Thursday, November 13, 2014

My new toy from Japan

I'm still planning to write something of a trip report from my latest sojourn to my favorite island nation in the Pacific - I've just been a little preoccupied lately, mostly with work but a little bit with this:

A couple of the kids in my wife's family had PS Vitas when we were in Japan, and after seeing them playing, I couldn't resist. I am just a 40 year old kid, after all. (And I've been a gamer all my life.)

I hold weird allegiances when it comes to games, and I never even considered buying a PS Vita before. I've always owned Nintendo handhelds (up to the DS), and it pissed me off to an irrational degree when Sony announced the original PSP. The PS Vita I just wrote off as soon as it was released. But seeing people actually playing games on the system in Japan, along with the huge displays they have for Vita games and accessories at places like Bic Camera and Yodobashi (in contrast to the tiny little single shelf GameStop might devote to the system here), I just had to have one.

I picked up Powerful Pro Kun Baseball 2014 and Puyo Puyo Tetris while I was there - two franchises I know well. Puyo Puyo is usually sold as "Puyo Pop" here, and Powerful Pro Kun Baseball is the big-headed but surprisingly realistic baseball franchise that had one US domestic release on PS2, but is a long-running series in Japan.

I've since picked up Hot Shots Golf and have Persona 4 Golden on order - one nice thing about the Vita in the US is that the games are ridiculously cheap. And I'm far enough behind that I can buy all the older games that are even more heavily discounted.

But this is a fantastic system. It's well on its way to being my favorite portable system ever, already. I'm neither ready nor willing to trade physical controls for a phone's touch-screen, and the Vita's dual analog stick controls are the best ever in a handheld. Ditto for the screen, ditto for the graphics, which are easily at PS3 level quality in a freakin' handheld system.

Oh, btw, with the yen now at 115 to the dollar, it didn't make sense not to buy a system in Japan. And they have it in funky colors! (Mine's a new "Slim" model, though it's in a clear case in the photo above that makes it look chunkier than it is.) We just have boring black over here. No wonder the system's not doing well in the US.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Finally - the Haruna "Skullsilver" Telecaster reviewed!

Closing out my reviews of the three Scandal signature guitars is what for me was the holy grail - Haruna's "Skullsilver" Telecaster! See my earlier reviews of Mami's Stratomaster and Tomomi's Bluetus.

The first time I saw Scandal in person, I was shocked by how thunderous Haruna's tone was. You get this a little bit on the albums but her sound is just murderous in person - it shakes your whole body. This doesn't usually come through even on their own live DVD's.

Mami plays higher up on the neck and mostly uses her bridge pickup, which gives her a trebly, twangy sound. Haruna's sound is bassy and powerful - in person it's like a kick in the gut, but that's hard to reproduce on video. Haruna's sound is the foundation of the entire band, and it's a lot heavier live than it is on the albums.

Haruna's said in interviews that she intentionally picks guitars with humbuckers for that thick sound. But after debuting at Budokan in 2012, the signature "Skullsilver" has become her main guitar. She always opens and closes shows with it, and she uses it for all but a few songs. Mami and Tomomi, by contrast, seem to only play their Squiers as much as they're contractually obligated to. Of all the signature Squiers, Haruna's is the most iconic simply because she really plays the hell out of it. It's rare these days to see her without it.

The design of the Skullsilver Tele seems loosely based on the Blacktop Telecaster but with a 21 fret neck and a basswood body. It also has witch hat knobs with numbers facing the right way, which the Blacktop does not, and oddly enough Haruna's prototype doesn't either! (Hers uses amp knobs; the production Skullsilver Tele uses aftermarket guitar knobs.)  Otherwise, though, the production guitar has the same unique "backwards" control plate and the same pickup configuration.

About those pickups - Fender's spec page lists Blacktop pickups as "Hot Vintage Alnico Humbucking" pickups, and these at least look the same. It's possible Haruna's using the stock Blacktop pickups. These guitars are part of a marketing deal with Fender so they'd want to keep them at least looking stock, but the high output of these pickups do match her sound.

This is the contents of the box from Ishibashi. Guitar, allen wrenches and product card, and mostly useless Squier gig bag that's good for storing your guitar in the closet and not much else.

Haruna Tele Dark Silver Sparkle. More on that color and finish in a minute.

The guitar removed from its protective covering. The plastic had started removing itself from my pickguard, so I immediately took it the rest of the way off. Incidentally, the plastic used in these pickguards is extremely soft and will scratch if brushed by a stiff wind. This is definitely not the case with Haruna's own guitar, but mine became unsightly after only a few weeks of playing. I haven't yet found a replacement that fits either - if you're curious, the Blacktop pickguard does not.

