3 Eastwood Retro Beauties Reviewed

Michael Molenda reviews the Airline ’59 Newport, the Airline Bighorn, and the Airline Jupiter PRO Dallas Green Signature.
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For guitarists inclined toward the unique and funky, Michael Robinson’s Eastwood Guitars is like a Christmas stocking stuffed full of joy. In fact, if you click the “All Eastwood Guitars” or “All Airline Guitars” buttons on the company’s website, a multi-colored page of foxy little jewels pops up that might just send your desire for new guitars into hyper-lust overdrive. But looks can be a tad deceiving here, as these puckish beasts are far from art pieces to decorate a post-modern home, or to sling across one’s shoulder as a display of hipster élan. With perhaps a quirky exception here and there, the Eastwood line is chock full of vintagethemed workhorses that play well and offer up unique, yet ballsy tones. In other words, they do look cool for sure, but they also rock hard, give good value, and, unlike some of the original instruments to which they pay homage, are built to withstand the rigors of strenuous performance and gigging.

The three Eastwoods in this roundup represent different price points and sonic personalities— although each model is versatile enough to float between several musical styles. Small surprise that it was a ton of fun exploring the subtle and not-so-subtle tones each of these retro bad boys can conjure up. We were particularly happy to get one of the first cracks at the brand new (as of press time) Airline ’59 Newport, which threw a bunch of knobs and a piezo bridge into the evaluative fray. Test amps included a Vox AC30, an Orange Tiny Terror head plugged into a Mesa/Boogie 1x12, a Marshall JCM 900 combo, and a Fender Hot Rod DeVille, and critical listening and performances occurred at rehearsal spaces and recording studios during actual sessions. eastwoodguitars.com

Airline ’59 Newport

The '59 Newport ($1,099 direct) was hot off the presses when it was deliveredto us at the end of 2013, and it was a thrill to be one of the first magazines to review it. Modeled after an Eisenhowerera National Newport Val-Pro 88, the futuristic (well, let’s call it what it is—a ’50s dream of the future)— guitar almost has more knobs and switches than a Buck Rogers spacecraft. The onslaught of Volume and Tone controls might be a bit unsettling when trying to change sounds on the fly during a gig, but the upside is that, well, you have a lot of options available for tonal explorations. When played through an overdriven amp, the mini humbuckers provide the Newport with a bold and snarky punch that reminded me of Jimmy Page’s revved-up yowl. There’s an articulate and aggressive impact to the high mids and treble frequencies mixed with a stout warmth on the low mids. Very classic rock. While the Bighorn is kind of the versatile athlete you may have envied in high school, and the Jupiter PRO is the smart, sensitive type that everyone loved or begrudgingly respected, the Newport is definitely the snotty, kind of dangerous punk that you avoided out of self-preservation. These are basic characteristics, as the Newport definitely has enough firepower to refine its tonal colors—as do the other two guitars auditioned in this roundup—but it tends to keep its rockin’ edge no matter where you go with amp settings or other sonic manipulations.

But this punk has a sensitive side, as well. The Newport’s piezo bridge lets you add bell-like acoustic textures to the mix. As with most piezo pickups, there is a bit of a “quack” to the mids, but the acoustic vibe is pretty convincing—the chambered body probably helps out here. For creating surprising, “stutter edit” mood shifts, you can’t beat having the piezo at hand. For example, you can start a solo by roaring loudly with the mini humbuckers, switch to the piezo bridge for a sparkling, sensitive interlude, and then—bam!—blast off again with the aggro stuff. Or, you can perform an acoustic-like, fingerpicked intro, and then swiftly charge into rude chordal slashes. No lack of creative inspiration here!

