Troy Van Leeuwen may not exactly be a household name, even to readers of this magazine. For the record, he’s the former guitarist with Failure and A Perfect Circle, and currently Josh Homme’s sixstring sidekick in Queens of the Stone Age. But he’s certainly one of the more original guitarists to surface over the last decade or so. While Yamaha’s choice of Van Leeuwen’s name to grace a signature model does not make obvious sense from the traditional “star worship” marketing approach, Van Leeuwen did help Yamaha develop a fresh, offbeat instrument that stands out from the crowd as much as its namesake does.
At first glance, the Yamaha SA503 TVL Troy Van Leeuwen model resembles a Gibson thinline electric from the late Fifties, such as an ES-335 or ES-355. Its symmetrical double-cutaway body shape is similar to that of a Gibson ES- 335, and the “top hat” control knobs, dot fingerboard inlays and polished aluminum Bigsby tremolo tailpiece are all features that are reminiscent of vintage thinline Gibsons as well. However, the SA503 TVL also features three single-coil soapbar pickups—a configuration inspired by Gibson’s beastly ES-5 Switchmaster models produced between 1949 and 1956 (with its controversial and outrageous “All” pickup setting).
The SA503 TVL breaks from the vintage Gibson model by featuring a set neck made from carved maple, a stiffer wood that provides brighter, more punchy tone than the mahogany used on classic Fifties Gibsons. The top, back and sides are maple as well, and the body and rosewood fingerboard are bound with cream-colored, single-layer binding that gives the guitar a burnished, old-guitar glow. The only concession to modern design is the guitar’s distinctive split f holes, which span a larger surface on the guitar’s top than traditional f-holes.
Controls include a master tone control and separate volume controls for each of the three soapbar pickups. But the coolest and most useful feature is the SA503’s “all-access” pickup selector system, which consists of two three-position toggle switches. This deceptively simple but versatile circuit provides access to all seven possible pickup combinations, and because the switches are located close to each other it’s easy to select any desired combination with a flick of two fingers. One toggle switch controls the neck and bridge pickups in a traditional manner (bridge/both/neck) while the other switch turns the middle pickup on or off or disengages everything but the middle pickup.
Thanks to the “all-access” system and its beefy soapbar pickups, the SA503 delivers a surprisingly vast palette of guitar tones. P90-style pickups could very well be the ultimate pickups for hard rock rhythm guitar, providing more weight than Strat or Tele pickups and better definition and cut than large humbuckers, and they’re a great complement to resonant warmth of the SA503’s semihollow body and the brightness of its maple construction. With all the different combinations available from its three pickups, the SA503 can sound like the fattest Strat you’ve ever heard but it can also serve up tasty vintage Gibson flavors, too.
This guitar absolutely screams through a vintage tweed Fender (I used a ’57 Deluxe for testing), yielding ballsy, bluesy tones that would have made Stevie Ray envious. It’s even more snarling and aggressive though a high-gain amp like a modern Marshall, Mesa-Boogie or Krank, pumping out thick, sustaining solo tones and slashing power chords. Despite having a semi-hollow body, the guitar does not suffer from uncontrollable feedback howls, and it’s relatively easy to harness feedback for more creative purposes.
The Bottom Line
Even if you’re not familiar with Troy Van Leeuwen’s stellar playing, you should check out this guitar if you want a versatile studio or stage ax that drips with cool vintage vibe and tones. If you love the sound of a Strat but prefer the feel of a Gibson (and don’t want to sacrifice Gibson tones either), the SA503 TVL with its 24 3/4–inch scale, 22- fret neck and traditional thinline design coupled with its outstanding three-pickup “all-access” circuit will certainly satisfy your needs. This guitar looks, sounds and feels great, and it’s a surprisingly good value compared to other pro-quality thinline models on the market.