If you’ve ever worked in the music retail field, you know that not everybody shares your excellent taste in guitars. There’s a whole other mutant strain out there that does not understand your love for the sleek ergonomics of a Strat, the spanky bark of a Tele, or the old-school swagger of a vintage Black Beauty. Millennials, in particular, may tend turn their noses up at the spoon-fed traditions and historical baggage that accompany Stratocasters and Les Pauls, and are buying repros of oddball 1960s guitars faster than they can be built. They’re also more interested in using guitars to manifest quirky timbres, psychedelic textures, and bizarro sound effects than the religious pursuit of the perfect blues vibrato.
Happily for those folks, PureSalem specializes in guitars for musicians who march to the beat of a different drum machine. Rick Sell founded PureSalem Guitars in 2012 to design great-sounding boutique guitars for the working stiff. Paying homage to the offbeat instruments of the ’60s and ’70s, Sell also has an artistic predilection for ’60s psychedelic horror, garage rock, acid rock, and their related visual arts. One look at their online product page reveals the eccentric, the weird, and the outlandish.
One of the most normal-looking guitars in PureSalem’s stable is the Bette, which still manages to offer plenty of vintage garage vibe. Made in Korea, the Bette features a Starcaster-style headstock, Grover tuners, maple neck and fretboard, medium jumbo frets, 25.5″ scale length, 42.75″ nut width, and a smooth C-shaped neck, all attached to a copper-colored, mahogany-chambered Tele Deluxe-style body. The Bette features a custom-wound single-coil in the neck position and a custom-wound Filter’Tron-style pickup in the bridge position. It also sports 2.1875″ string spacing and a Wilkinson mini ashtray bridge with compensated saddles. A three-way switch controls pickup selection and is accompanied by single Volume and Tone controls.
The visual effect is that of a modified Cabronita, and the Bette delivers the kind of bright and edgy clean tones that allow the player to inject their own personal magic. Played through a variety of American combo amps and high-gain heads, the Bette produced surprising results. The guitar is something of a tonal blank slate due to its fresh-from-the-factory lack of warmth, which forces you to apply more expressiveness. After all, you can’t always depend on ungodly guitar tones to make music. Rather, the Bette gives back what you put into it. Clean amp settings offer usable variations in warmth and bite as you switch through the three positions, but the more you play, the more you realize the tones are in your hands.
The lack of high-priced tonal coloring also reveals what your effects chain and amplification are all about. The width and thickness of the neck are very comfortable, while its flat radius and smooth lacquer-free finish are great for phrasing single-note lines and high-octane soloing. The Bette is excellent at slicing through a band’s stage mix, and its somewhat sterile nature makes jangly hipster chord progressions really pop on recorded tracks. Overall, its character dwells in the Telecaster zone where blues, jazz, and country playing thrive.
With overdrive the guitar comes alive. Because of the bright, ultraclean nature of the pickups, distortion and overdrive retain clear articulation and distinct clarity. No mud was heard even with over-the-top saturation. The guitar maintained a rootsy, rock and roll flavor throughout.
The Bette is a lightweight yet substantial piece of wire and wood that grows on you and will more than likely warm up tonally as it matures. If you’re searching for a unique rock workhorse, you’ve come to the right place.
By Oscar Jordan
If guitar making was a comic book story line, PureSalem’s Rick Sell would be the crazed scientist banishing vintage guitars to another dimension, only to have them return as twisted and bizarre versions of their former selves. GP last visited that world in our May 2014 issue when we reviewed the company’s Brave Ulysses, Classic Creep, Electric End, Levitation, Woodsoul models. All of those wacky beauties were found to be good players with vibe to burn. The only consistent downside was the possibility of having to explain to all the guitar geeks at your gigs what the hell kind of instrument you were playing.
Well, if that scenario might be bothersome to some guitarists, PureSalem’s Cardinal and La Flaca are somewhat more down to earth, and, well, normal. There are still slight design twists to take the models out of the realm of the slavishly conventional, but those intimidated by the strange will be comforted by some classic Gibson-inspired lines.
