The fabulous Collings 290 evokes all the sleek Astro Boy charm of the Eisenhower-era Les Paul Special, and yet, unlike the tumult of Ike’s political world, the 290 is perfect. Sure, it’s just a plank with a couple of P-90-style pickups on it, but that plank is a gorgeous piece of mahogany capped with a clear, nitrocellulose lacquer that really shows off the body’s subtle grain patterns and warm, paprika hue. The frets are superbly dressed and rounded with “hot dog” ends, and all the hardware is as taut as what you’d imagine the controls on a multimillion- dollar Aston Martin One-77 would feel. You can shake the 290 violently and hear no rattles. If you run your fingers across every spot on the rosewood fretboard, you’ll experience no buzzes, dead spots, or intonation gremlins. Design-wise, the Collings team has managed to produce a sophisticated look—check out the finely rendered appointments of the pickguard, headstock, truss-rod cover plate, and vintagecream tuners—that still seems game to unleash all the blistering glory of sweaty rock and roll. There are even the hidden ergonomic joys of belly and lap contours carved into the 290’s back. A small touch, perhaps, but it’s something makers of uber-luxury products always seem to think of when developing goodies for the aristocratic class.
Unfortunately, the haunts of the aristocracy were not the staging grounds for the 290’s sonic tests. Seedy clubs and sweaty rehearsal spaces were the environments of our evaluations, where the 290 was partnered with a Marshall JVM 210H head and an Old Dog 4x12 X-Cab, a Dr. Z Junior NR, a Fender Super Champ XD, and a Orange Tiny Terror with a Mesa/Boogie 1x12 cabinet. Effects included the new Line 6 M13 Stompbox Modeler, and a SKB PS-55 Stagefive pedalboard loaded with a Boss RE-20 Space Echo, a Lovepedal Eternity Overdrive, a Fishman AFX Delay, an MXR Phase 90, and a Danelectro Back Talk Reverse Delay.
Onstage with Vagrant Records of Seattle artist Ol’ Cheeky Bastards (check out the 290’s overdrive tone on “Scooter Boy” at youtube.com/watch?v=Id6suj74Xes), the 290 was employed as an accent and “sound effects” machine. The bridge pickup was marvelous in this role, delivering a punchy Mick-Ronson-style yowl without veering near anything strident. To tame the sound, I simply clicked to the dual-pickup position to bring on a round thud and pop—a move that instantly cleaned up the amp drive a bit without losing articulation. To ape an acoustic ballad, I selected the neck pickup— and knocked back the Tone control—for a warm and clean jazz timbre with a nice snap.
At an arrangement rehearsal, I plugged into the Super Champ, and was able to dial in everything from a snarky bite (in honor of this month’s feature on Steve Cropper) to a “Layla”-inspired cry to a warm, boppin’ Barney Kessel tone a la “Minor Mood.” There wasn’t much that the 290 couldn’t do. I was even able to momentarily shock a very nice singer/songwriter by going heavy metal (well, the 290 doesn’t sear as white hot as a metal machine, but with a little help from massive distortion and amp EQ, it delivered a reasonable simulation).
The 290 also feels great to play. It has a chunky, baseball-bat kind of neck, and the .011-gauge strings definitely fight you a bit for every bend, but that’s the type of guitar that inspires me to achieve better tones, more vocal phrasing, nastier riffs, and aggressively melodic leads. The 290 is, quite simply, the Helen of Troy of solidbodies—epically beautiful, hard to attain (it’s pricey), and absolutely worth your every struggle when you finally have her in your arms.