Godin makes wonderful inexpensive guitars, so what happens when they throw a few more resources at one of the all-time great electric designs? Review by Richard Purvis.
Canada is a large country, defined chiefly by not quite being America. Maybe we don’t appreciate it as much as we should. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen all came out of Canada (though none of them went back in a hurry), and so did the dauntingly well-made but always underrated Traynor combos of the early 1970s. And then there’s Godin. This Montreal-based company favours original designs rather than close copies of the classics, and has won many fans by somehow managing to sell North American guitars at prices that might lead you to suppose they’re made in the Far East. Users include Billy Corgan, Roger Waters and lugubrious Leonard himself.
With a four-figure price-tag, the Montreal Premiere sits close to the very top of the Godin range. At heart this is a single-cutaway variant on the timeless Gibson ES-335 template: a thinline archtop with a solid centre block, twin humbuckers and a 24.75″ scale length. Our review sample is the Bigsby version (£100 more than the hardtail), and the tunomatic-type bridge has roller saddles to aid tuning stability when you’re in boingy-bendy mode.
There are two other significant differences from the old formula: the top, back and sides are Canadian wild cherry rather than maple… and I was ever so slightly lying about the centre block. As well as being made of spruce instead of maple, it’s not really solid: a peek through the upper f-hole reveals a series of arches carved into the side that meets the back of the guitar. This, in Godin’s theory, should allow the tone to ‘breathe’ more – without compromising the feedback-busting properties that helped make the solid-cored 335 such a hit in the first place. It also knocks the weight down a bit.
There’s a tasty tang of oranginess to the red finish of this semi, and this combined with the single-cut shape and Bigsby take it just a short way in the direction of Gretsch. It’s a really nice-looking guitar. It also feels impressively well made, with no obvious snags or imperfections, and the cream body binding – with microscopic black pinstripe – is a neat job. The front of the headstock has an unpainted border of faux-binding, but the neck wears nothing more extravagant than a line of dot markers on the rosewood fretboard.
This is a pity, but you can understand why it was deemed a necessary compromise in cost terms.
Economies have also been made with the Bigsby, which is a ‘licensed’ version rather than an American-made one; and we’re guessing some of the other hardware, from the bridge to the unbranded Kluson-type tuners, might have crossed more than one ocean to end up in sunny Carshalton.
Not that this needs to be an issue, of course – it all works fine, which has to be the first priority. Finally, there’s just one Volume and one Tone control – you might call this another compromise, or you might call it a welcome bit of streamlining. Those of us who like our guitars simple and don’t spend a lot of time twiddling with pickup blends will surely lean towards the latter view.
The first ker-chang of an open E chord reveals the Montreal’s natural voice to be strong and full, with a forceful midrange. We’re not plugged in yet, but so far so good for that aqueduct-like centre block. Before we get carried away with BB King impressions, however, it should be noted that the factory action of our test guitar is distinctly higher than we’re used to, at a full 2mm even on the treble side. A few turns of the bridge posts soon bring that down to something more widdle-friendly; this does not expose any uneven fretting or necessitate any adjustments to the neck relief, so we won’t be knocking points off. The neck itself has an agreeably ‘middle of the road’ profile, and is unlikely to be much too thick or much too thin for anyone.
Going through a clean amp, the first thing to report is the sweetness of this Godin’s core tone – especially on the middle pickup setting, which provides all the twinkliness of a classic semi-acoustic and a beautifully smooth and solid low end. The neck pickup on its own is fat and soulful but retains enough edge to assert itself in a band mix, and the bridge ’bucker has plenty of characterful ’60s bark. The two controls behave impeccably, with no sudden leaps and no loss of clarity when either or both are backed off.
With moderate overdrive, single notes chub up nicely without losing definition. As is the way with guitars made mostly of air, very high gain can bring the sonic equivalent of drowning in a giant tiramisu – that is to say, a certain amount of mushiness – but stick to the bridge pickup and the Montreal will keep its head out of the goo, maintaining its snappy bite all the way into the land of feedback. Speaking of which, hollowbody howling is certainly not a major issue, arriving only a few notches earlier than it does for an SG with similarly voiced pickups.
The Bigsby does just what you’d expect, which is not a great deal, but sometimes a gentle wobble is all you need to add emotive texture to a decaying note. Anything more aggressive will cause the bridge posts to rock back and forth a fraction – clearly rollers are not an perfect solution to this perennial flaw in the ‘Bigsby plus tunomatic’ format, but you’d have more trouble with normal, static saddles.
Sometimes it can be hard to get pumped about a ‘traditional’ semi-acoustic. We all know the combination of semi-hollow body, twin humbuckers and Gibson scale-length works, and to an extent we can all have a pretty good guess what it’s going to sound like. The differences between a really good semi and a mediocre one are primarily about tonal balance and refinement, and in that respect Godin has whumped its arrows right into the bullseye.
Does the Premiere have the aura of a truly lustable high-end instrument? Maybe not quite. Neck binding, dazzling fretboard inlays and a hard case instead of a padded gigbag would have helped, but all that would have poked a big hole in the ‘affordable’ part of the deal – and wouldn’t have made it sound any more gorgeous than it does. It’s expensive by Godin’s standards (several of their solidbodies retail close to the £500 mark), but this is still a lot of North American guitar for the money.