This Fret-King and Vintage, both guitars with Trev Wilkinson input, offer an easy gateway to great rock sounds. Review by Tim Slater…
Details – Fret King Exige: Solidbody Guitar. Made in Korea
Price: £719 w/gigbag
Contact: JHS – 01132 865 381 – www.jhs.co.uk
Vintage V130: Solidbody guitar. Made in Korea
Contact: JHS – 01132 865 381 – www.jhs.co.uk
Double-cutaway solidbody axes like the SG and the LP Junior evoke an aura of rough-and-ready rebelliousness – think Angus Young, Johnny Thunders or Keef – and in their different ways, the Fret-King Exige PL and Vintage V130 both aim to tap into a legacy of powerful, no-nonsense rock’n’roll.
Developed by British guitar designer Trevor Wilkinson under the auspices of UK-based distributor John Hornby Skewes, the Fret-King Exige PL is the flagship of the Fret-King Exige range by virtue of being the new signature guitar of Queensrÿche guitarist Parker Lundgren. Lundgren doubtless has enough clout to endorse just about any guitar he desires, and his choice of Fret-King is an encouraging sign that the British brand is managing to attract a younger generation of properly cool endorsees alongside the cluster of blues-rock veterans that have already earned their places in the company’s artist roster.
By contrast, the Vintage V130 is an unabashed and much more affordable tribute to the much-loved Les Paul Junior, sticking with the same basic form, timbers and construction method, but with a couple of Wilkinson-inspired touches, including a bridge that aims to find a balance between tonefulness and practicality, and a pickup that aims to ape those fat ’50s single-coils but with hum-clobbering capabilities.
Fret-King Exige PL
When it comes to morphing familiar designs into new yet strangely familiar shapes, Fret-King are masters of the art. The SG-inspired Exige features an double-cutaway korina body that aims to sidestep obvious comparisons thanks to its asymmetrical horns, a front forearm contour and a curious cutaway on the top edge of the body. Excellent access to the upper reaches of the fingerboard is one obvious benefit afforded by the basic design, and the Exige PL’s offset neck heel helps the player to exploit the full range of the 22-fret ebony fingerboard that is one of the unique features of this particular model.
The korina set neck’s comfortable shallow ‘C’ profile feels nice and sturdy, with a ’70s-style volute helping to bolster the vulnerable zone where the top of the neck meets the headstock. The 22 medium jumbo frets on our review sample are mounted on top of the cream edge binding trimming the edges of the fingerboard, and playing comfort is aided by a decent setup which includes polished frets and smoothly rounded-off fret ends. The Exige PL model is only available in gloss black, and its imposing appearance is complemented by gold-plated hardware including a tunomatic-type fixed bridge and tailpiece, three gold-plated Wilkinson-designed WHHB ceramic humbuckers, and a set of attractive gold-plated Wilkinson WJ44 tuners topped off with black plastic tulip keys.
Fret-King is shipping the Exige PL with the lower strap button fitted and the upper strap button packed in a small poly bag along with the truss rod key. From this we deduce that you have the option of locating the button either in its traditional position at the neck heel or on the upper horn, Tony Iommi style. While this is very considerate of Fret-King, it might be more sensible just to fit it at the factory. Imagine the bag being accidentally thrown away or shoved into a drawer before the Exige’s proud new owner notices that their new axe is missing a strap button and gets on the phone to their unsuspecting Fret-King dealer… just a thought.
One drawback of this particular basic design is that the control layout doesn’t automatically grant the player easy access to the tone and volume knobs. The Exige addresses this by placing the rotary master volume on top of the pickguard adjacent to the bridge pickup, making it easy for the player to adjust the volume with their pinky. The remaining rotary controls also depart from the traditional pattern: there’s a second volume control for the middle humbucker, a master tone control, and a Vari-Coil coil tap circuit control that gradually adjusts the selected pickup between full humbucking mode and a brighter single coil tone.
Compared to a standard coil-tap switch the Vari-Coil circuit offers a much broader range of tones by progressively graduating each pickup’s output between humbucking and single coil operation. In practice we can vouch that it is very effective, both as a means to extracting greater tonal range and also as a faux ‘boost’ when the Vari-Coil is used to kick in the full humbucker mode for soloing.
Combined with the Vari-Coil circuit, the Exige PL’s triple-pickup array offers plenty of tonal variety but it can be somewhat confusing to navigate, so we called Trev Wilkinson for a quick run-through of how the Exige’s electronics are configured. According to him the Exige’s three-way pickup selector allows the player to select the neck and bridge pickups individually while also offering a combination of neck/bridge or neck/middle and bridge/middle. The middle pickup is always in circuit – unless the player opts to use the dedicated middle pickup volume knob to remove the middle pickup from the mix.
