Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day 2007

It's been a while since my last blog post, so I've been looking for an excuse to write. The truth is I'm not one of those bloggers that just sits here and puts my every thought down in print - I don't need to burden others with the minutiae of my daily life. If I've got nothing to say, I'm hopefully not going to waste everybody's time and bandwidth saying it anyway.

But there comes a time when the traffic starts to drop off and Google's PageRank algorithm starts to wonder if a site has been abandoned. That's when I know I've got to act. See, I'm all about statistics. No, I don't make any money selling ads or anything, I just like to watch numbers going up instead of down.

Today was Memorial Day. Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to go all heavy and political and talk about how the casualty rate of the Iraq War is actually rising quite significantly since George Bush's "surge" began - though I could easily devote an entire blog to that purpose. I understand why we commemorate Memorial Day. I know what the holiday is for. But no, today I'm going to talk about the other side of Memorial Day - outdoor cooking.

One of the biggest perks I was looking forward to when my wife and I bought our first house was being able to grill stuff. You can't really do it in a New York apartment, unless you happen to have a secluded fire escape (secluded because it's illegal) or you're some sort of lucky asshole with a balcony. So procuring a grill was pretty much job #1 when we moved out here.

Now, I'm not old, but I am old-school in almost everything. I work in an internet-related field, and I'm surrounded by technology all day long, and all it's done is convince me how much better everything used to be. The modern world is bullshit. It really is. It's nothing but a lot of people trying to figure out how to make other people buy new stuff that they don't need. That goes for grills as much as anything else. Maybe even moreso.

So I'm a charcoal man, because as the saying goes, "gas is for passin', charcoal is for grillin'!" (Actually, that's just "char" in the pic above - there is charcoal below it, though. I ran out of charcoal so I had to mix.) Don't even get me started on the latest big thing, "infrared" heat - or, as we all used to call it five years ago before the marketdroids got a hold of it, "electric". That's not grilling, that's not barbecue, that's what McDonald's uses to keep the food warm after they microwave it. So my grill is a Char-Griller Professional. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only Real Grill you can even buy these days. And I love it.

The Char-Griller is a charcoal grill with a barrel shape for convection and the one big feature that sets it apart: heavy cast-iron cooking grates. What's the big deal? Well, you know how when you go to a restaurant that advertises "flame-broiled" food, and when you get it, it has these big grill marks on it that scream "look at me! I'm flame-broiled!"? You can only get that with cast-iron. But that's not even the important part; the important part is that cast-iron holds heat evenly, it's naturally non-stick, and it makes the food taste good. Ever had corn bread made in a cast-iron pan? Then you know it's the only way to make real corn bread. Same thing with grilling. Over time, the grates absorb all the charred flavors they've come in contact with, and all the smokiness inside the grill itself. Those flavors then get transferred back to the food through the contact with the grates. Doesn't happen with steel or aluminum. If you've ever wondered why your grilled food doesn't really taste like grilled food, it's because a) you're not using charcoal, and b) you're not using cast-iron grates.

By the way - grilling and barbecuing ain't the same thing. People who say "I'm gonna barbecue some hamburgers" really mean they're gonna grill 'em. Barbecuing is long, slow cooking using low, indirect heat. Grilling is fast cooking using high heat that can be either direct or indirect. Grilling is a lot more common in the North; barbecue is more common in the South. A lot of people use the two words interchangeably, though, and that ain't right.

So today we decided we were gonna grill us up some seafood. We've done all the usual stuff before; hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, pork chops, steaks, all sorts of vegetables, even peaches, bananas and other fruit. (Grilled peaches on vanilla ice cream is TO DIE FOR.) But we live right next to the ocean, and we've never tried any of the seafood stands around us... and there are a ton of them. One of the more famous ones is Jordan Lobster Farms, which specializes in (you guessed it) lobster. So of course, we bought some shrimp. And potato salad. And corn. Hey, where else would you go for potato salad but a lobster farm??

We'll get some lobster next time. Probably not for grilling, though.

The key to good grilling is timing. Grilling happens so fast that it's really easy to char almost anything into a hockey puck without realizing it, then remember that half your food hasn't even been started yet. Today, I kinda dried out my corn a bit (corn is always difficult to get exactly right on a grill, but oh so good when you do), although everything else turned out perfect.

