The best guitar gear of 2011
Although December 2011 has so far proven to be considerably less snowbound in MusicRadar's corner of the UK compared to the bleak conditions we experienced this time last year, the weather looks like it might be about to go crazy just in time to ruin everyone's festive travel plans.
However, do not despair! Our glass of eggnog is most definitely half full, and when the weather outside is frightful it's all the excuse we need to spend plenty of time wrapped up warm indoors, playing the guitar.
In fiscal terms at least, 2011 has been relentlessly awful for the vast majority of the population. Yet there is hope. History shows us that troubled times are often the backdrop to great art, so we await such compositions as Eurozone Freefall Blues and My Heart Is Just Another Empty Retail Unit with interest and wish you, in all seriousness, a healthy and prosperous 2012.
So, without further ado, MusicRadar presents the best guitar gear of 2011. Much as we enjoyed deliberating over the award for Best Plectrum On A Tuesday, we've simplified the categories this time around. Based on gear reviewed by Guitarist and Total Guitar, and equipment that we've had first-hand experience of here at MusicRadar, here's an all-killer, no-filler guide to the finest guitar products of 2011, complete with honourable mentions and links to in-depth reviews.
Kicking things off with a bang, it's the award for the best electric guitar of 2011...
Electric guitar of the year
Way back in January when we arrived in California for Winter NAMM 2011 a bleary-eyed mess of jetlag and Christmas excess, day one of the show proved to be an unexpected treat for Tele-addicts. Over on the Fender stand there were 12 amazing ‘Tele-bration’ Telecasters celebrating the 60th anniversary of the solidbody that started it all, with one instrument in particular capturing our imagination.
With Fender’s Custom Shop La Cabronita Especial proving to be out of the reach of mere mortals and kick-starting a homebrew build-your-own explosion, it was only a matter of time before the company released a (comparatively) more affordable alternative. The Tele-bration Cabronita Telecaster may be limited edition, and its 22-fret neck isn’t every guitarist’s cup of Earl Grey, but the combination of TV Jones Filtertrons and a slab alder body flies as close to tone heaven as anything we’ve heard in a long, long time.
From Luther Perkins to Malcolm Young and Billy Gibbons via a simple twist of the volume knob, in a year when beautiful recreations of guitars played by Kurt Cobain and George Harrison have lead us into temptation, the Cabronita Telecaster provides discerning players with the raw material not ju st to channel killer guitar sounds of yore but also to forge their own signature sonic identity. What price a mass-produced version from Fender Mexico in 2012? Our fingers are well and truly crossed.
Guitar amplifier of the year
2011 has been another year of fierce competition in the world of guitar amplification. The gigging guitarist has more choice than ever when it comes to affordable backline, but those small 'lunchbox' valve amplifiers keep coming thick and fast. If the worrying increase in the number of UK venues utilising volume limiters is anything to go by then the small amp is here to stay...
In the microscopically subjective world of guitar tone, it's so hard to find an amplifier with universal appeal, but honourable mentions for 2011 in this category go out to Fender's Mustang series, Hughes & Kettner's do-it-all Tubemeister 18, Orange's ferocious Dark Terror, and at the boutique end of the spectrum, Two-Rock's Gain Master 22 and Studio Pro 35. It's a little too early to tell whether or not Yamaha's innovative THR series amps will deliver on their game-changing potential, but they are certainly ones to watch. Also, be sure to look out for the Dr Z Maz 8 and the Mesa/Boogie Mini Rectifier in 2012; we can't wait to get our hands on them.
Although our recent Best Amplifier In The World Today poll proved that there's still plenty of life in tried-and-tested classics, when it comes to new-school success stories, in the class of 2011, there's one amp that stands head and shoulders above the rest, despite its diminutive proportions.
The awesome HT-1R has become such a fixture at so many of our practice and recording sessions and low-volume rehearsals that the realisation that it only came into our lives at the start of the year is a genuine shock. With street prices currently averaging out at around £170 or less, it's hard to imagine a guitarist who couldn't justify owning one.
Acoustic guitar of the year
Last year, the winner of this category was a foregone conclusion from April onwards thanks to the way that Martin's Guitarist Gold Award-winning 000-15M reduced the office to jelly. However, 2011 has seen much tougher competition and the recession has bitten hardest on the upper-mid price section of the market.
Yamaha's ability to manufacture entry-level acoustic guitars that offer staggering value for money for the home strummer has never been in any doubt, but it is important to remember that when the time comes to purchase a serious instrument for performance and recording, the company has plenty to offer here too.
Reviewed alongside the A1M dreadnought, Yamaha's concert-sized AC3R cutaway electro-acoustic was a real hit with the Guitarist team, earning 4.5 stars across the board and a Guitarist Choice Award into the bargain. A seriously impressive instrument for studio or stage use.
Bass of the year
Two basses really stood out this year for our resident bass guru, Roger Newell. Although Fender's 60th Anniversary P-Bass is close to perfection and an absolute must-try for anyone looking for a pro-level fretted four-string, it's a British luthier - in collaboration with one of the world's biggest bass names - who has won the day.
As well as building Matt Bellamy's guitars, Hugh Manson is the man behind the instruments favoured by none other than Led Zeppelin legend and recent Crooked Vulture John Paul Jones. Here's what Roger had to say about the Manson John Paul Jones Signature E-Bass:
"The JPJ positively oozes quality, not only in how it looks, but how it feels, plays and sounds too. Of course this all comes at a price, but at just over two grand (thanks partly to the Czech build) it's not the most expensive bass out there.
"So, if you want to sound like John Paul Jones or, better still, explore a whole new range of sounds from a beautiful and contemporary bass guitar then this is a great place to satisfy your needs."
Guitar FX of the year
If, like us, you are the kind of guitar nerd who spends an unhealthy amount of time checking out other people's pedalboards on internet forums, you'll no doubt have noticed that the last couple of years have seen TC making serious inroads into the hearts and minds of effects-loving guitarists everywhere.
In 2010, the frankly brilliant PolyTune polyphonic tuner usurped the Boss TU-2 as the go-to stompbox tuner for gigging guitarists. Then NAMM 2011 saw the company announce a range of feature-packed compact stompboxes that not only emulated a library of classic sounds but brought the humble effects pedal format bang up to date with innovative TonePrint technology.
Guitarist described the Flashback as "a contender for the most versatile compact stompbox delay available", and it packs and unbelievable variety of great delay sounds and impressive functionality into a box that's the same size as your average single-function overdrive pedal. Seriously impressive, if you are shopping for a delay pedal in 2012, this is a must-try.
Guitar accessory of the year
If you are a guitarist who owns a compatible iOS device, there is no excuse for not owning this.
Just six years ago, the desktop version of GarageBand was a major factor in this writer's decision to make the jump from PC to Mac. Fast-forward to 2011 and there's a version for mobile devices that costs less than a pint of beer. We're not sure whether to rejoice the imminent arrival of hoverboards for all, or lament the fact that you can't get a decent pint for much less than four quid anywhere within walking distance of this office...
We first got hands-on with the excellent amp simulations in GarageBand for iPad back in March, then the recent, inevitable introduction of the iPhone and iPod touch-compatible version sealed the deal. Now everything we need for silent practice and fleshing out demo recordings is contained in one app that we carry around in our pocket every day. Make no mistake, it will make you a more productive musician. For iPhone owners, GarageBand is the no-brainer purchase of the decade so far, and the only decision left to make is which iOS audio interface suits you best.