I just relocated to the DC area, and now that I’ve finished unpacking, it’s time to scope out the musical territory both in and outside the beltway. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of great guitar shops in DC proper (feel free to message me if you know differently). It turns out that Northern Virginia has a few standouts though. This past weekend I made the test drive rounds at Crossroads Guitar Store, Action Music, and the Falls Church Guitar Center. I tried out some great gear at all three shops, including electric guitars, amps, and acoustic guitars.
Semi-hollow Madness: Prestige NYS Standard and Duesenberg Starplayer TV
I had read good things about Prestige guitars. The company processes its wood in Canada, ships the billets for crafting in Korea, and then undertakes final assembly and setup back in the land of maple leaves and socialized medicine. The result — at least evidenced by the NYS Standard I played — is a more affordable guitar with superb fit and finish. The single-cutaway, semi-hollow Prestige NYS Standard is a refreshing departure from the mold in a world of 335 clones. The twin Seymour Duncan P-90s are warm and fat, perfect for blues, jazz, and R&B. Playability is superb, and was further augmented by a setup on Crossroad Guitar Store’s in-house Plek Machine.
Crossroads also deals in Deusenberg, a German brand whose roster of notable players includes roots pickers like Bob Dylan, Mike Campbell, and Ron Wood. I spent some time with the Starplayer TV, a Les Paul-inspired semi-hollow with a spruce top and maple back. The guitar’s four-figure pricetag may be hard to swallow for some, but is well-reflected in the instrument’s flawless construction, smooth playability, and great tones. The pickup combination includes a Gretsch-influenced humbucker in the bridge and a P-90 in the neck; both pickups yielded warm, versatile sounds through a tweed-style tube amp. The Deusenberg tremolo is probably one of the smoothest I’ve ever played, and it stays in tune reasonably well (aided by the stock locking tuners) when used sparingly for shimmering chord accents.
Boutique Amplification: Vintage Tone Leo and Goodsell Super 17
Crossroads boasts an in-house amp brand, the first product of which is the “Leo,” a 13-watt tweed combo based on the classic 5E3 circuit. The Leo expands on the basic 5E3 by accommodating both 6V6 and 6L6 output tubes, the latter of which yield increased output and headroom. True to 5E3 form, controls are limited to volume and tone, with high and low gain inputs for the guitar. I often find tweed style amps to be a little cold for my tastes, and usually wish there was some reverb for additional dimension to the sound. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how warm and full the Leo sounded. The Leo doesn’t have a lot of tricks up its sleeve, but the couple tricks it does have would sound right at home in a roots rock, blues, or alt-country outfit. Convincing jazz tones are possible as well, as long as the player is careful not to push the amp too hard into overdrive.
Action Music boasted an impressive selection of high-end gear, including an extensive used assortment of vintage and boutique instruments and amps. Among various pieces of gear, I tested the Goodsell Super 17, a hand-wired 1×12 EL84 combo. This was my first experience with the Goodsell brand, and I was quite impressed. The little single-channel amp reminded me of a more responsive Deluxe Reverb (owing partly to its EL84s vs 6V6s). Put through its paces with a Fender Telecaster, the clean sounds were excellent, and the overdrive tones would make me think twice about ever resorting to an effects pedal. The built-in reverb was just about perfect, and the amp also has a tremolo circuit. The Super 17 is perfect for musicians who prefer a versatile, lightweight amp that yields classic clean and overdrive tones with a minimum of dial-in fuss (EQ is limited to one tone knob).
Picking Unplugged: Martin D-18 and Gibson AJ Pro
Finally, the well-stocked acoustic room at the Falls Church Guitar Center allowed me to try a couple mass production instruments that I had been curious about for some time. Martin recently revamped their basic D-18, incorporating features previously only available on more upscale models. This includes scalloped top bracing, a 1 3/4″ nut, new neck profile, and vintage-style “butterbean” tuners. The improvements, particularly the bracing, have essentially yielded a brand new guitar that is a significant improvement on the old version. The sound is noticeably bigger, even without break-in time (something that was essential for the straight-braced D-18), and the overall playability felt better as well. Kudos to Martin, and it will be interesting to see if similar tweaks are applied to the standard D-28 in due time.
The Gibson AJ Pro is exclusively available from Guitar Center, and provides a comparatively more affordable option for pickers drawn to the “advanced jumbo” body shape and sound. The slope-shouldered advanced jumbo was the predecessor to Gibson’s classic J-45 and the style is still quite popular, especially with flatpickers. Boutique companies like Bourgeois and Collings have long offered pricey AJ-style guitars renowned as bluegrass “banjo killers,” and Gibson has also offered its own expensive reissues; it’s nice to see Gibson opening up the market to a few more players with the AJ Pro. The example I played, even with a worn set of strings, was boomy and warm like a rosewood dreadnought should be. Fit and finish were excellent, and the stock L.R. Baggs Element pickup is a nice added feature. Gibson has been a little notorious lately for yanking well thought-out, vintage-inspired, but less pricey guitars like this out of production after a limited run; I hope they keep a good thing going with the AJ Pro.
Well that’s it for this edition of the Weekend Test Drive. Stay tuned, as I still have a few more stores to hit up in the area and plenty more gear awaiting quality demo time.