With a snowballing reputation for high-end guitars, can Germanys Nik Huber strip back
to basics and still impress with this vibey single-coil special? Review by Dave Walsh
German luthier Nik Huber announced his presence at the Frankfurt Musikmesse in 1997, and lavish humbucker-equipped guitars like the Dolphin and Orca swiftly gained him a reputation as a maker to rival the likes of Tom Anderson, John Suhr and even his one-time mentor Paul Reed Smith. The company has slowly built up a compact, skilled team building a relatively small number of guitars – around 120 per year – in its workshop in Rodgau, about 20km south of Frankfurt.
The recent Huber Special and Junior models introduced a more stripped-back approach without straying from the Gibson mould. Huber has offered an alder-bodied guitar with a bolt-on neck and humbuckers for a while, but this Twangmeister prototype signals a distinct departure. This is Huber‘s first ‘T-inspired’ guitar, adding a few notable mods to the 60-year-old design.
The body is a gorgeous single piece of swamp ash with a shallow rib cage contour and dished carving around the top edge. The rippling grain shows just perfectly through the flawless polyurethane finish (this guitar is hand-labelled ‘Mary Kay’ on the tweed case, a reference to the ’50s star and her trademark see-through white Strat). Nitro lacquer is available as an option.
As nice as the body is, it’s the neck that displays the biggest divergence from Leo’s template. Since 1949 Fender has cut its necks from a single plank about an inch thick, routing away the excess on the back of the neck and leaving a shallow heel which is screwed into the body with four screws. This timber-saving design means a flat, no-break angle headstock and a necessity for string trees – yuk. Here, Huber says ‘sod the trees’ by cutting the neck from a thicker plank to allow a deeper and stiffer elongated heel and an angled headstock, while the heel has five screws and a recessed neck plate. The neck extends underneath the neck pickup, and the extra mass lends an extremely solid feel. The satin-finished, no skunk-stripe neck has a clubby, subtly offset oval feel and is capped with a separate flame maple fingerboard with flawlessly installed medium-gauge fretwork without visible tang ends. The feel is uncluttered, and top fret access is a big improvement over the vintage bolt-on design.
The face of the body is flat in the middle, allowing the fitting of a Joe Barden bridge that includes a trio of offset brass saddles for improved intonation plus a nifty scoop out of the treble wall side of the base plate for easier access to the switch and more space for fingerpicking moments. The familiar-looking control plate is recessed into the top and houses quality CTS pots and shielded pickup wiring with braided hook-up wire to the side-mounted jack.
Fellow countryman Harry Häussel builds Huber‘s pickups to the maker’s specs. A single coil is suspended in the bridge and a soapbar P90 is squeezed snugly into the correct position underneath the theoretical 24th fret. A closer look reveals that the P90 is screwed down to the extended tongue of the neck heel – wonderful for tone, but tricky for maintenance. Luthiers and DIY’ers, take note: remove the pickup before you remove the neck!
Through body stringing, a one-piece ash body, brass saddles and a bone nut on a well-built guitar should equate to good tone. The neck feels narrow and deep, and the 10-46 strings initially felt a little stiff under the fingers. Strike it hard and it all culminates in a loud, brick-solid acoustic tone. Compared with my own modified hardtail Tokai workhorse, the Huber clangs like a piano – and I thought my guitar was loud.
Plugged into a suitably ‘Californian’ amp, the Twangmeister spanks that loud acoustic tone hard through the bright bridge pickup with the kind of twangy growl that really cuts through the mix. Along with the crispness and shimmer, however, there’s a warmth and girth that lends real muscle to the tone. Barden claims that the extra thickness of its bridge plate prevents the high-volume squealing often associated with the original unit’s vibrations – the extra two screws at the front of the unit would probably have achieved that on their own – but just the correct amount of microphonic noise is present in the output… a tricky voice to emulate and a truly scary ride for the humbucker-fed compressed metal mob.
Similarly, the neck P90 – positioned exactly in the middle of the strings’ oscillation pattern – lends real volume and strength to the signal. Broad blues with a sting in the tail is the order here with the snap, definition and sustain of the acoustic voice retained rather than masked; stand well back and wind up the amp for a smattering of throaty depth. However, the mix position earns the top tonal step, providing shimmering, clean tones with a hint of hollowness for funky rhythm work and wiry, medium-gain blues licks with consummate ease.
Huber builds fine guitars, and this Twangmeister is a confident instrument from a company with a fine reputation. Is it an improvement on the original solidbody electric? Well, yes - for the most part. The well-designed and constructed neck deserves plaudits, as do the earthy tones, and it really does ooze that distinctive bridge pickup sound. For some, the raw, rootsy appeal of that sound may be at odds with the slick, curvaceous body, and though we applaud a non T-type photocopy, the aesthetic appeal of that old workhorse is probably 80 per cent of its charm. But if your pockets are deep enough and you like a solid blend of modern and vintage-style tones as well as enhanced playability and some updated features, the twang could be your thang.