Up until now I’ve only known AXL through their line of black, aggressive metal guitars, so when this pair of AXL Badwaters arrived I was surprised and a little curious. The most apparent thing about these guitars is the finish – they take the Fender idea of ‘relic’ to the ultimate extreme.
Back to those finishes in a second. These guitars feature an alder body – one of my favourite body woods at least since I got my Ibanez Jem7VWH – a wood which is known for having a lot of dimension and liveliness, with a pleasant high end and tight bass response. The neck is maple, with a rosewood fretboard. Electronics consist of a set of AXL pickups designed by EMG, as well as a 5 way selector switch, master volume, and 2 tone controls.
Now those finishes. I tested the #10036, a distressed, faded white; and #10037, a crackled, dirty brown. This is no photo finish or neat process: these guitars appear to have been strapped down while a crazed wolfman wailed the bejabbers out of them with a chain. Metal parts are rusted, wooden parts are scratched, scorched and dinged, plastic bits are faded, stained and marked, and paint is scraped, knocked, gouged and hacked. On the #10037, the finish is rough to the touch, and on both guitars, you can even see thumb prints pressed into the plastic of the control knobs. Of course this is not the work of a lazy baggage handler: These finishes are expertly applied and carefully sealed, so while the guitars may look like they were left out in the rain during the wet season and then dumped in the middle of the desert to dry off for a decade or so, they’re actually very structurally sound.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the real guts of these guitars: What are they like? Both models felt nearly identical in playability and sound, so let’s talk in general terms. These are tough guitars. They don’t feel like pretty, easily playable planks to plink out dinky little solos. These are tough, rough machines that put up a fight in the same way as a vintage Telecaster or one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strats. They’re not hard to play, per se, but they seem to beg to be picked hard, and this type of playability is great for blues, funk, or really aggressive rock.
Despite my Ibanez fixation I’ve always kept a few single coil loaded guitars with high actions and heavy strings, and the AXLs hang in there with the best of them in terms of feeling like a living, breathing instrument. The EMG-designed passive pickups complement the visual aesthetic very well. The bridge humbucker sounds a bit like a Bill Lawrence L-500L to me. In fact if you’re after that Nuno Bettencourt sound, which is aided not only by that pickup but also by an unfinished guitar body, you’ll get startlingly close with these guitars, considering the price range. The higher action of the #10036 especially invited this vibe. The single coils sounded tough and mean, with lots of pick attack, and were especially good for Hendrix style rhythms and SRV rhythm-lead work.
These are fun, funky, well built, tough guitars which sound great. For the price they’re quite unbeatable, but if you like this kind of rugged, ‘have to fight it a little bit’ feel, then the Badwater holds its own with guitars worth several times the price.
PICKUPS: AXL, designed by EMG
BRIDGE: Vintage vibrato
ELECTRONICS: 1 volume, 2 tone, 5 way selector