Friday, February 7, 2020

Ordering a Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond from Ikebe-Gakki Japan

Browsing Ikebe-Gakki's site the other day, I happened to pull up a search for Zemaitis guitars and came across this particularly spectacular piece. And as luck would have it, Ikebe-Gakki just happened to be having a closeout sale on Zemaitis Series 2 guitars to make way for the forthcoming Series 3's.

I knew I just had to pull the trigger on this one.

Ikebe-Gakki's email response time has always been quick and efficient and I was able to confirm my order the following day.

And so began the anxious wait.

Most Japanese online guitar shops ship by EMS, the very reliable Japanese postal service. It's SingPost in Singapore that has always caused me some concern which you can read about extensively on my Tokai LS173 article.

With the tracking number provided, the guitar shipped out via EMS Japan last Friday January 31st, and arrived in Singapore on Sunday night, February 2nd. Determined not to miss the postman this time around and face having to deal with the SingPost office yet again, I took a day's leave from work in anticipation of its delivery on Tuesday 4th February.

But it was not to be.

To top it off, the automated reply to a call to SingPost on Wednesday startlingly said that an attempted delivery was made on 4th February!  I immediately searched for an attempted delivery slip but it was nowhere to be found, not under my door or in the mailbox. "More SingPost shenanigans!", I thought to myself.

I was about to trek down to the post office and bang on a few tables (just kidding!) when I told myself,  "Relax, it's only a guitar".

I decided to call the SingPost hotline to reach out to an actual human being on the status of the shipment.  After being put on hold accompanied by some jarring, slightly distorted piano music I was politely informed that the package was in the queue for delivery the following day.

I was now even more determined not to miss the delivery, so I put up a sign on my gate, indicating my phone number. The package was delivered at precisely 9am by a very cheery postman who called me on my mobile number when he was at my front door.

Wait a minute Mr Postman..

In all, the guitar was with SingPost from Sunday February 2nd til the morning of February 6th -- four working days. Not too bad SingPost, not too bad.

And just like my previous order from Ikebe-Gakki, the guitar came very well packed, literally a box within another box, containing the guitar in its hardcase.

ikebe gakki carton
Ikebe-Gakki outer carton box

Inlays for Days

The first all-white Zemaitis guitar debuted at NAMM 2015. Part of the Japanese-made Zemaitis Superior series, this model featured abalone inlays encircling the rim of the guitar body but didn't yet include the large abalone diamond inlays next to the tailpiece.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond
Sheer wow factor and bling!

And it was all that abalone that initially caught my eye. On close inspection, I could see every little square inlay was separate and individually inlaid by hand. A CNC machine can cut the slots for the inlays, but there are some things that machines can't do just yet.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond inlays
Stunning inlay work

The Zemaitis A24SU Superior White Pearl Diamond features:

  • A mahogany top with abalone inlays
  • African mahogany neck and body
  • Set-neck construction
  • 42.5mm nut width
  • Rosewood fingerboard with 24 medium frets
  • Bone nut
  • 25" scale length
  • Dragon Classic pickups
  • Duralumin bridge, tailpiece, pickup mounting rings and control knobs
  • Gotoh SG381 1:16 ratio tuners
  • 12 1/32" fingerboard radius
  • Les Paul-style controls with two volume and two tone controls with  3-way selector switch
  • Polyurethane finish

What Is African Mahogany?

Traditional mahogany from Honduras is known for its strength and beauty and is still the wood of choice for guitar building.  Old growth Honduran mahogany stockpiles have long since dwindled and have become exceedingly expensive. Almost all the Honduran mahogany available these days is new growth from plantations but still commands top dollar. Naturally, alternatives to Honduran mahogany were sought out, one of which was Khaya from West Africa, one of five known species of mahogany.

