or smashing it up.
I’m a sucker for Mexican Fenders and honestly this one is just another in a long line of MIM guitars that I will own and use. Ever since I recorded the UG shot of this guitar, I just haven’t haven’t looked back and have made it a staple of my rig. Fender made a great looking, great sounding, and comfortable guitar for like $600 here, and that’s right up my wheelhouse.
This was my first time ever picking up a Knaggs guitar and I am so glad they sent me a Junior-style one. My love all of things flat top Les Paul are well known and this Kenai J didn’t disappoint. The specific model I was sent features a semi-gloss finish in the Ferrari Red color. A set-in neck holds the 24.75″ scale length guitar to 22 medium frets, Mahogany body and neck, and a Rosewood fretboard. A wrap around bridge (huge personal favorite of mine) holds the strings on one end while solid Vintage Kluson tuners handle the rest.
The Kenai J also features a bone nut, which was well cut, and fairly simple electronics. One master volume, one master tone, and a 3-way switchable configuration control the dual humbucking pickups that came in this lovely Kenai J. The guitar also arrived with a heavy duty hard case, unique pickguard design, and dot inlays.
I have to say, the simple appearance of the Kenai J is very misleading as I found a wealth of great sounds within. First off, this guitar does something that I specifically always lose my mind over. The neck pickup doesn’t get muddy, like at all. It’s crystal clear until you pretty much roll all the tone off on your guitar and amp. I love that and it gives Knaggs’ Kenai J a ton of versatile lead tones that go from John Mayer to Melanie Faye and then to bare bone garage rock. It never loses any of that smooth, buttery LP-neck pickup tone that we all know and love, but it does it with just a little bit of the balls of an archtop missing. Despite that, I actually feel it serves the guitar well, and gives it a bit more chime than power.
The bridge tone is certainly more familiar, with solid output and tons of crunch. This Kenai J nicely pushed my Vox tube amp into vintage rock crunch, more British invasion than American. Despite its boutique price tag and origins, this really is a stunning garage rock or punk rock guitar through and through. It is lightweight, straightforward, surprisingly versatile tone wise, and feels awesome to hit a down stroke on. Knaggs impressed me more than I thought with this one, as I figured it would be kind of a more boring LP-derivative than it ended up being.
Man, this thing really didn’t disappoint here either. Knaggs’ Kenai J has some of the best tuning stability of any LP-style guitar I’ve played. Usually the non-straight string angle of the headstock leads to tuning issues on even the most expensive guitars. This thing was tuned up once when I got it and never looked back. Maybe I just got lucky? I don’t know, but the tuning stability was awesome.
On the neck feel and action side of things it was also a complete joy to play. The medium frets were incredibly well done and the action and neck finish were great. None of that sticky feeling that sometimes pops up on guitars that have complete neck to body finish like this Kenai J does. The frets were easy to access, comfortable, and the neck shape sat really close to a classic LP, just a bit thinner which I prefer anyways.
Finish & Construction: 9
Not any different from the other sections but the finish and construction was seemingly up to the standard the price sets. The Ferrari Red finish came out spotless. It has an almost matte-like final appearance which fits well with the stripped down, sweaty stage ready vibe of LP Junior type guitars. It simultaneously feels both thin and really strong. The hardware and build quality is perfect as far as I can see, no extraneous noise, buzz, or loose sockets. It also comes with a very impressive hard case that should make this guitar easy to safely transport. With such a stripped down guitar, I always feel glad to know there is less room for things to go wrong or break as well.
With value, context is everything. You’re certainly getting everything that you pay for with the Knaggs Kenai J. That’s why it is getting a relatively strong score from me here. However, for almost $3,000, you have to be okay spending that money for build quality and slightly unique design instead of features. Personally, I just feel there are so many other great LP-junior influenced guitars out there for below $3k. But this Kenai J does have some added value that others don’t. First off, it’s a USA-made product from a smaller company, something all of us are usually happy to support. Secondly, it isn’t just another LP copy. It really has some of that classic Knaggs’ design and magic that makes the brand so popular.
