If you fancy adding a French accent to your vocabulary of guitar sounds then the Vigier Excalibur Thirteen has panache and je ne sais quoi to spare. Review by Marcus Leadley
Description: Solid body electric guitar. Made in France.
Price: £2299 including Hiscox hard case
Contact:High Tech Distribution UK – 01722 410 002 – www.vigierguitars.com
Vigier is an enigmatic brand that’s managed to carve out a very particular niche. The company’s been around since 1980 and by maintaining production at around 300 instruments a year has created an air of high-end exclusivity, with all the guitars and basses being designed and produced in France using French timber and parts.
The early Arpege and Marilyn models established a commitment to innovation while riffling heavily on body styles designed to appeal to rock and metal players. The Excalibur, a relatively straightforward instrument by Vigier standards, joined the party in 1991. The Thirteen was introduced as a limited edition in 2013, and has now joined the range as a permanent production model.
Carbon fibre neck? Metal fretboard? No, not this time – the Thirteen has an alder body and a bolt-on maple neck. However, the guitar’s not without its unique features: the neck is reinforced with a carbon fibre insert that replaces the traditional truss rod; there is no separate fingerboard, and stainless steel frets are set directly into the maple. Stainless steel is much harder that the standard wire, it doesn’t tarnish and lasts considerably longer. However it’s also much harder to dress, so it’s only really an option where precision manufacturing is the order of the day.
Another familiar Vigier quirk is the combination of a zero fret with a Teflon nut. The zero fret ensures a great first-position action and minimises pitch errors between fretted and unfretted notes, while the nut simply ensures accurate string spacing.
As well as oversized locking tuners, the headstock sports a patented Flexretainer string retention system that replaces the more traditional string trees. The top B and E strings each pass though what looks like (and probably is) the ferrule of a guitar string, while a short length of string/wire passes through a hole in the headstock and anchors into a neatly-machined retainer. The system is height-adjustable so the string tension over the nut can be precisely set. It’s a small but clever feature that sums up Vigier’s unique approach.
At the other end of the string path we have the 2011 tremolo bridge. It’s a well-designed, fully-adjustable piece of hardware that will suit players who like a whammy but don’t need the extreme range offered by a Floyd Rose.
The Thirteen’s electrics are fairly straightforward, but with a twist. As well as the master tone and volume control you get a little black dot, a kill switch for stuttering on/off effects. It’s something you can do on a guitar has independent volumes – set one pickup to zero output and flick the pickup selector – but this is evidence of a more intentional design. The Vigier Amber humbuckers are wired through a five-way selector. In positions 1 and 5 you get the bridge and neck humbuckers respectively; in positions 2 and 4 you have the single coil sounds, while position 3 gives you both pickups in single coil mode.
Unamplified the Excalibur sounds extremely bright and vibrant. The feel is percussive and the neck is very fast; indeed, it’s relatively slight when compared with many contemporary retro-inspired instruments. The matte varnish reminds us of a late ’90s/early 2000s Standard Strat, so it’s a familiar feel. The stainless frets offer little or no resistance and once you get used to them, returning to a slightly older instrument with tarnished nickel silver frets definitely feels like a step back. While the Thirteen is a 24-fret instrument the heel joint is cut square in a traditional style, so access past the 22nd fret requires a bit of gymnastics.
This guitar’s a bit like a rock sandwich. The humbuckers deliver chewy substance in positions 1 and 5, while in between you have three softer, tastier tones for bright, melodic clean playing or edgy driven or effected work. Given that you can coil-tap a humbucker it seems strange that this practical ‘best of both worlds’ setup isn’t more common, but half a humbucker doesn’t automatically deliver a great single-coil sound.
However, Vigier has come up with a formula that works brilliantly in both modes. The trick seems to be focussing on what humbuckers and single coils do best and not trying to voice the perfect humbucker before simply splitting it in half.
The natural character of the Amber units is quite mid-forward which, in the bridge position, doesn’t make it an ideal choice for clean chords, but it does create an exceptional wailing lead voice with lots of pick-edge character and an explosive attack. It’s also great for power chords, prog and metal riffing. Selector position 2 brings on single coil mode and the sound becomes much more three-dimensional and open.
Here you can play chiming clean chords, wind up the gain for a very effective electric blues tone, or push the action harder for a real Strat-type lead voice. The middle position sounds funky and characterful and the lack of any hum suggests phase cancelling, which should make it useful for the studio. The sound is broader and less quacky than the Stratocaster equivalent, so it’s a little more anonymous – in a good way.
Moving on to the neck pickup, the humbucker/single coil sounds are also very good and there’s a lot of territory to explore. The humbucker has a dark aspect that can be quite Les Paul-like, but more ’80s than PAF. This is great for rock chords or the more fruity end of clean comping. The single coil sound has a hi-fi clarity that makes it a very good starting point for effects use.
Finally the kill switch is a bit of fun, but apart from the odd stutter or brief rhythmic interjection we don’t see it as a massively useful tool. Maybe you could learn Morse code and start tapping hidden messages into the fabric of your solos?
The Excalibur Thirteen is a very flexible and classy guitar. It has its own feel and playing dynamics, and offers a wide palette of sounds. It can deliver across a range of genres but performs especially well where fast, furious and accurate soloing is required. It’s a superb jazz-rock instrument, well voiced for rock rhythm playing, and an ideal studio choice.
While the hardware and timber are excellent and every aspect of construction is outstanding, the price does seem on the steep side, but it does place this Vigier in the same league as high-end offerings from the likes of Tom Anderson and Suhr. For those who can afford to flash the cash, the Excalibur is a worthy instrument that should be on your list of options.