I was happy to see that there were no major finish blemishes or other problems with the look of my guitar. I saw one of these hanging on a wall in Japan with what looked like a damaged skull decal under the clearcoat, and I've heard from others who have had minor problems with theirs as well. Sparkle finishes are not easy or cheap, and in a $400 guitar it's almost amazing to get one this good. Mine is completely perfect - I see a couple spots in the photo above where it looks uneven, but that's just my shadow on the guitar. It's a surprisingly flawless finish.

Here's a closer look. It probably goes without saying, but in case you're new to electric guitars, all of Scandal's signature guitars are clearcoated in poly. (I'm not sure if it's polyester or polyurethane, but there's not much distinction there.) This is typical of cheap guitars - it's an easier top coat to apply than the more traditional nitrocellulose, which has a more refined look.

It's hard to see above but the bridge saddles are all actual Fender bridge saddles. That makes me wonder if the bridge itself is too - I don't have enough experience with Teles to know for sure. My old Squier Standard Strat definitely did not come with Fender saddles or a Fender bridge.

I've been lucky enough to see Haruna's own guitar in person three (update: four!) times. I wouldn't say the production model finish is an exact match, but it's closer than I imagined when I saw the initial PR photos vs. the real thing.

Haruna's own guitar has big sparkle flakes, which makes it almost blindingly bright in direct light. It's like a mirror when it catches the light right. But those big flakes are harder to do, and consequently more expensive. For the production model, Squier seems to have gone with smaller metal flakes on a grey base, which dulls the finish a little bit but keeps costs down.

The front of the headstock. The maple is nicely tinted and, like my other two Scandal guitars, they picked a nice tree from which to cut mine. It has a much classier overall look than my Squier Strat.

Back of the headstock complete with Haruna's stamped signature. I'm guessing these are the same Gotoh-made Kluson-style tuners used in both my American and Japanese Jazzmasters. (It looks like there's a tiny chip right at the middle bottom of the headstock above, but it's actually just a spec of dust.)

Here's one annoyance - Squier used rusty fret wire to fret my guitar! I'm going to need a fret polishing before this thing is even fully playable. It's also a bit unsightly just hanging on the wall. Again, as I mentioned in my Bluetus review, I don't expect high-end specs or features in a $400 guitar, but some basic quality control would be nice.

If you're interested in how I dealt with this, check out my Planetwaves Fret Polishing System post.

The neck itself is surprisingly chunky. I'm not sure how this compares to the real thing and I'm not normally a Tele player, but it's almost a Gibson-like neck profile. I personally prefer a flatter neck profile and I'm surprised if Haruna really prefers such a fat neck with such small hands, but every guitarist has their own tastes. (My wife is the same - small fingers, fat guitar neck. I don't get it.) The guitar itself also feels quite thick and brickish, which I don't remember other Telecasters I've played feeling like, or at least not to this extent. It feels like it would make a really good life raft in an emergency. The body is at least contoured on the back for comfort (like the Blacktop).

The fretboard radius looks like 9.5", which isn't my favorite radius, but it's common to most modern guitars.

This is the one guitar with Gibson-style humbuckers that I own and I'm glad to have just one. Give it some distortion and it sounds like a pointy metal guitar (or a Les Paul) but without the 80's styling. And it does sound very much like Haruna really sounds when played loud enough and with enough distortion.  (And the right kind - see my OCD below!)

Scandal tribute concert at my house!

I doubt any of these signature models will take over from my Jazzmasters as my own main guitar, but I am happy to have them. They really look very close to the real guitars, and they all play well in their own right depending on what you're after. They do all have some minor QC issues and interesting specs married to mostly low-end hardware and electronics. They are beginner guitars that look really cool and mostly sound good (I'm still iffy on Mami's bridge pickup, which is supposed to be that guitar's big selling point). I think they're all good values even without the Scandal connection, but as a fan, I almost feel like the band themselves are here whenever I look at them. I'm a happy collector!

UPDATE 04/06/2015: Shock and horror!

I keep discovering weird random problems with all of these Scandal guitars. The latest one with the Haruna Skullsilver Telecaster is this - notice that one of the ferrules above seems empty? The string end has literally punched right through the ferrule and is now resting against the back of the bridge. It seems to have been this way since manufacture, since I've never changed the strings and the A string appears to still have its original "wrap" around the tuner peg. They did this at the factory, and nobody bothered to check or fix it.

I've got some new ferrules on order, but this is a serious annoyance that I shouldn't have to deal with. I've never heard of a ferrule failing like that.

UPDATE 05/08/2015: Fixed.

First, this is a normal ferrule on the left, the defective one on the right. They somehow made it that way, and nobody noticed it when they strung the guitar up in Indonesia.

