The mighty Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone Review! Get down low without breaking the bank!

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The Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone Review! An affordable giant down low!

I love this guitar. I am so glad I bought one! Read on.

I’ve been playing lots of very distinct sounds and ideas in the past couple of years. It’s great that I’ve been able to use such a diverse array of instruments from guitars to basses to keyboards and even some folk instruments and meditation instruments…

FenderTeleBlacktopBaritoneJimPearsonFullFront

The Fender Blacktop Tele Baritone in all its glory

But sometimes you just need something that adds more richness to recordings. It’s well enough to use guitars and basses – but what about something that layers sounds in between? Here’s where 8- and 7-string guitars come in, and my favorite mid-voice: the Baritone.

The baritone guitar is an interesting animal. You get the neck feel of a 6 string guitar – just longer. It doesn’t have the width of a 7-, 8-, or even 9-string guitar’s neck. It feels right at home to the traditional 6-string guitar player – just a little further to the left (or right, for my left-handed friends). I personally love just about any of the extended-range guitars including the old Fender Bass VI – very nice. But sometimes, you just wanna get low without having to deal with a different feel.

Baritones are generally like a thin-necked 7-string minus the high e. It’s important to note that the interpretation of “Baritone guitar” has many permutations. Some feel that 7-strings (and more) are baritones. Some feel that it has to be a 6-string guitar with a longer scale. Yet others feel that putting telephone wires (humor me here… laughter is great) on a standard 6 and just tuning the guitar down a bunch. My definition is really more simple: a long-scale 6-string tuned the next “string” lower – generally starting on a low B below the “standard” low E of a traditional 6. I’ve played Baritones from LTD/ESP to Fender to Epiphone to Gibson and Agile. I’ve liked them all.

Fender is no stranger to the Baritone business, with adaptations of the Bass VI, the Jazzmaster Baritone, and even the wonderful Jaguar limited edition HH Baritone guitar all being great guitars that give Fender some wonderful credibility for making a long scale low-tuned beast.

FenderTeleBlacktopBaritoneJimPearsonBodyShotPickupDetail

HSS with a crunchy humbucker and two Tele pickups. Nice!

Back to the subject: This review is about a new Blacktop Fender Telecaster in long scale Baritone tuning. WOW. Love it. Read on… I’m keeping mine for a good long while.

Please visit zZounds and get more information as well as pricing info about the awesome Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone – click here! (visiting my sponsor helps me fund more reviews! (And G.A.S., of course! :-))

Quick Opinion: The Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone is a winner.
Simple and easy-to-play design? Telecaster with a long neck: check!
Diverse sound pallette – more so than the standard HH config? HSS with Tele neck pickups in mid and neck with the humbucker being hot rock: check!
Nice long scale with a great neck: Telecaster at 27″ 9.5″ fretboard radius, medium-jumbo frets, maple neck (the back of the neck, anyway) with a nice finish: check!

This grandaddy-long-legs Telecaster is a scream to play and really sounds great. There are a few things about it that I wish were different – but overall, these guitars are a major buy… well-priced, nicely executed, fairly high quality, and sounds like it’s a nice chunky rock and roll machine! This Fender Baritone is easy to play – just like a Tele should. It’s fun, interesting, and feels good in the hands.

How low can you go!? If you play metal and need something metal-y, I like the Fender Baritone Telecaster – it has a lot of spunk. Of course, for metal, you could always paint it flat black and use bright orange duct tape to attach a pointed cap on the end of the headstock to make it monstrous :-). Have fun, play guitar!

FenderTeleBlacktopBaritoneJimPearsonFretDetailShot

Really nice: Blends of gloss, buffed natural, and metal. Nice!

Playability: The Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone plays like a dream when it comes to playing baritone guitars. The neck is easy, the body is familiar and simple, and the strings aren’t massively bigger (but enough that you know it). It’s oddly satisfying to handle that big long neck with the thicker strings. It’s chunky yet very comfortable feeling. The overall guitar somehow seems to feel “more substantial” when you are playing it. In some ways, the neck-to-body balance seems to be just right. If you’ve felt comfortable with a Tele before, this guitar is not a big stretch to which to make the leap.

I guess I had one issue with the playability of my Blacktop Baritone Tele: tuning. The Ping tuners work fine, smooth, and consistently. But their tuning ratio is too close/low to be useful on a thick-stringed baritone. When you’re trying to get the Tele Bari in tune enough to play with others or to record, you spend a LONG time hair-touching the tuner buttons trying to get them into tune. Not a picky thing here: a real issue. If you tweak the button just a little bit, it can go almost a quarter-tone out of tune on the low B and low E strings. Solution? Either use a tuning crank (and some care) to slowly adjust the button, or put in tuners that are 16:1 or better 18:1 (I could be wrong, but I believe that the current tuners feel like 14:1). I did the tuning crank for about a week. I got frustrated spending too much time tuning and re-tuning (the Pings didn’t hold tune once set) – and bought a set of locking 18:1 in-line mini Grovers. Tuning baritones is still a challenge, but these tuners cut my tuning times into half. I have nothing against Pings – but I just wish they had a larger/wider ratio on any of my Ping-tuned Fenders.

