Yamaha SG 175
This is the first Yamaha guitar on which I have ever made public comment. Some of you may have heard me express the odd uncharitable opinion about early Yamaha instruments but times and policies change. Most of the faults could be put right by an hour's work and a new set of machine heads, and would take only seconds if corrected during manufacture.
The SG-175 is generally of a standard which would satisfy most one-off guitar makers, even though it appears to be largely jig and machine-made. Surprisingly, it is the machine-made and finished parts which show graceful and accurate workmanship; the instrument only falls down on the final hand-finishing operations.
I am pleased to see so much care taken on a production instrument; I am also pleased to see that, as an individual guitar-maker I am not yet obsolete. (When the nut and frets become as good as the woodwork and inlays, I may consider selling up and buying a hen farm.) I am also pleased to see that the coloured stuff around the edges is abalone, not mother-of-celluloid: anybody who is willing to drive themselves around the bend cutting dozens of identical little pieces of abalone and then inlaying these (straight) pieces in curved slots has to care about what he's making.
There should be a photograph of this instrument somewhere nearby; it won't show the pretty details, but have a look anyway and then come back.
As the advertisements often say, you have to see the instrument in real life to appreciate the fine materials and craftsmanship. This is probably one of the very few occasions when advertising copy is strictly correct, as beautiful wood-grain and delicate inlays tend to photograph worse than cheap imitations. The printing process just can't reproduce the detail. For those of you who can't easily see one, the neck and body are made from American mahogany with a natural colour, neargloss finish. All the metal fittings appear to be heavily gold plated. The body and neck are bound with black and white celluloid purfling and set into this, round the front edges, is a strip of multicoloured abalone mosaic. The body is entirely solid in three layers and carved in a gentle violin-type curve similar to Les Paul model guitars. The fingerboard is good ebony with low nickel frets and very well fitted abalone inlays. It is not absolutely straight but is well within the tolerances which can be taken up by a light fret stoning. The machine-heads are high quality Grovers, and it is hardly Yamaha's responsibility that the ones fitted to the review guitar are stiff and erratic. Personally, I have always preferred Schallers but I am less happy about even their quality control since they started manufacturing large quantities for the American market.
Like many of us, Yamaha will have to learn that one cannot take old names and old standards for granted. The frets have been levelled and polished and show no signs of sharp ends due to fingerboard shrinkage. The lowest action possible under our standard conditions is 1 mm top string and 1.6 bottom string. This is pretty good and it would not be possible to improve on it, without a two-hour perfectionist fret-stoning job and a better nut. The neck joins the body at the 18th fret, extending to 22 frets, level with the base of the cutaways. There are conventional tone and volume controls and one three-way switch.
The wiring is clean and tidy, and the insides of the body cavities are lined with conductive paint to assist screening. This is a sensible move but unfortunately, the paint does not extend up the sides of the cavities, nor does it connect to the back panel. This reduces the effectiveness of an otherwise good idea. A good point is the jack socket which has gold plated contacts and is therefore less likely to develop crackles.
The pick-ups are based closely on American humbucking designs using a metallic magnet like the original and they have silicone rubber damping on the adjustment screws. The coil and magnet assembly has been dipped in hot wax to hold down anything which might try to vibrate. There seems to be a little more wire than usual on the bobbins, and this may explain the relatively high output of the pick-ups. Yamaha seem to have gone to some trouble to reproduce the magnetic circuit of American humbuckers, instead of taking the easy way out and gluing in a large ceramic magnet. I assume they were trying to reproduce the tone of American Humbuckers, and I think they have probably succeeded.
The instrument does, however, have some minor faults. There are some signs of poor adhesion between the lacquer film and the abalone and plastic decorations. The use of a relatively slow-drying sealer coat containing a proportion of Cellulose solvents might help. While on the subject of finishing, there is a mark on the back of the head under the lacquer, the truss-rod cover is already beginning to warp, and the pretty matt black finish on most of the screw-heads wears off, leaving bright pink copper plate visible underneath. Unfortunately, the only wear resistant black plating process I know involves boiling cyanide solution, and not surprisingly, most plating firms are reluctant to use it. What's wrong with stainless steel screws? The colour goes all the way through, and they don't have to be mirror finished.
The adjustable bridge is similar to the well-known Gibson original and its innumerable copies. The original, however, depends heavily on the material used for the movable inserts: the soft plastic ones quickly deform under the string and dull the tone. Metal ones are inclined to rattle and to develop hn elliptical slot in which a string may buzz when held at certain frets, and the better fibreglass ones, which occasionally break in half, are not easily available. Yamaha have made the inserts (on which the strings rest) out of ivory, which is the material least likely to cause troubles with string buzzing or breakage, and made them almost twice the usual thickness for strength. The rest of the bridge is just as solid and well thought out, but the accuracy of the review sample is marred by uneven machining of the inside base of the bridge-block, on which the ivory inserts should rest. This looks like the sort of error which can creep in at the beginning of production and is not really serious.
In view of the care applied to the bridge and tailpiece, I am surprised to find what appears to be a moulded plastic nut! This is certainly the worst part of the whole instrument and even apart from being plastic, is wrong in almost every dimension. Its recess at the end of the fingerboard is also clumsy and I am inclined to think that this particular sample was finished in a great hurry. The S.G. 175 is a well made and well designed guitar, and the most expensive in its range: it requires an accurate nut, made from the same quality of ivory as the bridge inserts, and a few minutes spent on final adjustment.
There are two other silly things I noticed. The rubber surround to the selector switch is a loser. The principle is copied from American guitars and it never did work properly. If the jack socket can be fitted to a curved surface, why not the switch? One of the tone control marker pins was put (hammered?) in lopsided, and on closer examination, I suspect these pins are not gold plated.
Now I have listed the instrument's faults in some detail, particularly where they may affect its appearance or reliability over several years. I have done so because this is potentially a fine instrument, and because I believe its importers and makers will wish to correct these faults. I think that this instrument (and also possibly the cheaper S.C.90) represents a change in policy by the makers in two ways. First, it is built for hard use and in such a way that it can easily be repaired if damaged. Secondly, it manages to retain an American feel and sound without obviously copying well known designs. I find it very difficult to define why this guitar "feels" American and not Japanese, or even where the difference lies. It has only recently been realised that the neck and body construction and their relative weights and stiffnesses can have a significant effect on the tone of a solid guitar. In addition, few other Japanese guitars are made from American mahogany, and choice of woods can also affect the tone. Perhaps the reasons lie somewhere here. The other unknown factor is the very slim neck. The width and string spacing are conventional (nut, 42mm wide; string spacing at nut, 35mm, string spacing at bridge, 51mm), but there seems to be rather less wood round the back. I liked this; some players said it was too thin, others that it was great. In spite of its slim dimensions, it seems rigid and stable, but only time will tell if the design is right.
If you can't afford £228, the SG 90 seems very similar, but without the gold plate and fancy inlays, and with a rosewood fingerboard.
Retail Price £288
Review by Stephen Delft
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