I had to try two sets of replacements before finding one that fit. (For the record, American Standard Tele ferrules are too small.) I ended up buying a cheap set from Ebay that were listed specifically as 8mm. They're a little more chrome than the nickel they should be, but I don't really care, and if I ever sell this thing, I'll keep the originals in case anyone wants them.

Incidentally, getting the original ferrules out was a bitch, and getting the new ones in was too. I finally jury-rigged a system made up of the straight part of a thick wire hanger, which I cut with a Dremel, and a rubber mallet. I then removed the bridge and tapped the ferrules out from the front. Some of the new ones fit the existing holes perfectly, but a couple required shaving the inside of the hole a little bit (again with the wonder-tool that is the Dremel).

Well, anyway, everything's sorted now and this is finally a playable guitar.

05/09/2016 UPDATE: I sold my original Skullsilver (the one detailed above) as part of the full set, and wanting to still have one Scandal guitar, I bought another from the second production run. One change is that the standard gig bag is much better now.

That's Skullsilver #2 in the new gig bag. I'd call this gig bag actually usable. They may have done this because there was no special run just for the Kitty store this time, with the upgraded gig bag featuring the Scandal logo. (See my Mami Stratomaster post.)

This is the only gig bag you can get with these now. It just has the regular Squier logo, but it's a nice bag.

I'm not sure, but I feel like something's different about the finish. It may just be that a larger number of flakes in this one are standing up at odd angles, which leads them to look black unless the light is hitting them just right. (You see some of these in the photo above.) But I also feel like I see more grey in this finish. It's a little less striking than my original one, somehow.

I also don't remember my original one being quite so noisy, like it's missing some kind of shielding that the first one had. I'll need to take care of that if I ever decide to play this guitar enough to even take the plastic off!

Then again, it doesn't have the quality control issues of the first one. There's just a lot of variation in these in my experience, including what I've seen on my trips to Japan. Maybe you'll get one with an amazing finish and some defects, or no shielding and no defects, or an imperfect finish but perfect sound. It's just kind of a crapshoot with this Indonesian factory.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Tomomi's signature Squier Jazz Bass "Bluetus" reviewed!

I've finally received both of my remaining Scandal signature guitars! I'll be reviewing them individually, to let me dive a little deeper and post more pics of each. See my earlier review of Mami's Stratomaster here.

Tomomi's "Bluetus" seems loosely based on a Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass, although it's kind of an amalgam of several different sub-models and has regular vintage (not "modified") Jazz Bass knobs on it. Like the other Scandal signature instruments, this bass made its debut at their Budokan show in March of 2012, and it's been a staple at their concerts ever since. I saw it in person again just last month at their show at Fujita University. She doesn't use it for every song - unlike Haruna with her Skullsilver Telecaster and Mami with her black Strat, Tomomi doesn't really have a "main" bass, and if she does it'd probably be her navy blue Fender Precision Bass. But she still uses Bluetus often.

I started out as a bassist, playing in bands in high school and even recording a couple self-produced albums on bass and vocals. But it had been close to 20 years since I sold my embarrassing old Cort P-Bass (it looked exactly like this but with a lot more duct tape holding it together) before buying a second-hand Epiphone Thunderbird Bass a year or so ago. I've been exclusively playing six-string guitars in between. That Thunderbird was a huge disappointment - so uncomfortable and poorly balanced that I sold it as soon as Scandal's signature models were announced, knowing I'd be buying all three come hell or high water.

I can already say that as a "cheap" bass, this thing's about as good as it gets. It might even be my favorite of all the Scandal models. It feels like coming home.

Ordering this thing was a saga. Long story short, I had to ship both this and Haruna's Skullsilver Telecaster to my in-laws in Japan, who held them until my visit a couple weeks ago. My wife and I then had to take them to the post office ourselves to ship them to my house in the USA. This is the condition the box arrived in - I was a little worried when I saw it because I know these guitars are packed to pretty much just flop around in the box - there is nothing much holding them in place. The entire top third of the box was bent, and the bottom was crushed. Gee, and I wrote "FRAGILE" on it and everything! (I'm convinced that makes the USPS treat a box worse.)

Above you see the contents of the box. Everything was fine. Squiers aren't really Fenders but they are Fender designs and Fender designs don't break. They're tanks. I ordered mine from Ishibashi and they included a point card (which I technically can't use from the US - they changed that policy a while back) as well as a cheap Squier gig bag that'll protect the bass from a stiff wind and that's about it. That foam bag it shipped in provides more protection - and it's ripped! Only orders from the Kitty Web Shop came with the nicer heavily padded Scandal-branded gig bag and strap.

The product card. Tomo Jazz Bass Sky Blue!

The bass unsheathed. My first reaction upon seeing it was that this is a far more beautiful bass in person than I expected! The color really pops without looking cartoony; it's more tasteful than I thought, and it has a depth to it that you don't expect in a "cheap" bass. And while competition stripes are always pretty polarizing, I happen to like them, and they are not some new thing Tomomi invented. Fender introduced them in 1969. Tomomi's actually very traditional in her tastes.