Sound: The sound of the Fender Telecaster Blacktop Baritone is substantial. It’s rock-oriented and can handle country and alt styles as well. The stock pickups (like the Gibson Les Paul Studio Baritone) aren’t generally well-suited for super-clean styles like New Age and Jazz. You can use the neck pickup in combination with the middle pickup to get a nice noise-canceled Tele sound – just remember that it is a Tele – it’s not rich and broad like a humbucker with AlNiCo magnets… I have gotten some nice single-coily cleans with my Fender Tele Baritone – albeit that the tones can get a little snappy… snappy is not always a bad thing!

A short note: I’ve discovered that my Telecaster Baritone sounds best through a bass amp or a guitar amp coupled to a/some cab(s) with 15″ speaker(s). I’ve played my blacktop through Crate, Peavey, Marshall, and Bugera guitar tube amps and cabs – without a doubt: the Tele Baritone sounded great through my bass amp; it sounded woofy and too muddy through a guitar amp with 12″ speakers. For more, read on to the “sound” section of this review.

FenderTeleBlacktopBaritoneJimPearsonBack

There are many components to sound quality in an instrument. Like many of my more recent reviews, the sound section deserves a little extra detail. In this case, I’ll write about:
1) Pickups/electronics
2) Tone woods, body, neck, bridge
3) The Telecaster body as a choice of shapes

Pickups and Electronics: For this review, there is a bit of a mashup of “sound”, “quality”, and “value” wih respect to the pickups and electronics in the Blacktop line of Fender guitars, including the Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone.

From the ear’s point of view, the Blacktop Telecaster Baritone sounds like a rock-and-roll favorite for the future. Guitar players will look for these in decades to come, particularly if Fender doesn’t continue to make them year after year. This guitar rocks. It knows how to grumble and growl, it can scream and yell, it can blanket you with a wall of sound through a tube amp with some big speakers. I’ve found that this guitar’s electronics work MUCH better through a bass amp or a big-wattage head through a cab with several 10″ speakers or a 15″ speaker. No doubt, my little 2×10 Behringer 450-watt garage amp smacked out the Baritone tone like a champ! My Marshall sounded good with it, but only through the Behringer’s speakers – and not my Peavey 4×12. Keep this in mind: The Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone does exactly just the right stuff… we just have to think about how we play baritone guitars in general – my comments are about my experience – not shortcomings of a particular guitar or amp…

The pickups have a huge strength and two weaknesses. The pickups are economically-made, and they are muddy in many amplification settings. They do gain definition with the right amp and even with DI computer input or something like a Line 6 TonePort. The strength? They sound GREAT when you put them in the right place.

The electronics are a surprise. Gone are the everyday solid CTS (or similar) high-quality pots, the burgundy chicklet capacitor, and the time-proven mechanical blade switch (like a CRL or an Oak). Now? The really, really cheap bargain-bin pots, an unknown quality cap, and the super-cheap circuit board flat ultra econo-switch. I’m not thwacking Fender for doing this: the Blacktops are cheaper than Fender Standards when it comes to street price – but grrrr: They could be STANDARD Fender stuff without killing profit. I think these guitars sound pretty good overall, but I was truly saddened when I popped open the control cavity and pickguard. Fender could have done better. Sad face. I popped in a Fender OEM volume pot, a nice push-pull 250kOhm tone pot (for 7-way switching), a Fender OEM tone cap, and a real Fender OEM mechanical blade 5-way pickup selector switch. It sounds AWESOME now – and I’m lovin’ my Fender Baritone being a Fender.

The Factory electronics of a Fender Blacktop Baritone Telecaster

The Factory electronics of a Fender Blacktop Baritone Telecaster

I do like the simplicity of the wiring as it comes from the factory, though:
Positions, starting from the bridge:
1) Bridge only, full humbucker
2) Bridge and middle, birdge still in full humbucker mode
3) Middle only as a single coil
4) Middle and neck in humbucking mode (quacky, but warm – LOVE me some Tele!)
5) Neck only as a single coil

Tone woods: The tone woods of this Telecaster are on par with the Fender Standard Telecaster. I am pleased with the overall sound, resonance, and weight of the guitar. You can count on it for consistency in manufacturing detail, and it sings nicely when you play.

Why Telecaster?: Why not? Baritones work well with most standard guitar shapes and configurations. The Tele Baritone sounds good because of many things, not the least of which is because of its slab-o-genius body. I like it. It sounds nice, especially with the swimming-pool-esque rout under the pickguard: the Telecaster lends itself to a certain sustaining resonance. That’s one of the MANY reasons why I love having them around.

