Handbuilt guitars – now there’s a phrase that can both intrigue or fill one with a sense of dread as a reviewer. Some handbuilt guitars display both the craftsmanship of the luthier and their passion for the instrument, combining painstaking attention to detail and an eye for every curve together with exceptional engineering skills.
Some, on the other hand, are spawned in a shed filled with old minced meat jars full of screws and hammered together by an enthusiastic chap who lacks any sympathy for the material he’s using. Happily for us, Stormshadow guitars fall firmly into the former category. Their double-cutaway high-performance guitars are never less than bang-on, so we’re looking forward to the new range of single-cutaway guitars.
Looking at the Khamsin model, you can easily see the major influence. Here we have a mahogany body, a hand-carved maple top and a mahogany neck. Rather than the expected rosewood fingerboard this particular Khamsin sports an ebony fretboard with 22 slick stainless steel 6100-size frets.
You’ll also notice something different going on where the pickups are concerned. This version of the Khamsin has the EMG Het Set – the signature pickups for a certain James Hetfield, who plays with a rather popular beat combo known as Metallica. Between the pickup choice and the frets you start to get an idea where this Khamsin is aimed, and with good reason. It seems the range is designed to cover both more traditional LP styles as well as the more rock-oriented genres, and it turns out that we got the loud one.
When it comes to playing, the Khamsin’s neck profile is a fairly large yet comfortable ‘C’. Stormshadow describes it as somewhere between a ’50s and a ’60s-style carve, and to our hands that feels reasonably accurate.
It is a bit of a handful but extremely well-shaped, leaving no obstacle regardless of playing style. While the neck won’t ever be less than comfortable, players more used to lightweight or chambered-body electrics might find the weight a bit of a strain over extended periods. The Khamsin isn’t massively heavy, but it is substantial.
In our view that’s pretty much right and proper: just eat more pies, and get your strength up. However, should you have any kind of back issues or simply sensitive and emotional shoulders which weep at the concept of carrying a heavy guitar all night, it’s probably something you should take into account.
Before we get onto the sounds, it’s worth mentioning the maple top. Not only is it hand-carved, it’s also a spectacular piece of eye-candy finished in transparent black, offset nicely by the natural binding.
It’s noted as an AAAA grade top in the literature and we’d say it’s easily up there in terms of quality when compared to any big-hitter in the ‘pretty guitar’ market… and you just know the first knock you put on there while you’re out gigging (or dropping something on it in your living room; we know how it is) will cause a tear to slip from your eye.
When it comes to the sound you might expect an EMG-equipped guitar to be rather similar to most others. Terms such as ‘hi-fi’ might even be included, but things are just a little different here. The new Hetfield set straddles a sort of middle ground between active and passive pickups, allowing for a little more in the way of character to come through but still making use of those crisp, accurate active characteristics.
Overall, it’s a fairly successful venture. The bridge pickup – played clean – has a pleasing and airy quality with ample definition but with a good hint of actual wood underneath. Switching to the neck pickup accentuates this timbery side, with a little more midrange than you might normally associate with active pickups.
Indeed, at some points we kind of struggled with the reasoning of being active at all, and if it weren’t for the quiet nature of the pickups in terms of extraneous noise a blind test might have lead us to thinking they were passive units anyway.
Winding on the gain brings us to where this version of the Khamsin really wants to be. It might be a pretty guitar, but it packs a serious punch when things get lairy. With the bridge pickup, it’s chunk city all the way.
Tight low-end tracking ensures all of your palm-muted brutality makes it through, but the nature of the Hetfield pickup means there’s still enough meat there for lead playing, effortlessly pushing the amp further into a smooth sustaining overdrive. Detune the Khamsin a step or two and Zakk Wylde-style riffs and easy artificial harmonics jump instantly out of your amp.
The neck pickup is almost predictable in what it gives you once the gain pot heads westwards – syrupy, flowing lead tones which make legato a breeze and still offers a cubic ton of oomph.
There’s enough definition there to ensure any speed picking doesn’t dissolve into mush, and other techniques like sweep picking really seem to come naturally.
Tonally we do like the Het Set from EMG and they do suit the direction this Khamsin is going in, but we would have really loved to have a heard a passive set in here to allow more of the guitar itself to shine though. Of course, you can specify whatever you like in your Khamsin – and if you’re into the heavier end of things we rather suspect you’ll like this pickup choice just fine.
If you’re after an LP-style guitar but have more exacting requirements as far as woods and build are concerned then the Stormshadow Khamsin would be a logical place to look. As workmanlike to play as it is achingly pretty, it definitely ticks all the boxes in what we’d want of a rock-oriented single cutaway – not to mention that, being an off-the-peg custom, you can pretty much have whatever set up or hardware you like on it. In this spec the pricing is still very reasonable given the hand-built nature of the guitar, and it’s not really all that much more expensive than a factory guitar from a bigger name. Of course, few custom instruments are going to have the resale value that you might expect or, indeed, what the guitars deserve, but you don’t order a custom guitar as an investment, you buy it to play… and in that regard the Khamsin will make you very happy indeed.