About Me

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Chicago area based Audio/Video management pro, guitarist for over 40 years - have seen and heard 1000's of axe-and-amp combos, and still hungry to hear more! I remain a student of the sound, and yet, have a lot to share!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Gibson Tim Shaw pickup

I just connected with one of my guitar engineering "heroes" online.

I own a 1980 Gibson Heritage 80 Les Paul, in a brown case next to my 1979 Les Paul KM. To make a long story longer, 32 years ago, I yanked out the Gibson pickups on my newly bought Heritage 80 (traded a BC Rich Seagull for it, good move on my part), thinking that they were just another not-so-great humbucker created by a then budget-conscious Gibson. 

Gibson Guitars were coming out of a bad period of ownership changes and accompanying not-so-great engineering. Craftmanship on a budget. Success wasn't coming easy for them at this point, as the glorious 1950's and 1960's were a full generation past.
I put a pair of Seymour Duncan JB's in this Les Paul, and proceeded to love the sound for the next 25 years or so. Great pickups, but perhaps not the authentic sound of the 50's vintage originals. I didn't know of any other options.

As the internet grew, I eventually started viewing the various Les Paul websites and discussion forums, and on occasion I used to take note of a name mentioned once in a while, a Gibson engineer named Tim Shaw who had been working on their now infamous humbucking pickups.   Who's Tim Shaw? Whatever....

Gibson was creating the Heritage 80, Gibson's first re-issue of the coveted 1957-1960 Les Paul Standard. They recreated the 50's neck carve, maple top "dish" carve, tuning headstock shape, deep neck tenon (neck joint) and other re-creations to answer the growing call for vintage Les Pauls, an internal decision was made at Gibson to have someone in engineering do whatever it took to re-create the original PAF (patented applied for) humbucking pickups for this model.  It was getting known that Gibson was not making good pickups over the past few years.  Duncan and DiMarzio were creating great products and killing the market for Gibson's pickups.   

Gibson assigned one of their engineers to take apart the old PAF's, analyze the magnets, scope all the electronic data for the wiring specs, output voltage, capacitors, etc, etc. 
Tim Shaw was that engineer.  He created, without any fanfare or publicity from Gibson, an identical 1959 Gibson PAF humbucker.  Nothing out of the ordinary was said about these pickups in the press releases.  

I had recently been reading online that the "Tim Shaw" pickups were now valuable and selling for over $150 each.  Huh?  That's a lot of money for some regular old pickup made by Gibson, I thought.  I was snobby and thought my Seymour Duncans were the best and Gibson was clueless... But his name and public adoration for these pickups was getting a grass roots following.

Hmmm. Uh, wait a minute - I saved those old pickups, didn't I? (I never throw any guitar electronics away to the chagrin of my beautiful wife) Where the hell are they?

After a one week search I found them in my basement in the bottom of a large box full of music cassettes from when we moved to our current house 22 years ago. The mildew was quite aromatic. I checked out the serial numbers and stickers and compared my pickups to now-online photos that others had put online of these special design pickups.  

Holy %@#*! Tim Shaw pickups. I actually own a vintage SOMETHING.

I put the pickups and now faded chrome original pickup covers back on my Heritage 80. Re-strung the guitar and plugged it in with nervous anticipation.  Mesa Boogie Mark IIC. Lead channel, drive at 7, master volume at 1. (it's loud, kids.) 
B string, pick it hard and hit a D on the 15th fret and bend it up to an E. Slight quiver of vibrato.

Wow – do you know how a picture, a smell, or an aroma can instantly bring back a memory?

My guitar sounded like the1957 Les Paul I once played in a music store in Evanston Illinois in the mid 1970s.  That LP was being offered for sale for $1200.  $1200 bucks for an old finish-cracked Les Paul goldtop?  (I'm about 21, so it's like tastes in wine at that age – not refined.) BUT I remembered the sound that old finished-cracked guitar made through the Marshall combo back then. Nice guitar, but I passed. I wanted a new Hamer instead.