On a solidbody instrument, African mahogany is as resonant and lightweight as its Honduran counterpart.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond in case
Zemaitis A24SU in plush hardcase

Zemaitis Set-Neck Construction

Upon examing the neck joint, the first thing I noticed was the unique neck pocket design, true to the original guitars built by Tony Zemaitis. The body is routed at the neck joint to form a pocket which encloses the neck heel on three sides when it is inserted and glued. Instead of a Les Paul-type tenon joint, the entire width of the neck heel fits into the pocket forming a very solid connection.  I noticed a similar neck pocket design on my Aria Pro II Cardinal, albeit in a bolt-on configuration.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond neck joint
Zemaitis unique neck pocket joint

Fingerboard and Frets

The A24SU comes with 24 immaculately dressed and polished medium frets on a 12" radius rosewood fingerboard. Attention to detail here is extraordinarily high for what is still basically a production instrument. The crowns of each fret are perfectly rounded with no sign of levelling -- flattened crowns are a sure sign of cost-cutting -- and the fret ends are nicely chamfered for a perfectly smooth feel up and down the edge of the fingerboard.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond frets
Impeccably polished medium frets 

And thank goodness for the lifting of the CITES control of import and export of musical instruments with rosewood in November 2019.  Having to get CITES certification for every guitar with a rosewood fingerboard was ridiculous from the get-go.

One little niggle I have is that I wish they hadn't used the cheap white plastic pearloid inlays for the fingerboard. Real mother-of-pearl would have added to the overall look and stun factor and frankly it's not expensive. The Generation 1 Zemaitis guitars built by Greco, from what I've seen, had genuine MOP inlays.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond 12th fret inlay
12th fret inlay

But I'm glad that Zemaitis Japan considered going with a 42.5mm width bone nut for the Superior series instead of plastic. One interesting fact is that many of the hand-built original Zemaitis guitars had very narrow nut widths in the region of 37.5mm.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond headstock logo
Zemaitis headstock logo and engraved trussrod cover

25" Scale Length

Somewhere between the Fender's scale length of 25 1/2" and Gibson's 24 3/4" is what I've long thought to be the domain of Paul Reed Smith at 25".  As it turns out, Tony Zemaitis was using a 25" scale on his guitars since 1957!

A 25" scale length on a mahogany body, in my opinion, yields more resonance and a different feel to the instrument overall. Coupled with the scale length, the lack of a maple top on the Zemaitis A24SU also makes the body resonate more freely -- you feel the vibration very distinctly under your fretting hand when you strum an open chord.

Here's an earlier article on scale lengths that may be of interest.

Duralumin Bridge, Tailpiece and Pickup Mounting Rings 

One distinct feature of Zemaitis guitars is their art-deco style bridge and tailpiece design. Tony Zemaitis used to fashion his bridges by hand out of aluminum billets and the originals had an abundance of tooling marks, imperfections and a definite homemade quality.

Zemaitis Japan has chosen to go with Duralumin, a hard aircraft aluminum alloy for all their bridges, tailpieces, mounting rings, control knobs and, depending on the model, the metal tops.  Exceptionally detailed acid-etched engravings on the tailpiece, pickup mounting rings and headstock badge and truss-rod cover raise the bling factor of the Zemaitis A24SU by a factor of 100. At least.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond Dragon Classic pickups
Dragon Classic pickups with engraved mounting rings

The original Zemaitis design bridge is wide and rounded and very comfortable for the picking hand to rest on when playing.  On close inspection you'll notice the string saddles to be larger than usual and there are slots on the back of the bridge where the strings can pass through to the tailpiece. The tailpiece is bolted flush to the body and the slots on the bridge are so that the strings contact only the saddles and not the edge of the bridge. It's an extremely well thought-out design, both in function and aesthetics.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond bridge and tailpiece
Zemaitis Duralumin Bridge and Tailpiece

Dragon Classic Pickups and Electronics

The proprietary Dragon Classic pickups are modelled after the old vintage Gibson PAF humbuckers. Not particularly high in output, they are warm but with a smooth top-end that cuts through nicely, especially on the bridge pickup. Overdriven tones are very reminiscent of a vintage Les Paul with that elusive crying overtone. With the amp set to clean, the neck pickup yields an almost acoustic tone, but that is definitely also due to the combination of the guitar's construction, aluminum bridge and tailpiece, and all-mahogany body.

I also like that Zemaitis has chosen to steel-wool the chrome pickup covers, dulling the shine down a bit to more closely resemble the rest of the hardware.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond electronics
Under the hood

The Zemaitis AS24SU Superior White Pearl comes in a faux suede, dark 'British green' plush hardcase.

Zemaitis A24SU White Pearl Diamond hardcase
A hardshell case befitting a Zemaitis guitar

Read about my earlier Ikebe-Gakki order:

EVH Striped Series Guitar Review

Friday, August 17, 2018

DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build | Part 2

In Part 1 of our DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan strat build series, we detailed budding blues guitarist Shuen's choice of a quartersawn flamed maple guitar neck. After the first few coats of nitrocellulose lacquer were applied, the gorgeous figure of the flamed maple is finally starting to really show through.

