Does every guitarist on the planet dig an offset- bodied, P-90-loaded raunch machine, or is it just me? The Liquid is a bolt-neck instrument that most closely resembles a stripped-down Fender Jazzmaster—although its two P-90 pickups and forward pickup selector are enough to lend it a little Firebird mojo. The ivory polyurethane finish (black and three-tone sunburst finishes are also available) is partnered with a three-ply white pickguard, and white pickup covers and knobs for a clean and somewhat retro look. In addition, while the faux-clay position dots in the rosewood fretboard are more of a salmon hue than the “dirty clay” dots found on early 1960s Fenders, they also enhance the vintage vibe.
Regarding the Liquid’s construction, I was impressed by a tight-fitting joint in a very smoothly cut neck pocket, and by one of the finest fret jobs I’ve experienced on a guitar in this price range. The fret ends are beautifully dressed and rounded off, with nary a hitch from one to 21. The maple neck has been nicely carved, as well, with a rounded “C” profile that slides smoothly through the palm. The shoulders might feel a little angular to some hands where they meet the fretboard edge, but, overall, the Liquid is a comfortable player.
Hardware is generic but functional: enclosed chrome tuners, a pair of butterfly string retainers for the E/B and G/D pairs at the headstock, and a chrome-plated vibrato tailpiece. The vibrato has die-cast metal alloy saddles, and a narrow inertia block that’s cast from a lighter alloy material than most tonehounds would approve of, but it all works smoothly enough. The review model’s bridge plate was pulled flat to the body with a tight adjustment of its three springs, but it can also be adjusted to float a little to provide more give and take in its action, as well as a bit of upward pitch bend. The single-coil soapbars on the Liquid are wound pretty close to vintage P-90 specs, and the pickups on all three of the test guitars were custom made to Malden specs by a Korean pickup manufacturer.
I found the Liquid totally approachable right out of the box—it’s an easy instrument to develop a taste for. The rearward positioning of its offset treble-side waist renders the guitar a little neck-heavy when played seated, but it balances nicely when strapped on. I expected the extra G/D string tree to cause some tuning headaches with liberal whammy use, but the vibrato returns to pitch pretty well for a non-locking unit.
Unplugged, the Liquid has a solid, round resonance and good sustain. Amped up through a TopHat Club Royale 2x12, a Dr. Z Z-28 1x12, and a Marshall JCM800, it offered admirable definition and clarity, steering clear of that muddy, slightly overcooked sound that many makers seem to go for with their P-90 guitars. At clean amp settings—and from all three pickup selections—the Liquid yielded good articulation with just enough five o’clock shadow to let you know you’re playing vintage-styled soapbars. Wound up into the crunch zone, the Liquid oozes the hairy, slightly gritty grind that many players love from their Gibson
Specials and Juniors. However, the Liquid’s basswood/maple pairing, bolt-neck construction, and longer scale offer a little more pop and twang than would likely be achieved from a set-neck mahogany guitar (the three-tone sunburst Liquid features an alder body).
Versatile, full of character, and modestly original, the Liquid is a cool and successful addition to the field.
Producing an affordable, well-made set-neck guitar requires a high level of manufacturing attention, and Malden comes out swinging with the Bulldozer—an instrument that deceptively whispers SG when it first sidles up, but which reveals deeper and deeper layers of originality the more you probe it. For instance, there’s the accentuated asymmetrical nature of the double-cutaway body, the notched tail, the neck that’s set further into the body than an SG’s (which, arguably, offers improved stability at this historically fragile joint). Then there’s the through-body string anchoring—rather than the SG’s traditional stop-bar tailpiece—which allows for a lower setting of the Tune-o-matic bridge, and a shallower neck pitch than on most Gibson SGs.
