Yamaha SF 600 guitar
Getting active with the axe
During their massive launch of new products earlier this year, Yamaha supplemented their already prestigious range of solid-bodied guitars with another family (the SF Series) which took them straight into the active powered business.
From an appearance point of view you'd not recognise the SF 600 as being anything other than a typically well made Yamaha solid. Even their top price instruments have a very uncharacteristically Japanese restraint about them. They look far more Western than the average 'Kakahashi whatnot' and that helps give them that 'established quality' air which does not seem to set Yamaha's reputation amongst players apart from most other Japanese guitars. In that respect the almost severely plain SF 600 is no exception. The guitar features a straight-through neck, laminated from maple and mahogany, the maple being very dark stained so that it doesn't look look, say, Fender-bright.
The body on the guitar is solid mahogany, not a cheap wood but one of the best on account of its natural density for sustain and harmonic transmission. The neck through body fitting is almost heel-less, enabling very fast fingering in high registers on the 22 fret 24¾" scale.
Woodworking quality on the sample I was loaned was absolutely immaculate, right down to the high quality rosewood which had been used for the fingerboard.
In fact the whole guitar was extremely well finished, something I have come to expect from Yamaha. The fingerboard was fretted with fat wire for enhanced sustain and easy fingering, the brass nut was accurately finished and the chromed machine heads turned with a smoothness quite markedly better that experienced with nearly all Western-manufactured types. They were also holding their tension very well.
On the level of individual finishing, my sample was rather oddly set-up. The strings were very bright in physical appearance and of a light gauge, something which contrasted oddly with the string height which was rather high for the type of string fitted. I've no complaints about a high-ish action (I personally prefer it from many angles) but it felt odd with such light strings.
On the hardware end, the SF 600 features a Gibson copy bridge with a stop tailpiece. Possibly this contributes to the low string tension on this guitar — certainly a really fast vibrato comes easily and it really is a fantastic guitar for the player who goes in for that technique and who finds that other types of string fastening give too tough an angle for weak fingers.
On the pickup front the SF 600 sports two Alnico coiled twin coil units, splittable to single coil via one of two small chrome flick switches provided down near the back of the body.
In addition, the guitar has two large Gibson-type pots, one for volume, one for tone, plus two, smaller, pots which only work when the second of the two flick switches are thrown in — this one introducing the juice of an on-board PP3 into the circuitry. Like most Yamahas, the SF 600 sounds pretty good when run 'dry'. The pickups seem to have a good range, it's an easy guitar to play and the sound veers more towards the Gibson end of things, rather than the Fender side, notwithstanding that coil tap.
Flick in the active 'on' switch, however and the beast becomes a monster. Rather than make an active guitar with tremendously versatile tone from the electronic circuitry, the Yamaha stays tonally variable from its one tone pot and merely boosts the output level with a built-in distortion circuitry. This is controlled in intensity from the smaller front pot, the second of the two 'active' pots being an additional volume control.
I think I can see what Yamaha have been working around on the development of this instrument. Having seen the relative failure of electrics with masses of active Eq and realising that most players use their guitars without much reference to their tone pots, they have decided to leave that aspect of the guitar's sound alone. Thus you use the SF 600 much as you would any other electric — using the pickup selector and the single coil/twin coil settings to give you tone, switching in the distortion circuitry for the only effect the active power provides. In use this does rather make this instrument a headbanger's special. Run passive the guitar is a versatile enough instrument (although lacking the ultimate top of some other single/twin coil types) with a reasonable amount of warmth and richness in the tone. The pickups on their own will overdrive an amp with ease and they generally seem to be very well made and designed.
Thus you can use the guitar 'dry' for chunky rhythm sounds and then flick in the active switch to leap-off into the 'Marshall-on-speed' sounds which the distortion circuitry switches in.
In subjective terms however, I found that distortion relatively artificial sounding when compared to the SF 600 naturally overloading an amp run flat-out. It screamed and bucked, soared and whined with a splendidly controllable feedback potential which ensured a very good 'metal' sound at even the lowest rehearsal levels. But tonally speaking, the SF set on active didn't sound as warm and creamy to my ears as, say, a Les Paul or an SG2000 Yammy doing the same thing naturally. However I set-up the front (distortion sensitivity) pot there was an edge of uneven harmonics there almost reminiscent of a fuzz box, albeit one of the better types.
Set on a single coil, mind you, I could get a really advanced distortion effect which somehow reminded me very much of the sounds favoured by a lot of American players, and maybe that's the market it was designed for? Certainly a really harsh Johnny Winter treble was there on single coil set active to almost full dirt and my amp set up high. There was also that early American distortion effect present too, the sort of Doors sound which a lot of New Wave players would presumably value very highly indeed. Overall this is a very finely made guitar with a unique voice — not at all the usual run of the mill Jap. wonder. It certainly bears investigation as it's one of the few newer guitars around that has a distinctive sound of its own and I could see it being very popular with players who don't have any particular hang-ups about the sort of warm, natural distortion got from over-chomping a valve amp with a vintage axe. If you've got an open mind, you like distortion but don't set your standards for it by some yardstick of the early 1970's then this could well be the guitar for you.
RRP £299 inc.VAT
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