Shameless sponsor plug 🙂 To be honest, though, zZounds has a great return policy and a love-your-gear guarantee that’s hard to beat. They price-match, too.

Quality: My Fender Telecaster Blacktop Baritone is extremely well made. It came out of the factory box without a single flaw or problem at first, and I was extremely pleased to wipe it down, tune it up, and start playing. I do think the bridge could have been seated a little bit further towards the lower bout tail – it would be easier to set the intonation.

I did have one problem after a week: The neck pickup stopped working. The PCB cheap switch was the problem. When I put in standard Fender stuff (including an OEM Standard switch), the neck pickup issue went away. I can now play all 5 positions with glee. Works great! (And, now that I have modified my Bari, the neck pickup is independent with a push-pull – that way I can get neck + bridge and neck + middle + bridge sounds, too.)

I had to set the intonation on the saddles – a step almost always necessary on production-line guitars (why is that, anyway? Can’t a factory person at least do the 12th fret harmonics setup?). No worries. Five of 6 saddles adjusted the intonation into place. The sixth ran out of room on the spring – I can’t get it any closer than 10 cents unless I clip the spring or change the saddle in some way. Overall? It does fine.

The fit and finish is flawless. it looks like people who really love guitars built it (and, I think they do). The feel of the finish on the neck and body are excellent, the fret ends were nice and simple – no jagged edges on frets. The fretboard is nice and smooth – none of that cheap rough stuff you see in economy guitars.

The Ping tuners (if they are indeed still made by Ping – they look like standard everyday Ping Fender two-pin tuners) are good tuners overall – but they don’t work well for this baritone (see the “playability” section of this review). The quality is excellent, though. I love the traditional old tiny simple thin string tree for the g and high b strings.

The neck pocket was sweetly dressed, and when I put on my trademark “F” Fender OEM neckplate, I found the fit to be paper-smooth and just the right tightness. I also found the neck shape to be something I love. It’s thicker than a regular standard or USA Tele neck, but not excessively so: the neck grinder did an excellent job at the factory.

Value: This guitar is a bargain. It is just about impossible to find a decent baritone 6-string in this price range, new from the box. With only two foibles (neither of which is a red x to me), this guitar performs and sounds and plays like many guitars in the $799 street price range. The Fender Blacktop Telecaster Baritone sells for (as of this writing) $549 street, and occasionally $500 on sale here and there on the internet.

I think the price makes this guitar extremely good in the price-for-value ratio. I would buy a new one again if I was in the market. As of this writing, there aren’t very many used ones in the used marketplace, so only time will tell if they do a good job of keeping reasonable value after purchase.

FenderTeleBlacktopBaritoneJimPearsonFullBodyShotFront

The Amp knobs are a nice touch. A new classic cool - even in its first incarnation

Wishes: Fender: Please use real CRL-style switches, CTS/CGE-quality pots, and the good old burgundy chicklet cap. Also, please find a way to use tuners with a wider and bigger tuning ratio. It would be nice if the bridge were seated about a 1/4″ more back on the body for better intonation setting.

Oh: and Olympic white with a tinted maple neck/fretboard, please? Maybe for 2012/2013 model year? I would buy an Oly white with maple/maple in a heartbeat!

The Charvel Desolation DC-2 ST – A bargain for a lightweight neck-through active HOT ROD!

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The Charvel Desolation DC-2 ST – An Experienced Review – Two in the house, one gigged and one pristine!

My son talked to me about the new Charvel Desolation series of neck-through guitars. Some are hard-tail, some are Floyd-rose enabled, some are double cutaway, and some are single… (Charvel has just introduced a Star-like version. Can’t wait to play it!)
CharvelDesolationDC2STTunerDetailJimPearson
I listened long enough that I decided to get one for myself when we ordered his. I like neck-through guitars for their sustain. I’ve got a few different ones, including my Gibson Firebird. I do think the neck-through thing is definitely worth the design. They sound great, tend to be very resonant, and actually play in a more lively way!

I am always on a budget (well, except when someone is generous with me!). So, I tend to think in terms of finding the best value for my money. I buy and sell a lot of gear, so cash flow is always tight when it comes to non-essential funds. These Charvel Desolation guitars are feature-for-cost heroes! They’re low priced and play like a guitar that’s much more expensive.

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CharvelDesolationDC2STTunerDetailJimPearson

Quick Opinion: I give the Charvel Desolation a strong B or B+. I like the guitar a lot. If I wasn’t in a budget crunch, I’d keep mine for a very long time. It’s one of the few low-cost guitars that I’ve not been driven to mod! It’s well-appointed and has great features. It looks and plays wonderful, too.

Playability: For the most part, the Charvel Desolation DC-2 ST is a very playable guitar. It is easy on the shoulder, easy to play, and doesn’t get in the way of your music. I think this is the strongest part of this guitar’s overall value. Playability is king with this type of Charvel.

