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Roundup: Six High-Value 6-Strings

January 30, 2014
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The logical step for most players when they come into some cash is to start buying more expensive guitars. Sure, putting it into gold or some other commodity might make more financial sense in the long run, but what’s the fun in that when so many fine electric and acoustic guitars are beckoning you to add them to your collection?

In most cases you really do get what you pay for, too, as instruments that jump past the $2,000 mark are typically made from select woods that have been properly dried, feature premium-grade pickups, bridges, and tuners, and have much more hand work in them compared to lower-cost production guitars. But perhaps the most important element of any high-end guitar is the builder, since that’s where the artistic part comes into play.

People who devote themselves to making guitars are a special breed. There’s no college diploma for this line of employment. Most of today’s builders had to learn their craft through years of hard work repairing, modifying, and building guitars in virtual anonymity before getting any traction or notoriety in the high-end guitar market. As such, custom builders usually have very specific design ideas that greatly affect how their guitars feel, play, sound, and look. You can find instruments that have been distressed to look like they’ve been in service for 50 years and ones that gleam like a brand new Mercedes—but either way the experience is often like slipping on a pair of custom-made boots compared to buying them at Wal-Mart. You know instantly when everything is right, and finding that sense of “rightness” is one of the most intriguing parts of the boutique guitar experience.

High-end models come in so many varieties now that it’s a bit mindboggling— from Custom Shop Fenders and Memphis-made Gibsons to the Private Stock beauties from PRS to hybrid wonders from Saul Koll and Dennis Fano to the aged-metal artistry of James Trussart. And those are just a few of many companies that devote their entire production to this specialized sector of the guitar market.

For this roundup we selected six very different guitars that land on various points of the custom guitar compass. We tested them through amps from Blackstar, Bad Cat, Fender, PRS, Victoria, Orange, Marshall, Mesa/Boogie, and Vox, and evaluated each guitar on its playability, construction, hardware, and, of course, the elusive vibe factor. —ART THOMPSON

 

FANO ALT DE FACTO GF6

Dennis Fano specializes in guitars that might have existed in an alternate American reality of the ’50s and ’60s. Manufactured under the auspices of the Premier Builder’s Guild, the Alt de Facto GF6 is a model Gibson might have released back then had they, rather than Fender, designed the semi-hollow Starcaster.

The version I tested felt so light I had to check whether there was a center block—which there is— but, unlike most plywood semi-hollows, the body is a solid piece of lightweight alder that’s been hollowed out to create the block. The maple neck has almost no finish in the playing area, and, like the distressed body, looks and feels very broken in. In deference to those who want a $3,000 instrument to look spanking new, Fano offers un-distressed finishes too. For me, though, the wear on the Fano is artfully applied, and seems in keeping with the retro design. (Peter DePasquale of the Premiere Builders Guild states, “I want to emphasize that the lacquer is stripped from the maple neck to give it that broken-in feel. It’s not satin lacquer, or anything like that. It’s the way the guitar was distressed.)

The Alt de Facto GF6 doesn’t just look old, it is one of the very few new guitars I have tested that also feels and sounds vintage. The 25.5"-scale neck plays like a ’60s Strat that has been given a compound radius and expert refretting. The body resonance has all the quirky character of a Harmony Rocket I used to own: quick attack, followed by a quick decay, with a healthy following sustain.

The test model came with a single Volume control and an optional 10-position ToneStyler control that shifts the pickup’s resonant frequency and adjusts the treble roll-off point. I like having ten gradual adjustments that range from bypass to darkly honking, but a numbered ring would have made it easier to access my favorite settings instead of having to count clicks.

When played clean, the neck tone conjured up a P-9 equipped Gibson ES-175—warm as a winter fire and just as woody—while the bridge setting produced classic P-90 bark. Run through a Jetter Jet Drive and a Trombetta Feederbone fuzz, the GF6 offered up a dazzling array of distorted tones. At low- and high-gain settings, the Tonestyler helped the Fralin P-90s drive the Jetter and Feederbone in musical ways from subtle to extreme. The resonant semi-hollow body also helped me achieve controllable feedback, even at living room volumes.

