Roundup: We Test Drive 4 New Chambered and Hollowbody Electrics

August 30, 2016

I’ve been on a semi-hollowbody and hollowbody kick for a while. It’s not that I don’t love solidbodies—because I do—but I also dig the airy shimmer, resonant mids, and constantly on-the-edge-of-feedback stance you get with a cool guitar that isn’t a solid plank ‘o’ wood. Another benefit is that I play differently holding, say, a Gretsch Chet Atkins than I do when wielding a Les Paul, so switching between the two designs not only gives me some tonal diversity, it provides a chance for my fingers to discover new licks, riffs, and dynamic options.

Although we assembled just four new instruments for this roundup, diversity is also the buzzword to describe the intimate group. For one thing, the price points span from a budget-friendly $449 to an upscale $4,050. Then, each represents a particular sonic and ergonomic platform. There’s a slim Fender Tele that offers an electric feel, a classic Gretsch hollowbody, an archtop D’Angelico, and a parlor-inspired instrument crafted by B&G. If you’re forever seeking guitars that can add to your musical trick bag, one of these boxes would be something to consider.
—MM

B&G GUITARS LITTLE SISTER
Tested By Art Thompson

Based in Tel Aviv, Israel, B&G Guitars is a company founded by Eliran Barashi and Yotam Goldstein, both of whom go to extraordinary lengths to build fine quality instruments that strive for consistency in sound and playability. To control the manufacturing process the B&G makes almost everything in house, casting their own brass tailpieces (which are designed by jewelry artist David Weizman), using thick brass pickup covers to better isolate the coils of their hand-wound pickups, creating paint and nitro-lacquer formulations, making their own glue and grain filler, and maintaining a stock of carefully aged woods.

Based on parlor guitars of the ’20s and ’30s, the Little Sister features a neck made from reclaimed Honduran mahogany (African mahogany is standard), which has a mild V shape, and transitions into a slotted headstock equipped with vintage-style open gear tuners. It’s definitely one of the standout features of this instrument. My only complaint is that the Brazilian rosewood fretboard on our review sample is just too plain looking.

The neck mates to the chambered body at the 14th fret, and the whole instrument feels very compact with a weight of 6+ lbs and a length of 38". For reference, a Gibson Johnny A looked significantly larger sitting next to it, and that model isn’t a big guitar by any stretch! The Sister’s flat, figured-maple top (which is bound in figured maple) is finished in honey-toned nitro lacquer, and it looks great with the gold-plated hardware and soulful brass tailpiece with “Little Sister” cast into it.

This guitar has the acoustic resonance that you expect from a chambered body, and it delivered a good range of tones when played through a Dr. Z DB4, a Mesa/Boogie 5:25, and a Vox AC10C1. On the cleaner side it’s a natural for front-pickup jazz and blues tones, and it also veers into twangy country territory when you flick to the brawny bridge setting. There aren’t any split-coil options here, but with the switch in the middle position the guitar’s open, stringy voice proved excellent for fingerpicking, funky rhythm playing, jangly pop, etc. The output from the humbuckers is strong, and with some distortion from an amp or pedal, the Sister sustains beautifully and has a mids-forward presence that makes it surprisingly aggressive for rock. Bottom line: The Little Sister is an expensive proposition, but its unique styling and fine build quality make it a worthy consideration if you’re in the market for something different in a single-cut guitar.

SPECIFICATIONS

LITTLE SISTER

CONTACT bngguitars.com
PRICE $3,450 street; $4,050 as tested
NUT WIDTH 1.68"
NECK Set Honduran mahogany ($300) with soft V shape
FRETBOARD Brazilian rosewood ($300), 12" radius, 24 3/4" scale
FRETS 22, .080" wide
TUNERS Golden Age
BODY African mahogany with figured maple top
BRIDGE Faber ABRH (ABR-59 series), brass B&G tailpiece
PICKUPS B&G humbuckers with brass covers
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, 3-way selector
WEIGHT 6.26 lbs
BUILT Israel
KUDOS Unique styling. Plays well. Light and compact.
CONCERNS None.

D’ANGELICO EXL-1A
Tested By Michael Molenda

Spoiler Alert: The EXL-1A is simply magnificent. If this guitar were an actor exiting a limousine during a Hollywood premiere, the crowd would be stunned to silence, mouths agape, transfixed by the heady glow of its dazzling beauty and charisma. There’s no fighting beauty like this. You just surrender.