Added together, these elements also position the bridge further back into the lower bout of the solid mahogany body—rather than mid-waist, where an SG’s bridge appears—which affects the Bulldozer’s resonant characteristics, as well as making it more compact. The three-piece mahogany neck has the very slim, early-’60s style profile that makes for a slick lead instrument, and the fret finishing job here is nearly as tidy as that on the Liquid, if just a touch less immaculate. Overall, though, this is a honey of a job—from the sweet, translucent-cherry finish applied over some light and lovely cuts of mahogany (a little minor orange-peeling at the bass side of the neck joint notwithstanding) to the mother-of-pearl blocks inlaid with an absolute minimum of filler into the even-hued rosewood fretboard.
The Bulldozer’s dual humbuckers carry alnico 5 magnets, and they are wound on the hot side of the PAF template, with the bridge and neck units at 11.5k ohms and 8.5k ohms, respectively. It’s also worth noting that the bridge pickup is set nearly t" further from the bridge than on most guitars of this type.
The Bulldozer is a little neck-heavy when played seated, but not off-puttingly so. Even more sweetly setup than the Liquid, it plays effortlessly, and it sustains like a son of a gun even before you plug it in. Given the strength of the over-wound pickups, the Bulldozer clearly isn’t intended for fans of ultra-clean tones. It was difficult to find any substantial clarity through the test amps in full humbucking mode, and winding down the Volume control mostly dulled and muddied the voice, rather than cleaning it up. Flipping to split-coil mode offered more sparkle and definition, and yielded the Bulldozer’s best clean offerings, but it was the slightly plunky clean of a split humbucker, rather than the bold clarity of a Strat pickup.
Given that this baby was born to roar, it’s no surprise that high-gain settings tickle its fancy more thoroughly. The Bulldozer really enjoyed the dimed Marshall, revealing a throaty, round neck voicing, and a barking, slightly edgy bridge-pickup sound that would complement any rock soloist’s arsenal. Injected through a Roger Mayer Spitfire Fuzz, the Bulldozer also delivered a flutey, singing beast of a performance. The bridge pickup’s placement accentuates the lower mids—although, given the pickup’s power, that tonal color wasn’t entirely desirable for my tastes. All told, the Bulldozer works great for rock, but it won’t cough up a lot of twang or chime.
GP reviewed Malden’s standard Karma in the October 2004 issue, but the Bad Karma is different enough in design and features to warrant a look. The model bears an obvious resemblance to the world’s most famous set-neck solidbody, although the Bad Karma’s cutaway horn dives south a little more prominently, its waist and bouts follow slightly different lines, and the body is thinner with an extensive back contour in the rib-cage zone for improved comfort. Whereas the Karma carries a maple-capped body, the Bad Karma is all mahogany with a carved arched top. The matte-black finish masks the uniformity of timber, but the lack of maple has sonic repercussions—theoretically adding a little more warmth and depth, while subtracting a touch of clarity and definition.
The Bulldozer’s super-slim neck carve resurfaces here, although the Bad Karma’s neck feels a little different, thanks to its satin finish. If anything, it’s an even faster ride, boosted by a low setup, and another extremely smooth fret job. The gold-plated hardware, black finish, and nicotine-stained binding give the Bad Karma a good dose of LP Custom vibe, and the mother-of-pearl blocks in the fretboard are a nice touch.
Pickup readings of 11.65k ohms for the bridge, and 8.4k ohms for the neck indicate that the Bad Karma’s alnico 5 humbuckers are similar to the Bulldozer’s—although the coverless units should allow a little more treble into the brew. The Bad Karma carries independent Volume and Tone controls for each pickup, with individual coil-splitters on each Tone pot—a simple setup that offers a lot of tonal variation.
Despite its similar pickups and body woods, the Bad Karma offers a little sharper note definition than the Bulldozer, with just a touch extra bite amid the bluster of the full-humbucking modes. Through the Dr. Z and the TopHat, I achieved chewy and round bluesy tones from the neck pickup that were extremely pleasing. Jacked into the Marshall set for high gain, the neck pickup oozed round, slightly scooped lead tones that nailed that Queens of the Stone Age grind, and the bridge pickup provided a wailing, aggressive, and super-saturated alternative. Either position yielded great sustain, and an easy slide into harmonic feedback. The Bad Karma is a rock lead player’s guitar, for sure, but one that also dabbles in more subtle tones with nuance and authority.