Making a bid for mid-priced success is a new range which includes this high-powered
all-rounder and a full-on rocker with EMGs and a Floyd Rose. Review by Marcus Leadley.
This maker’s name will be best known to those of you with an interest in either mandolins or acoustic basses, for this is where the Michael Kelly story started about 10 years ago. Once a small owner-run American outfit, the company is now part of the Hanser Music Group, which also owns the BC Rich brand.
While the specifications of these two guitars suggest they’re aimed straight at the rock guitarist, the presentation is comfortably traditional. Indeed, with styling close (but not too close) to various Washburn, Jackson and PRS models, it’s hard to imagine that these instruments would offend the sensibilities of any player of any age.
Michael Kellys are aimed at the super-competitive budget to mid-price sector, so rather than offering unique shapes, retro styling or special features, it’s all about bang for the buck and aiming for better build, sound, finishes and setups than the competition’s equivalent models. Everyone wants a bargain these days, so it’s gloves on for a fair fight.
Weighing in around the £300 mark the Valor X is definitely going to get the potential PRS SE buyer wondering if spending an extra £100 for a set neck is really worth it. This bolt-on model also offers some other temptations: both humbuckers have coil taps so Fender-style single coil tones are included in the deal, and the Grover tuners are an unexpectedly posh twist.
The guitar is also very well turned out. Spalted maple, in which the fine black lines are created by a fungus during a natural aging process, used to be reserved for top-dollar instruments. Here the spalted maple is only a veneer but it’s still the real McCoy, and it sits atop a properly carved maple cap and a mahogany body to give a very smart result. The headstock is similarly veneered and the whole look is well balanced and classy.
Given the style of this instrument, the maple neck with its rosewood fingerboard comes as a bit of a surprise; it’s incredibly slender. The trend of late has been to offer a bit more substance, so maybe this is a conscious attempt at differentiation. It’s great for small hands and fast fingers but may not suit the sausage-fingered. It reminds me of the late ’70s SG I did a lot of my learning on, and zipping around up above the 12th fret is easy and fun. However, getting right up to the second octave is just too much of a challenge with this bolt-on design, so the promise is there, but not the pay-off. It’s not that big a deal, really, and the fine low action and the faultless intonation more than makes up for this limitation.
Acoustically the Valor X is bright and zingy with plenty of natural sustain. The pickups are Hanser‘s own-brand Rockfield Mafias with ceramic magnets and extra power. Strong ceramic magnets are often used in pickups with more windings to compensate for treble loss, so they’re more of a solution than a selling point – but they can have their own sound, as the original Burns Trisonics prove.
The Valor‘s bridge pickup is an instant hit. It’s bright and chiming when clean, and the driven voice is total hard rock with a nice biting edge. No problem with clarity, and you can add effects without fear of it going woolly on you. Normally clarity is what you get with twin humbucker mode, but here I had to compensate at the amp for some muffled upper mids. The neck pickup has a similar issue, so we wonder if the voicing could be adjusted, especially as the same applies in coil tap mode. Once again, though, the coil-tapped bridge is great.
While brands like Vintage and Squier have given beginners their bargains, Michael Kelly is on the side of the mid-price buyer. The Valor X would do any new player proud, while upgrading to this from a 120 model will give your playing a big lift. It's an all-round guitar that you won't get bored with easily, and at this price you could budget for swapping the neck pickup for something with a bit less power and better tonal response.