The Newport feels great to play, and the only ergonomic challenges are the long row of closely set control knobs and the Master Volume knob sitting in a rather hard-to-reach position near the input jack. Of course, if you don’t make tonal and/or volume adjustments on the fly during performances, the knob arrangement won’t be a factor in playability. Construction is very good. All hardware is locked down and tight. There are no rattles, loosefeeling knobs, or a wonky selector switch. The eye-catching “fanned” fretboard inlays are well seated with no evidence of filler. The finish is excellent, and the bolt-on neck is tightly fit into its neck pocket.

The brand-new Newport is a fabulous and versatile instrument. It looks retro-bitchin’ cool and delivers aggro rock and blues tones for days. But, thanks to its comprehensive “control panel” and piezo bridge, it can also craft convincing jazz, country, and acoustic colors. Yep—this punk doesn’t back down from any challenge. 

Airline ’59 Newport Specs

NUT WIDTH 1 5/8"

NECK Maple, bolt-on

FRETBOARD Rosewood, 24 3/4" scale

FRETS 23 (includes zero fret)

TUNERS Grover style

BODY Mahogany, chambered

BRIDGE Tune-o-matic style

PICKUPS Dual NY Mini Humbuckers, piezo bridge

CONTROLS Three Volume, three Tone, Master Volume, 5-way selector

FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario

WEIGHT 7.79 lbs

BUILT Korea

KUDOS Versatile tones. Piezo pickup. Good construction.

CONCERNS None.

Airline Bighorn

The Bighorn looks like something Fred Flintstone would bring to play a gig at his Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes Lodge. But there’s nothing boorishly “Yabba dabba doo” about this instrument. It’s a dynamic and articulate machine that tracks performance gestures very well. It’s almost like having a fine vocalist’s throat at your command, because adjusting your attack can produce the equivalent of meticulously phrased crooning à la Sinatra, a Bono-like Irish tenor with some edge, or a snotty yowl on the order of a pissed-off Elvis Costello, circa 1977. This characteristic is retained whether you play pristine or bring on the overdrive or distortion, but it’s a truly spine-tingling effect when you manipulate the Bighorn’s attack and tonal colors using an AC30-inspired clean sound with a dollop of grit. The Bighorn may evoke ’60s Eurotrash garage bands—and, to be fair to its versatility, it can deliver skanky piss-and-vinegar mids— but it’s supple tonalities can handle just about any musical style if your fingers can coax out the appropriate sounds. The sonic potpourri is kind of a minor miracle given the guitar’s $469 price tag.

At just over 6.5 lbs, the Bighorn is a very light guitar, which aids one’s comfort over long gigs and/or sessions. I barely noticed the thing was slung around my shoulder half the time. The thick, vintage ’60s neck feels comfy, access to the high frets is unfettered, and I didn’t feel the guitar was fighting me in any way. Tuning integrity and intonation is average. I play hard, but it usually took a couple of songs for me to knock the Bighorn noticeably out of tune—which is about the same for the rest of my guitars.

The three-bolt neck can haunt ya if you travel rough, though. A vicious wrench of the neck or brutal

handling during shipping may cause the neck to move slightly askew. Robinson acknowledges that adherence to vintage construction is the culprit here, but the fix is simple: Just bend the neck back into the proper position. I did this myself, as the Bighorn was received at the GP offices with the neck slightly out of whack, and everything was fine thereafter. In fact, the entire evaluation of the instrument occurred after the neck was put back in place.

The build quality of the rest of the Bighorn is very good. The frets are smooth, all hardware is sturdy (no rattles or loose-fitting knobs), the pickguard is well seated, and the finish has no pits or other cosmetic anomalies. Only a couple of slight dips in the plastic binding betray the “student model” bearing of the original Airline Bighorn. Eastwood definitely ups the ante on the construction of its vintage tributes.

While the Bighorn reminds me of my pre-teen days of dreaming over the guitars displayed in Sears and Montgomery-Ward catalogs, it would have been a shame to put this model in my hands when I was ten years old and struggling to pluck “Auld Lang Syne” (as taught to me by a stern, 80-year-old, Swedish guitar teacher hired by my mom). Call it a basher if you like, but this budget wonder is, in reality, a serious player that delivers lots of extremely cool tones.

