Published On: Mon, Mar 17th, 2014

Fret-King Black Label Espirit I Review

Handsome, quirky and most certainly rock-ready, the affordable Esprit I comes with more sounds hidden away in its single pickup than you might think. Review by Marcus Leadley


Solidbody electric guitar. Made in Korea
Price: £519 inc. gigbag
Contact:JHS – 01132 865 381 –

As a guitar designer, Trevor Wilkinson is a force to be reckoned with. Whether you want a new take on a familiar American classic, vintage Italian pearloid styling or a modern rock monster, there should be at least one instrument on your radar that he has designed. He has an uncanny knack of delivering the best value for money you can squeeze from a guitar in any price range, and as well as guitars he’s designed hardware and pickups both for the production line and for aftermarket modifications. Fret-King is his own baby, so these guitars reflect exactly what he believes ‘good’ guitars should be.

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He’s inclined to riff on traditional electric guitar shapes, but always manages to twist the form so that the instrument is clearly a Fret-King – and he will usually modify the electrics to offer tonal combinations you can’t find elsewhere. Overall pricing is dependent on the origin of the range, with the Black and Blue Label guitars being made entirely in Korea, while Green Label and Studio Series instruments are assembled, fretted, finished and set up in the UK, using parts from Korea and Japan.

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This Black Label Esprit is quite a statement, a take on the extrovert Gibson Firebird I theme with an agathis body finished in metallic gun hill blue. It’s a colour that’s not a million miles away from the classic Fender Lake Placid blue metallic, except that this paint has a real glitter sparkle to it. Armed with a serrated, reverse headstock, it’s a real head-turner. There’s a definite degree of method in the madness, though, as the Esprit is surprisingly comfortable to wear on a strap, and the extended sweep of the upper rear bout coincides exactly with the angle of your arm so you can lean on it in just the same way you can lean comfortably on the door of a well-designed car while you’re driving. It’s a nicely balanced guitar to wear, but perhaps a ribcage chamfer would make the fit that little bit better.

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The maple set neck is on the chunky side and the rosewood fingerboard is buffed to a high shine. The medium jumbo frets are well-finished but the fingerboard isn’t bound so you can just feel the tangs along the edge – but none of them stands uncomfortably proud. Access all the way up to the 22nd fret is very good indeed. The 25″ scale length is a halfway house between Fender and Gibson scales, and it’s a good alternative. You can snap and twang the strings to good, percussive effect or dig in deep down past the 12th fret for seriously controlled wailing.

Acoustically this guitar is loud and you can really feel the body resonate; the wraparound-style Wilkinson GTB bridge does a great job of facilitating the transmission of energy from the strings. The unit is a good example of Wilkinson’s ability to modify a classic design, as the section below the G and B strings can be unscrewed to adjust the guitar’s intonation if necessary.

The electrics look deceptively simple but Wilkinson manages to drag maximum flexibility out of just one pickup. The WP90SK is a stacked P90, and as well as master tone and volume controls there’s a Vari-coil rotary which lets you dial the second coil in and out. In effect you can morph, by degrees, from a single coil to a humbucking tone – bearing in mind that a stacked single coil doesn’t sound exactly like a standard humbucker.

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Getting used to the tone/Vari-coil arrangement takes a little time because, whatever the current is doing, the tonal effect is such that one appears to operate clockwise, while the other works anti-clockwise. In other words, to get maximum treble output you need the tone set to 10 and the Vari-coil to zero, taking the second coil right out of the picture. This is the guitar’s basic single coil mode, and set like this the Esprit delivers a biting yet rich clean sound that’s great for jangly chords and all manner of fingerpicking. It’s a tone that loves a bit of chorus, a flanger or a large reverb.

Winding in the Vari-coil subtly thickens up the sound, filling out the mids and rounding the top end, but without changing the fundamental sound of the instrument. Going a little further takes you to a smoother tone that’s good for a mellow jazz sound, and then you can roll a little more of the top end out via the tone control for vintage chord comping.

Bringing the Vari-coil fully in and opening up the tone gives you the Esprit’s humbucking sound. This might need a little brightening at the amp end, and it’s a fairly generic humbucker-style bridge tone with forward, slightly boxy mids. This characteristic suits driven voices well, but generally I don’t find the clean option that useful. However, the Vari-coil allows you to create blended tones that are genuinely practical, adding or subtracting a degree of presence for clean chords or melodies.

With a little more gain the Esprit starts to develop proper rock credentials. It’s great for crunchy chords and bluesy leads and surf madness from the Dick Dale camp, and you can add a little more gain to head into glam, boogie and punk territory. As the pickup is designed along the lines of a vintage P90, its output is not incredibly high; this is a good thing in terms of tone and articulation, but you won’t get that modern metal thud or quite the right brogue for shredding. However, it excels at classic metal and rock, delivering a whole range of tones that suit the P90-loaded Lester and SG repertoire. Again, the Vari-coil is very useful, and it can be used musically while playing to finesse the shape of your sound.

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This is a very likeable, playable guitar with a surprising range of sounds. The style is a statement, but if it’s not quite for you there are many alternatives spread across the Fret-King range with similar capabilities – or if one P90 seems a little limited then there are Esprit versions with three P90s, standard humbuckers and Fender-style single coils to choose from. Above all, however, this guitar has a real Fret-King signature sound and you won’t get quite the same thing from another brand. It’s a rock monster with a taste for surf and twang, it records very well, and it offers the sort of sonic definition you need to stand out in a loud live band.

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