Good for:Garage Rock, Punk Rock, Fans of Stripped Down Guitars, Gigging Musicians, Classic Rock & Blues
Lead guitarist Sebastien Betley and bassist Matt Cohen sit down with Guitarsforidiots.com to talk gear and new music
One of the best parts of my job is getting to sit down with musicians who actually put all this gear to work. Whether they are in the studio, touring the world, or a ghost writer, they often understand the most important feature of gear. Does it inspire you to create music?
Fortunately, LA-based New Language sat down with me to discuss the gear, influences, and thoughts behind their newest work “EP1_2020”, a 3 song EP that packs plenty of diverse tones and sounds with a bit of a hardcore edge.
“EP1_2020” starts off with the radio ready “No Time” before moving on to my favorite track “PARANOID”. It ends with another hit single in waiting “Can’t Explain”, showcasing the bands mix of heavy music influences with more modern, pop songwriting.
Interview with Sebastien (guitar) and Matt (bass) below!
The tone on all the songs and the approach seems very different, they’ll be layers of clean textural guitar than a lead guitar. Next comes a big crushing riff. So did you approach this with multiple instruments and amps and pedals? Or do you just have one go-to for guitar and bass?
Sebastien: From a guitar perspective, it’s kind of one thing. Tyler, Matt and I, through recording the album, we kind of honed in our thing and made it fairly simple. Marshall amp, really fucking loud, with a Jazzmaster or offset-style guitar with single coils. Make sure to smack the shit out of it.
Sometimes, the guitar tones are pretty, and when you compare it to other heavy music overall, it’s usually not as saturated. It’s honestly because a lot of the record kind of came from us thinking about a funk approach. We’re all really into old school Earth Wind and Fire, James Brown, Prince… Those were the records we were kind of listening to when we started the process of unfurling what this next phase was gonna be.
Those early recordings, a lot of the sessions and the writing was all with the intention of “let’s just figure it out and get it out and not overthink it”.
Matt: The approach to writing this record, we sat down about a year and a half ago, we were all inspired by the funk vibe. So, we’re like, how do we take what New Language is and does, and blend it with these other influences that we have so much fun experiencing ourselves. Our singer Tyler, he produced this effort and he’s our rhythm guy. Sebastien’s the lead guitar guy. Tyler’s a drummer and rhythm guitar player himself so a lot of the foundation tends to be rhythm-focused and then Sebastien sprinkles all of his pretty stuff on top.
The tone on “House of Cards”, I think I recall as a happy accident (could have been intentional by Ty), where we blended these boxy DI-sounds with that low end bass to create such a unique sound. To me it sounds boxy, it was this unique blend of this crank that [Sebastian] was talking about with this unique sound as a layer underneath it.
For my gear, for the most part I used my Music Man Stingray on most and then on “PARANOID” I used a Fender P-bass.
That’s interesting that you bring up that “boxy” approach or sound because with the song “PARANOID”, I feel like it did that sort of Vampire Weekend “Harmony Hall” thing where you mix these really clear sounds with really dirty, muffled layers underneath. When you’re talking about that layering, is that something that came out naturally from jamming together?
Sebastien: I think for us the songwriting went in a couple different stages. What was really important to us was keeping the spirit of what New Language “is” central to our sound. We would try to, usually in the room with Tyler on drums, write a song soup to nuts in that format. And that would almost always be the intention of early sessions, let’s bang out a song. Here’s a riff, here’s another part, here’s a third part, that’s like a loose thing.
And then I think a lot of the interesting production elements kinda came from us taking some time to revisit those songs in a few different ways. We fully demoed everything out, did the drums in our rehearsal space, and did one layer of guitars. Then we did a lot of replacing along the way. So, if something magic happened (we kept a lot of that stuff too!) we’d be able to pick and choose along the way. I mean you know as a guitar player, we’re all really ADD about stuff. One riff will be happening and you’re like “oh what if I do this, what if I do that…”.
