Which G&L Is Right for You?

I began playing guitar in the very early ’90s, in time to discover the joys of the Fender Jazzmaster’s richer, broader single coil tones via bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, but too late to get in ahead of the vintage Fender gold rush. Priced out of the market, I asked my local guitar guru about G&L guitars, Leo Fender’s last take on perfection before his death. “The pickups suck—they’re cold, sterile,” I was told, and so I happily played a (barely) affordable ’65 Mustang for the next 15 years.

A few years ago, I was admiring the ’73 Fender Telecaster a client at my studio was using during his sessions. After we’d finished recording, he sent me an email suggesting I check out a used ASAT Classic—G&L’s update of the Tele—he’d seen at a local shop. I took his advice and was blown away by the juicier bridge pickup and the authoritative midrange on the neck pickup that sacrificed none of the bell-like tones of the top end. I’ve been in love with G&L ever since.

While I do find the G&L “Z coil” pickups to be a little boring, the Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups—big and small—found in most G&Ls are fantastic, in my opinion. Offering much of what Fender lovers appreciate about Leo’s original pickups while adding greater output and clarity, the MFD’s also utilize adjustable pole pieces that allow players to tailor their tones just so. The hardtail “saddle lock” bridges Leo designed for G&L add sustain without killing clarity, as do the dual fulcrum tremolos, which manage to offer both stability and the functionality of the famed Jazzmaster and Jaguar tremolos without the quirks in the latter that frustrate so many. Additionally, G&L builds guitars to spec—the variety of necks (10) is so great as to be a little confusing when discussed in casual conversation—so players can finally have a new Leo-designed guitar with a Telecaster-type body and, say, a belly cut, tremolo and 12-inch radius.

Below, I’ve listed the G&L guitars that I think offer wonderful updates on the guitars that originally made Leo famous. Lately, G&L has expanded its offerings to include more pickups with alnico magnets, both single coils and P-90s. However, because most people associate G&L with the MFD pickups, and because few people are as familiar with them, I’m sticking with the current “classics” of the G&L line up. Additionally, given the options available for special orders, I’m not focusing on ergonomics so much as pure tone. Maybe someone once told you that G&Ls were boring; I’m here to tell you that person was wrong.

If you like Telecasters

Try the ASAT Classic. The ASAT Classic’s MFD pickups provide familiar but tweaked tones, utilizing the ceramic magnet-based design to eliminate issues related to weaker pickups while offering the characteristics players expect from a Tele. Thus, the bridge pickup has more midrange muscle, ensuring the ASAT’s Tele-like bite leaves marks. Similarly, the neck pickup has a little more muscle than the typical Tele, but adjusting the pole pieces makes it very easy to bring out the chime of the (typically) less powerful classic pickups.

If you like Jazzmasters

Give the ASAT Special a whirl, ideally one with a tremolo; this pairing can be found in the wild occasionally (I got one on eBay) or you can order direct (or buy a regular ASAT Special, buy the dual fulcrum tremolo direct from G&L and have a luthier install it—I plan on doing this with my other ASAT Special). The ASAT Special sports two of G&L’s jumbo MFD’s, the ones that look a bit like…Jazzmaster pickups. Like those pickups, the jumbo MFD’s have a shallow but wider coil, offering a lot more body and depth than your typical single coils. The articulation is excellent, and the lows on the neck pickup are almost as piano-like as the Jazzmaster’s. Where the ASAT Special really differs sonically is its top end: The MFD’s provide Tele-like bell tones. The chime can be dialed down either at the amp or on the guitar (or can be compensated for by adjusting the pickups’ pole pieces), but it’s nice to know this guitar can deliver the beautiful, deep shimmer of, say, Wilco’s Nels Cline or Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin without demanding a Vox amp.

Although the G&L tremolo requires a set screw (why, Leo? WHY?), the dual fulcrum design means the tremolo will respond like a Jazzmaster’s, allowing the player to easily bend up or down, and staying in tune requires no aftermarket parts. Those who employ the Jazzmaster’s rhythm circuit may be stymied by the lack thereof on the ASAT Special, but those who can live without it will find a lot to love in this guitar.

If you like Jaguars

You should try the S-500, but note that it sports a 25.5-inch neck. Where the S-500 and Jaguar overlap is in their sound. The Jaguar’s shorter scale offers a nice midrange push that complements the jangly pickups. The S-500 offers similar midrange muscle and jangle by virtue of the MFD pickup design. The S-500 looks like a Strat, and uses a similar blade selector for the pickups, but it also has a toggle that activates all three pickups simultaneously, allowing it to match the Jaguar pickups’ versatility. The S-500 employs G&L’s dual fulcrum tremolo, so Jaguar lovers who can get over the aforementioned set screw will enjoy the tremolo’s functionality.

If you like Mustangs

Try an SC-2. This feels a bit like a cheat: Elsewhere, I’ve glossed over ergonomics in favor of sonics; here, the parallel is stronger in the ergonomics. The SC-2 references the Mustang’s body shape, and Mustang users won’t be put off by the cursed set screw in the tremolo. The smaller body means the SC-2 doesn’t deliver the ASAT Special’s rich tones despite the use of the jumbo MFD’s, but this guitar still delivers a lot more top end than a Mustang. This means SC-2 players can get the Mustang’s clear midrange…and a whole lot more. While embracing the SC-2’s body will be like coming home for Mustang lovers, this is the only guitar in this article to offer only one neck profile, and it has a 12-inch radius. This likely will be great news for some players, but for those who have cut their teeth on classic Mustangs, it tmight provide a stumbling block.

If you like Strats

You’ll like the G&L Legacy. This is kind of a no-brainer. Unlike the other guitars mentioned here, the Legacy’s pickups utilize Alnico V magnets (the first G&Ls to do so, I believe). This was the company’s initial answer to those people who wanted to buy new classic Leo Fender (and George Fullerton—the “G” in G&L) sounds from Leo himself. That said, while the tones are indeed classic, thanks to the meatier dual-fulcrum bridge and generally heavier builds, the Legacy tends to have a “taller” and more present image than traditional Strats (it also has a more versatile set of tone controls). Nevertheless, the quack and the mellow, jazzy jangle are there in spades.

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