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It’s Raining NAMM

I’m sure that NAMM, at its essence, is a trade show like any other. The main reason people attend is to make deals and money. But since the trade in question is musical instruments, NAMM is much more exciting than, say, a paper expo. At NAMM you can drink beer and play guitars. You can spend an hour talking about your favorite albums with someone you hardly know. And there are famous musicians around every corner. When was the last time you almost tripped over guitarist Dick Dale or a member of Kiss–in full makeup?

That brings up the main problem with covering the event for a jazz magazine. Rock ‘n’ roll pretty much rules the roost at NAMM. If you’re an old-fashioned jazzbo, it’s in your best interest to pretend not to see the numerous greasy L.A. rocker-types who are continually ripping out technically great but artistically empty guitar solos. Ditto for the greasy L.A. hooker-types hired to play the crowd by classless guitar companies. Lucky for me, I’m the kind of jazz fan that also finds cock-rock and sexism quite entertaining.

This year’s show was held at the Anaheim Convention Center in mid-January, when it’s sunny and 75 in California and wicked, wicked cold here in my East Coast home. What a tough job. Despite the heavy slant toward rock, there were a number of products for jazz musicians on display. Here’s a guide to the latest and greatest items trotted out at the show, cherry picked for the jazz-minded, plus a few items musicians of any style can dig on.

Guitars & Cables

Until this year, C.F. Martin & Co. hasn’t given me a good excuse for all the time I’ve spent in its booth ogling acoustic guitars better suited to folk-type strummers than players with Barney Kessel fixations. But two fine archtops this year finally made up for that.

The CF-1 model-a laminate, alpine-spruce top outfitted with a floating Kent Armstrong pickup and smooth ebony pickguard and tailpiece-is the simpler of the two, a classic-style archtop with a comfy neck and a lovely acoustic tone. The CF-2 has roughly the same construction and played just as nicely and also offers more tone-shaping options due to its pair of Seymour Duncan humbuckers and accompanying quartet of control knobs. Both guitars are actually the product of collaboration between Martin and trusted craftsmen Dale Unger of American Archtop Guitars. Unger was kind enough to let me plug each one into a wonderfully clear-sounding AER amplifier nearby. I could have spent all four days of NAMM running up and down just these two fretboards. Alas, another Martin rep politely pulled the guitars away from me so that others could check them out.

Looking for more top-drawer archtops, I found the Jim Hall Signature model at luthier Jim Sadowsky’s booth. Sadowksy shaped and sanded the neck on this beautiful 16-inch guitar to play just like the neck on the D’Aquisto archtop Hall has played for 15 years. The result is a guitar neck that feels every bit as comfortable as those on the Martin archtops. The custom wound humbucker at the neck is also named after Hall, and so is the smooth sunburst finish. What’s nice to hear is that unlike a lot of players with endorsement deals, Hall actually plays his signature model and debuted the guitar at a New York City duo gig with Charlie Haden.

Those are the classic-design archtops that stuck out at the show, but Hamer’s new Improv model guitar was another instrument jazzers can appreciate-and one that offers a slightly more modern sound due to its thinner body. I’ve never been a big fan of Hamer guitars, but the Improv turned me around. It’s a finely crafted guitar with bound f-holes, a book-matched, carved spruce top and a hand-wound Duncan humbucker with tone and volume controls.

It’s well known among tone fiends that using a run-of-the-mill cable to connect ax to amp can rob a guitar of its natural sound. The way to avoid this from happening is to employ a higher-quality cable. There are many high-end cables on the market, but of the ones I’ve tested, none have left an impression on me as strong as Evidence cables. At the Koch amplifier booth, I switched between an inexpensive cord and an Evidence Lyric, repeating the A-B test over and over again with different amps. The Lyric not only proved that superb tone really does rely on there being no weak links in your signal chain but also that Evidence makes one of the clearest-sounding players in the high-end cable game. And of course these cables can also be used with keyboards, basses, etc.

Drums & Cymbals

This year’s drum room was the loudest in my NAMM experience. Seems like everyone had to get a piece of the action and beat on a kit-whether they could play or not. For putting up with it, the folks working the drum booths are either the most tolerant lot in the industry or just plain nuts. Perhaps they’re both.

Gretsch had two limited edition Custom Series ’70s kits on the floor that bring back the spirit of the company’s 1970s, six-ply shell drums. Each kit looked fabulously retro, right down to the throwback Gretsch logos, but since each kit is limited to a production of only 100, you’ll have to act fast to snatch one up. Perhaps easier to acquire are Gretsch’s New Classic snare drums. Any drummer ought to find something to like in this six-snare series, as they range in size from 4 x 14-inches to 6 1/2 x 14 and come in various shell thicknesses and materials-most are maple, but two of them are made of a mean-looking black brass. Unlike the ’70s kits, the New Classic snares are a part of Gretsch’s regularly available line.

