Babicz Octane 818 and RC Design Aspen

Hollowbody electrics have evolved from being the only game in town in the 1930s and ’40s, to being the only game in jazz town in the 1950s and early ’60s, to being fair game these days for progressive players in every conceivable genre. Accordingly, Babicz and RC Design take advantage of modern attitudes toward acoustic-electrics, while also tapping the abundance of quality manufacturing in Asian factories. The results are inspired, hip, and groundbreaking American designs at relatively affordable price points, and both guitars provide some useful new options in one of the few under-populated sectors of the guitar market. I tested the Babicz Octane and RC Design Aspen through a Victoria 45410, a Dr. Z Z-28, and a TopHat Club Royale.

Babicz Octane 818

Babicz’s radical, splayed-stringed lower bout will already be familiar to many GP readers from its appearance on the company’s highly regarded acoustic guitar lines, which range from the sub-$2,000 Identity Series to the $10,000 Babicz Signature. The Indonesian-made Octane first hit the drawing board after Billy Gibbons expressed interest in a Babicz-styled electric, and Jeff Babicz set about to create a hollowbody that would incorporate the most significant of his advances in acoustic-guitar design, but evolved toward being a more compact, rock-minded, high-output electric.

The Octane’s 22"-deep body has an entirely flat, solid-mahogany top with a single Florentine cutaway. Babicz’s Lateral Compression soundboard—with its patented aluminum String Anchors spread equidistant around the lower bout—is a major ingredient of the maker’s tonal stew. The unusual anchoring arrangement creates what Babicz calls a “spring-loaded effect” on the soundboard, compressing it much like a drumhead under tension, and resulting in greater sustain and a balanced resonance. This system works in conjunction with another Babicz exclusive, the Torque Reducing Split Bridge—a two-part unit comprised of a rosewood string retainer and an adjustable bridge section that serves to reduce the forward pull on the soundboard. The compensated, solid-aluminum bridge saddle provides full grounding to all strings, and its sharp point on the bass-side corner may poke the heel of your picking hand. The entire bridge section is removable via three hex-head bolts for easy replacement.

The solid mahogany of the back and sides segues to the third of Babicz’s innovations: the Continually Adjustable Neck. Set into a pocket on the guitar’s body, the Octane’s neck can be raised and lowered by turning an adjustment bolt located beneath the heel using a hex wrench that’s mounted on the back of the headstock. It’s an extremely clever feature that allows the player to adjust string height without tampering with the bridge. Babicz claims this can be done without retuning, but I found that any significant change in the string height—such as going from a shredder’s low action to a slide player’s high action—sent the Octane a good semitone or more out of pitch.

Neat black binding lines the Octane’s rosewood fretboard, which is offset smartly by the matte-black headstock facing. A gloss-black top completes the package (natural, tobacco burst, and blue flame finishes are also available). Our review guitar was equipped with the L.R. Baggs option ($400 extra), which includes an under-saddle Element piezo pickup, and an iMiX preamp mounted to the underside of the control-cavity access plate. Internal trimpots allow you to tweak piezo gain and cut a preset low frequency to suit your sound and playing style. The Octane’s magnetic pickups are routed via a standard 3-way blade switch through the iMiX, and then to the single Volume and Tone controls. A Mix control sweeps from magnetic signal to piezo signal, or any proportion of the two.

Fire up the Octane, and it’s instantly apparent that this is a fairly hot guitar in either magnetic or piezo mode. The Octane wants to rock but it also sounds cool for jazz or mellow pop playing. Give it some crunch with a pedal or a high-gain amp setting, and the Octane snarls and roars in all pickup positions, dishing out wailing lead lines with ease.

Roll the Mix control to full-piezo mode, and the Octane becomes a good-sounding, stage-friendly acoustic with plenty of power and excellent sustain. A loose and very microphonic piezo pickup lead flopping against the inside of the body contributed to some un-acceptable mechanical feedback, however, and turning the iMiX down far enough to minimize the squeals put the electro-acoustic volume considerably in the shadow of the magnetic-pickup volume. (Jeff Babicz reports that the piezo lead is now entirely covered in heat-shrink tubing to alleviate this problem).

Viewed from any angle, the Octane is a model of functional ingenuity. This guitar packs more genuine innovation than you’re likely to find in any new guitar, along with some powerful sounds for the rocker seeking an acoustic-electric alternative.

RC Design Aspen

RC Design was formed in 2004, in Denver, Colorado, by Brian Heflen and Rick Cook. With its modernistic segmented soundholes and wood-faced trapeze tailpiece, the Aspen conjures images of some of the instruments James D’Aquisto created toward the end of his life. The Aspen doesn’t reject inorganic components quite as entirely as D’Aquisto’s radical works of wood-crafted art, but isn’t a traditional archtop, either. The Aspen’s solid, two-piece spruce top is indeed arched ever so slightly—to a broad 20-foot radius—but the gentle curve is produced by its acoustic-like parallel bracing, rather than any elaborate carving or pressure (such as is used to force a laminated top into an arch). And, unlike the majority of fully hollow electrics, the Aspen has a fixed-post Tune-o-matic bridge, rather than a floating base-and-bridge arrangement.

The 2"-deep, fully hollow, single-cutaway body sports laminated walnut back and sides (the grain looks particularly nice on the two-piece back). Walnut is echoed in the pickguard and tailpiece facing (the latter covers a gold-plated metal trapeze unit of the standard Gibson style), but these pieces are left in the raw, creating a slightly dull contrast to the gloss-finished woods elsewhere. The top and back are edged in a lovely maple purfling, and the soundholes are lined with a creamy ivoroid binding. It’s a classy picture on the whole, and one perhaps more immediately at home in a jazz club. Electronics include two PAF-style humbuckers made to the company’s specs. Rio Grande Texas and Texas BBQ humbuckers for the neck and bridge positions can be ordered for an extra $200, and a piezo pickup option is also available.

Walnut turns to mahogany as you run up the glued-in neck, which has an ebony fretboard bound with natural maple. The neck’s rounded “C” profile offers a great playing feel, and while the Aspen carries a traditional 14th-fret neck joint, the “flattened Venetian” cutaway provides decent access right up to the 20th fret. The Aspen’s Rocky Mountain origins are reflected in the nifty mountain-peak profile of the headstock, which has a gloss-finished walnut facing, and a diamond-shaped volute for added strength. A few fret ends were a little sharp, and some minor sanding flubs rendered the top’s maple purfling uneven in places, but, on the whole, this instrument exudes quality and confidence.

The Aspen has enough acoustic volume for quiet practicing, but, as with most thinlines, it’s primarily an electric guitar. The neck pickup issued bloomy, brown tones that proved great for a range of jazz voices, and, with some added gain at the amp end, these tones segued nicely into singing blues textures. The Aspen isn’t quite Super 400 deep, but it sounds round and balanced with a supple yet satisfying delivery.

The bridge pickup sounds hard by comparison, but its edgy aggression serves well for rock grind or more cutting fusion excursions, and it certainly broadens this guitar’s capabilities. Overall, I was most enamored with the dual-pickup setting—which brings some clarity to the brew. The neck pickup’s firm lows remain, but the tone is couched in a buoyant, slightly rubbery texture. Playing close to the amp at high volume levels can elicit some howl, but it’s largely controllable, and, overall, the Aspen is far less prone to feedback than most hollowbody electrics. While the Aspen is far less radical than the Babicz Octane, it offers jazz, blues, and western-swing players a sweet, round voice, smooth playability, and a fresh take on the established thinline theme.