The six guitars on review here from Carvin, Hutchins, G&L, Parkwood, Tregan, and Washburn vary greatly in style, sound, and intent, and they also underscore how the prices of today’s guitars are all over the map. Some companies offer incredible bang-for-the-buck, while others push premium-priced models targeted at well-heeled pickers who want the best that money can buy. No matter what you’re looking for in a guitar, we hope you’ll find a model here that inspires you to try something new for yourself.
We tested these guitars in live and studio settings, using a selection of amplifiers that included a Bad Cat ’Lil 15, a Budda 10th Anniversary Twinmaster, Mesa/Boogie Express 5:25 and Blue Angel combos, a new Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb, a Hughes & Kettner zenTera, a Savage Rohr 15, and a EVH 5150 half-stack.
Tested by Matt Blackett
I remember seeing the cool Carvin ads in GP as a kid. There would be a picture of Craig Chaquico or Steve Vai looking bitchin’ with their Carvin gear as the copy told of top-quality craftsmanship and custom-shop options for rock-bottom, factory-direct prices. I gambled a stamp and sent away for their free catalog and, although I never got one of their guitars, I learned a lot about woods, hardware, and electronics just from studying that booklet. (I did, however, eventually become the owner of a righteous mid-’80s Carvin bass. And no, it is not for sale, Bass Player editors!) Anyway, you no longer have to send away for a Carvin catalog—you need simply to click to carvin.com to see how easy it is to create your own guitar, like their new CS6 California Single.
Due to legal actions, the CS6 is a guitar that might have been difficult to make just a few years ago (ask a man named Smith), but here is Carvin’s entry in the single-cutaway, two-humbucker, maple-on-mahogany world. This guitar’s cosmetics are just plain stunning. The quilted maple top is so deep, dimensional, and undulating that you could drown in it. The mahogany body and neck look smoky and warm, and the ebony fretboard (with abalone blocks) and gold hardware keep everything upscale and super classy. The CS6’s workmanship is flawless. The fret ends are all smooth and perfectly even, and the finish is expertly applied.
Playing the CS6 through a host of amps revealed excellent humbucker punch on clean and dirty tones. Although you can’t see them under the gold covers, the 22 pole pieces of the classic Carvin humbuckers deliver balanced, dynamic tones that respond well to different picking attacks.
The volume knob on the CS6 is wonderfully voiced, and it expands on the guitar’s tone potential. I liked every bit of its range on both pickups. I was able to take a screaming distortion tone and clean it up gradually with no loss of highs. It seems a shame there’s only a Master Volume, because I know some great timbres would be possible if you could vary the relative levels of the two pickups. (Carvin offers separate Volume and Tone knobs as an option.) Further enhancing the range of sounds is the ability to split the pickups. This is a feature that doesn’t always work for me—half a humbucker does not a single-coil make—but I love the way these pickups sound split. They offer a great way for me to come down dynamically during a verse, and then bring more punch to a chorus or a solo. Carvin’s attention to detail and commitment to customer service have not changed in decades, so it’s no surprise the company has done a great job with the California Single.
SPECSCarvin, (858) 487-1600; carvin.com Model CS6 California SinglePrice $1,829 direct, as testedNut Width 1.69"Neck Mahogany with optional quilted maple headstock overlay and abalone logoFretboard 25"-scale ebony with 12" radius and optional abalone block inlaysFrets 22 medium-jumboBody Mahogany with optional quilted maple topPickups Optional Carvin S22B bridge/S22J neck humbuckersControls Master Volume and Tone (push/pull pot on Tone control for coil splitting), 3-way pickup selector Bridge Tune-o-Matic-style with through-body stringingHardware Optional Gold Sperzel locking tunersFactory Strings Elixir 1046, .010-.046Weight 8.4 lbsKudos Gorgeous look. Rock-solid construction. Good range of tones.Concerns None.
Tested by Dave Hunter
Created in honor of Leo Fender’s wife, Phyllis, the Phyllis Blondie is essentially a deluxe update of the Mary Kaye Stratocaster, but with the cosmetics tweaked, and a host of subtle mods added that reflect Leo’s own constant striving to advance his classic designs. A transparent blond polyester finish highlights the nicely grained swamp-ash body, complemented beautifully by the pearloid pickguard and gloss-finished maple neck. The frets are all faultlessly dressed, and the neck back conforms to a rounded “C” profile that tends toward a soft “U” shape at its apex (G&L aficionados will know it as the #1 neck spec).
Legend has it that Leo adjusted the blond finish used at G&L to more closely match Phyllis’ hair, and the company’s Custom Creations Department has further tweaked the color to achieve a more natural sheen (what they call “Blondie Blond”). Contrary to expectations, perhaps, the hardware is not gold plated, but the chrome looks elegant without being gaudy.
