(Brian Johnston | Posted 2011-06-14)
From the perspective of any guitarist, whether playing in a band or not, whether to create a certain image or not, there certainly is value in how a guitar looks. If you had two guitars that sounded and played equally well, the one with the better paint finish or general appearance (shape, lines and cuts) will win out. We want a guitar that is both attractive and functional.
There do exist beautiful guitars with great workmanship, although most are conservative and not as ostentatious or ‘in your face’ as the metal-based guitars. But when dealing with instruments that have blood splatters or are in the shape of lightning bolts, unless you play a certain type of music to match the character of the guitar, the image (to yourself or others) does not jibe – something is out of place, like Mahatma Gandhi carrying a sword. In more musical terms, it is difficult to be jazzed playing jazz with skulls and crossbones on a razor-blade guitar!
This is why I am so pleased to be reviewing the Unknown Hinson Signature guitar by Reverend Guitars. This signature guitar is named after the Unknown Hinson, an American enigma that blends two of the world’s most recognizable icons: Dracula and Elvis – a combination that somehow seems a fitting, albeit peculiar, amalgamation. Now, with that image in mind, further conceive a blend of country and western music that integrates distorted riffs into what is known as Psychobilly. As Unknown Hinson’s website states, he is a red-necked crooner who wows “audiences with his outrageous and campy, white-trash persona and freewheeling, sleazy tone. Hinson’s most recent CD release, Target Practice, melds weepy twang and searing guitar riffs and lyrics that speak of love-gone-bad and the dark side of the honky-tonk lifestyle.”
For hard-rockers out there, they may be thinking “who cares, he plays country,” but this guy can play and is known for his tone – and it’s not exactly country as we know it. His website continues: “Billy Bob Thornton names Unknown as one of his favorite songwriters and a genius picker. Matt Groening (the Simpsons) labels Unknown as a guitar maniac (and funny as hell to boot!) Hank3 has Unknown's face tatooed on his biceps! Marty Stuart introduced him as his illegitimate brother at the Ryman in Nashville, and is placing Unknown on the front cover of his upcoming book of personal photographs. Tom Petty came backstage at a Hollywood event to ask Unknown how he gets his "sound". The Rolling Stones invited him to participate in the soundcheck session for their latest show in Charlotte, NC.”
OK, so Unknown Hinson may not be well known around the world, but certainly his underground credibility among so many different individuals in the entertainment industry should stimulate interest in both his guitar skills and having a signature guitar co-developed by a company willing to back him. And it was a good move for Reverend Guitars. This six-shooter is as diverse in its possible musical applications as it is in its looks – you just can’t pigeonhole it.
If looks could kill ...
First, let’s consider the looks. How should a guitar appear to fit the persona of a blood-sucking Elvis? Certainly it would have a sense of Americana about it, something that would represent modern country or Memphis rockabilly music; and one of the most symbolic and befitting of musical instruments is the Telecaster. But the Tele is very ordinary in looks, very subdued in its nature. Reverend Guitars changed that with their modified slim-style Telecaster (a Vampirocaster?) that definitely is cool looking, and yet it could find its home within today’s country, blues or rock. It gives just enough vibe and hipness without exaggeration, overstatement, or visual hyperbole and appears comfortable in anyone’s hands and within any music style. Most metalheads wouldn’t play certain guitars because they lack a visual edge – this guitar passes. No country-music musician would play a guitar shaped like an axe or anything that gets more attention than the band’s lighting show – this guitar passes. And a modern bluesman would not look out of place either, and may even appear as though he met up with Robert Johnson at the Crossroads. A hint of evil with a hint of glamour – who could ask for anything more?
Well, there is more. With a slim body design (10 percent less than Reverend Guitar’s Club King model) and a Tune-o-matic/fixed bridge, the Hinson Signature’s ‘shooting star’ f-hole semi-hollow body has a solid spruce top on korina/black limba hardwood (a west African wood used in the much sought after 1958 Gibson Explorer and Flying-Vs). With black front, back and sides and with cream binding, this guitar also sports a signature engraved pickguard, a Hinson headstock logo (sideburns and all), and a solid center block through the body to provide thicker, yet clearer and more aggressive tones than is found with hollow body contemporaries.