This unique instrument comes stock with gobs of visual and tonal character, and its options include a laundry list of woods, Bigsby vibrato, and humbuckers or TV Jones Filter’Trons. What a great guitar, and with vintage Fender Starcasters now going for four grand, the GF6 seems like a bargain for anyone who seeks an offbeat, stylish, semi-hollow electric. —MICHAEL ROSS

FANO ALT DE FACTO GF6

CONTACT fanoguitars.com
PRICE $2,995 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1.65"
NECK Maple
FRETBOARD Rosewood
FRETS 22 Jescar 6105
TUNERS Aged nickel Gotoh Klusons
BODY Carved alder (top and back)
BRIDGE TonePros Tune-o-Matic
PICKUPS Fralin P-90
CONTROLS Volume, ToneStyler, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS Dark Horse, .010s
WEIGHT 7 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Vintage looks, feel, and tone in a new instrument.
CONCERNS None.

 
 
KOLL TROUBADOUR

Guitarists from the edgier end of the spectrum—i.e., David Torn, Elliot Sharp, Henry Kaiser, and Lee Ranaldo—have long prized Saul Koll’s custom guitars. In 2009 he joined the Premier Builder’s Guild, a move that has helped spread the word about these distinctive instruments to the guitar community at large.

Koll calls the Troubadour his take on the earliest solidbody guitars from California, but the Troubadour’s unique shape, two-point bridge, and inlay-free 12" radius fretboard, conspire to create a guitar as modern as tomorrow. The maple neck is advertised as a vintage “V,” which I am sure you can order, but to my mitts, the test model felt more like a comfortable “C.” The well seated and finished tall/narrow frets combined with the flat-ish radius to make bending a breeze. Thanks to a flawless setup, I could whip up and down the neck with an ease above my usual pay grade.

If you are going to have just one pickup, the choice is obviously crucial, and Koll’s selection of the TV Jones Power’Tron Plus proves an inspired one. It offers plenty of snap and sparkle for country licks or pop jangle, yet its abundant output and focused mids and low-end will easily drive a pedal or amp into the crunch zone on the way to a creamy and articulate tone at higher gain settings

The single Tone control is also well thought out. On a two-pickup guitar I might have preferred a more extreme treble roll-off. But here I liked the chosen capacitor, which just took the edge off at the beginning of the pot’s rotation, and when fully rolled off, made the sound similar enough to that of a neck pickup that I rarely missed not having one.

The instrument’s narrow headstock is another fine piece of engineering. Despite being a three-on-a-side configuration, it creates a straight string pull. With the addition of a well-cut nut, this design helped the guitar maintain stable tuning during extensive whammy work.

If keeping it simple is the mantra you live by, the Koll Troubadour provides a surprising range of tones in a Spartan but well-crafted and elegant package. Well done! —MICHAEL ROSS

KOLL TROUBADOUR

CONTACT kollforpbg.com
PRICE $1,995 retail

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1.687"
NECK Maple
FRETBOARD Rosewood
FRETS Dunlop 6105
TUNERS Gotoh vintage-style Klusons
BODY Alder
BRIDGE Gotoh Tremolo
PICKUPS TV Jones Power’Tron Plus Controls Volume, Tone
FACTORY STRINGS Cleartone, .010s
WEIGHT 7 lbs 11 oz
BUILT USA
KUDOS Quality craftsmanship. Versatile for a single-pickup instrument.
CONCERNS None.

 
 
RED ROOSTER STT RAT RODSTER

One of the hippest aspects of Leo Fender's guitars is the infinitely customizable possibilities that his designs provide. Whether it’s function, aesthetics, or both, a multitude of customizing options await artisanal-minded players and builders alike. Red Rooster guitars uses the classic Tele template (the company also makes Les Paul-style bolt-ons) for its STT Rat Rodster, which sports the same basic functions of Leo’s brainchild, but with some added razzle-dazzle.

