REVIEW: Michael Kelly Guitars 1957

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There are so, so many guitars out there that follow the basic Telecaster-style footprint but either they ape the Tele so closely that you might as well get a Fender, or they diverge from the design so radically that they may as well be an entirely different instrument. Fender’s American Deluxe series does a great job of updating the Tele with modern playability and features but they’re pretty damn pricey. I get the feeling that this is where the Michael Kelly 1957 fits in. It’s far more affordable than an American Deluxe and it certainly doesn’t try to copy its features, but it’s no vintage-style Tele reproduction either. 

The 1957 has a Swamp Ash body with a Quilt Maple top and genuine Flame Maple binding, a rarity at this price point. The quiltiness of the Maple is quite hypnotic and three-dimensional, and the stain of the Swamp Ash back provides a nice colour contrast that gives this guitar a bit of a Les Paul-meets-Tele look when you see it side-on. Available finishes are Amber Trans and Black Wash. The review model is Amber Trans.

This is a bolt-on instrument with a Maple neck and a 22-fret Maple fretboard with a 10” radius. The fretwork is nice and neat. It’s not as finessed as the frets on, say, an Ibanez Prestige series instrument or a really nice Fender but it exceeds the vast majority of guitars in this price range. The nut isn’t quite so neat, with a sharp edge that seems to jam into my hand when I play first-fret notes on the E and B strings, but that’s a very easy fix. I feel like 10” is the perfect radius for this particular guitar. It’s not as curvy as a vintage-style instrument, where the 7.25” radius can cause the strings to choke up on bends, but it’s not super-flat like a shredder’s axe, nor is it compound radius which would add to the price. Instead it sits somewhere in between. You can bend and squeeze the strings like crazy without fretting out but you can also play barre chords with perfect comfort.

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The electronics consist of a Seymour Duncan Little ’59 humbucker in the bridge position and a Rockfield® SWV Humbucker in the neck position. Each is individually splittable into single coil mode via a corresponding push-pull pot; the volume control splits the neck pickup, and the tone control splits the bridge. By combining different single coil and humbucker modes you can get a huge range of tones out of the middle pickup selector position on this thing: two humbuckers, two singles, single neck with humbucker bridge or humbucker neck with single bridge. Throw in different volume control settings for different gain levels and treble roll-offs and you could cover an entire gigs’ worth of tones right from the middle setting, and that’s before you even get to the twin modes for the neck and bridge pickups individually.

The bridge pickup is voiced in the traditional PAF style, with side-by-side coil geometry to more closely mimic the response of a full-sized side-by-side humbucker, although the narrower magnetic field means you’ll get a slightly punchier tone. But it’s still fat and punchy with a thick low end like the full-sized ’59 humbucker. I like this pickup for hard rock and classic rock but it’ll also handle more extreme forms of gain quite happily, and it lends a nice clear jangle to clean tones. Split it to single coil mode and you’ve got a snappy, punchy single coil sound which sounds super-clean tones very well and is also great for those dirty, edge-of-overdrive Stones tones too. It’s not quite as distinctive as the humbucker mode once you nudge the gain into full-on distortion territory; it sounds like a nice single coil for a variety of styles, but not an especially characterful one.

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The neck pickup has a warm, rounded tone which suits sustained single notes and strummed chords. It has an almost woodwind-like quality which really comes to the fore with overdrive, while clean tones bring out a more jazzy texture. Flip to single coil mode and you have a clearer, edgier sound that works perfectly for indie and blues styles.

It’s downright impossible to think of a genre that this guitar wouldn’t be suitable for. It’s got the punch and power for metal, the clarity and twang for country, the edge for punk, the warmth for classic rock, the jangle for indie, and the articulation for jazz and fusion. And the bang-for-the-buck score is off the charts. This is a guitar that gives you the spirit and vibe of those classic 50s designs but with modern upgrades that make it more playable and more flexible. Try one as soon as you can.