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NAMM 2007: Gear Gone Wild

It’s amusing, if not overwhelming, to enter a building where thousands of people are shredding lead guitar at the same time. Or, if not wailing at that precise moment, they could if they wanted to: It seemed that everyone at the 2007 NAMM tradeshow, from the salesmen to the reporters to the janitors, was capable of committing six-string burn at any moment.

I’m being facetious, and the NAMM show celebrates overly technical playing on all sorts of musical toys, not just guitars, but you get the idea: It’s like the Saturday after Thanksgiving at an oversized Guitar Center that’s inexplicably filled with technically gifted musicians. It’s where anyone who makes musical instruments erects a village to showcase their new swag, and where shop owners from Manhattan to Minnesota come to buy it. A three-alarm fiasco that goes down every year in righteously cheesy Anaheim, Calif.; it’s exhausting but loads of fun.

As my Gearhead forefather Russell Carlson once noted in these pages, rock and roll “rules the roost” at NAMM, but it’s not just any kind of r ‘n’ r. Nirvana never happened in L.A. and the OC, and the ghosts of heavy-metal Sunset Strip lurk in all corners, touting a silicone girlfriend in one arm and a guitar shaped like some medieval implement of torture in the other. Women’s lib hasn’t reached the show yet, either, and NAMM-like the instrument industry at large-often feels more like Dudestock. (At one point, a particularly large gaggle of middle-aged men gathered at the Schecter booth, where they drank beer, wailed on guitars, gawked at four porn-tastic “reps” and watched the NFL playoffs all at the same time. The only thing missing was a monster truck.)

It’s the last place you’d expect to spot an artful free-jazz pioneer like Pharoah Sanders, but sure enough, there he is, along with Sinbad, faded hip-hop star Warren G, Bootsy Collins, and the kind of super-players whose albums may not be critically relevant but whose musician fans are loyal beyond reproach. People go to NAMM to meet Joe Satriani and Mike Portnoy like those who attend IAJE look forward to shaking hands with Clark Terry.

You have to look beyond the Playmates and tune out the Whitesnake to find jazz in the melee, and even then it’s slim pickings and almost guitar-exclusive. I wandered into a nearby tourist-trap “jazz club” where a band called the “Sounds of New Orleans” played moldy fig favorites from Motown. Nevertheless, superb players like Frank Vignola put in their musical two cents at NAMM performances and demos, proving to the headbanging masses that a little melody and harmonic know-how go a long way.

Anyway, on to the gear, which, contrary to getting a Sinbad autograph, is the real reason anyone books his (or her) reservation in the first place.

Guitar equipment, probably the most fruitful and prolific market in instrument sales, occupied the most floor space. Robert Benedetto, who’s now officially free of the Fender/Guild camp, premiered his new smaller-bodied Professional Series of heavenly instruments, intended for touring, club performance and other rough-and-tumble situations. Part fine art and part musical tool, these Benedettos continue to boast their luthier’s obsessive precision in construction and beautifully symmetrical, transparent tone. Now, however, there’s a twist: You might actually be able to buy one. Models like the Bambino are offered in a hierarchy of price and quality. At the top of the heap is the Bambino Elite ($18,500) with its solid spruce top, carved maple back and matching sides, and single B-6 pickup. The Bambino Deluxe ($5,500) has a laminated flamed maple top, sound openings and a single A-6 pickup, and the plain-old Bambino ($2,950) is a chambered solidbody electric with double A-6 pickups and a laminated maple top. The Bravo series is delivered on a similar scale, with prices ranging from $5,500 for a laminated spruce-top model to a carved Bravo Elite at $18,500. The Benny models run $6,000 to $10,000. Not exactly budget prices, but these are by no means budget instruments: Even the Bambino played better than most manufacturers’ flagship guitars.

The truly budget jazzbox market continues to boom, and every booth-even the stripper-brandishing Dean guitars complex-had some Asia-made jazz guitar to offer up-and-coming Jim Halls. Hagstrom debuted some quality instruments, like the HJ-500 and HJ-600, that run well under a grand but still sounded sweet. Hagstrom’s “resinator” [sic] fretboards don’t hurt, either, and prevent moisture from warping the neck or dramatically altering the guitar’s intonation.

In other archtop news, Parker, a company most often associated with its modernistic solidbodies, released its jazz series, a similarly edgy-looking pair of archtops. The PJ12 “J Man” features a carved spruce top and two humbuckers, and the more traditional PJ14 has a carved top and sides and its controls are cleverly hidden underneath the pickguard. Both guitars offer avant-garde design that’s a welcome alternative to the staid traditional designs of competing brands, and they sounded superb played by Larry Coryell. But then again, what guitar doesn’t?

