Zuni Exhibition Custom Sapphire

If you had seen the Zuni Guitars booth at the Winter 2007 NAMM show, or its appearance on Barry Wood’s always entertaining NAMM Oddities website, you’d have witnessed what looked like a hunting lodge, complete with deer and elk antlers. The reason? Well, the most obvious thing that distinguishes Zuni guitars from many other top-dollar customs is the use of antler material for all the knobs and tuner buttons. That said, Zuni offers an incredibly wide selection of woods (they also supply tone lumber to other guitar makers), finishes, inlays, and, of course, antler appointments.

The Custom Sapphire reviewed here is but one example of what can be ordered on a Zuni guitar, and in everything important, the Zuni tribesmen got it right. The neck joint is invisible to the touch, and the binding—which, in classic PRS style, is achieved by masking the perimeter of the maple top and maple-faced headstock before color is applied—is flawless. The maple billet chosen for the top is fantastic, and the neck lumber is equally lovely. The depth of the flame on both is impressive—especially considering you’re seeing it though a satin finish. Cosmetic and functional disappointments are few: The finish on the back feels a little rough in spots, the not-perfectly-round antler knobs can’t accommodate pinky swells, the cover plates on the back don’t fit perfectly, and the tuners are a skosh crooked.

Playability is excellent thanks to the low, fast action. Big bends don’t fret out, and stinging vibrato is a snap, thanks to the perfectly polished frets and smooth fretboard. Dig in with a heavy pick on some R&B rhythm riffs, or funky chicken pickin’, and savor the total absence of fret buzz—despite the dreamy action. Access to the upper frets is no issue, thanks to the deep cutaway, and the fret ends feel broken in and comfy right out of the case.

The wiring scheme features a master Tone and two Volumes, but because of the series configuration when both pickups are on, lowering either Volume control quiets the entire signal. This makes it impossible to elicit the tonal colors you typically get by varying the pickup levels, and that’s a bummer. On the plus side, the Tone control is well voiced throughout its entire range, and the knob can be pulled to split the pickup coils.

I found the Sapphire’s dark, smoky amplified tones a bit surprising, given how lively and zingy this guitar sounds when strummed unplugged. Played through a Fender Twin Reverb, a Tech 21 Trademark 10, and a Roger Linn AdrenaLinn II, the sounds were positively huge across the board. When rabid distortion is applied, the tones remain refined, with a complete absence of anything ragged or scruffy. It’s the sonic equivalent of a fine single-malt whiskey. Woman tone? Roll the tone knob back, and it’s more like Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman tone. Split the coils, and you get considerable spankitude, but the tones are still damn fat. Even through a fatally fizzy Danelectro Bacon ‘N’ Eggs mini-pedal amp, I couldn’t get tinny tones.

I mentioned the unusual wiring above, but with both Volumes pegged, the dual pickup sound is a thing to be reckoned with. Delivering bell-like (as in Big Ben) clarity and a vaguely menacing vibe, this would be the sound to have if you play guitar in a three-man army and want to invade a lot of space. Clean or crunchy, it’s a round, lush tone that reminded me of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.” The bridge pickup ventures deep into the kerrang zone, while keeping the aged-whiskey refinement. Again, there’s a scandalous amount of lows for a bridge pickup. Predictably, the split-coil tones are as close to twangy as this guitar gets.

The chunky sounding Sapphire is for dudes with a Harley Road King on one side of the garage, and a cherry vintage Marshall stack (or perhaps a Mesa/Boogie Road King) on the other—guys who have caches of pre-embargo Cuban cigars and old blues on vinyl. If your tastes run toward the slightly exotic; if the lovely quilting of maple quickens your pulse; if deep, dark, swampy tones are the vehicle for your muse; consider checking into what Zuni has to offer.