All the way from Canadee-i-o, a nicely-priced take on the redoubtable and time-honoured slab-of-mahogany-plus-two-P90s recipe. Review by Richard Purvis
How many Richmonds do you know? There’s one in North Yorkshire, one just outside London, one over in Virginia, USA… and more important than all of them for the purposes of this review, one in Quebec, Canada. Built on the Saint-François River, it has a population of a little over 3000 and most of them speak only French, so they probably don’t pronounce the name quite like they do in Yorkshire. We’re not sure what the town has in the way of public amenities, but what it does have is a guitar factory.
Yes, you’d be forgiven for assuming Richmond was just a western-sounding name dreamed up for some new Chinese operation, but this affordable solidbody was born in that little town less than 100 miles from the parent company’s Montreal HQ. In fact, it doesn’t even say Richmond on the guitar, only Godin… but the brand has its own website, and that’s where this model is listed. Confused? So were we.
But let’s have a closer look at the guitar. The Empire is no traffic-stopper but it’s handsome enough, with a post-Les Paul look that calls to mind a single-cutaway PRS.
The body is two-piece mahogany, contoured like an SG around the top half but squared off like an Ikea kitchen table at the bottom, and there’s some nicely matched grain showing through the glossy stained finish. The screwed-on neck presents a stark contrast despite being made of the same timber – it’s barely finished at all, offering a natural look and, maybe more significantly, a natural feel in the hand. The 24.75″ scale will be familiar to all Gibson players and it has a modern, fairly flat profile that will not stretch the average paw too much. Access to the upper frets is aided by a nicely rounded heel – it’s a pity the contour of the neck doesn’t quite follow it, but the square-edged bit that’s left behind doesn’t feel as troublesome as it looks.
Don’t go looking for a tailpiece – the bridge is a wraparound type so the strings curl back through the middle of it, and the ‘lightning bar’ ridge along the top is a neat and efficient system that’s been cropping up on cheaper Gibson models on and off since the ’60s. If you’re looking for perfection, you might get sniffy about the lack of individually intonatable saddles… but then, no-frills rock guitars like this have never been about chasing perfection. At the other end, the asymmetrical headstock reminds us of a halfway house between PRS and Rickenbacker designs.
That just leaves the electrics. The Empire is fitted with Godin’s Kingpin P90 pickups, which look a lot like Gibson P90s (the dimensions are identical) and can be expected to sound fairly similar too. Their route to the output jack is interrupted only by a three-way switch and two pots, master volume and tone, so there’s lots of room to exercise your pet spider in the rear-accessed control cavity. On the whole it’s a well made guitar, though the generic tuners don’t inspire massive confidence.
P90s are like beards: for a long time nobody wanted anything to do with them, but now they’re everywhere. Their fall from favour was understandable – they’re not as chimey as standard single-coils, and not as well-behaved as humbuckers – but this old design has a unique flavour that can work in many contexts and a lot of players are beginning to see it now. Luckily, manufacturers are getting the picture too… and Godin’s own take on the type should prove capable of winning over a few doubters.
Clean tones in the middle position are bright and firm with a little bit of cluck – and that isn’t just a phase-cancelling thing, because it’s still there in the individual pickup sounds. All three settings are well balanced in terms of tone, and all three are at their best when you really dig in with your right hand to bring out the pickups’ naturally percussive qualities. The neck unit is smooth and smoky – though you probably won’t be playing too much lounge jazz with a little solidbody like this – and can serve up a great punchy attack, especially on the G string. The bridge pickup, meanwhile, will whip your trousers off with its impudent midrange.
It has mountains of thrappy pep, or indeed peppy thrap, but that doesn’t mean you have to take eardrum-scything treble with it – the spiky stuff is very well contained.
If you do want less top end, the tone control will respond exactly as you’d expect it to; but if you want to pull back a bit on the output, you might be taken aback by the rather sharp drop-off between 10 and 8 on the volume dial. Has Godin palmed us off with a cheap pot? Possibly not. Having so much of the action happen in such a short space actually makes it easier to go back and forth between two working levels, full and not-quite-full – or between overdriven and cleaned-up tones if you have a suitably responsive amp – so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and call this a considered design choice.
Now then, what was that about overdriven tones? P90s are never happier than when they’re in hooligan mode, and it doesn’t take much gain to get these ones swearing at policemen. The beefiness of the tone really comes out with single notes – it’s a bold and woody voice, high on clarity yet almost completely immune to fizziness unless you’re doing something seriously wrong with your amp’s EQ controls. It’s surprising just how hard you can overdrive this guitar without washing out any of its distinctly P90-ish character.
The only thing you need to be careful with is background noise, because these are not humbuckers and if you’re standing at the wrong angle you might find there’s an awful lot of it. The middle pickup position is an effective hum-cancelling haven, though.
The Empire has a silhouette that calls to mind PRS and something of the same feel too, but the sound is aiming closer to Gibson and in many respects it’s a direct hit. There’s nothing complicated or subtle here: it’s a simple, plug-in-and-spank guitar that takes its place in a tradition going all the way back to the launch of the Les Paul Special in 1955. Whether it offers enough to tempt large numbers of people away from the big G’s own wide range of budget models is another matter, but it can certainly compete in terms of raw tone – and £600 is still good value for a highly playable North American instrument, whatever name they’ve decided to put on the headstock.