Out of the case, it’s plain to see that the Rat Rodster’s construction is meticulous: airtight neck pocket, expertly cut nut, and wonderful fretwork—all hallmarks of going the extra mile. The guitar’s hardware also screams high class, especially the Joe Barden compensated saddles and bridge— definitely Tele-freak-approved! But it’s the perforated aluminum and matte black finish that keep the STT Rat Rodster from being a simple Tele knockoff. The finish and binding are flawless, and the aluminum looks cool as hell. However, run your fingers around the edges of the pickguard and control panel and they’re quite sharp to the touch. When I was playing, the roughness of the edges wasn’t much of an issue. Still, it’s not inconceivable that you could cut yourself on these bad boys.

The Rat Rodster’s neck, which has barely any finish, harkens back to a time when men were men, and a guitar’s neck may have a slight resemblance to a baseball bat. That being said, it sure is comfy, yielding a satisfying feel that makes you want to wring out every last note detail.

Even before I plugged the Rat Rodster in, I was impressed by its loud, beaming, acoustic tones—always a good sign. Plugged into a variety of amps, including a Fender Twin Reverb, Princeton Reverb, and Deluxe Reverb, as well as an early-’70s 50-watt Marshall, and a Vox AC30, the Red Rooster’s tones are undeniably classic Telecaster with a biting rear-pickup snarl that twangs with abandon. Whether I was running crisp and clean, straight into a Twin Reverb on three, or jackin’ a variety of fuzzes into the front-end of an AC30, the Rat Rodster graciously took all comers. Its bawdy yet detailed rear pickup tones can turn on a dime from lilting sparkle to fangy attack worthy of a rabid honey badger. The middle and front positions are also banging, with big, clear tones that are tastefully rendered no matter what rig I plugged into or what type of sounds I was looking for. Snappy attack, clucky dual-pickup tones, and an authoritative punch are as much a part of the Rat Rodster’s makeup as funky, palm-muted rhythm lines and fat, burly lead tones.

If you’re fiending for classic Tele tones, but you want something that pops visually with a personality all its own, then the Red Rooster STT Rat Rodster may be the cheese you’re looking for. Best of all, this Rat isn’t just a looker. Its tones are a bold take on classic Tele sonics, yet they aren’t hyped-sounding in any way. Add to this its excellent construction, hardware, and pickups, and you have a pretty intriguing package. –DARRIN FOX

RED ROOSTER GUITARS STT RAT RODSTER

CONTACT redroosterguitars.com
PRICE $2,999 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Maple, bolt-on
FRETBOARD Maple
FRETS 21
TUNERS Staggered vintage-style Klusons
BODY One-piece solid North Eastern pine
BRIDGE Joe Barden bridge plate with three compensated brass saddles
PICKUPS Jason Lollar
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXL115, .011-.049
WEIGHT 7 lbs. 6 oz
BUILT USA
KUDOS Distinctive looks. Excellent playability.
CONCERNS Rough edges on the pickguard.

 
 
RS GUITARWORKS SLAB ELECTRO

Played by pickers from Marty Stuart to Joe Perry, Winchester, Kentucky-based RS Guitarworks specializes in vintage-style custom instruments that echo American guitar classics. The Slab Electro’s body shape and three-saddle bridge are straight from the Telecaster playbook, while the semi-hollow pine and Masonite body in black sparkle, metal nut, flatter (16" radius) rosewood fretboard, pair of “lipstick” pickups, and big knobs echo Danos and Silvertones of yore.

The obvious question here is what makes this instrument cost more than what you would pay for a vintage version, and five or more times the cost of a reissue? For starters you get superior electronics: RS Guitarworks SuperPot for Volume, CTS custom taper audio Tone pot, a Luxe paper-in-oil tone cap, and a Switchcraft switch and output jack. The custom G&G Brown Alligator case is also a major upgrade from the cardboard cases that came with the original. But more important is the meticulous construction: the fretwork is perfect, the finish is flawless (at least as much as possible with Masonite and white tape), and—unlike the originals—the Slab Electro has a fully adjustable trussrod.

I have owned both original Danelectros and reissues and the Slab Electro projects a more even frequency spectrum and more acoustic ring than either of them. The Curtis Novak Lipstick Set on our early review guitar tested closer to the originals than the reissues: They are low in output—especially the bridge pickup, which was thin sounding but not harsh. Roy Bowen at RS says the final production model bridge pickups will be improved with a new base plate and better balanced with the neck unit, but still close to “vintage” in output.

