red, White & bul­lets

This over-the-top cre­ation comes from Stephen McSwain’s Ore­gon work­shop and is full of US sym­bol­ism – a danger­ously at­trac­tive propo­si­tion

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Neville Marten

Stephen McSwain is a pow­er­house. He de­signs his in­stru­ments, cre­ates the art­work, hand-fash­ions the air­craft alu­minium fronts, then ages and as­sem­bles these fas­ci­nat­ing beasts in his Ore­gon work­shop. McSwain of­fers a range of show­stop­ping in­stru­ments, our Red, White & Bul­lets model be­ing one of his most ar­rest­ing – pun only half in­tended. His cus­tomers num­ber Steve Vai (who owns the very first), Jerry Cantrell, Ver­non Reid, Jared Leto, Slash and many more.

Be­neath our re­view in­stru­ment’s flashy ex­te­rior lies an ex­em­plary piece of work, with the best pick­ups and hard­ware, and aged to look like it’s been res­cued from some dusty shack lain derelict since the Con­fed­er­ate War. While a de­gree of com­puter tech­nol­ogy does the don­key work, the craft side of things is all McSwain. “I’m the wearer of all hats,” he says. “I de­sign, cut and fin­ish all the met­al­work, but in or­der to meet our in­creas­ing de­mand, I’ve been get­ting the alu­minium in­lays laser cut and it has re­duced build times sig­nif­i­cantly. All the paint, tex­tures, aged wear, and so on, I do by hand.”

Although the gui­tar’s ap­pear­ance may sug­gest oth­er­wise, con­struc­tion is clas­sic

stuff. “It’s a solid two-piece African ma­hogany body and three-piece ma­hogany neck with ebony ’board,” Stephen ex­plains. It’s based on a tweaked dou­ble-cut ‘Ju­nior’ body shape, and the age­ing has a ‘dis­tressed leather’ look, un­like the sim­u­lated play­ing wear of Fender’s Relics.

The bridge, pickup cov­ers and sur­rounds are nickel plated (the bridge is a Tone Pros unit), worn to the point where the cop­per un­der plat­ing shows through; V-for­ma­tion through body string­ing re­moves the need for a tail­piece. “I’ve al­ways liked the bur­nished look of those ex­posed lay­ers un­der­neath the nickel,” says McSwain. A painted fac­ing plate and metal truss rod cover adorn the head­stock, while around the back a signed and dated plaque sits be­tween two rows of aged Klu­son tuners. Oh, and those bul­lets are gen­uine Mag­num .357 car­tridge rims – for­tu­nately spent ones!

The stars and stripes de­sign of the top is made in sec­tions and joined to­gether with raised metal seams. “The metal seam is a fer­rous metal I found that’s per­fect for sol­der­ing or weld­ing,” states Stephen. The coloured paint is worn through in places to com­plete the dis­tressed look.

The pick­ups here are by Ar­cane. Com­pany founder Rob Tim­mons has worked with gui­tar and pickup mak­ers in­clud­ing Tom Holmes, Tyler, Trus­sart and many oth­ers, and his Triple Clone model pow­ers the McSwain. Stephen says, “Rob tweaked the wind­ing to give a spe­cific tone to our metal-top, ma­hogany body gui­tars. I then split the coils for a range of switch­ing op­tions.” Ours of­fers coil-taps on both pick­ups.

Feel & Sounds

McSwain reck­ons you can’t go wrong with Gib­son’s clas­sic ’59 neck pro­file, and we would agree. Nat­u­rally, this feels more Ju­nior than

Don’t mis­take these in­stru­ments as some kind of nov­elty – this is a gen­uine piece of gui­tar craft

Stan­dard, and the 22 beefy frets are per­fectly fin­ished. Ac­cess to the up­per frets is great – no prob­lem play­ing pen­ta­ton­ics at the 17th, with a full-tone bend at the 22nd pro­vid­ing the dou­ble oc­tave. As we say so of­ten these days, it’s a fuss-free neck that just feels ‘right’.

Plug­ging in on the same day as we sound-tested PRS’s 594, there’s a def­i­nite kin­ship – a solid vin­tage tone that’s dark but not too hot. It’s a mu­si­cal sound – less weighty than a Les Paul Cus­tom and more de­fined than a P-90driven Ju­nior. It’s most pleas­ing and, again, be­lies the gui­tar’s overt looks. En­gage the vol­ume pots’ coil-tap push-pulls and the bass end re­duces sig­nif­i­cantly, leav­ing the pick­ups’ in­nate bright top in­tact. But don’t think Fender Tele, think Gib­son Melody Maker.


You’ve got to love mak­ers that go out of their way to bring us some­thing this dif­fer­ent. Jaws hit the floor on see­ing it, a smile of sat­is­fac­tion arises on play­ing it, and a wide grin of sat­is­fac­tion en­sues on sam­pling its range of ‘proper’ vin­tage tones. Don’t mis­take these in­stru­ments as some kind of nov­elty – this is a gen­uine piece of gui­tar craft, and who wouldn’t love to be seen with one round their neck play­ing some dirty, sleazy slide?

“But it’s three and a half grand!” we hear you scream. Yes, but when did you last en­counter a gui­tar with so much of the man­u­fac­turer’s blood, sweat and tears all over it? And that’s rarely true with off-the-shelf, so-called ‘bou­tique’ gui­tars. It’s fan­tas­tic. We love it!

Pho­tog­ra­phy Olly Cur­tis

1 1. Although some age­ing is de­signed to look wear-re­lated, the over­all im­age is of some­thing dis­tressed all over

2 2. The metal front is made in sec­tions and sol­dered to­gether with a spe­cial com­pound that McSwain has dis­cov­ered. Pick­ups are by Ar­cane and the bridge is from TonePros 3. An an­cient piece of fur­ni­ture? A bat­tered old leather jacket? There’s a real vibe about how the gui­tar has been aged 4. More painted met­al­work adorns an at­trac­tive and unique de­sign head­stock. Tuners are ‘but­ter­bean’ Klu­sons 5. In­di­vid­ual pickup vol­umes with master tone and coil-tap op­tion, each with cus­tom bul­let cas­ings




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