Manne Taos Special

Custom guitar maker Andrea “Manne” (pronounced man-ney) Ballarin has been producing finely crafted instruments from his factory in the Northern Italian town of Schio since 1986. Exotic styling prevails in Ballarin’s designs, and one of his signature elements is the use of Italian poplar burl that he harvests from centuries-old trees. Ballarin buys just the bases—the part where the trunk meets the roots—of specimens that have fallen in storms, saws them into slabs, and, after a lengthy drying process, carves the gorgeously figured wood into explosive looking tops.
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Sporting a long upper horn (designed to help balance the instrument when strapped on) and a neck that’s constructed from laminations of European hornbeam beech set into a rock-maple frame, the Taos Special is undeniably Eurocentric. The neck is wide and rather thin, with a slightly asymmetrical shape that gives it an ultra comfy feel. The frets are highly polished and carefully finished, and, owing to being set simultaneously into the phenolic board using a special press, extremely consistent in height. The low-action setup is very shred friendly, and thanks to the thin heel and deeply set joint (the neck meets the body at the 23rd fret on the treble side), you can reach up the neck so easily that you almost have to be mindful to avoid fingering on the pickup itself!

The beautifully made Wilkinson trem bridge is set up to zero on the body when you release the bar. Its action is smooth and precise, and the slick nut (which is carefully slotted and finished) and absence of string trees make for excellent tuning stability once the strings are broken in.

Built to Manne’s specifications by a small Korean manufacturer, the ceramic blade mini humbuckers are controlled by a 5-way switch and a set of Volume and Tone controls—both of which have a push-pull function that lets you run the coils in either series or parallel. Pulling the Volume knob puts the neck pickup’s coils in parallel, and the bridge unit is parallel-ized via the Tone knob (the middle pickup remains in series at all times). Series/parallel switching is less common than the split-coil systems found on many guitars, which is kind of surprising considering that parallel wiring maintains the noise-canceling of the humbucking pickup while providing a brighter and more open sound—albeit with slightly less output—than you get with the coils in series.

Taos Tones

In clean and distorted modes the Taos Special sounded spectacular. This is a very articulate guitar that delivers tons of clean sparkle, and it also sounds great for overdriven tones. Running through the high-gain channels of an Orange Rockerverb 100 and a THD Flexi-50, the Taos Special’s bridge pickup delivered tones that had the girthiness of a humbucker and the detail and sense of focus of a single-coil. It’s a bit like a P-90 in that regard, but without the propensity to hum. And I found that if a little more bite was needed, instead of immediately turning up the treble on the amp, I could just pull the Tone knob and get an increase in clarity. The slight drop in output in the parallel setting was not an issue—I still had distortion to spare.

The Taos Special sustained well and sounded excellent when played through a Fender Twin Reverb. In cleaner modes you can readily appreciate the richness and dimension of its tones, all of which can be easily nudged in a chimier direction by invoking the parallel option. This function effectively gives you an extra notch of shimmer to call on when soloing or playing a rhythm part, and is particularly useful for bringing out more ringiness in the clucky textures of positions 2 and 4.

Manne for all Seasons

I guess what turns me on most about the Taos Special is just how adaptable it is to different styles. It has the warm, ballsy drive needed for classic rock, its tight dynamic response is perfect for metal, and it delivers the fat rear-pickup snap you want for country. The neck and middle pickups offer a wealth of tones that are ideal for blues and jazz, and I suppose the only thing the Taos doesn’t provide is a faux acoustic-electric sound (though it can be ordered with a piezo bridge if you need that option).

By focusing on the design and structural elements that go into making a superlative solidbody guitar (some of which seem borrowed from the bass world) and utilizing clever passive electronics, Manne has created an instrument that plays amazingly well, is exceptionally flexible, and looks as bold and purposeful as a Ferrari. The Taos Special is a sizeable investment, but if you’re seeking an ax that can take your playing to the next level, it would be worth your while to give it an audition.