Sharp-cutaway Byrdland meets ES-335 meets Gretsch… the new Michael Kelly Vibe guitar offers quite a mélange of features and comes in at a nice price. Review by Huw Price
Description: Semi-acoustic electric. Made in Indonesia
Contact: Rosetti UK – 01376 550033 – michaelkellyguitars.com
The Michael Kelly Vibe model sets out to make a strong impression but comes complete with a set of mixed messages. At first glance, you might think it’s going to be a modern twist on the hollow ES-125/Gretsch single cut theme. Then you’ll notice the string set includes a wound G, so you begin entertaining the possibility that this is a thinline jazzer. Ultimately, you’ll lift it out of the cardboard box and discover that it weighs more than most Gibson Les Pauls. So what exactly is going on?
The weight comes from a solid centre block of wood running from the set neck joint to the tail, and by peering through the f-hole on the bass side you can see that the block seems to be formed from multiple layers of maple and mahogany. The body is 1.75″ deep, just like an
ES-335, and the fingerboard extension is glued to the top of the body.
The Vibe’s chunky C-profile neck wouldn’t feel out of place on a late ’50s Gibson reissue. Some players have a very strong preference for a specific neck depth or profile while others prefer different guitars to have a different feel; on balance we think this neck suits the Vibe very well and it’s quite comfortable to play.
However, when it arrived, this guitar was barely playable; the strings were very stiff and there seemed to be no sonic benefit to be gained from having such a heavy set. After discussions with the distributor we decided that somebody at the factory had experienced a lapse in judgment and we elected to put on a regular set of 10s with a plain G for the purposes of the review. The reason we’re mentioning this is that the Vibe is a brand-new model and all the ones the distributor had in stock were set up the same way, so that’s what you may encounter in the shops.
The Vibe certainly lives up to its name with some particularly nice flame on the laminated maple top and rich, red-brown bubinga for the sides and bookmatched back. The body is bound front and back, along with the fingerboard, f-holes and the headstock. The chrome hardware is all fairly run of the mill: diecast ‘kidney’ Grover tuners combine with a tune-o-matic bridge and stop tailpiece, and the black speed knobs match the switch tip.
Pearl inlays grace the rosewood fingerboard and a sliver of flame maple at the tip of the headstock carries the metal ‘MK’ logo. The pickup covers have ‘H’ shaped cutouts to make them resemble Filtertrons, but the description reads ‘PAF Plus’ and since they ohm out at 8.5K and 9K, we didn’t anticipate much in the way of truly twangy sounds.
Two things let this guitar down, but neither is especially serious. Firstly, the fret ends are rough and ragged with scuff marks clearly visible from the bevelling tool; secondly, the pickguard is a bit of a monstrosity. Companies like Heritage have used wood pickguards to good effect and the factory that made the Vibe has chosen flame-fronted maple ply with a pressed-in logo and a silky satin finish. Unfortunately they didn’t go to the trouble of edging the thing with binding to match the body, and the bevelled edge is very uneven. The shape does lack style and it looks incongruous on this otherwise well-made and well-finished guitar.
Acoustically the Vibe has a fairly loud resonance with a bright sprang and the even string balance you might expect from a semi-solid. Having said that, it’s not as much fun to play unplugged as, say, an Epiphone Casino or a Gretsch Electromatic. Initial concerns that the pickups would be too hot were quickly dispelled; in clean mode the bridge pickup sounds bright, clear and well-defined… we even managed to coax some convincing country out of it.
The neck pickup provides a degree of contrast. It’s far warmer, fuller and smoother, so woody jazz tones are on the menu too. Flick to the middle position and you can combine the articulation of the bridge with fuller bass from the neck and a hint of phasiness. Just slip on the thumbpick, step on the slapback echo and enjoy some quality Travis time.
Whether you get your overdrive from a pedal or your amp, the Vibe’s bridge pickup benefits from a touch of treble attenuation to soften its bite; after that, you’re rewarded with big power chords and well-defined solo tones. The semi-solid qualities are more apparent on the neck setting, which serves up some sweet bluesiness with thicker texture and ample sustain. Both pickups are slightly microphonic but squeal-free, and it’s no more prone to harmonic feedback than most solidbody guitars.
We had to put a bit more time than usual into this guitar to get it up and running, and you may need to do the same. Fortunately it was worth the effort, and the Vibe turns out to be a toneful and easy-playing guitar that’s a lot of fun. If you’re looking for something a bit different for blues, rock, slide or even fingerpicking, the Vibe’s good looks and versatility make it a strong contender.