Returning to 2008, I am hearing that sound again through a guitar I actually own.  Wow.  I never knew that the "middle" pickup position (both pickups on) had a clear bluesy creamy tone that I never heard with my gear, as my hard rock roots kept me nailed to the bridge position full time. The neck pickup wasn't muddy, it had that jazzy tone that matches up well with a vintage Hammond B-3. And the bridge pickup had a sparkle that even when overdriven through my amp settings, had a definition and a sparkle even with a bar chord in full drive. Welcome back to the future. The former replacement pickups made great sounds in all the positions, but not like this. I never gave the Gibson pickups a chance back then, but no one knew Gibson was working overtime in their lab and opening up the 1950's pickup winding archives. They didn't name the pickups (as they do now) when they had them installed in these Les Pauls in 1980. But now they are being called the Tim Shaw pickups. Is he alive or dead? Did Henry Juszkiewicz retain Tim after he acquired Gibson? Did Tim retire? I never knew. I just speak of his pickups to anyone who plays Gibsons and anyone else who will listen or pretend to listen.

In May of 2012, a name surfaced by accident as I was scouring contacts on Linked In. I'm connected to some people at Gibson, Fender, and many other Audio/Video/Musical Instrument organizations. I always had a dream to represent a guitar maker, so new online tools make it fun and easy to seek out and make connections. As I was rapidly scrolling through a section of Linked In called People You May Know, a name came and went quickly. Tim Shaw. Nah, can't be, common name, must be hundreds online. Let's go back and look. Tim Shaw, Director of Project Management, Guitar Design, Fender Musical Instruments. If I'm a betting man, I think I'd win this one. Got to be him. Fired off a contact request and asked if he was the Tim Shaw that designed the re-issued PAF Humbuckers for Gibson back in 1980. He replied a week later. Yes, that was him, he said, "glad I liked the pickups". Bingo, he's alive and well and now working for Fender. Fantastic. Brought out my Fender Strat Elite from 1982 and got it back in stage playing condition. Tim later indicated in another email that he designed this pickup version closer to the original specs that Seth Lover, the inventor, had intended. The output was lower, and Tim said he preferred this specification in order to hear what the guitar is doing as “a structure”.  

Gibson now makes great pickups and some of the best guitars in their history, but I can't help but think that Tim started the big resurgence in electric guitar pickup design when this re-issue was released.

Well, this man is a living legend to me. He quietly turned the guitar pickup world around for Gibson, and the rest of the pickup manufacturers upped their game from that point forward. No headlines, no big publicity for Tim in the trades. He does what he loves, and now Fender will certainly benefit from his expertise, experience and passion in their instruments. Who's Tim Shaw? 

 Doesn't matter – I know.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Return of the Les Paul

Everyone has done this: you're searching for some item you swear you have stored in a box in your basement but you re-appear from your underground world with something completely different in your possession.   

Having moved a few times and raised our kids, it seems like those storage boxes have multiplied like rabbits over the years.  So, I'm frantically searching for some old band studio cassettes similar to an archaeological dig, and I came across a magazine called the Gibson Gazette.  I'm not exactly sure how I acquired it, but it hails from about 1968.  It contains the publicity article re-introducing the return of the original Les Paul Standard Goldtop, and Les Paul Custom in Ebony black. (In case you didn't know, the original Les Paul's were re-shaped into what is now the SG line about 1961 due to lack of sales of the first incarnation of these legendary axes. Funny how times change.) 
Les Paul also released an album that year called Les Paul Now.  The 12 pages are a fascinating read, as it describes a glimpse into the current music scene, pre-Woodstock.  This has been in my possession for the last 43 years, and modern technology is allowing me to share.  Enjoy, and of course, let me know if you have any questions!  Forgive the mold markings on the pages, 43 years of basement storage will do that.

P.S.  I couldn't find the cassettes......

John Sather, Sept 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

REVIEW: Fernandes ZO-3 Series Guitar (Japanese version of the US import Nomad)

