The Holiday Gear Guide, Featuring Natalie Hemby and Darrin Bradbury

Darrin Bradury and Natalie Hemby. Photos by Mackenzie Moore

It’s ​already November and that means Santa Claus and his retinue are working overtime in the North Pole. If you haven’t finalized your wish list yet, don’t fret — we have the ​low-down on some of the coolest guitars and gear out there for all your songwriting needs.

For this year’s holiday gear guide shoot, we traveled to ​Donelson Bowl, Nashville’s oldest bowling center and home to $1 games on Monday. Joining us for the shoot were songwriters Natalie Hemby and Darrin Bradbury. Hemby is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose latest effort Puxico made our Best Albums Of 2017 list. The Missouri native has also written numerous songs for artists such as Miranda Lambert, Lee Ann Womack, Lady Gaga, and many others. Bradbury is a folk singer who sings “sad songs about funny people, or funny songs about sad people.” His last album came, Elmwood Park, came out in 2016.

All photos by Mackenzie Moore

Michael Kelly Hybrid Electric-Acoustic (pictured above, left)

(Street: $799.99)

Instruments from the Michael Kelly company are becoming more widely known, with a product line of dozens of guitars, basses and mandolins and an increasing in-store display presence. The company’s most talked-about item may be its Hybrid guitar, which combines the best of both electric and acoustic sounds with the ability to use those sounds on their own, or blended in with each other.

You can use the Hybrid’s three-way pickup selector to select the sounds of a humbucker or an acoustic guitar. Or you can create a combination of both, using knobs and the push-pull coil tap of the Rockfield Select Wound Custom (SWC) neck and bridge pickups, and the sonic options of the Fishman Powerchip and Fishman under-saddle pickup. The guitar’s chambered mahogany body has a gorgeous spalt maple top and mahogany neck, and the fingerboard’s abalone block inlays on the rosewood fretboard provide a nice contrast between the body top and the spalt maple headstock. The Michael Kelly Hybrid is a great-sounding and great-looking instrument from a company that is on the cutting edge sonically and aesthetically.

Taylor 414ce-R Acoustic-Electric Grand Auditorium (pictured above, right)

(Street: $2,599)

For more than four decades Taylor Guitars has built high-quality instruments, and that tradition continues with the 414ce-R Acoustic-Electric Grand Auditorium. It features Taylor’s revolutionary V-Class bracing, which boosts volume evenly across the tonal spectrum, increases sustain, and enhances the guitar’s natural intonation by creating a more synergistic response from the soundboard. And that bracing definitely does its job, with lows and highs resonating beautifully through the rosewood body, resulting in great tone, perfect balance, and the notes decaying at just the right rate.

The guitar’s ES-2 pickup/preamp provides excellent sound options on the electric side, with control knobs that make it easy to find the perfect EQ settings, whether going into a PA head or direct into the mixing board (though using a good mic in the studio to capture the guitar’s sweet, natural sound is often desired by many). With a Venetian cutaway, nickel tuners, chrome strap buttons, and the gorgeous combination (both aurally and aesthetically) of a rosewood body, Sitka spruce top, and mahogany neck, this is an excellent axe for any occasion.

LR Baggs Align Series Pedals

(Street: $159.99 — $179.99)

LR Baggs released four new pedals this year: the Session, Equalizer, Reverb, and their new Active DI (the Session and Active DI are pictured here). These beautifully made pedals take your tone a step further and add more feel and touch response to your acoustic guitar. A lot of time was spent fine-tuning not only the sounds but also the design and color scheme of each pedal. Man, do they look nice on the floor.

The Session pedal is a Comp EQ pedal based on the sound and tone you would get from higher end gear found in recording studios. The pedal features compression and EQ and instantly brought my sound to life with some real easy settings. The Equalizer has a real simple yet well-balanced six-band EQ that gives you all you need to make your live performance a smooth sailing show. The Align Reverb is the grand-slam game winner in this pedal series. It gives perfect studio quality sound and adds so much life to your guitar. It’s like sitting in a perfect sounding room with incredible decay and tone. Their new Active DI is a leap forward from their long standing Para DI, including a ground lift, phase reversal switch and pad, mute switch, and ¼” and XLR outs so you can run one to an amp and one to the PA. The Align Series are must have pedals for any serious player who wants to add life to their acoustic guitar. — Matt O’Ree

(Read the online extended review of the pedals here.)

Paul Reed Smith John Mayer Silver Sky (pictured above, left)

(Street: $2,299)

A guy like John Mayer should know what he’s looking for in a guitar by now, and he and Paul Reed Smith (both the company and the man) have collaborated to build a guitar that not only fits Mayer’s specs, but will meet the needs of a lot of other players as well. The design of the Paul Reed Smith John Mayer Silver Sky is based on the best aspects of some of the vintage Strats that Mayer has played in his career, and other axes, with an alder body, maple neck and bone nut.

