Elderwood Guitar review: my custom-made semi-hollow

Guitars & Gear

I have never owned a semi-hollow guitar before, despite having played 335 style and ‘thinline’ guitars on several occasions. This year, I had the budget to rectify this, but with so many great options out there, I was undecided on where to invest my hard-earned money.

Enter Elderwood Guitars, a one-man operation based in Carlisle, in the north of Cumbria. I had seen a few Elderwood models for sale in a guitar shop in Newcastle, and a couple of players I know spoke highly of these instruments. Barrie, the man behind Elderwood Guitars, makes it his mission to create the guitar of your dreams at a more affordable price. You are involved in all aspects of the layout and design of your instrument, which is largely made up from recycled wood.

You may remember another guitar built for me, a nylon-strung classical guitar, which was also crafted by a solo luthier in Cumbria and made form recycled wood (and if not, you can read about that guitar by clicking here).

The two main principles of making something beautiful from old wood, as well as being able to design the guitar to my own specifications, was something which greatly appealed to me. To that end, I found myself in conversation with Barrie near the start of lockdown, and soon we went back-and-forth with ideas and draft designs. Rather than going for a more straightforward 335-style design, I was inspired by some of the beautiful high-end creations of small guitar companies such as Kauer. In the end, the final design looked like this:

The fifth & final draft of my custom design. Picture courtesy of Elderwood Guitars

My guitar would be an offset semi-hollow with a serious vintage feel to it. The two humbuckers and sound hole on the upper half would be covered in a gold foil/mesh, and the neck would feature block markers. For the finish, I requested as close to British Racing Green as he could manage, with cream for the pickguard, binding and truss rod cover, likening the overall colouring style to that of a classic Mini Cooper. You don’t see many green guitars and I have always wanted one. Now I just had to wait for it to be completed (although since lockdown meant that I wasn’t gigging, I was in no hurry).

Over the next few months, I received occasional updates from Barrie which always got me salivating:

Barrie checked back to confirm my preferences for pickups, tremelo, control layout, as well as general updates on progress. He seemed to be having a busy summer but as each guitar was finished and presented on his Facebook page, they continued to look and sound as high quality as I had been told they’d be.

At last it was ready to collect in early October, and it did not disappoint…

Specifications

  • Offset semi-hollow body, made from recycled pine
  • Maple neck, with rosewood fingerboard featuring block position markers
  • 3-a-side headstock
  • Bigsby-style vibrato system and ‘roller saddle’ bridge
  • 2 x Vanson ’57 Alnico II humbuckers
  • 1 x volume & 1 x tone control
  • 3-way pickup selector switch, plus mini-switch for coil-tapping
  • Push button to bypass volume control (see below)
  • Side-mounted jack socket (secured by four screws for greater stability)

This guitar certainly looks the part. The green finish contrasts beautifully with the pickguard and copper coloured control knobs. After sharing the images above on my Facebook page, I was inundated with questions and compliments about the it. It’ll certainly make a visual impact at gigs (whenever they start back up again).

Sounds

Acoustically, this guitar is much louder than my other electrics. It’s interesting just how much difference the resonance of a semi-hollow together with the sound hole, can make. The matched PAF-style humbuckers give you all the tones you would expect from an early Les Paul, but with more airiness due to the mainly hollow body. These humbuckers are made by Vanson, a budget brand readily available on websites such as Amazon. Barrie shares my sentiment that one shouldn’t have to, and doesn’t need to, pay over the odds for a combination of magnets and copper wiring. I had said early on in the design process that I was happy with ‘budget’ pickups on this guitar, and they certainly sound as good as anything the big name brands churn out!

The bridge pickup provides everything I need, from classic rock crunch to an almost rockabilly style twang – the Bigsby certainly comes to the fore here. The neck pickup gives up warm jazz tones on a clean amp with the tone rolled back, and splitting the humbucker into ‘single coil mode’, I’m able to get a sound remarkably similar to a Strat or Tele in this position, which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. With both pickups engaged, I’m in my beloved funk and soul territory, great for rhythm playing and bluesy licks. Not only that, but it feels like BB King’s trademark singing lead tone is virtually built-in to this instrument.

Is it any good?

Oh yes, it’s very good. I love it! I’ve certainty enjoyed playing it so far, both through my amps and unplugged. It sits perfectly on a strap and the neck is comfortably chucky, like a true vintage instrument (which is exactly how I like it).

My only hurdle so far has been getting used to the Bigsby-style vibratio. I don’t use the vibratio arms on my Stratocasters, but as well as the right hand aspect, Bigsby units are notoriously tricky to keep in tune. However, this is something that can only be changed through practice and getting used to using it, rather than anything wrong with the guitar itself. Nonetheless, Barrie’s ‘aftermarket service has been top drawer, offering all sorts of advice on how to get the most from the unit, as well as tips on maximisng tuning stability.

Finally collecting the new axe. Picture courtesy of Elderwood Guitars

I expect to be in the studio again in the coming weeks, recording a new LP with the Nick Gladdish Band, and this guitar will be coming along with me. I’ll share links to sounds and videos of this guitar in that (or any) setting as and when they become available…

If you are interested in your own custom-made guitar, Barrie can be contacted directly through Elderwood Guitar’s Facebook page. I’d recommend that you take a look through the numerous creations he has made, and make sure you have a good idea of what you are looking for when you drop him a line. Once you do, you will meet an affable and courteous man dedicated to making the best instruments he can, at a price point open to all of us – and that, like his guitars, is truly something to be admired.