The Firebird-like Cardinal struts its retro elan in three old-school colors—Daphne Blue, Shell Pink, and Kelly Green—and a Vibrola tremolo. Our test model had a flawless finish, the neck binding and block inlays were impeccable, the neck pocket was zip locked snugly to the body, and all hardware was battened-down tight (no rattles or loose parts). Given the overall quality, it was surprising that the pickguard displayed some rough-cut edges and the fret ends were rather sharp.
This baby has a chunky neck, but it feels good to play (the satin finish on the back of the neck is one slick little hand highway), and the guitar itself is comfy in strapped-up and sitting positions. The Vibrola is easy to reach, and it’s quite responsive and stable. I smacked it up and I smacked it down, and I didn’t have any tuning issues that weren’t the result of intense abusive (ya gotta take responsibility for your brutal showmanship, I guess). It’s slightly inconvenient to reach for the Master Volume knob for pinky swells, as the Vibrola is in the way. Unless you have octopus fingers, the Master Tone is near impossible to adjust on the fly, and I found that the tonal sweep was not wide enough to simulate wah-pedal sounds anyway. I just dimed it, and left it.
I’ve never been a mixed hum-sing player—likely due to my absolutely dumb sense of esthetic balance—but the variety of tones available with the Cardinal is making me rethink my art-over-application views. This thing screams, barks, snarks, punches, cuts, bellows, and gets all warm and jazzy. It’s a perfect machine if you have, say, elegant chords (neck humbucker), stout riffs (combined), and snarling leads (bridge single-coil) all appearing in the same song. The neck humbucker can also handle a lot of classic-rock styles when you set your amp to a gritty overdrive. It’s articulate enough to give you good note definition, but you still get that sexy low-midrange foundation. I found myself using the combined pickup setting a lot, because I got a best-of-both-worlds tonal attack of meaty punch and aggressive shimmer.
As it feels good, looks great, and delivers versatile tones, the Cardinal is quite the workhorse—a guitar you could bring to a number of different studio, session, and live gigs and not have to say, “Oh no. If only I had my [insert model here] with me, I could nail this part.” Trust the Cardinal. It’ll get it done.
by Michael Molenda
Guitar Player Magazine
Miami-based PureSalem strives to offer the boutique guitar quality and personality that many players are looking for, but without the typical boutique guitar prices.
Their Gordo model features a top-bound semi-hallow mahogany body with a mahogany center block, a bolt-on mahogany neck with a 12″ radius, bound rosewood fretboard, and faux mother-of-pearl block inlays, long with chrome Grover Rotematic Mini tuners and a licensed Bigsby BS vibrato with a roller tune-o-matic style bridge.
Electronics include a custom-wound covered humbucker in the bridge position, a custom-wound covered vintage-spec single-coil Telesytle pickup in the neck position, both mated to a three-way toggle and individual Volume and Tone controls.
Sacrilegious as it may sound to some, not everyone loves the iconic, ubiquitous electric guitar designs of the 1950s. And while vintage guitars that subvert those norms look killer and cut through the visual clutter, they can also be quirky in less-desirable ways: feedback-prone pickups, neck relief like a ski jump, and non-existent tuning stability, to name a few.
PureSalem Guitars isn’t the only company mining the eccentric side of vintage guitar design these days. But the two-years-young company has consistently delivered quality alongside the quirkiness. El Gordo, a buxom semi-hollow, is a recent addition to PureSalem’s roster of misfits. It’s well built, genuinely versatile, and chock-full of tones from jangly clean to rowdy and raucous.
A Sumo of Its Parts
The Gordo is a creative bit of Franken-design that manages to be different without being simply weird. The mahogany body profile borrows from ’60s-era Kents. The classy flame- maple veneer and two-tone sunburst finish add rich visual texture without being ostentatious. A pair of sharp-looking bound eyeholes is a nod to Rickenbacker and Gretsch, while the binding evokes 335 and Les Paul Custom designs. The mahogany neck has a comfortable, modern C-shape. It’s capped by a bound rosewood fingerboard with fancy pearloid block markers and a sculpted headstock design inspired by the Fender Starcaster. The neck is reinforced with a double truss rod for stability and setup flexibility.