The back. It is a Squier so it's not strange to point out that the finish on this otherwise simple paint job is perfect. If you look very closely at the right angle, you can see the body joint - it appears to be a two-piece body. (You're not seeing that above - that's just a reflection of my wall and ceiling.)

The matching headstock. (The color is actually the same as the body; the light was a tad different.) If there's any complaint I might have with the finish, it's here. It's a little hard to see and in fact I didn't notice it until later, but it looks like whoever painted it was using a brush meant for the side of a house. The paint's very uneven and it runs over the edge onto the sides in a bunch of places. But again, hard to really notice unless you're looking.

There are a few more minor imperfections around the guitar, like sloppy cutting of the pickguard and some good old fashioned dirt around the edges, like whoever installed it forgot to wash his hands first. Nothing that couldn't be fixed by removing it and just sanding a bit, I'm sure. But this is the kind of corner that gets cut in an Indonesian Squier - you wouldn't see this (or you'd hope you wouldn't see this) in a more expensive model. I don't expect maximum refinement in a guitar like this, although simple cleanliness would be nice.

Of course the back of the headstock has Tomomi's signature (stamped, not real). My headstock had gear oil all over it when I first tried to take this photo - I cleaned it up and everything seems fine. Seems they just lubed the tuners a little too much at the factory.

I do like the maple they chose for my neck and headstock - it has some interesting figuring.

Bluetus comes with Duncan Designed JB-101 pickups that are meant to sound "vintage", whatever that means in a bass. (To be honest, I don't think there's a hell of a lot of difference in how a modern Jazz Bass sounds vs. a vintage one.) Squier uses these in some other specific models of the Vintage Modified JB. They sound pretty good to my ears, and basically Tomomi-like. That said, they are not what she actually uses. (Note that hers don't say "Duncan Designed" and I seriously doubt she'd be using them with a different cover. She'd be using something a little better.)

The bridge saddles are height-adjustable but the action on mine was just right from the factory - a few weeks later it did need a little truss rod adjustment (no doubt affected by the dry, harsh winter we're having) but then it was back to normal. I have long and violent fingers, so I like medium action on basses (low action would just make for a lot of fret buzz). The Vintage Modified JB's have a neck radius of 9.5" and Bluetus seems to match that. I hate anything over a 7.25" radius on six-string guitars but I like a flatter fretboard on bass - flatter radii are better for single-string playing, not so good for chords.

My main six string guitar is a Jazzmaster. I like (and am used to) the offset body shape, which is made to be comfortable playing sitting down - when standing up, it just looks cool. If it wasn't for Scandal, I'd have probably sold my disappointing Thunderbird and bought some kind of Jazz Bass anyway. Granted, it'd probably have been a low-end Fender rather than a high-end Squier, but honestly, I doubt there's any real difference. The Made-in-Mexico Fenders all use the same poly finish as the Squiers, along with the same electronics and very similar hardware. They charge a little more for the name. You've got to move up to an American model - and spend a lot more money - to get something noticeably better in any objective sense. But then you wouldn't have the cool color scheme!

I'm gonna close by answering the only two questions that really matter, which are:

1) How does it compare to Tomomi's own Bluetus?

2) Is it a good bass in its own right?

The answer to the first question is that it certainly looks pretty much right, judging from the three times I've seen the real thing. The color looks dead on, the finish looks the same. If there is a noticeable difference, it's that the fretboard is actually somewhat darker on the production model. Hers actually has a couple chips in the finish from use that look like the way poly chips, so I think she's even got the same clear coat. That said, no doubt she has high end wiring, hardware, shielding and electronics underneath.

It's a pretty awesome bass in its own right too. Even if you're not a Scandal fan, I think your head would turn seeing this hanging in a store - but it's not so crazy or specific that you couldn't use it in pretty much any band. It's really comfortable as all Jazz Basses are, it's well balanced, and it sounds like you'd expect a Jazz Bass to sound. I'd totally gig with this bass - I've gigged with a lot worse!

I have a feeling this bass probably sold the least of the three Scandal guitars just because fewer people want to play bass. That makes me feel kinda bad for Tomomi, but on the plus side for you, it might still be a little easier to find this one than the others for that reason. If you can still get one, grab it!

MARCH 2015 UPDATE: After sitting in its gig bag all winter, I picked up my Bluetus to find that its neck had bowed badly. The early truss rod adjustment mentioned above should have been a red flag - the maple used for the neck in this bass is way too soft and was probably wet when the bass was manufactured. After a professional setup it's playable again, but it'll never have the low action of a high-end Fender.

Well, it is a cheap bass. But this is a little disappointing.

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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