CharvelDesolationDS2STFretboardDteail2JimPearson
The neck back is raw mahogany that has been oiled. There is no grabby finish, nor is their the nice satiny feel of a matte-finish neck, either. The feel is visceral and simple. It feels like smooth wood. The tight-mahogany-grained neck feels nice when you keep it oiled. My son gigs his black-transparent one quite a bit – he loves the feel of the neck even when he’s sweat all over it for three hours straight.

I think the double-cutaway design is nice. As much as I love Les Paul guitars and other single-cutaway designs, this simple double-cutaway makes it easy to get ANYWHERE on ANY fret of the neck. NICE! The cutaway design is reminiscent of a PRS double cutaway, but with smaller horns and similar edge design.

The guitar is amazingly light! When you first pick it up, you think that it might be a 13/16 size guitar. But it isn’t! It’s a full-size guitar that just feels light as a feather and easy to play! I was truly impressed. This is on par with the new lightweight re-issued Gibson SG Special HH guitar. Resonant, light, easy on the strap, effortless to play!

CharvelDesolationDS2STNeckBodyFrontJointDetailJimPearson
Sound: There are many components to sound quality in an instrument. Like the many of my more recent reviews, the “sound” portion of this review deserves a little more depth than usual. Overall, the Charvel Desolation DC-2 ST is a HOT ROD with sound. No clean stuff or Kenny G here! Just outright ROCK, Metal, Alt Country, and Punk! You can’t get a smooth warm sound from these hot rods. Charvel has certainly earned it’s nickname with these!

Here’s a breakdown of the sound:
1) Pickups/electronics
2) Tone woods, body, neck, bridge

Pickups and Electronics: The electronics are very basic, very simple active electronics. The back of the guitar has a battery access door for a single 9V battery to help boost the low-impedance pickups and electronics. You won’t find high-end electronic components here – but they’re on par with the Japanese-made Jackson Pro series of guitars and the Fender Blacktop series guitars.

CharvelDesolationDC2STBodyFrontDetailJimPearson

The electronics components make the sound simple and strong. There’s not much variance in the control, though. They go from loud to quiet with not much in between, and from bright to dark with very little smooth transition. I do wish these were more precise. The components are recognizable brands, but they aren’t very subtle. Of course, if you’re playing metal or Alt, you don’t do subtle, do you? 🙂

I do need to spend a paragraph or so on the pickups. These are definitely NOT smooth AlNiCo 8 kOhm PAFs. These are more in line with the Seymour Duncan Blackouts: aggressive, high-gain, very easy to produce pinch harmonics, and LOUD. These pickups are the kind you would probably just leave in the guitar and not upgrade as you grow used to the guitar – except for one thing: The neck pickup is muddy. The bridge pickup is all rock, alt, and punk – I love it. But if you throw the switch to the neck and start to do some “b” section work with chords or subtle overtones, you can’t get there. The chords and fast-speed finger plucking detail gets lost.CharvelDesolationDC2STBodyFrontJimPearson

Before I placed mine on the market, I found an old first-generation Seymour Duncan Blackout – I was going to replace the neck pickup… Honestly, if you just do rhythm guitar, you’ll not notice the neck pickup. But if you get into a lead where you want the darker sound of the neck pickup – you’re going to lose detail.

Tone woods: Tone woods make this a guitar that has more value than its price. The wood of the neck is very resonant, and the body wood is thin and simple enough to sound good. Note this, though: The body is made of lots of pieces of wood that are glued together. It’s not junk wood, but there are a bunch of pieces for a guitar with a body this small…

In general, the mahogany body rings and vibrates in a pleasing way against my chest. I like the way it keeps singing long after a note is plucked or strummed.

Quality: OK Charvel, I have loved your guitars for decades. They’ve been fun, interesting, and a rock-star friend. But these Desolation guitars left me wanting when it came to quality. Some are As in quality, and others are downright C-minuses in quality. I had to go through one or two until I got one with which I was satisfied. My current DC-2 is excellent. My first one broke my heart!

CharvelDesolationDS2STNeckFinishUnfinishDetailJimPearson
The back of the neck is unfinished and is just oiled wood. The candy-coating red color of the body is beautiful, hard, and thick. But… where the two meet isn’t very nice. The paint stops abruptly and is actually so thick that it feels like a rubber band is around the base of the neck. When you’re playing in the high registers, your hand objects to the sharp, sudden transition from raw wood to paint. Charvel, this wouldn’t have been hard to feather! I wish the neck was either finished or that the unfinished wood was smoothly tapered under the painted part of the body.

The fret ends on both guitars were sharp enough to scrape skin. Since I have a guitar tool or three, I had the patience and time to dress the ends of the frets and made them fit just right. I must say, it took an hour to get them nice and smooth. The factory could do a better job clipping the ends on these. Really.

