The "OSC Toy-box" articles look at some of the instruments and equipment I use when making my music. My ethos regards equipment is always to avoid getting the latest product, or whatever is fashionable at any given time. Instead, aim to get something that's more of a long term investment and/or a little bit quirky and unusual. Learn this equipment like the back of your hand and really exploit its every potential.
Whatever you do, don't break the bank or get in to debt. You can make very cool music that's distinctive and uniquely your own sound without spending a fortune on the latest hardware or software. As you read these article, please remember, this collection of instruments and equipment has been amassed over the course of 15+ years, and wherever possible, I've avoided paying full retail prices, instead opting for second hand, ex-demo, or in some cases even rescuing from the trash!
Previously on The OSC Toy-Box, I mentioned how I found myself down a YouTube rabbit-hole on the topic of Harley Benton guitars, and ended up purchasing two, based on the positive reviews and apparent value for money! The first of these guitars (the TE-90FLT) turned out to be an impressive instrument, and great value-for-money, but would the second (the JA-60) also live up to the hype?
The (sort of ) Jazzmaster Clone
This guitar (like my TE-90FLT) is based on a discontinued Fender model; a Jazzmaster without a tremolo/vibrato, and in its place, a hard-tail, Gibson-style Tune-o-matic bridge and saddle.
Like my other Harley Benton, the reviews of this guitar weren't wrong! Out of the box, this thing was setup very well, and instantly playable (after a tune-up, of course), without any fret-poke, intonation problems, buzzing frets, etc.
Like my other Harley Benton, it required a fret polish, but this isn't really a point worth critiquing, as at this price, remnants of buffing compound and a little oxidation from storage is forgivable.
Also, like my other Harley Benton, I couldn't help myself from tinkering and modifying some areas that I believed could be improved upon or refined; things that, were this guitar twice the price, would have been done in the factory.
Checked for uneven fret-heights and levelled as necessary before polishing
Lined the cavities with copper shielding tape
Upgraded the potentiometers with CTS brand, the switch with a Switchcraft brand, and jack-socket with a Puretone brand
Like I did to my TE-90FLT, I knocked back the finish on the neck with very fine sandpaper, and treated it to a coat of Tru-Oil, then waxed and buffed, for a more refined finish and feel (pictured below)
Tinkered with the pickup heights to balance the tone to taste
But, I didn't stop there...
Upon playing it, I found myself reaching for the non-existent trem-arm. After a little research, I found a cost-effective solution: the Guyker clone of the Vega Les-Trem. I ordered one, along with a Guyker roller-ball bridge.
The roller-ball bridge helps prevent the strings from scraping on the saddles and prematurely snapping under trem-use. However, when it arrived, the balls didn't roll! They were seized up, as tiny burrs from the manufacturing process were still present on the rollers. I dismantled it, and with a tiny drill bit and some 600-grit sand paper, cleaned off the burrs and smoothed things over. Upon reassembly and a drop of 3-in-1 oil, the roller mechanisms worked perfectly.
Replacing the trem saddle was a direct swap. Tuning stability with the trem has been fine, and I can confidently recommend the Guyker Les-Trem copy.
I installed some higher-quality tuning machine-heads. They look the same, but feel more solid. Lastly, I raided my parts box and swapped out the knobs and switch cap for a more personalised look.
It was looking and playing wonderfully, but there was something about the tone that was leaving me unfulfilled.
What is the Jazzmaster-Pickup tone?
A Strat pickup is a fairly tall and thinly wound coil. A Jazzmaster pickup on the other hand, whilst utilising the same amount of copper coil, is wound to be short and wide (hence the very different size).
This makes the Jazzmaster-pickup more capable of capturing low and low-mid-range frequencies. I.e. the Jazzmaster pickup has a rounder, deeper, warmer, and less bright tone (compared to a Strat or Tele).
To compensate for any lack of top-end, the Jazzmaster was fitted with 1meg potentiometers on the volume and tone circuit (as opposed to the Strat and Tele's 250K pots). 1meg pots have far less high-frequency resistance, meaning that despite the pickups having a more pronounced lower-mid-range quality, their associated circuit allows for more high-frequency transfer (than a Strat or Tele). The Jazzmaster is therefore capable of both a spanking top-end (when the dials are fully open), and also, immensely warm mid-range and low-end when the dials are rolled off a little bit.