Harley Benton launch £70 power amp for guitar pedal boards

Guitars & Gear

Greetings guitar folk. We are back with a little bit of guitar gear news which seems to have dropped this morning…

Most guitar players have probably heard of Harley Benton before. The brand (owned by the European online music superstore Thomann) are well known for bringing surprisingly good guitars into the beginner/lower priced end of the market which have significantly better quality control than their rivals (their 335 copy is in high demand). They also offer a range of instruments and accessories that are useful for working musicians to have in their arsenal. To that end, they have introduced the GPA-100, a power amp that fits in your pedal board.

Here’s a link to the Harley Benton page for more information

The GPA-100 features master volume, plus 3 band EQ (treble, middle, bass). It’s main purpose might be to save the day, should your main amp/floor unit fail. And £70 is a small price to pay for that piece of mind.

If I have the chance to test one out, I will drop a review on here. If you buy one, please let me know what you think! Bye for now!

I accidentally bought a guitar, and ended up with an unexpected bargain

Guitars & Gear

I’ve noticed a few decent-looking guitars going for sale on eBay recently. In the past, I’ve picked up a few great instruments and amps, including the Strat which was my main touring guitar for a decade, as well as two Fender Mustang floor units, which I use for live work most of the time nowadays. However, buying something online, especially a musical instrument you haven’t played, or even held, can be a risky business. I therefore try to set an ‘absolute maximum’ price which I won’t go over. This is price is normally quite low, meaning I should be able to at least earn a small profit on any guitars I decide to move on – but it does mean I’m not usually the ‘winning bidder’ when interesting pieces catch my attention.

That is, until I saw this gem…

What is it?

This guitar is modeled on the Gibson non-reverse Firebird III, one of Gibson’s early forays into the offset market, only flipping the body to be a mirror image of the shape in the above picture, hence the term reverse. From 1965 to 1969, Gibson offered a non-reverse version, in a much more Jazzmaster style shape. The ‘III’ in the name is a reference to the guitar having three P90 pickups, unlike the two mini humbuckers on previous Firebird models. Because these non-reverse bodied, three pickup guitars were only available for around four years, they are considered highly collectible and even ones in poor condition go for thousands of pounds.

However, I knew from the price I paid for it alone that this guitar was not a real Gibson. Once it had been delivered, it was clear that the ‘Gibson’ logo on the headstock is actually a decal, added after the original purchase (although some of these copies were actually supplied with stickers such as this, or alternative truss rod covers that read ‘Gibson’, so perhaps it came with the instrument). An original Gibson of this style from the mid to late sixties would have looked slightly different, too – chrome hardware, black pickup covers and probably a Firebird decal somewhere on the pickguard. But I have to say, I quite like the gold hardware, and I’ve always preferred cream/aged white pickup covers, especially on retro-styled guitars such as these.

So who made it?

In my initial research, the Japanese manufacturer Tokai looked the most likely suspect. Tokai, along with Ibanez, were famous for their ‘lawsuit guitars’ in the seventies; the lawsuit occurred because they were making better Les Pauls than Gibson were (the 70s saw huge reductions in quality from both Gibson and Fender guitars, making the Japanese rip-offs much more appealing, and better value). Tokai have certainly released their own take on the Firebird design, but after a little more digging, I believe this model to be made by the almost completely unknown Gould brand; seemingly British-based, but put together in China, probably in the early 2000s.

Is it any good?

Heck, yes. It sounds amazing, and reinforces my belief that sometimes, one is merely paying extra money for the right name on the headstock. This guitar plays really well, hangs nicely on a strap and has a good vintage-feel neck (i.e., it’s thicker than many modern guitars). The guitar’s budget P90 pickups sound as good as any other I have played, and the unique control layout of three way switch (neckb/ neck & bridge / bridge), shared volume for neck & bridge pickup, plus a separate volume control for the middle P90, allows for seven different pickup configurations, all of which can be tweaked by how you decide to blend pickups together. The master tone control appears to taper smoothly as well – rare for what is clearly a budget guitar. P90s sit somewhere between humbuckers and single-coil pickups in terms of output and ‘beefiness’, and I certainly get a ‘Strat on steroids’ vibe from this guitar. I love the sound of this guitar played clean, through a Fender Deluxe or Twin Reverb style amp as well as a more retro-styled dirty sound – a Fender Bass man plus a vintage tremelo effect sounded wonderfully evocative…

Could this instrument become my main guitar for soul work, replacing my main all-rounder, my vintage-voiced blonde Stratocaster?

There was one slight fault. The frets don’t seem to be the best quality, and a few were coming away slightly, causing bends to choke at certain points on the neck. I noticed the same issue might be happening in a few other places, so I sent the guitar off to my tech guy for a partial refret, which thankfully didn’t cost too much. Upon it’s return, the notes all sing beautifully, especially with those P90s…

Three great sounding P90s, giving seven different pickup combinations – and just look at that gorgeous sunburst finish…

Pros and cons

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Amazing triple P90 sound
  • Gorgeous sunburst finish (and general retro styling)
  • A really classy twist on the classic Jazzmaster shape
  • Great copy of an otherwise unattainable guitar

Neutrals

  • Neck might be too chunky for some (but just right for me)

Cons

  • Needed a partial refret
  • Resale value won’t be that high if I decide to sell it on

All in all, I think I’ve grabbed a bargain! Especially from a random purchase on eBay. At least it’ll give me a new toy to play with while I wait for my new custom guitar to be completed (more on that later this year…)