I have always been distantly fascinated by the so-called "travel" or "practice" electric guitars.  These always appeared to be marketed as somewhat lower quality than the full-sized guitars we take on stage.  I would look at them in the catalogs or on the wall at a guitar shop, but I never desired to play one.  In my full-time band touring days, I would have loved to have had a high-quality guitar that was easy to play backstage or in a car.  Some travel guitars carry a prestige manufacturer brand name, but by the look and price, they are not the same quality of the main product brand line. The Fernandes Zo-3 is different, however.  It features good looks and high quality in a short-scale travel guitar.  In case you aren't aware, Fernandes is a Japanese guitar maker who started making guitars in 1969 and entered the US market in 1992.  We first saw their guitars as Les Paul and Strat copies in very fine detailed versions that caught a lot of attention.  They evolved into what we see today on their website, http://www.fernandesguitars.com/, and their Japanese site, http://www.fernandes.co.jp/.  They are a supurb guitar manufacturer with their own unique models. Fernandes owns a legendary status as a great guitar with an affordable price. Their quality rivals the top names.  They market one exclusive product, the Sustainer, that is available on many of their models, as well as in kit form for installation into other guitars.  Fernandes does not have the market penetration luxury that the big names do.  Even in the large Chicago market where I reside, the existing Fernandes dealers are small retailers with limited inventory. The large online dealers display nearly all models, so when buying a new Fernandes, this may be your better option until they gain a stronger local dealer base.

One particular model that has been quietly gaining attention is the Fernandes Nomad. It is similar but not identical to the Fernandes Zo-3 in Japan.  Fernandes ships only one Nomad model to the US, with 4 variances on the color and graphics.  In Japan, there are 8 distinct Zo-3 models, including Zo basses! 

Some of the early (pre-Nomad) Zo-3 versions made it over to the States, and I would like to introduce 2 identical versions of the Zo-3 to you, and I'll take you on a fun walk with this guitar!

Fernandes Zo-3, in original light blue (with matching Fender-style blue volume knob!)

The Zo-3 is a short-scale travel/practice electric guitar:
  • 24" scale
  • 22 frets
  • 14" flat radius fretboard
  • One humbucking Fernandes pickup
  • Single volume knob
  • Alder body
  • Fixed, string-thru body adjustable bridge
  • On-board 5 watt amplifier, 9v battery powered

  • On/Off internal amp switch
  • Built in 4" speaker hidden behind a black metal grille
  • Maple neck with mahogany fretboard
  • "Moon" fret markers on fretboard
  • Small side fret "dot" inlay markers
  • Single 1/4" output jack in bottom side portion of guitar (Les Paul-type position) with auto bypass of internal amp for use with outboard amplifier
  • Medium frets
  • Wedge-shaped padded gig bag

This particular model has a mahogany fretboard with a very dark wood, resembling ebony!

I had only read about the Nomad, but I did not prefer 3 out of the 4 finishes they offer in the US: Black, Flames, UK flag, US flag. (I like the look of the black finish over the other 3 finishes) My wish is that they would offer the US market the full Japanese line, as this guitar has multi-demographic appeal.  I discovered via Ebay and similar sites, that the Japanese version, the Zo-3, has been available in Japan for many years. 

The current Japanese only versions are:
  • Zo-3, basic single humbucker pickup
  • Zo-3A, piezo only pickup
  • Zo-3ST, one single coil pickup, tremelo, fender-style pickguard, maple fretboard
  • Zo-3 '11, single humbucking pickup, tremelo, NOMAD-style electronics (volume control/power switch, 2 way distortion control mini-switch)
  • Zo-3 Signature - Hello Kitty, Nakoi, Takuma,  etc
  • Zo-3 PIE, Piezo guitar and bass models
  • Digi-Zo ULT, a Zo-3 with multiple on-board effects
  • Digi-Zo Hyper, a Zo-3 with even more on-board effects
  • Each of these models has numerous finishes available for their Japanese buyers, from opaque colors to natural finishes and sunbursts, with and without body-edge binding.
My wife found an "original" Zo-3 in light blue, and another identical Zo-3 in light pink. We bought both of them, and I immediately discovered, upon holding the Zo-3 that this was no "student" or lower quality model. I also bought a newer Nomad US version in black.

This is a professional instrument that is truly designed as a backstage, easy access travel, practice or student guitar for anyone, from beginner to pro.  It will fit in an overhead airline compartment and the padded gig bag has shoulder straps, making this a very easy guitar to transport.  The quality of the fretwork, neck, and assembly is also impressive for the price of this guitar.  The action is very low and NO fret buzz.  The 14" radius fretboard assists the set-up with this low action capability. 

