Gibson RD Artist
Gibson meet Moog in their new RD series guitars; Dave Blake's pen meets paper, his plectrum having met string.
The RD Artist is one of the new solid guitars developed by Gibson's Product Development Director Bruce Bolen, with the help of the odd crony like Dr Bob Moog. The RD family comprises three six-string guitars and two basses — three of these instruments are a completely new departure for Gibson in that they offer built-in pre-amping, expansion and compression facilities: the Artist reviewed here, the Custom guitar, and the Artist bass.
You can see from the accompanying photo roughly what the beast looks like, and I'll leave it to your subjective aesthetics to decide whether it is beautiful or bloody ghastly. The model shown (and the review sample) is in natural maple finish with ebony and something called 'fireburst' also available. True to the Gibson tradition (broken only by the recent Marauder guitars and Grabber basses) the neck is permanently jointed to the body, and to improve playability and fret tuning accuracy, Gibson have gone to a slightly longer 25½" scale. The neck is laminated maple with an ebony fingerboard inlaid with blocks of pearl(oid?) and the usual fat Gibson nickel-silver frets. And here cometh my first carp: instead of lengthening the scale, why didn't they add 2 frets for a full two octave fretboard, instead of the 22-fret board? Still... the neck is similar to a Les Paul neck in many ways; although unbound, the fret-edge finishing is immaculate and the instrument lies easily in the hand. Being 1 11/16" wide at the nut, there is plenty of room between strings and between both E's and the side of the board. The neck is pitched backward by 2° - some players prefer an absolutely straight body-neck line, but I've found a slight backward pitch very comfortable. The bound and inlaid peghead is pitched back 14° to make sure of good string contact over the nut, and the machines are evidently gold-plated enclosed Schallers with Gibson stamped on them. No problem there: being tension-adjustable, you can go for either a stiff or loose turn, and small spring-washers will take up wear on the gears.
The neck joins the body at about the sixteenth fret - fairly short on the neck, in fact — but the cutaways are deep enough for easy access to all frets. However, the cutaways are not faired, they are slab-cut similar to a Telecaster, and might prove uncomfortable for someone used (as I am) to an SG or a Strat. Likewise, the heel joint is rounded but there is a step left, down onto the body. This sits rather oddly in the hand and may also take getting used to. Just under the heel is the forward strap-button, and I have several times got my hand tangled in leather as I went after the higher frets. Personally, I think the button would be better positioned on the side of the top upper bout.
The body hardware is, of course, gold-plated: the bass pickup is a Series VI humbucker, as is the treble pickup; the bridge is a Tune-o-matic with individually-adjustable saddles and knurled wheels at each side for height adjustment; the tailpiece is a simple stop-bar type. The controls are slightly more complicated. The knob (of the hatbox speed type) nearest the bridge controls the bass pickup level; looking at the guitar vertically face-on, the knob below that is the treble pickup level; moving out to the edge of the body, the upper knob is bass cut and boost, and the knob below is treble cut and boost. The two tone controls are graduated from -5 to zero to +5; when these controls are set between -5 and zero, the guitar is acting like any normal guitar with passive electronics; above zero, the active electronics come in to boost.
Immediately below the knobs is the (high impedance) output jack socket. Now, this socket also acts as a power switch for the active electronics — since the guts are powered by a small 9v battery, some provision must be made for switching the battery out of circuit unless you want to replace batteries every day. So if the jacklead is plugged in, the battery is draining; jacklead out, and the battery is switched out. This is all very useful, but I tend to leave my guitars plugged in overnight, so my habits would probably cost me a few batteries.
Just below the tailpiece are two three-position switches, one white and one black. The white switch simply controls pickup selection in the usual manner, but the lower black switch takes some working out. In the middle position (straight up), the guitar is neutral, passive, and plays like a normal guitar. Pull the black switch toward the neck and you get Bright Mode, a boost of about 8dB at 4KHz on both pickups. Push the black switch back away from the neck and you get Expansion/Compression Mode - but herein lies the rub! Compression affects the bass pickup only, so you have to make sure your white pickup selector is on bass pickup. Conversely, Expansion affects only the treble pickups, so your selector switch must be set accordingly. But - with the selector on both pickups, both modes are in operation and can be mixed according to the pickup level controls. Complicated, but extremely versatile.
Looking at the back of the body, one sees a large screw-on plastic plate butted against a smaller plate which is removable by two screws for battery replacement (I am led to understand that a failing battery will give plenty of warning by power loss, and that a battery will last 150 to 200 hours of intermittent playing time). When I opened the large plate, I was somewhat taken aback by the mass of wiring harness and the single large PC board - visions of complicated electronics in small spaces going wrong at a critical moment floated into my head. However, after a bit of investigation, I discovered two things: firstly, the construction is extremely well done using high-quality components and a good coat of screening paint, which points to overall reliability; and secondly, there were tiny wood-shavings wandering about in the cavity, just looking for a switch to get caught in — a definite tut-tut. Gibson, buy thyselves a vacuum cleaner!
