The trend towards increasingly powerful and compact guitars, using an increasingly sophisticated range of materials, has in part produced the Vigier range of guitars which are now available for the first time in the UK.
For some years Vigier's designs have been popular on the Continent and in America, where they are used by the lead guitarist of the popular rock band Toto. Despite the rock emphasis in the styling of the guitars however, they are capable of a very wide range of sounds due in part to their mechanical construction and in part to their versatile active electronics.
We examined three models — the Arpege six-string Active lead guitar, the Active Bass, and the Fretless Bass with Metal Fingerboard. These are just part of a range developed by Vigier in eight years as a guitar repair specialist and two years as an independent designer; other models include a five-string bass, a vibrato guitar, and a fretless guitar, "a new instrument whose astonishing possibilities are yet to be discovered".
The lead guitar has a 23-fret neck, including a zero fret next to the nut. The neck itself is of an unusual patented design, intended to avoid the potential fragility and tendency to warp of a wooden neck, and the coldness, temperature sensitivity and lack of adjustment of an all-metal neck. To this end it has a sectional Maple and Walnut neck, with a conventional adjustable truss rod topped by a metal 'under-fingerboard' and then the wooden fingerboard itself.
The neck design is unusual in other ways; it has a trapezoidal shape under the body, spreading out towards the output socket and thus, it is claimed, allowing for a more even transmission of vibrations from the fingerboard to the bridge and a consequent increase in Sustain. The body is made of Royal Walnut and can be finished in glossy black, white, clear red, metal chestnut-sunburst, light red, natural, and metallic grey, dark cherry or antique violin.
Our model had a smooth off-white finish with gold ornamentation and pearl dot inlays on the side of the fingerboard. Metal parts were gold and silver, knobs black with a white indicator line but no scale, maroon pickups, no scratchplate but a small guard plate around the output socket. Like most of the other parts of the guitar the metalwork was quite unusual and bears further description.
The dual humbucking pickups are manufactured by M. Benedetti and use a special coiling system, in which the wire is wound directly onto the permalloy pole pieces and a wide response curve at high output levels is obtained. On the basses, the pole pieces are made from Alnico 8, an Aluminium/Nickel/Cobalt alloy long known for its excellent magnetic properties. Pickup height adjustment is by means of two small screws on either side of each pickup.
The bridge is made from Delta metal, having negligible expansivity, and is of a very unusual design. The strings are 'front hooking', the ball end clipping under the bridge and the string passing through a cantilevered saddle before passing over the pickups. The saddles in turn are connected to cylinders which penetrate the base of the bridge, are held in place by grub screws, and provide intonation adjustment using a 2.5mm Hex key (not provided).
The system appears unusual at first sight but helps to give tremendous sustain, with height adjustment of the individual saddles achieved via grub screws again and string changing made easier by the fact that the saddles swing upwards if required.
Access to the truss rod is via a back panel removable again with a Hex key, and it's also possible to gain access to the active electronics by removing four cross-head screws. This shouldn't really be necessary as the guitar comes supplied with dry cells which can be recharged via an external socket as will be described; in case of an emergency however, with flat cells and no mains adaptor on hand, it's useful to know that conventional batteries can still be fitted.
Lastly, the controls. The lead guitar has four rotary knobs, one three-way and one two-way switch and a ¼-inch socket on the front of the body, and another socket on the side of the body.
The first rotary pot decides the function of the preamp. In the down position it converts the output signal to low impedance, giving the potential of using much longer cables or several effects pedals without loss of volume. In the up position it gives up to a ten decibel boost to the output, with the usual benefits of controllable distortion, additional volume and greater tonal range.
The three-way switch is a conventional rhythm/lead/both pickup selector. The central pair of rotary pots operate as follows; the higher knob switches on the parametric EQ if pulled up, and switches it off if pushed down. Rotating the pot boosts or cuts the selected frequency by twenty dB in the on position; the lower knob determines the frequency at which the parametric EQ operates.
The two-way switch decides whether the pickups operate in single or double coil mode; the final knob is an overall tone control, and the side socket is the overall output.
The front socket has a dual purpose: primarily it is intended to accept the three-contact jack from the mains charger supplied with the guitar, which gives the internal cells sufficient charge for 100 hours playing if connected overnight.
Alternatively it can be used as a direct output from the pickups, an enormous bonus if you've ever noticed the degree of tonal cut caused by tone controls even when they're set wide open. Used in this mode the active electronics obviously don't function.
Overall the guitar is a sheer delight to use. The action is low but positive, the truss rod adjustment being made for .010 strings, and there are no appreciable dead spots or buzzes. Although the body is small it is pleasantly weighty, and the action of the Schaller machine heads is up to the highest professional standards.
The tonal range available is enormous, from the most piercing and powerful heavy rock sounds to mellow jazz tones often at the flick of a single switch. A strap locking device is included with the guitar, which hangs comfortably or sits across one knee.
The only problems are in the layout of the switches and knobs, which is a little cramped considering they are not labelled in anyway and which requires a good degree of familiarity before use can become intuitive. Also the model we examined hinted at problems with the internal grounding, but not in any serious manner.
The standard Bass is a 22-fret model including the zero fret, and has two pickups which can be used in or out of phase. Otherwise controls are similar to the guitar; the machine heads are again Schallers, the strings this time passing through the body for increased stability and sustain.
The fingerboard is extremely smooth, and in combination with the active EQ allowed a vast range of sounds and styles from heavy woolly effects to piercing high-pitched soloing sounds such as have become popular recently with the music of Mick Karn and Japan. Again a problem with grounding.
The final guitar on review was the eyecatching fretless bass, in a dark cherry finish but with a delta metal as opposed to an ebony fingerboard. Like the fretless six-string this is really an instrument for the experienced only, when the phenomenal sustaining properties of the delta metal surface can be fully exploited. Apart from the obvious differences in tuning, fretless playing is a whole new discipline having much in common with violin playing. For those who have mastered or feel they could master the technique, suffice it to say that the Vigier fretless may be just the instrument you've been waiting for. The simple effect of a twenty-semitone glissando on a metal neck can be quite breathtaking!
Vigier's range is under constant development, the obvious appeal being to the professional or highly specialised musician but with many aspects of interest to every musician. One new product which should fall under the latter category will be revealed at Frankfurt — it's the Nautilus, an active guitar with 19 digital memories for different tonal settings and pickup configurations which are retained by miniature batteries. The combination of Vigier power and sustain with instant accessibility of a personal selection of sounds should be quite overwhelming.
Approximate retail prices including VAT are £850 for the six-string guitar and fretless bass, and £800 for the standard active bass. Vigier guitars are distributed in the UK by Capelle Music Industries Ltd., (Contact Details).
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