May 26, 2012
Trevor Wilkinson is the man hiding inside your guitar. His name could be on your bridge, underneath your pickups, on the back of your tuners – Wilkinson has made ‘em all, and made ‘em better. But did you know that he also makes guitars?
In a puzzling turn of events, Wilkinson decided that his last name wasn’t the right choice for this line of products, instead opting for a name that, let’s be honest, suggests a Chinese knock-off shop. “Fret-King”? But in all seriousness, there is some really cool stuff hiding behind the stupid name, so bear with me.
The Fret-King range is divided into three basic ranges – Black, Blue and Green Label. Basically, Black and Blue are made in Korea, while Green is made in the UK. I fail to see the distinction between the Black and Blue Label lines, but maybe that’s just me. The gist of it is though, that Wilkinson is trying to bring his innovation and insight into the guitar building process at a decent price point – putting in good hardware, pickup configuration ideas etc that you would usually have to install yourself after the fact.
There are a couple of familiar designs with a twist – the Eclat, basically a Les Paul with a deep forearm cut and comfort contours, the Corona models, which are a Strat with two single coils and a P90 in the bridge (cool idea!), and so on. But the one that caught my attention, of course, was the crazy bastardized hybrid that is…
The Fret-King Esprit 3
Let’s be honest – first glance, it hurts your eyes, and maybe your brain a bit. But look closer and you can clearly see the genesis of this guitar – the lower bout of a Gibson Firebird, the upper bout of a Gibson Explorer, and the top horn of a Fender Jag, all mixed together. I see the Firebird influence most clearly, but instead of the usual raised centreblock running straight through the middle, this time it’s angled sleekly inwards as you get to the end of the body.
- Blue Label series
- Mahogany body
- One piece mahogany neck
- Rosewood fretboard
- 3 P90s with 5-way switch, positions 2 and 4 are hum-cancelling!
- Gotoh tuners, which look like the SG381 which they put on Ibanez Prestiges.
- Master tone and volume
So, on paper – even though it looks so outlandish, it actually has sort of a vintage vibe to it. With P90s for guaranteed raunchy rock factor – does it deliver?
Before I forget – the review unit was kindly provided by NZ Rockshop, so a big thank you to our friendly local retailers!
Fit and Finish
The review model that I got was finished in lovely Vintage White, which, you know… is really kinda just pale yellow. It looks really good though, and adds to the modern/oldschool vibe. Construction looks neat and tidy, nothing out of place – inlays are neat, frets are nicely rounded on the edges, neck joint looks clean. The stock setup is fantastic, medium action with no dead spots, can’t wait to actually get playing!
Unfortunately, the Esprit is let down slightly by a number of visible flaws in the paint application – there is some minor cracking around the output jack, and the paint around the control cavity on the back is a bit sloppy. There is a silver lining though – you can see from the imperfections around the output jack that the finish isn’t overly thick, which I am a big fan of. So, flaws aside, I’m happy that it’s not overly glooped.
Upon closer inspection I also found a bit of a knock on the top edge of the fretboard, which I’m guessing happened at the factory, since the rest of the body is pretty mint. This is a bit surprising as well, considering the QC of most Korean factories today. Interestingly there isn’t a “Made In…” or serial number in sight anywhere on the guitar – since most of the usual Korean factories (Samick, World Factory etc) usually put their stamp on all the guitars they make, I wonder where these are from?
Okay whatever, it still looks freaking weird
Sure it does! But put it on a person, and in my ever so humble opinion, it begins to look… AWESOME. I was going to put up a picture of myself playing one, but I don’t have any gigs coming up and “modelling” a guitar out in the garden just felt too dorky. So instead, here’s a tiny dude who actually really looks a LOT like Randy Rhoads. And he’s rocking it with an Esprit (though this is the Esprit 5, with dual humbuckers). What do you think?
Maybe. So what does it sound like then?
P90s are synonymous with raunchy, biting rock. And they’re everywhere, even when you least expect it. Did you know that the solo on Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall was done on a ’56 Les Paul with P90s?
