RJ Jacinto designs the ‘holy grail’ of guitars

- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - July 6, 2014 - 12:00am

Rock and roll will never die. Somebody said that once. I don’t think it was RJ Jacinto, owner of the music empire that encompasses radio and TV stations, music stores and recording studios, but he definitely lives by that creed. Electric guitars are laid out all over his bright, glassy office on Makati Avenue — one is tempted to say it’s like a brothel of guitars, all waiting to be picked up — and music is very much on his mind today.

His longtime obsession with obtaining the “holy grail” — an electric guitar that can emulate not just two, but five different classic tones in one — is now complete.

Yes, children: one guitar to serve them all.

The Guitar Man lays it out before us: the RJ Super Vintage, set to launch mid-July. A semi-hollow body with two humbuckers and a single coil pickup resting between them, this one is like the Jim Carrey of rock guitars: it can do any voice, from the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and Jazzmaster to the Gibson Les Paul or ES 335. That’s a pretty astonishing range of tone — ask any guitarist.

RJ doesn’t just tell us about its magical qualities: he conducts a tone test, picking up an imported original of each — the Jazzmaster first — and playing a few signature riffs. His able assistant hands over the Super Vintage and — WTF? — it’s the same tone.

Our ears are not connoisseurs of guitar tone, but RJ’s model is remarkably similar. He proceeds to do this with four other imported guitars, aping each one’s distinctive sound with his own RJ model. We are convinced.

This is no idle pursuit. RJ has been talking about this “holy grail” thing since 1988. After seeking advice from legendary luthier Rudy Discipulo (“He was the guy who knew tone”) and then buying the man’s “hole in the wall” guitar store, RJ set to work learning about windings, magnets, strings, wood. Gutting old Fenders and Gibsons, studying their insides. The whole reverse-engineered guitar autopsy trip.

“The question was, how do you boost the output without losing the tone?” RJ’s goal was to mimic the “fat, woody, dark sound” of Gibsons, and combine it with the “bright, young, California surf sound” of Fender guitars.

The answer surprised him, after years of research: two humbucker pickups installed at the bridge and neck position, and a single-coil pickup mediating the tone between them.

“I call it the holy grail because every guitarist wants the upper, fat sound of the Gibson but wants the brilliant, juicy sound of the Fender on the bottom. So that’s how we combined it” to create the RJ Super Vintage model. “I improvised the switches so I could turn off all the pickups, any pickup I wanted. No guitars had that. It’s so simple. Maybe it was just a matter of being conscious about it.”

He adds with a shrug: “It’s not really rocket science.”

Since last speaking with RJ, a lot has happened. Local guitar-oriented rock exploded. The Eraserheads came and went. The rave scene came and went. Bossa nova came and went. Music downloading became rampant, and vinyl made a curated comeback. But guitars never stopped selling. In his 14 guitar stores, it’s now acoustics that outsell electrics.

“Almost everyone has an acoustic guitar or ukulele now,” RJ notes. “The parents know me, they come to my shop and say, ‘What’s a good guitar for my kid to start with?’ Acoustic, I say. They’re good because you don’t need an amp, and it helps you purify the tone and intonation of your fingers.”

Plus: “It’s not swamped with distortion. It’s pure.”

Purity is a theme that comes up a lot with RJ. He doesn’t like too much clutter in his sound. He cites local guitarists who grab his attention — Jerome Rico (“He plays like Tuck Andress. He plays like two people”), Joey Puyat of Blue Rats, Jun Lopito (“He has a great tone”). It’s Eric Clapton, though, who still shakes him to the core. “The real criterion is, are your guitar notes penetrating the soul of the listener, the bones of the guy? Clapton does that with just a few notes.”

The three people he’d still love to share a stage with? “Clapton, Paul McCartney… and (Elvis Presley’s) guitarist James Burton.” See? A purist at heart.

Flip back in time. It’s 1986. The Jacinto properties and businesses had been seized during the Marcos years. The family had been political refugees, living abroad. Then came EDSA, and RJ’s return to Manila. He knew it was time to start rocking again. “The thing that broke the dam was our Pinoy Woodstock in 1989,” he recalls. “Before that, bands were sort of outlawed, they were too rowdy, nobody wanted to sponsor them. But I put it on, got Coke to sponsor them.” TV shows, politically oriented stations like DZRJ’s Radyo Bandido, plus concerts and more guitar shops followed.

One thing he still likes doing is going to colleges to talk about music: real School of Rock stuff. “I’ll bring about 100 guitars, let each kid hold one. I give them three chords. We practice the three chords and I say, ‘Those three chords, you can learn 25, 50 songs.’ That’s how you learn, how you get interested. You don’t sit down and learn music theory first. You have to play it first.”

So many young people dream about a career making music. How did RJ manage not only to keep the dream alive, but build an empire from it?

“I was lucky enough to have a mother who bought me a guitar first,” he says, referring to an old Japanese Teisco he used with his band The Riots in the early ’60s. And his family’s business background helped. “My parents trained me in business. So I think I’ve become successful in this because I know business also. And this” — he gestures around at the roomful of guitars — “is my release.”

From the start, Jacinto was an entrepreneur. “I was born to do business,” he says. “At 15, I had my own recording studio, I rented it out to others, at 19 I had my radio station. I always want to take on a challenge, I just want to see it work. After it works, I lose interest!”

His new project is building a recording studio on an upstairs floor that will also serve as a public archive of “all the items I’ve collected over the decades.” You can imagine the guitars and recordings and posters that will fill that archive. “Then I want to spend time in the studios developing and producing world-class Filipino records,” he says. “That’s my next five years.”

Coming from the Jacinto Steel family business, RJ describes his life balance today as “80 percent business, 20 percent music.” Now, he says, the challenge is “to build up the steel business again.” Regaining sequestered property also took his family decades (“All the properties were returned… except for Iligan. I’ve just had to move on”). Despite being dressed youthfully in mustard yellow jeans and RJ-branded sneakers, Jacinto today is clearly thinking about his legacy. His kids and grandkids like music; some of them work with him at the radio station, and there are “always guitars around.” But he never forces them to take up his interest: “Most of them play, but not serious.” His wife, Frannie, meanwhile, now writes a weekly column for the Philippine STAR, and during her deadline night — Sunday — he knows she can’t be bothered. “She won’t let me come near her! I’m like a column widower!” he jokes. In his own free time, if he didn’t have a music empire to tend to, and the recording studio/archive he’s constructing upstairs, you might find RJ Jacinto spending more time… out on the links. “I like golf,” he says with a shrug. Yeah, and so does Alice Cooper.

And you can bet: if RJ spent as much time golfing as he does with a guitar in his hands, he’d be designing the holy grail of golf clubs.


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