Matt: Some of the dynamics you hear in that song (PARANOID), on our first album you’ll hear there are some deep cuts where we have some more of those super mellow vibes. They’re probably our lowest listened to on Spotify but I’m super proud of them because we’ll always have them there to like, reference back to. There are some more spacey, ethereal type of moments, we were doing it like 4 years ago. We’ve all been playing together for so long and through that comes different influences through the last decade that we’ve all known each other.
Some of that more ethereal stuff we’re inspired by more modern bands like FOALS but throwing it back to like 2010-11 years, it was tons of Mutemath and Minus The Bear and Grizzly Bear, etc. The verse of PARANOID is probably one of my favorite parts. It’s simple. The guitar is shimmery smooth on top, and then it’s this driving rhythm section and then it explodes into New Language.
It seems like it’s kind of your style to mix these two ends of the modern rock spectrum where you’re not all the way towards the metal side. But also not the other way towards the lighter, indie side like flor or The 1975. Do you always hope to kind of transverse that width of the genre?
Sebastien: Totally, absolutely, it’s been a bit of struggle. There is always this discussion of are we this or are we this. From a branding perspective, usually you don’t want to be in-between things. But I think it is kind of inescapable because there is just something that makes us want to jump up and down in those more alternative-leaning tracks.
That type of sound has always been a part of what we do, but we also come from the perspective of wanting to have singles and live shows that are just 30 minutes of just balls to the wall. That’s something that’s really important to us too, having that live experience that is like “holy shit what did I just see”. That was part of the intention of putting PARANOID on this EP, part of what you miss if you only do EPs or singles is you miss those deep cuts where you say I’m gonna try something interesting here.
Matt: I think that placing it right between two more single-style songs was intentional. We love PARANOID. It’s a journey of a song, it’s a little longer, so we sandwiched it between the others. We wrote these songs with the intention of an album.
When we were doing the single releases, and just from like a band feeling, we wanted a project, a piece of work that all went together. We choose to do these EPs and I’ve been seeing more people do this, I know Haley Williams just did it, she released a couple of EPs and smooshed them together and called it an album. That wasn’t our intention, but people listen to music differently than they did 2 years ago or 1 year ago.
Switching back to gear for a minute, does your live set up change from this studio set up you described earlier?
Sebastien: There’s not a lot of differences, I grew up playing in heavy bands and was very much into like tune my guitar down and play into a Peavey 6505, crank it up, heavy tones. Then I went to music school and got really into pedals and shit and went down that rabbit hole. And for the past couple years I’ve been slowly retreating back from it.
As far as live gear, I have one pedal board that has like 8 different pedals on it. A Xotic RC Booster, an AnalogMan Prince of Tone, a Menatone Howie, an H9, a Digitech Whammy, then a Strymon Timeline. But between those things, the H9 does crazy studio tricks, but as far as set up wise, live and studio are it’s pretty much the same thing.
Matt: I have no idea why I have just as many pedals as Sebastien as a bass player (laughing). I essentially have 4 pedals that all do the same thing just a little differently. It’s the exact same. I track with my exact same pedal board that I play with live.
My handy pedal, my go-to, probably since I was like 14 years old is just the Boss Bass Overdrive, the ODB-3, the yellow one. We both played in metal bands and metal core bands growing up, I got that pedal probably in 8th grade. I have a bass distortion pedal, I recently got a chorus, I throw in an octave every once in a while, and then we all use this Digitech drop pedal that we use mostly for octaves but also for live.
Lastly, what are you guys tuning to and what are your ride or die guitars that you rely on?
Sebastien: For the record we tune down because I get all nerdy about like overtones and all that shit. It’s usually Drop D. This one is a J Mascis, it’s a Squier actually, I’ve always loved getting a bargain guitar that plays nice. My first guitar was like a $200 Strat copy. I just went in and put in Sperzel locking tuners on the top, Seymour Duncan Antiquities, did the full Mastery bridge and tremolo upgrade and now it’s this really cool kind of custom style guitar. It started from that $400 Squier thing.
Matt: The honest answer is all my stuff is from middle school and high school, it’s this old Music Man Sub, I have the Stingray too. But back in 2005 when I got it, it was the one right below the Stingray. I’ve had this since my high school band, it’s primarily this one then I do have a proper Music Man Stingray and then our friend Greg really opened my world to the whole pedal thing and said “here take my bass” so that’s where the P Bass came in.