For awhile, they were forgotten – but now it seems like they’re back again, and the Fret-King has seen fit to grace the Esprit with 3 of these juicy badass single coils!
The downside of P90s is that, because they’re basically an overwound single coil, they also hum more than a normal single coil. These are no different – but it’s not terrible, just don’t sit too close to your amp. The cool thing though is that the middle positions on the 5-way switch are hum-cancelling (like on a Strat) – this isn’t something that is that common for P90 equipped guitars, and it’s certainly a welcome feature!
Anyway, on to the sounds.
Clean tones – holy crap. Marvellous, deep, bell-like tones. The notch positions provide just a hint of extra quack and crispness to the sound. Overall, love it – listen to these tone clips, going from the bridge pickup through all 5 positions back to the neck pickup. The Blackface model on the HD500 was used.
Add in a bit of drive, and you’re, uhm, all right now. Again, all 5 positions just to show what it can do. From here on out you’ll be hearing the sweet Plexi model on the HD500.
Juice it up a bit more and it sounds really great – nice bouncy percussive feel to the notes. Here’s a riff from one of my songs. All 5 positions, you know the drill.
That’s pretty cool, right? But what about higher gain? Is it super raucous, but does the background noise end up being more of a nuisance than it’s worth?
Well… let’s find out. I was recently told that the riff on The Darkness song Love On the Rocks was done using a P90 equipped Les Paul, so I was curious as to whether I could get that sort of biting yet saturated meaty kick.
Simple answer – ohhh yess. I added a Tubescreamer into the signal chain before the Plexi, with the gain on 0 and level on 80%. Hnnnngggghh.
Wow. Now that is some great sounding stuff. This is why The Darkness was awesome.. you know, before they turned shit. But they’re back again, and Justin Hawkins has a goatee now, so maybe things have changed. For the better? I dunno.
Anyway – so we’ve quite quickly established that the Esprit can do clean really well, and dirty really well, but what about in-between stuff? P90s that I’ve played have all on the raunchier side of the output scale, and while I know that some boutique winders do make them a little underwound to reduce noise and sweeten the sound, I think this takes away a bit of that fundamental P90 sound.
To see how the Wilkie P90s stack up, I threw together a quick blues clip. To say I’m impressed (again) would be quite an understatement. The backing guitar uses the bridge + middle pickup combo, while the lead starts with the neck P90 and switches to the bridge towards the end.
The stock setup was really great. I was suspicious about the nut at first, but it looks to be well cut and there were absolutely no tuning issues at all – a truly pleasant surprise since I’ve had much more expensive guitars which need a setup straight off the bat.
The neck is a medium/shallow D profile. It’s a comfortable handful, and never feels too big or too small – just right if you’re used to more Gibson-esque neck profiles. A little bit more substantial than a Gibson 60s neck profile, but nowhere near as chunky as as 50s profile can be.
It’s a reasonably weighty beast as its made up of a decent chunk of mahogany, but the great thing about it is that it hangs perfectly on a strap. No neck-diving, unlike the Firebird it’s mostly based on.
It’s also actually quite comfortable being played sitting down – the Firebird lower bout sits nicely on your knee, although the Explorer wing might get in the way of your arm a little.
Wow. Despite a few hiccups in the paint department, the Esprit’s combination of great tone and polarizing looks have won me over 100%. NZ Rockshop has these priced at $1499, and quite a few more of the other Fret-King models are available around this price point.
- Looks crazy.
- Sounds amazing for anything from super clean to super dirty.
- Great tonal variety, and the hum-cancelling middle positions are a blessing.
- Balances well for a “shape” guitar – much better than a Firebird.
- Looks crazy.
- Small flaws in the paintjob (although in areas where you’d never really notice), and mysterious knock on the fretboard.
Overall, this is well worth the price, especially to have something a bit different – a mix of modern and classic, and I’m not just talking about looks. I have to say, it’s so cool that I just may have to buy it myself!!
Score: 4.0 F*ck Yeahs.