On paper, that sounds like an odd hodgepodge of design elements. But somehow the juxtaposition of upscale details, cross-brand homage, and quirky retro shapes works, resulting in a unique but approachable instrument.
El Gordo generally feels sturdy and substantial. It’s free of the blemishes and paint blotches often seen on guitars in this price range. And while the factory setup wasn’t exceptional, a few easy adjustments made El Gordo feel friendlier under the fingers.
With its bend-friendly 24¾” scale length, satin neck finish, and 12″ fretboard radius, El Gordo feels much more athletic and nimble than most of the vintage instruments that inspired it. The roller bridge, expertly cut graphite nut, and mini-Grover tuners maintain tuning stability, even when you cut loose on the Bigsby. (And man, it’s fun to use a Bigsby that stays in tune.)
Unique styling. Great, often unusual tones. Excellent playability. Vibrato stays in tune.
Controls are a bit of a reach.
Pure Salem Gordo
El Gordo features a Gibson-style 3-way pickup selector and independent volume and tone controls for each pickup. That adds up to many tone options if you like to play with pickup balance or color songs with extreme tone shifts (which can be especially interesting given the sonic differences between the two pickups). The cloth wiring visible through the soundhole is a nice retro touch. But the knobs would be easier to manipulate if they were just a bit closer to the player—fast volume adjustment can feel like a serious reach.
Gordo Means Fat
The bridge humbucker and Telecaster-style neck single-coil (angled, unusually, toward the bridge’s bass side) provide everything from percussive rock crunch to fluty blues leads. The articulate humbucker has just a tad more power than your typical PAF, but it’s never muddy, honky, or flat-sounding. Likewise, the neck pickup seems hotter than your average T-Style pickup, but the result is excellent balance between the two pickups.
El Gordo’s semi-hollow, center-block construction lends thwacking immediacy and chunky mass to chords, but also gives clean tones resonance and a pretty, sparkling airiness. With a loud, dirty amp, El Gordo’s easily generates controllable feedback, especially if you ride the volume and tone knobs.
While El Gordo can be jangly and clean, it specializes in burly rock ’n’ roll sounds. Josh Homme fans will love the humbucker’s thick stoner heaviness at low tone settings. It’s also great at mimicking the powerful kerrang of Malcolm Young’s Gretsch, or sustained, fuzzy lead textures.
El Gordo is a playable, and yes, fat-sounding way to skirt the status quo. It looks vintage in a unique way without seeming silly. Best of all, it’s a genuine player’s instrument. The interestingly matched pickups, effective tone and volume controls, and stable Bigsby vibrato conspire to make this a very expressive instrument. Quirky has rarely felt this rock-solid, or been capable of so many tasty sounds.
The SG-inspired La Flaca flips the hum-sing configuration of the Cardinal with its sing-hum arrangement. It also goes for a more classic style with available wine and black finishes and a Bigsby B7 (the lefty model replaces the Bigsby with a Vibrola). Like its avian partner, the La Flaca boasts superb craftsmanship, but also betrays a couple of slight flaws. The hardware is bulletproof, and it has an excellent and shiny black finish, along with a super-tight neck pocket, immaculate inlays, and a cleanly cut pickguard. But those sharp fret ends appear here, as well, and the binding near the nut (on the upper side) was coarse.
As with the Cardinal, I loved the La Flaca’s satin finish on the back of the neck, as it helps you move up and down the fretboard with minimal “drag”—a nice feature, as the neck is quite a hunk ‘o’ wood. The La Flaca’s classic shape is a groove for playing sitting down or standing. The Master Volume knob is in a perfect position for pinky manipulations, while the Master Tone is harder to reach. But, then again, you really don’t get a very wide frequency range with the pot, so I was fine to leave it in the cranked position for most of my testing. I dig Bigsby tremolos, and this one is as dreamy as most—sensual and responsive, and the La Flaca also stays pretty much in tune after lots of bar wanking.