The tuners are great! The locking tuners in black nickel are a NICE touch. They do their job great, and they are VERY stable in their tuning capabilities.CharvelDesolationDC2STHeadstockFrontJimPearson

Other than the neck-to-body joint, the paint is flawless! I’ll give it an “A.” The headstock finish, the body and binding finish – all are exceptional. This is a DOWNRIGHT BEAUTIFUL guitar. I love the binding all around the body and headstock. Charvel out-did itself on the way the lower horn cuts away so nicely without binding, then the binding subtly picks up and runs around the front. The flamed top looks like great stuff, and the rich color of the paint is awesome!

CharvelDesolationDC2STBodyBackJimPearson

Inexpensive guitars with lots of inlay do tend to have lots of little black putty fill-ins. This guitar is right on the money. The fretboard inlays are sharp and well-done! I love the way these guitars look!

My second Charvel DC-2 ST is good with quality in most aspects, but with some issues here and there. My son’s DC2 (the third one we purchased) had lots of little foibles, too. His needed many different adjustments, truss rod adjustments, fret end dressing, and some steel wool on the neck to take out spots that were downright rough.

I LOVE Charvels! I just wanted to be honest: Please make the guitars better with fit-and-finish and use fewer pieces of wood in the body!CharvelDesolationDC2STBaseHornDetailJimPearson

Value: These guitars are a STRONG value. They’re worth more than $425 (Street) when they’re new-in-the-box, and are (as of this writing) $349 for flat black and $399 for gloss finishes. They have LOTS of features, LOTS of mojo, and drive my Windsor 120w head to screams!CharvelDesolationDC2STNeckInlaysJimPearson

Features: Charvel Desolation guitars are feature rich. They have more general features than most guitars in their price range. One could even argue that they’re the most feature-rich guitars in their price range!

These guitars have impressive feature sets:
* Neck through!
* Lots of Mahogany and dark wood fretboards!
* Great inlays. Nice touches!
* Active electronics
* Light weight
* Easy upper-fret access

CharvelDesolationDC2STFrontJimPearson

Wishes: I wish the neck finish was silky and smooth. More steel wool or polishing pads would have made all the difference in the world.

I wish the neck pickup could play in a more articulate way. The fun low-cost Dragonfire pickups have more definition in chording and complex sounds… Maybe hook up with their manufacturer? You can see what I mean by visiting their website here…

My Other wish? Get those Star Desolation guitars to more outlets! They’re nowhere in my local area!

Fender Highway One (Hwy 1) USA Stratocaster Guitar Review – I still have one for recording to this day. Love them!

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I first wrote this review on October 3, 2009. I’ve had a few of these for short periods of time since then. I now have a burgundy SSS model – it’s become a bit of a Frankenstein, with a 50’s reissue V neck, vintage tuners, and such: but still the excellent body and pickguard and electronics I’ve come to love and respect from a Highway One USA Stratocaster…/h3>

2007 Fender Highway One USA Stratocaster Review

No matter how many instruments I own or play, there’s always a need and a feel for a Strat. The sound is unmistakable. The feel is just right. The overall experience playing a nice Stratocaster is really an eye, feel, sound thing (and sometimes, a smell thing).

Strats have changed over the years, from the simpleness of the 50s to the big-hair rock of the eighties to the current array of models. We have so many from which to choose… Made in Mexico, made in Japan, and made in the United States of America. Maple, SSS, HSS, HH, rosewood, alder, ash, mahogany, big frets, skinny frets, vintage headstock, “Jimi” headstock (would that be a Woodheadstock?), gypsy bridge, AlNiCo, ceramic, samarium cobalt, noiseless, noisy, Greasebucket, S1, roadworn… There are so many different Strats and so many different things about those Strats. For every season, for every reason, for every musical decade, there are Strats for them since the 50s. They’re a part of music’s fabric now – and are one of the greatest easy-to-customize guitars on the market…

I was looking for a USA Stratocaster. I didn’t quite have the change available for an American Standard or an American Deluxe – so I looked at and fell in love with the Highway One. I’ve had Highway One Fenders before, and have always been pleased.

This particular Stratocaster is a complete joy and has absolutely no disappointments. The sound is unmistakable, remarkable, and pure Strat. It plays and looks like a dream.

Quick Opinion: The 2007 and later Highway One Strats are great (previous ones were fine, but for this conversation…). They play well, are affordable, and they sound just like I wanted to hear. They really are well made, and are very comfortable to play for one recording or a whole set of gigs. If you’d like a nice big-fret USA-made Stratocaster, you owe it to yourself to try one of these.

Features: Where do I start? They’re genius simple and complex-wonderful all at the same time. They sound and play in a rich experience that leaves the player (and the listener) grinning.

There are lots of kinds of Fender Stratocasters. Browse them and find the right one for you at zZounds.com and their “love your guitar” guarantee.

My particular Highway One is, if I am correct, a short-run guitar. I purchased this one when all that was available was rosewood-fretboard Highway Ones. Now, Fender makes a version of these as a standard offering. I’m really glad they did. I like the old HSS Highway Ones just fine, but this was my alternative to an SSS American Standard – and I LOVE maple fretboards on Fenders. (To be honest, I’m reviewing a Gibson SG Raw Power with a maple body, neck, and fretboard – and I love it there too… stay tuned.)

