Eastwood Airline '59 Custom 3P DLX Reviews
Review by Brian D. Johnston
When I first saw an Eastwood, it was in an advertisement with Chris Spedding showing his vintage cream Airline ’59 Town and Country Deluxe like a proud peacock. I thought: ‘weird,’ ‘different,’ ‘old,’ ‘original,’ ‘beautiful,’ and ‘ugly.’ Pictures certainly do not do an Eastwood justice. You certainly experience a host of mixed reactions since they are not conventional looking guitars; there is a strange sensation that envelopes you – a dual sense of familiarity and obscurity. There is something to suggest it has been around for some time, and yet there is freshness in innovation that makes it contemporary.
But mostly it is that vintage aura that draws one’s attention so intensely; something so iconic has been placed in today’s rapidly changing music world that causes a person to relinquish modernistic status and ideals for the quality and standards of guitar design that once was. After all, what guitarist does not want a vintage instrument, and particularly if it looks vintage?
In general, Eastwood does not build electric guitars; it crafts them with an obvious sense of nostalgia that is integrated with progressive technology. In effect, you get the visual and universal vibe of yesteryear with a zing of enhancement that can be achieved only with today’s knowhow, thus sporting the present and past in one package. Even the vintage-designed form-fit guitar case that comes with the Airline ’59 Custom screams vintage, with a combination of black ends and creamy center (reminiscent of those 60s tweed speakers) and a steel ‘Airline’ plate logo. As well, the company’s logo/font is an intentional throwback to the days of I Dream of Jeannie or the Dick Van Dyke Show.
I was not born in the era that experts consider the zenith of ‘electric luthierism,’ and yet these guitars make me reminisce about the Airstream travel trailers hooked on the back of an old Chev or Ford, rumbling down Route 66 and stopping in greasy spoon diners along the way. Such images helped create Americana memorabilia that continue to stimulate our senses more than 50 years later, from Hollywood movies and reality-TV antique scavengers programs, to merchandise replicas found in nearly any department store from the American Mid-west to Japan.
As a Canadian, I’m proud that a Canadian company choose to take up the helm and develop a line of instruments that epitomizes an era in design and long sought-after standard of living that today’s idealists can only dream about. For many it was the 1950s and early 1960s that captivates the imagination as the ‘ideal’ way of American life, and Eastwood Guitars has sustained that image and atmosphere in spades.
What should be stated from the onset is that the Airline ’59 Custom (released in 2008) was not made as an inexpensive gimmick to fill a niche; the Korean craftsmanship is equal to any guitar twice its price, in both construction and sound. It could be envisioned how this may not have been, developed on the cheap and simply made to look visually appealing to those attracted to such genre. Fortunately, Eastwood did not take this direction.
What Eastwood has done is to allow the average person the potential to acquire the impression and sense of owning a vintage guitar at a respectable price of approximately $1200 to $1400 (MSRP). A limited supply and high demand have resulted in only the chosen and fortunate few owning the real deal, but Eastwood instruments have become a strong second-best. I suspect, eventually, Eastwood guitars will become collectors’ items as well, since they seem to be lone-riders in resurrecting more obscure stringed antiquity.
With the neck of a Gibson and the tone of a Stratocaster, the $1200 Airline ’59 Custom is based on the design of the original Airline guitars made in the USA from 1958-68 by Valco (which also made National and Supro brands) and sold through Montgomery Ward department stores. Now selling for upward of $3000, several music icons have played these rare vintage models, including David Bowie and Jack White.
The bolt-on neck is bound maple with a rosewood fingerboard and block fret markers, with a nut width of 1-11/16 inches. The neck bolts are recessed into the body with no need for a neck/body plate, thus giving cleaner lines on the back of the guitar. The string action is comfortably low and plays as well as more costly guitars I own (especially after lubricating the strings and neck with Chrome-Frets), and the smallish neck definitely helps finger dexterity. Due to the cut of the body, it is easy to get access to the highest, 20th fret. And the machine heads are vintage Kluson style with nickel and chrome hardware, guaranteed to sustain tuning.