Did the Harley Benton Jazzmaster clone do what Jazzmaster pickups do?
Whilst they have their own, unique charm, and could sound very warm, I couldn't confidently say they were very Jazzmaster-like.
Side-note: There are a number of Jazzmaster pickup analysis videos and forum-threads online, which examine and compare modern Jazzmaster pickups (found in modern Fenders and Squiers) with original Jazzmaster pickups from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The prevailing school of thought seems to be that Fender's modern Jazzmaster pickups aren't particularly Jazzmaster-like (by the standards of the original specs), and that modern Jazzmaster pickups are either Strat-style Single-Coils or something akin to a P90, rehoused in a Jazzmaster-style pickup cover. But if you're shopping around, do your own research and don't take my word for it; I'm just a guy on the Internet!
Whilst the Harley Benton's Roswell pickups could sound very nice, something intangible was leaving me unsatisfied (a very personal take, as they sound great in video reviews online). I can only think to describe it as a hardness; they could do warm, but they weren't sweet enough for my liking when played gently (I know, this is all highly subjective nonsense at this point, but nevertheless...).
After some reading around, and listening to clean-tone demos of Jazzmasters on YouTube, I had almost made my mind up to leave the stock Roswells alone and not worry about changing them, when I found myself in an email conversation with Marc at Mojo Pickups.
We talked about Jazzmaster pickups and tonal capabilities. We discussed the kinds of tones I liked, he made some suggestions on what he could make, and I decided to take a punt on a set of his custom-made pickups (which cost as much as the original guitar - so much for doing this on the cheap! 🤦🏻).
The Mojo neck-pickup is a standard-wound '58-'64 spec Jazzmaster pickup, but utilises Heavy-Formvar wire (its thicker insulating coating ever-so-slightly widens the coil spacing, thus extends the low and mid-range frequencies - I think... 🤷🏻♂️). The Mojo bridge-pickup is also a '58-'64 spec, but overwound by about 10% (more coil-winds than normal), resulting in a slightly more full-bodied sound.
The end results far exceeded my expectation. The expressive range and dynamic response is simply superb. They are incredibly versatile and articulate; thicker, deeper, warmer, but also, brighter, sweeter, etc... If you're in the market for custom-made pickups, speak to Marc at Mojo, as his customer service and quality of product is top-class.
This guitar plays and sounds incredible! Furthermore, even after the mods, it still clocks in slightly cheaper than a Squier Vintage Vibe Jazzmaster (which undoubtedly wouldn't have as nice pickups - and arguably a less stable trem mechanism 👀 - shots fired!).
The neck has a relatively flat radius, and it very easy to navigate. The body-size is approximately 4cm smaller than a Fender Jazzmaster end-to-end and side-to-side, which I like; conventional Jazzmasters have always felt a little bulky and cumbersome to me, as I'm not a tall person, and I have a fairly small frame.
JA-60 Closing Thoughts
I would (without hesitation) recommend the Harley Benton JA-60 to a beginner. I would have no qualms gigging with this guitar, in its stock-form, as it came out of the box.
I would also recommend it to a more experienced player looking for a platform on which to modify and experiment with pickup-swaps and trem-installations. It's easy to work on, and it's been a lot of fun to modify and enhance.
Harley Benton Closing Thoughts
Between this guitar and my previously mentioned TE-90FLT, I have been impressed with the quality that Harley Benton are currently producing. Modifications aside, they were good guitars, fresh out of their boxes. The value for money is most impressive and if you're a beginner, they would more than meet your needs.
For the practically minded, more experienced player, looking for some variety and/or a modification platform that doesn't break the bank (as I was), these sorts of guitars are ideal. I'm very pleased that I set aside my brand-snobbery and I took a chance on Harley Benton, as my two acquisitions have made for interesting, expressive and fun-to-play instruments, that will undoubtedly see plenty of use in my future music-making.