October 2004

Stromberg Monterey Guitar

The semi-hollow Monterey comes from Stromberg as a kind of answer to Gibson's long-loved ES-335, though the two guitars' shared qualities are just skin deep.

The first incarnation of the Monterey sported a double cutaway and Gibson, protecting its interests, served Stromberg with a cease-and-desist order. Fair enough-after all, the Monterey really would have looked just like a 335.

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Stromberg Monterey Guitar

So, Stromberg modified the template into a single cutaway shape. Take a look around guitardom and you won't find many thin-bodied axes with just one cutaway. The Monterey's unique in that way, yet it still nabs a few specs from the 335-a 16 1/2-inch wide body, a 1 3/4-inch body depth and a 24 3/4-inch scale length. A 335 has 22 frets versus the Monterey's 20, a number more in line with deeper archtop jazz boxes. It's a choice that exemplifies the world of difference between the Monterey and a 335, and it's best explained by Stromberg owner Larry Davis: "Our basic concept with the design of this instrument was to take our regular jazz box and split it in half, as it was. This gives a player an identical and familiar feel from the top of the instrument but with all the qualities of a thinline."

The Monterey's top, back and sides are cut from flamed maple and finished with a glowing amber burst. The fretboard comes decorated nicely with rectangular inlays split down the center with triangles. Double pinstripe binding hugs the whole body and runs up the neck and around the fancily inlaid signature headstock. I'd prefer a more classic-looking alternative to the Monterey's tone and volume knobs, which are bulky and modern, but that's an easy and inexpensive fix.

The P90-style pickups come from trusted designer Kent Armstrong. Cased in chrome and built to fit in a humbucker hole, the pickups (model WPU900CR) have a hot output. I recently replaced the stock humbuckers in my Gibson SG with a pair of these same pickups, and away went the guitar's biting, AC/DC-like attack and in came the glowing, open tone that seems to split the difference between the thickness of a PAF humbucker and glassy-toned, Fender-style single coils. The openness is ever more wide and the glow much more beautiful from the Monterey-P90 combination. The Monterey's thin, semi-hollow box coupled with the P90s brings out the guitar's acoustic properties-tight and never boomy, with some smokiness in the overtones, especially from the rhythm position pickup. That pickup's sound will blend well in a straightahead setting, as would the combination of both pickups. Outboard tone-shaping possibilities notwithstanding, the bridge pickup might be best left to jazz fusion or other genres where a stinging bite is needed-it wails, which is great. These pickups are amazing. Simply stated, if you play jazz, in any style, this guitar will work for you. What's more, these P90s are super quiet. Separately they each have a low-level hum, but it's nothing near as loud as you'd get from a Strat. Used together, the pickups cancel each other's noise. There you go-a humbucker.

Stromberg, a sacred name in jazz guitars, is now owned by WD Music Products, which also operates a guitar parts and accessories outlet that can set you up with a pair of these pickups through its Web site, wdmusicproducts.com. Having such a close connection to parts makers is a boon to Stromberg's guitar-construction quality. The Monterey also comes fitted with Kluson tuners and a Tone Pros bridge system, a locking intonation setup built to deliver increased sustain and reliably accurate pitch. Since I haven't played a Monterey without the Tone Pros system, I can't comment on the sustain issue save to say that I have no complaints regarding the guitar's sustain. But the intonation, to any player's delight, is consistent all the way up the neck.

The Monterey lists for a low $1,195 and plays with an unbelievable ease. Strung with a set of 11s, it was nothing to run up and down the scales-I could play all day long on it. And the larger frets allow for easy fingering of dense, chunky chords. It came with an even setup and no high frets or dead spots to be heard. Kudos to Stromberg for creating this versatile, great sounding guitar that feels wonderful to play.

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