A short list of what the Highway One has:
Excellent post-vintage AlNiCo III magnet pickups with staggered poles and excellent output balance – not too hot, not too thin
A thin-skinned nitrocellulose finish – the more you play it, the smoother and shinier it gets, the more it feels and looks like an old friend…
An excellent mid-size maple neck and fretboard with that 70s “Jimi” headstock and lettering
A comfortable lightweight body
The excellent vintage-style tremolo
The always cool Fender Greasebucket tone circuit
Standard tuners and buttons
Decent mass to the trem block
Great-feeling jumbo-style frets

Quality: This particular Highway 1 is an extremely well-made instrument. The craftsmanship is careful and is an extremely good example of what American guitar builders can do.

The fit and finish are flawless. The pickups are wound wonderfully well. The feel, finish, and wood chosen for the neck are just right for the satin variety necks.

Screw holes are lined up right, the action was just perfect for .009 Fender Bullets right out of the box. Easy and buttery to play, without any issues or not-normal buzzes. The frets are level and are nicely polished from the factory (see my wants and desires section of this review…)

I was extremely impressed with the consistency of the matte nitro finish. Nitro is not easy to apply in any stretch of the imagination – and matte finishes show every little flaw or inconsistency. This Strat was loved by the person who made it. Period. The lacquer finish feel is great and is a pleasure to have against your skin. I do like gloss finishes as a personal preference. However, the finish on these doesn’t grab when you get sweaty…

I also felt the new Fender gig bag is a major improvement. Highway Ones come with the new super-thick, super-strong-fabric gig bag. Very nice. As gig bags go, these are definitely among the very best.

Playability: Here’s where I start getting warm fuzzies about the Highway One I have: the physical experience of playing the guitar is fantastic. Everything about it from the way the trem works to the feel of the frets to the balance of the body and neck is just a pleasure. That’s the operative term for these: a pleasure. Not every Strat is a pleasure to play, even when they’re correctly and professionally set up.

The balance on my shoulder (with a nice 2.5″ faux-suede, thick black strap)is superb. I don’t know if this is something factual, but here’s something nicely subjective: the big headstock makes the balance unique. I felt that the way this guitar is assembled and planned and sourced is ideal for someone looking for their guitar to feel almost transparent to their playing.

Simply put, it becomes an extension of my mind and heart – without getting in the way and demanding my attention. I’ve made some nice progressive rock instrumentals with this instrument, and I couldn’t be more happy with the way the guitar felt standing or sitting.

Action is subjective, and is really a personal thing. My son Kennon (of the N.C. band InterTwyneD) likes his strings low but off the frets a good bit – he likes to dig under the string a little when he bends. Me? I like it low enough that the strings buzz a little when they’re struck or plucked with vigor. This Strat has been set both ways, and in both instances, it STILL played like buttery joy. Smooth, effortless, and just awesome. This thing plays .010s just fine, but it really feels effortless with .009s. (Incidentally, I tried this guitar with Carlos Santana Big Core 10.5 pure , nickel strings and was very happy with the result.)

Sound: OK… this is a place where you’ll either think I’m a genius or a charlatan – Strat players are funny about their sound. Malmsteen, Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, Guy (and the list goes on in a BIG way)… all these folks get (or got) different sounds out of their Strats, and contemporary amateur and pro Strat players are no different. That’s my disclaimer… and I’m stickin’ with it.

I REALLY like the Jimmie Vaughan, SRV, and Tex-Mex based Roadworn Strat sounds. They make me giddy with distortion, clean, blues, chorus, wah, phaser, crunchy, reverby, vibe-y, and more. BUT these AlNiCo III USA pickups are a great way to have vintage sounds without the truly vintage thin-ness.

Bell tones. Bell tones. Bell tones. Bell tones. (Did I tell you Bell Tones?) The 2 and 4 position sounds on this guitar are just fantastic.

The neck position sound is a little too bright for me. I really wanted something warmer out of this guitar. Even with unique wiring, this guitar didn’t quite give me the smooth rich neck pickup experience I was expecting.

The bridge sounds great in overdrive, as does the middle (3rd position). I use an http://www.buyanalogman.com (opens new window) SD1 Silver when playing some of my more adventurous Strat stuff – and the two are MADE FOR EACH OTHER. Wow. Just, WOW.

Value: These days, guitars have gone up in price to reflect the US Dollar, and the cost of everything… but when you look at the Highway One’s street price compared to the US Standard street price and the MIM Strat street price, this guitar is really priced just right. It’s not a bargain. But at the same time, I don’t see it as overpriced, either. The Highway One Stratocaster is an extreme bargain when compared to MIJ Strats.

