By Art Thompson
Guitar makers tend to have pretty sharp eyes when it comes to style, and instead of gambling on the lure of bizarre shapes (a habit the U.S. auto industry regularly indulges in with results like the Avalanche and Hummer), many simply borrow from popular, time-tested patterns when designing new models. Take Cort’s M Series guitars, for example, which bear an striking resemblance to models made by Paul Reed Smith. The Ms are manufactured in Korea, which makes them very attractively priced, but, even for players who can afford more expensive guitars, these Corts are undeniable values.
We tested Cort’s flagship M1200 solidbody (which streets for $790) in our April issue, and gave it an Editors’ Pick Award. Recently, we had the chance to shake out the four lower-priced siblings of the M clan, notably the M200, M520, M600, and M800. These guitars feature quality construction and hardware, and all but the M200 offer such upper-end amenities as mahogany bodies and glued-in mahogany necks. The M600 and M800 go a step further by adding carved, maple-veneer tops, and the hollowbody M800 sports full binding for an even more eye-catching look. I tested these guitars though a variety of amps, including a non-master Marshall 50-watt, a new Carvin Legacy VL412, and a Soldano Avenger.
The gateway model of the M Series is the M200 ($275 retail/ $190 street)—a stylish, bolt-on-neck guitar that offers the essential elements of what a dual-humbucker solidbody is all about. I hate to use the term “beginners model” to describe the M200 (after all, that’s what Les Paul Juniors were originally purported to be), but you could certainly do worse that this reasonably well made instrument when shopping for a young guitarist’s first electric. And even though the M200 I tested needs a little setup attention to rectify string buzz in the high positions, it has a comfy neck, it balances well on a strap, and its loud, brash voice is as aggressive as a freshly sharpened chainsaw.
Yes, the 3-way selector makes gritchy noises and the neck joint isn’t nearly as tight fitting as the stone lid on King Tut’s sarcophagus, but the M200 plays in tune and is satisfyingly fretted and finished. The M200 is a perfect guitar to play with wild abandon though a high-gain amp, but its ho-hum clean tones aren’t likely to inspire junior to turn off the distortion pedal for any longer then it takes him to change the battery.
The next rung on the M Series ladder gets you to the M520 ($495 retail/$350 street), a more sophisticated ax that features mahogany construction, a set neck, neat binding (with just some minor paint bleed in a couple of spots), and a better setup. The 520 looks great with its honey-colored top, and its Mighty Mite pickups sound more complex than the exposed-coil Powersounds found on the M200. A hip extra is the coil-split function, which disables the inside coils of both humbuckers when you pull upward on the Tone control. It’s a handy thing on a guitar that has only one set of controls as it allows the M520 to elicit brighter, more detailed tones (albeit at slightly reduced volume) than the full humbuckers provide.
The M520’s medium-thickness, 12"-radius neck (the same radius used on all the M Series guitars) feels excellent, and the lightly polished jumbo frets make for silky bending and fast fingering. Upper fret access is groovatious thanks to the deep cutaway (another attribute shared by all of these guitars), and the moderate weight and neutral balance make the 520 a joy to perform with. The M520 sustains well, which is partly credited to its solid M2 bridge and top-loading stop tailpiece. With its robust tones and engaging feel, the M520 is a kick. It sounds bright and complex when played cleanly, and it pumps out massive grind when pushing a hot amp channel. The 520’s tonal spectrum makes it suitable for just about any style you want to throw at it, and even pro players should find a lot to like about this bargain-priced champ.
Though basically the same guitar as the M520, the M600 ($629 retail/$450 street) adds a carved mahogany top with a maple veneer and more elaborate fretboard inlays. The tiger striping in the natural maple looks gorgeous, and the top’s gently swooping contours provide plenty of surface area for flaunting the grain. The cream-colored pickup surrounds also beautifully complement the top’s straw hues. With its Tune-o-matic bridge and traditional stop tailpiece, the M600 exudes a bit more vintage flair than the M520. The block-style pearl position markers with their abalone corners add upscale pizzazz, and the inlays are carefully set with no sign of excess epoxy around the edges. Impressively, the binding on the body is near perfect.
The M600’s jumbo frets are well polished and appear to have received a little extra attention from the shaping and trimming guy. Now if only he or she had bothered to round off the nut’s sharp corners—which happen to be an annoyance on all of these guitars. Thanks to an excellent setup, the M600 plays very well, and it sounds sweet and in-tune as you move around the neck. The M600 has good sustain, and the strong pickups make it easy to get singing lead tones and bell-like clean textures. Activating the coil-split function adds an extra measure of chiminess to the neck and bridge pickup tones, and it makes the dual-pickup setting particularly cool for jangly rhythm work. The M600 chunks like a dual-humbucker ax should, throwing down articulate and focused distortion tones, but its sweet, sustaining voice is also something that a blues player could adore. In short, the M600 delivers pretty much everything a hip, dual-humbucker guitar ought to, except the hefty price tag.
Designed for players who seek some archtop flavor, the M800 ($850 retail/$650 street), features a hollow mahogany body and an arched top of Pacific maple with a flame maple veneer. A hip guitar with a gushing sound, the M800 plays as good as it looks. And man, what a looker! The top’s striping looks nice and dimensional, and the binding is every bit as neat as that of the M600, except that there’s more of it to enjoy. The polished frets are installed over the binding, which is probably a cost-saving measure, but the fret ends are finished to eliminate any prickliness as you slide your hand along the neck. The M800 also has the same elegant fretboard markers as the M600, and, here again, they’re installed without any excess epoxy creeping around their edges. In fact, the only sloppy things on this guitar are some clear coat dribbles on the interior, which are easily seen through the f-holes.
The M800’s gloss-finished, medium-thick neck is the same as the one fitted to the M600, and the expert setup makes for similarly fast, smooth fingering. An acoustically lively guitar, the M800 responds to your touch with a midrangy voice that booms out with suprising authority. Plugged in, the M800 delivers warm, open tones that are a refreshing change from the more compact response you get from a solid guitar. I found it very easy to coax notes into endless feedback, but the M800 can also get out of control at volumes that a solidbody wouldn’t blink at. Its airier response makes it well suited for old-school blues, jazz, roots-rock, and just about anything else that needs a little electric-archtop magic. I love the greasy, horn-like tones you get when running the bridge pickup through a moderately distorted amp, and the M800 sounds sparklingly detailed when played cleanly with the pickups in single-coil mode. The M800 is somewhat limited in terms of how much stage volume you can subject it to, but as the lightest and most prismatic sounding of the M gang, it definitely deserves an Editors’ Pick Award.