I’ve reviewed a few excellent Cole Clark acoustics and electrics over the years (like this Guardian, for instance), but when I opened up the case for this baby I was pretty gobsmacked. It combines several of my favourite things: that classy body shape, a cool semi-hollow body, classic wood tones that manage to avoid looking like your aunty’s coffee table, and that awesome headstock: definitely Paul Bigsby-inspired, but still distinctly Cole Clark. The design philosophy behind this one is to use Australian woods, so you have your choice of Bunya or Queensland Maple for the body (with a Blackwood cap), Blackwood or US Rock Maple for the neck, and Rosewood or US Rock Maple for the fretboard.
The body is internally carved rather than simply gluing in a solid centre block: the bridge, the neck pickup and the neck itself are all directly connected to the back and sides for enhanced sustain and resonance, while sound chambers allow the sound to swirl around within the body, picking up additional reflections and frequencies before throwing them out of the modified f-hole. It’s a very cool effect when unplugged, and those extra resonances definitely play a role in making the amplified voice morestrident and distinctive. Translation: It sounds really cool. The fretboard radius is a finger-friendly 12” (Ibanez players like me will be quite comfortable with this feel), and the neck is comfortable without being too fat or too thin.
The Culprit 3 uses a pair of Cole Clark’s own Culprit single coil pickups, which are wired into a 4-way switch instead of the more traditional 3-way. Position 1 is the bridge pickup; position 2 puts the bridge and neck in parallel for that classic open, jangly vibe; position 3 is the neck pickup, and position 4 combines both pickups in series for a monster high output sound which is sure to make your amp sweat a little.
I tested the Culprit through my Marshall DSL50 and a Peavey Windsor Studio. Through the Marshall’s clean channel, this guitar was a punchy, powerful chord monster, while adding some compression courtesy of an MXR Dyna Comp and a little slapback analog delay made for a great country pickin’ tone, prompting me to kinda slip into my Junior Brown impersonation for a while. Then I pushed the Marshall’s ‘Crunch’ button for a more chunky, bright attack, and it’s at this point, ladies and gentlemen, that I gave in to my weakness and took a shameful jump into Jimmy Page’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ solo. Being single coils, there’s a limit to how much gain you can pile on before things start to get a bit noisy, but why anyone would buy a guitar like this and try to pile its natural character under gobs of gain is beyond my comprehension. So if you hang back a little and listen to the guitar, and respect what it has to say, you can still find your way into some killer rock sounds that don’t need to sound like your guitar is gargling garbage-water.
Through the Peavey, the Culprit had a more jangly, indie vibe, and I couldn’t help hooking up a vibrato effect for a few faux Clientele chord extravaganzas (played fingerstyle for added authenticity, of course). I also found that through the Peavey I gravitated towards old school soul and R&B riffs of the Curtis Mayfield variety. A little analog delay in the effects loop and a flip over to that high output fourth setting added a swampy blues vibe that I could have stayed on all day.
This is a very cool guitar for a variety of styles, from clean country and indie to swampy blues, to dirty, filthy rock. The construction quality is excellent and while there are a few hints as to its inspirations, it’s unmistakably an original design.