The righteous new P90 version of Yamaha’s smooth and time-tested Les Paul challenger is not a low-price option. Is it worth the wedge? Martyn Casserly seeks to find out
Yamaha is a strange company. For decades they’ve been making beautiful guitars with professional level build quality and classic sounds at decent prices, but somehow they end up being regarded by many as a budget brand. The success of the Pacifica range is probably a major factor in this, as is the APX line of electro-acoustics that have no doubt passed through most of our hands at one point. There’s also the fact that they build pianos, drums, trumpets, all manner of studio equipment and even the occasional motorbike, which only obscures their guitar heritage even further. Delve deeper into the Yamaha catalogue, though, and you’ll discover some gems that prove that these Japanese masters know what it takes to build something special.
The Yamaha SG line, which bears a fair resemblance to its Gibson namesake with a twin cutaway pointy-horned look, first emerged in the early ’70s. The high-end SG2000 model – designed with input from Carlos Santana – is often cited as the instrument that convinced the western world that Japanese guitars could be just as good as American ones. Now Yamaha has updated the SG range with a few tantalising options that will have wallets quivering… and spouses hefting their rolling pins. Bring it on!
The 1802 is a classic looker. The goldtop finish – accompanied by all-cream P90s, pickguard and binding – evokes images of strangely-dressed men wearing far too much makeup on old editions of Top Of The Pops. It also conjures up thoughts of dark, underground clubs that smell of beer, sweat, and cigarettes, with the booming tones of a cracking power-blues trio tearing it up. Quite a first impression.
However, lifting the guitar from the case summons visions of hospital waiting rooms, physiotherapists and the pungent aroma of Deep Heat. Yes – it’s bloody heavy. No change there, then, from the originals. The weight is caused by the solid lump of African mahogany from which the body and neck have been hewn. This no doubt contributes towards the girth of tone, aids the sustain and gives the SG a feeling of heft, but if you suffer with your back then you’d be well advised to steer clear of this one… unless you play seated.
A curved maple top completes the combination of woods that you’d expect on a guitar of this type, all of which have been assembled in a very impressive fashion. Everywhere you look there’s evidence of real attention to detail. Paint edges are neat with no bleeding, the 22 frets are smooth and expertly fitted, even the pearl inlay on the headstock is subtle and elegant. It all adds up to a guitar that is hugely desirable in both look and feel.
Another clue to the high-end nature of the SG1802 is the hardware. The machineheads are Grover locking tuners, the bridge and tailpiece are by TonePros, and the four top hat volume and tone dials feature thick ridges for easy operation, with a very retro font on their labels. Nice!
A quick strum shows that the mass of the body transfers sound well, with a resounding chord which should bode well when we plug it in. It’s well balanced on a strap with no noticeable neck-dip, thanks again to the heavy body. Overall, the 1802 is a wonderful guitar to play; there’s no struggling to push tight bends, which could ruin your vibrato. This guitar offers an excellent amount of tension and space for your fingers to work.
Plugging the SG1802 into a Laney VC15 on the clean channel gives us a lovely, lush sound from the neck pickup. Rolling off the tone to almost nothing achieves a decent jazz-style smooth sound that works well with fingerpicked movable chords. Turn the dial a little and the famous P90 bite begins to come into play, perfect for occasional stinging lead flicks. A bit more fiddling brings up an excellent Gilmour Another Brick in the Wall lead tone with subtle touches of depth and shimmer. Mixing the two Seymour Duncans together adds attack to the midrange, which can be used to great effect through careful use of dynamics. The bridge is thinner but never weedy; ’60s-style pop sounds a treat when played with a bit of reverb, and classic blues is only a string bend away.
As the overdrive increases the P90s begin to occupy their preferred territory with that wonderful gnarly roar. Switch to the bridge, swing the plectrum hard, and bam! Instant Who. More gain? Brian May. Flick to the neck and widdle away? You’re in Santana country. Such is the versatile nature and balance of the pickups that selecting the right option becomes a far more important factor in your playing. You might start o? with the bridge full open for rhythm, then switch to the neck for a soulful lead, back to the bridge for a more aggressive run, then into the middle for a brighter rhythm. This musicality raises the SG1802 over your garden variety guitar and turns it into an instrument that allows you to really express yourself.
The superb SG1802 will put a smile on the face of anyone with a leaning towards a vintage-flavoured sound. The playability is effortless but keeps you on your toes, and the styling is gorgeous. The only downfall is the weight - and the price, but this is a pro instrument built by craftsmen who care about what they're doing. P90s aren't to everyone's taste, but if you can deal with a little hum you'll discover that there's something very satisfying about playing a P90 guitar. In a world awash with Les Pauls, Strats and Teles (as nice as that is) sometimes being a little different can go a long, long way... especially if it's an instrument as well built as this.