Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Meet Ashley, the Mail Order Companion! (Takamine EG523SC Review)

Well, it's been a long time coming. I've been desiring a stage-worthy second jumbo guitar to accompany me on stage so I don't have to retune as many times during my sets and eventually settled on this beauty.

Photo: Jemarc A.

While the photo above doesn't portray my joy, I was as giddy as a playing puppy. But enough about my excitement. I'm here to provide answers to the questions I had before I bought it. Yes! I committed the sin of buying a guitar without playing it first! Did it pay-off?

Standing at attention.


Acoustic sound is important to me. The best pickups can't fix mediocre tone. Those familiar with my music know I play a lot of percussive fingerstyle. I like big, crisp sound. For a guitar in this price range, it sounds pretty decent. It's no sound canon, but it's no slouch either and can easily be heard outdoors amidst ambient foot traffic noise. I wouldn't mind more brilliance to the sound, but I've already put many hours of love into the strings this week, so it's probably about time to change them.

For drumming, the Takamine EG523SC has as tight-sounding body. The natural gloss finish is great for getting scratchy sounds. Overall, the body feels pretty sturdy. Bass drum hits aren't terribly boomy but sound alright. The preamp is placed at one of my favorite drumming spots, so that plus the cutaway is forcing me to find some new ways to approach guitar drumming.

The tuners definitely leave much to be desired. Even with the strings properly stretched and the guitar set to a temperature-neutral room, the stock devices don't hold the guitar in tune. Tuners will probably be my first upgrade for this guitar. The action is a tad on the low side for my preferences, but the truss rod adjusted smoothly and easily. I still have a bit more tweaking to do to dial it to my preference. [Note: I have since installed new tuners (Grover 106s), and I'm much happier with the on board tuner and the guitar's ability to hold its notes, even in alternate tunings.]

I'd also like to note that this guitar was my first time ever encountering a subtle, ringing sound that Antoine Dufour cites as the reason he keeps a handkerchief tied to the headstock of his guitar. I just might have to join him in his method to mute this phenomenon!

Ashley's lovely backside.


This is a field where I'm not much of an expert. I can say that the tuner isn't all too accurate, but it's a nice function to have nevertheless. It's chromatic and gets in the ballpark. Then again, maybe new tuning mechanisms will help. [As noted above, they did. A lot.] The EQ works nicely and provides a variety of tones. The pickup system sounds fairly natural, but it doesn't pick-up on body vibrations as much as I'd like. I plan on installing some trusty K&K's in the near future and running a setup similar to the Shadow systems Epiphone and Gibson uses. [I have the K&K's but am going to need tools I don't have at the moment to install them. Because of the way the guitar is built and wired, the instructions aren't terribly useful and necessitate some MacGyver-ing.]

That said, the pickup and preamp provide good dynamic range without being too punchy. The knobs work well, and everything is located in a convenient place. The 9V battery slot works like a dream, especially compared to the messy K&K Ultra Pure system I installed on my Alvarez AJ60S. For conventional guitar playing, this is a pretty convenient stage setup. If you like doing a lot of tinkering with electronics, the Takamine system has a bit of an unconventional build requiring some creativity when adjustments.


I'm used to playing on jumbos, but people have remarked that this is a very big feeling guitar. I was hoping that the bass frequencies would be more boomy than they are, but I'm hoping that it'll improve as the guitar gets played more and broken-in over time. I didn't notice it when I took the pictures, but the top nut is poorly designed. The grooves for the strings are uniform in size such that the larger strings sit on top of the gap instead of inside them. I'll probably have to sand them later so the fit is better.

On a lot of reviews, people complained that the action was high. However, I think it's more a matter of adjusting the truss rod so the neck is properly aligned (there are plenty of videos that detail how to do this, but if you're not comfortable doing it, have a professional set it). Ashley showed up with a crooked neck but was much more playable after going chiropractor on her, even with the 13-56 gauge strings I use.

It's nice to have a guitar that doesn't need end pins to secure the strings; I'm clumsy and tend to drop/lose things easily. However, restringing is a little cumbersome since the tips of the strings tend to get caught in the grain of the wood. It's not a big deal, but I would imagine that it could be frustrating in the dark, back stage of a venue if you don't have a screwdriver or pen to help guide the string along. 

Later, I'll upload some sample recordings of the pure acoustic sound and the plugged-in sound. That won't be for at least another week or so. I've logged many hours of play and even got some performing in with this Takamine EG523SC, and I'm really digging it as a workhorse guitar, especially after getting good tuning mechanisms and my preferred string gauges installed. I still like the sound of my cheaper Alvarez AJ-60S more, but seeing how it's currently out of commission due to a broken pickup, this will do just fine, especially once I install the second set of pickups. The finish is thin, so clumsy blokes like myself be aware: the guitar will dent easily!