But the proof of the pudding lies in the scoffing. The sample I reviewed was lent me by London's Top Gear music shop, through the good offices of noted Gibson authority Sid Bishop, who advised me that the guitar had not been set up in any way. In which case, congratulations to Gibson, because very little setting up should prove necessary. Apart from being strung with rather heavier strings than I like, the RD Artist felt and played extremely well. As a neutral or passive guitar, it was very like an SG Standard circa 1965: fat sound, a bit raucous on the treble, heavy on the strap or the knee (but comfortable nevertheless). Using the Bright Mode on the bass pickup gave a metallic fullness hard to describe but pleasant to the ear - a kind of bass/sawtooth treble sound with enough middle for fullness but not enough for a "rounded" sound like that obtainable from older Strats and some 335's. Bright Mode on the treble pickups was quite an experience - I was reminded of the Sixties' blooz guitarists who used a treble booster into their Vox AC30's — absolutely steel sound. Not recommended at any kind of level for those with delicate constitutions.
Switching to Compression Mode (on the bass pickup, you recall), I took about an hour to get used to it. Essentially what Compression does is to level off the note's attack peak and to raise and lengthen the decay time, so that the note is sustained without any immediate hardness. The feeling is similar to having perfect control over feedback, but the sound sustains the whole harmonic content of the note, not just the feedback frequency. Compression also establishes a level "ceiling" above which the volume will not go no matter how hard the strings are played. There are obvious advantages to this levelling when chording, but single-string licks tend to sound monotonous and soulless. While I can see many uses for Compression, and while I appreciate the excellence of Gibson's execution, I have to admit I was bored.
Expansion, on the other hand, is a blast. Literally that. The Expansion Mode on the treble pickup electronically activates the pre-amp on the attack, pushing the attack peak up even higher than it would normally go, and then speeding the decay time for a fast dropoff. The result is a tremendous explosion of sound on each note, without hold-over to muddy a fast run. The ability to articulate quickly has always been a problem on fretted instruments - hand-damping the strings is sometimes a solution, sacrificing clarity and volume. But with Expansion, Beware Ye Speed-Merchants. And just to increase its usefulness, the Expansion Mode is touch-sensitive and can be adjusted to your own picking strength by means of a trim-pot. This pot takes a small flat-blade screwdriver and is located below a hole in the back plate.
Cosmetically, the Artist is a lovely instrument — the craftsmanship on the head inlay alone reflects the fact that the doubtful days of 1967-71, during which the standard of Gibson instruments suffered, are over. Electronically, this is a masterpiece (and like most masterpieces, is expensive). It is not a guitar which can be played casually; it takes some getting used to the controls and their flexibility; some guitarists may need time to settle into the offset body which is faired similar to a Strat (although for me, the long top lower bout provides an admirable elbow rest). The position of the bottom strap-peg and the offset slant of the base of the lower bout renders the guitar unstable in the usual out-of-use position - i.e. leaning against an amp or wall. Perhaps Gibson could consider the minor expense of adding a strap button a couple of inches from the first to give the guitar "feet" for a solid stand? Apart from the criticisms already mentioned, I found the switches a bit stiff - these may loosen up with wear, but in any case many players prefer stiff switches - and I noticed that a straight jack-plug tends to get in the way of the lower knobs, so a side-on plug would be preferable (if less reliable). And an interesting observation rather than a criticism: the use of active modes into an HH amp with Sustain circuit on actually drops the level and increases noise, feedback, and string noises. The RD Artist comes with hard case, strap, lead, owner's manual, battery, and five year guarantee.
A final word or three: Gibsons are distributed in the UK by Norlin, as friendly a bunch as ever you'd wish to chat with - positively oozing Good Will. But they are a bit inefficient. The trouble I had to go through to get the review sample is a saga with which I shan't bore you. However, all's well that ends well, and I have the highest praise for Gibson and the RD Artist.
1 Bass pickup (Series VI humbucker)
2 Treble pickup (Series VI humbucker)
3 Bass pickup level (0 to 10)
4 Bass tone cut/boost(-5 to 0 to +5)
5 Treble pickup level (0 to 10)
6 Treble tone cut/boost (-5 to 0 to +5)
7 A: Bass pickup selection B: Both pickups C: Treble pickup selection
8 A: Treble boost to both pickups (+8dB at 4KHz) B: Neutral C: Expansion/Compression (Compression on bass pickup, expansion on treble pickup). With 7B you get both Compression on bass p/u and expansion on treble p/u.
9 Hi-Z standard pinjack socket (also on/off switch for active electronics)
10 Tune-o-matic 6-saddle bridge
11 Stop tailpiece
Review by Dave Blake
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