Made of Metal: Jackson Guitars and The Virtuoso
Staff Writer Pete interviews Jon Romanowski of Jackson Guitars
Lambgoat has teamed up with Jackson to give away one of these bad boys for free, enter the contest here.
Metal music comes in many forms, loads of genres and subgenres; the music develops all kinds of communities and scenes. Loads of different people consume it, write/play it or both. Throughout all the variation within Metal though there are a few institutions that remain steadfast, regardless of which subgenre you’re listening to, which festival you attend, or which records you buy. A few that come to mind are the shows are usually loud (and most people want it that way), walls of Marshall amps on stage, and in the hands of many musicians, there’s a Jackson guitar.
Few brands have ever grown to such popularity or notoriety, especially now in the golden age of gear for the modern guitarist/bassist. With every year comes new amps, modelers, new technology to make building a guitar rig easier, or make amps more accessible. But you can’t change where the music comes from, from the minds and hands of the player and a guitar in their hands. It’s gotten to a point in modern metal nowadays that you probably won’t see a band without at least one Jackson guitar being played on stage.
Lambgoat was recently invited to check out Jackson’s newest guitar, The Virtuoso and while it might seem a bit weird for us to review a guitar, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to attend a pre-launch press release for it. Lambgoat covers everything in heavy music, so why not pivot a little bit and learn about a brand that’s essentially synonymous with the music? Before we go further though I’ll need to make a small disclaimer here: I am indeed a touring/gigging guitarist, and am a certifiable “gear nerd”, so you can expect a rundown on the specs of the guitar, and a full review of how it plays. To accompany the review of the guitar I had a one-on-one conversation with VP of Products, Jon Romanowski at Jackson about the history of the brand, his views on innovation in metal and the new Virtuoso model of course.
Even if you're not intimately familiar with the history of Jackson guitars or its origins, you have likely seen at least a handful of guitarists playing a Stratocaster shaped guitar that's either been branded by Charvel or Jacksons moniker. In the late 70s when rock and heavy metal began to experience an infusion of technical skill and showmanship from its guitarists, from of a small guitar repair shop in Southern California the team responded to the needs from guitarists for new tools that enabled them to play faster, more comfortably and with greater precision. It was in 1980 that relatively unknown (at the time) Randy Rhodes got in touch with the crew of Charvel and Jackson and began developing his first guitar. The Concorde shape now known as the Rhoads model was the first true high performance and hot-rodded metal guitar that took all of Randy’s criticisms and requests into account and help birth the style of purpose-built guitars for metal. Put plain and simple, the Virtuoso is born from that same innovative and driven process.
During the chat with Jon about the brands history I got a sense of pride in being a brand that’s always been directly associated with metal music. From the beginning of the brand to present day, they’ve stayed true to what makes their guitars different from other manufacturers. Jon had mentioned “our mission statement has always been to make instruments that push boundaries forward; yeah we have a past and we want acknowledge it, but a good portion of how this brand came about was that we looked at what players wanted here and now, and then continually see what’s coming next.”
While it might look like another “super-strat” style guitar (which it certainly is) there’s a lot more going on with the Virtuoso. Yes, it’s a production model guitar with four finish options (I was sent the Specific Ocean finish which looks great up close), and the hardware is the same across all four, it really does have a custom made feel. The Virtuoso is a 24-fret, 12-16” compound radius, dual humbucker guitar, that includes: Seymour Duncan JB (bridge) and 59 (neck) pickups, a striped ebony fret board (each one is unique given the grain of the wood used) which really does strike a stunning contrast against the finish, a uniquely contoured heel joint (took a little getting used to for me having played Kelly and Explorer shaped guitars mainly for a while, but once I did, the upper fret access was smooth and effortless) a Floyd-Rose 1500 series locking tremolo and Gotoh locking tuners.
I thought that the locking tuners seemed a bit unnecessary at first, but when I was stringing up and setting up the guitar to put it through its paces, I remembered Jon saying “the locking tuners act like a third hand…I was at a press event and broke a string. I had fifteen minutes to get the guitar ready and had it re-strung and setup in ten.” It was after I got the guitar set up I had noticed how much less time it took to get ready and that could translate to time saved at a gig, which we all know is valuable. Taking all of that into account, that it’s made in the USA and it’s under $2000…that is music to this nerds’ ears.
When I played the guitar, I couldn’t help but think about the history of the brand a bit. I couldn’t help but be hit with a nostalgic and wistful feeling. This modern production guitar came from the era that made Jackson/Charvel push boundaries and the capabilities of their instruments. It felt like a piece of history was in my hands and that alone was inspiring, it made me want to play more. The neck plays incredibly quick, and the guitar resonates beautifully. I caught myself asking more than once, “are they sure this wasn’t built in the custom shop?” The guitar felt solid the second I picked it up. With minimal setup, I had it playing like any of my other guitars and felt comfortable. Outside of getting used to the new contoured heel, the guitar felt familiar and stable. Sure, there are other brands out there that do a good job building their products, but this just felt well-built right from the start. Jackson knocked the quality control out of the park on this one. Taking all of that into account, I can say with certainty that this guitar will put a grin on your face.
The more that Jon and I talked, the more I realized that I wasn’t being “pitched” the guitar. The conversation came from a genuine love of music and guitars, their history and how they’re used to make music. When asked what inspired Jon and the people at Jackson to make this particular model, he said “What inspires us is working with our artists and necessity is always the mother of all invention. But innovation comes in many different forms; trying to take what our artists tell us, what our customers say…and consider the brand itself, we want to make sure that the things that are important to the brand we keep and incorporate new elements to keep the brand moving forward.” In the press release for the Virtuoso we viewed a video featuring: Marty Friedman, Dave Davidson (Revocation/Gargoyl), Misha Mansoor (Periphery), Debbie Gough (Heriot) and Clint Tustin (ERRA) all playing the guitar, soloing over a piece composed by Mansoor. The list of players in the video should show you that the Virtuoso could be a versatile tool in a wide variety of players’ hands, it’s not just for the shredders of yesteryear.
Toward the end of our conversation, Jon summed up everything nicely with, “Metal in 1969 is not what it was in 1979, and metal in 1989 is not what it is today. It’s incumbent on us to make sure that we filter through what our customers want and don’t want and incorporate that in their guitars.” That’s the kind of statement that reassured me that they’re listening to the music and to the people making it and consuming it. Jackson as a brand wouldn’t still be relevant today if they ignored their customers and didn’t come up new ideas or make products that fit the needs of a variety of players and the Virtuoso does just that. It’s one thing to pick up a guitar and enjoy it for being well made, but it ends up being a special guitar when you get inspired to play and write with it when you get it in your hands. I can think of nothing better when it comes to playing a new instrument. Don’t take my word for it though, go and play one for yourself. If you’re even remotely curious about the Virtuoso you should absolutely try one out.
In today’s sonic landscape, particularly within metal, the Virtuoso just fits. A versatile tool that’s not priced into the stratosphere, that’s accessible to all kinds of players and showcases what’s kept their brand strongly attached to metal music.