Red Rocket first became knownfor its stylish Atomic series, a Fender-meets- Gretsch mashup with beaucoup sex appeal. Founder Matt Nowicki has been stretching his creative legs recently, though, with some more original shapes and extremely playful tonewood choices, and I for one love what I’m seeing. Nowicki has a degree in fine art, and specialized in sculpture for many years before a sojourn into the corporate end of the design world. His eye, attention to detail, and sense of proportion are well honed, and it all shows here.
The Commander Custom is a bolt-neck guitar with a lightly chambered body crafted from dramatically figured black limba. Its carved maple top is finished in old-school bronze metallic nitro, with glass-smooth gloss nitro on the back and sides, as well as the belly and heel contours to improve playing comfort. The satin-finished neck is carved from a sweet length of quarter-sawn mahogany and features a Brazilian rosewood fretboard. Flamemaple binding enhances the top, a decorative flamed-maple center strip runs the length of the body, and exotically striped bocote (a rosewood- like wood from Central America) does similar tricks for the neck. There’s more flamed maple on the headstock facing and the heel cap, while the pickguard, trussrod cover, and control rout covers are cocobolo. Even the tuner buttons are cut from ebony. Despite a little “furring” at the edges of the gold-top finish in places where it creeps toward the binding, it’s all beautifully executed.
With my Matchless Phoenix cranked to EL34-cooking crunch, I am drawn consistently toward archetypal Les Paul antics, and the Commander Custom delivers the goods with ease. I guess you show a guitarist a gold-top, two humbuckers, and a carved top, and it’s hard not to set your course for classic rock and scorched earth blues leads. Step back to consider the variables at play here, though, and you readily discover that this unique interpretation of the form bends itself to an impressive range of styles. The bolt-on neck, 25½” scale, and coil split switch team up for shimmering jangle or authoritative twang. There’s firm low-string riffing and power-chord thump when you need it, and the overall breadth and clarity of tone willingly jump on just about anything else you want to try. You only have to roll it once through your hands to realize that the Commander Custom is very different from an LP wannabe, with a look and life all its own.
The Lindy Fralin Unbuckers are wound to Nowicki’s custom specs, and they aim for that PAF bite and clarity without the mud. On evidence of my testing, they deliver in spades. A fully adjustable TonePros AVT2 wraparound bridge and some very cool Hipshot open-gear locking tuners complete a quality hardware complement. The neck feels great in the hand too. It’s a touch toward the thin side of current fashions, but sensually ergonomic thanks to a rounded C-going-V profile, and a touchy-feely open-pore satin finish. Stainless-steel frets make bending slick and sweet, and the whole package inspires you to dig in and go at it.
So, sure, it’ll do the Lester dance when you want it to, but for originality of looks and versatility of voice, the Red Rocket Commander Custom has much more to offer.
PRICE $4,250 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Bolt-on mahogany with flame-maple headstock facing and heel plate, and bocote skunk stripe.
FRETBOARD Brazilian rosewood, 25½" scale, 12" radius FRETS 22 stainless-steel medium-jumbo
TUNERS Hipshot locking open-gear
BODY Chambered figured black limba with carved maple top
BRIDGE TonePros AVT2
PICKUPS Two custom-wound Fralin Unbuckers
CONTROLS Dual Volume and Tone controls with paper-in-oil tone caps, 3-way pickup switch, single “Unbucker” coil-tap switch for both pickups
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7.4 lbs
KUDOS A sultry and stylish original design. Creative wood choices. Excellent build quality. Versatile tones
CONCERNS Slight “furring” of finish where the top meets the maple binding