Friday, September 9, 2011

Seagull S6 - Your First Guitar

“If I was just starting to learn guitar, what instrument should I buy?” I am asked that question from time to time. My response is always the Seagull S6.

When I started to play guitar, my Dad bought a Harmony Patrician from Will’s Pawn Shop for $20 USD. It came with heavy gauge Black Diamond strings, which were the only strings Will sold. Those strings were at least a half inch above the neck at the twelfth fret. It was difficult to play. The cheap open gear tuners were hard to turn and one of the tuning posts bent to the side. It was a better instrument than the ones some of my friends owned. At least it was made of solid wood.

The new beginner guitars at the time were made of birch and had ladder bracing. The necks were thick. The tuners were not much better than my Patrician. The strings were just about as high off the neck. A dull finish came painted on to the guitars top. The pickguard was just a painting of a pickguard.

Guitar technology has come a long way. CNC machines turn out exacting measurements on just about any instrument. Heavy strings are still available, but most of us choose light or medium gauge. However, some parts of a guitar differentiate a good guitar from a bad guitar.

Many beginner models now come with a solid top or soundboard instead of a laminated top. However, even though the top is solid, there are other considerations. Many instruments are made of high-pressure laminate; wood shavings and dust that have been mixed with a bonding agent and pressed together, with a veneer covering to make a board.

Even Martin uses this technique on their DX series of guitars. Low priced instruments use this process on guitar soundboards. Some guitars may come with solid spruce tops, but the high gloss polyester finish erodes the sound.

What makes the Seagull S6 unique?  For one thing, the top is solid and made of book matched cedar. Cedar is a material used on guitar soundboards for centuries. Most Flamenco guitars come with cedar tops.

The top is also book matched. A book matched top is made by sawing a plank of wood in half then reattaching the halves together. This enhances and evens out the grain of the wood. As the guitar gets older and is played, the vibrations produced on a solid guitar soundboard become more robust. This is the aging process.

Another unique factor on the S6 is the top is made in such a way that the top slightly arches around the bridge area. Seagull calls this “the compound curve.” When it comes to producing sound vibrations on a guitar, the area around the bridge is the most active. Therefore, the arching emphasizes the vibrations and makes the sound more dynamic.
Although the Seagull S6 utilizes laminate for its sides and back, but not made from high-pressure wood material. Seagull uses wild cherry wood sawn into three thin strips glued together with the center strips grain going the opposite way from the top and bottom strip.

Though solid wood is preferable, this process gives added strength to the body.

The Seagull’s neck is made of silver leaf maple wood that is readily available. The feel of the neck may be a little bigger than on other guitars; however, the instrument is very playable and the slight bulk of the neck enhances the sound. The fretboard is made of Indian rosewood.

The neck is attaches to the guitar by two wooden dowels that come through the guitars heel and glued into the inner neck block. This eliminates glue between the heel and body, thus allowing a continuous wood-to-wood fit.

The headstock is unique in a couple of ways. The most obvious is the diamond shape taper. The purpose of this shape is to allow the strings to be pulled straight back instead of pulling to the side. This accomplishes two things. The string does not bind up at the nut, which will adversely affect tuning and the straight pull minimizes fatigue on the neck.

The other unique factor on the S6’s headstock is the way it attaches to the neck. The process is known as the reverse headstock. The neck starts out as a straight piece of lumber. Wood is sawn at a 45-degree angle at the top of the neck. The top piece is turned upside down, so the grain runs in the opposite direction and re-glued to the neck. Older guitars were made using this process.

High quality guitars costing four times as much as the Seagull utilize this technique.

A truss rod placed in the guitars neck is accessible for adjustment through the soundhole.

The last factor affecting the neck of the S6 is the pitch of the neck. An improper angle will cause the sound to be too thin or too muddy. Seagull utilizes a machine that adjusts the neck pitch perfectly.

The S6 is custom polished instead of spraying with a thick coat of polyester. The coat applied is similar to the French polish used on violins and some guitars. This method does not dampen the sound emanating from the guitars top.

Perhaps the most desirable factor of a Seagull S6 is the price. This instrument sells for less than $400 USD. You may even find a used S6 for half of that price.

A few comparable instruments to the Seagull are the Epiphone Masterbuilt line and the Taylor Big Baby. The Masterbuilt Epiphones are excellent guitars that are made entirely of solid wood. However most sell for at least $100 USD more than the Seagull S6.

The Taylor Big Baby is a large version of Taylor’s travel guitar. The top is solid spruce, but the back and sides are laminate. The neck screws into the neck block with two screws exposed at the 16th fret. There is no neck heel. The Big Baby is only slightly smaller than a full size guitar. It has a 15/16th scale. Despite these drawbacks, the Big Baby has a great sound and the factory set up is great. This instrument sells for about $50 more than the Seagull, but it does come with a gig bag.

