Shergold Twin-neck 6/12 String
What about a six'n'twelve-string on it? Dave Blake considers Shergold's rights and wrongs.
The upper end of the electric guitar market has traditionally been dominated by American instruments, and only in the last three or four years have the Japanese gained sufficient credibility to make any inroads into that domination. One or two European names have established themselves — Hagstrom and Hofner for instance — but by and large, no English brand has been able to compete with the market leaders since the halcyon days of Burns and, perhaps, Vox.
But recently, prompted perhaps by the rather grim prices being asked for Americana and the various Japanese success stories, the odd British firm has surfaced. One such firm, which is rapidly becoming the spearhead of the British Success Story, is Shergold. Shergold is the alliance between Jack Golder and Norman Houlder, and lest you think they are newcomers, let me point out that Burns guitars and later the unfortunately short-lived Hayman instruments are among their credentials.
Now Shergold is what you might call a hard-assed British company: small, conservative, not given to loud pronouncements — you might even accuse them of a certain dour refusal to be smiling and helpful. And their trade distributors, Barnes & Mullins, who have been around for nearly a century and still retain a faintly Dickensian sense of dither, reflect this British attitude perfectly. Flashy USA marketing is not their forte. They are of the rolled sleeves school. However, they are pleasant people who (and this justifies any and all personal quirks) supply a good product at a reasonable price.
The guitar I've chosen to review is not what you might call a truly representative sample of Shergold product because it is an oddball instrument; a double-neck 6-and 12-string. Consequently it is at the top end of Shergold's price structure. Nevertheless, it does represent two guitars in one and — at the price — an interesting solution to many a guitarist's problems about flexibility. If you can stand the weight, this guitar will give you a complete range of sounds, due not only to the double neck, but also to Shergold's ingenious pickup controls.
Electric 12-string, I've always felt, is one of the great misunderstood and ignored rock instruments. Unlike an acoustic 12-string, an electric is really no more difficult to play than an electric 6-string because of the available light gauge strings and low action, but many rock guitarists I know have had bad experiences on acoustic 12s and refuse to consider an electric 12. Thus little demand, thus few made, thus very high prices for decent ones, and so on. An endless cycle of ignorance. It probably all stems from those dreadful jangling noises so prominent on certain Byrds records. But electric 12 can go far beyond that: listen to Charlie Whitney's work with Family and Streetwalkers — or, of course, John McLaughlin. Electric 12 can provide an astonishing imitation of rumbling boogie piano or an almost synthesised-sounding shriek (and let's face it, a flanger is not really the same thing, is it?). And, for pure balls, bottleneck electric 12 has to be heard to be believed. So think about it, guitarists...
Meanwhile, the Shergold: a solid-body guitar with bolt-on necks of Canadian rock maple, the 12-string neck above the 6-string, each neck with its own pair of adjustable humbuckers. The necks bear a distinct family resemblance to the Burns and Hayman necks with the pegheads in 'flat' rather than 'slantback' mode, similar to the Fender arrangement. This necessitates hold-down bushes on the peghead to give the longer strings the correct break angle over the nut, and these bushes are chromed mushrooms screwed into the face of the heads — four on the 6-string and eight on the 12-string. The machines are Schaller mininylons, the type with black plastic gear covers, and on the review sample they all worked smoothly, although one was slightly looser than I like and had to be adjusted on the key — a simple job. To those who don't trust the plastic covers, I would say that any knock hard enough to break a cover would probably damage the neck anyway. The trussrods are the usual type, adjustable with the provided Allen key at sockets under black plastic covers just above the nuts. On the first Shergold versions, the trussrods adjusted at the body end, a more finicky job.
Both necks are excellent. While they are entirely maple, they are of neck and board construction (unlike the Fender where the frets are let directly into the top of the neck) and the fretboard and fret ends are bound with black plastic strip. This binding ensures fret-end smoothness even under changing humidity conditions, but it does make a re-fret more difficult. However, the frets are the fat flat-topped Gibson wire which wears very well, so unless you play like a demon at least ten hours a day, you should go a few years between re-frets. Shergold uses the zero-fret system wherein the nut merely spaces the strings while intonation is provided by a slightly high zero fret. Personally, I endorse this system because it gives exactitude and very low action, but some say it looks a mite inelegant. Both necks are 25½in scales with 22 frets (including zero fret) and inlaid black plastic dot position-markers on the fretboard with white dots along the side binding. The frets are particularly well-laid and in tune, and the boards have been polyurethane lacquered after fretting (which means the board is easier to clean — which in turn means strings will last longer — but makes refretting more ticklish). The nuts are real ivory, so pachyderms have died for Art's sake. The necks are screwed onto the body by four chromed cross-head screws through chromed plates.