I have always found G&L’s Dual Fulcrum vibrato bridge to be smooth and efficient, and the example here is no exception. It’s a little more pliant and forgiving for slight, Bigsby-like wobbles than most vintage-style Stratocaster vibrato systems, but it also handles near-divebomb dips with equal ease, and it returns well to pitch. The G and B strings ping a little at the nut, however, when using the vibrato, or bending hard.
The Blondie’s electronics get a little more interesting with the inclusion of passive Bass and Treble controls (although both knobs are labeled Tone). Pulling up the Bass knob adds the neck pickup to any selection, offering the popular bridge-plus-neck and all-three combinations missing from a standard Stratocaster wiring configuration.
The Blondie is beautifully set up and plays sweetly. Through a piggyback blond ’61 Fender Tremolux, I elicited easy country twang from the bridge pickup, and smooth, throaty Chicago blues-style honey tones from the neck pickup. The bridge-plus-neck option yielded rounded, slightly scooped sounds that were great for anything from full-voiced fingerpicking to classic R&B rhythms. Added to this, the Bass and Treble controls offer a lot more tweakability than standard treble-bleed tone controls. Injected into a Dr Z Z-28 1x12 with an overdrive pedal in the loop, the Blondie excelled at hot, yet slightly raw blues and rock voices.
All in all, the Phyllis Blondie is an outstanding instrument for looks, tone, and playability. The model is limited to 100 numbered pieces, and each is signed on the back of the headstock by Phyllis Fender herself. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Blondie model will be donated in Phyllis Fender’s honor to The Smile Train—a charity that provides free cleft lip and palate surgery to underprivileged children around the world.
SPECSG&L Guitars, (714) 897-6766; glguitars.com Model Phyllis BlondiePrice $3,000 retail/$2,295 streetNut width 1 5/8"Neck Maple bolt-on with rounded C profileScale 25 1/2"Frets 22 medium-jumbo 6100Body Two-piece swamp ashPickups Three G&L alnico V single-coilsControls Master Volume, PTB (Passive Treble Bass—push-pull Expansion switch on Bass control activates neck pickup on any selection), 5-way pickup selectorBridge G&L Dual Fulcrum vibrato tailpieceTuners Die-cast Schallers with pearl buttonsFactory Strings D’Addario, .010-.046Weight 7.9 lbsKudos Superb, versatile tones. Beautifully built and finished.Concerns Slight string “pinging” caused by tight nut slots on the B and G strings.
Tested by Barry Cleveland
Founded by Gary Hutchins and Alan Entwhistle, Hutchins Guitars markets its instruments as “retro sexy.” The Chinese-made Fenton is relatively well constructed for an instrument in its price range. The body is cut from a nice piece of wood, and is finished expertly with no bad joints or other obvious rough spots. The binding and inlay work are quite good. The “medium” frets—which are actually a little on the large side—are well placed and finished, with only the slightest roughness to their edges. The nut is properly cut and cleanly mounted.
However, the electronics-related hardware is not given the same attention. The single Volume knob is located within easy pinky reach, but the pot offers enough resistance to make precision volume swells difficult. And when I gave the knob a slightly more aggressive turn, the pot overshot its range, and the whole unit came loose from the body. I removed the knob with some difficulty and secured the pot back onto the body, but from that point the volume went completely to zero after the first one-eighth turn.
Similarly, the Tone control worked fine at first, but it soon suffered the same fate as the Volume control, leaving the sound permanently “brown” in the wrong way. The output jack also needed to be tightened, and though it worked fine, whenever a plug was inserted, it went all the way in, and then mysteriously popped back out about a 16th of an inch. An examination of the internal components revealed them to be of questionable quality, with equally dubious wiring. [Hutchins says it is making changes in production to address these issues.]
The Fenton played easily, and its intonation was generally good—though notes above the 18th fret tended to be sharp, particularly on the first three strings, and a few notes on the fourth and fifth strings buzzed between the fifth and seventh frets. (A better setup would most likely remedy these problems.) On a more positive note, the tuners functioned well, and the guitar held its tuning quite impressively.
Hardware and setup issues aside, the Fenton sounded pretty good. Pickups can be the weak link on a budget instrument, but here they are one of the stronger points. The neck pickup, in particular, has an appealing warmth and clarity that works well for clean and slightly dirty rhythm parts—although it can be a little unfocused on highly distorted amp settings. The bridge pickup is also pleasantly clear sounding, though its output is lower than that of the neck pickup. Surprisingly, the guitar was loudest when both pickups were selected. That said, the guitar’s overall output and sustain are a tad anemic. Given the many options for guitars with similar features in this price range, the Fenton would not be my first choice.