But, then again, we’re guitar players—not celebrity sycophants—and no matter how fabulous an instrument might look, it still has to deliver the tonal goods, right? If I could stop looking at the EXL-1A long enough, I guess I’d agree with you.

Although the EXL-1A is a mid-priced archtop at a cost of around $1,300 street, D’Angelico didn’t seem to spare any sophisticated opulence in appointments and craftsmanship. There’s a sumptuous radiance to the natural finish, and the tiger striping on the flamed-maple back is breathtaking. Take care if you’re into art deco and missed lunch, because if you happen to be tottering with hypoglycemia, the gold tuners, tortoise-shell pickguard, stair-step tailpiece, chrome trussrod cover, and headstock inlay may actually cause you to faint. I’ll stop with the superlatives now, and simply say that the craftsmanship is impeccable. If you think I’m taking liberties with the truth here, then please check out an EXL-1A for yourself and see if your adjectives would be any less effusive (no “dares” here—it’s just that the quality is hard to knock).

The EXL-1A is an acoustic archtop, and although it’s outfitted with a piezo pickup, the amplified sound maintains much the same sparkling, acoustic articulation as when the guitar is played unplugged. Notes are lively and clear, with a bell-like shimmer in the treble and high-midrange frequencies. There’s a bit more taut bass when you play acoustically. The piezo’s response appears to cut some of the low end when you plug in. You also get audible string noise when amped up, so take care about boosting mids and highs on your amplifier of choice. If you leave your amp relatively un-hyped and natural sounding, the EXL-1A will chug along with a nice, Django Reinhardt-like chime. I dug the guitar’s old-school timbre, as well as D’Angelico’s choice not to equip the EXL-1A with a preamp and onboard EQ settings. There’s something very cool about embracing the organic. This might not be the acoustic to bring to a rock band—although even the most savage rocker would have to be mesmerized by its beauty—but if your head leans more towards images of smoke-filled Parisian cafes, jump blues, tuxedoes, and all flavors of swing, this is your baby. Bonus—it will also look fantastic just sitting in a guitar stand in your living room.

SPECIFICATIONS

EXL-1A

CONTACT dangelicoguitars.com
PRICE $1,399 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16", bone
NECK Three-piece, maple/walnut/maple
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25.5" scale
FRETS 22 jumbo
TUNERS Grover Super Rotomatic
BODY Laminated spruce top, laminated flame maple back
BRIDGE Ebony, floating
PICKUP Piezo
CONTROLS None
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXP-16
WEIGHT 7.14 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS Gorgeous. Impeccable craftsmanship. Deliciously old-school tone.
CONCERNS Piezo pickup adds a bit of string noise.

FENDER
AMERICAN ELITE SERIES TELECASTER THINLINE

Tested By Art Thompson

The “thinline” Telecaster with its hollowed-out body and f-hole has long been a popular choice among Tele aficionados and others who want a light, resonant guitar with a classic solidbody outline. Over the years, Fender has released myriad thinline variants across its production and Custom Shop lines, and the most recent is this U.S.-made version that’s part of the new Elite Series. This guitar features a gloss-finished semi-hollow ash body and a satin bolt-on maple neck with a compound-radius slab-maple fretboard and a cutaway heel. The 22 frets wear a high polish, and the setup and great feel of the neck make this guitar inspiring from the moment you pick it up. The AESTT also debuts Fender’s Suspension bridge, which is independent of the bridge pickup mounting plate and designed to increase string vibration transfer to the body, while retaining the trio of brass saddles that look vintage, but are in fact six-way adjustable. It all seems to work too. Strum this guitar acoustically and there’s a lot of sustain and volume for a guitar with such a thin body. Other details include a new double-action trussrod that’s adjustable from the body end, and short-post locking tuners to help keep the tuning stable.

The Fourth Generation Noiseless pickups run though a 3-way switch and master Volume and Tone controls. There’s also an S-1 push switch built into the top of the Volume knob that selects parallel or series wiring when both pickups are on. This puts a greater range of tones at your fingertips because the pickups sound beefier and have more output when running in series, and you can instantly revert back to the parallel configuration (up position) for a slimmer, funkier tone. The pickups seem immune to hum induced by lights, computer monitors, and other sources, while retaining the cool sonic qualities of single-coils. The neck pickup sounds nice and warm and has plenty of presence for lead playing, while the bridge unit packs a cutting edge and meaty low-end response. It all adds up to a guitar that works as well for cleaner playing as it does for more rocked-up stuff. Played though a variety of amps—including a Morgan AC20 Deluxe (running into its matching 1x12 cab), a Dr. Z DB4, and a Mesa/Boogie 5:25—along with several high-gain pedals, the AESTT proved it ability to nail just about anything you point it at, while sounding sparklingly defined amid intense distortion. Simple, easy to play, and able to deliver slice and fatness in just the right proportions, a Tele is simply one of the best all-arounders you can own. The American Elite Series Telecaster Thinline maintains these qualities while bringing some smart new features to a timeless platform.

