RKS Guitars

The guitar-making partnership of a 6-string legend (Dave Mason) and an award-winning industrial designer (Ravi Sawhney) was an intriguing story when GP covered the duo’s RKS Guitars’ Malibu, Uluru, and Hell Fire models with an exclusive review in the June ’04 issue. Priced from $3,000 to $6,500 and beyond, the various permutations of the futuristic-looking and ergonomically friendly designs offered guitarists good sounds, unique features (ribbed bodies, bottom-side “groove knob” Volume and Tone controls, a top-side 3-position selector, a solid-brass tip on the headstock to aid sustain, and a scoop between the pickups to facilitate punk-style string bashing), and a “made in America” custom-shop vibe.

Today, RKS has primarily dedicated production to one body style—which was originally called the Classic—and has adjusted its direct pricing to offer models from $2,196 (the black-polymer Dark Star) to $4,396 (the Sunburst). Custom orders are still accepted, and the company also launched a fab, neon-colored Pop Series in Rockwood Orange, Pink Lipstick, and Fine Lime finishes ($4,000 each). In addition, RKS’ new vice president of sales and marketing, Tom Watters, reports that the company recently opened an Oxnard, California, facility that allows them to achieve closer manufacturing tolerances. Watters also stated that the revamped guitar line utilizes renewable U.S. woods (the polymer body material of the models—called Tenite—is actually 93 percent wood fiber), offers custom DiMarzio pickups voiced for RKS by Steve Blucher (other pickups options will be available), and changed the neck finish to satin.

To see how RKS has evolved, I tested the Ruby Red model ($3,296 direct) through a Mesa/Boogie Stiletto, a Marshall JCM 900 combo, a Vox AC15, and direct-to-GarageBand via an M-Audio Black Box. I also consulted my digital-audio recordings of the original Classic Hell Fire test in 2004.

Workmanship-wise, the Ruby Red kicks all kinds of ass over the original Hell Fire, which was compromised by rough ribs, dimpled paint, glue dollops, and munched frets. The new model looks and feels absolutely flawless. The 22 low-profile jumbo frets are nicely dressed, and, along with the satin-finished neck, allow for swift, almost effortless fretboard gymnastics. The only playability glitch occurred with Frets editor Matt Blackett. His large hands and long fingers were restricted somewhat by the ribbed cutaway design, which made it difficult for him to burn on the high frets.

Sonically, the Ruby Red offers an articulate and versatile voice that punches a bit more than the Hell Fire—notes seem to snap from the fretboard. Flipping the selector knob quickly gets you from faux jazzbo to classic rocker to punk or metal boy without much additional fuss. The tone control is very smooth and musical, but it’s too subtle for wah-style knob manipulations.

Although RKS makes much hay about its striking design—the Fine Lime was featured on the cover of BusinessWeek as a “Top Idea” winner—this is a company that definitely seems to care as much about playability, ergonomics, and tone as it does about awards. The leap for players is whether they’ll pop custom-shop prices for a model that’s not a venerated brand. But, trademarks aside, RKS’ build quality and tonal armament deserve serious consideration, and “early adopters��� will be rewarded with a truly thrill-inducing guitar.

RKS Guitars, (800) 942-4757;rksguitars.com