Simultaneously conjuring the ghosts of Jimmy Reed and Cary Grant, Eastwoods latest near-reissue promises 50s sonic thrills and damn cool looks. Review by Marcus Leadley
It’s just as well that cars aren’t as easy and relatively cheap to reproduce as guitars. If they were perhaps showrooms would be full of Singer Gazelles, Austin A40s and all manner of new, vintage-style Cadillacs – the same way that guitar shops now feature a multitude of new instruments inspired by designs of the ’50s and ’60s. Some classics like the Les Paul, Strat and SG have never been away, but it’s now possible to buy a modern facsimile of almost every guitar ever designed. Five years ago Danelectro and Italia were setting the pace, and while these brands are still very much around, it’s now Eastwood‘s turn to lead the charge. This Canadian company makes its instruments in Korea, and it boasts guitars inspired by Supro, Wurlitzer, Univox, Hopf, Teisco, Mosrite, Wandre and Airline.
Here we have an Airline Tuxedo model, and let’s clear up some confusion: Airline was the brand name that the American department store Montgomery Ward used for its guitars between 1958 and 1968. The guitars were actually made by Valco, who also made Supro and National-branded guitars. Eastwood now owns the Airline name and produces Airline, Supro and National replicas, but all branded as Airline.
The Airline Tuxedo is modelled after a Barney Kessel signature model – not the original twin-cutaway three-pickup semi-acoustic Airline, but rather the twin-pickup Kay-brand version. It’s a bit of an ugly duckling. The shape is rather like a dumpy, naively-drawn Spanish classical with a single cutaway, not a million miles away from a Gretsch Duo Jet. It’s a pure retro love-or-hate thing – and I think it looks great. This version in all black with white and cream trimmings is stylish but you can choose a garish sunburst or a ‘copper’ finish, which looks more like orange. Great news: left handers are available… but only in black.
What we get is an enclosed hollow-body guitar with mahogany sides and a solid maple back and top, a set edge-bound 19-fret maple neck and a pair of soapbar P90-style pickups. The controls are basic – just the standard twin volume and tone controls and a three-way toggle. There’s a Bigsby vibrola option (add $129) but our review guitar has a tun-o-matic and a trapeze tailpiece. The trapeze is a standard off-the-shelf unit rather than a custom part and as a result the string retaining bar sits quite far forward and slightly proud of the bridge. In fact you could use it as a hand rest, and I don’t think it looks quite right. The original had a much smaller tailpiece and I’d be tempted to modify the guitar to give it more authentic look… but I wouldn’t swap back to a floating bridge.
Construction is close to faultless and the setup is particularly good with a solid, playable action and spot-on intonation straight out of the case. Indeed, lots of the comments online mention how well set up the guitars are when they arrive, so this is obviously not an exception or an instrument that’s been ‘breathed on’ for review. My only gripe would be that a couple of the open-backed vintage-style tuners were a little loose-feeling when the guitar arrived, and a slight adjustment was necessary.
Acoustically, the Airline‘s hollow construction makes it very loud. There’s a honky, pronounced midrange and a lot of body resonance, too, including a couple of noticeable wolf tones. It’s a great unamplified couch guitar, but the sound is a bit uncontrollable.
Never mind. Plugged in, the Airline’s sound is rich and well-rounded with a surprisingly smooth yet biting top end, and even the bridge pickup delivers a really good, thumping bass which feels like it’s moving serious air in front of your speakers. The high-output P90s are very hi-fi and yet microphonic enough to allow a measured degree of the acoustic tone to creep in, making it sound exceptionally three-dimensional.
There are very few electric guitars you can use to strum chords behind a vocal in the way you can use an acoustic guitar, but the Tuxedo is excellent. Twin pickup mode or the neck unit on its own are best, but even the bridge pickup can handle a brighter version if need be. As an all-round electric for clean sounds this guitar’s a winner, and hard to touch for country, folk or jangly pop.
Surprisingly, it’s not that great for bluesy leads. String bending seems to bring out more of the underlying tonal instabilities so some notes seem to jump out more than others, and you don’t get the long, singing sustain you’d expect from a larger f-hole semi-acoustic. However, the Tuxedo sounds great for bottleneck blues. It also delivers a cool modern jazz sound – but for more vintage tones you’ll need to dial out some top end via the very useable tone controls.
The Tuxedo continues to sound great when you start to turn the volume up. At the point where the amp starts to naturally break up you’ll find a huge Gretsch-like sound, and vintage Neil Young riffs are a hoot to play. Anything with a garage rock vibe sounds authentic, and a bit more drive will get you leaping around playing Stooges riffs.
Using pedal overdrive is a mixed bag, though. A fairly tight, focused tone is really good for punk chords, but lead lines can mush out a bit; plenty of other instruments do the rock lead thing better. Fuzz is simply groovy though, especially for that slightly clipped psychedelic tone. You can add chorus, flanging and delay to clean tones without losing too much clarity, but being too liberal with them on overdrive settings can lead to a less than appealing sonic soup.
This is not your average electric guitar: it's an eccentric but very moreish instrument. It isn't a rock guitar, and the Tuxedo is happiest plugged straight into an amp that's cookin' - just add a little reverb and you really don't need much more, except perhaps a boost pedal. For wicked vintage clean tones and garage punk mayhem you'd be hard-pressed to find a better instrument, and especially pleasing is the big, thick bass response that makes chords hit you in the stomach like a well-aimed punch. Guitars should be fun, and this Airline Tuxedo brings it on with a wide-mouthed grin.