Has alt-pop’s hippest star helped shape this year’s coolest signature electric?
a curio of Americana... with an off-beat aesthetic
When you’re going to spec an electric guitar in your name, it’s best to go all in and fix yourself something totally different, something unique. Why stop at a specially designed headstock decal, and maybe an exotic tonewood and custom pickup set, when you can all but reinvent the shape of the instrument for your own needs? That’s what Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St Vincent, has done. Clark’s Sterling by Music Man STV60 – an affordable, Indonesian-built version of her Music Man USA custom model – has a boxy retro-futuristic body that looks as though it’s been recovered from a late 50s/early 60s blueprint for a guitar or automobile.
Clark wanted a guitar that would complement her frame, and the result is a lightweight plank of contoured African mahogany that’s all aggressive angles and smooth edges. We’ve seen all kinds of shapes through the years, but this is really something, as though they glued a couple of Bo Diddley’s cigar box guitars together and carved a new shape out of them inspired by the tail fin of a Lincoln Futura. It’s a bizarre guitar, a curio of Americana, but that’s what makes it so cool. Its off-beat aesthetic, however, only tells part of the story.
As an artist, Clark is hard to pin down. She was weened on grunge, has a penchant for metal, attended Berklee College of Music, Boston, and could rebrand herself as a bona fide shredder. Instead, she cuts an ethereal presence, taking a broadly experimental, alt-pop approach to her craft. She appreciates minimalist design but puts an ambitious, maximalist spin on pop.
The STV60 is similarly enigmatic. It looks all neck, but in truth its 648mm (25.5") scale gives it a somewhat conventional feel, certainly for the fretting hand, with a slim but far-from-skinny neck profile – finding that sweet spot between speed and comfort. The STV60’s asymmetric outline affords great access to the upper frets with an obtuse angle cutaway exposing most of the fretboard. The heel is slight and slopes away from the neck. Whether playing seated or standing, the STV60 feels well balanced – just be mindful not to bang that longer body into doors, walls... or bandmates. Your back, meanwhile, will forever be thankful if you make this your go-to instrument. One noticeable difference from the USA model is that the STV60 has a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard as opposed to both being rosewood. This works just fine. The congruent circle fret markers are a nice understated flourish, and another aspect to the STV60’s embrace of geometry as a designing principle. Clark’s fingerprints are all over this – she was involved from the start – but it is in no way a fans-only
instrument. Sound-wise, it plays to a broad church.
With three mini-humbuckers, selectable via a five-way switch, the STV60 has plenty of range. Through a clean valve amp, the bridge pickup has an abundance of attitude and treble bite. It’s a little brighter than a regular ’bucker, and calls to mind a Firebird. With the bridge and middle pickups selected, some of that bite is tamed, revealing a warm, elastic bounce, while the middle pickup has a clarity that’s perfect for fingerpicking – a big part of St Vincent’s technique. The neck and middle pickups are warm without ever being muddy. No matter where you set the switch you’ll find some great tone that scrubs up well with overdrive or fuzz. A vintagestyle vibrato unit offers a welcome bit of jiggly fun without throwing the tuning out.
It’s poetic that Clark found a home with a manufacturer who once made Eddie Van Halen’s guitars. Both are technically gifted, maverick players with a proclivity for two-hand tapping. The SVT60 is a serious instrument for the money. It might leave you a suit of boutique valve amps and stompboxes short of Clark’s sound but it’ll broaden your sonic horizons and its old-school take on the future makes for an instrument whose retro voice is perfectly in tune with the here and now.