The maple top and tone-chambered mahogany body provides excellent sustain of notes and nice resonance, besides making the body lighter (the original Airline was made of hollow fibreglass (Res-O-Glass). In fact, looking at a picture of the Airline ’59 Custom, you would think the guitar is larger and thicker than it eventually appears in the flesh. At 25.5 inches, I was surprised how light and compact it was, thus making the Airline very comfortable and enjoyable to play. There is no unnecessary bulk to the body. Comfort of play, besides enhancing its looks, is supported further by a classy bevelled edge on both front and back of the guitar’s body. As well, that bevelling enhances upper fret work more effectively. Eastwood went a step further than the original Airline Res-O-Glas guitars with a unique rubber binding that envelopes the entire body, thus giving it a very aesthetic touch that visually pops out as it contrasts against the enamel finish.
The custom striped pick-guard moulds around two Airline Vintage-voiced single-coil pickups at the bridge and neck positions that are sandwiched between a humbucker, all of which are controlled by a five-position tone switch that sports an aluminum switch plate. The five positions do offer a large variety of tonal possibilities, but factor in that each pickup has its own volume and tone knob and you have one of the most versatile guitars available.
The three individual pickup volume knobs (further controlled by a master volume knob), the three pickup tone knobs and the pickup/tone switch are located on top of the guitar and horizontally aligned with the pickups. At first glance this may look obtrusive, but such is not the case.
In fact, the opposite is true. With a Bigsby roller tremolo bridge and arm mounted on this guitar, one would have hindered access to those knobs if reassigned below the pickups. But even without a Bigsby tremolo, there is faster finger access to those wonderfully deep grooved knobs and tone switch by being on top. And while playing, not once did my picking hand unintentionally come into contact with any of them.
The strap buttons are of a good quality and size, and hold the strap in place when encountering body and guitar movement. This may seem like a moot point, but when working the stage, the last thing you want is for the strap to unhook.
My music and composition tastes lean more toward rock, although there are elements of blues and jazz in the mix. This guitar fits the bill with pickups that combine the elements of both single-coil and humbucker that can sound soft and velvety one minute, then can pack enough punch for more intense work the next. I have found that a person can take even the most simple of guitars and get it to sound ‘metal’ with enough effects pumped through it and with the amp cranked high enough. But not all guitars sound good when clean or with little distortion, overdrive or other effects. Certainly you can play heavy-based rock through the Airline ’59 Custom, as I sometimes do, but it truly shines when you take it a step back and let its natural characteristics shine. If you want vintage sound, whether soft or hard, warm or bright, then this is it!
This is the first guitar I have owned with three humbucker-sized pickups and I had no issues with anything striking the pickups, whether using a pick or fingers. This may be the result of a more controlled and positioned right hand, as opposed to a more lose style other players may have. But because of its slightly longer body, there is more space between the pickups for picking that what is found with other three-pickup guitars, such as the Les Paul Black Beauty. Regardless, if fewer options and more picking space seem a better option, then the 2-pickup version of the Airline ’59 Custom may be your cup-of-tea.
Are there any negatives to this guitar? There are a few if one were to look at every possibility of play and craftsmanship, since any guitar will have an Achilles heel. First, the neck is not what I call a ‘fast’ neck. Based on the radius/curve and shape of various necks, I do have guitars that are designed for faster fretting. But as stated, this guitar is like a re-issue from an era when metal blazers did not exist. And that’s all right, since anyone into ‘shredding’ likely would not be attracted to this guitar for what it has to offer. It’s like buying a Cadillac and wanting to race the Autobahn.
Correspondingly, the pickups do not have as much punch as guitars conceptualized in today’s age, e.g., EMG Active Pickups, and so amp volume needs to be a bit higher as compared to modern rocker-type guitars with hyper-sensitive pickups.
Last, unless requesting custom work, this model is available in only two colours, white or seafoam green. The green is very nostalgic looking, and for whatever reason I am drawn to white guitars (now owning three of them), and so the colour limitation was not an issue for me.
In sum, many of us buy and sell guitars, sometimes whittling down a collection of the most essentials and favourites. The Eastwood Airline ’59 Custom 3P is destined to be one of those guitars that will remain faithful to the collector. You will understand what I mean when you try to Net search for Eastwood guitars through private sellers (e.g., Kijiji or Craig’s list), finding very few if any. But then search for other name brands and you get dozens or even hundreds of hits.
The quality of construction and sound is enough to make you want to hold onto the Airline ’59, but its overall personality and charisma will captivate you from day one. Because Kurt Cobain loved his retro guitars and their retro looks and tones, and more particularly the Fender Jaguar, I have no doubt he eventually would have played an Eastwood model. He would have been hooked by the seafoam green, lured in by the vintage cream, and fell in love with the Sahara blue.Brian Johnston
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