SPECIFICATIONS

AMERICAN ELITE SERIES TELECASTER THINLINE

CONTACT fender.com
PRICE $1,899 street
NUT WIDTH 1.685"
NECK Maple, bolt-on
FRETBOARD Maple, 25.5" scale, 9.5"-14" compound radius
FRETS 22 medium jumbo
TUNERS Deluxe locking with short posts
BODY Semi-hollow ash
BRIDGE Elite Suspension bridge with three brass saddles
PICKUPS Fourth Generation Noiseless single-coils (bridge and neck)
CONTROLS Volume (with S-1 switch), Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS Fender NPS, .009-.042
WEIGHT 6.26 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Plays well. Expanded tonal range courtesy of S1 switch.
CONCERNS None.

GRETSCH
G2420 STREAMLINER

Tested By Michael Molenda

It used to be so simple. If your guitar said “Gretsch,” it was a coveted uber-professional model from a seminal and revered guitar company. The word “Electromatic” announced you were rocking a very fine, yet affordable, player’s model from the same maker. At Winter NAMM 2016, however, Gretsch introduced three brand-new lines (Vintage Select, Player’s Edition, and Streamliner), and easy identification of your Gretsch tribe went somewhat wiggy—especially as the new Streamliners are less expensive than the Electromatics, and, as of June 2016, the Electomatic hollowbodies no longer say “Electromatic” on the headstock.

Well, although the model differentiations may be confusing, there’s nothing baffling about the fact the Streamliner G2420 is one hell of a guitar for under $500. And, yes, it absolutely channels the Gretsch vibe.

There are only two elements of the G2420 that might telegraph it as a budget model—its slightly garish Aged Brooklyn Burst, and its jello-casserole-like transparent-gold control knobs. Everything else looks and feels like big bucks. The frets are beautifully rounded, the finish is near perfect, the internal bracing and wiring are tidy, and the hardware is sturdy and cosmetically appealing. On the G2420, the harp tailpiece further promotes the retro-vintage air of the electric Streamliner line, which first appeared in Gretsch catalogs in the early 1950s.

The G2420 feels as comfy as a well-worn Pendleton shirt as it hugs up against your body, which makes playing it seem almost effortless. All controls are positioned for easy adjustments on the fly, and while the knobs look slick and slippery, they aren’t. I could grip them securely with my pinky for volume swells and tone tweaks. That the G2420 delivers awesome value for a relatively meek expenditure isn’t the only surprise this guitar offers. The tone is shocking in a very good way, because there is nothing retro about it at all. This thing screams like a rock machine. Use it to reimagine supercharged rockabilly, stratospheric funk, aggro jazz, or any kind of music that snarls and roars but it can also downshift dynamically to caress and soothe. Every note you play—whether you choose the bridge pickup, the neck pickup, or the combined setting—produces an articulate snap that almost seems to pop off the fretboard. It’s as if the pickups are voiced to boost a low-midrange frequency that delivers articulation without sounding sharp or shrill, and still allows the lows and highs to be upfront. Click to the neck setting, and the taut bass seems powerful enough to move chairs across a hardwood floor if you were chunking muted chords. Wow. This muscular hollowbody is one sweet deal.

SPECIFICATIONS

G2420 STREAMLINER

CONTACT gretschguitars.com
PRICE $449 street
NUT WIDTH 1.68"
NECK Nato, set
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24.75" scale, 12" radius
FRETS 22 medium jumbo
TUNERS Die-cast nickel
BODY Laminated maple
BRIDGE Adjusto-Matic with rosewood base, Chromatic II tailpiece
PICKUPS Two Broad’Tron humbuckers
CONTROLS Two Volume (neck and bridge), Master Volume, Master Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS Fender NPS, .010-.046
WEIGHT 6.42 lbs
BUILT Indonesia
KUDOS Powerful tones. Amazing value. Plays great.
CONCERNS A couple of smudges on the binding.

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