The Johnny Depp: Collings I-35 Deluxe

THERE’S NO MISTAKING YOU’RE LOOKING AT A luxury item when you scan the I-35’s stunning quilted-maple top finished in a highgloss root beer hue—not to mention the beautifully retro ivoroid control knobs, the gold hardware, the ivoroid binding, and the mother-of-pearl Collings logo. The basic retail price for the I-35 is $5,800, but these addons launched the review model’s price tag to $6,575: premium quilt top ($200), parallelogram inlays ($150), gold hardware ($125), black/white purfing ($100), hardshell case ($200). For many working guitarists, the I-35 will be relegated to the land of dreams. But what a dream it is.

The U.S.A.-made I-35 is a magnificent example of guitar making. To find any construction or finish flaws, I think you’d need an atomic microscope, because the naked eye will see nothing but perfection from heel to headstock. I even did former GP editor Andy Ellis’ trick of sneaking a small mirror through the f-holes to expose any rough innards, but everything appeared to be as neat and clean as a surgeon’s instrument tray. The quality control is so off-the-map that lugging the I-35 to a club gig struck me as little different than toting a Rembrandt to a kindergarten fingerpainting class. And yet, if this beauty can’t be a beast on stage, then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s more of an investment than an instrument.

From a playability standpoint, the I-35 continues to be achingly seductive. Its wide, vintage-style neck and superbly dressed frets are so inviting that your technique improves about 20 percent simply by placing your fingers on the fretboard. It’s a magical experience. I thought the ivoroid knobs might be slippery, but the material grips your pinky tightly, and the pots turn with exceptional smoothness. The pickup-selector switch is positioned for easy, on-the-fly manipulation—although wild strummers might hit it by accident.

While I was a bit embarrassed subjecting the I-35 to punk rock, it was more than game to rage. There’s a hint of sophistication in every tone—a smooth sheen to the highs, midrange frequencies akin to polished steel, and tight lows—but when I cranked the gain, the I-35 responded with all the snot and grit you’d expect from more obviously rock-oriented axes. However, you also get the versatility to dial in stout and resonant jazz timbres, open-sounding acoustic-like tones, and clean and funky pops and snaps. I tagged the I-35 as “Johnny Depp” because he’s a striking movie star who can carry Hollywood blockbusters, and still be believable in dark indie films. The I-35 can do it all, as well, but, like a box-office champ, it’ll cost you big time for the privilege of its partnership.