Gear reviews and "guitar player interviews". The Guitar Zombie is the fastest spreading blog about guitars, amps, effects and other stuff.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Slash Les Paul Standard Antique Vintage Sunburst "counterfeit" from China (MIC)

In three previous articles I have discussed Chinese counterfeits. First a general discussion, a review of a 160 dollars "Fender Telecaster" and then a 270 dollars "Fender Stratocaster Relic YJM". The last one, # 3, is a Gibson Slash Les Paul Antique Vintage Sunburst "Slash Tribute" for $280. The price tag should easily tell anyone on the planet that the whole thing is a "fake". The original, as you may know, was just manufactured in 1600 ex worldwide and goes for over $3000...Worth every penny. 

I once again must point out that I do not intend to promote Chinese "fakes", I just want to inform you about the phenomenon of "Chinese copies". It´s not illegal to purchase counterfeits, but it is to manufacture and sell them, and especially as "originals".

Even if you don't have moral doubts about buying them, you should know that you support illegal activity and infect the business of high quality instruments.

"Enough" about that ...

# 3 arrived one day after the #2. The walk from the Post Office was much more exciting as #2 turned out to be better than #1, I felt at least not fooled. I was excited all the way home.

The package, also a yellow cellophane package, was heavier than the last two. Once home, I opened the package and found a guitar, the same guitar strap as before, one-piece plastic cable and two shitty picks.

After unpacking the box I met a guitar with an excellent finish. I remember thinking:"how on earth can they make this awesome finish for just $280?". I found virtually no errors at all, maybe a bit more colourful in the burst compared to the original.

I comparison to my original "Slash Signature" I noticed that the "Slash logo" is placed slightly crooked, but it's not something you notice if you do not have an original side to side. The Gibson logo is placed where it should be though.

The neck is straight and under the truss rod plate you actually find a "trussrod". It is the third guitar with a truss rod and it´s not made of silicone, which is important to notice. The counterfeits has become better. The truss rod works fine but it doesn't look like the original at all.

The fretboard appears to be made of Rosewood and it feels great. The inlays looks quite authentic to. The frets are also fine, maybe a bit jagged so they get a little trimming.

The guitar is surprisingly perfect intonated right out of the box, a signal that the factory not just throw stuff together, but the strings are horrible. Not quite as bad as the # 1 (Telecaster), but definitely not classy at all. The three way switch works flawless.

The tuners are "vintage style" and works smoothly. The guitar definitely keeps i tune, even at quite rough playing. They are definitely not Kluson Deluxe, it says Gibson Deluxe on them, but they look almost the same. Another detail to remember if you wanna spot a counterfeit.

Electronics inside are no masterwork, the whole thing looks actually rather "cheap" with sloppy soldering, but it works without "humming".

The pickups are not at all Alnico 2 Pro as it should be in the original. They do not sound bad but they are a bit flat sounding. If you change the pupps to Alnico 2 Pro, you will probably get a much better sounding instrument.

The acoustic sound is surprisingly strong as the guitar is made of less wood.

The bridge is stable with a "Tune-o-matic bridge" and lightweight Stopbar tail piece. It looks ok and works like any other "low cost hardtail" on the market.

This Chinese counterfeit may well cause problems for the ignorant, it is a well-functioning instruments with great looks. Compared to an original Gibson Standard you will notice a difference, of course. But as an instrument it works really well as delivered. If you change hardware it will become a great guitar, there is no doubt about that.

Again, I am pleasantly surprised by the quality versus price. My Chinese # 1, # 2 and # 3 will remain in my possession and will remind me of the globalized world and how it affects us and how it will continue to fool us.

4 zombies (5)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fender Stratocaster YJM "counterfeit" from China (MIC)

In the two previous articles I have discussed the Chinese counterfeits, or fakes, if you will. First, a general discussion, and then a review of a $160 "Fender Telecaster". Now we proceed with the copy # 2, a "Fender Stratocaster Yngwie J Malmsteen signature" for $ 27. Free shipping.

Once again I want to clarify that I am not promoting or encourages anyone to buy counterfeit guitars, I just want to raise awareness of the phenomenon. As I have previously written, it is not illegal to buy "counterfeits", but it is to sell them as originals.

On the way home from the post office, I wondered if the project "china guitars" were not so smart after all. The Telecaster was far from a success, you might say. A total disaster actually.

Once home I opened the yellow cellophane package and I had a bad feeling about the piece in question. In the package I found the guitar, a black plastic guitar cord, a too short guitar strap, a tool for trussrod adjustments and two picks.

