Godin xTSA review: the electric guitar part

For the past year and a half, while I have been travelling a lot, I’ve been playing a new guitar (to me anyway), a Godin xTSA.  I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, but have been too busy playing with it after an initial response to it a year ago.  I am just going to write about the electric guitar part of it today, keeping in mind it has an “acoustic” piezo pickup and a guitar synth controller built in (update: here’s the acoustic part and the synth part).  I’ll write about each of those separately when I get a chance.  In a way, the procrastination has been helpful, as I have had plenty of time to get to know the quirks and features — and there are a lot of both — of this excellent, reasonably priced guitar synth.

Godin Guitar and caseThe Guitar

I had my eyes on Godin guitars for a while before playing one.  They are quite nice in general and I like their philosophy of mass producing but hand finishing, and for the most part this allows them to make the best “bang for your buck” guitar on the market today, both their electrics and their acoustic counterparts, Seagull guitars, as well as a somewhat dizzying array of other brands they make.

The first thing to notice about the guitar is that the finish is gorgeous.  I am partial to dark red guitars, and wanted the brandy sunburst one for a change but got a better deal on this black one because it had been used for demoing.  I actually love the finish.  It is a sort of dark brown on black tiger stripe sunburst that draws out the grain of the wood.  The image does not really do it justice but I’m too busy to take new pics.  OK, so it looks nice, but what does it do?

neck

I’ll go over the feel and playability first.  It was pretty much set up right at the factory.  The neck is wide enough for my fairly large hands, and it plays well.  One problem is that the longways alignment seems ever so slightly off, so that I need to be careful when bending or using vibrato on the high E string or the string will go off the neck at my left hand finger, resulting in a dead note.  Hopefully I can find a good luthier to fix this once I get back to Hawaii and have another guitar to play.  As such, it is one of several minor flaws with an otherwise beautiful guitar.  The neck is a bolt on, which I am not usually a fan of, because the double thickness of the wood gets in the way when playing the upper frets, and the xTSA is no exception.  My old SG with the fitted neck and double cutaways plays above the 12th fret much better, but a bolt-on neck is one of the ways Godin is able to keep the cost down and still make a good solid guitar.  It is held in much more firmly than say a fender bolt on, and considering that it is a single cutaway guitar, it still plays well up top.  The reason for the playability is that it is not a Les Paul style guitar.  I’ve never been a fan of LPs because of the weight.  I realize that and a set of humbuckers is what gives them their particular sound, but I’m generally not fond of the sound either.  The non-cutaway side of the xTSA is more streamlined and to my eye cooler looking than the round LP shape.  The body is tapered in the back but flat on the front, so it feels comfortable to play while sitting or standing.  It also weighs about half of a LP, falling in the range of a strat or SG as far as heft.

tuning idiosyncrasies

The strings attach to the one piece bridge/tailpiece through the body like on a hardtail strat, giving the guitar excellent sustain.  The whammy bar is responsive and the tuning system keeps things reasonably well in tune for all but the most dive bomby whammies.  At the other end, it has locking tuners.  A word in the manual would have been nice, but once the thing is tuned, it stays in really well, at least in part because of the tuning locks.  The tuners are branded as Godin, and are geared smoothly and encased somewhat like Grover tuners.  So far so good, but tuning has a couple of problems.

First, if you are an aggressive right hand player, or lazy and don’t change the strings often, forget finishing a song if you break one at a gig.  For some reason the string tensions in the  bridge/tailpiece/whammy bar setup are all interdependent, so if one string breaks, everything goes out of tune by at least a half step, and because each string has its own tension, they all go out of tune differently.  This same problem makes tuning a pain in general.  I found the best system is to start with the low E, then tune the A, then go back and readjust the E, which will have gone flat from the tightening (or sharp from loosening) of the A, then the D, after which you need to return the E and A, and so on.  It gets progressively less out of tune as you proceed toward the lighter strings because they exert less pressure and so changing them does not throw things out of whack as much.  If you start on the lighter strings or tune them all before returning to the lower strings, you are in for a frustrating session of infinite tune up.

A second thing to watch for as far as tuning is that if you are a player who likes to rest your right palm behind the bridge to do mutes easily, you have to be hyperaware of the weight you put there, as it will raise the tuning with the slightest pressure.  It is an easy and intuitive adjustment, but it is disconcerting to play one note and hear another come out, especially after going through all the tuning trouble. These are sorely poorly thought out design flaws, but you can adapt your playing to them to compensate, and that is in fact a worthwhile sacrifice, as in many other respects the xTSA is a blast to play.  On the plus side, once you are in tune, the guitar stays in tune really well, and breaking a reasonably new string is pretty much of a rarity.  Just make sure you have a fresh set on for gigs.  The locking tuners seem to make new strings stay in tune better, so I don’t have to go through stretching them and playing for a day or two to break them in before they stay in tune well — they stay in tune as soon as you put them on, though I still give a new set a little stretch after tuning them the first time to get them settled in.