Check out my UG shot for a quick demo of the TE-90QM HH!
Overview and Final Score: 6.3
For a guitar that’s under $200, the TE-QM90 HH’s features are actually too good to believe. I mean it looks great, plays even better, it has it all. First off, the chambered mahogany body is paired with a flame maple top and two f-holes. I can’t believe this body isn’t made of basswood, that’s like cheap guitar manufacturing 101. A Roseacer fretboard with mother of peal inlays and 22 frets sits on top of a Maple, bolt-on neck. Seriously, this thing should already sound closer to a top shelf Squier or MIM Fender in price than it is…
2 Roswell HAF Alnico-5 pickups, that are hotter than your average cheap humbucker, are controlled by a volume and tone knob as well as a 3-way selector switch. The DLX chrome hard tail bridge and die-cast tuners keeps tuning stable while the transparent blue color really shines through high gloss finish. I mean, you even get nice cream binding, I love this thing!
Objectively, the Harley Benton TE-90QM HH edition doesn’t sound bad, it just is unremarkably average in humbucker tones. The highs can get a little too trebly if you don’t roll off tone and the lows can get really muddy, especially on the neck pickup. However, once properly dialed into your rig, the TE-90QM HH is a completely respectable semi-hollow Tele. The pickups are a bit more modern voiced than your average HH Tele, which are usually vintage influenced. Volume and tone controls were surprisingly responsive, with good sweep, which really made dialing in better tones a far easier task than I first expected.
To be honest, this is really an excellent beginner or new player guitar. I could genuinely see myself playing this at open mic nights when I was 16 and using it to great success. It’s affordable, fairly versatile, and it doesn’t sound “bad”.
While it took a bit of time, once I got the treble in line, the TE-90QM HH proved to go from rock to blues to shoegaze with a decent amount of ease. The pickups are a bit hot, making this a solid option for some heavier genres as well. This guitar is an excellent candidate for some new pickups or electrical mods, but certainly shouldn’t be looked down on as it isn’t a poor sounding guitar, just fairly unremarkable.
I was very pleasantly surprised at the feel of Harley Benton’s TE-90QM HH. Only rough fret edges really stuck out to me as a point where they could have improved. The overall neck shape was pleasant and I was surprised at how nice the strings are that came on this and the DC Junior that also came from Harley Benton. There is also minimal fret buzz and while the frets aren’t the highest quality I’ve played, there is no complaints about the fretboard aside from the edge issue. The tuning stability also gets a huge thumbs up from me, I think Harley Benton really killed it when it comes to some of the essential features like neck feel and tuning. Overall, these feelings make me feel comfortable recommending this as a beginner guitar, because students likely won’t get frustrated by the feel or tuning.
Finish & Construction: 6.5
The TE-90QM is more of a mixed bag when it comes to build quality but let me start with this. There are no major build or quality control issues with this guitar. Nothing that would warrant major concern or interfere with your playing. There are some minor cosmetic issues that aren’t a huge deal however. Some tooling or pencil marks appeared on the side of the neck and headstock, but the Flame Maple top came out flawless! The binding showed no tooling marks or signs of poor cutting, and the Maple neck had a smooth but light finish. All the hardware was in snug and the guitar has an overwhelming feel of solid reliability. Harley Benton’s are certainly fit for gigging musicians if you like the tone.
Harley Benton did a solid job with this one, especially when you factor in the price of $170-180 (changes with Euro conversion). It feels great, stays in tune, and the sounds are not far off from the affordable but reliable humbuckers you’d find in any Epiphone or Squier. It gets some extra points because in my eyes, there isn’t anything that plays or looks this good out there for under $200. While I’m a huge fan of Squier’s thinline Tele’s, this has a distinctly modern edge with upgraded looks. If you want something more vintage, you can certainly look elsewhere. I have to emphasize, this is a solid beginner option thanks to the comfort and reliability, but more tone savvy pros may want to install some new pickups. I’m very intrigued by the partscaster potential here, maybe some new humbuckers and a coil split? It’s a really solid guitar that is close to being rated much higher!