Sanding a saddle
One thing about the Seagull S6 you need to know is the action is set a little higher than I prefer. This is remedied by removing the bridge saddle and sanding down the underside slightly. There are instructions on the internet for this process.

The saddle and nut are made of a synthetic material called Tusq. This is much better than the plastic used on most guitars in this price range.

A benefit of Tusq is that it is very easy to work with and comparable to bone. You can also have the music stores repair department do this for you.

I would recommend before removing the saddle, place a mark on the lower side. The saddle is compensated. If you put it in backwards, you will not get the guitar in tune.

The S6 can be ordered with the Godin Quantum Electronic system. This raises the price of the guitar by around $100.

Seagull guitars are made in La Patrie, Quebec Canada and are owned by Robert Godin. Mr. Godin produces several other brands including Godin guitars (mostly electric instruments), Simon and Patrick guitars (named after his sons), La Patrie classical guitars, Norman guitars, and Arts, and Lutherie guitars (his budget line).

Looking at the inner sticker of a Seagull, you may note that it says "handmade."  To some extent, this is true. Guitars are labour intensive and a lot of the work involves an individual working by hand to make the instrument. Most guitar manufacturers work this same way.

I do not want to diminish the quality of work these folks do. A truly handmade instrument by a luthier is something special, made by one individual, and is going to set you back a lot of money.

Perhaps the ultimate aspect that sets the S6 apart from other guitars, even those that are more expensive, is the Seagull's sound. The Seagull S6 has a boomy, but crisp tonal quality. It is a most excellent instrument for strumming or fingerpicking.

La Patrie is a small community in eastern Quebec. Godin employs almost half of the population.

Seagull guitars are wonderful instruments. I own a Seagull Grand, which is a parlor-sized guitar. I love the tone it produces. As I have said before, as these guitars get older, they sound better.

The S6 is the first guitar that Seagull produced back in 1982. It is not just an excellent instrument, but a great value as well.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Prince's Guitars

Quite a few years ago, in the Cincinnati, Ohio area, there was a department store called Swallens. This company specialized mainly in furniture, appliances, and electronics.

In the late 1970’s Swallens started offering a few musical instruments, mainly Gretsch guitars, for sale. This may have been because Cincinnati was home to the Baldwin Piano Company, which at the time owned the Gretsch Company.

I will also mention that Duke Kramer, who was running Baldwin’s guitar division, made his home in Cincinnati. Mr. Kramer had been Gretsch number one salesman.

Duke Kramer of Gretsch

Swallens was the first place I had encountered a Gretsch White Falcon. In addition to the Gretsch line, they also stocked a few brands made in Asia.

One of the guitars was a distinctive Telecaster style instrument that had an ash body surrounded by a dark tortoise-shell binding on its top and bottom. The plastic pickguard appeared to be tortoise-shell. There was also a thin strip of binding material down the center of the body, from the end of the bridge to the rear of the guitar. The headstock was very similar to that of a Fender Telecaster, except for the brand, which said Hohner.

This guitar was made by a Japanese factory called Moridaira that was founded in 1967 by Toshio "Mori" Moridaira. This company produced some high quality reproduction guitars to by "badged" by other companies. In this case it was Hohner. This Tele copy was originally known as a H.S. Anderson Mad Cat.

The other feature distinguishing this instrument from a genuine Fender was its bridge. Instead of the typical Telecaster bridge, this guitar had a bridge similar to that found on a hard-tail Stratocaster. Surrounding the bridge was an oval of plastic that matched the pickguard. It was a very distinctive look.

Most of us know that Hohner is a German company well known for their excellent harmonicas, accordions, and reed based instruments.

During the 1960’s Hohner branched out into manufacturing the Pianet electric piano and the Clavinet, which was an electric version of the 17th century instrument called the clavichord, which simply described is a smaller version of a harpsichord. In the 1970’s, I was unaware they were manufacturing guitars.

Hohner, founded in 1857 by Matthias Hohner, became the world’s largest producer of harmonicas. The company continued under his family heirs through the 1965. By the 1970’s the company branched out into electric instruments.

It was in the early 1980’s when Hohner joined forces with the Sabian Cymbal Company and Sonor. Due to declining sales, the company underwent massive lay-offs in 1986 and the Kunz-Holding GmbH & Co acquired most of its assets.

By 1997, the assets became the property of K.H.S. Musical Instruments Co. Ltd., based in Taiwan. Most of the manufacturing moved to Asia, although some high-end products are manufactured in Europe.

The next time I saw a Hohner guitar exactly like the one I have described is when I saw the film Purple Rain, which featured Prince. I was astonished that someone who could afford to play an expensive, big-name instrument would be playing this knock-off Telecaster, H.S. Anderson by Hohner.

