By Adam Perlmutter
After escaping from medical school in the mid Seventies, Bill Collings began building flattop guitars based on Golden Age designs of prewar Martin and Gibson dreadnoughts. By 1989, he had made a name for himself nationally as one of the finest individual makers of guitars, a reputation that was solidified when esteemed vintage dealer George Gruhn commissioned him to build 24 custom guitars.
Today, Collings’ passion has evolved into a full-time calling that involves him, some 50 employees, and a 22,000-square-foot space in Austin, Texas. While Collings never lost his love for acoustics—the company turns out superlative flattops, archtops, mandolins, and ukuleles—his shop now makes an electric line inspired by the much-coveted Gibson electrics of the late Fifties.
Collings’ single-cutaway solidbody CL (City Limits) electric is cast in the mold of a Les Paul, while the double-cutaway semihollow I-35 channels an ES-335. For this review, I checked out the SoCo Deluxe. Named after Austin’s hip South Congress Avenue, this single-cutaway semihollow ax is a smart hybrid of the CL and the I-35: a refined jazz box and irreverent blues-rock guitar in one.
Whereas a classic semi-hollowbody has a hollow laminated maple body whose center is filled with a chunk of solid maple, the SoCo’s body is made from a slab of solid mahogany that is carved out, leaving a thin outside rim. The body is inset with an alder center block into which slots are cut, adding a bit of airiness to the sound while reducing the guitar’s weight. A gracefully carved solid maple top with twin f-holes is glued to the body, and a one-piece mahogany neck meets with the body at the 17th fret.
The SoCo Deluxe features a number of choice flourishes. Finely grained ivoroid is employed for the binding on the body, neck, and headstock as well as for the pickup rings, truss-rod cover, tuner buttons, and control knobs. My example had a headstock with a rosewood veneer that matched the fretboard (an ebony veneer is also offered), and the fretboard inlays were mother-of-pearl double parallelograms (dot inlays are standard). Inside the left f-hole, an oval paper label features a detailed and fantastical illustration of guitars floating down a river.
As befits Bill Collings’ reputation, the SoCo boasts unimpeachable craftsmanship. The nitrocellulose lacquer was thinly and evenly applied and buffed to a glasslike shine. All the binding and inlay work was perfectly flush and tidy, and the f-holes were shaped immaculately. The 22 wide-medium frets were meticulously crowned and polished by hand rather than by Plek machine.
With a 15-inch body (versus the standard 16 inches), the SoCo is well balanced and equally comfortable to play seated or standing. The SoCo’s neck has a substantial C profile like that on a typical 1959 electric Gibson, growing increasingly heftier as it moves away from the 1.6875-inch nut. The scale length of 24.875 inches is a hair longer than the 24.75 inches of a classic Gibson, and while it made the guitar feel somewhat taut, the SoCo was highly playable across its length.
Unplugged, the SoCo boasted excellent resonance and sustain, thanks in part to its TonePros Tune-o-matic-style bridge and stop tailpiece, nickel-plated parts that lock down in a way that adds structural integrity to the guitar. Plugged in, the SoCo wowed me with its spongy yet detailed classic tone. Electronics included a pair of Jason Lollar Low Wind Imperial humbuckers (Lollar P-90s are a custom option) wound to Collings’ specs. The controls were traditional: a volume and tone knob for each pickup, plus a three-way toggle for switching between the pickups or combining their sounds.
Although the pickups had a relatively low output, they were anything but meek. The bridge position growled fiercely, while the neck pickup, with its tone squashed, emitted a creamy woman tone. Like any great semihollow guitar, the SoCo revealed itself to be perfectly voiced for applications as varied as traditional fingerpicked blues and classic rock riffage—a Jack-of-all-trades that proved to be a master of all.
List Price: Base, $6,000; as reviewed (with quilted top, parallelogram inlays, and black-and-white purfling), $6,450
Collings Guitars, collingsguitars.com
Photo: Jimmy Hubbard