The Hinson Signature has two proprietary Reverend P-90 pickups, designed by Reverend founder Joe Naylor, calibrated for each position with hum cancelling when combined. P-90 style pickups have been around for over 60 years and can be considered a cross between a humbucker and a single-coil – giving high output, but with clear, biting treble response. With Reverend P-90s, each position is wound differently so that the bridge pickup is hotter, whereas the neck pickup is cleaner. This makes sense since neck pickups tend to be deeper and darker in tone, and so clarity is a must. Conversely, bridge pickups often are used for searing leads and so they need to have some edge. But when combined, the result is a far more balanced output and tone. Even when heavily distorted I found the bottom end far cleaner and audible (less muddy) than other guitars in my collection, some of which cost over 2k.
And so what you have is a very clean guitar, but with more edge than is found in vintage style guitars or modern Teles or Strats – you can get away with the softer jazz and blues stuff, yet push the distortion and overdrive without losing control of the notes. I mix just about everything into my composition and the Hinson Signature can pull it off. As well, because of the semi-hollow body design, the notes ring out with more character and depth than I have heard with a solid body electric.
The volume and tone controls certainly have a hand in tonal quality. Reverend Guitars use a tone-preserving volume control so that treble is not lost when volume is turned down. Quite happily I found that sound quality sustains to a significant degree as you manipulate the volume. Likewise, the custom tone control trims off only the highest frequencies without affecting volume output so that the guitar sounds as punchy regardless of add bass or treble. Reverend added another feature, a bass contour control, so that you can adjust that bottom end to be a little edgier or a little creamier, depending on tone preference – it’s subtle, but it makes a difference depending on how the overall EQ sits in the mix.
Go for the neck
The neck is superb and very ‘vintage’ feeling. This may not be for everyone, and I would not consider it a speed neck (like some with a larger curve or radius), although anyone with the skills to move quickly would not feel hampered by its action. Most guitars in my collection have rosewood fretboards, whereas this has a maple fretboard/solid neck with a conservative medium oval shape and 12” radius and black ‘bat’ inlays. It fits very well in the hands without feeling blocky or thick. And the satin finish, slightly rolled edges, medium jumbo frets make playing feel less strenuous than I have experienced with many other guitars in its price-range. For example, there’s no ‘digging in’ as strings bend easily and the fingers glide smoothly from one position to the next, both of which help prevent finger fatigue. Vibrato also is very smooth and easy to achieve on the smooth maple board. And did I mention it had bat inlays? Way cool!
The neck’s quality is not limited to what you see or feel. Reverend Guitars integrate a dual action truss rod into their bolt-on necks, as is found in any high-end guitar, to adjust for both ‘upbow’ and ‘backbow.’ Standard truss rods adjust in only one direction – when tightened it pulls the neck into backbow (curves the headstock downward), and when loosened it is presumed that the natural wood structure/grain and string tension will produce upbow. However, wood and string tension may not be sufficient, whereas a dual action truss rod assures correct adjustment regardless of humidity/climate and aging conditions that may affect the wood.
Reverend even thought of adding a low-friction roller-style string tree (1st and 2nd strings) to the headstock, to reduce string resistance for better tuning stability. Some people are indifferent to string trees and may not realize the value in these little braces, but they have been on quality guitars for decades and do offer a positive tuning effect. When really pulling and bending the lighter strings to bring them up a full stop or more, they take some abuse and can go out of tune more easily without those little string trees.
The smooth high-gear ratio tuners are another Reverend exclusive, boasting a pin-lock feature with a thumbwheel underneath that pushes a steel pin upwards through the post, thus locking a string in place for improved stability. Another way to visualize the design concept is to consider how a string is locked into place on a floating bridge, clamped and locked between two surfaces. Very little if any winding around the post is required; regardless, if winding is your thing, the string posts are non-tapered, which means reduced string breakage and more consistent and stable tuning since strings wrap around a larger surface area. When I first received the guitar, I put in about four hours of playing, and during that time the guitar did not go out of tune!
Now, although much has been said about the guitar, the review would not be complete without addressing the bonus part of the package; a wooden Coffin Case! Imagine a black vinyl exterior, padded black satin diamond tuck interior with red stitching, black steel hardware, and a swiveling handle. Yes, it has the usual compartment to store some gear, but it even has a body rest pillow to better fit and secure the guitar’s body – a nice creepy accessory to an already guitar accessory. Designed by www.CoffinCase.com, this is the finishing touch of all finishing touches! The makers of the patent and trademarked Coffin Case produce several sizes to fit any guitar shape, even a Flying V. As well, they offer padded ‘body bags,’ and do custom work for the most discerning musician (just ask Slash about his). And so you don’t have to buy the Hinson to get a Coffin Case, but they sure do make a lovely couple! RIP!
The Reverend Unknown Hinson Signature guitar has a list price of $1329 and an estimated street price of $1099 USD.