Mike Lipe Virtuoso
Contact: lipeguitars.com; phone (818) 352-6212
Mike Lipe has built guitars for top players and guitar companies (notably heading up the Ibanez Custom Shop in the ’90s). In 2000, he struck out on his own. His Virtuoso model is a solidbody that takes a familiar theme but lifts it up to custom, handmade heights.
In essence, Lipe’s Virtuoso is an upscale refinement of the classic “superstrat” configuration. The figured top of the guitar is made from mango wood, which lays upon a korina body. The 251/2″ neck is constructed of quartersawn korina (quarter sawing gives a piece of wood greater stability and often, distinct figure) with an Indian rosewood fingerboard, abalone inlays, and a mango headstock overlay. The Virtuoso is outfitted with Hipshot locking tuners and vibrato bridge, Graphtech nut, Dunlop strap locks, 6155 fret wire, and powered by two single-coils and a humbucker wound by Amalfitano Pickups, mounted directly into the mango top. Some builders feel direct mounting derives a more powerful, immediate tone from the pickups. Control of them comes from a single Tone and Volume and a five-position pickup selector.
From the moment you pick it up, it’s clear the Virtuoso is a superbly crafted instrument. Lead guitarists will enjoy the fast feel of the neck – its slim profile is built for speed and the satin finish feels natural to the touch. Fretboard action on our test guitar was swift and buzz-free, thanks to a 12″ radius and an immaculate setup. The body of the Virtuoso is surprisingly light, as well as attractive, while the headstock has a shape vaguely reminiscent of a Telecaster but with a mango overlay that matches the guitar’s top. Other touches include a smooth neck heel that facilitates upper-string bends.
Through various tube and digital modeling amps first set to clean, the Virtuoso supplied punchy tones in the bridge position, while the neck pickup displayed dark, jazzy tones. It sounded especially excellent on ringing arpeggios and open chords. The Virtuoso really takes off when played with distortion, where it offers immense power and depth. It sounds great with palm-muted chugging and rocking riffs, bringing every line and chord tone to life. It’s equally impressive for lead tones, maintaining fullness even into the upper register, without becoming screechy. Blues and shred tones are easy to coax; the neck and middle pickups have warm, fat tones that ably cover the Hendrix/SRV/Clapton spectrum. And the low fretboard action allows for easy tap/sweep combinations and all other types of shred lickology. One improvement compared to a vintage shredder axe is the lack of a locking nut, thanks to excellent hardware (most notably, locking tuners) and construction that bypasses the need for the cumbersome devices of yesteryear.
So, who’s going to want a Lipe Virtuoso? Presumably, it’ll end up in the hands of a player raised on the stun-guitar heroics of the ’80s and ’90s, but two decades later has acquired a taste for excellent materials and workmanship. It might have been fun to whiz around back then in a red Pontiac Fiero or Dodge Viper, but today’s more-mature rocker wants a Porsche or Audi with the same sexy vibe, but immensely better workmanship. That’s where Mike Lipe steps in – the Virtuoso acknowledges the slinky guitars, tones, and lines of the past, but combines it with upscale materials and quality build you associate with the fine guitars in life. And in that respect, Lipe nails it with the Virtuoso. This is a handsome guitar that gets it right in every way.
This article originally appeared in VG July 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.