You get A LOT of guitar for your money. The craftsmanship, features, and components are well worth every cent these cost. Both in the new market and the used/secondary market they are worth the money.

They hold their value more than the MIM Strats, and in some selling environments, better than the depreciation of the USA Standard Stratocasters.

When times get better, I will buy another to replace this one once it is sold.

Wishes: I’m not really too hung up about anything on this particular Strat. But I do have some wishes:
Do a better job with the fret-ends.
Really, the rest of the craftsmanship is worthy of rolled-edge fretboards. The lack of rolled edges feels strange on a guitar this nice.
Tuners: they need to hold tune better. They’re nice and they’re smooth, but could do a better job on this particular instrument. The vintage string-in-post tuners on the Jimmie Vaughan and Roadworn Strats hold much better.
Honestly, bring back the honey blonde with the maple fretboard! Or at least, some type of white/tan/blonde. Black and sunburst are so very commonplace these days…

Dean Vendetta XM Electric Guitar Review – Nice low price, but still – it needs work

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I first wrote this on December 10, 2007. I’ve long since sold many different XMs. I currently have a nice XM 7 string (has a trem) that is a fun guitar to play. I still have the same feelings as before. This could be a better guitar – even if we had to pay $149 for it or a little more.

Dean Vendetta XM Electric Guitar Review – The good, the bad, and the ugly

Some guitars have a dual purpose in their useful lives. The Dean Vendetta XM guitar is just such a wonder. Some folks need an inexpensive guitar to get them started – not everyone can afford a $2200 Les Paul Standard or a $1700 Fender Deluxe Stratocaster. Some folks need a decent instrument as a base (donor) for some seriously fun modifications – without having to spend $600 on aftermarket parts to put together a donor instrument for one’s ideas.

Low-cost guitars tend to fall into one of three categories: cheap, and built to play that way; inexpensive, but not a hit in any area (GREAT specs but poor execution); and inexpensive – but more value than the dollars spent. The Dean Vendetta falls into the second category. As with all low-end/beginner guitars, there are obvious places in the Vendetta XM where money has been saved. Still, the build quality is not that great, but the features are actually wonderful.

I specifically went out looking for a Stratocaster-shaped guitar for a mini-humbucker project I had in mind. I didn’t want an actual Strat (or Strat clone) this time: I was looking for double cutaway, light weight, and an interesting neck. The Dean Vendetta XM went on sale at my local Guitar Center – perfect timing. I had some proceeds from a guitar sale at Christmas time – and the Vendetta XM came home with me post-haste. It was the perfect donor guitar for the creation of an AWESOME double mini-humbucker project with a 5-way rotary selector. With some nice USA-made parts, high-end import parts, mods, and a little time, it turned out to be an absolute gas!

Let’s talk about the factory Vendetta XM with which I started, pre-mods.

Quick Opinion: The Dean Vendetta XM is a marginally good beginner’s guitar – one well-suited to folks who have not yet begun to grow into their inner guitar-hero-self – but who aren’t sensitive to a decent neck or sound yet. As with any beginner’s instrument, the Vendetta XM is not comparable to well-made instruments from the United States or Japan. If one doesn’t expect high-end guitar-ness in the Vendetta XM’s $100 form, one will be OK with the result. No, the Vendetta XM is not an American Standard Stratocaster. No, the Vendetta XM is not a USA-made Dean for the family heirloom closet. The Dean Vendetta XM is a nice-looking, OK-playing instrument for beginners. It is lightweight, well-featured, and actually looks different than most beginner guitars.

I think the Dean Vendetta XM is a so-so guitar for starters – one that can be upgraded to accommodate the growing needs of a burgeoning guitar player. This guitar is particularly good for smaller folks (who still want a full-size guitar), or for those that don’t like lots of weight hanging on their guitar strap.

My Dean Vendetta XM was not very well set up when I got it. There were (more than usual for a beginner’s instrument) fret buzzes and the strings were set too high for a beginner. The intonation is pretty close for a bargain guitar. However, nearly every inexpensive instrument I have ever played had some setup or adjustment issues when pulled out of its box. On the positive side – my Vendetta XM came with an arrow-straight neck and VERY unusually excellent soldering in the control cavity. If only the components in the control cavity were better-made.

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Features: The Dean Vendetta XM’s features are very much it’s strongest point. The guitar has a string-through design across a Tune-O-Matic-style non-trem bridge – and the sustain and ring of the body definitely shine through. Even the acoustic sound of the Vendetta XM is pretty good. The string-through design makes for great “ring”, reasonable low-end frequencies, and an interesting look to boot.

The simple control layout is a plus. One master tone, one master volume, and a three-way toggle switch adorn the Vendetta XM. The toggle selections are: neck humbucker, both humbuckers, and bridge humbucker. The toggle is a little close to the volume knobs (for quick-change switch slapping while playing). An inspection of the inside of the control cavity was surprising: the soldering was excellent, clean, and well-done. The anti-noise shielding black paint, however, was terribly applied (nothing a little copper shielding won’t fix) and the components were sub-par.