Nitrocellulose lacquer takes several days to dry between coats, and longer if humidity is high. While she waits for the neck to receive its final coats of lacquer, she could now turn her attention towards purchasing a guitar body.

Your (SRV) Body Is A Wonderland 

I don't know if she was being serious but Shuen initially indicated to me that she wanted to go with a cheap Squier body. Which went against the grain -- pun intended -- of her original intent of getting the best possible after-market parts for her DIY SRV strat build. My reaction to that of course was why would she want to couple a beautiful 450 dollar quartersawn flamed maple neck with a glued-together-from-5-or-more-pieces-of-wood, el cheapo Squire Statocaster body?

No offence meant to any Squire guitar owners out there. Your guitars rock. But only if it was made in Japan in the 1980s.

After trawling eBay for a good fifteen minutes in between sets at my regular Saturday night gig, I suggested that she look into getting an actual Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan signature model guitar body . EBay seller The Stratosphere had a few nice ones on sale, loaded with Stevie Ray-approved lefty gold Fender bridge, neckplate, neck screws and backplate. After a few messages back and forth the next day, we both agreed on the one that had the nicest wood grain of the four, made from two pieces of alder and joined right down the middle.

Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone 'burst
Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone 'burst

The good thing about guitars with finishes like the Fender 3-tone sunburst is that the grain of the wood is plainly visible and for this reason, guitar companies also typically save their better-looking woods for their guitars with transparent finishes. No ugly knots or unsightly grain -- those are reserved for solid colors.

Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan body in 3-tone sunburst
Dig that mellow 3-tone sunburst!

Ebay seller The Stratosphere has an interesting business model. They seem to routinely take apart various models of Fender guitars -- even the Custom Shop ones --  and list the necks, bodies and hardware separately.  Perhaps they move stock more quickly this way, rather than selling complete guitars.

Wherefore Art Thou UPS?

The Stratosphere shipped the SRV body via UPS.

Now I don't know about the quality of service of UPS anywhere else in the world, but the service of their Singapore division leaves much to be desired. They seem to require more than one delivery attempt, which makes me wonder if the first delivery attempt was even made at all.

Case in point, my own recent experience with UPS prompted me to advise Shuen to leave a clear notice outside her office door. In spite of the sign, she received an SMS message from UPS that a delivery was attempted but was unsuccessful since no one was there to sign off on the package. And since they had her cellphone number which was stated clearly on her door sign and the package, they could at least have called when attempting to deliver.


UPS Sign
The now famous UPS sign that UPS missed

At any rate, after a phone call to UPS customer service in which she made her dissatisfaction clear, she received the package with the SRV body the next day.  The phrase 'Hell hath no fury..' comes to mind.

Pickup The Pieces

Shuen and I entered into a heated debate on the merits of purchasing a loaded pickguard versus obtaining the pickups, potentiometers, capacitor and 5-way switch separately and doing the soldering of the electronics ourselves. And by 'ourselves' I meant bringing it to a professional who could do it properly.

Loaded pickguards, on the other hand, are off-the-shelf units that come complete with pickups and soldered electronics. The only soldering that needs to be done is the connection of the ground wire and the output jack. She decided, wisely I think, to go the loaded pickguard route.

After another round of debates about pickup choices -- this one more testy than the first -- Shuen decided that the Fender Custom 69 pickups were the most pleasing to her musical sensibilities. And lo and behold, there was another seller on eBay, Twilight Guitars, offering a loaded pickguard with this very pickup configuration.

Pickguard with Fender Custom 69 pickups
Tortoiseshell pickguard loaded with Fender Custom 69 pickups

On her initial enquiry email, I suggested that she ask if they could do a simple wiring modification where the second tone knob controlled the bridge pickup. The conventional 3-knob Stratocaster wiring is master volume and two tone controls, one for the neck pickup and one for the middle.

The shrill beast that is the bridge pickup is untamed by the tone controls and, in the wrong hands, has been known to blow audience's minds but not in a good way.  She checked with the seller and they replied that they already include this mod as a standard feature on all their loaded pickguards. Awesome.