The neck’s offset single-coil and bridge humbucker deliver a fair amount of versatile tones—though, to my ear, they were all more in the classic ’70s-rock camp, and therefore a tad less diverse than what I got with the Cardinal. The neck tones are clear and robust, with no muddy bass or foggy note articulation. The bridge humbucker really puts out some sweet mids that are not overly bright, or, for want of a better phrase, “modern sounding.” You could dive into a spate of classic Cream-AC/DC-Who-Sabbath-Doors colors with this pup (and let’s not forget Elliot Easton with the Cars), as well as bring a retro vibe to almost any music you’re playing. The combined position uncorks a deep pop that really animates single-note lines and riffs.
If you adore SG-styled guitars, the La Flaca provides all the vintage roar you’d ever want, and the sing-hum setup also lets you explore some sounds that are typically not in the SG’s sonic palette. You definitely get a versatile blend those old-school tones—if this was a keyboard workstation, the presets would be called “Classic 1970s Rock-Guitar Sounds—in an instrument that plays well and looks retro hip. Wear your old bell-bottom trousers and rock on, baby!
The Levitation evokes images of Brian Jones playing his Vox Teardrop onstage with the Stones, except that, at almost ten pounds, this massive slab of mahogany would have broken the frail Jones into two pieces. “Leviathan” might have been a better name for this mammoth orange paddle. But all jokes about “mass” aside, this is an incredible rock guitar. If you can handle the weight, you’ll be rewarded for your fortitude with super-powerful tones and sustain for days and days and days.
Not surprisingly, the Levitation is built like a tank. It seems like it could take a direct hit from an RPG-7 shell and not even get knocked out of your hands. All the hardware—pickups, pickup mounts, knobs, bridge, tailpiece, 3-way switch, and tuners—is just as tough. Workmanship is excellent. There are not a lot of frills on this machine, but the finish is beautiful, the binding is flawless, the tortoiseshell-like pickguard is well rendered, and the star inlays are perfect. The frets are the best of the five PureSalem guitars tested. They still aren’t “hot dogged,” but the ends are rounded enough to feel good when you run your fingers down the edges of the fretboard. The Master Volume knob is within easy reach for volume swells, and although the Master Tone control is a bit farther down towards the end of the body than I’d like, I could still grab it for some “faux-wah” tonal manipulations with my pinky. Although you can play the Levitation sitting down by positioning the lower bout over your leg and angling the neck slightly towards the floor, it isn’t really a guitar for parking your butt on a bale of hay, hoedown style. This is a “stand up and get in the face of the audience” machine, and I’ll tell you why …
When I brought the Levitation to a rehearsal, plugged it into the normally rev’d up, but not obnoxiously loud settings of my Vox AC30, and hit a chord, I thought I had killed everyone in the room. After peeling pieces of my band members’ flesh off the walls, I adjusted my amp to better manage the hair-trigger, high-gain humbuckers, and I was absolutely floored by the creamy tone, the aggressive front-end pillaging of any amp you plug into, and the awesome dynamic response. Whether you go from fingers to pick, or knock back the guitar Volume a bit, the Levitation matches your performance gestures as I would imagine a Ferrari harmonizes with the pressure of your foot and the movement of the gearshift. It’s like some weird alien mind meld where everything you envision is played out in sound. Admittedly, it takes just a bit of wrasslin’ before you can train your fingers to control this beastie, but once you get there, you’ll probably risk bankruptcy buying that Ferrari, because only those mechanisms that offer the highest level of responsiveness will be good enough for you. Thank goodness the Levitation only goes for $715.
PureSalem Honey Bunny, Pink Beard, Attack Captain
Remember your first fuzz pedal? Maybe, like a certain reviewer, you literally worked up a sweat trying to strike a deal between the body resonance of an ES-175D and the snarl of a third-hand Gibson Maestro Fuzz-Tone. Alas, somethings are not meant to be, though the tone known as “fuzz” became a signature sound of the guitar-driven ’60s rock explosion.