The Breakdown
+ Pickups sound nice. Chromatic tuner, 3-band EQ, volume, notch filter (used to fight feedback), and EQ signal cancel.
+ Battery and string replacement a breeze.
+ Strumming sounds great: full and vibrant for a guitar in this price range.
+ Cutaway provides comfortable, easy access to the top frets. 
+ Good workhorse guitar.

- Stock tuning mechanisms are terrible.
- The battery cover will buzz, especially on those big, beefy chords.
- Not as much clarity for fingerpicking.
- Pickups don't project body hits very well.
- Top nut needs carving to fit the strings properly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

RIP Mile High Skates. It's the end of an era!

Mile High Skates has gone out of business. I lament.

In 2004, I saw my first longboard skateboard an knew right away that I wanted one. I convinced my parents to buy me my first longboard instead of a bike when I went off to college. I got a beautiful, 47" Sector 9 bamboo pintail with Exkate Torsion trucks, 70mm Kryptonics, and no-name bearings (the board was stolen from me a few years ago, and I still miss it). When it arrived, I rode it so much that the grip tape had a foot-sized bald spot on my third day of ownership. Not long after that, I broke the trucks and had my first experience with longboard skate-related customer service.

Exkate sent me replacements for free, but the process took a while. In the meantime, I borrowed a friend's girlfriend's trucks. As I rode more, I became increasingly interested in the gear I rode and spent a slightly unhealthy amount of time participating at the Silverfish Longboarding forums. There, among many helpful skaters from around the world, I came across Mile High Mark and his online store, Mile High Skates.

At the time, online vendors of longboard skateboards were few and far between, but Mark stood as a unique model from which many other stores would follow in the years to come. All of the gear he carried was solid gear. He offered them at reasonable prices and, above all, made customer service a priority. He'd patiently answer any questions a buyer might have, give his recommendations, and include plenty of cool, free goodies with purchases. For example, he went out of his way to include a non-skate-related sticker that was funny and relatable to my personality. After establishing myself as a gearhead, he even asked me for advice on a particular setup. For me, it was like Mark Twain asking me for writing advice: he probably didn't need it, but it was thrilling that he asked. 

Now granted, I spent a lot of money at Mark's store which never hurts in the customer service department, but he actively participated on the online conversation, sponsored skate events before they were profitable, and really contributed to the helpful, open vibe that I felt characterized the longboard skateboard scene. 

I write this partially as a eulogy of sorts but more so as a huge, celebratory "Thank you!" to Mark for the countless hours of skate-induced joy I've had over the years. To this day, I continue to ride gear I bought at your store and thank that it made certain setup options available that I wouldn't have had otherwise. 

Loose trucks save lives and are best for sliding my friend. Enjoy some pie.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On Indie Creative Arts

Something cultural icon, Kevin Smith (of Clerks and Dogma fame) said got me thinking about what it means to be "indie" today. Technology has made so many production tools in the creative arts accessible to the average consumer. One no longer needs the backing of mutli-million dollar studios and companies to actualize artistic vision. Of course, those kinds of resources are nice, but they are not a necessity. 

Just as with Indie film makers have a sometimes antagonistic sentiment toward Hollywood, a lot of independent musicians like to bash the big record musical acts, the popular acts with a huge, industrial, money-making machine backing them. I don't think that it's really fair to say that top bill acts are somehow less genuine or legitimate than the struggling indie musician. As Smith said (assuming I understood him correctly), Hollywood runs on an ethos of mass appeal. Just the same, Billboard-topping acts are, whether we like it or not, a reflection of music that appeals to a wide spectrum of people. Granted, this is a topic that can take-up an book's worth of back-and-forth points and counterpoints, but I'm willing to risk overgeneralizing so I can ramble through some thoughts about independent musicians.

Something that indie artists offer fans that big label artists do not is direct access to the creators and creative process. From my experience, the average indie act is willing to stick around after a show and chat with audience members, something that would prove a logistical nightmare for the likes of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. Smith returned to his indie roots with the release of his film Red State. The film was done on a relatively small budget (though perhaps not small enough by indie film standards?). He promoted the movie through his own avenues, and after screenings, he stuck around to answer questions from audience members.

For people who are interested in process over product, the independent arts scene is rife with endlessly fascinating stories and ideas. Before one can really complain that the "true musicians" (as if there is such a thing) don't get the recognition they deserve, one must patronize the independent arts scene: see an indie flick instead of going to watch the Avengers, check out the local music scene instead of paying a premium for the Rolling Stones, visit an underground arts gallery instead of a going to MoMA for the hundredth time. 

That said, I'm not in favor of supporting independent artists who feel that they're somehow entitled to a certain amount of attention simply because they feel that have more to offer than what's already popular/culturally legitimized. Creativity rears its head in many ways, and art that truly makes us think, feel, and/or perceive differently in a meaningful and valuable way is the primary kind of independent art that stands a chance of some kind of posterity. That kind of audience response is something that comes with an understanding of the target niche/demographic and the stick-to-it-ive-ness that have characterized artists who are remembered.