The tuners are traditional vintage-style, closed-back tuners, but with PRS’s locking design and a nice touch in gray/silver peg buttons. It holds tune great even when whammying with the PRS tremolo arm, and the rosewood fretboard plays fast, thanks in part to slightly smaller fret wire than what’s used on most PRS guitars. And of course, the PRS small bird neck inlay is a touch no other company can claim. And it comes in colors with names just as cool as the guitar is (frost, horizon, onyx and tungsten).

Yamaha CSF3M Acoustic-Electric Parlor Guitar (pictured above, right)

(Street: $549.99)

Parlor guitars have never really gone out of style, and the smaller-guitar CSF series from Yamaha, which had been put on hold years ago, is back with a vengeance, introducing a new generation of players to the joys of how a small-body lightweight guitar can be cool for any occasion. Perfect for strumming, flatpicking and fingerpicking, a la ragtime bluesman Blind Blake, this little beauty is easy to carry around and is deceptively loud for its size.

With dimensions in the neighborhood of a single-0, this guitar weighs under four pounds, and has a 23½” short-scale nato neck with a rosewood fretboard and bridge. The projection and balance are perfect, courtesy of the mahogany back and sides, Sitka spruce top, and scalloped X-bracing. The look is classic, modern and classy, with a single-ring rosette and asymmetric rosewood bridge, and it has chrome tuners and strap buttons, including one on the underside of the heel for standup playing. The Yamaha CSF3M Parlor Guitar is a highly-recommended, fun little axe that has a pickup and comes in vintage natural and tobacco brown sunburst.

Fender Johnny Marr Signature Jaguar (pictured above, left)

(Street: $1,799.99)

Named for the groundbreaking guitarist for The Smiths and Modest Mouse, the Johnny Marr Signature Jaguar is both fashionable and functional, a blast from the past (even before Marr’s time) as well as a modern axe. True to its roots and based on Marr’s 1965 Jaguar, this guitar has a heavy alder body, a maple neck and a rosewood fretboard. It also has the vintage-style floating tremolo tailpiece and “taller” tremolo arm with nylon sleeve insert, keeping the bar in place for more dependable access, instead having it swing around a la early Ed Van Halen.

For specially-voiced tone, this Jaguar is built with custom, hand-wound single-coil neck and bridge pickups hand-made to Marr’s specs by the Bare Knuckle company of the UK. In an extra-special design element, the upper horn of the Johnny Marr Jaguar features two slide switches — a “universal” bright switch that kicks everything up a notch or two, and a separate bright switch that only affects the series neck-and-bridge pickup switch position. As cool-looking as it is versatile, it comes in several colors with a ton of chrome.

(As of this year, the Johnny Marr is now being offering in Lake Placid Blue.)

Yamaha FG-TA TransAcoustic Acoustic-Electric Guitar (pictured above, right)

(Street: $599.99)

Yamaha has long been on the cutting edge of both acoustic and electronic technology, and is offering a guitar that could literally change the careers of performing singer-songwriters. With the FG-TA TransAcoustic guitar, the best of both acoustic and electric come together, as this guitar contains the technology of built-in reverb and chorus effects without being plugged into an amp or PA system. Using battery-powered circuitry, these effects are available in the TransAcoustic, which, of course, can also still be used with amplification. For the performer sleeping on house-concert couches or working small dives, the ability to add reverb or chorus to a guitar to suit the room, without lugging a lot of equipment around, is a definite plus.

This 14-fret (where the neck joins the body) dreadnought has mahogany back and sides and a spruce top, with good tone, balance and sustain, and scalloped X bracing for a louder and richer natural wood sound. With its onboard digital effects, and responding equally well to strumming, flatpicking, fingerpicking and slide playing, this is the perfect axe for the performing songwriter.

BandLab Technologies MONO Pedalboard and Accessories Kit

(Various Sizes and Prices)

You can fuss and fret (pun intended) trying to build your own pedalboard out of plywood and spray paint, or you can check out a more modern way of doing things with a MONO pedalboard from BandLab Technologies. Bent from single sheets of laser-cut aluminum, MONO pedalboards are extremely lightweight and durable and come in five sizes, from lite to large. Cut-outs on the unit’s face can accommodate practically any cable wrapping configuration imaginable, making it easy to attach the pedals you might need to carry as part of your rig. 