The folks at PureSalem Guitars have joined with 323 pedal designer Brian Nelson to issue a triple threat of fuzz pedals to complement their lineup of ’60s-inspired electric six-strings. These are not any mass-production stompboxes, either-a total of just 62 pedals across the three models have been built in this limited-edition labor of love dubbed the SalemFuzz Project. More installments are planned for the future. Read Chip Wilson of Vintage Guitar Magazine complete review.
PureSalem Guitars came to Anaheim with three gnarly-as-cuss, limited-edition fuzzes designed in conjunction with 323 Effects. The Attack Captain (left) includes a gate knob and has a bit of a Fuzzrite vibe, the Pink Beard (middle) has a starve knob and 3-position diode switch that may just make it the most versatile of the bunch, and the Honey Bunny serves up Muff-ish vibes. Only 25 will be made, but the company anticipates releasing another series of limited-edition fuzzes after that. PureSalem Guitars came to Anaheim with three gnarly-as-cuss, limited-edition fuzzes designed in conjunction with 323 Effects. The Attack Captain (left) includes a gate knob and has a bit of a Fuzzrite vibe, the Pink Beard (middle) has a starve knob and 3-position diode switch that may just make it the most versatile of the bunch, and the Honey Bunny serves up Muff-ish vibes. Only 25 will be made, but the company anticipates releasing another series of limited-edition fuzzes after that.
Pure Salem Guitars specializes in reissues of lost and obscure guitars from the 1960s, has been in business now for about eighteen months, and with their catchphrase, “Bow Down Upon Our Church Of Acid Rock,” have begun to win converts with their oddball ‘60s reissues and original designs, many of which are shall we say, most definitely left of center.
Pure Salem is owned and operated by a former Florida police officer named Rick Sell, a self-confessed fan of psychedelic and garage rock from the ’60s. When his career in law enforcement came to an end, it was a natural move for him to go into business offering Asian-built reproductions of weird, quirky guitars from that psychedelic era he liked so much. With no dealer network, but an active website, social media and just plain word of mouth, the Pure Salem story is getting around, and many guitarists have fallen under the spell of these instruments, yours truly included. The one design that immediately caught my attention was the model Rick calls the Tom Cat, a refined reproduction of the doomed Gumby-shaped Guild S-200 Thunderbird, favorite axe of Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and also used by Muddy Waters. The S-200 is now a very collectible and pricey guitar, partially due to the fact that less than three hundred were made back in the ‘60s. Original S-200s now fetch up to $5000 on the vintage market.
The Tom Cat’s shape is perhaps a love-it-or-hate-it thing; there’s not much grey area here, in fact, noted writer Tom Wheeler once described the shape as a Hershey bar left out in the sun, but it’s always held an attraction for this writer, as I actually owned two original Guild S-200s back in the late 70s, both now sadly gone. I should have kept one of them, even though they were both modded and stripped of the original finishes. With the Pure Salem Tom Cat, I can recapture the vibe of those lost classics I once owned. It’s notable to mention that various guitar makers have recreated the S-200 shape over the years, including Veillette/Citron, DeArmond, and lately, luthier John Bolin, who builds Billy Gibbons’ stage guitars.
This review guitar is version two of Pure Salem’s Tom Cat. Rick Sell sold out the first run, then switched Korean manufacturers and has instituted major upgrades to the guitar. Let’s take a look at some basic specs.
The Tom Cat has a mahogany body and neck with a rosewood fretboard, binding and block inlays. The bolt-on neck is a satin finished Modern C shape and the scale length is 24.75.” String spacing is 2 1/16” with a 12” radius. Grover tuners are standard. A licensed Bigsby B5 vibrato is featured on right hand models. Left-handed models (all Pure Salem guitars are available left-handed, by the way) feature a stop tailpiece. The roller bridge is a thoughtful feature that helps maintain tuning when using the Bigsby. The pickups are custom-wound Pure Salem “Jimmy” P90s. No specifications are available as to their construction at this time, so we’ll judge them purely on tone. Vintage style cloth wiring is also standard, as is a 3-way toggle, with two volumes and one tone control. A dual truss rod completes the package. The guitar is available in two finishes; white with a white pickguard, and black with a black pickguard. Every Pure Salem guitar is set up in the USA and inspected before shipment.