The guitar is built as a "relic", but it´s just "fake relic". From a distance it looks, however, very cool.  The neck is scalloped just like the original, and the work actually looks and feels very good. The frets sit nicely but they are a little rough on the surface, easy to fix in a minute though.

The Fender "logo" on the headstock looks ok, maybe slightly fatter than what would be considered properly.

The strings are better than on the "Telecaster" but still rubbish. When I check the intonation it´s as perfect it could be  but the string height feels somewhat high.

The pickups are labeled "Noiseless", but when I plug it in, it becomes clear that they are not very noiseless at all. The guitar has however a great tone, which is surprising since it is considerably less weight than an original strat.

I decide to make the modifications needed to make the guitar playable, because this actual guitar has great potential, just like many low-cost guitars actually. The hardware is not high class, but they work, and can of course be replaced with better.

The tuners are robust and responds well and keeps the guitar i tuning. The trussrod works well on this guitar, it is not made of silicone that you read about on the net. Not this one anyway.

The good thing with this kind of "cheap" guitar is that you can modify it and play around around with it without getting anxiety.

When I plug it in and played it I discovered to my surprise that the guitar playability is really good. It also sounds very good, although it would need a set of new pickups. It is easy to play and after I polished the frets they are "smooth less". When I play it a bit  tougher than normal it keeps the tuning perfectly. In fact, it plays almost as good as an original Stratocaster made in Mexico, the only difference is that it´s not that, which is good for long playing sessions or for small kids. The body is probably made basswood, but I really can not say.

It´s a really good guitar at a crazy low price.

So # 2 turned out to be absolutely acceptable. Of course, not as good as an original YJM. Nothing are...

3 zombies (5)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

2nd article about counterfeits guitars from China

In my articles on Chinese copies, fakes, counterfeits or whatever you call them we are now focusing on three examples that I purchased through the web. The whole idea of this was to find out how these guitars actually are, in terms of quality and how to spot that they are counterfeits. In the last post I discussed the phenomenon of Chinese siunterfeits at large. I also did a survey here in sweden that showed that 36% of the readers actually had bought a counterfeit, for different reasons. I assume it´s like that even i your country. 

It is not criminal to buy a counterfeit, but it is criminal to manufacture and sell it as "genuine" and brand it with someone else name. The problem for a buyer is that one support this murky criminal business.

I also want to state out that I do not support counterfeits and my intention is NOT to help they market their stuff. My intention is to enlighten you to spot counterfeits and stay out of these guitars.  But I also wanted to investigate the Chinese actual ability to manufacture guitars nowadays. Last time I tested a Chinese copy was 10 years ago, and it was actually a very bad experience.

Nevertheless. If you read the different forums it seems to be a good chance to find good instruments, and thats probably the growing problem for the business. But you also risk to get a really crapy one.

I first chose to buy a really cheap guitar, a purple Telecaster branded "Fender". It cost me $160 including shipping. A real bargain don't you think? That means it´s in the price range of "absolute beginner's guitar." The target audience is obviously people who want to buy a really cheap guitar, either as a gift to some child or to hang it on the wall to "flash" of friends or as decoration.

After 12 days, the piece landed in a yellow packages of cellophane. Very well packaged, I must say.

At a first visual inspection of the guitar it seems really good. The finnish is clear as a bell a "Gitar Zombie Purple". The lacquer work is absolutely stunning, even though the pattern looks very "corny" to me. The neck is straight and there is a truss rod in it, which is often claimed opposite. It also comes with a tool for adjustment plus a strap that is too short, a guitar cord in plastic and two completely unusable guitar picks. The whole impression is "cheap".

I plugged it into my Vox AC15. Oh My God .... It sounded really bad, I doubt that you should even call the sound "electric guitar". Really lousy pickups and obviously they're bad wired. Plonk and flat throughout and the strings seem to be more wire than strings. I thought that a string replacement might help a little.

When I restring the beast, I discover that the strings have the wrong distance between the E string and A string. A construction error, the saddles are the wrong.
I ran to my local dealer, Halkans´s Rockhouse i Stockholm,  and got a new set of saddles and then straight back home to change them. And then the next problem slapped me in my face. It is virtually impossible to intonate the piece, it´s impossible.

The strings are badly high and the tuners are really bad, they actually barely works. It doesn't  matter if I adjust the "locking screws" either.

The guitar is a complete disaster, I gave up....

My hopes were down to minus 10, the day after, when I brought home another similar yellow packet. began I actually regret that I started the project at all.

The conclusion is that a $160 guitar clearly is a warning signal. Surprised? No, not particularly.

