Is there a better platform for guitar customization than the Tele? Easily sourced lumber combine with straightforward electronics and hardware for a characteristic sound.
Michael Kelly et al have been developing this formula for their Custom Collection: good old swamp ash (a frequently used Tele timber) augmented by artfully applied exotic hardwood veneers and electronic options to capture that singular sound.
The resulting Michael Kelly Custom Collection 55 Ebony includes time-honored features like a 25.5″ scale on a rosewood board, six-in-line tuners, and a bone nut, all combined with touches like six-saddle bridge/pickup mount, modern “C” neck, and dual-action truss rod. The crowning accent, though, is a wildly variable Macassar ebony veneer that makes each 55 Ebony a singular work.
Electronics include a proprietary Rockfield SWC bridge humbucker and a mini-humbucker at the fingerboard. You’ll find the expected three-way switch and Tone and Volume controls, but pull up on those pots and the humbuckers pop into single-coil mode.
Plugged into a small combo amp, the ebony veneer and swamp ash conspired with the Rockfields to deliver a familiar glassy chime when voiced clean in either single or double coil positions, singly or in combination. The easy playability and on-the-money setup and intonation made funky rhythms a pleasure, and altered chords took on a Stewart Copeland vibe when appropriate effects boxes were kicked in.
Dialing back the Tone control, the mini-humbucker delivered a soulful, horn-like sustain that provoked a jazz approach to single-note lines. The mini-humbucker, with its switching options, exhibited character beyond the typical Tele neck pickup.
Thrown into overdrive, the Kelly single-coil sounds had enough power to goose the amp, perhaps less dramatic than the righteous snarl of a Tele lead pickup in full glory, but plenty good for that opening statement in your solo. Volume swells à la Roy Buchanan were particularly effective, even at lower volumes, while the Kelly’s clarity accommodated fingerstyle techniques even through the overdriven amp.
Wanna take it over the top? The Rockfield SWC in full humbucking mode has the power to drop the bomb and the transparency to maintain its identity even with effects engaged.
If this model is not quite enough for you, try out the Mod Shop 55 Ebony Custom Fralin – same business, upgraded with Lindy Fralin pickups. At this price point, though, the Michael Kelly Custom Collection 55 Ebony delivers serious value, pro playability, and tone to match those great looks.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.