Review: PureSalem Cardinal and La Flaca

If guitar making was a comic book story line, PureSalem’s Rick Sell would be the crazed scientist banishing vintage guitars to another dimension, only to have them return as twisted and bizarre versions of their former selves.
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If guitar making was a comic book story line, PureSalem’s Rick Sell would be the crazed scientist banishing vintage guitars to another dimension, only to have them return as twisted and bizarre versions of their former selves. GP last visited that world in our May 2014 issue when we reviewed the company’s Brave Ulysses, Classic Creep, Electric End, Levitation, and Woodsoul models. All of those wacky beauties were found to be good players with vibe to burn. The only consistent downside was the possibility of having to explain to all the guitar geeks at your gigs what the hell kind of instrument you were playing.

Well, if that scenario might be bothersome to some guitarists, PureSalem’s Cardinal and La Flaca are somewhat more down to earth, and, well, normal. There are still slight design twists to take the models out of the realm of the slavishly conventional, but those intimidated by the strange will be comforted by some classic Gibson- inspired lines.

CARDINAL

The Non-Reverse Firebird-like Cardinal struts its retro elan in three old-school colors—Daphne Blue, Shell Pink, and Kelly Green—and a Vibrola tremolo. Our test model had a flawless finish, the neck binding and block inlays were impeccable, the neck pocket was zip locked snugly to the body, and all hardware was battened-down tight (no rattles or loose parts). Given the overall quality, it was surprising that the pickguard displayed some rough-cut edges and the fret ends were rather sharp.

This baby has a chunky neck, but it feels good to play (the satin finish on the back of the neck is one slick little hand highway), and the guitar itself is comfy in strapped-up and sitting positions. The Vibrola is easy to reach, and it’s quite responsive and stable. I smacked it up and I smacked it down, and I didn’t have any tuning issues that weren’t the result of intense abuse (ya gotta take responsibility for your brutal showmanship, I guess). It’s slightly inconvenient to reach for the Master Volume knob for pinky swells, as the Vibrola is in the way. Unless you have octopus fingers, the Master Tone is near impossible to adjust on the fly, and I found that the tonal sweep was not wide enough to simulate wahpedal sounds anyway. I just dimed it, and left it.

I’ve never been a mixed hum-sing player—likely due to my absolutely dumb sense of aesthetic balance— but the variety of tones available with the Cardinal is making me rethink my art-over-application views. This thing screams, barks, snarks, punches, cuts, bellows, and gets all warm and jazzy. It’s a perfect machine if you have, say, elegant chords (neck humbucker), stout riffs (combined), and snarling leads (bridge single-coil) all appearing in the same song. The neck humbucker can also handle a lot of classic-rock styles when you set your amp to a gritty overdrive. It’s articulate enough to give you good note definition, but you still get that sexy low-midrange foundation. I found myself using the combined pickup setting a lot, because I got a best-of-both-worlds tonal attack of meaty punch and aggressive shimmer.

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As it feels good, looks great, and delivers versatile tones, the Cardinal is quite the workhorse— a guitar you could bring to a number of different studio, rehearsal, and live gigs and not have to say, “Oh no. If only I had my [insert model here] with me, I could nail this part.” Trust the Cardinal. It’ll get it done.

LA FLACA

The SG-inspired La Flaca flips the sing-hum configuration of the Cardinal with its hum-sing arrangement. It also goes for a more classic style with available wine and black finishes and a Bigsby B7 (the lefty model replaces the Bigsby with a Vibrola). Like its avian partner, the La Flaca boasts superb craftsmanship, but also betrays a couple of slight flaws. The hardware is bulletproof, and the body has an excellent and shiny black finish, along with a super-tight neck pocket, immaculate inlays, and a cleanly cut pickguard. But those sharp fret ends appear here, as well, and the binding near the nut (on the upper side) was coarse.

As with the Cardinal, I loved the La Flaca’s satin finish on the back of the neck, as it helps you move up and down the fretboard with minimal “drag”—a nice feature, as the neck is quite a hunk ‘o’ wood. The La Flaca’s classic shape is a groove for playing sitting down or standing. The Master Volume knob is in a perfect position for pinky manipulations, while the Master Tone is harder to reach. But, then again, you really don’t get a very wide frequency range with the pot, so I was fine to leave it in the cranked position for most of my testing. I dig Bigsby tremolos, and this one is as dreamy as most—sensual and responsive, and the La Flaca also stays pretty much in tune after lots of bar wanking.

The neck’s offset single-coil and bridge humbucker deliver a fair amount of versatile tones— though, to my ear, they were all more in the classic ’70s-rock camp, and therefore a tad less diverse than what I got with the Cardinal. The neck tones are clear and robust, with no muddy bass or foggy note articulation. The bridge humbucker really puts out some sweet mids that are not overly bright, or, for want of a better phrase, “modern sounding.” You could dive into a spate of classic Cream-AC/DC-Who-Sabbath-Doors colors with this pup (and let’s not forget Elliot Easton with the Cars), as well as bring a retro vibe to almost any music you’re playing. The combined position uncorks a deep pop that really animates single-note lines and riffs.

If you adore SG-styled guitars, the La Flaca provides all the vintage roar you’d ever want, and the hum-sing setup also lets you explore some sounds that are typically not in the SG’s sonic palette. You definitely get a versatile blend of those old-school tones—if this was a keyboard workstation, the presets would be called “Classic 1970s Rock-Guitar Sounds”—in an instrument that plays well and looks retro hip. Wear your old bell-bottom trousers and rock on, baby!

MODEL

CARDINAL
CONTACT puresalemguitars.com
PRICE $1,015 direct

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1.68"
NECK 24.75" scale, mahogany, C shape, bolt-on
FRETBOARD Rosewood
FRETS 22 medium jumbo
TUNERS Grover
BODY Mahogany
BRIDGE Roller-type, Vibrola tremolo
PICKUPS Custom humbucker (neck), custom single-coil (bridge)
CONTROLS Master Volume, Master Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010 set
WEIGHT 8.24 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS Versatile tones. Good player. Classic, yet unique look.
CONCERNS Two very minor workmanship issues.

LA FLACA
CONTACT puresalemguitars.com
PRICE $1,055 direct

SPECIFICATIONS

NUT WIDTH 1.68"
NECK 24.75" scale, mahogany, C shape, bolt-on
FRETBOARD Rosewood
FRETS 22 medium jumbo
TUNERS Grover
BODY Mahogany
BRIDGE Roller, Bigsby B7
PICKUPS Custom single-coil (neck), custom humbucker (bridge)
CONTROLS Master Volume, Master Tone, 3-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010 set
WEIGHT 8.48 lbs
BUILT Korea
KUDOS Versatile, vintage-colored tones. Good player. Classic shape with a twist.
CONCERNS Two very minor workmanship issues.

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