The unique headstock shape is set up with a single string tree for the 1st and 2nd strings.  I was wondering just what was on the minds of the designer of this model, as I didn't think the shape of the body and headstock were simply random.  It turns out that the name Zo means elephant, and a view from a few feet away confirms that this guitar does somewhat resemble an elephant in a kind of a Picasso-style of visual interpretation. The built-in speaker represents the eye of the elephant, and the neck looks like the trunk!

The sound of the Zo is typical of a single humbucker at-the-bridge position style guitar, with an acceptable, but not outstanding responsive sound through an outboard amplifier.  However, I cranked up my Zo through a Line 6 Flextone set on Mesa Boogie Rectifier, and this little guitar wailed with a Gibson-like 24" scale "yaw" sound in a distorted tone, and delivered a full chimey shimmer when playing cleaner chords. The Zo-3 has its guitar strap buttons at the base of the guitar and on the backside of the headstock. It is not balanced as it should be.  When the Nomad version became available in the US, the strap button was moved to the top of the body right behind the neck joint, and the balance while the player is in the standing position has been greatly improved.

The blue and pink Zo models are straight-ahead electronic set ups that are easy to work when using in practice mode, or through an outboard amplifier via the 1/4" jack.  The mini switch activates the internal amplifier and turns on the red LED to indicate you are on internal mode.  When you insert a cable into the output jack, the internal amp is automatically bypassed.  You operate the guitar like a standard electric guitar and use the onboard volume control to adjust the output level.  When you remove the back plate covering the internal speaker and electronics, you notice the selection of high-quality components. Fernandes also supplies some little assembly extras, such as foam pieces set around the speaker to avoid vibration and give added protection from the surrounding electronics.   

Fernandes offers a wide variety of configurations, and my black US Nomad has a slight variation as follows:  The volume control now has a off/on click  in the "0" position. Turning the volume control forward turns the internal amplifier to the ON mode, and the red LED lights to indicate power is on. The mini 2-way switch is now a distortion mode switch on this model, with a clean and overdrive selection.  Fernandes has 3 trim pots on the internal circuit board that can be adjusted to set the master volume, normal and overdrive modes.  The other change is the addition of a second 1/8" output jack that is intended for a set of headphones for private practice.  Perhaps it may be my version, but when you insert a 1/4" cable for play through an external amp, the volume control does not go to a full "off" mode, and basically stays in an amplified version of the practice mode.  Consequently, this guitar does not fully transform from a practice/travel guitar to a stage adaptable version with the same ease as the Zo Japanese original.  Of course, this guitar was designed with travel/impulse use in between sessions with your performance guitars.  I would assume that Fernandes was trying to continue to develop this guitar as an ultimate practice guitar, and not try and compete with the full size performance guitars.   

The sonic quality of the built-in amp on the Zo-3 is louder and cleaner than I expected - a good basic amp that will give the player a noise-free, clean, honest response with enough power that will not hide or color a player's style.  As a practice guitar set-up with the built-in amp, it's perfect for private practice sessions, or small gatherings where an outboard amp is not practical or available.  It does what was intended, with cool styling that will turn a lot of heads.  If I were to suggest any upgrade to the Nomad/Zo, I might suggest a second pickup for more tone variety - either a small single coil near the neck, OR the addition of a piezo pickup for some acoustic sounds and electric/acoustic blends!  In Japan, they offer magnetic pickups, OR piezo, but not both on the same Zo guitar. 

Seek out and consider adding this guitar to your collection.  The Japanese Zo-3 will have a strat-type volume control that matches the color of the body in most cases.  The American Nomad will generally use a smaller nickel chrome volume knob.  The Fernandes decals are also different on the Japanese and the American versions. (the Zo-3 headstock is pictured with a light blue color, and the Nomad is pictured with a black color finished headstock)
I play this guitar daily, and its small size makes it easy to leave out in a room to make a quick practice session very convenient.  Fernandes has also priced this guitar in an affordable range, less than $500 new, and used street prices find the Japanese Zo-3 guitar selling in the $150 to $200 range, while the American Nomad version sells in the $200 to $400 range  This is a much higher quality guitar than the price would indicate! 

As most musicians, I will continue the never ending quest of adding another guitar to my musical instrument collection. My goal for the future is to to obtain the full sized Fernandes Dragonfly with Sustainer.....(Hope my wife doesn't find out!)

John W. Sather
aka: jwsoundguy