Shrimp kebobs! Notice that the vegetables are on separate skewers - timing again. Vegetables take longer to cook than shrimp - you can't put them on the same skewer and expect everything to turn out right. You need to cook the vegetables for longer.

I had meant to take a photo of our great outdoor spread that we've got set up now that we're into our second year in this house, but unfortunately, just as we were finishing up the cooking, this happened:

Yeah, that's rain. It rained for literally about ten minutes, and pretty hard - just long enough to ruin our outdoor dinner. We ate inside - at least it was air conditioned and noise-free. But still, not really in the spirit of things.

Oh, by the way, that pathetic little flag at the top of the post? That's actually an ad. Century 21 Realtors sticks these little flags in the ground in front of all the houses in my neighborhood, with a little picture card on them saying who personally the flag is "courtesy of". There's nothing the marketdroids won't co-opt these days.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Helloooooo Slashfood readers!

A lot of you are coming from Slashfood today. I think it's great that they linked to my blog, but you're probably a bit confused now that you're here, wondering where all the MOS Burgers are. Fact is they linked to my homepage, not to the specific post they referenced. So, click here to go directly to my post about Fast Food in Japan!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

New Fender Jazzmaster guitar! The story and unboxing photos

(More pics down below.)

Seems like I'm on a spending spree lately, doesn't it? The truth is my wife and I go without a lot of things that most people consider impulse buys - for example, we're a one car family, we don't travel much, and I've been wearing some of the same jeans since college. So we maybe save a little more than most people, which means we can splurge every once in a while.

When I was in high school, I played bass guitar. I had a band; we were pretty popular in my local area, and we played a lot of gigs and recorded a full-length demo tape in a local studio. Before that, I'd played alto saxophone since I was about 8 years old, so music's been in my blood for a long time. After my band broke up, I sort of toiled away by myself on a beat up old Gibson acoustic guitar that a girl had given me a few years earlier (don't ask) until I finally sold it about 4 years ago to help pay for a move. The last 4 years have been the longest I've been without a musical instrument since before junior high.

About 15 years ago, when I was still in college, I got my first taste of My Bloody Valentine. Their album Loveless absolutely blew my mind, with its unbelievably heavy and noisy bent power chords that somehow still managed to be melodic and satisfying and occasionally even a little groovy. I never knew music like that was possible. I resolved at that time to put together another band and just outright rip off their sound. Why not? Nobody else sounded like that; I figured it was as good a starting point as any.

As a huge bonus, I found out that Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher - the band's two guitarists - played Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters, two guitar models that were no longer made because they were so unpopular, despite being absolute top of the line guitars in Fender's lineup. They were part of Fender's offset waist guitar line, designed to be more comfortable to play when sitting down. Nobody wanted them, yet these guitars, with their floating tremolo system and warm pickups, were largely responsible for this band's sound! Their imperfections - an abundance of feedback, occasional buzzing from the strings - could only add personality to this kind of music. I walked around my neighborhood and found a local store with two vintage models for under $500 each. That was too much for my college student financial situation, but it seemed like once I got a real job, I'd have no problem whatsoever replicating that sound.

Fast forward a couple years and prices for vintage Jazzmasters and Jags had gone through the roof. I'd missed my chance, largely because of the success of bands like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., most of whom also started out with the guitars because they were cheap. No more. My idea of ripping off MBV's sound was apparently not very unique, as demand for these guitars skyrocketed with both upcoming musicians and the collector market now involved. I put off my purchase indefinitely.

In the early 1980's, various companies had begun ripping off Fender's designs and selling outright copies to the Japanese market. Americans got wind of this as Jazzmaster prices took off and started importing the cheap but well-made Japanese models. In fact, one of Kevin Shields' early "Jaguars" was a Japanese copy - you can see him play it in the video for "Only Shallow". (He also owned a Japanese Jazzmaster.)

Some of the copies were so good that Fender actually went ahead and licensed production to Greco, one of the copy makers, who from then on were able to sell their copies as real Jazzmasters, Jaguars and whatever else they made under the name "Fender Japan". Obviously, with that licensing came certain further modifications to the guitars to bring them more in line with the American-made versions.

