Despite his vivid, self-assured style and wonderkid credentials, Blues Saraceno was never the most famous 90s guitar hero. Next to the Ibanez family of just-about household names like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert, artists even non-musicians would play in their cars, he occupied an unmistakably distinct second tier of recognition cohabited by players such as Greg Howe, Tony MacAlpine, Richie Kotzen et al. Today he’s a session man and soundtrack producer, absent from the spotlit stage of guitar-for-guitar’s-sake and present behind the curtain, operating the paddles and levers, engaged in the much more sensible, if less adoring business, of making money.
Combined, these facts explain why no one knows about Saraceno’s short-lived series of signature guitars — and don’t you go telling them — and why they can be had so cheaply. They don’t explain how quite so many variations were produced of this unknown guitar for this niche artist’s signature line in such a short time.
The Samick TV Twenty and Radio Ten models designed by Blues Saraceno appear in at least nine colors, not including the now highly-saught plaid finishes that were Blues’ trademark; with Floyd Rose tremolos; with vintage style tremolos; and with, most baffling to me, two types of fixed bridge: through-the-body style and tune-o-matic Gibson style; with humbuckers front and back, or in hum-single-single configuration; with one volume pot, or with volume and tone pots.
Bewitched by the guitar’s form when seeing a friend (Paul of Dragon Eye Morrison) play his custom made replica, I’d been searching for a good one, which for me meant fixed bridge, for months, when last Christmas came around. Under the tree was a comically guitar-shaped present, containing, to my genuine surprise, the shiny red TV Twenty my wife had sneakily bought online from a pawn shop — where a great many of these tend to show up.
The short, stubby alder body, apparently three pieces if held to the light, gives us a guitar as unique as Saraceno’s touch and tone, based, you might imagine, on the top half of a Telecaster and the lower half of a Jazzmaster, yet looking, in whole, unlike either, with a cute MusicMan-like appeal.
Not everyone is so taken. Comments posted on my Christmas morning Facebook pictures include, “Is that the new guitar for Guitar Hero?” and, “Is that a real one? No offense, but it kinda looks like a 3/4 size one to me,” as well as, “That is a fucking ugly guitar. LOL.”
Its kooky appearance works for me, as does the deceptively small size — when you’re 5’6″, little bodies are welcome. The scale length is indeed full size, 25.5″ from bridge to nut, just like a Strat and longer of course than a Les Paul. And it hasn’t been shaped this way just for oddball looks. The top horn, if it is even a horn, full and uncut for more wood, mass, sustain; the bottom cutaway created plainly for unrestricted fret access, offering a near-straight open edge up past the very top fret.
Attached to this by a lovely, bass guitar-reminiscent recessed heel, is the fattest neck I’ve played, a feature I worried would hamper the TV Twenty, up until I got my own, grasped that maple club and rung it like a villain’s neck. My phobia was, I now remembered, fostered in the infancy of my playing, when I owned both a twelve-year-old’s hands and Joe Satriani’s Surfing With The Alien, and quite reasonably nurtured concern over how the two would possibly match up. In a grown up’s hands, it turns out, a beefy neck is a good thing, providing a rugged, substantial base on which to do your thing, and does not, as it might have seemed, handicap the player all the way back to pentatonic prisoner.
Hardware is solid Gotoh, both bridge and tuners, so no upgrade needed there, although the tuners are all identical, from a six-in-a-row set, rather than the three regular and three reversed keys you would normally find on a three-a-side headstock. This is part of what gives the guitar its strange little offset head, and all it means in practice is that the three unwound strings tune the opposite way than intuition suggests they should. This took me a while to get used to, partly because the guitar stays in tune admirably and needs adjusted less.
It’s worth hearing any guitar unplugged, to find out what you’ve got to work with naturally, before getting into electronics. Its popular woods – alder body, maple neck – make comparison with a Stratocaster easy. There are many applicable adjectives, but “bigger” is the simplest one to describe the Samick’s unplugged sound versus a Strat I had on hand. There’s none of the twang and snap; everything rings out louder and bolder.
How It’s Made
I’ve been a guitar racist for some time. I’ve a house full of Japanese and American guitars, and that’s all. In my experience Korean models were creaky, dead and felt like knockoffs, the big names on the headstocks meaningless in the absence of authenticity and mojo. Korean guitars are usually the same shape as the iconic guitars they mimic under license, but that’s where similarities end. Whether it’s Blues’ design, the involvement of Valley Arts, Samick’s build quality, or a combination of these, the TV Twenty I received does not feel like a Korean guitar. It’s solid, stable, toneful, and downright lovable in the way a soulless copy never is. (Mine does not say “Made in Korea” on the back of the neck just above the heel as it should, but this was perhaps not consistent throughout production.)
There are a few concessions that betray its inexpensive origin. Though I cleaned the thing thoroughly, including the fretboard and frets themselves, whenever I play for a long time my fingers turn grey, suggesting that the fret wire, which is a nice fat domed type, may be of low quality. But then again, the guitar is 15 years old and has no discernible fret wear. The headstock is two piece, which is to say, the neck and 95% of the head are all one big piece, with an extra half-inch sliver added beyond the high E tuning key to complete the shape. Much more expensive Ibanez and even Gibsons have this too, and it’s almost undetectable. No, the only area of build quality it’s fair to take issue with is that, while the pickup routing is spot on, the holes drilled within those routes are all off center, leaving the three pickups nestled off to one side. Not much trouble for the two single-sized humbuckers in the neck and middle positions with their continuous rails, but the bridge humbucker, with its normal pole pieces, suffers misalignment with the top strings, enough to make the high E quieter unless you jack up the pickup on that side.
That big and bold thing the TV Twenty does acoustically carries right over to the amplified world. I expected at a bare minimum to have to swap the stock “Duncan Designed” pickups out for the real things, but the guitar sounds frankly enormous with these; authoritative and round in the neck position, the choice most reminiscent of Saraceno’s giant 90s tone, and sweetly crunchy in the bridge. That full size bucker is warm, overwrapped PAF-ish, probably on the higher end of medium output, sweet enough to stop leads sounding thin but subdued just enough to let the strings do the singing with rhythms. The tone knob pulls up to split this pickup, opening up that warm top end with a lot more treble and scratch for a surprisingly different, but usable, tone.
In The End
Due in part to its unusually big neck, solid construction, and unexpectedly competitive pickups, the Samick TV Twenty has a thick, audacious sound in a cute little package that bears the curves of thoughtful, distinctive design. It’s an easy guitar to lose yourself in, dig in, get a groove going, cut loose. And it’s so different in looks and feel, I’m less likely to default to my standard harmonic minor safety licks upon its beefy frets, which can only be healthy. It immediately became my #1 guitar, of 14, all costing more, some ten times as much. Even substantial Strat necks felt thin afterwards; going back to Ibanez necks was like playing on Graham crackers. The value is crazy due to the low profiles of Samick and Saraceno, absurd actually, and with all of it together I can see why those of us that discover these go a bit dippy sometimes and start collecting them like Happy Meal toys. Just check that pickup alignment if taking the plunge; though if you are brave and own a drill, it should be easily correctable.
I recently used this guitar in a YouTube video. Take a look. YouTube isn’t the ideal venue to judge tone, but you can, I think, hear how fat and non-Stratty the TV Twenty is here.
Update Aug 8, 2010: There’s also this video, which for seven months I’ve kept set to private on YouTube because of my many embarrassing mistakes whenever anything tricky is meant to happen, but today decided to free from the shame bag being as the tone is so good. I think that’s why I never deleted it. This is straight into the amp, as above, no pedals.