Everyone should know that a guitar can be tricked out in any number of ways to satisfy the desires of its keeper. Nearly any body design and permutation of pickups, wood type, hardware, neck style, etc. is possible. A jazzbo can get true tone, a prog rocker can get an ax that lights up. This is why custom shops, from the tiny boutiques to the famous tailor shops of Gibson and Fender, have an edge over assembly line ax factories. Guitars built with the amount of attention a custom shop offers are by and large better instruments.
Gene Baker, a Gibson and Fender custom shop ex-pat, has run his California-based Baker Custom Guitars operation since 2000, supplying the tone-obsessed with PRS-looking guitars. His years working at the old North Hollywood Gibson custom shop seem to have influenced him the most. Baker probably knows his way around a Les Paul better than the old man himself by now, and most of what he offers are solid-body electrics in the Les Paul vein more attuned to rock or blues playing than jazz. A couple of hollow-body Baker models are perfect for jazz guitarists with modern minds, however-the new JazzCat in particular.
I fall in love too easily, especially when it comes to guitars, but the JazzCat is no passing fancy of mine. The review unit’s spruce top with twin “talon” sound holes has a burst finish with a fast fade-the edges of the guitar appear as an orange halo around the yellow. Baker was obviously his high school’s “nerdy woodshop kid.” The back is a hand-carved slab of cedar finished to accentuate the wood’s delicate pinstripe grain (nature is cool). It’s gorgeous, but looks aren’t everything.
How do we know for sure that Gene Baker is Gibson geek at heart? The P-90 pickup at the end of the JazzCat’s neck. Kids come running for the P-90’s rich, creamy flavor and Gibson’s used them forever. Baker also slipped a piezo transducer into the bridge. You’d expect there’d be a switch for toggling between the two pickups, but no sir, the JazzCat is in stereo. You must use a tip-ring-sleeve phono cable with the supplied splitter box and nab another amp from the closet to take advantage of its full range of tonal options. Or do what became a favorite technique of mine: use two inputs on an amp (mine’s an early ’70s Fender Twin), if you have them. Because Baker can make these guitars to order, I’d consider asking for a mono output and a toggle switch because it makes things easier-and while they’re at it they could replace the industrial-looking chrome volume and tone knobs with something in tortoise shell to match the beautiful binding that hugs the entire body and neck.
The art and science of finding a sound are left to you, the creator. Dial it in. I achieved perfectly balanced body and shine with the piezo’s tone knob rolled off a third of the way and with the P-90 cranked full blast.
Those who lust after perfect intonation will try to steal JazzCats if they can’t afford them. The guitar sent to me arrived with 11-gauge strings set up with a raised action archtop players would find familiar, cozy even. Every Baker guitar is graced with the Buzz Feiten Tuning System, a mathematical equation incorporating string type and gauge along with scale length applied to each guitar individually to create perfect string tension. Nary is the Baker with bad intonation. With Buzz Feiten and a TonePros bridge in effect, the accuracy of pitch across all octaves is amazing, revelatory. It makes a huge difference. When notes are as pure as this, they blend better as chords. There’s less mud in the mix.
That’s nice for jazz playing. Focused, clean tone that like the Jazz Cat can supply goes a long way in accompanying a singer or participating in strictly straightahead combo settings. But the JazzCat also might be the ultimate weapon to use on fusion gigs. The neck is a comfy laminate of mahogany and maple with a 24.625-inch scale (real fusion players might request something longer; Baker would surely oblige) and plays like a Les Paul Standard. Simply up the amp’s gain and the JazzCat can stream an acid dropper’s dream in sound-liquid leads à la John Scofield.
The luxury of a JazzCat isn’t cheap. You’d pay approximately $4,785 list, depending on which of its features you might add or take away. But the JazzCat outclasses and outperforms any like guitar at its price point in terms of build-quality, versatility and sound. It’d be money well spent.