When it comes to the semi-hollowbody electric, the Gibson ES-335 is the standard by which all others are judged. When I think Gibson, I think ES-335. That’s because it’s awesome. Unfortunately a proper ES-335 or similar variant is incredibly expensive, starting at over $2,000 and running up to $5,000 for a new one, and the better-made old ones are just as pricy. So like most people who respect their wallets I went looking for the best clones. The Epiphones are cheaply built and it really shows. Plenty of modern semi-hollows are 335-ish but look funky and don’t sound anything like the original. There were many Japanese-made clones in the 70′s and 80′s that were shockingly good, the two most famous being the Ibanez AS200 and the Yamaha SA2000. Unfortunately, it seems everybody knows how good these guitars are, so they fetch high prices on the used market. I had to keep digging.
It turns out that Yamaha continued the SA2000 legacy with a few generational improvements. Today they still make the SA2200, which is their top-of-the line guitar, and it’s almost never stocked in stores. It is unique among their products because it is meticulously hand-crafted in Japan. It retains the classic ES-335 body shape, styling and tonal range. It has a “tune-o-matic” fixed-bridge, an ebony fretboard and coil-tapped humbuckers. Its pickups are moderate-output Alnico V buckers, around 8K DC resistance. Thanks to awful factory wiring, these pickups are thought by many to be lifeless and muddy, but they are in fact quite good. Although these guitars list at $2,000 they can be had for $1,000, and with a wiring overhaul this guitar can stand toe-to-toe with the best examples of the famed Kalamazoo, MI ES-335s.
I rewired my SA2200 with my progressive treble bleed control and some fancy oil-filled tone caps. I moved the coil tap control from the tone pots to the volume pots, using some pretty hard-to-find 500KA push-push pots for volume and 250KA pots for tone. This rewiring breathes completely new life into the Yamaha factory pickups, letting them come through clearly in both neck and bridge at any volume, either in humbucker or single-coil mode. The coil taps are very close to the center of the pickup winding, leaving a strangely low 4.2K DC resistance when tapped. This position sounds thinner than most single-coil hollowbodies, but it’s quite useable for clean tones. One of my favorite arrangements for this guitar is to coil-tap the neck and leave the bridge in ‘bucker mode. All three switch positions yield distinct tones with the middle providing some more midrange thickness to the neck. With some carefully-picked aftermarket pickups and a bridge with thicker gold plating, the SA2200 could handily slay Gibson’s $7,000 custom shop editions in fit, finish AND tone. It’s a steal!