Like the ’50s Danos, the Slab Electro begs to be played loud. With the amp turned up, but still clean, the tone filled out nicely without getting muddy. I found the pickups responded better when pushing into a distorted amp (as opposed to trying to overdrive a preamp stage with them), and at high-gain settings the Slab Electro maintained its clarity even when cranking out some Black Keys fuzzed-out blues licks. Backing off the Tone control when using the neck pickup with heavy pedal or amp distortion also produced a throaty roar that was imbued with that signature twangy “lipstick” color. Very cool!

If you are a fan of the vintage Danelectro sound but want a high-quality handbuilt instrument that is lifetime guaranteed, you may find the Slab Electro worthy of the ticket price into this unique hybrid realm. —MICHAEL ROSS

RS GUITARWORKS SLAB ELECTRO

CONTACT rsguitarworks.net
PRICE $2,695 retail

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1.65”
NECK Maple, bolt-on
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25” scale
FRETS Dunlop 6125
TUNERS TonePros Klusons
BODY Pine/Masonite, semi-hollow
BRIDGE Glendale/RS with RS Aluminum Saddles
PICKUPS Curtis Novak Lipstick
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS Ernie Ball, .010-.046
WEIGHT 6 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Excellent build. Even tonal response.
CONCERNS Vintage-style pickups may be too low-output for some users.

 
 
TMG DOVER

The Dover, from TMG's Playa Series, represents just how far 29-year-old Australian builders Taylor and Shane (they prefer to use first names only) will go to refine a classic Fender design to suit the needs of players who love vintage guitars and want some of the same elements in a new instrument. To this end, TMG’s Playa series guitars are custom made to the specifications of the customer, and can be ordered with whatever you can dream up in terms of woods, neck shape, pickups, hardware, finish, and cosmetic details. TMG also offers a Standard line, which comes in at a lower price and uses more standardized woods and components.

The Dover has a flamed maple neck that rules not only for its baseball bat girth, but also for its amazing figuring and subtle black tinting under a gloss nitro-lacquer finish. You’d never find a stick like this on an old Strat, and the rosewood ’board with rolled edges and a radius of 10" makes for an incredibly cool playing feel as you press the strings to the crowns of the polished 6100 frets.

The Dover definitely scores in the playability department, but there’s no denying the righteous look of this guitar either. From the dinged-up seafoam green paint on the ash body to the aging on the metal parts to the creamy Bakelite pickguard and knobs, this is a guitar that has been fastidiously attended to so as to provide an exceptional visual experience to complement what is a light, balanced, and beautifully set up performance machine for the discriminating player. The Dover we received features a vintage-style Callaham bridge, which was essentially in lock-down mode with the five springs stretching to a fully screwed-in claw. Not surprisingly, the tuning remained rock solid throughout our testing, and the instrument intonated solidly and sweetly in all regions of the neck.

The Slider Classic Vintage ’69s pickups are exacting replicas of “single-build PE” Fender pickups from 1969. They feature vintage staggered and hand-beveled Alnico 5 poles, 42-gauge single-build PE wire, and “forbon” bobbins, and are optimized for their positions to deliver sweet top-end, burnished mids, and round, stringy lows. The bridge setting sounds bright but never icepicky, and it’s easy to get buttery smooth overdriven sounds from it by rolling down the Tone knob a bit. The neck pickup has a cool blend of fatness and upper-end snarl—perfect for blues solos through a gained-up amp or even jazz through a clean rig—and in-between these extremes lie sweet, phasey tones in position 2 and 4 and a bold “middle” tone with a brawny jangle that sounds great for anything from blues rock to Brit pop.

