JJ Guitars Retro Lux V

February 14, 2006

The Retro Lux V (approximately $2,200 direct, depending on the exchange rate) is entirely handmade the old-fashioned way—without the aid of computer-controlled tooling at any stage in the process. Despite a superficial resemblance to PRS guitars, the Retro Lux V is a unique instrument with a very distinct sound and aesthetic feel. The body is constructed of alder, and combined with its maple top, Brazilian mahogany neck, and rosewood fretboard, the Retro Lux V produces a nicely balanced range of tones—from clear highs to rich and focused low mids. Interestingly, the rosewood used for the fretboard was obtained from the original Burns factory in England, and it dates back to 1959.

The Retro Lux V’s workmanship is superb throughout—from its beautifully bookmatched top and matching headstock veneer, to the immaculate inlay and binding work, to the perfectly set “D”-profile neck. The guitar’s hardware is of equal quality, consisting of Gotoh Magnum Lock tuners, a Wilkinson floating-tremolo bridge, a fancy jack plate engraved with the serial number, and two custom-manufactured humbuckers. The pickups are selected with a 3-way toggle, and controlled via a single Volume knob (placed strategically for pinky manipulation) and a single Tone control (which contains a push-pull “partial coil-tap” switch).

Activating the partial coil-tap circuit causes the upper coil of each humbucker to sound louder than the lower coil, producing tones reminiscent of a single-coil, but still far from, say, Strat territory. When both pickups are selected, you get the two semi-single-coil sounds in tandem. At all times, the hum-canceling function of the pickups remains intact.

After all the jostling that occurred while crossing the Big Pond, the guitar required a few adjustments to eliminate buzz on the high strings, but I was able to make the tweaks using the supplied tools. I tested the guitar through various amplifiers, including a JBL-loaded Fender Twin Reverb, a Rivera Chubster 40 combo, a Reeves Custom 30 with a 2x12 cab, and a 50-watt Marshall half-stack.

The Retro Lux V has a bigger sound than many similarly constructed instruments—partly because of the relatively hot pickups, but also due to the unusual combination of tone woods. The neck pickup is wonderfully clear and warm on clean amp settings, and becomes increasingly resonant with additional gain, but never loses focus. The bridge pickup is also quite clear, though edgier, with a toothy snarl that sounds great on crunchy rhythm and high-gain lead parts. Engaging the partial coil-tap switch on one or both pickups thins out the mids without eviscerating the overall tone, allowing rhythm sounds to punch through more clearly. The unusually versatile tone control gradually rolls off highs without sacrificing mids until about two-thirds of the way through its range.

The Retro Lux V is a stylish and finely crafted instrument that offers a different take on the solidbody/dual-humbucker formula. It dishes up the sorts of classic rock and blues tones associated with that configuration—along with some distinctly different tones of its own—and its warmth, clarity, and extended lows make it a fine candidate for jazz and jazz-fusion players, as well.

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