Stay Zombied

Monday, November 10, 2014

Fake guitars from China + participate in my survey about counterfeit guitars...

The market is flooded of Chinese copies of well known and established guitar brands. So it is. The globalized world we live in nowadays creates a fertile ground for an uncontrolled market of these copies. Forgery industry is associated with a variety of problems, ranging from child labor to environmentally damaging production etc, but note that there is a difference between copies (counterfeit) and clones.

Marshall's first amplifier was actually clones of Fender's best seller "Bassman", it´s important to understand that to be inspired is not equal to stealing. Burny guitars from the late 70s and early 80s are considered as fine and desirable instruments today, but when they were made, they were considered "pirate copies". All major brands have been victims of piracy, and it destroys the long term market. But good stuff has always been copied.

I want to point out that I don't  run any kind of campaign for the Chinese copies, I'm just interested in the phenomenon.

However, one should know is that the difference between clones and pirate copies.

Pirate Copy (counterfeit)
The first category is perhaps the one that instinctively feels problematic, Asian made guitars branded as Gibson, PRS, Fender, ESP or Gretch. This category is outlawed. In most countries it´s a criminal act to produce and sell pirated copies, or "fakes" as originals. But, and this is i big but, it´s not against the law to purchase copies. Therefore, if you do not have moral doubts, it´s legal to buy in a "Made in USA Gibson Les Paul" made in China.

The second category is not at all associated with criminal activity. It´s very difficult to protect a circuit board by a patent. For those who want to create a clone of an amp for example, just have to design the circuit board and mount the circuits differently so it no longer looks the same and  and able it with their own brand. Protecting the shape of a guitar is also difficult, most clone manufacturers change just enough in the shape or  make a deal and pay a license etc. The clans are inherently interesting and creates an additional range on the market, but without "destroying" it.

Our world has changed
The change that made this huge wave of copies available is simply the availability of knowledge and skills and everyone can learn how to make great instruments. The big brands found countries with cheap labor for their instruments to make bigger profits. So the big companies greed lead to more competitors and "piracy of high quality".

Lots of "good enough guitars" is manufactured in China today, legally under trusted brands and illegally under brands owned by others. Chinese manufacturers are on the go when it comes to the handcraft of building guitars, and one big difference from the past is that they are curious and skilful today, and that they have learned how to make money. This force them to do what ever they can to produce better and better stuff. Thats how capitalism works in a way. One thing to note is that many of the dealers on the Internet is well aware of that the customers rule the market. A negative feed back from a customer is immediately handled. At least most of the time.

The market
An interesting question is "where does all these copies end up"? There's a whole bunch of websites where you can buy a pirated guitar from. If you dive in to these you'll find that most of them lives in Russia, Argentina, Australia, Spain, US and even where I live (Sweden). Practically the world buy Chinese guitars. I think this has to do with generally high priced guitars. Gibson guitars today costs over 3000 dollars, and that in itself creates a fairly large group of hungry people who want a Gibson but don't have the actual money. A Chinese "Gibson" goes for 10% of the price of an "authentic". That means the audience that buys copies probably wouldn't  buy a "real deal" in their lifetime. In a long perspective this will damage the business for the big brands.

When it comes to the quality of a Chinese copy, it is much better today compared to the quality ten years ago. But there are many manufacturers out there and all of them are not that great. There are really bad items actually. But there are some really nice guitars for pennies in the context. If you don't  have moral problems with buying a Chinese brand guitar you can make really good buy, there's no doubt about that.

A good copy guitar is like any other good guitar, but of course not comparable to something like "Les Paul Custom Shop" or "Fender Custom Shop". You can't  compare them in any way with the originals, of course.  One should remember that if you buy a "copy" you a "copy" and not the original quality. But it's not quite that simple actually. Quality is a subjective concept, and should also be contrasted with "how much you pay" and what you have as the minimum requirement for your instrument of choice.

Do not sell fakes to others
One should NOT sell copies to others as "authentic", it's really not ok. It can be difficult to determine if a copy is a copy though.

International survey about counterfeits
Before I go any further I would like to know if you have ever bought a "Chinese copy". The survey is anonymous and simple. I would really appreciate if you could answer as honestly as you can. I will display the result in a couple of days.

Have you ever bought a "fake" or "copy" guitar?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ceriatone makes affordable amps that sounds unbelievably great ...

Are you constantly searching for a guitar sound based on one of the classic Marhall or Fender amps, but never been able to find the cash needed? Then handmade point to point from Asia may be your thing. Imagine a great sounding Marshall Plexi, JCM800, Fender Blackface or Hower Dumble Series for a pittance in the context? Asia is a big area and knowledge is developing rapidly in today's globalized world. I think we should get used to the idea that stuff from Asia can be as great as stuff from USA or Europe. 

