Weekend Test Drive: Vox AC15 Custom and Eastman AR371CE

I love guitars and amps. Not just as musical instruments, but as examples of modern design and manufacturing (in the case of mass-produced instruments), fine craftsmanship (in the case of instruments made at least partly by hand), and in some cases as works of art. I also love visiting guitar shops on the weekend to see what’s new, shoot the proverbial sh*t with the staff, and test drive new gear. I plan on writing two types of gear reviews on this blog — in-depth reviews of gear that I’ve been able to spend significant time with (most likely because I’ve purchased it), and “weekend test drive” reviews of gear that I’ve had a chance to spend a little superficial time with in guitar shops. This first review is of the latter variety.

I’ve been spending some time in the Clearwater/Tampa area this summer, and used a free Saturday to visit the local Sam Ash and Guitar Center. While I usually prefer patronizing smaller, independent shops — both on principle and because there are usually fewer teenagers mangling Metallica riffs — I also like cruising through the chain stores for their wide selection of the latest and greatest gear. This trip gave me the chance to test out two pieces that I’ve recently had my eye on — the Vox AC15 Custom amp and the Eastman AR371CE archtop.

Vox AC15 Custom

First the AC15. I’ve had my eye on Class-A, Vox-style amps recently for various reasons, including a preoccupation with Brad Paisley’s guitar style and tone. Paisley mostly uses Dr. Z amps these days, but he began as a fan of the AC30 — incidentally, the inspiration for some of Dr. Z’s most popular designs. Unfortunately, both the handwired AC30 and Dr. Z amps fetch a pretty penny beyond the means of many working class musicians. In recent years though, Vox has put out “custom” versions of their classic AC15 and AC30. These amps are made in China, with printed circuit boards and some additional features (including reverb, missing from the original amps designs). I’ve been wanting to try the AC15 for a while now.

One of my main practice and performance amps is a Fender Blues Jr, which at least outwardly has a similar feature set. 15 watts of EL84 tube power, reverb, and a two-stage volume/master control layout. The AC15 Custom most obviously differs in terms of a substantially bigger cab, tremolo in addition to the reverb, and of course a more British-inspired tone circuit. Test-driving the AC15 with an American Standard Tele, even at relatively low volume, reveals a distinctly more expansive and 3-dimensional sound than the Blues Jr, which some critics describe as “boxy” (an overly simplistic critique, in my opinion). It probably has something to do with a combination of the bigger cab, different speaker, and Vox tone circuit. The AC15 captures the vintage Vox vibe, though I felt the amp also had shades of American (read Fender) tones lurking inside — especially with the reverb engaged. Both the reverb and tremolo on the AC15 are well-executed, with plenty of tweakable range. Cranking the volume up results in a nice, smooth overdrive perfect for pretty much everything except metal. Based on my brief experience with the amp, I think it stacks up nicely to the Blues Jr, and anyone seeking an affordable, low-wattage amp for practice or small clubs should give the AC15 Custom a trial run.

Eastman AR371CE

The other piece of gear I had a chance to put through its paces was the Eastman AR371CE, a single-pickup archtop inspired by the Gibson ES-175. Eastman — a Chinese manufacturer that got its start crafting violins — has earned a respectable reputation for hand-crafted, solid-wood archtop guitars at an extremely reasonable price point. The AR371CE is a new offering, different for its Gibson-inspired design, all-laminate construction, and an even lower entry price (about $700 street). It’s clearly designed to compete with similarly-featured Epiphone instruments (also made in Asia, but on much larger assembly lines). From my initial trial run, the AR371CE blows the Epiphone offerings out of the water.

The instrument I tried was very attractively finished in a brown sunburst that puts often plastic-feeling Epiphone finishes to shame. There were a few glaring flaws in the binding and finish that seemed out of place given Eastman’s reputation for craftsmanship. The guitar was strung with flatwound .012s, and — except for a dead spot at the 10th fret C — playability was nice all the way up the 24 3/4″ scale neck (the instrument I tried was used, so the dead spot could very well have come about post-factory). The 1 3/4″ inch nut width is nicely balanced by a not-too-fat yet not-too-thin C-shaped neck profile.

As expected, theĀ  acoustic tone of the Eastman is pretty mellow, given the laminate construction. With a set of roundwounds, you could probably get some decent volume out of the instrument, but that’s not really what this style of archtop is intended for. The similarly-laminate ES-175 was designed to be resistant to feedback when plugged in on the bandstand, and the AR371CE follows the same formula. I plugged the instrument into a reissue Fender Deluxe Reverb. It was easy to get warm, articulate jazz tones from the PAF-inspired humbucker, though I found the pickup to be a little lacking in character. That can be fixed easily enough with an aftermarket Seymour Duncan Seth Lover or Gibson 57 classic, and you would still be getting good value-for-money out of the guitar. My initial impression of the AR371CE was overwhelmingly positive — this is a great playing, great sounding, and very affordable jazz box that can easily compete with far more expensive instruments.

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