John Backlund is a self-taught artist, guitarist and designer who was influenced by futuristic design concepts from the 1930s to the early 1960s. His partnership with Eastwood now makes it possible for just about anyone to own one of his retro-radical guitars, and there are several very different, enticing and quirky models to choose from.
The Rockerbox on review here is about the size of an ES-335 and shares some construction elements, such as a laminated maple semi-hollow body and a glued-in mahogany neck that feels a lot like a late-’60s 335. True to form, the Rockerbox flashes retro chic at every turn. Setting the stage is a red-and-cream paint scheme with pin striping on the top and headstock, plus three eye-shaped portholes and a swoopy plastic pickguard with a brushed-chrome finish, adding to the sense that Backlund was sitting in Mel’s Diner when designing this one.
The red position dots on a blond maple fretboard trimmed with black binding might seem playfully excessive, but the gold-hued frets are well dressed and polished, the factory setup yields low action with minimal string buzz, and the intonation is musically solid.
The optional Bigsby B-30 looks right at home on this guitar (a trapeze tailpiece is standard), and it keeps the tuning satisfyingly stable, thanks in part to a nicely cut nut and a Tune-o-matic bridge with roller saddles on a pinned wood base. The three custom humbuckers with chrome covers drive into a quartet of vintage-looking volume and tone knobs, and a barrel-shaped rotary pickup switch provides the following selections:
Position 1 (rearmost setting) Bridge pickup
Position 2 Bridge and middle pickups with coils split
Position 3 Middle pickup
Position 4 Middle and neck pickups with coils split
Position 5 Neck pickup
The switching system gives this resonant-sounding guitar a lot of tonal versatility. Played through a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue (with hand-wired circuitry by George Alessandro), the Rockerbox served up round jazz sounds from the neck pickup, while the twangy middle pickup sounded great for blues and roots rock. I had expected a little more chime from the bridge/middle combination, but its slightly out-of-phase voice is a neat texture in itself, and the same can be said for the neck/middle setting, which actually sounds a tad browner than the neck pickup, making it another good option for jazz tones. The tone controls are available in all pickup settings, and they offer useful sounds pretty much anywhere they’re set.
The Rockerbox isn’t a particularly bright guitar, and the bridge pickup benefitted from a little more treble on the amp or OD pedal for either country twanging or gained-up rock tones. It sounded great driving various distortion pedals (as did the middle pickup), and the ease with which you can get controlled feedback makes this guitar a blast in situations where you can crank it up.
Kudos to Eastwood for making Backlund’s radical designs available. It may take some pondering to decide which to choose, but you could probably order one blindfolded and be very happy with the piece of performance art that lands on your doorstep.
PRICES $1,399 street; $1,599 street as tested with optional Bigsby vibrato. Hardshell case included
NUT WIDTH 1 5/8"
NECK Mahogany, glued-in
FRETBOARD maple, 25.75" scale
FRETS 21 medium jumbo
TUNERS Wilkinson die-cast chrome
BODY Semi-hollow laminated maple
BRIDGE Roller-style Tune-o-matic with Bigsby B-30 vibrato (trapeze tail is standard)
PICKUPS Three Custom Wound Double Coil
CONTROLS Three volume, one tone, five-way switch
WEIGHT 7.58 lbs
KUDOS Amazing look. Plays great. Cool range of sounds