A while ago I interviewed Tobias Egge from the Swedish band "Imperial State Electric", the interview will be published soon. He was kind enough to let play one of his amps from Asia. It was a clone of the iconic Marshall Plexi. I was totally stunned, the amp sounded absolutely magical. It was warm, had a great bottom and a great "string separation". Tobias told me that he and Nicke Anderson had ordered them because they were quite affordable, I think they paid $ 600 each or something like that.

The manufacturer, Ceriatone, creates affordable "boutique clones" of classic amplifiers without compromising on quality. When I checked it out thoroughly, it appeared that Ceriatone, founded by entrepreneur Nik S Azam, started to make hand-built amplifiers back in 2000. Now they're exporting to 70 countries, mostly to EU, USA, Japan and Australia. But very few people seems to know about these guys, which is odd considering that their amps sound so good.

Admittedly, prices have gone up a bit since Tobias bought his, but the prizes are still less than half of the prize for a new new Marshall Plexi reissue or a used "vintage" on eBay.

But more interesting is actually their really classic models, which most of us can't find at all. Ceriatone do not work in the vintage market, they are more of an alternative to the "digital stuff", for people like myself who don't have $ 100 000 for a 35 year old Fender.

Ceriatone makes in total over 40 amp models, mostly based on the Fender and Marshall, and all are hand made point to point with the only goal to make amps with high quality rather than trying to compete on price. The competition from China is a fact, but Ceriatone has found its niche and the reviews are overwhelming. So really, you could say that they actually compete with the major manufacturers' quality and stronger brands. The firm is small, 20 employees, and they don't  have a major marketing account. They sell almost solely on "mouth to mouth" by appreciative customers in various forums on Internet.

Ceriatones capacity is 100-200 amps per month, which is exactly where they want to be. A bigger business is often equal to lower quality in the long run. Nik is smart and passionate about guitar tones...

Their Overtone Special Series (OTS) is based on Howard Dumble series, one of the most sought after and most expensive boutique amplifier in the world. Dumble Amps are clones of the Fender Tweed and Blackface, and this is of interest. Because if you make clones and crave shameless amounts of money for it, then it is more appropriate than if you do equally great clones but prizing them low.  Then it becomes a "copy" in peoples minds. Weird....

According to the reviews, OTS sound very similar and authentic to Dumbles, but with one the major difference,  it costs about $ 1600 dollars compared to a Dumble Overdrive Special that runs loose in between $ 20,000 to $ 50,000 dollars. As you can't patent a circuit board, you just have to tweak it a bit, there is no issue of copying here. Ceriatone is not a "copy cat", they use their own brand inspired by others, just like everyone else...

Ceriatone OTS is one of the more expensive amplifiers they make, but most of them goes for $ 1,000 for fully working amp and with starting prices of $ 300- $ 500 if you're willing to do some of the work yourself.

I contacted Nik and asked if I could asked him for an interview, and if I maybe have the opportunity to buy an amplifier for testing later on. There is a long queue to get the hands of one and it takes a while to build stuff by hand.

How did your work actually start, and what is your background as an amp builder?
It was really just a hobby for me. I play the guitar, and of course the gear hunting bug got to me. I started tinkering and repairing vintage tube amps, and before you know it, it got a bit serious. I started by offering turret boards, and from there, I added things, including complete amplifiers. 
I am ECE by training (Electrical/Computer Engineer), as well.

Where are you stationed with your workshop?
We’re located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

What is your own preference, when it comes to music and amps?
I grew up with classic rock, and old school metal. So, it’d be the Fender and Marshalls, pretty much. That’s all we had, back then, really.

Even though your amps are inspired by other well known amps, you build them from scratch don't you?
Yes, we do build them from scratch. We draw/design our own chassis, boards, faceplates, etc. And the builds all start from the raw ingredients.

The average customer do they buy a kit and assemble them by their own or do they buy "whole amps"?
We actually sell more complete amps than kits.

I know that you are very truthful to quality, is there a thin line between less quality, by using cheap components, profit and sound experience in the business in general?
There is no silver bullet to kill all demon types. A component deemed not so great, might work excellently in certain parts of a certain amp. Plus, if you look at it, the passive components do not really cost much, esp in bulk. A Mallory 150 coupling cap, for example, is less than a dollar, while Sozo and such, they don’t go for more than five. 