These days, Fender USA has put the Jazzmaster and Jaguar back into production due to increased demand, in the "American Vintage Reissue" line (often referred to in shorthand as "AVRI"). Prices start at $1,450 street for a new American model, while a vintage guitar will set you back $2,000 or more. (Since I wrote this post, Fender has also released a line of Mexican-made offset guitars.) Meanwhile, Fender Japan sells their Jazzmasters for 70,400 yen street, or around $600 before shipping (which can be significant). These are commonly referred to as "CIJ" Jazzmasters, for the "Crafted in Japan" stamp on the neck. (Earlier versions said "Made in Japan" and were referred to as "MIJ" models.)

There are some differences, though only a few are really meaningful. MIJ/CIJ Jazzmasters can easily be modified to be more or less the same as the American models, if you so desire. The overall build quality is already pretty much the same - meaning excellent.

One really nice thing about the Japanese models is that they're sold in color combinations that haven't been offered in the US for 30 years. If you want a new candy apple red guitar with matching headstock, you have no choice but to buy Japanese (though the current candy apple red is intentionally a bit darker than the original - looks really nice, though!). That was definitely what I wanted, based on this:

Beautiful! Hell, Bilinda could be playing a Japanese Jazzmaster there, for all I know.

At this point in my life, it's not so much that I want to copy MBV's sound anymore, and I'm probably not going to start a band - although never say never. It's more that I've just been away from music for too long... and it's always been a dream of mine to own this guitar. I'm planning on setting up a cheap home PC recording studio and recording my own stuff to post online, and who knows what after that. I can play guitar, bass and I'll figure something out with the singing... drums can be handled with computer samples. (Hey, I never said I'd be making vintage rock and roll here.)

Without further ado, some "unboxing" pics, especially for those of you wondering what you get when you order a Jazzmaster from Japan (I ordered mine from Ishibashi, who were very nice and helpful).

Japanese Jazzmasters come in a box, not a case. Mine was packed with an obscene amount of bubble wrap, secured so well that it took me 30 minutes to get it off:

FRA-GI-LE - must be Italian!

Ah, Engrish:

JM66-88 is the model number of the Japanese Jazzmaster, btw, and OCR is the color (Old Candy Red). Notice the serial # is on the box - you never know if this is gonna matter to collectors in the future! Keep that box! :)

More bubble wrap inside:

In lieu of a case, Fender Japan Jazzmasters come with a "gig bag". It's actually not quite as much of a joke as I was expecting - it'd work as a dust shield for extended storage, I guess - but yeah, it offers no protection to the guitar whatsoever:

Still, it's not like the handles are going to fall off or anything. You can carry the guitar around with this bag. Just don't bang it into anything.

Inside the gig bag, more packing material. Fender Japan is nothing if not thorough with the packaging:

Finally, the guitar itself!

It's really hard to see because my digital camera keeps wanting to turn the pickguard white, but the guard is actually "mint". It's very light green. This was a pleasant surprise, because it just adds a little more uniqueness to the design. I actually wanted red tortoise, and will probably still change it at some point, but I like the red and green combo. It's like Christmas!

Again, looks white but it isn't... bridge view:

You can see a little more difference between the guard and the white pickup covers and knobs here... still doesn't quite capture it, though (also noticing I've got a dusty camera sensor, grrr):

The matching headstock:

Part of the instruction manual - yeah, it's all in Japanese. This manual applies to all Fender Japan guitars, so you've got explanations of the pickups for all models on the left here, and explanations of the different types of tremolo systems on the right:

My Jazzmaster sitting on my dining table, where I happened to unbox it:

The tremolo unit - and no, the arm isn't quite in the socket all the way, I was a little too afraid to force it at this point! (I did get it to fit later):

On its stand, still with the protective plastic half-on the pickguard. Interestingly, this stand came with a warning label that said "not recommended for use on guitars with nitro-cellulose finishes", which would mean all Fender USA models. Mine should be fine, though:

The serial # on the neck:

The tuners - and you can see how the shiny poly finish extends up through the back of the headstock... it's a little different feel having the back of the neck finished like that:

Here she is with the plastic finally off the pickguard:

The mint pickguard does look a lot different depending on the angle of the light reflecting off it - it's pretty cool. This was taken right after the photo above:

And in the hands of a guitar god (yeah, right):

Well, that's it... now to start practicing!

SECOND UPDATE! Some time ago, Fender USA (aka FMIC) put a prohibition on exports of Fender Japan instruments to the USA. This meant that you couldn't buy a new Jazzmaster from Ishibashi as I did. However, according to this thread at, that ban has now been lifted on sales for "personal use". Good news!

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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