Hands-On Review:Yamaha AES720 and AES920 solidbody electrics
Yamaha AES720 and AES920 solidbody electrics
By Eric Kirkland
Yamaha is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of solidbody mahogany electrics, but that's about to change. The company's relatively new AES Series is a sincere refinement of the time-honored ideals that dictate how a solidbody mahogany guitar should look and sound. The guitars are thin and comfortable, and innovative without appearing futuristic. They are also modern sounding, though they don't stray far from the classic warm tones. This month's spotlight is on the hard-rocking AES720 and handcrafted AES920. While both guitars build on the heralded design of the award winning AES620, smart feature distinctions assure they'll be received for the unique and tuneful instruments they are.
Many players don't want to spend their money on exotic woods and haughty details. They need a solid, great-sounding, affordable ax, like the Yamaha AES720. Targeting the rock community, the Korean-built AES720 has a thin and resonant mahogany body that sounds warm and is light on your shoulder. A Pacific Blue finish covers the majority of the guitar, while a gloss black adorns the flat portion of the 720's top. This two-tone scheme is subtle and ingenious, creating the illusion of a shadow across the guitar's face.
The set mahogany neck leans toward the chunky side but doesn't impede moderate speeds. Abalone dots light your way up the 22-fret rosewood board, and the 14-inch radius facilitates bending. The bridge design and components are key contributors to the power of this instrument: each string pulls through the body and then through a finger-like steel block that imparts weight and balance to the tone. From here, the strings travel over the Yamaha Tune-O-Matic saddle. For less clutter and optimum tone coupling, both custom-wound DiMarzio humbuckers are mounted directly to the body. The electronics consist of a three-way switch, a master tone control and separate volume controls.
Hitting the strings acoustically, I found that the AES720 displayed a fat midrange focus and partially muted top notes—perfect ingredients for a killer metal tone. With this knowledge, I walked the 720 over to my Mesa Rectifier and set the controls for "kill." During heavy rhythm work, the bridge pickup growled and snarled like an angry beast but showed less aggression on staccato lead lines. Although the guitar displayed some dark characteristics, the neck humbucker surprised me with a healthy dose of treble snap. This tonal brew and Yamaha's even action allowed me to perform Frank Gambale–style sweeps. But high-gain hell-raising isn't the end of the AES720's story. Capable hands will also find this instrument very responsive to nuance and touch even with clean or mildly pushed tones.
The AES920 is the new flagship of the AES Series, and with it, Yamaha takes the AES620's aesthetics and tone to a higher level. Stained a translucent Charcoal Grey, the AES920 features a carved maple top rippled with a AAA-grade quilt. The African mahogany body and neck are enhanced with a Honey Burst finish that wonderfully complements the wood's natural red hue. Floating in cream rings, the Yamaha's dual Duncan '59 humbuckers are classic components in their own right, and the unique AES bridge system provides the feel of a Tune-O-Matic with the sustain and warmth of a string-through setup. Check out the upsweeping angle of the master tone and separate volume controls. This design feature may look a little strange at first, but when the guitar is tilted at a natural playing position, the knobs are parallel to the floor and easier to grab than traditionally placed controls. Wrapping my hands around the beefy set neck reminded me of the comfortable Les Paul feel that collectors prize over all others. Twenty-two polished jumbo frets span the rosewood board, pink-heart abalone markers provide some unique sparkle and Yamaha-built bishop's-hat tuners adorn the headstock.
Even before I plugged in, every note I played on the AES920 sounded with bell-like purity, blending volume with clarity and sustain. It's obvious that the thick maple top adds substantial definition and treble to this singing mahogany platform. Firing the ax into a Marshall "Plexi" and a Seventies Fender Twin, I found the Duncan humbuckers perfectly matched for the high-end Yamaha. Dialed dirty, the 920 hammered out crunch tones with the furious punch of a hungry prizefighter. Using a softened tone, the guitar handled difficult passages with extreme levels of depth and delicacy.
The Bottom Line
Yamaha has invested much thought and quality in the design of these guitars and created two stunning instruments, either of which I'd be happy to own. The AES720 combines killer tone and extreme quality in a guitar that sells for under one thousand dollars. For those with a few more dollars to spend, the quilted maple–capped Yamaha AES920 is one of the industry's most beautiful, soulful and practical examples of a vintage-modern mahogany guitar.