Airline Bighorn Specs

NUT WIDTH 1 5/8"
NECK Maple, bolt-on
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25 1/2" scale
FRETS 19
TUNERS Kluson style
BODY Basswood
BRIDGE Tele-style, 3-way adjustable
PICKUPS Two Airline Vintage Argyle Diamonds
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario
WEIGHT 6.66 lbs
BUILT China
KUDOS Articulate, versatile tones. Great value.
CONCERNS Keep that three-bolt neck well-seated and happy.

Airline Jupiter PRO Dallas Green Signature

City and Colour guitarist Dallas Green collaborated with Eastwood to modernize this tribute to a ’50s Silvertone Jupiter H49, and the result is a good match for Green’s dreamy song textures. On the Canadian singer-songwriter’s latest release, The Hurry and the Harm [Dine Alone], electric and acoustic progressions are typically expanded with swelling melodic lines, so it’s no surprise that the hollowbody Jupiter PRO ($999 direct) had to cut it as a vibey jangle machine, as well as an instrument capable of getting buzzy and subtly strange.

There’s no f-hole or any other obvious soundhole, but the Jupiter PRO is darn loud when strummed unplugged, and you can feel a good, solid resonance against your belly. Add an amp to the equation, and the clean tones can get near cinematic. As with the Bighorn, the Airline Argyle pickups are crystal clear and dynamic, but here, as the hollow body imparts both zing and warmth, it’s no chore crafting acoustic-like clean tones that sound beautiful whether strummed or fingerpicked. I found lovely and articulate timbres no matter which pickup I selected. If I wanted something a little more interesting or compelling, I set the pickup switch to its center position (both pickups active), and used the brilliant Blend control to eek in some interesting “pans” between the two pickup sounds. It’s easy to see how the Jupiter PRO’s airy shimmer and tonal options can assist Green with his stark and refined textural arrangements. In fact, the guitar seems designed for creating moody soundscapes—especially if you have a killer chord progression to throw at it.

But the Jupiter PRO isn’t just about mellow moods—it can start a bar fight, too. The guitar’s articulate dynamics work great with fuzz, overdrive, distortion, and all manner of sonic mayhem. I was able to consider tracking some pretty complex and saturated effects chains—such as three different fuzzes, a tremolo, a flanger, and a reverse delay—and not completely lose the note clarity essential for voicing a particular melody. And even with three fuzz boxes spewing searing venom, I could still discern sneaky and unexpected shifts in dynamics and tone. Freedom of expression rules!

As mentioned earlier, a big part of the job for this reimaging of the Silvertone Jupiter was devising savvy upgrades, and two of the main hardware evolutions included replacing the original bolt-on neck with a set neck, and swapping out the old wooden bridge for a TonePros model. But Eastwood and Green didn’t stop with just the “big” ideas. Every piece of hardware on this guitar is well done, and the fret ends are rounded and smooth. Even the trapeze tailpiece—as a rock guy, not one of my favorite accouterments—feels solid. I couldn’t find any cosmetic glitches with the binding, headstock, inlays, or finish.

Although a tad heavy at just over eight pounds, the Jupiter PRO feels good on your shoulder, all of the controls are within easy reach, and the comfy neck invites chording, riffing, and shredding with no impediments. It’s simply a fun guitar to play, and one that strives to do everything well.

Airline Jupiter PRO Dallas Green Signature Specs

NUT WIDTH 1 11/16”
NECK Maple, set
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25 1/2" scale
FRETS 22
TUNERS Grover style
BODY Maple top, Mahogany sides
BRIDGE Tune-o-matic style, trapeze tail
PICKUPS Two Airline Argyler
CONTROLS Two Volume, two Tone, Blend, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario
WEIGHT 8.12 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS Lots of sensual sonic vibe. Versatile. Good construction.
CONCERNS None.

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