SPECSHutchins, (954) 581-0377; hutchinsguitarsusa.comModel FentonPrice $575 direct (includes British Tweed hard case)Nut Width 11 1/16"Fretboard 24 3/4"-scale bound rosewood with mother-of-pearl dot inlaysFrets 22 mediumBody BasswoodPickups Two Entwhistle-designed humbuckersControls Volume, Tone, 3-way selector switchBridge Tune-o-Matic-styleTuners Vintage-styleFactory Strings N/AWeight 6.3 lbsKudos Lightweight. Holds tuning well. Good-quality finish, binding, and inlay work.Concerns Extremely cheap pots, switch, and jack. Fret buzz and poor intonation in spots.
The PW-H4 Hybrid electric-acoustic offers a nouveau twist on the thinline, semi-solid electric format. The solid mahogany body back is chambered to create a substantial amount of airspace—up to about 1/2" on either side of the bridge—and the Australian blackwood top sports dual saber soundholes and a violinburst polyurethane finish. Parkwood senior technician John Park says Australian blackwood is somewhat similar to koa, although it’s not as bright sounding. It certainly looks sweet, with a deep, multi-dimensional grain. The overall effect of the six-ply top binding, rosewood pickup rings, single-bound fretboard with dot position markers, and chrome hardware is one of understated elegance. The two-piece, glued-in mahogany neck is set with a slight pitch, and the rosewood fretboard’s curved edges provide a comfortable playing feel. The frets are all snag-free and beautifully dressed.
The Duncan magnetic pickups are routed to a standard 3-way toggle selector and master Volume and Tone controls, while the Fishman Powerbridge runs through a concentric pot for control of Volume and Midrange/Contour. A 3-way mini-toggle provides magnetic/ both/piezo selections, and a stereo output jack lets you split the electric signal to a guitar amp and the acoustic signal to an acoustic amp or P.A. Or, you can plug in a mono cord for blended electric and acoustic sounds (as selected by the mini toggle).
Unplugged, the PW-H4 is loud, round, and jangly—not acoustic-guitar loud, mind you, but lively for a semi-solid guitar, with some genuine resonance at the soundholes, and a bold, sustaining ring. That said, the feel is definitely electric, and playing-wise it’s a very easy ride from nut to neck joint, with a bend-friendly action to boot. Amped up alternately through a TopHat Super Deluxe combo, a 1957 Maestro GA-45, a Marshall TSL60 half-stack, and a small acoustic P.A. system, this boldness and resonance rang through in all settings.
The Duncan pickups are warm, round, and well defined, with plenty of punch. They have enough gain and bite to get a boutique tubester like the TopHat singing, while also retaining good clarity with the juice wound up on the Marshall’s lead channel. Despite the PW-H4’s very semi-hollow character, it’s also impressively resistant to feedback. In piezo-only mode it kicks out a better flat-top impersonation than many hybrid guitars I have tried. The PW-H4 acquits itself very well for anything from muscular rock to fusion to electro-acoustic stage work. If you’re a sideman who is tired of running to the guitar rack between songs, the PW-H4 may have everything you need in one convenient package.
SPECSParkwood Guitars, (714) 532-6657; parkwoodguitars.comModel PW-H4 HybridPrice $1,600 retail/$999 streetNut width 11 1/16"Neck Mahogany with “C” profileFretboard 24 3/4" scale rosewood with 12" radiusFrets 22 medium-jumboBody Chambered mahogany with Australian Blackwood topPickups Two Seymour Duncan mini humbuckers (SM3B bridge/SM1N neck), Fishman saddle transducersControls Master Volume and Tone, 3-way selector for magnetic pickups, concentric Volume/Contour control for piezo pickup, 3-way piezo/both/magnetic switchBridge Fishman Powerbridge with through-body stringingTuners Die-cast Grover tunersFactory Strings D’Addario Jazz Rock, .011-.049Weight 7 lbsKudos Beautiful and unusual top wood. Solid build and sound quality. Extremely versatile.Concerns A dead battery will mute the magnetic-pickup output when a mono cord is connected.
According to Merriam-Webster, a shaman is a “priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events.” So, when the Tregan Shaman arrived at the GP offices, I expected it to cure my rickets, find my car keys, and give my Oakland A’s a world championship. That didn’t happen, but, never one to despair, I set about testing the Shaman Standard through a Bad Cat Mini Cat, a Budda Twinmaster, and a Cornford Carrera. The orangeburst on the Shaman’s earthly body is delicious, and it goes nicely with the cream pickup rings and switch plate. The solid mahogany body has a cool, subtle carve, and the neck is on the thinner side of vintage—think ’60s ES-335. The headstock looks slightly undersized, and it creates a less-than-straight string pull, which—coupled with some jagged marks on the nut—made me nervous about the Shaman’s tuning stability, but this guitar gets in tune easily and stays there.
