Review Date: Thursday 3rd of January 2013 03:41:30 PM Last Updated: Thursday 1st of January 1970 01:00:00 AM Reviewed By: Will Nicholas
Gretsches might be the archetypal rockabilly guitar, but back in the day Gibsons and Epiphones were much more common. The Swingster is designed to be a ‘go-to rockabilly, jazz and rock hollowbody’. Review by Will Nicholas
To really understand the roots of rockabilly and early rock'n'roll, you have to consider that many of the musicians had their roots in jazz and country. Les Paul played country under the guise of Rhubarb Red; Chet Atkins playing was as sophisticated as that of any hardcore jazzer; and if you're still sceptical, try figuring out the bebop-flavoured solo on Rock Around The Clock many have tried, and most have failed. That's why no rockabilly-themed roundup would be complete without some sort of jazzbox.
The Epiphone Swingster combines traditional jazzbox construction with more contemporary looks and features. The pressed top is select spruce but it's not clear if it's laminated. The back and sides are formed from highly-figured maple ply, and if you peer through the f-holes you can see that even the inside surfaces are figured.
Maple is used for the set neck too, and the 14" radius rosewood fingerboard is treated with multi-ply binding to match the floral inlaid headstock.
The Swingster's hardware includes 14:1 ratio Grover tuners, a Tune-O-Matic bridge that's securely pinned in place, and a B30 Bigsby with a Chet Atkins-style arm.
The beautiful grain of the wood can be discerned through the flawless transparent black finish but the brown rosewood bridge looks a tad incongruous with this colour scheme real ebony or even just some black stain might have been better.
Plenty of pickup manufacturers sell F-tron-type pickups that drop into a regular PAF-style surround. Without trying them all, there's no way of telling whether some attempt has been made to make them sound like the Gretsch originals or if the only resemblance is the shape of the cut out on the top of the metal cover.
All we know is that these Swingbucker pickups have alnico V magnets, so more on this later.
Considering their original raison d'etre as acoustic guitars with added pickups, modern archtops can be a mixed bag when played unplugged. Good news: the Swingster is a real pleasure to play unamplified.
The tone is mellow, even and sweet, although not especially loud. A heavier set of strings would make things even better by driving the top harder, and it might also prevent the top E string popping out of its saddle due to the insufficient break-angle between the bridge and the Bigsby.
Speaking of which, this licensed Bigsby produced an absolute cacophony of squeaks and creaks every time it was touched. It's unlikely you'll notice anything untoward when playing through an amp but it's a bit of a shame, because the Chet-style weird-shaped arm actually makes for the most comfortable and usable Bigsby experience we've ever had. One other minor complaint: the control knobs do pull off quite easily, so in the long term you may need to swap them for knobs with a grub screw.
Trick wiring doesn't always produce ideal results but we think that Epiphone's decision to make these dual-coil pickups switch between series and parallel is inspired.
It seems that parallel is the default mode, and it's a far better option than a coil-tapped humbucker. Series mode has slightly lower output but a more transparent and open-sounding treble. There's also a phasey midrange scoop that certainly evokes the tone of a genuine F-tron.
Series (ie. humbucking) mode sounds bigger, fatter and more full-bodied. The output is marginally higher but these are not high-output humbuckers by any stretch of the imagination they're just sweet, full-bodied and spot-on for jazz or Scotty Moore tones.
In clean mode, this Epiphone's coolest setting has to be when both pickups are combined one in series mode and the other in parallel.
All the inherent woody goodness of the Swingster comes through, and it's fabulous stuff with an added dose of reverb and tremolo.
Feedback resistance is impressive for a guitar of this type. Although not commonly associated with overdriven and distorted tones, we really like big hollow-bodied guitars with lots of gain for combining big sounds with plenty of tonal depth.
We could easily imagine Kirk Brandon and Billy Duffy fans enjoying one of these models or maybe the white Royale version with the gold hardware and binding. It's also a fine blues instrument, so long as you have the chops to deal with shorter sustain than you'd get from a solidbody.
We like this guitar a lot – and, considering the UK street price, it’s amazing value for money. The slim neck may divide opinions: the majority of players will probably like it but we thought it felt a bit mismatched and inauthentic given the size and style of the body. The Swingster would also be an even better guitar with a bit more break-angle over the bridge; it needs a neck with more back angle or a B7-type Bigsby with an angle bar at the front to stop the strings popping out of their saddles when fingerpicking. The added downward pressure on the bridge might also serve to enhance the tone.
Besides that, the Swingster looks, feels and sounds like it should cost at least twice as much. The workmanship is excellent and Epiphone is using fine quality materials for the inlays. There’s also plenty of scope for easy modifications to be carried out, but it’s actually just fine as it is. Besides the glitzy Royale version, the Swingster is also available in orange and red – but we think it looks best in black.
Guitar & Bass Magazine June 2013 COVER: PAUL KOSSOFF - We tell the tale of Free's tragic genius.
INTERVIEWS with six-string wizard JOE SATRIANI, DAVE KELLY and STEVE EARLE
VINTAGE: This month Lars Mullen meets Michael Warmsley and surveys a collection with Gretsch at its heart
WORKSHOPS: Learn to play like THE KINKS and JOY DIVISION