Guitar Mill Custom Shop T-Style vs. Hahn 228

March 1, 2009

HAHN 228

I must admit I gasped when I first saw the price tag on the 228 and briefly wondered, “Can any bolt-neck repro be worth a wad of cash just two ticks shy of $4k?” Sure, you can buy Fender’s fancy pre-aged or official limited reissue renditions for more if you want to. But how much love can a guy whose name you might never have heard (unless you were a “T” fanatic who went looking for him) put into a couple of planks of maple and swamp ash? The fact is, though, Hahn doesn’t just assemble guitars, he creates them, crafting the vast majority of the parts virtually from scratch—and the 228 is the only model he currently produces. Chihoe Hahn has been a guitarist for 30 years, and a Tele fanatic for all of them, and has studied his beloved from every which way. All this love and attention adds up to a veritable one-man shrine to the hallowed model T, and many hours of contemplation—you could call it obsession— over the nuances of all components involved in the building process. Hahn not only hand shapes the contours of the bodies and necks, but also manufactures nearly all of his own hardware, including his stainless-steel neck and bridge plates, compensated brass saddles, and heavyknurl electroplated brass knobs. This 228 has a one-piece swamp ash body and a solid quartersawn maple neck. The latter has a slight vintage tint to it that looks just right, and the former wears a gorgeous mid-’50s blackguard blonde nitro finish that shows off the ash’s impressive grain beautifully. For pickups, he favors vintage-voiced units from Seymour Duncan, Jason Lollar, and Lindy Fralin (a pair from the latter winder grace our test sample, with readings of 7.10k½ bridge and 7.84k½ neck). Note that while the one-piece body and “thermometer” case of our test guitar command top dollar at Hahn, the same build quality and components are applied to 228s with two-piece bodies starting at $2,800.

Greatest consideration is given to how all resonant components come together: Hahn states that his neck-pocket fit is so tight that he can carry the guitar around by the neck with no screws attached. “It’s a real pain in the ass to get right, but it makes a big difference,” he offers (indeed, I can’t even slip a sheet of note paper into the breech). Although that bridge looks like a standard early-’50s issue, Hahn has put slight cuts in crucial positions in the back lip and also screwed the front corners to the body, all to fine-tune resonance, sustain, and microphony. There’s also a “Danny Gatton mod” notch in the treble-side edge for better fingerpicking access. To keep the wood open and ringing, paper-thin nitrocellulose finishes are used exclusively. Extra thought has also been given to the .10" stainless steel neck plate, and its super-tight coupling of body and neck. The neck on this one is a hefty 1" thick, has a soft-V profile, and wears 21 Dunlop 6105 frets. It feels great in my hand (even though I’m accustomed to a slightly thinner ’57-era V profile), and plays flawlessly from nut to joint.

Played acoustically, this 228 rings for days, too, with a balanced, vibrant tone that hints at amped-up delights to come. Plugged into anything from a tweed Fender Pro to a Matchless HC30, it exudes all the myriad delights that the very best of these simple guitars continue to surprise us with. The bridge pickup will twang and spank when you want it to, but has enough poke to drive the amps into easy snarl, and the neck pickup is full and thick enough to pull off masterful jazz tones. In between, there’s a range of funky, open voices to explore. Throughout its settings the 228 impresses me with a rich, textured, woody voice that is bountiful in its depth and dimension and loaded with harmonic complexity. From a scream to a purr, it’s a winner all round.

GUITAR MILL CUSTOM SHOP T-STYLE

Based in twang central, better known to your GPS as Nashville, Guitar Mill is a small but respected maker and of high-quality bodies and necks that has been supplying small luthiers and many notable piece builders for several years now. The company carves all of their wood in-house, do all of their own finishing, and also stock a wide range of hardware and components. In 2007, Guitar Mill decided to take all this familiarity with the craft to the next level, and opened its small Custom Shop, where it now executes complete guitar assembly and setup, turning out custom-order, American-made bolt-neck guitars in a range of styles.