One of the hippest guitars of its type I’ve ever played, the TMG Dover’s refined tones and inspired playing feel make it a highly satisfying choice for anyone seeking a guitar that offers the “magic vintage Strat” experience, but in a highly personalized form that would be unattainable with a vintage instrument. —ART THOMPSON

TAYLOR McGRATH DOVER

CONTACT taylormcgrath.com
PRICE $2,999 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Flamed maple
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25.5" scale (10" radius)
FRETS 21
TUNERS Gotoh
BODY Ash
BRIDGE Callaham bridge, block, spring claw, saddles, and springs.
PICKUPS Slider Classic Vintage ’69s
CONTROLS Volume, Tone (neck) Tone (bridge), 5-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS Ernie Ball, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7 lbs 6 oz
BUILT Australia
KUDOS Superb build quality. Inspiring tones and playability.
CONCERNS None.

 
 
VIKTORIAN GRACE STATUS

This sleek-looking guitar features a one-piece body and neck made from carbon fiber that results in a lightweight instrument with an alluring shape and a nimble feel. The large air space within the body gives the Grace Status a lot of natural resonance, and the high strength-to-weight ratio of the graphite ResoWeave construction makes for a very stable instrument with a lot of natural sustain. The Phoenix Red racing-stripe theme looks sharp on this guitar, and the painted areas groove well with the black weave on the headstock facing and the center strip on the front and back of the body. Viewed from the side, the front and back are arched quite symmetrically, and even the carbon fiber control cavity cover plate is shaped to conform to the curved surface. Quite a bit of engineering in all of this.

The Grace has a great-feeling C-shaped neck with medium profile and a generous 14" fretboard radius. The GoldEVO frets and nut are beautifully attended to, and combined with the low, easy action and polished fretboard, the playing feel is excellent. The low E string popped out of its nut slot when doing aggressive down-strokes, but that’s probably just an anomaly on this guitar. The guitar intonates well too, and even with fairly light strings it pumps out impressive acoustic volume.

A molded-in section on the top provides rock-solid support for the bridge, tailpiece, and pickups. There are no mounting rings for the humbuckers, so to raise and lower them you access the adjusting screws through the angled openings on each side. Look closely and you’ll also see there’s no trussrod to adjust—the hollow graphite neck doesn’t require one.

Played through our test amps, the Grace kicked a full-bodied tone with a quick and dynamic response to picking attack. It’s actually quite easy to forget you’re playing a composite guitar, as the sound isn’t clinical or overly pristine. The feeling is more akin to playing something made from very hard woods, but without the heft. So you get the sustain and solidity behind the notes, but with an acoustic-like openness to the sound and a willingness to go into controlled feedback that lighter wooden guitars—particularly chambered types—always seem more adept at. The clean tones certainly sparkle with top-end crispness, but the lower frequencies are always very present, and at times I found myself rolling back the Body control in order to get more slice. You can also activate the S-1 coil-split switch on the Tone control to slim the tones, albeit with a slight loss of volume.

The Grace’s humbuckers aren’t overly hot, but they have plenty of output to drive a clean tube amp into distortion or push a gained-up amp or pedal into heavy overdrive. Either way, they maintain excellent definition and articulation and don’t lose their brightness when you turn down. The Tone and Body controls (Bourns Pro Audio pots along with paper-in-oil caps) also work in tandem to expand the range of textures you can get, enabling the Grace to field anything from jazz, blues, and rockabilly to rock, fusion, and beyond.

A thoroughly modern instrument in almost every way, the Grace Status takes the high-end theme in a forward-looking direction without compromising any of the satisfaction you get from a fine traditional electric. Amazing Grace indeed! —ART THOMPSON

VIKTORIAN GRACE STATUS

CONTACT viktorian.com
PRICE $3,279 street

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Composite
FRETBOARD Composite, 24 27/32" scale (14")
FRETS 22 gold EVO Jumbo
TUNERS Viktorian staggered vintage-style
BODY One piece composite
BRIDGE Tune-o-Matic style with stop tailpiece
PICKUPS Viktorian Modern Classic humbuckers w/alnico magnets
CONTROLS Volume, Tone (w/S-1 coil-split switch), Body, 3-way pickup selector
FACTORY STRINGS Cleartone, .010s
WEIGHT 5.3 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Superbly designed. One-piece ResoWeave construction. Very light. Sweet playability and tones.
CONCERNS Low E string jumps out of its nut slot under aggressive down-stroke picking.

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