The body is very lightweight and is a comfort to the shoulder. The guitar is a little neck-heavy because of the light body, but it isn’t obnoxious. My suede strap (fuzzy on the shoulder-side) held my Vendetta XM pretty well in place for long periods. One small sacrifice of the light body: the guitar doesn’t have quite as much sonic guts as a heavyweight like an Epiphone Les Paul, PRS SE, or Squier HH Stratocaster. Really, it doesn’t “ring” much at all. It absorbs sustained notes sometimes. The stock pickups and the light body do make for some relatively warm (but slightly mushy) sounds played through some amplifiers or models. This is an important thing: the guitar is Extremely comfortable; but there is a small price. A beginner would not feel the sonic difference early in her/his experience. But, this can be fixed with good pickups, a decent nut, and some good adjustment.

Overall, the neck is well below par for an inexpensive instrument. It is reminiscent of a nice Jackson or even a wider Epiphone neck in its design, but not its quality. I like the feel and playability of maple on the back once I got it smoothed and adjusted. The rosewood of the neck was kind of weird though: the factory had applied excessive “fingerboard black” to the rosewood. My fingers are black every time I played my Vendetta XM. My particular Vendetta has a great, straight neck. It does, however, have a rough feel – the finish had not been polished down/sanded well enough. The fret ends were pretty terrible. I had to work them just to get them from scraping my skin.

The tuners are adequate sealed machine heads that work fine. Strong bending does pull the instrument out of tune – but not any more or less than any other bargain guitar. The tuners are, however, smooth, better-than-average, and look a lot like the Schaller-type tuners on the nicer Squier instruments.

The dual humbuckers are average, and do the job well enough for a beginner instrument. As with any low-cost humbucker instrument, the humbuckers don’t sound like BurstBuckers, DiMarzios, or Seymour Duncan SH* pickups. They’re exceptionally easy to replace as the beginner becomes more desirous of better sound. Overall, the sound is decent and the quality is better than average. Like most pickups in guitars in this price range, they are a bit muddy and don’t articulate well. They’re best suited for power “chords” and note-to-note single tone playing.

My Vendetta XM came fitted with nice lightweight D’Addario strings. They were in good condition, were well-selected for the neck and body type. It’s a refreshing change to see commercial-grade strings on a basic instrument – most instruments on the market have lowest-bidder strings installed at the factory.

Quality: The quality of my Dean Vendetta XM is a mixed bag. The finish of the body is flawless – even, smooth, consistent, and attractive (no, they’re not gloss finished like in most pictures you’ll see – they’re satin finished). The finish on the neck is in need of a LOT of work. The neck finish was rough, the frets were unfinished, and the fretboard is just not as nice as it should be. Even the imprint of the serial number is poorly done. The neck finishing seems as if it was done in a big hurry. The nut is a hollow plastic variety – although this is not unusual in this price range, I’d expect more from Dean. Dean used to make such good stuff.

The wiring and electronics are way below average for a $100 instrument. As with most instruments in this price range, the electronics will be noisy in a few years.

I have to say this again (because it is VERY unusual): The electronics ASSEMBLY were very well done. Most high-end instruments I’ve played have the same level of soldering craftsmanship and wiring-lengths/wrapping. It may have been just my particular instrument, but I suspect that the simplicity of the controls and the large control cavity make for an easy job at the factory. Just not the components…

Playability: The Dean Vendetta XM is a very playable instrument. It is comfortable from a strap and body-fit perspective, and the neck is a good balance for large hands or even some smaller hands. It is smooth and comfortable in almost every respect.

The tuners go out of tune when the instrument is played aggressively. The instrument needs a reasonable set up when it is purchased – if nothing else to set the string height to the player’s liking.

Value: The Dean Vendetta XM is an $89 value, usually sold for $119 to $99 street. Overall, it is a nice inexpensive guitar. On balance, though I really like Dean guitars, and I think they are the spice of the guitar store. I did not hesitate at all to purchase my Vendetta XM.

I think Vendetta XM is OK for beginners, and mine has definitely made an excellent choice for my modifications!

Wishes: Do a better job with the neck, Dean: please? The electronics can really use some help, too.

Realistically, Dean USA guitars are keepers, no doubt. But their Asian counterparts leave a LOT to be desired. It breaks my heart (no sarcasm at all) to say this, but Deans have become the “80s Hyundai” of guitars. They devalue massively more than their competitors, and their reputation amongst the new generation of guitar players is all but dashed. The only ones that get any attention are the ones that Dimebag Darrell played… but even those don’t get ANY respect on the secondary market. Dean, where are you? I’d love to see you make your way back to high ground. Here’s an interesting test of a guitar’s value: Try to sell one of a given model on Craigslist. If you put a Dean XM on Craiglist, you get derisive emails. Interesting, isn’t it?