Review: Bartlett Retrospec

Imagine if a star artist and inventor of the early ’50s and a certain major guitar maker had decided to put just a little more of a twist on their debut solidbody electric—the same ingredients, but an original body and headstock shape, one not so directly influenced by the jazz boxes that had come before.
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IMAGINE IF A STAR ARTIST AND INVENTOR of the early ’50s and a certain major guitar maker had decided to put just a little more of a twist on their debut solidbody electric—the same ingredients, but an original body and headstock shape, one not so directly influenced by the jazz boxes that had come before. Now imagine the guitar it might have evolved into by 1959. It probably would look a lot like the Bartlett Retrospec. Built by hand in small batches by custom guitar maker Tom Bartlett of Toronto, Canada, the Retrospec was born of a three-headed collaboration that also included Florida-based vintage-parts and custom-aging expert Kim LaFleur of Historic Makeovers, and Swedish designer Magnus Melkersson, with the aim of building just such a guitar. Each contributed from their specific areas of expertise, Bartlett—a guitar maker who has long specialized in vintage-style, single-cut reproductions—rendered the concept into a concrete whole. The result, each declared in unison, had to be more than a one-off—it had to be a thing unto itself.

Given its premise, the Retrospec almost needs no description beyond a photo of the shape. On the other hand, it is so beautifully put together that every little detail is worthy of examination. In pulling together this set-neck twin-humbucker creation, Bartlett has used select old-growth Honduran mahogany for the body and neck; a subtly figured, carved eastern-maple top with cream Royalite binding; a Brazilian rosewood fretboard with Italian celluloid inlays, celluloid binding, and tortoise celluloid side dots; and cream acetate butyrate pickup rings. In short, the kinds of minutiae that make ’burst aficionados’ heads spin. More? Old-school hot hide glue is used for the long-tenon neck joint and to attach the fretboard, the truss rod is entirely vintage-style with no sleeve, the nut is cut from nylon, and the headstock is raked back at a steep 17 degrees. Pickups are a pair of Sheptone’s acclaimed PAF-style buckers, and the circuit includes paper-in-oil tone caps. (It’s worth noting that a wide range of options are available, including Kluson tuners, wraparound tailpiece, P-90 pickups, etc.)

The guitar comes with a genuine ATA flight case for safe cartage, which includes one of the niftiest “case candy” packages I’ve seen in a while: a burlap-wrapped bundle that includes a quality leather strap, picks, and Schaller strap-locks, in case you want to replace the vintage-style aluminum buttons with something less prone to the dropsy.

In the hand, the Retrospec kinda turns your head around. The guitar just feels old, so much so that your first thought is, “Who in Kalamazoo in 1959 snuck into the factory and built this thing?” The top finish is a faded tobacco burst, with red Aniline die on the back, sides, and neck; all sprayed in true zero-plasticizers nitrocellulose lacquer, and hand aged by Bartlett with just the slightest hint of playing wear, true weather checking (“No razor checking!” he tells us), and a subtle patina on the nickel hardware. The neck profile is a rounded late-’50s “C” that feels just right in the hand, and the guitar rings out loud and clear when strummed unplugged, with a rich, mids-forward voice to open chords, and a slight, trebly zing to single notes.

Tested through a tweed Fender Deluxe, a Komet K60, and a Dr. Z Remedy, the Retro-spec proved itself extremely ’burst-like from all perspectives, with trenchant lower mids, just a touch of upper-midrange honk, and that slightly gritty edge to the highs that helps it all bite through. Given that, it’s a guitar that loves to rock, and cranked plexi-like settings on the Komet made it impossible to resist the mélange of Brit-fuelled ’60s-to-’70s riffage, post-punk power-chord grind, and extended blues-rock whiddling that the rig demanded. This is one of those guitars that, once you get into the flow of it, really inspires you to reach a little further and rewards every time with a deep, fluid voice and an extremely dynamic playing feel. Cleaned up, notes bloom from the neck pickup with plenty of depth and girth, and it’s easy to elicit gnarly snap from the bridge pickup for raw rock ’n’ roll. All told, great stuff, and a real pleasure to play. Expensive though it is, the Retrospec is on par for small-batch, single-builder instruments of this quality. Given the impeccable fit and finish, irresistible vibe, and gutsily authentic tone, it confidently earns an Editors’ Pick Award.


PRICE $8,400 street (including ATA flight case)


NUT WIDTH 1 11/16", nylon
NECK Old-growth Honduran mahogany, rounded ’59 profile
FRETBOARD Brazilian rosewood, 24 ¾" scale, 12" radius
FRETS 22 medium (.095" x .045")
BODY One-piece, old-growth Honduran mahogany body with carved eastern maple top
BRIDGE Tune-o-matic bridge and stop-bar tailpiece with 1"-long steel studs
PICKUPS Two Sheptone PAF-style hum-bucking pickups
CONTROLS Dual Volume and Tone controls, 3-way selector
WEIGHT 9.1 lbs
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
BUILT Canada
KUDOS Breathtaking circa-’59 build style in an original look. Superb playing feel. Rich yet biting ’burst-like tone.
CONCERNS Expensive. Might feel a little heavy on the strap.