With a sleek minimalist design in either a black or silver anodized finish, these pedalboards are designed to let you loop, track, anchor and direct the traffic of your cables, and arrange them in a manner that makes sense for their sizes and how you use them. In an era when guitarists with even the most basic sound rely on pedals for tuning, or simply to adjust their sound to fit a particular room, you can avoid cable chaos with these attractive, practical and easy-to-carry pedalboards.

Fender Pedals: The Engager Boost (pictured above, left)

(Street: $89.99)

Fender has been increasing its presence in the effects pedals arena in 2018, and has now released three new pedals aimed at helping guitarists produce more attention-grabbing, heavier and grittier rock tones in their playing.

On those occasions where you need more volume or fatter tone, but still want to maintain a clean sound, the Engager Boost could be just what the doctor ordered. Offering up to 20dB of clean boost, this pedal features an onboard three-band EQ that allows you to shape your tone to cut through a mix, and a frequency switch that lets you select the middle frequency range, ideal for use in shaping your tone precisely. With yet another switch controlling true or buffered bypass, as well as one for LED-backlit knobs to aid in viewing, this pedal is a great addition to any performer’s rig.

Fender Pedals: The Pelt Fuzz (pictured above, center)

(Street: $129.99)

“Make It Sound Hairy” is Fender’s mantra with this fuzz pedal, and it turns out to be a very appropriate catchphrase. The fuzzbox has provided the guitar sound responsible for launching countless rock and pop hits, and The Pelt Fuzz is as versatile as anything on the market. It’s not a typical fuzz, with an original design that includes a “mid” switch that allows the user to cut or boost the midrange to get an even more wide-ranging fuzz sound; a “thick” switch for added girth; and a “bloom” control for contouring the sound in a harder or softer direction. Hairy, indeed.

Fender Pedals: The Full Moon Distortion (pictured above, right)

(Street: $149.99)

Fender’s Full Moon Distortion pedal is larger than some, about 3¾” x 5”, and it needs to be that big to pack in all of the cool features here. Texture and bite switches, a 12dB boost footswitch, hi-treb control, gain of course — this unit offers countless combinations for creating the ultimate distortion settings. Oh, it also has bass, treble and middle knobs. The chassis is lightweight anodized aluminum, and the Amp Jewel LED gives the pedal that classic Fender look. From the tones of Link Wray to Meshuggah, Jeff Beck to Beck, the distortion of your dreams can probably be dialed in with this awesome stompbox. 

IK Multimedia Total Studio 2 Max

(Street: $999)

The IK Multimedia Total Studio 2 Max could be your golden ticket to creating your next hit song. This all-inclusive package (available via USB or download) is a full suite of powerful tools for creating, sampling, mixing and mastering your music, all culled from IK’s award-winning software products. With 94 products (drums, woodwinds, brass, amps and keyboards to name a few), 16,800 sound samples, 39 mixing/mastering processors and 350 guitar and bass models, you’ll be a kid in a candy factory exploring different ideas for your new material. The sounds are authentic, easy to use and offer a myriad of playing styles, techniques and tones, all created in conjunction with top-name industry legends such as Alan Parsons, Slash, Billy Cobham, Neil Peart and others. While working on a sensitive song that needed a moody bridge, for example, I tapped into the Miroslav Philharmonik suite of orchestral instruments and chose a beautiful, staccato violin that underscored the lyric, adding a much-needed dynamic lift. And that’s just one example. — Askold Buk

(Read the extended online review of Total Studio 2 Max here.)

Fender Newporter Classic Acoustic-Electric (pictured above)

(Street: $799.99)

When it comes to both cool and functional, Fender’s Newporter Classic should be on everybody’s holiday shopping list for at least a look and a listen. With the cutaway Newporter body shape, almost-firestripe bridge, matching six-in-line headstock (think classic Fender Stratocaster headstock), and koa binding and rosette, this guitar is a head-turner all the way. Available in Cosmic Turquoise and Hot Rod Red Metallic colors, it would be a natural for the stage on looks alone even if it didn’t sound great, which it does.

The Fender- and Fishman-designed pickup and preamp system includes frequency and phase controls to provide the best amplified sound, and also includes a tuner. The guitar’s back, sides and neck are mahogany and the top is made of Sitka spruce, while the fretboard is made of pau ferro, a South American wood noted for its similarity to other traditional tonewoods. Unplugged, this guitar has balanced sustain and projection, and the not-quite-dreadnought body is plenty loud. Both practical and professional, the Newporter Classic is as much fun to play as it is to look at.

Waterloo WL-K1 Model

Street Price: $2,385

Waterloo is a special brand of guitars made by Collings that pays tribute to Gibson’s storied Kalamazoo models of the 1930s. The Austin, Texas company has employed a “less is more” approach for this line: the guitars are light-weight and the tuners are openback gears with celluloid buttons. This guitar is certainly not one for powder or paint, as the satin finish reveals the granularity of the guitar’s pores and wood grain. 