Now, let’s give the Tom Cat a real test. I’ll try it first in a small Vox V9106 solid state practice amp, then run it through a Sommatone Slick 18, my hand wired, Class A boutique tone monster, built by New Jersey native and amp guru, Jimmy Somma.
Run clean through the Vox, the sounds from the Tom Cat favored highs and mids, and that’s most likely a result of the hot P90s and the limited tonal peculiarities of the amp itself. The bridge pickup gave me a pleasing trebly, throaty tone. When I engaged the neck pickup, the sound softened a bit, and there was no noticeable gain or loss of volume. This would be a good jangly combination for straight rhythm playing, but I rolled off the neck pickup volume to seven for a little extra high end. The neck pickup alone was fine, but you’re not going to get anywhere near a Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery jazz tone from it. This is a rock guitar, plain and simple, with no pretense at being anything but that. The pickups’ output is very well balanced overall, the sounds are basically good, and I saw no reason to change them.
For decades, the Guild S-200 Thunderbird was a mostly forgotten fun and funky electric solidbody from the Sixties, best remembered as the guitar that Muddy Waters wielded on the inside cover of his Electric Mud album.
Then Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys started playing one, and the model went from being a pawnshop bargain to a vintage collectible with a price tag well above $3,000. (Damn you, Auerbach!)
That vintage Guild is the inspiration for the PureSalem Tom Cat, which has the same wild, asymmetrical body shape but several significant upgrades, including better pickups and a simpler control configuration.
FEATURES The PureSalem Tom Cat may look weirder than the average ax, but it’s a solid, no-nonsense working-musician’s tool that delivers the tones, playability and versatility they need. The neck and body are mahogany, and thanks to its relatively light weight and balanced body shape, the guitar is comfortable to play for prolonged periods. The neck has set construction, 22 medium jumbo frets, a 24 3/4–inch scale, a 12-inch radius, a D-shaped profile, a rosewood fingerboard and pearl block inlays. Hardware consists of a pair of Kent Armstrong P-90 single-coil pickups, a Tune-o-matic-style bridge with stop tailpiece and vintage Kluson-style tuners. Controls include a three-position pickup selector switch, individual volume controls for each pickup and a master tone control.
The Tom Cat is available with Natural Burst, Banana Puddin and Rosewood Veneer finish options, and while the latter looks exceptionally classy, I loved the Banana Puddin finish on our test example. It reminded me of a Gibson TV finish and paired nicely with the Tom Cat’s Les Paul Special–style pickup configuration. A left-handed version of the Tom Cat is also available at no extra cost.
PERFORMANCE While the pickups on the original Thunderbird were underpowered and wimpy, that’s not the case with the Tom Cat’s rip-roaring Kent Armstrong P-90s. This is pure P-90 perfection, with ballsy bass, commanding crunch and percussive punch that simply rocks. The controls provide a good variety of useful tones, and I particularly liked the convenient placement of the pickup switch. Although the body shape looks pretty damn unconventional, it actually makes good sense, as the weight is evenly distributed and the neck stays in place instead of diving. The Tom Cat may lack the Thunderbird’s built-in kickstand, but that doesn’t matter—this guitar won’t rest idle for long once players experience its awesome playability and powerful tones.
LIST PRICE $735
Manufacturer: PureSalem Guitars, puresalemguitars.com
A pair of Kent Armstrong P-90 single-coil pickups provides raunchy, ballsy tones with tons of crunch and character.
The Tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece are a vast improvement over the original Thunderbird’s clunky vibrato tailpiece.
THE BOTTOM LINE Inspired by the Sixties Guild S-200 Thunderbird, the PureSalem Tom Cat is a significantly better, guitarist-friendly instrument that sells for a fraction of the original Thunderbird’s current vintage-market price.