And transformers?
Same thing with transformers. We use own own transformers for all the builds. They do cost less than bigger names, but that’s because it’s made here, where labor is cheaper. It is not the case that we haven’t opened up many vintage  transformers, to see how it’s done. 
The parts do contribute, as they have their own sounds, but the designer needs to hone his own ears as to what works best. Having said that, more percentage of quality is about quality control, including the testing of the amps. I test the amps personally, and I usually test them very loud, over long periods of time. Plus, we also burn in our amps, to ensure no infant death occurring.

Can you describe you quality process?
Our process is, I test the amps for voltages, functions, tone. And then, we burn in for abt 15-16 hours total, over 3 days. Ie, about 4-6 hours a day. Then, I test it again. The chassis is then put into the cabinet, and I test again, before shipping. 
Other than that, I really emphasize on the execution of the wiring, especially soldering. There is an art to it. It's not complicated, but it's time consuming for sure. 

The best amp you have ever built?
There is no best amp, it depends on what you want to achieve, your moods, etc. I could be happy with an OTS, and I could be happy with my Champ Ultra.

The best amp you have ever heard, and who played it?
We have noticed that for a given vintage amp X model, some are good, some are not, and a couple are just perfect. I think, our S&M OTS (which is ODS based, but tweaked), when the magic happens, is just perfect. The S&M was actually our first OTS. Having been accustomed to Fenders and Marshalls, it was very hard to get used to the Dumble ODS sound, especially the OD. I think lots of people find this as well, you need to adjust your playing to accommodate that, in a way. 
So, the S&M is more like, at the time, a culmination of my experience and influences, expressed through an ODS platform. 

Does any well known players use Ceriatone?
There are. But understand this: Endorsement deals is something we do not do, it is how we conduct business. I do understand, endorsement or the potential for endorsement is something that could mean revenue for the artist. So, I usually don’t name names, because we did not pay the artist to advertise our stuff, and we do not want to hurt their chances to get one, from another company.  I think that’s fair... Of course, if the artist wants to tell, it’s our honor and pleasure. We’re about trying to make the best amps, with the lowest possible price.

Tell me a little about the Yeti stuff?
The Yeti is the Jose Arredondo type of mod done to Marshalls, which were very popular in the 80s rock/glam scene. Of course, I have added our own tweaks to it, to suit my tastes. 

On the #35, did you built in out of the sound or did you look in to AFD100?
We had some info on the circuit, and went from there. I do not think it’s possible to just hear an amp, and a circuit comes on like a light bulb in your mind. There are so many ways to tweak, and the original SIR #36 definitely had weird things going in it (hindsight is always 20:20, of course).

It´s PPIMV in that one, is that the power scaling used by AFD100?
Usually, I refer/compare our amps to the vintage/ real issue. The PPIMV was added as a feature for low volume playing. The reissue AFD has some sort of power scaling, it’s not the same. Power scaling allows for the voltages to go down, in tandem with scaled biasing. PPIMV is simpler.

How well do you think Marshall nailed the AFD tone?
I haven’t played the reissue.

Is there any differences in the #35 tone compared to the "original" on the album.
You’d definitely get in the ballpark, but there are other things than just the amp involved. Post production, for one, and you cannot really buy that in the store.

Do you work with the power supply when you develop gain, or what philosophy do you have?
Yes, that’s quite critical, you have to know your PS.  But I don’t really have any philosophy behind it, as you can tweak so many parts of the amp.

Which amp is the best selling and best reviewed by users?
We sell lots of the Yeti and Chupacabra amps, as well as the OTS series. Now, we have the OTS lunchbox, and they do sell real well.  We will have more lunchbox type amps in the future – easy to make, sell, and ship.

Have any big company tried to get close to you to buy you out?
No, actually. I am not sure if they even know Ceriatone exists. On a personal basis, Playgirl approached me, but I tastefully declined.

Do you have any "idols" in the business, who build awesome amps beside you?
Leo Fender and Jim Marshall, they started it all!  But I think all builders are cool. A lot of times, it’s labor of love. Nowadays, I don’t tend to mod or make custom 1 offs that much, because of time constraint. But the amps are made with lots of care, lots of testing, each of them. I am sure it’s the same with other small time builders, so it takes lots of dedication.

Do you have any new amp models coming out soon?
Yes, we do release new models from time to time. We’d lunchbox the Yeti, and we’d do a modern type high gain amp as well. You know, for those drop tuned 20 string guitars. 

Thanks for talking to me and letting me borrow some of your time...
My pleasure...

I will get back when I have a review of the the Chupacabra 50...

Meanwhile.....Stay Zombied