Every year, the guitar industry shocks us with its ingenuity – for a passion that primarily focuses on the celebration of things that were created somewhere between 50 and a hundred years ago, barely a month passes without someone finding an ingenious new way to give us the stuff that we love in an innovative, more user-friendly or more affordable fashion.
But amongst these products there are some that stand out from the crowd – ideas whose impact ripples beyond the product itself and has the potential to permanently shift the needle when it comes to their particular sector or niche. There are the prime needle-movers of 2022.
WINNER: Blackstar St James
While many amp brands focus all their energies on making headphones, speakers and other lifestyle accessories, Blackstar remains a brand that is firmly about designing and making amps. That’s perhaps why many of the industry’s most impressive innovations in recent years have come out of the UK-brand’s ‘Dept 10’ R&D lab.
Take then, the conventional wisdom that suggests traditional amps are slowly going the way of the dodo and the rackmount unit. Blackstar doesn’t ignore the prevailing winds of guitar culture – the company’s Amped 1 and Dept 10 pedals offer plenty of options for pedalboard amp fans – but it also refuses to accept that there isn’t a way for proper, bonafide valve amplifiers to peacefully coexist with modern requirements for volume, connectivity and practicality. Enter the St James.
The St James range is another ‘how have they done that’ that reaffirms Blackstar’s place as the most innovative and forward thinking major amp manufacturer out there. The most striking thing about the St James is the weight – Blackstar has boasted that they’re the lightest valve amps in the world, and with the combos coming in around 2-3kgs lighter than your average, who are we to argue? This has been achieved thanks to a hugely impressive feat of engineering – a complete overhaul of the power stage to enable a lightweight laptop-style Switching Mode Power Supply in place of the traditional (and heavy) transformers that have been a staple of valve amps for nearly a hundred years.
Combined with a custom-designed lightweight Celestion speaker, the result is an amp that makes you do a double-take when you pick it up for the first time, and will make load-ins and load-outs a much less back-breaking affair for gigging guitarists all over.
But that’s only part of what the St James offers – it’s also a fully-featured 21st century digital amp that offers the facility to play and record at low (or no) volume. Key to this is the inclusion of Blackstar’s proprietary Cab Rig emulation technology that goes beyond what common speaker IRs do and offers a full model of speaker, cab, mic and room to offer wonderfully authentic direct tones, while there’s also a USB recording out so you can use your amp as an audio interface.
It’s the sort of please-everyone package that would have been unthinkable even a few short years ago, but should be a genuine game changer for the industry and the benchmark that future amp designers use in terms of functionality and versatility.
Jamstik Studio MIDI
What if a product opens up a world that you never really considered before? That’s what Jamstik’s latest innovation does for guitarists and the always murky world of MIDI. With remarkable note-tracking and the genuine feel of a real guitar, this might be the easiest and most inspiring way to incorporate synths, pads and all the other secrets of the music tech world into your music.
Not everyone will want to do this, of course, but for those who want to expand their horizons beyond what you see at your feet on a pedalboard, the Jamstik represents a potential turning point for the electric guitar as a creative instrument.
The planet is dying. The ice caps are melting, weather is getting more extreme, our resources are running out – it’s not a fun time, frankly. The guitar industry is far too small to make a meaningful impact on that of course, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – and sometimes doing what’s best for the planet means changing perceptions along the way.
Taylor has been at the forefront of the efforts to make guitar-building more sustainable for years now, but the 700 Series Koa guitars released in 2022 is it’s most polarising departure yet. But Taylor making its flagship series with sustainable Hawaiian koa, regardless of how different these instruments may look and sound to a ‘traditional’ acoustic guitar sends a clear message – the world is changing, and guitar building is changing with it. Thankfully, as the 722ce demonstrates – that doesn’t have to mean a future without remarkable and inspiring instruments.