pickups

I am a big fan of the p90 gibson single coil sound.  I generally don’t care for the “creaminess” of humbuckers, and feel that they lose a lot of the expressive potential that a good player can put into the tone with the right hand.  I like the bite of hot single coils.  Turning the volume back on the guitar a little usually yields the nice strat like “spanky” tones so good for rhythm guitar and bluesy stuff, and forget getting a good jangly sound out of a humbucker.  I get something visceral (cheat: this is my p90 SG, not the xTSA) out of single coils tonewise that I just gets lost on humbuckers.  Nonetheless, all my other electrics are single coils so I figured I’d try something new.

xSTA pickups
a single coil between 2 humbuckers

The xTSA has three Godin pickups made specifically for this guitar.  They are probably outsourced from another manufacturer, but I like them fine once I got them set up.  The neck and bridge positions are humbuckers, with a single coil in the middle.  The controls are simple: One volume knob, one tone knob, and a  five position strat-style switch that chooses neck only, neck + middle,  middle only, middle+bridge, and bridge only.  The neck humbucker is nice for super-saturated low-treble stuff (like at the 2:35 mark of this one).  I seldom use the bridge humbucker by itself…it seems all bark and no bite to me, but that’s just how trebly humbuckers sound.

The real genius of this guitar is in the middle three settings, but only with some serious tweaking.  The middle pickup is the single coil. From the factory, it was set too low for my taste.  No matter the volume setting, it would not crank.  Just clean, bright, strat-like tone, a little on the trebly side.  I tried adjusting it upward, but the holes were drilled too deep, and the closest it got to the strings was still too far away to get any of the rougher single coil sounds.  I took the pickup out and stuffed the wooden ends of two kitchen matches into each of the two screw holes and then screwed the pickup back in.  This was just the ticket to raise the pickup enough and I got my single coil crank when the volume was up and the slinky sound when it was pulled back a bit.  Whoever put the pickup in just drilled too deep, either by design or mistake.  It is a bit harsher sounding than my SG and jaguar single coils, but it really comes into its own in the second and fourth positions, when combined with the humbuckers.  That takes the harsh out, but still flavors the tone with the single coil bite.  Listen to the “spanky” link above, or just about anything else I record  where the electric guitar sound is featured.  I love the sound of these two settings and use them a lot.

I’ve been pretty critical here.  I’ve been playing a long time, and I’ve had a year to get to know the Godin.  My other two main electric guitars are a late seventies SG with single coils and a pre-CBS Jaguar.  I am traveling this past year and a half and have only carried the Godin with me.  I really like the old guitars for different things, and occasionally miss them, but for the most part, the xTSA has been a blast.  Once I figured out the problems (and there are still one or two more to cover when I talk about the acoustic and the synth portions), it  has proven a quirky but excellent instrument, kind of like the Jaguar, but a hundred times more versatile.  I’ll talk about the acoustic features and the synth part separately, but I want to emphasize that what I love about this guitar is the ability to mix all three to get an amazingly broad tonal palette: synths with acoustic overtones and electric guitar grit, all mixable and switchable from the guitar, pretty much any sound I can imagine and more than a few I discovered rather than imagined.  Not all of them are spacey either.  Check out the “organ” in the “spanky” piece mentioned earlier.  It is all played on the guitar.  So to sum up, in spite of the flaws, this is a guitar that can hold its own in comparison to SGs and Fenders just as an electric.  It has some flaws, but they are more than made up for by the tonal palette that the electric is only one component of.

On a final note, one of my justifications for getting another guitar was the travel, and I did not want to subject the oldsters to airplane baggage handling.  I got an industrial, TSA- and baggage handler-proof SKB ATA Roto Electric Bass case (see first pic, above).  You put your guitar in its own gig bag, then put the whole into the SKB.  It is pretty indestructible.  The outside is getting pretty battered, and it lost its wheels, which I am hoping SKB is going to replace, but the guitar comes through in pristine condition.

I’ll cover the acoustic part of the xTSA next.  Meanwhile, don’t neglect these new tunes from rreplay, all played on the xTSA, if you want to get a feel for what it –and Eric and I — can do.  And thanks again to Eric (the “ep” of rreplay) and Karen for putting me up while in Boston, and I hope moving is not stressing you out too much!

Godin guitar synth

godin guitar and case

n.b., update June 23, 2010: in depth review of Godin xTSA, part 1: as electric guitar.  Part 2: as acoustic. Part 3: as guitar synth with Roland GI-20 and Axon AX50

I decided to get a new guitar for traveling so I would not have to subject my ancient SG and pre-cbs jaguar to airport bumps and tosses.  If you just want to hear what the new Godin xTSA sounds like, here are a quick one, strange attractors, and recession era dreamscape 17, all showing off the synth and acoustic capabilities.

