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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Harley Benton S-580 WR review - Part 1: first impression

17.5.2014 Important update! 
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I've been having some problems with the low neck angle (=high action) of this guitar and while the neck adjustments made the playability better they didn't completely solve the problem. So here's what I did: Harley Benton S-580 WR Mod - Part 1: Fixing the low neck angle
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“The sleek body, the slender neck profile, the sharp cutaways - aesthetically and functionally the SG is perfect. Conventional wisdom says the SG has the fastest neck in the world, and based on my research, it’s absolutely true. And, relative to its size, there’s nothing out there with greater warmth and bite. But where does all that power come from?”- Dr. Ricky Fromus
The Gibson SG was first introduced in 1961 and it has been in production ever since. The radical double cutaway design has proven to be timeless: it still looks fresh and exciting after 52 years! The Gibson SG has been the weapon of choice for many great guitar players: Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton (The Fool), Angus Young, Pete Townshend and Jerry Garcia to name a few. According to Gibson website the SG Standard is their best selling guitar model ever.

There is a huge amount of different SG-style guitars available today and almost every other brand offers their own version of this iconic guitar. I've been curious about the low budjet brands like Harley Benton (Musikhaus Thomann) and Jack and Danny (Music Store) because their instruments are probably manufactured by the same companies that make guitars for Epiphone and other more reputable brands. I really don't care what name is in the headstock if the instrument sounds and feels good. Obviously I'm not expecting to get Gibson (or even Epiphone) quality with these prices but I'm excited to see what kind of instument one can buy well under 150€.

After careful thinking I decided to go with a Harley Benton S-580 WR Vintage Series guitar. The price was only 111 € (about 145 $) including shipping.


Harley Benton is a brand created by German retailer Musikhaus Thomann. According to Thomann website (http://www.thomann.de/gb/thomannexclusive.html) they order products directly from original equipment manufacturers and sell them under their own brand names (Harley Benton, Millenium, T.Bone etc.). Apparently Harley Benton guitars are manufactured in Korea/China by Saein that also makes guitars for Ibanez, Epiphone and Peavey, but I haven't found any reliable source to confirm this rumour.

I know that Harley Benton guitars and gear have a pretty bad reputation among guitar players and people tend to joke about them quite a lot, but I have played some Harley Bentons before and they have all been good guitars. I own few Epiphones (ES-335 & Les Paul Traditional Pro) and an early 1980's Japanese Fender Squier Stratocaster, so I'm comparing the quality and feel of the Harley Benton S-580 to those guitars.

Because I'm staying in Berlin for the summer and I don't have my regular amp/recording setup with me, the first part of the review will concentrate only on the visual build quality, playability and feel of the guitar. I will do the second part with proper sound demos when I get back to Finland in September.

What's the deal with Harley Benton S-580?

The Harley Benton S-580 is not a faithful recreation of the original design since the body is basswood and the C-profile neck is maple. Gibson SG-models are generally made of mahogany. 24.75" scale length with a set-neck construction matches the original desing. SG-models are known to be "neck heavy" and this guitar is no exception. But overall the guitar feels pretty well balanced to me.

I was happily surprised with the build quality and finishing of the Harley Benton S-580. The guitar looks and feels nice and there are no major visual imperfections or flaws. Finishing and "feel" of the guitar is similar with my early 00's Epiphone ES-335. Wine red color is not over the top and there's some nice light wood grain showing thru. Remember that basswood is light in color and has minimal grain: so no flame top madness in here!


















Achilles' heel of cheap guitars: hardware & electronics

A cheap price tag is usually an indicator for crappy hardware and electronics. As expected, the S-580 is loaded with no-name pickups and hardware. The stopbar and bridge seem pretty decent and I don't think I'm gonna have any problems with them.

The tuners feel flimsy and cheap but they seem to do their task and hold the guitar in tune. I have some spare Wilkinson tuners with higher gear ratio and I'm definitely going to replace the original tuners with those. The pickups are general low budjet humbuckers with no markings and they do feel cheap. Can't say much about the sound yet since I only have my portable travel rig (iPad with Jamup Pro app) with me. They sound like basic humbuckers, not bad but nothing special either. I just noticed that some Harley Benton models come equipped with Wilkinson pickups. With this overall build quality those models seem like a real bargain to me.

The wiring job is pretty messy but everything works. I already own two guitars with humbucker pickups, so I might change the pickups to humbucker size P-90s and redo the wiring at the same time. I've seen some nice reviews about GFS pickups (www.guitarfetish.com) and something like Mean 90 from their catalog might work nicely with this budjet guitar.




















The neck, the frets and the low neck angle.. problems, problems.

The neck is well finished and the fret work is decent. The 20th fret is slighty lifted and causing some minor string rattle, but that is pretty easy to fix. There's also some sloppy finishing under the truss rod cover but obviously that doesn't affect the playability. I like the C-profile neck but I'm not a huge fan of the high gloss finish. Satin finish on the neck of my Epiphone LP Traditional Pro just feels sooo much better. But in general the neck feels and looks nice.

The biggest issue I have with this guitar concerns the low neck angle. A Tune-o-matic bridge sits pretty high even in its lowest position and some neck angle is required to achieve good playability. I have the bridge set to the lowest possible setting and strings are still slightly too high for my taste. At this point the playability is not exactly bad, but it's not optimal either. I measured the neck angle with a smartphone app and the angle seems to be somewhere around 1.5 degrees. Even though there's some error margin due the measuring tool, the neck angle is still way too low. I know that the neck angle varies quite a lot between different SG models and some vintage models do have almost zero neck angle. It does say 'Vintage' on the truss rod cover, so maybe this is just a really accurate copy of a vintage SG model.. :D

There is also too much relief on the neck and that obviously adds to the problem. I have to do some truss rod adjustments and see if it helps. If the strings are still too high after the adjustments I can always send the guitar back to Thomann and ask for a replacement or refund. Their return policy has always been very flexible. I'll make a new blog post when I have adjusted the neck properly and know how it affects the playability.




Conclusions

Overall the Harley Benton S-580 WR is a pretty well finished electric guitar and for this price the guitar looks and feels nice. The hardware and electronics feel cheap and they are the first thing to upgrade, but upgrades of course take the overall price of the guitar up and it might be a better idea to look some more expensive models to start with. Low price tag also means less quality control and ordering a cheap guitar is always a gamble. I assume that the low neck angle on my guitar is just an exception and bad luck. After I get the neck adjustment done I will know for sure if the low neck angle is a deal breaker or not.. I will let you know!


Update: Check out Part 2 and Part 3 of the review for more info.

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