GUITARISTS TODAY ARE AN EXCEEDINGLY LUCKY BUNCH. FEED OUR PIGG YBANKS WELL and we’ve got access to a greater variety of high-end guitars than ever before—many of which nail lust-worthy alternative tones and looks, while still performing all the traditional tricks your nightly gig requires. The three upmarket electrics featured here are a case in point: each emanates from a small-shop American maker using unique designs and/or materials, to provide an instrument that helps you make a very individual statement in your own playing. I tested each guitar through a Matchless Phoenix 1x12 combo and a Bogner Goldfinger 45 head and 2x12 cab.
B3 FIRE SL BY GENE BAKER
b3 Fire SL
Long a notable builder in his own right, for the past few years Gene Baker has headed up the Premier Builders Guild team in Arroyo Grande, California, and this is the shop where the b3 Fire SL is made. At first glance this guitar might seem like just another double-cut Les Paul variant, but the shape shifting of the upper horn helps the b3 Fire SL hang differently, putting it in a playing position that I found more comfortable than the traditional Les Paul. The entire guitar is so beautifully put together that it just begs you to play it—and when you do, it rings sweet and true even before being plugged in.
As the spec box indicates, the b3 Fire SL comprises many of the classic elements of the LP format, with quality components at every turn: TonePros hardware, Lollar Imperial pickups, a Tusq nut with Buzz Feiten Tuning System, and Dunlop Strap Loks. More fundamentally, the wood itself screams of similar quality and attention to detail. The softly V’d ’59 neck carve feels superb in the hand, with nary a ragged fret end, and a lightly chambered mahogany body keeps the overall weight equally appealing. Finally, a distressed “lemondrop” nitro finish, with cherry back and neck, seems the perfect way to show off the remarkable flame of this carved maple top.
Fired up, the b3 presented ballsy, confident dual-humbucker tones, yet with the oft-surprising finesse of a great Les Paul when called for. It laid down anything in the broad range of classic rock just as effortlessly as you might suspect, yet when eased back, exhibited a depth and grace that is rare in guitars of this format. The neck pickup rolled effortlessly from warm, vocal, jazz tones to singing blues-rock, and there was even more versatility across the board when I popped up the neck-position Tone control for some single-coil action. But kick it to the bridge pickup, crank the amp, and the rock-all- day bluster is where this guitar really won me over. For its effortless playability and rich, muscular dual-bucker tones, the b3 Fire SL wins an Editors’ Pick Award.
RONIN MIRARI FOILBUCKER
All Ronin guitars are hand-made by Izzy Lugo and brothers John and Jack Reed in Humboldt County, California. Many of the shop’s instruments, our sample Mirari included, are made from centuries-old redwood salvaged from trees fallen on the Reed family’s own land. The log tapped for this build came from an old-growth tree felled by lightning more than 50 years ago and cured in the California sun on the southward-facing slopes until it was harvested.
To this foundation, Ronin bolts a one-piece mahogany neck to reveal what might seem a rather Strat-ish platform—if not for the wildly revisionist-retro hijinks going on in the electronics department. The two Foilbucker pickups (say it five times fast) are Ronin’s own creation, entirely custom-machined and designed from the ground up to replicate the hallowed tone of vintage Rowe/DeArmond “gold foil” units, but in a humbucking format. Between the Master Volume and Tone controls (dig the knobs!) and 3-way switch lurk nifty push-button coiltaps. A more contemporary MannMade twopost vibrato presents a great feel and superb return-to-pitch stability. A lightly distressed Daphne blue finish in plasticizer-free nitro with “wear” on the neck back completes a package that looks and feels long-loved.
Through my Matchless Phoenix set to clean-going- crunchy, the Mirari’s Foilbuckers proved some of the more mudless humbuckers I have played in a while; they helped give the guitar a very tactile clarity, and a touch sensitivity that segued from glassy clean to juicy grind the harder I dug in.
Throughout, these pickups chased the velvety highs and dynamic feel of their single-coil inspirations, yet they exceled under high-gain conditions in ways those potential howl-monsters rarely do. There were Fender-style tone tricks aplenty, especially with coil-tap switches engaged (impressively little hum here!), but between the light and superbly resonant redwood body and the very individual pickups, the Mirari revealed one unique voice after another, and that’s what really turned me on most about this guitar.
The thin-ish V-to-C profile neck and a faultless overall setup made the Mirari supremely playable, and the MannMade trem proved itself an impeccable re-think of an iconic piece of hardware. The only minor glitches I could find concerned the push-button coil-tap switches, which don’t reveal their mode visually—you have to play to know where you stand—and the vibrato bar needs a right-angled plug in the jack to swing freely. Otherwise, this guitar is an out’n’out stunner.