The first Shergolds came under some fire because the bridge intonation was almost impossible to adjust, but this fault has been rectified — now the Shergold bridge is one of the neatest and most effective around. The strings pass over big grooved barrels which are adjustable for action and intonation with the provided Allen key. The size of the barrels means less tuning abrasion and string breakage; there are large American manufacturers who could learn things from Shergold.
The 6-string bridge is simple and straightforward, but the 12-string presents a specific problem: because the four bass courses are tuned in octaves, the string lengths of the higher string of each course should be shorter for correct intonation, but because each pair break over the same barrel, this is not possible; therefore, the higher strings will be progressively more out of tune on the higher frets. The only solution is a separate barrel for each of the twelve strings, a difficult and expensive undertaking which to my knowledge only the Fender boys have ever done. On the other hand, 12-string is not that often played on the highest frets, so the problem is not major. Because of the bent-sheet construction of the bridge-base, it has a large area of contact with the body, increasing sustain. Both bridges are covered by black plastic mouldings held down in keyhole slots by small screws, so the covers can be removed and replaced quickly.
Onward to the pickups and controls. The pickups are humbuckers which have twelve adjustable pole-pieces on each — and these are all a bit stiff, requiring a couple of loosening turns with a biggish flat-blade screwdriver. The pickups are also adjustable for height and tilt by small screws of the surrounds. The controls, as I've mentioned, are ingenious and enable maximum flexibility. First, a two position switch selects which neck is active (the Shergold info says three position, but this is not the case with this sample: by careful jiggling, however, both necks can be active simultaneously but with a considerable volume loss). Then there are a pair of knobs for volume and tone. Then a pickup selector switch: rhythm, treble, or both. And then: a pair of switches for controlling how the pickups operate, one switch for the rhythm p/u and one for the treble. In one position, the pick works as a standard dual-coil humbucker; in the middle position the coils are out of phase; and in the last position the pickup drops a coil to become a superflux single-coil with a sound very like a Strat. Ingenious? You betcha. And if that isn't enough, one output jack socket gives a mono signal and the other gives stereo split between pickups, so that you can run the rhythm pickups into one amp and the trebles into another. Obviously, this requires a split lead with a stereo jack.
So: What is it like to use? Well, first of all, on the playing field it is heavy — about 14lbs — and if you aren't used to it, you get guitar-strap shoulder. The controls take a bit of getting used to as well, and they are not clearly labelled. But the necks are magic to play, nice and thin and flat across the board — too much curve makes string-bending difficult. The pickups are powerful, although the antiphase position has a definite level drop. I took off the bridge covers immediately because they got in the way and made muting a problem. There is no way to describe the sounds available from this instrument because there are so many. Suffice to say that my fave sound was single-coil treble and antiphase rhythm pickups together on the 12-string neck with volume and tone full up (into a Pignose and thence into a Fender Dual Showman) — Crumbs!
Criticisms? Yes, a few minor ones. First, the controls (and the info) could be clearer. Then the serial number is on a chromed plate which is screwed to the back of the 12-string peghead — very natty, but easy to unscrew as well. Why not save money and stamp it under the lacquer? Next the strap buttons; although good and large, they are under the heels of the necks, which makes putting on a strap more finicky and gets in the way of playing on the top frets — but on the other hand, the button arrangement is sensible because by changing upper buttons the necks come into different playing angles, and the two lower buttons provide feet for stability. Finally, I was not entranced aesthetically: too many great lumps of thick black plastic about, and too much Olde English script on head and pickguard.
The guitar comes without case — a hard case will cost you about £61 extra — and no accessories beyond the Allen keys. I can't really criticise here because the price is so reasonable for a double-necked guitar as good as this one. But I do make one major criticism, which I have made before: there is no written guarantee on Shergold instruments. The distributors, Barnes & Mullins, have assured me that their reputation is enough to guarantee any reasonable claims, but they are trade distributors and are not well known (good reputation or no) by the majority of retail customers. The retailer will be liable for the legal minimum year's guarantee, of course, but a written guarantee should be provided with every instrument. After all, Shergold make a fine product, so what have they to fear?
rrp £391.30/$ not available.
Dave Blake is an ex-session musician who has been writing on sound for several years.
Review by Dave Blake
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