Here, Natalie holds her beloved Waterloo WL-K1 Model, which she purchased in 2016. “I wanted a guitar that had a nice warm sound to it, that sounded kind of antiquated and old, but still stayed in tune,” she says. “I played this guitar while I was on the Tim McGraw and Faith Hill “Soul2Soul Tour,” and the “Bandwagon Tour” with Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town. It is not only an amazing live guitar, but it also records so well. Whether I’m playing live, in the studio, or if I’m writing a song, it goes everywhere I go.” — Caine O’Rear

Boss Katana-Air Wireless Guitar Amplifier (pictured above, top left)

(Street: $399.99)

Boss pedals, drum machines and other gear can be heard on some of the biggest recordings of all time. Now the company is breaking new ground with its Katana-Air Wireless Guitar Amplifier, the world’s first totally wireless amp. Compact and battery-powered, the amp features low-latency wireless guitar technology, and a custom wireless transmitter that plugs into any electric guitar, making it possible to play anywhere without guitar cables or AC connections (though those standard options are still here as well). It’s also possible to play along with audio streamed via Bluetooth from an iOS or Android smartphone, and to remotely edit tones and effects from the dedicated Boss Tone Studio app.

The Katana-Air is a true stereo amp with two custom-tuned speakers and up to 30 watts of total power, offering big sound for both guitar amplification and full-range music reproduction. A docking port in the amp charges the battery in the included wireless transmitter, providing up to 12 hours of continuous playing time per charge. It’s a revolutionary new product that definitely calls for a look and a listen.

AER Compact 60/4 Acoustic Guitar Amplifier (pictured above, top right)

(Street: $1,199)

AER has been around quite for a while, and their amps, used by acoustic guitar giants like Tommy Emmanuel, just keep living up to their reputation. The company’s new Compact 60/4 is a great-sounding, lightweight, 60-watt two-channel amp with an eight-inch speaker that doesn’t distort at high volume. Channel 1 has a straight ¼ guitar cord input, and channel 2 features a combination line/mic jack for guitar cord or XLR, with a line/mic switch to adjust input sensitivity.

The Compact 60/4 has internal effects including a bright hall reverb, chorus with reverb, and a flanger, with controls for panning them and adjusting their levels. Aesthetically the look couldn’t be more understated, with the company’s name discreetly engraved in the foam face. The controls are on the top, with the outs — line out, headphones, effects send and return, tuner, footswitch, and DI male XLR out — are in the back, as is the power switch, located next to the electrical connection for the detachable power cord. It also comes with a cool gig bag (yes, a gig bag for an amp!).

Vox AC30S1 Guitar Amplifier (pictured above, bottom center)

(Street: $799.99)

Thom Yorke, Pete Townshend and The Edge are just three players who made rock and pop history using Vox AC30 amps, as well as larger Voxes when 30 watts didn’t quite cut it for a louder session. With this legendary tube amp, though, it’s not always so much about power as much as it is about tone and versatility. Now Vox has released the AC30S1, a stripped-down, single-channel amp that cuts like a knife with a classic, but still modern, sound.

With a built-in digital reverb and a custom-voiced 12” Celestion speaker, the AC30S1’s design is based on the sound that has been the source of some the most famous riffs in music history. But this amp’s not just for rocking out. The AC30S1 delivers a wide range of tones, from chimey clean to rich overdrive, and has a standby switch, an effects send/return for use with pedals, and an external speaker output for adding additional cabinets. Great for both the road and the studio, this can be a good first amp, or a welcome addition to your already-working collection.

In case you missed them, here are links to some essential singer-songwriter products we reviewed earlier this year.

iRig Acoustic Stage

Mackie Freeplay Live

Alvarez Artist Series AGW77CE-AR

Yamaha Stagepas 400BT PA System

Universal Audio Arrow and OWC Pro EX

Fender Hot Rod Deluxe Series IV

Tonewood Amp

Huss and Dalton MJ Custom Acoustic

Bose S1 Pro PA System

Fishman Loudbox Mini-Charge

Sennheiser XS-1 Wireless Microphone

Korg KR-55 Pro

Fender Effects Pedals

Mackie MDB Direct Box Series

Yamaha AC5M Acoustic/Electric Guitar

Yamaha Billy Corgan Acoustic Guitar

Taylor Guitars Builder’s Edition K14ce Grand Auditorium Acoustic

Spire Portable Studio Recorder

Presonus Studio 2|6 Audio Interface

Rhett Miller: The Messenger