The Guitar Mill contender in the ring today is right from their wheelhouse (the Tstyle body has long been their biggest seller), but, despite its entirely by-the-books appearance, it does hide a nifty secret or two. The body itself looks for all the world like a single slab of broad-grained swamp ash (and is so light that I was initially suspecting some sneaky chambering was going in inside), but is, in fact, cut from solid paulownia, a wood of Pacific Rim origin that has been transplanted to the southern United States. “That guitar is from our Featherweight Series,” says Guitar Mill’s Mario Martin. “Paulownia has been used for centuries in Japan, and we’re finding it’s a great wood for guitars. It looks like swamp ash and sounds like swamp ash, but it’s incredibly light.” He’s right, as the fully assembled solid-bodied guitar comes in at a shade under 6 lbs. The finish here is a whiter, late-’50s blonde in nitrocellulose and appears to be fairly thin, with just a little speckling under the surface.

The one-piece quartersawn maple neck wears a natural medium-gloss finish with no tinting, and has a depth of .937" at the nut and a rounded V profile more reminiscent of late-to-mid ’50s Fender production. Frets here are again Dunlop 6105s, all 21 well polished and hitch-free. The bridge is a Gotoh vintage style with stamped-steel plate and compensated brass saddles, and the tuners are Gotoh Klusons. For pickups, the Guitar Mill Custom Shop has spec’d out its own series by Kevin Smith of Smith Custom Pickups. The set of vintage-style singlecoils here has a stock mid-’50s look, with a staggered-pole bridge unit reading 6.8k½ and the neck pickup reading 7.05k½.

Fit and set up are great on this Guitar Mill T-Style, and the neck feels superbly playable all along its length. I did need to adjust the B string’s alignment over the saddle slightly to eliminate a little sitaring zing that resulted from its path over the edge of the adjustment screw hole, but I’m always willing to make allowances for climatic shifting in any guitar that has been shipped to the warm west coast then back to the snowy east coast for testing, as this one has. Played acoustically, the T-style sounds round, ringing, and woody, balanced more toward a snappy percussive tone that we might think of as more late ’60s than the Hahn’s gutsy, rich ’50s snarl (a less snug neck pocket coupling here, which allows the insertion of a folded sheet of printer paper either side, might have a little to do with it). Amped up, it follows through with bountiful twang and quack, and an overall voice that lends itself more readily to the country sides of the classic Tele repertoire. It rocks out well enough when handed some gain at the amp, and retains decent string-to-string clarity within chords, but this Guitar Mill T-Style really wants a cleaner amp with just a little hair on the edge and some chicken’ pickin’ and hybrid Bakersfield squawk to really make it happen.

AT THE BELL

I tested these spankin’ planks at an entirely fitting gig with an original alt-country band in a 100-seat spit-and-sawdust roots-rock club, playing them through a Matchless HC30 set to half power. After warming up with the familiar old ’57 (along here as chaperone), I gave the Guitar Mill a spin, and really enjoyed its snappy attack, bright cutting tonality, and easy playability. Having started the second set with the Hahn 228, however—intending to swap back to the vintage Telecaster for reference a few songs in— I found I just couldn’t put it down, and that’s saying a lot. Also, and this is telling, the Hahn with its 7.2k½ Fralin bridge pickup was actually notably louder than my original ’57 Telecaster with its whopping 7.75k½ bridge pickup, so chalk up another point for neck fit and abundant wood resonance. Having queried at the top of this adventure whether any bolt-neck repro can be worth $3,800, I had to conclude mid-gig that a guitar this inspiring certainly can. The more I played the Hahn 228, the more I wanted to play it, and just to play period. When the dust had settled, I felt the Guitar Mill was a good custom T-Style for the money, and entirely worth considering if its spec fits your needs and budget. But the Hahn 228 possessed a rare and unquantifiable magic that resulted in superlative, addictive tone, and which makes it worthy of an Editors’ Pick Award.

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