Good for: Beginners, Players Looking For A Modern Thinline, Higher Gain Players, Telecaster Fans, DIY Modders
Check out my UG “shot” where I share some sounds and thoughts on the Jupiter!
Another huge thanks to Ben and Bandlab Technologies, their support by loaning these guitars for review is what keeps this site going!
Overview & Final Score: 8.6
Another popular model from Harmony Guitars, the Jupiter is slightly reminiscent of their vintage Stratotone guitar. This flat top, Les Paul shaped guitar has recently been re-popularized by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Like their other models, the Jupiter features a Mahogany body with a Nitro finish. A Mahogany neck and Ebony fretboard holds 22 medium-jumbo frets, a 25″ scale length, and C-shaped profile, just like their Rebel guitar.
Those same gold foil humbuckers are also loaded onto this equally simple electric guitar. The cupcake knobs, one for volume and one for tone, contrast the dark body finish nicely. The Jupiter also features their half-bridge system, with adjustable saddles. Basically, it looks like a Tele bridge cut in half, giving it both a familiar and unique look. More locking tuners, dot inlays, and plenty of vintage vibes round out the premium features on this USA-made LP.
To be honest, the Jupiter has the same electronics as the Harmony Rebel and basically sounds the same. I’m sure the most fine tuned ear could argue that the single cut away shape makes a difference. But really, they are the same.
The good news? Harmony’s Jupiter sounds killer, just like the Rebel. I love the gold foil humbuckers, they’re clear, snappy, and sound great with overdrive. The Jupiter pushed my Vox AC15 into a nice crunch, though nothing as crazy as a PAF-style humbucker would. Harmony’s Jupiter has that distinct garage rock sound, and could easily find its way into the hands of the next alt-rock guitar hero. Layers of fuzz only make the Jupiter more fun, and this is a guitar I’d love to take on stage if I was a player who relied on fuzzed out tones often.
When played clean, the Jupiter easily jumps between U2-like arpeggios and Beatles-style jangle. Chords ring out clear and there is a decent amount of sustain, though not nearly as much as your typical archtop-LP style guitar.
I found the fret work, action, and tuning stability all well above average on this Jupiter. The locking tuners have been consistently great across all three Harmony guitars that I have reviewed here. The C-shaped neck is welcoming and the 25″ scale length sits comfortably between Fender and Gibson, much like a PRS. Personally, this guitar didn’t feel quite as fast up and down the neck as their Juno model, though I’m not sure there is any spec’d difference. Perhaps it was just the way the larger body sits. Though I’m sure the different, less-exaggerated lower horn cut contributed to that. Upper fret access isn’t an issue, it’s just not as easy as on the Juno.
Finish & Construction: 9
No scratches, dents, or any sign of defect on the lovely nitrocellulose finish. The champagne finish will certainly draw some eyes, and this one seemed to have more of a sparkle than the previous version I saw. The pickups were well adjusted, the cupcake knobs look awesome, I’m a big fan of the Jupiter. The guitar also comes with a sturdy MONO case that makes it a lot easier to take this guitar on the road to practice or gig. Also, the Jupiter is insanely comfortable and lightweight, making it a joy to play standing up or sitting down.
This guitar and the Harmony Jupiter are really just two sides of the same coin. Not that that’s a bad thing, I thoroughly was impressed with both guitars! It’s just up to if you prefer the double cut or single cut variety. But once again, the Jupiter is a really solid option and good value for a USA-made guitar. Despite the more affordable price for a domestic guitar, there are no clear signs of any shortcuts or quality control issues. Plus, you get a unique, vibe-heavy guitar. That’s right, I said vibe-heavy. Harmony’s Jupiter just looks like it should be kicking out fuzzy garage rock riffs or precise finger picked clean lead lines.
Good for: Garage Rock, Punk Rock, Indie/Alt Rock, LP Junior Fans, Domestic Guitar Fans, Hipsters Looking To Vibe