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.

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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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