For ceramic humbuckers these pickups have a surprising amount of warmth; think less Seymour Duncan SH-4, more slightly overwound PAF. In isolation the neck and bridge humbuckers deliver fulsome, fruity tones with a strong dose of fat-sounding LP ‘hoot’ and the biting treble that SG style guitars are renowned for.
While the Exige feels like it is definitely geared more towards classic rock or blues rock players, it has plenty of usable tonal variations; strident indie jangle, honky-sounding split coil tones and even a very good approximation of a twangy yet slightly scooped Tele mid-position tone.
There is something irresistible about the stripped-down look of a single-pickup guitar. The LP Jr has outgrown its humble student origins and gained a legendary status as a tough street fighter, a lean, mean rockin’ machine that takes no prisoners.
The V130 stays very true to this philosophy and even favours an authentic solid mahogany body and mahogany set neck over a cheaper but less authoritative-sounding alternative timber. The body is a solid yet very acoustically resonant slab – no wimpy concessions to comfort like body contouring here – and our review sample is finished in a shade of slightly off-white gloss. The glued-in neck feels closer to the slimmer feel of a modern Gibson ’60s profile, which leads us to believe that the V130’s comfy dimensions will find favour among a broad base of players.
Again we find a very good setup; the action is low with nary a trace of fret buzz and the fret-ends have a uniformly smooth finish. However, the nut could do with a bit of attention as the -string is sticking slightly in its slot. Intonation can be an issue with fixed-bridge guitars but the V130 features a chunky chrome-plated Wilkinson GTBCR wraparound bridge that allows some scope for adjustment when the need arises.
Trev Wilkinson also designed the V130’s lone P90-style stacked ceramic pickup. It features a period-correct ‘dogear’ mounting, and on closer inspection it’s nice to see that the Tele-style knurled steel volume and tone control knobs tip a hat to the types fitted to Dice, Keith Richards’ ’58 LP Jr.
The tuners are vintage-style Wilkinson WJ15s with white plastic buttons and they appear to work well, although the guitar’s tuning stability is slightly marred by the nut requiring some fettling. Slung on a strap the V130 has a tendency to feel a bit neck-heavy and it doesn’t feel as planted as the Fret-King Exige PL, but some fiddling with your strap adjustment – either that or developing a Joey Ramone ‘legs apart’ stance with the guitar slung well below belt buckle height – should help to find a balance.
Plugged in, the V130’s resonance translates into a convincing take on an archetypal LP Jr sound, a mixture of shimmering transparency and roughhouse snarl. Bash out a big open G chord and the stacked pickup delivers the clarity one would expect from a P90 single coil while its twin stacked coils do a grand job of virtually eliminating 60-cycle mains hum.
That said, ‘plush’ is an adjective you wouldn’t choose to describe this guitar’s tones; big-ass riffs and crunchy chords are its stock-in-trade. Whereas a traditional PAF tends to gently pump up single notes as though on a cushion of air, the V130 stabs its way into the mix with all the carefully-measured subtlety of a gladiator coming home from a hard day at the Coliseum only to discover his wife in bed with the next door neighbour.
Smooth jazzers will probably not find much currency with the V130’s uncompromising tones but plenty will enjoy plugging it into a crunchy-sounding amp and extracting some authentic post-punk sounds. The V130 may be a bit of a one-trick pony but it’s a very capable little rock guitar and a great way to buy into the mythology of the double cutaway sound and feel without straining the wallet.
Fret-King is a brand that still struggles for credibility despite having some outstanding players and fine instruments in its stable. Parker Lundgren may not exactly be a household name, but this guitar signals what we hope is a fresh start from the British concern. Compared to a Gibson SG, the Exige PL’s off-kilter design and complex tone circuit are somewhat quirky but it represents excellent value for money thanks to its impressive build quality and wealth of Trev Wilkinson ancillary equipment.
On the other hand the Vintage V130 almost seems ludicrously inexpensive, especially given that it delivers virtually everything one would expect from this classic design for the fraction of the price of an original, with the added bonus of high quality hardware and an all-mahogany construction. Brand snobbery is an affliction that we can all suffer from but when you evaluate these guitars on their sounds and playability it’s plainly obvious that any musician worth their salt will be able to take either one straight out of the box and get the job done.