Guitar Buyer Magazine 2004
Guitar Buyer October 2004 – Signature and Classic
LEADING UK LUTHIER MARTYN BOOTH DESIGNED YAMAHA’S LEGENDARY MSG SOLIDBODY IN THE LATE 1980’S NOW HE’S BACK WITH AN UPDATED VERSION UNDER HIS OWN NAME. TIM SLATER FINDS OUT ALL ABOUT IT FROM THE MAN HIMSELF
Martyn Booth is already well known to UK guitar enthusiasts, firstly as a highly skilled luthier, and also as a former guitar magazine contributor with a reputation for an unflinching viewpoint. Instruments that fell under his expert eye usually received a harsh but fair critique that may have caused a few bruised egos, though reflected his no-compromise attitude to his craft: just good enough is just not good enough. Martyn’s first job as a professional guitar repairer was with the mighty Gibson during the 1970s when it was owned by the Norlin company. The end of that decade found Martyn increasingly frustrated and disappointed by some of the guitars Gibson issued during the period, and the need to work on his own designs eventually saw him relocate to the more sympathetic environment of Yamaha. Martyn enjoyed a successful time working with the huge Japanese corporation and the opportunity to use his experience to develop new guitars peaked when he was given a brief to replace their all-conquering but elderly SG2000 model. Martyn takes up the story.
“The original concept for the (Martyn Booth) guitar was something I thought of in 1979. I was working for Gibson in the UK, and they came out with something called the ES-335 S, which was a little solidbody 335. I actually thought that it was so ugly and awful, I could do it better myself! So that was the original and first idea. which didn’t go down too well with Gibson at the time.”
FROM YAM TO I AM
Partly because of the initially frosty response from the big G, Martyn’s idea remained as just that for almost a decade. His next employer, however, was more open to the concept. “I just sat on it for a few years and never really developed it any further. Then in about 1987 Yamaha told me that they were looking for a new guitar to replace the SG2000. I resurrected my original idea for what became the MSG, and redesigned it to make it more Yamaha-ish. I changed the body size slightly and took their SA2000 (ES-335-inspired semi-acoustic) as the model for it and made a small solidbody guitar in that family. The MSG ran for about three years until 1991 when it was dropped, but I had become known as the specialist in that particular guitar, so when I left Yamaha and started my own business loads of people were coming to me wanting MSGs. I always tried to source them as best I could, but in the end you just couldn’t get them anymore – they were becoming very difficult to find – and so I decided to make a real top-of-the-range, no-holds-barred version of it. I went back to the original 1979 design and slightly redesigned it again and that’s how the latest Classic and Signature models were born.”
BORN TO BOOTHY
Despite Gibson and Fender’s dominance in the electric guitar market since 1950, it was a certain success-hungry guitar builder who opened the door for a whole new breed of hi-spec guitars during the late 1980s, paving the way for many quality-focused, custom luthiers who followed.
“Yes, Paul Reed Smith has been a huge influence on all of us,” Martyn acknowledges, “and he’s moved the goal posts dramatically. Everybody realised that they were going to have to up their quality standards to a whole new level, and there’s definitely a nod of appreciation in that direction, even though the Martyn Booth Signature is really nothing like a Paul Reed Smith.”
Martyn Booth’s new guitars look terrific and while there is an apparent similarity to the Yamaha MSGs of yore, the latest hand-built guitars are free from the constraints of mass production. New refinements and a distinctive personal touch translate into a great feel when you pick up the guitar and begin to play. Martyn has deliberately restricted the range to two different models; the hardtail Classic is a partial nod to Martyn’s love of all things Gibson, while the vibrato equipped Signature has been tweaked in the name of maintaining reliable tuning without needing a locking vibrato system. The Signature features locking Sperzel machineheads and a slightly different headstock shape for straighter string pull; plus a shallower headstock angle reduces the pressure on the GraphTech nut to help the strings pass smoothly in the guitar ‘s nut slots.
“There are just two models but there is a lot of leeway within each one to please individual customer choices,” Martyn explains. “The customer can choose the neck dimensions, the fretwire, fingerboard material and inlays.
The fingerboard inlays and headstock inlays are all one-offs . I can do a mock-binding effect on the body or just coloured all the way over, and I’ve done all of these options for people. Obviously, they get to choose their own bits of maple so that they can choose the pieces that they want on their own guitars.”
FEATURES & BENEFITS
Unlimited access to every fret is one of the principal joys of playing the Martyn Booth guitars. His early references to Yamaha’s ES-335-inspired SA series has resulted in a neck with good access to all of the 22 frets. With no bulky neck heel to hinder you, you can easily soar way beyond the 19th fret into territory where Les Paul players, and especially those with small hands, begin to struggle.
