Let’s hear it for the Jonas Brothers – we owe it all to them. No, really, we do. The promising-looking guitar at the top of this page is the legacy of none other than Joe, Kevin and Nick, America’s favourite Disney-endorsed boyband.
This is basically a non-signature version of the 2010 Jonas Brothers Melody Maker, right down to the twin P90s and Les Paul headstock. The general reaction to that launch seemed to be one of dismay that such a wicked-looking guitar should be defaced with the autographs of a bunch of teenybop muppets, but it seems that Gibson was listening.
But there’s a political story behind the MM Special that goes deeper than anyone’s fondness or otherwise for insipid punk-pop – because the fact is, everyone seems to have it in for Gibson nowadays. On one side they’ve been taking stick over the much-delayed launch of the expensive and extravagant Firebird X; on the other, they’ve been hounded by the US Justice Department over supposedly illegal imports of ebony, rosewood and probably three-ply toilet paper as well.
The combined solution to both of these problems? Build more affordable guitars using non-endangered fretboard woods. That’s been the rationale behind instruments like the LP Studio Tribute models and now this little cutie, which has one structural difference from the Jonas version: a baked maple fretboard.
Yes, baked – not like a chocolate-chip muffin but with a heat treatment called torrefaction which turns pale maple dark and uncannily rosewood-like in appearance. The board on this guitar looks and also feels and sounds just like the real thing, so this could well be a sustainable way forward.
Tunnelling back to the days before the Disney Channel, we emerge in 1959 – and the launch of the original Melody Maker. This was a ‘student’ version of the Les Paul, with a slender mahogany body and no maple top, either one or two skinny single-coil pickups, and an artlessly simple ‘wingless’ headstock design.
There was no tailpiece, just a wraparound bridge, and the finish was sunburst only. As we’ve already seen, the new version updates this spec with P90s and a full-size headstock, making it effectively a hybrid of the ’59 Melody Maker and the single-cutaway Les Paul Special (thus the name).
The Jonas boys specified white, presumably to match their acne-free image; happily we’re now offered a host of vibrant shades including this satin yellow, a descendant of the ‘limed mahogany’ used on the TV Junior and TV Special.
As a colour scheme it could not be sexier, although this is perhaps not as lustworthy a design as, for example, the Junior Doublecut – the blobby bits of scratchplate around the tops of the pickups look a bit cartoony, don’t you think? And the neck join with its little square ledge on the treble side may be period-correct but it does upper-fret access no favours at all.
There are only two knobs, a master volume and tone – like the uncompensated one-piece bridge, this would have been a cash-saving compromise in 1959 but in 2012 it reeks of blood, sweat, Doc Martens and tone-friendly simplicity. Build quality looks to be good, save for some snaggy fret-ends towards the top of the neck on our review sample, while both pickups needed lowering a touch.
It may have Lester’s name on it but this guitar weighs about as much as the strap buttons on a conventional LP – not so surprising when the body is barely an inch and a quarter thick (roughly the same as an SG). But does lightness mean a trashy acoustic tone?
Of course it doesn’t. The Melody Maker may not be the most sophisticated piece of timber in the Gibson line but there’s plenty of low-end resonance when you hit big chords, and no shortage of sheer loudness either. Some might call it brash, but this is a well-balanced voice with an eagerness in the midrange that promises top-notch punk larks once the amp is warmed up.
‘Thrappy’ may not be a real word, but it’s the only one that’ll really do to describe the sound of a lightly overdriven P90 being allowed to speak its mind. More middly than a PAF humbucker but softer-edged than a Telecaster’s bridge pickup, it’s a priceless tone and one that the Melody Maker Special expresses beautifully in all three switch positions.
It doesn’t take much gain to get the bridge unit well and truly rocking the casbah, while moving onto the middle setting adds just the right amount of warmth and complexity, with some interesting things happening high up the neck on the wound strings in particular. Pure Chicago blues is not out of the question.
The neck pickup is deceptively smooth, and backing off a few notches on the tone control takes us into boopy jazz land. The only non-ecstatic thing to be said is that all the sounds are accompanied by more background hum than you’d expect from PAF-types of similar output – which makes sense, of course, as ‘humbucker’ is a descriptive term, and the P90 isn’t one.
It’s easy to dismiss Melody Makers as the weedy-toned runts of the Gibson litter – you might even think they’re not ‘proper’ Gibsons at all – but this is the runt that roared. This US-built livewire is a cracking guitar by any standards… and it’s the cheapest two-pickup model they’re currently making.
The neck pickup is surprisingly jazzy, the middle setting is bluesy… and if you have even a drop of punk attitude in your bloodstream, three chords on the bridge pickup will have you pogo-ing through the ceiling with joy.
Whether you call this a Melody Maker with better pickups or a Les Paul Special with half the knobs and a sliver of wood missing, it’s a triumph of tone and simplicity. Let’s hear it for the Jonas Brothers!