The Kramer Chronicles, Volume I: The '59 Set
When I was a kid first starting out on guitar, there was no widespread “DIY” market to speak of. That was just beginning. You basically took what you could get at your local music store, and liked it. Unless you were daring enough to try the also embryonic mail-order market and run with something you found in the back pages of Guitar Player or Guitar World magazines. I didn’t become that daring until after high school. Being a young kid into Van Halen, even though I had a Fender Strat with a standard trem, I of course wanted a Charvel Strat with a Floyd Rose. But sadly that wasn’t happening, as few had heard of them and no music retailer carried the line in my podunk town. Lo and behold, EVH then began popularizing Kramer guitars, a brand already well-known enough via their aluminum-necked Travis Bean series instruments that someone in town had them.
Kramer was the first production guitar manufacturer to offer Floyd Rose bridges on their affordable (wooden-necked) guitars. They were also one of the first manufacturers to offer Seymour Duncan Pickups as an option. I absolutely had to have one. Unfortunately, their Strat-styled offering, the Pacer, looked odd to me somehow. Still does in a way – though I’ve grown to appreciate its own unique vibe over the years. Back then, however, I was torn. Desperately wanted the Floyd, didn’t want the Pacer.
I was happy to discover Kramer DID, however, make a pretty cool version of the “Star” bodies I’d also seen pictures of my hero playing in addition to his Strat bodied guitars. They called it the Voyager. Hey, that would work! My cool and supportive mom made me a deal: if I kept my grades up, she would help me acquire one. I kept my end of the bargain, and I got a candy-apple red one in 1984. It later became my first gigging guitar in my first “professional” (as in we got paid) cover band. We kinda thought we were it as far as metal cover bands in town went, and hey, I did have one of the area’s coolest guitarsat the time (easily done; small town – enter big, red and pointy). But it proved itself to be a tireless workhorse, a big red tank of a guitar. It not only survived countless gigs, it also survived violently flying out of its case into the open bed of a Chevy S-10 truck totaled in an auto accident. All with minimal scarring. Like I said, it’s a tank.
Given all that, once I’d started venturing into the fledgling mail-order parts market and built my first Strat from Charvel replacement parts… I grew to dislike the Kramer’s chunky, R2 (1 5/8″) nut-width neck compared to the wider R5 Charvel neck’s flatter radius and thinner back shape. I’d also found it difficult to switch between the Star and a Strat body comfortably in a live situation from a right-hand picking standpoint. So for those reasons I rather unceremoniously retired and disassembled it around 1989, scavenged the Floyd and Schaller tuners for a build which would become the original “Bomber “prototype, and sold the neck and original pickups. For some reason however, perhaps sentimentality or guilt, I hung on the body all these years. I knew with a neck like the ones I had fallen in love with the guitar I’d originally been so fond of could be cool again. And it turns out I was right.
A couple of years ago I got the urge to revisit/upgrade the Bomber, and while searching for parts in the closet stumbled upon the Voyager body. It seemed only fair to also revisit the guitar I had cannibalized for the original Bomber project too. I found a German OFR with an R5 nut in black on eBay cheap (which I quickly upgraded with a 37mm FU-Tone Brass Big-Block). I got some 16:1 ratio black Gotoh tuners and the electronic parts from StewMac.com. All that remained was giving it the neck it deserved, but it had to look cool, too. I didn’t want another “beak” style neck like it originally had. I had something more striking in mind.
I decided I wanted a “Large Banana” style headstock on this version, so I ordered a Boogie Bodies neck to my usual specs: R5 (1 3/4″) nut, 10-16″ compound radius Ebony fingerboard, and 22 6150 frets, and a “standard thin” contour; a slim but not full-on “Wizard” backshape. Suddenly, the Voyager was back, and not only visually superior but also far more playable than its original incarnation. Since it at the moment is the only two-humbucker guitar I own, I decided it would be cool to use it to test out a few Seymour Duncan humbucker combinations. I’ll be using the TB ’59 in the neck as the anchor and then alternating a few bridge humbuckers to explore various pairings. By the way, you don’t have to use a Trembucker in the neck position, but I find due to the width of the necks I use the strings seemed to line up better. Your mileage may vary. I initially intended to quickly accomplish the pickup swaps with solderless connections via a Duncan Liberator, but as it turns out the Voyager’s tiny tele-esque rear control cavity is one of the few in existence it won’t fit in. Add to this the fact the control routing setup also requires the use of an acoustic-type endpin jack and we’re talking narrow, cramped quarters. So old-school it will be.
Even though the Voyager is undeniably a very metal-looking axe, I figured it’d be cool to begin with a full ‘59 set as the reference point. Start out with the classic PAF vibe overall and build up to something more aggro in the bridge. The guitar is wired with a 500k push-pull volume to allow coil-splitting as an option, a CTS 500k tone control and a 3-way switch. Due to space limitations, that’s the most versatile configuration I could come up with (a two-push-pull arrangement won’t fit: tried that). Since it does provide for both a tone control and a coil-split, it’s workable for the purposes of these reviews. I pulled the pickups currently occupying the Voyager and got down to business.
Seymour’s take on the legendary “Patent Applied For” humbucker tone is indeed a very faithful recreation, and definitely reminds me of the actual vintage pickups I’ve been lucky enough to have heard. It’s a very “you are there” effect. The vintage output reveals a clear, articulate tone that allows you at all times to hear the wood, the strings, and your pick attack, no matter how much gain you pile on it. It does this great “roots” tone suitable for huge, ringing open chords with brassy authority. It’s difficult to describe, but even through my Mesa Boogie Mark III’s raging lead channel, AC/DC -style riffs (as you’ll hear) still had an earthy grind to them that can only be described as “vintage.” The lower output makes you work a little bit harder with your picking hand, but it’s worth the extra effort. The neck pickup is bright and clean sounding, but also works well for soloing with heavy distortion. The bridge model is also bright, but notes have this “spank” that you don’t get with higher output pickups that tend to mush out. Split-mode the single-coil tones were bright but easily tamed with the tone control. Overall, the ’59 set turned my metal-looking guitar into a surprisingly versatile beast, now capable of much more than just the “kill everybody” tones you’d expect.
Here’s some clips I did to illustrate how versatile the ’59 is under different gain structures. Using the “re-amping” technique I’ve taken a DI clip of a riff and put it through several Acme Bar Gig Head Case amp treatments to give you an idea of what it’ll do respectively. First let’s check out the basic riff through a Fender Bassman-type set-up:
Now here’s a quick track I did to show the neck position ’59 is capable of more Jazz and Funk-sounding cleans than you’d think as well as illustrate a bit of the lead capabilities of the set:
In each example as the gain increases, the more strings and wood you hear; never is the tone masked by an overabundance of pickup gain – it’s the “you are there” vibe I spoke of. Leads are clean and present, and if you dig in you’re rewarded with singing, sustaining notes. Next chapter we move on to something in the bridge that, while still in the PAF neighborhood , has a little more sparkle, and Texas-sized tone all its own… stay tuned!