Westone Session II
It's a disturbing business, the first time you ever wrap your mitts around a full-bodied electric. So you've had a few years experience on solids, maybe even the occasional bash on a semi-acoustic, but nothing prepares you fully for that close encounter of the first kind.
They appear to break all the rules you ever learned about metal strings meeting magnetic pickups. The sound isn't bright and glistening, it's shaded, almost dull. The tone doesn't have acres of bite in the middle frequencies, in fact it behaves sullenly with an odd mouthy resonance. And finally, those strings — they'd tow a medium sized liner and they're smooth flatwounds instead of gritty wirewounds.
And what's worse, you soon realise that every one of the above items is deliberate — not the function of bad planning or cheap construction, but an approach to guitar building tailored by the demands of jazz players since bop first went be.
So this new direction for Westone is as much on target as their popular assaults on the solid market. The Session II comes in a pair of finishes — antique brown sunburst or blond, but both reflect an era of more traditional finishing and timeworn construction styles.
It's a double f hole guitar with carved top and back and the body is completely acoustic. There's no centre block of mahogany as you'd find on a thinner semi-acoustic, like a 335. Instead, the back and front are coupled by a single, three-quarter inch thick strut shaped much like the bridge of a double bass. Semis have that centre block to form a compromise between the tone of an acoustic and the sustain of an electric. No such half hearted arrangements here — it's all acoustic.
The body is actually laminated maple and the review sample showed a few scuffs and whirls of grain that had absorbed more than their fair share of the tobacco stain, generating dark but not unattractive burrs within the finish. A purist would rather do without them.
The deep cutaway gives the fingers passable inroads to the highest of the 20, 24½ in scale frets but obviously, unlike a solid, you've got 4 in worth of neck and body to cope with at this point.
The glued neck/body joint is admirably seamless and smooth, but it's a pity Westone couldn't have paid a smidgen more attention to the tail end where the fretboard hangs over the body. It's a pretty rough lacquer job at this stage — the only embarrassing example on the whole instrument.
If the pickups look a bit weird at first glance, that's because their pole piece adjusters are not the crossheaded screw type that the world and his probation officer use, but feature simple, straight cut heads like wood screws. Thus it was when dinosaurs stalked the earth and the magnetic pickup was born.
Both the humbuckers are treated to chrome covers and black plastic surrounds with a floating black scratchplate hovering underneath them, attached to the side of the body by an angled chrome support. This way you bring the plate up to the level of your fingers (the pickups and therefore strings stand further from the surface of the body than on an electric) and you don't inhibit the vibration of the laminated maple top.
The bridge is a tried and true Gibson Tune-O-Matic type resting on a rosewood support containing individual saddles and a knurled wheel at each end to provide overall height adjustment. Isn't 'knurled' a peculiar word. Knurled, knurled, knurled... no, it doesn't get any better. Let's press on.
The art of the tailpiece is one of those elements of guitar construction that received a distinct cold shoulder from the solid body fraternity. Tailpieces can be charming if not especially useful additions to a six strings' cosmetics. The Sessions follows the pattern of a T shape supported by zig-zag side pieces and is fixed to the guitar by a hinge that attaches to the wood at the same spot as the strap button. So, just like the scratchplate, it hovers over the top of the body without ever touching the maple.
We finish the story with black, and I think boring, plastic top hat knobs, a jack socket mounted at the side near the controls, smooth, if not particularly elegant machines and a Westone headstock which is perhaps a fraction too long and thin for the rest of the guitar's appearance.
A broad cream binding with a thin black strip circles the top and bottom edges of the guitar and runs up the neck making for a beautifully smooth seal at the edges, without the slightest hint of a fret straying where it shouldn't. The fingerboard is rosewood but this exhibited too open a grain and had already begun to absorb sweat and general gunk from fingers, leaving white streaks in the wood.
Now to the difficult bit, the sound, and if you haven't tried a full-bodied electric before, this is where the barriers of habit have to be given a stiff drink.
It's odd, flat, thick, condensed, concentrated, soft, mellow — the exact opposite of the vast majority of solids. But that's exactly how it should be. The Session is destined for series of chomping bass chords that have a specific identity within a band. In rock playing there may be no other instruments around you except a set of drums and a bass guitar — you can AFFORD for your tone to wander between thumping low notes and cutting treble. But when you've got a string section, a horn section, a piano and the maker knows what else to contend with, you'll be flopping over everybody else's lines unless you have one chunk of the frequency to call your own, and stick to it.
That's what I mean by the Westone being concentrated. It lives in its own middley world, and you're never faced with the danger of breaking out. It's a well balanced sound — in a jazz sense — because if you accent a bass string it won't boom above everything else as some solids might do. It will just contribute another well matched note to the chord. Similarly you can chop down on the top strings and brighten a chord without overwhelming it.
The neck pickup is where the Westone feels most at home — I can't say I found it that warm or rich, and coupled with the duller flat wound strings, it produced some clear but unexciting lead lines. The tail pickup appeared to be suffering from a dodgy tone control as what little treble there was had been permanently turned off.
But, strange though it may be, there was something endearing about the sound of the Session. It encouraged me to run through all the pumping jazz chord sections I knew (not a very long process, it has to be said), and the thick, flatwound strings tend to get you sliding up to notes in a jazzy style, rather than bending towards them.
Approach it with the right frame of mind — don't expect spit or jangle — and you may well find a sweetness in restraint that you'd never expected.
Review by Paul Colbert
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