Loaded pickguard with Fender Custom 69 pickups
Loaded pickguard wired by Twilight Guitars

Shuen chose a tortoiseshell pickguard and white parchment pickup covers, knobs and switch tip which look stunning against the sunburst of the SRV body. Yep, it's all coming together very nicely.

Fender SRV body with Custom 69 pickups

(Photo credits: Shuen Ong)

Stay tuned for Part 3 of Shuen's DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build | Part 1

A good buddy of mine, Shuen, recently mentioned that she wanted to put together a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style strat from after market parts. A capable guitarist steeped in the Texas blues tradition, she wanted to know what the best options were as far as neck and body woods, neck profiles, pickups, electronics and hardware.

Having gone this route very recently with my Warmoth/MJT strat-style partscaster (an article on which will appear very soon), I felt I could give her the benefit of my experience as far as some of the potential pitfalls of assembling a DIY guitar. As well as the frustration she might encounter with a certain well-known courier company. But more on that later.

My first reaction when Shuen told me that she wanted to get the best parts for her DIY build was why not just buy a regular Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan signature model Stratocaster. After all they were pretty common on the used market for 500 to 800 bucks below retail.

Wring That (Guitar) Neck

Her response was an expletive-fueled rant about the shape and feel of the SRV necks from Fender.

When the dust had settled and I had stopped blushing, I gathered that the stock SRV necks were too big and chunky for her relatively small hands. And the glossy polyurethane finishes on them were something she just couldn't jive with.

Fair enough.

I tried to steer her towards ordering a Warmoth roasted maple neck with stainless steel frets which I felt would give the best bang for her bucks.

My own experience with Warmoth necks is that they require minimal fret dressing since their frets are already so meticulously installed and level.  And she could choose the neck profile that best suited her, out of dozens of neck shapes. Roasted maple necks also do not require a hard finish, a plus since she liked the feel of raw wood so much, and the stainless steel frets were likely to last for a couple of decades before they were even worn enough to require a fret dress.

And it's a heck of a lot more fun wringing that neck for those huge Albert King bends on slippery smooth stainless steel frets, let me tell ya...

But of course, off she went shopping to Singapore's guitar haven, Peninsula Shopping Centre, in search of a new neck.

What she purchased wasn't half bad, although pricey at 450 bucks. It wouldn't have been my personal choice but she chose a quartersawn flamed maple neck, with a rosewood fingerboard and medium jumbo frets. Quartersawn flamed maple is one of those rare wood types that one doesn't see very often, hence its higher price tag.

Regular flame and quilt maple is commonly derived from flatsawn wood, so to see a combination of flame maple on quartersawn is only less rare than finding a pearl in a dinner plate of oysters, as far as guitar necks go. Even Warmoth charges a premium for it.

But most importantly though, she felt the neck profile fit her hand perfectly.

Quartersawn flamed maple strat neck with rosewood fingerboard
What every girl wants - a nice dark rosewood fingerboard with medium jumbo frets
I recommended that she go with a gloss nitrocellulose finish for the headstock but a matte nitro finish for the back of the neck since she was averse to the sticky, tacky feel of a gloss finish. Nitro finishes I feel, allow for maximum resonance and are not as thick as polyurethane finishes which basically encapsulate the wood in a layer of plastic polymer.

quartersawn flamed maple neck
What every girl needs - a quartersawn flamed maple neck

And as luck would have it, the same shop she bought the neck from also offered guitar finishing services in nitrocellulose. Nitro, I might add, is one of those hazardous materials that require a  spray booth, full protective gear and a respirator mask when being applied.

But about a week after sending in the neck for finishing, Shuen suddenly remembered that the edges around the headstock felt sharp to the touch -- a testimony to the accuracy of CNC machining technology, no doubt. Unlike polyurethane which covers quite thickly, the nitro finish would only yield a finished sharp edge. She called the store only to be told that they had already sprayed the initial coat. They didn't mind sanding over the sharp edges on the headstock but informed her that it would add another two weeks to the finishing process.     

quartersawn flamed maple headstock
Nitro tint comparison with a vintage Stratocaster

The pictures of the partially finished neck they sent over as a teaser are nothing short of stunning! Nothing like glossy nitrocellulose lacquer to bring out the natural beauty of wood.

quartersawn flamed maple neck
Highly figured quartersawn flamed maple!
(Photo credits: Shuen Ong)

Stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3 of Shuen's DIY Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat Build


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