Even old standbys were innovated in one way or another-for example, Gibson premiered a fat-neck ES-335. Players who prefer the meatier necks of jazzboxes will dig this mod, which makes this time-honored design even more versatile. Another new semi-hollow worth checking out is Paul Reed Smith’s SE Custom, a budget-line guitar with dual humbuckers, 22 frets and a thinline mahogany body with a Rickenbacker-style sound opening.

All those guitars need strings and accessories, so here’s the rundown: D’Addarrio was wise enough to see that affordable Gypsy-jazz guitars are now an industry staple, and stepped up with a line of strings specially designed for playing like Django. BOSS formed a corporate monolith with Fender for two new stompboxes simulating classic Fender amps; one for the ’65 Deluxe Reverb amp and another for the ’59 Bassman. Both simulations are rig-worthy, even if they don’t exactly replicate classic tweed tone. Real amplifiers of note included Fender’s new Deluxe ’57 reissue and the deliciously retro Champion 600. Hearing either was a reminder that no digital, sampled pedal sound will ever really replace honest-to-god tubes. The reinvented Matchless brand and its golden-toned machines further proved this point.

In horns, Selmer released the LaVie model saxophones. Both the alto and tenor models feature yellow brass bells and bronze bodies and necks, with high F# and high G keys for added range and playability. A reliable student brand making a greater effort to attract pros and endorsers, Jupiter released its XO Artist Professional series. The alto and tenor sax models have hand-hammered necks and bells, gold-lacquered keys and metal tone boosters. The XO series trumpets are available in any combination of the following features: medium-large or large bores, standard leadpipe or reverse leadpipe, and silver-plated yellow brass or lacquered yellow brass finish. All have hand-hammered bells, Monel pistons and 24-karat-gold-plated fittings. An XO series trombone is also available.

In horn accessories, Vandoren debuted the V16, a vintage-sounding mouthpiece that aims to recreate the burnished, soulful Blue Note-esque tones of the tenor and alto men of the 1950s and ’60s. Vandoren also offers the Hygro Reed Case, a small humidor of sorts that makes brittle and warped reeds a thing of the past with its insular humidity controls. The Vandoren Flow Pack utilizes hygrometric technology to package reeds, keeping them crisp and ready to blow, from the assembly line to the bandstand.

2007 was a prosperous year for keys at NAMM, with new products from Arturia, Nord, Yamaha and Rhodes all turning heads. Arturia unleashed the Origin Desktop, the company’s first hardware synth and one that incorporates the authentic-sounding vintage tones found in Arturia’s softsynths. Nord released the C1 combo organ, a portable Hammond B3 simulator that’s actually portable, and can be broken down and put away in a case about the size of a golf bag. Its size didn’t seem to sacrifice any strength in its tone, as Boston-based organist Bruce Katz demonstrated by grooving through some blues changes. Yamaha introduced the CP300, a digital stage piano with realistic voices gathered from a painstaking sampling process. With “authentic touch” that matches the intensity of the performer, the keyboard produced gig-worthy imitations of acoustic grand piano and a Leslie-equipped Hammond, and features a USB connect, MIDI functions and a 16-track sequencer-studio and PC accommodations more common in synthesizers than digitial pianos. Perhaps the biggest keys news was the debut of the new Rhodes pianos,

classic-sounding electric keys with an aesthetic at once futuristic and retro. Demonstrated by a smooth-jazz trifecta of George Duke, David Benoit and Jeff Lorber on a surprisingly earthy rendition of “Watermelon Man,” these reinvented instruments-when they do finally start shipping-will no doubt become fixtures on the bandstand.

While we’re on the rhythm section, double-basses by Christopher bowed gracefully and pizzicato’d with authority, while tattooed rockabilly cats sauntered around uprights at the King Bass booth. (Anyone trapped in the retro-swing revival of ’97 might look into spinning a King, whose basses are finished like hot-rod cars.)

For Latin-jazz and Afro-Cuban percussionists, Remo’s Doumbeks and Ergo-Drum system is an ingenious set, with interchangeable drumheads and shells resulting in tones as tight or airy as you need them to be. When you’re arguably the most important jazz vibraphonist since Lionel Hampton, you get your own signature keyboard mallet-that’s why Vic Firth designed a mallet with input from Stefon Harris.

The big jazz-drum news was the debut of the Buddy Rich company, who introduced an entire line of swing-ready kits at all price points. The BR signature kit ($2,575) is what it says it is, a replica of what Rich played, with old-school-style hardware and all-maple shells finished in White Marine Pearl. The BR line funnels down to the Honor Roller student snare kit. The vibe in all these kits is big-band classic, and should satisfy those looking for a vintage drum set without the collector’s prices. Had Rich been with us to demo his namesake kit, he’d have been the biggest rock star in the room.

Originally Published