Legendary guitar designer Trev Wilkinson’s Fret King brand is designed to offer ‘working vintage guitars’ built without compromise and without directly copying any one particular classic instrument. Even a cursory glance at the website of the Fret King line reveals a series of instruments that aren’t shy about owning up to their inspirations but which could never, ever be called simply copy guitars. It almost feels like any familiarity that you might perceive is there merely as a vague frame of reference rather than a ‘let’s just tweak this a bit and put it out’ design decision.
The Esprit 5 is slightly reminiscent of Gibson Firebird, sure, but it’s more of a “hey, that slightly reminds me of something.. what is it? Hmm…” kind of familiarity rather than an “Oh dude, I totally know what that is” kind of thing. And to be honest, I’ve been hoping to get my hands on one ever since I first saw the shape in Guitarist magazine a couple of years ago.
The body is made from three-piece mahogany with a raised 4″ centre section and two slightly smaller flanks, one of which holds the volume and tone controls, placed in line with the raised section in a nice little bit of visual design.
The set neck, too, is mahogany, with a reverse headstock, and it’s refreshing to see a tilt-back headstock made without a scarf joint. Some techs believe a scarf joint robs the guitar of crucial tone transfer by interrupting the flow of energy along the wood grain. There are 22 large and very well finished frets, and pearl position dots to help you find your way. The reverse headstock takes a few minutes getting used to if you haven’t used one before or, like in my case, used to use a guitar with one but haven’t for a few years. It seems that those particular brain muscles atrophy with time. I went to tune the guitar and accidentally tuned the A string instead of the B, but it led me to a cool riff I wouldn’t have otherwise stumbled upon, so …swings and roundabouts.
The pickups are a set of Fret-King PAFs which Wilkinson says are wound to a very authentic, original recipe. The pickup selector switch is over on the pickguard, and the output jack is recessed along the lower bout. Controls are simply a master volume and a master tone.
I plunged the Esprit 5 into my Marshall DSL50 and a Blackstar Studio 20 for testing. And straight up, the Esprit 5 sounds great. The pickups are relatively low in output, and this means much more faithful translation of the guitars’ own acoustic properties. So it’s a good thing that those acoustic properties are so dynamic and confident. Even unplugged, this guitar sounds lively and loud, so when you plug it in you simply get more of the same. The bridge pickup responds organically to changes in picking strength, with some particularly great tones available by picking softly, while the neck pickup seems to love being hit hard with a bit of extra muscle from the picking hand. This guitar really begs you to play the damn thing, and it rewards you with a truly dynamic, interactive playing experience if you take the time to really hit those nuances.
Boost the gain with a pedal or extra preamp oomph and you’ll get smooth, articulate, midrange-heavy tones out of each pickup. The bridge unit sounds raunchy and percussive in high gain mode, and it screams on wide bends. The neck pickup sounds full and flute-like in its sustain quality, with a nice chunky pick attack to start things off. The guitar’s natural sustain envelope is good, not quite of the ‘sustain for ten minutes’ variety but not too brief either, and the neck is very playable. It’s a little bit round but not too chunky, and it’s a pleasure to play.
The Esprit 5 may drop hints as to its influence, but it’s definitely its own guitar. It sounds like nothing else out there, and it makes you want to keep playing to see where else it can take you. The reverse headstock will take a minute to get used to and some players would prefer higher-output pickups out of the box (although to them I say, just use a clean boost after the guitar instead of changing the pickups, because they rock). I guess the only issue, then is, do you like how it looks? I won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a very stylish guitar that could appeal to a wide variety of players, from classic rock and vintage metal dudes to country, blues and indie bands. Whatever genre you use it for, the Esprit 5 is one of the best-sounding and most addictively playable guitars I’ve ever played. I’m glad my initial hunch after seeing in that mag a few years ago turned out to be right.