The Shaman’s neck is smooth and solid, and the fret ends are uniform and clean. Tregan has finished just the edge of the rosewood fretboard, which is comfortably rounded for an inviting tactile experience that draws more on the PRS school of ergonomics than Gibson. A very close inspection reveals a few stray file marks, and what appears to be filler in the wood grain, but these are no big deal. The Shaman feels really good.
The good feeling was intensified when, before even plugging in, I bashed an open A chord, and was greeted with a pianistic ring, good volume, and resonant sustain. The Shaman definitely puts out the kind of quality, set-neck vibe that makes you feel good about digging in, with a great setup and even playability all over the neck. Enthused, I fired up some amps and began my divination. The humbuckers are punchy, and deliver good rock tones. They do better with thick tones than delicate ones—there’s not a ton of detail—but I got warm, sweet lead sounds on both, with the neck pickup giving rise to a convincing Carlos impersonation when full up. Trying to work the Volume knob à la Santana was not fun, however, because rolling the control back even just a bit robbed the tone of pretty much all of its high end. The tone controls, on the other hand, do a great train-whistle/wah sound when worked in the style of Gatton and Buchanan, and only get super dark when turned all the way off.
A statement on the Tregan Web site says: “Plays like the pro’s, priced for everyone.” A lofty goal, but the company delivers some features and playability that typically come on much more expensive instruments, and that’s a great start.
SPECSTregan, (717) 262-0010; treganguitars.comModel Shaman StandardPrice $754 retail/$550 streetNut Width 1 5/8"Neck Set mahoganyFretboard 25 1/2"-scale rosewoodFrets 22 medium-jumboBody Carved solid mahoganyPickups Two alnico V humbuckersControls Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way pickup selector Bridge Tune-o-Matic-styleHardware Chrome Grover tuning machinesFactory Strings .010-.048Weight 7.7 lbsKudos Smooth playing. Impressive sustain.Concerns Volume controls murk treble response when rolled off.
Tested by Art Thompson
For many acoustic players, bigger is better when it comes to guitars. The cannon-like projection of a dreadnought is a thing unto itself—a quality that bluegrass pickers have long relied on—and what folk guitarist doesn’t love the full bottom and blossoming mids of a classic jumbo? Washburn certainly had size in mind when it designed its new WB400—which is essentially a full-sized jumbo that looks as if it was stood upright into a hydraulic press and squashed a few inches. The lower bout is exaggerated outward, the waist is narrowed, and the result is a more compact guitar that still has the same internal volume as a jumbo or concert-sized instrument.
This imported instrument features solid wood construction with crisp detailing at every turn. The ivoroid bindings are perfectly applied, and the abalone rosette, back stripe, and cloud-style fretboard inlays are absolutely flawless. The gloss finish is smooth as glass, the frets are very nicely finished, and the bone nut is nicely worked.
The SWCE suffix denotes that this model is equipped with a B-Band A15 electronics system made exclusively for Washburn (the standard WB400 model has no electronics), which consists of an under-saddle transducer, a Master Volume on the face, and front-mounted Bass, Treble, and Midrange controls. The 9-volt battery is housed in a flip-open compartment on the plastic jackplate, which also holds the 1/4" and XLR output jacks.
Played acoustically, the WB400 delivers a big shimmering sound with a satisfying balance of lows and highs and a warm, sweet midrange. It produces impressive volume, and offers excellent dynamic response and touch sensitivity when playing with your fingers or a pick. Plugged into either a Mesa/Boogie Blue Angel or a Genz-Benz Shenandoah Acoustic Pro for live gigs, the WB400 sounded crisp and detailed with great low-end response, even mids, and no trace of piezo harshness. Very little tweaking of the tone controls was needed to get happening sounds, although the high-E string was noticeably lower in volume than the other strings. (A second model we tried was fine on the E string, but had a slightly hot B string, so go figure.) In all other ways, however, the WB400SWCE is an impressive guitar—one that delivers a lot of quality and performance at a fair price.
SPECSWashburn (800) 877-6863; washburn.comModel WB400SWCEPrice $1,999 retail/$1,199 streetNut width 11 1/16"Neck Mahogany with C profileFretboard 25" scale rosewoodFrets 20 medium-jumboBody Solid rosewood back and sides, solid cedar topPickups B-Band R Series under-saddle with A15 electronicsControls Master Volume, Bass, Treble, MidrangeBridge Rosewood with compensated saddleTuners Grover open gear with “butterbean” buttonsfactory Strings Vinci Acoustic, .011-.049Weight 4.5 lbsKudos Compact. Plays beautifully. High-grade solid-wood construction. Excellent acoustic and amplified tones.Concerns Some string balance issues.
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