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D’Angelico NYL-6 Special Guitar

Some musicians, fools I call them, believe that guitars built in Japan are inferior to those made on American or European soil. Spying a beautiful, tobacco-burst-finished Fender Jazzmaster from across a showroom floor, they’ll fall in love, only to have their hearts unnecessarily broken when a close inspection of the ax reveals it was produced in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. I pity those jaded elitists. After all, a guitar’s point of origin means little when compared to its sound, look and feel. That Japanese Jazzmaster might sound like a dream. And hey, Donkey Kong, Rashomon and the reliable yet sporty Honda Accord should be proof enough for naysayers that cool stuff does come out of Japan, including guitars.

I bring that up because I’ve been spending a lot of time playing D’Angelico’s new NYL-6 Special guitar. It’s an enjoyable ax to grind and, yep, like all other D’Angelicos, it’s made in Japan. It didn’t used to be that way. When luthier John D’Angelico originally set up shop in 1932, it was in New York City. His operation was like the boutique makers’ of today, producing nearly 1,200 guitars before D’Angelico’s death in 1964. Those original D’Angelicos fetch big bucks from collectors, in part due to their rarity, but mostly because those storied axes, by all accounts, carry some righteous juju.

Now contracting the Japanese Vestax corporation (makers of trustworthy DJ equipment) to build their guitars, D’Angelico the company has perhaps lost its old-school, custom-shop charm. D’Angelico guitars, on the other hand, haven’t been sucked dry of character and are lovely instruments, both physically and sonically.

Today, as in the old days of D’Angelico, the company’s most popular guitar is its New Yorker model, a full-size, 17-inch archtop with tasteful art-deco accents, from the brass stairstep tailpiece to the generous portion of gently curving maple at the headstock. (In fact, the headstock is so large, I imagine it’d make itself useful as an effective bludgeoning device when an unruly drummer needs to have some sense beaten into him.) The NYL-6 Special is the latest in the line of New Yorker models D’Angelico has added to its roster since Vestax began building guitars for D’Angelico in 1988. Designed as a “streamlined” revision of the NYL-2 model, the NYL-6 Special features modest rectangular, mother-of-pearl inlays instead of split-blocks (save for the 12th-fret inlay) as well as less binding and a slightly lower-grade maple in the neck than its predecesor. These changes keep the Special’s price down.

It’s a sturdy box, formed with maple sides and back and a German spruce top with f-holes that ring full without amplification. Finger-picking my way through Sir Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”-a super tune to test how a guitar blends the harmonies of notes in multiple octaves-I was pleased with how the pedal tones sustained and how the individual notes still remained distinct. All this with flatwound strings, too. Imagine what she’d sound like with a set of D’Addario phosphor-bronze acoustic strings. Or maybe it’d be hot to string it up with those Hermaphroditic acoustic-electric strings DR makes by hand. I think so, because any chance to preserve this guitar’s acoustic properties when it’s amplified should be taken.

After plugging in the NYL-6 Special, I warmed up the Fender Deluxe, rolled the guitar’s tone knob back about a third of the way and played along to the old Decca recordings of the Mills Brothers, mellowing out my room with a glowing tone that complemented my beloved Brothers’ harmonies perfectly. I could almost smell the Brylcreem. Laid-back strumming is nice, but you can really dig into chords on this archtop and get some deep, rich, ballsy sounds in the lower range. Most of us want to play more expressively and use the guitar as a front-line instrument, however. If that’s your thing, the NYL-6 Special won’t disappoint.

The three-piece maple neck-22 frets long at a 25 1/2-inch scale with a 1 11/16-inch nut width-plays and feels fine. Digging your fingers into the ebony fingerboard while playing leads will add subtle nuances to your lines. Simply put, the guitar responds well to what you do, and the floating humbucker doesn’t color the sound so much as distort your measured inflections-or cover up your mistakes! A quick word on intonation: the bridge and adjustable saddle are made of ebony and the tuners are Grover Imperials. Worry not.

At $3,795 list, the NYL-6 Special is a great alternative to the company’s more expensive NYL-2 as well as an all-around superb instrument. Maybe these new-fangled D’Angelicos don’t have the status of an original built by Johnny himself, but the brand name still stands for excellence.

Originally Published