Review by Marcus Leadley in The
AS DEAN GUITAR'S PROFILE BECOMES MORE APPARENT in the UK, TGM takes a look at a couple of very different instruments which share the same commitment to tone and build quality. Review by Marcus Leadley (click here for the other review)
It's all of about 25 years since Dean guitars began production in Chicago. Back then, Dean designs took Gibson lines and stretched the form and symmetry just that little bit further to deliver definite stage presence. Times change and while Dean Zelinsky remains very much in charge, most of the company's production is done either in Korea or the Czech Republic - two craft centres used by many well-known brand manufacturers. Generally speaking, Korea is the home of Dean's lower - cost lines (up to around the £600 mark) while the small Czech factory builds what has become known as the European Custom range of instruments. In the trade there's a lot of debate about manufacturers' strengths and weaknesses and the general feeling seems to be that Korean builders have finishing nailed while the quality of materials and attention to detail is still just that little bit better in Europe.
Of all the Dean instruments on display at Music Live 2000 in Birmingham, this fine looking Chafin attracted the most attention. Named after Dean custom shop senior luthier Ben Chafin, this small hollow-bodied instrument with its charmingly striped and nicely carved flame maple top offers instant visual appeal. The back and sides are made from mahogany and the unamplified sound already hints at a bright, clear top end with plenty of warmth and sustain, and considering that this a relatively small body the instrument is actually quite loud even before you plug it in. While the two pieces of maple for the top are well paired, the mahogany on the back has three very different grain patterns - a better match would be more pleasing to the eye but this would be demanding a lot for the money.
This is a fully-routed `proper' semi acoustic with a design that references back to classic instrument making. Thirty years ago semi-acoustics were often recommended to first-time buyers as theoretically you could manage without an amp for the first six months while you saved up the pennies for this next bit of kit. It's still a good theory even if few people are that patient any more.
The Chafin Sarasota is the middle instrument in the Chafin range. It lies between the Boca (bolt on maple neck) and the Del Sol (gold hardware and pickup covers, multi-ply binding) and as such has all the clout without the frills of its slightly more expensive sibling. Note the quality mahogany set neck with the well-executed heel joint and the smooth rosewood fingerboard with a nicely open grain. The 22 medium jumbo frets are well dressed and the white neck binding is a classy old fashioned touch. The fret edges are a little sharp and a little work with a file would improve things no end.
Straight out of the box this guitar's intonation isn't quite right: true, it's an easy fix that and usually done at the retail end of things but a good factory setup always speaks of attention to detail.
While Dean electric guitars are generally known for their elaborate broad 'V' headstocks, the Chafin range takes its pattern from the manufacturer's acoustic instruments. This polite three-per-side LP style paddle sports a set of individual Grover tuners which, while they may not be as `now' as the Gotohs which seem to grace pretty well every instrument that comes out of south east Asia, still have a classic touch that feels right ? and they'll last forever.
Moving to electric's we have further indications of tradition in the form of classic twin-coil humbuckers (Dean designed, with black/cream bobbins), a single tone and volume control and a well-positioned three way selector. The bridge is a familiar stop tail/tunomatic arrangement with general height and individual intonation adjustment: good solid hardware, then, and tuning stability is pretty well guaranteed.
The first port of call is a sparkly, clean, full-bodied neck pickup tone that will be of immediate appeal to jazzers: just roll off the tops a bit and cycle those 5ths. It's an excellent rhythm tone for anything a bit trad, but with enough definition to get funky. Considering this is a fairly small hollow body the openness of the voice is a little bit of a surprise - more like a Gretsch or an old Hofner than a Gibson from the 335 camp - but perhaps brighter than both. There's plenty of twang here for that county thang, too. Turning up the amp and staying with the neck pickup for a while is a very bluesy experience. It's mellow rather than gritty but the sound is not without authority and the pickups aren't too powerful which is a good thing ? so there's some room to move in the break-up zone without a sudden lurch into full overdrive. Basically it's good for the boogie, and in combination with a Fender-style amp delivers a snappy, strident lead sound that will weep and wail nicely when you get right up the neck. One little gripe - the volume control is about half an inch too close to the bridge and it's hard to adjust without rubbing the back of your thumb on the chrome, especially if you like use this control for swell effects. Upping the drive to the point of feedback gives a rockin' American frontier tone that almost makes you wish this Chafin had a whammy bar. No squeals - just plenty of deep, throbbing, electric bronco riding. Yeeha! The bridge pickup's clean tone is a little bright unless you knock the tops off at the amp or use something a bit soupy like an old non - Top Boost AC30 - and amp well paired with the Sarasota, giving good clarity and definition. As for the driven voice, here this guitar is very rocky, bonking out big, crunchy chords and leads that still speak of blues rather than metal. A bit of open-tuned slide action here is fine, and a raspy brass bottleneck is downright filthy.
The Dean Chafin Sarasota is a sensible well-built guitar which works well across a wide range of genres. It's especially happy with blues and jazz, but it will rock out when required - and the controllable feedback aspect of this instrument is most appealing. For a Dean the look is on the conservative side, which will help open up the maker's work to people who might overlook these quality instruments because of the rock styling and edge of American flash.