Yamaha SA503 Troy Van Leeuwen Signature review

Combine Queens Of The Stone Age axeman Troy Van Leeuwen with Yamaha's renowned build quality and we should have a guitar that rocks

  • £649
Each pickup has a volume control.

MusicRadar Verdict

A tidily-made guitar - albeit a damn heavy one - that feels robust, sounds very good and has serious stage work written all over it.


  • +

    Classy retro style. Pickup switching. Raw-edged tones. Smooth sustain


  • -

    Its heaviness. Lack of any master volume control.

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Yamaha's SA503 TVL Troy Van Leeuwen signature model guitar is an ES-335-inspired semi-acoustic.

The SA503 TVL is one of the most retro-looking, 'quirky' instruments that Yamaha has produced in some years. It's part of a full archtop range that includes Troy's favourite AES1500 (available with Bigsby or hardtail), the more jazz-intended AEX1500 and the long-standing SA2200.


Yamaha build electric guitars in numerous far eastern factories. They have their own facilities in Japan, Taiwan, China and Indonesia and when necessary use other OEM factories - much like any modern mass production. For the record the TVL hails from Indonesia - a location not typically known for mid-priced quality.

But the TVL does not feel, look or sound cheap in any way. It features classic semi construction: laminated maple front, back and sides with tasteful cream, rather than white, bound top and back edges.

An over-large centre block helps create a very solidbody-like sustain but also, unfortunately, contributes to a weight of 10lbs, heavy even for a solidbody. If you're used to modern solidbody single-cuts it'll be okay, but if your current squeeze is more lightweight then be warned.

The weight issue is a shame because every other aspect of the TVL is smart. The neck's full 'C' shape, nicely bound rosewood 'board with large highly polished frets and the set-up is near perfect.

It's one of the finest mid-priced semis in terms of playability that this reviewer has ever encountered. While the same-shape SA500 uses a mahogany neck, the TVL's is maple. "It was something I discussed with John Gaudesi at YGD in LA," explains Van Leeuwen. "He suggested it after I brought in a guitar that I used for this whole idea and that had a maple neck - that was a Gibson ES-225."

Van Leeuwen was insistent, too, on a Bigsby vibrato. Paired with Yamaha's own design tune-o-matic-style bridge, the Bigsby certainly lives up to Van Leeuwen's expectation. And although the Grover tuners feel a little slack, the overall tuning stability after a few vibrato waggles is fine.

The grooves in those small bridge saddles have been smoothed and polished, removing a notorious friction point for most Bigsby/tune-o-matic combinations. Aside from the visual impact of a Bigsby, it's the trio of soapbar P-90-style single-coils that give the TVL such attitude.

You'll also notice the pair of three-way toggle switches - the All Access System - mounted on a plastic plate on the guitar's treble horn.

In use

While it is a heavy guitar, the balance and strapped on feel is excellent and from the off the rich, smooth acoustic resonance translates to a classy sound that's never thin - even on the bridge pickup - while retaining a good wiry P-90 character.

Yes, the two toggles take a little getting used too but not as much as not having a master volume. Three volumes on one guitar is a little excessive, especially with those switches. We didn't ask the question, but we'd be surprised if Troy didn't use a volume pedal.

However, from the jazzy-edged fifties clean tones - wonderful with slight Bigsby shimmer - through more aggressive amp voices the TVL really impresses.

Combining the middle pickup with either the neck or bridge produces a slightly honky mix that sounds edgy with a little crunch; the neck pickup is fluid with a little edge to it and tuneful feedback is always on tap. Even with higher gain/volume the TVL retains this big-but-edgy character.

Yes, the pickups hum and the bridge pickup could do with a little more power but this guitar clearly isn't about studio precision - it's about character, and it has that in abundance!

Dave Burrluck

Dave Burrluck is one of the world’s most experienced guitar journalists, who started writing back in the '80s for International Musician and Recording World, co-founded The Guitar Magazine and has been the Gear Reviews Editor of Guitarist magazine for the past two decades. Along the way, Dave has been the sole author of The PRS Guitar Book and The Player's Guide to Guitar Maintenance as well as contributing to numerous other books on the electric guitar. Dave is an active gigging and recording musician and still finds time to make, repair and mod guitars, not least for Guitarist’s The Mod Squad.