TEYE GYPSY QUEEN LA ESTRELLA
Teye Gypsy Queen La Estrella
Netherlands-born, Texas-based luthier Teye (first name only, please) clearly takes inspiration from the work of Tony Zemaitis, as he admits in a lengthy discourse on his website. But if the majority of his instruments retain closer esthetic ties to that late, great British maker, the Gypsy Queen La Estrella might be a more natural expression of the eclecticism of this classically trained guitarist turned rocker turned flamenco virtuoso. While the laser-etched metal top and headstock facing evoke the axes wielded by Ronnie Wood, Marc Bolin, and James Honeyman-Scott, the Gypsy Queen’s concept originated with “Jimi’s Strat,” as Teye tells us. With its Romany-scroll body lines and distressed vintage-white finish (achieved with a hand-rubbed blend of shellac and oils), it looks entirely other-worldly too.
Plugged into the Matchless Phoenix at plexilike settings, the Gypsy Queen easily dished up thick Hendrix-y tones. Elements such as the upside-down headstock for a longer low- E-string length behind the nut, and reversed bridge and middle pickups for tighter lows and beefier highs do seem to add up to something significant. The lively Spanish cedar body, the unifying mass of the metal top, and a glued-in neck (the screws are only esthetic) with scarfed and back-angled headstock, are likely contributing factors too.
Run through its paces a little more, though, the Gypsy Queen showed greater versatility than most mere S-clones. Thanks to a fourth Lollar pickup (between the trad bridge and middle positions), blendable as desired via the Mood knob, it swept effortlessly from thick humbuckerstyle tones to bright yet never brittle twang and chime. It clearly loved to grind, but revealed untold subtleties through more nuanced playing, and didn’t fall apart amid heavy overdrive.
The wide-thin neck profile and 1 3/4" width at the nut might take some getting used to, but the Gypsy Queen proved an easy player regardless. The Wilkinson vibrato was set for downbend only, a situation that can feel a little alien to a player, like me, who’s more at home with a floating trem (changing to floating mode can be done via the trem screws or by removing one of the springs). A more universal bugbear was that, somewhere between the vibrato and a couple of tight nut slots (the G-string’s in particular), I experienced persistent return-to-pitch difficulties during moderate whammy usage. On the whole, though, the Teye Gypsy Queen La Estrella makes a powerful statement, both in the hand and under the stage lights.
FIRE SL BY GENE BAKER
PRICE $3,685 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16", GraphTech Tusq XL
NECK Mahogany, soft V ’59 profile
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 12" radius
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS TonePros Kluson
BODY Chambered mahogany with figured maple carved top
BRIDGE TonePros Nashville Tune-o- Matic with stopbar tailpiece
PICKUPS Two Lollar Imperial humbuckers
CONTROLS Independent Volume and Tone controls, 3-way switch, push-pull coil tap
FACTORYSTRINGS Cleartone, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7.68 lbs
KUDOS Extremely well crafted. Comfortable to play. Blends classic high-end LP tones with alternative looks.
PRICE $3,900 street
NUTWIDTH 1 5/8", unbleached bone
NECK Mahogany, soft V-to-C profile
FRETBOARD Cocobolo, 7.25"–9.5" radius
FRETS 22 Stew-Mac 152 (medium)
TUNERS Hipshot open-gear
BODY Solid reclaimed old-growth redwood
BRIDGE MannMade two-post vibrato
PICKUPS Two Ronin Foilbucker humbuckers
CONTROLS Master Volume and Tone controls, 3-way switch, individual push-button coil-taps
FACTORYSTRINGS GHS Boomers, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7.2 lbs
KUDOS Excellent build quality. Appealing alternative looks. Impressively original voice, yet extremely versatile.
CONCERNS Pushbuttons give no visual indication of pickup mode.
GYPSY QUEEN LA ESTRELLA
PRICE $4,650 street
NUT WIDTH 1 3/4", bone
NECK Maple, slim C profile
FRETBOARD Rosewood, compound 10"-16" radius
FRETS 24 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Grover Mini
BODY Solid Spanish Cedar with laser-etched metal top
BRIDGE Wilkinson two-post vibrato
PICKUPS Four Lollar S-style single-coils
CONTROLS Master Volume and Tone controls, 5-way switch, Mood knob (blends in fourth pickup)
FACTORYSTRINGS D’Addario, .010-.046
WEIGHT 7.95 lbs
KUDOS A hip marriage of Zemaitis and Strat. Fat S-style tones, with a surprising range of voices beyond.
CONCERNS Some return-to-pitch issues with vibrato use.