However, I have friends and know of pros that continue to stick with the instruments they started out playing.

I later learned Hohner designated this instrument the Hohner TE.

Through the years, Hohner continued to offer the guitar.. Changes occurred to make its appearance more like a Telecaster. The bridge changed to a metal plate with a six adjustable bridge saddles. The colours changed and the binding on the rim disappeared.

Hohner continues to offer a well-made version of this instrument, now known as the Prince guitar. The headstock has changed to include the German-cut, popularized by Roger Rosmeisl.

Prince had changes made to his Hohner that included the installation of Kinman Broadcaster pickups, accomplished by changing the routing of the pickguard and bridge plate.

The Kinman units come with a pre-wired harness, which replaced the original controls. You can see the neck pickup has exposed pole pieces, much like the bridge pickup.

As his fame grew, Prince commissioned some custom guitars. The first being built in 1983.

The builder, David Husain, was employed at the Knute Koupee music store in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He created The Cloud Guitar. As I do further research on the Cloud guitar I find another source that credits the builder as Dave Rusan. I'll include links to both sources.

This is the guitar with the extreme upper horn. The original seems to have a white finish. The wood for the entire instrument was maple. It has a 24.75” scale with 22 frets and a 12” radius. The two pickups are EMG’s. The bridge pickup is an active humbucker and the neck has a single coil pickup. Schaller made all the hardware.

This includes a tune-o-matic style bridge and tailpiece and machine heads. All hardware is gold plated. The controls are simple; one volume, one tone and a 3-way pickup switch. The nut on the headstock is brass. The entire instrument, including the neck, is painted one colour.

The original instrument came in a white finish and featured spade symbol fret markers. It was seen at the end of Purple Rain. Unfortunately, it became a casualty during a concert.

Prince had thee other Clouds made, although some of these underwent multiple paint changes. The next version has a black paint job; however, the fretboard is natural maple. Another Cloud Guitar has a peach finish with small black dot markers.

Prince gave this away as a price. Prince later commissioned a blue Cloud guitar that he called Blue Angel. Like the peach version, this also has black dot markers. Another black Cloud produced, that had an entirely black finish with “bat” fret markers.

The next Cloud had a yellow paint job. Finally, another blue Cloud guitar was produced. This time the knobs were gold plated and the body’s profile was rounded. The Yellow Cloud sold for $18,750 in Minneapolis.

There is a White Cloud on exhibit at the Smithsonian. Others are at various Hard Rock Cafes. Prince named the four Cloud guitars, North, South, East, and West.

Schecter guitars offered copies of the Cloud guitars for sale on Prince’s website. However, the website recently shut down. Some of the Schecter guitars have bolt-on necks, and some have through-the-body necks. The bolt-on instruments have a 25.5” scale. None of the Schecter instruments has the “Love” symbol.

The other guitar identified with Prince is the Symbol Guitar. This instrument was custom built by German luthier, Jerry Auerswald. This guitar made from antique maple and has neck-through-body construction.

The neck scale is 24.75” and the fretboard has 24 medium jumbo frets.

Mr. Auerswald installed EMG pickups on this guitar similar to those on the Cloud guitar. The luthier custom built the bridge and installed Schaller machine heads, with custom-made buttons. The original guitar came with a gold finish.

Prince had his guitar technician built two more of the Symbol instruments. The tech accomplished this by taking measurements of the original instrument and sending them to Schecter. One guitar was white and the other was painted black over the mahogany bodies.

Due to Prince’s guitar acrobatics, the guitars did not last too long. He would throw the instruments in the air and let the guitars drop to the ground. Thus, the horns snapped off and the techs would patch them up.

Much like the Cloud guitars, the tech-made Symbol guitars underwent repainting. At times, the guitar were not only black and white, but also yellow, gold, orange and of course, purple.

Auerswald designed another guitar for Prince. This one is known as the Model C. It is a very unique instrument with two distinct features. The obvious is the stabilizer bar that runs from the body to the headstock. This is very reminiscent of the first Roland Synth guitar. If you look carefully you will notice no tuners on the headstock. The tuners are at the end of the bridge.

Prince has used several other guitars, which include a Fender Stratocaster that has an entirely gold finish. This instrument recently fetched $100,000 at a charity auction held this past April.

Prince and Hamilton

The buyer was race car driver Lewis Hamilton. The proceeds are benefiting the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit organization that serves over 8,000 children and 6,000 adults.

Roger Sadowsky with reproducttion
Update 09/2016  I just read in the latest issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine that luthier Roger Sadowsky built 6 guitars for Prince. He was commissioned by Prince after the artist could no longer find any H.S. Anderson Madcat guitars. Sadowsky made six guitars for Prince, two of which were reproductions of the Hohner H.S. Anderson model.