Wednesday, October 18, 2006

China-made Eastman Jazz Archtop Guitars

The sound of an electric jazz guitar playing a jazz standard in the quiet of the night, with all those luscious chords and chord melody sends thrills and chills up and down my spine. The sound of an electric jazz guitar has come to epitomise urban sophistication, cool factor and maybe wealth. Look at all those advertising clips from banks to luxury cars or chic restaurants that use the sound of an electric guitar jazz quartet playing in the background. Look at the popularity of Diana Krall's band which always includes a jazz guitarist. And marvel at how her guitarists Russell Malone and Anthony Wilson so fittingly complement her music. In my view the sound of an electric jazz guitar has a charm and authenticity all it's own. An instrument in it's own right, distinct from the acoustic guitar from which it was derived.

Until about 4 years ago, a jazz guitar player who wanted a good carved- top would probably have to buy an American-made Gibson . An L-5 would set you back about US$7000 while a lesser laminated top ES-175 would still cost about US$4000. Less expensive alternatives for about US$3000 would be the Epiphone models, the George Benson GB200 from Ibanez, the newer Japanese-made D'Angelico's and Guilds produced by Fender. Even more expensive than the Gibsons would be guitars custom-made in small quantities such as the Benedetto's, Comins, Buscarinos and Triggs, all easily over US$10000 for premium models.

But now along comes, Eastman Strings of China .

For years they have been making fine violins, mandolins and traditional Chinese musical instruments such as the Ku-Cherng and the Pi-Pa. Eastman took the jazz guitar world by storm when the first Eastman AR-810CE jazz archtop guitars were introduced at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California in 2002. The quality and sound of the guitars[and a bit of the styling] were equivalent to $15000 hand-made Benedettos. And they cost only US$1500 . Although Eastmans now cost about US$2000, they are still well worth the money. Each guitar is hand-made and hand-polished by the Chinese luthiers. They also come with fibre glass cases in outrageous colors such as taxi cab Yellow, lime Green and Bubble Gum pink. Every guitar sounds different, and if you want to buy one, it's best that you try out a few.

I have a 2003 Eastman 810CE in a rare Sapphire Blue which I bought for US$2000 from Lou Russo of Guitars&Jazz in Summit, NJ . . I had earlier successfully bidded for another Sapphire Blue 810CE on eBay, for US$1165. But the eBay guitar arrived damaged, and after repairing the damage for US$100, subsequently re-sold it on eBay for US$1100.

The guitar Lou sold to me was from his private collection. It is very acoustic, very loud, such that it can easily be played without an amplifier in a small band setting. The neck is straight as an arrow, the action set low and fast, and when fitted with Thomastik-Infeld Swings 0.13, the tone makes you feel like playing forever. I play it through an UltraSound AG50 acoustic amp, so as to retain as much of it's natural tone from the floating Kent Armstrong pickup as possible.

Electric jazz archtop guitars fall into two main categories: [1]The true carved [usually Spruce wood] tops like the Gibson L5, the hand-made D'Angelicos, D'aquisto's Buscarinos, etc and the Eastman. [2] Laminated tops like the GibsonES-175, and the less highly priced models of Ibanez, Guild, Hofner, Epiphones and lots more. Laminated tops have less feedback, and are easier to ocontrol when playing. While some players say a laminated top can sound as jazzy as a carved top, others disagree and say that only a carved top can give you the smoothness and acoustic overtones that make a classic jazz guitar tone.

Among the carved tops, there are two types: those with a routed-in humbucker pickup and those with a floating pickup such as in the Eastman. There is a big difference in the tone of these two categories. A fixed humbucker gets you the more electric tone of a Kenny Burrell or a George Benson, or a Howard Roberts. A floating pickup gets you a more woody tone like Joe Pass, John Pizzarelli or Howard Alden. A fixed humbucker jazz archtop is ideally played out through something like a Fender Twin Reverb or any good solid state amp. But a floating pickup guitar like the Eastman is more fussy and needs to be played through a good acoustic amplifier. The consensus in the jazz guitar world seems to be that an Acoustic Image amp paired with a Raezer's Edge speaker [ ] is the ultimate rig.

Eastman has leveraged on their reputation and popularity to produce more models including a fixed humbucker John Pisano signature model, and several thin-bodied semi-solids in the tradition of the Gibson ES-330 and the ES-335.


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