There seemed to be a constant crowd gathered at the Sabian booth, admiring the cymbal makers’ new Paragon line, developed under the guidance of Neal Peart, drummer for the rock band Rush. I’m not sure the Paragons would find favor with traditional jazz drummers, but sitting nearby were a set of Sabian’s HHX Manhattan Jazz cymbals, dishes with less crash-bang to their tone. These cymbals have a smoky sound that would suit a standards set well. Sabian also introduced their Jack DeJohnette Resonating bells, a complete octave set (starting at C=440) of special-effect bells designed with the legendary drummer, each lathed from solid discs of pure B8 bronze.

Zildjian’s booth featured five new Special Dry crashes in the K Custom line, in sizes from 14- to 18-inches. The cymbals are meant to complement the hi-hats and rides already in the Special Dry series. Besides looking old and battered straight off the rack, the cymbals have a vintage tone-well focused and a bit a mysterious.

If you play congas or djembes and often find yourself playing on carpeted stage surfaces (or if you practice in a carpeted room), you’ve likely noticed that your drums don’t resonate as well as they do when placed on a hard surface. For you, Pearl now makes the Reso-Plate, a wooden disc you can slip under a drum to keep the carpet from absorbing its sound. Very simple, very common sense. Question is: What’s so special about the Reso-Plate that you couldn’t just use a piece of wood from the lumberyard scrap heap to the same effect? I really have no idea.


Last year’s big keyboard-related news was that Hammond-Suzuki had finally reissued the famous B3 organ, replacing the original’s tone-wheel signal generator with a digital system that sounds so close to the vintage units that even Joey DeFrancesco is behind it. The New B3 weighs much less than the old one, but looks the same, all wooden and classic. It’s nice, but a bit bulky to lug in and out of clubs if you’re a gigging musician. So, this year Hammond revealed a stripped-down version of the organ called the Portable B3 that features the same digital infrastructure of the New B3, and thus the same sound, however this one collapses to make moving it almost as easy as transporting a Suitcase Rhodes. Furthermore, it’s nearly half the weight of the New B3, which already cut the original B3’s weight in half.

While the B3 has lost analog-driven tone generation, Korg’s flagship workstation keyboard, the Triton, has picked some up. Korg sneaked a vacuum tube into the board’s latest incarnation, the Triton Extreme (endorsed by Joe Zawinul), that adds a variable amount of warmth to either just a part of the sound you’ve created, or to the keyboard’s entire final output signal. And the tube is just one of many additions to the Triton, including the ability to store your programmed data on CompactFlash cards as well as a slew of sounds.

The Triton Extreme is a professional’s instrument and has a price tag that proves it. Keyboardists searching for a less expensive workstation might find what they’re looking for in Yamaha’s PSR keyboard series. Yamaha showed off four new units in the PSR line in January that range from the 293, a board with rudimentary song-arranging functions that’s best for absolute beginners, to the 3000, which offers 829 voices, 128-note polyphony and a 16-track sequencer. These keyboards may not be performance instruments, but with built-in speakers and an easy learning curve, they can serve as a quick way to get ideas down and would be great aides in a music classroom.

Basses & Amps

Players of upright basses who need a backup, or student bassists who need a relatively inexpensive, quality instrument should investigate Palatino’s VB-009 upright. It lists for just under a grand, but it’s still a solidly constructed instrument with a crack-resistant spruce top, ebony fingerboard and a maple back with a nice flamed finish.

For electric bassists, Epifani Custom Sound has introduced a few new amplification products including the 502 and 902 amps and the Quest preamp. The 502 and 902 are the latest additions to Epifani’s series of lightweight, solid-state amp heads. Each head has inputs for both active and passive electronics, as well a bypass-able limiter and a three-band EQ with an extra mid-cut switch for making your lines a bit less bright. The Quest is more or less the same tone-shaping tool as the amps; it has the same options, but doesn’t have the power to drive a cabinet by itself.

Et Cetera

Usually, the only new treats for vocalists on display at NAMM are microphones, but this year Alesis introduced the PlayMate Vocalist, an electronic box that can remove vocals from any CD, so that singers can practice and hone their chops along to favorite recordings. The PlayMate also allows you to adjust track tempo, transpose the music up or down by seven semitones and vary the pitch by plus or minus eight percent.

Easily my favorite new product shown at NAMM, based on looks, is Peterson’s StroboStomp, a pedal tuner that brings Peterson’s long-beloved strobe tuning technology into a stompbox. The die-cast aluminum casing can take a beating, but the thing looks so elegant you won’t want to get a single scratch on it. (John Norris at Peterson told me the casing is based on his favorite Aston Martin automobile designs.) Aside from its looks, the StroboStomp offers a couple of things most stompbox tuners don’t. First, it has a 100-percent true bypass to keep the unit from sucking away at your tone while you play. Second, it can also be used an active direct-in box and has an XLR output for connection to P.A. systems, consoles or other recording/live sound gear.

Originally Published