I have been eying up Godin guitars for some time now, and played a neat one with two humbuckers and a single coil in the middle with a little twist…there was also an onboard piezo pickup to emulate an acoustic sound.  The one I played was in Honolulu, at Easy Music Center, and a good deal, but I decided to forgo it and wait til I got to Los Angeles to buy anything, thus saving one leg of travel.  Plus I figured there might be more guitars in LA than in Honolulu.  I sent some emails out inquiring and got back a response from Jon Bingham at West LA Music on Santa Monica Blvd saying he could get the Godin for me.  He got me a great deal.  Go see him for yr guitars!  When we got around to details, it turns out that Godin has stopped making this particular guitar but makes the exact same one with a guitar synth built in as well, the xtSA.

I have been playing synthesized guitar for a while, using first G-tune, a tuning program with midi out, then the widi pitch tracking software.  This has been fun–but tracking is a problem.  Widi did a better job than g-tune (it should, it is made for the purpose while g-tune is primarily a most excellent tuner program), plus you could delimit the note range, taking some stray hits out of the picture.  Still, it was like having a slightly drunk Thelonious Monk wannabe playing something vaguely similar to what you played on guitar but a little later.  It is actually kind of cool sometimes, especially if used as an inexact wash kind of thing…check out rreplay’s round the perimeter, but the problem is something called tracking.  Turning guitar string vibrations into midi notes is computationally inexact and intensive, so the tracking was never more than an approximation.  Plus, neither captures any of the dynamics of your playing.  This is particularly a problem with widi…it would not take much to put in an envelope follower to track dynamics and map it onto a midi control change message…that should be built into the program.

So anyway, Jon said he could get me a sweet deal on the xtSA, basically getting it for the same price as the discontinued model without the synth, so I thought , ok.  Now last time I checked, guitar synths were always multi-thousand dollar affairs that locked you in to a particular set of synth hardware that did not sound so great.  I checked again and found the Roland GI-20, which was just what I needed, basically it just took the signal from the guitar and changed it into midi, which I could then run through my zillion plugins.

After a few mixups which delayed the guitar’s arrival, I got it, the GI-20, a road-worthy case, and the attendant cords and a cool strap.  The guitar is a beautiful flame maple top, black with lighter detailing in the wood.  I also like the cognac flam maple finish, but got the better deal on the black one.

Got it home and spent a week on the acoustic and electric pickups without doing the synth.  Very nice.  The combination of humbuckers and single coil is nice.  I have always played single coils, so it is nice to have that edgier sound available, and I figure when I get back to Honolulu, having something with humbuckers will add to the sonic palette.  The single coil is not so hot, outputting only about half the volume of the humbuckers, but with a nice fendery slinky kind of sound.  I am going to try raising it to see if I can get it to output a little hotter.  I like crunchy single coils a la p-90s, but I am not sure this one has it in it.  The pickup positions, selected via a strat-style 5 position switch are neck humbucker – humbucker/single coil – single coil bridge humbucker – and bridge.  I thought it might be nice if the humbuckers could be tapped, instead of mixing, and a couple of other Godins do that with two pickups, the the LGX-SA and the LGXT, but they are two to three times the price.

The acoustic section is cool sounding, though without some doctoring up, not really acoustic sounding.  It is more like the glassy 80’s Police/Andy Summer kind of tone that sounds really good chorused.  I am playing with running it through a convolution reverb with a guitar body impulse loaded to make it sound woodier, and also mixing it with an octave up signal and a light slow moving chorus to get a twelve string sound…hmm, maybe a delay would be better than a chorus to get that…I’ll have to try it. One down side is that the whammy bar is really microphonic when the piezo is on so usually you’ll want to swing that out of the way.

The guitar plays flawlessly.  It came set up right, and there are no dead spots or buzzes.  It has locking tuners, which I guess I don’t get the point of just yet.  They put on strings with no extra winds around the tuning peg, and I guess the lock is supposed to keep them in place and in tune, but mine slipped when I bent the strings, so I had to immediatrely restring.  Not a good pitch for the Godin strings that they recommend on the guitar.

Now on to the synth…this is where things get a little squicky.  The setup is to run an acoustic and electric analog out and a thirteen pin analog to midi cord to the Roland GI-20 midi box.  When I plugged the Roland into the USB, it gave a terrible whining noise through the electric pickups at 1000 hz, 2000 hz 3000 hz and so on (see image above).  I solved the problem by dispensing with the roland usb midi and running a midi cable out of the Roland and into an outboard USB midi port.  Another seeming problem is that the synth volume knob does not work until you program it to work on the roland, as I found out when I RTFM.  Once all that got sorted out, I was able to make some interesing music.  Check out a quick one first if you don’t have much time or patience.  It is the acoustic guitar played with a synth bass tracking the guitar sound.  Next comes strange attractors, and last and weirdest, but showing some of the interesting things that can be done with the synth, is recession era dreamscape 17.  All are recorded in one take in Plogue bidule.  Everything but the drums comes from the guitar.  As always, check out the rest of the music on way music.