For extra strength the glued-in mahogany neck has an extra-deep join, which is identical to those found on old Gibson Les Pauls from the 1950s, but this neck’s slender and downright speedy profile feels closer to a mid-1960s ES-335 than the standard clubby ’59-style Gibson neck.
“It’s made just like a Les Paul would be made but without the weight of a Les Paul,” Martyn explains, reiterating his love of vintage Gibson guitars.
“I love Les Pauls but always found them too heavy on long gigs. The neck is one-piece mahogany so again we are back to that traditional very Gibson-ish construction that I have to confess is a heavy influence. I always loved Gibson guitars but maybe just thought I’d like to redesign a few things to suit myself, and it just so happens that I happened to come up with a few things that other people like as well.”
The guitars’ electronics are more influenced by Yamaha’s original SG2000, with push/push pots accessing a wide, but not confusing collection of tones. In fact, Martyn prefers to keep things simple; confining his guitars to three humbuckirig and three singlecoil options as standard. “I prefer to offer my guitars with two humbuckers that are coil-tapped,” he comments. “That’s so that you get three Gibson sounds and three Fender-ish-type sounds from the guitar with only one push/push pot. It’s all very simple. You don’t have to pull any knobs, it’s just a quick flick down and when the push/push pot is downwards you get three Gibson-type sounds and with the push/push pot up you get three Fender-type sounds, and it’s just so simple to use on stage. I’ve always felt that the last thing that you want to be worrying about ‘ on stage is fiddling around with lots of knobs and switches.
“In terms of what goes on to the guitar depends on the customer’s individual order, but I obviously steer them towards only the good quality parts. In that respect, as long as it’s good quality stuff the customer has the choice to put on what they want, but I would certainly draw the line if I felt that the hardware choice ruined the integrity of the instrument or spoiled the look of it. I could never believe that I would make this guitar with three single-coil pickups and that’s purely because it wouldn’t look right”. Part of the beauty of his guitar is the fact that it is a simple design concept; there’s nothing outlandish about this guitar at all, “I just wanted to make it look like how I think guitars ought to look; sexy and attractive.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
With Yamaha owning the MSG name, Martyn wisely checked with his former employers before adopting the model as the basis for his new guitars.
“MSG is just something that Yamaha called it in the UK. In the rest of the world it was called the ‘Image’. When I moved onto this, I wrote to Yamaha and asked them if they would mind if I redesigned the MSG and came up with a new idea based on that concept purely because I felt that it was right to do so. I didn’t want Yamaha to feel that I was doing something underhanded, I just wanted to resurrect something similar to what I’d done before. Yamaha were very helpful with that and said to carry on.”
Slightly more controversial was the occasion last year when GB ran a review of Tokai’s Custom solidbody. Plenty of MSG fans got the wind up over the Tokai’s apparently close similarity to the original MSG model, but as a veteran of the complex world of Orientail guitar manufacturing, Martyn remains philosophical. “Tokai is more contentious of course. As soon as MSG fans saw the Tokai, my phone was red hot! I suspect that they got wind of what I was up to and came up with something similar, but I think that most people who know me – and know the MSG – realise that the original design that was first seen and made in quantities was the Yamaha MSG. All I can say is to ask whether or not people want the copy, or the real one. Hopefully they’ll choose the latter! ”
”The customer has the choice to put what they want, but I would certainly draw the line if I felt the hardware choice ruined the integrity of the instrument”
SEEN IT BEFORE
YES. IT IS A PRS BRIDGE
The vibrato-equipped Signature’s headstock is designed purely with stable tuning in mind, and at the other end you’ll find a familiar bridge … Martyn Booth: “I am happy to use PRS parts if people specify them. As long as it’s good quality stuff, the customer has the choice to put on what they want. The Signature has a much shallower headstock rake to create less pressure in the nut, but the real challenge is the string-pull issue. Actually, it’s very difficult to do that and still maintain a symmetrical headstock shape and a very old-fashioned look, and therefore it’s not possible to get a real pure string path through there. On a Paul Reed Smith it’s not dead straight, but it’s slightly straighter because the headstock is designed in such a way to do it. With mine, the constraints of the design aesthetics mean that you can ‘t achieve that perfectly straight string path. But I’ve got it to a point where it’s good enough to give you really reliable tuning without having to use a Floyd Rose and still have a reasonable amount of up and down movement with the tremolo.”