It’s not often a guitar is written about in magazines like Popular Science and Business Week and on webzines like PlasticsNews.com. So why is the RKS line of instruments getting so much attention from people in lab coats? Because it is probably the most innovative guitar to arrive in more than a decade. The standard solidbody electric guitar has undergone few changes in the past 50 years. With the exception of Steinberger and Parker, few guitar makers have strayed far from the tried-and-true formula.
Ironically, RKS developed its line not with the help of a young upstart industrial designer but a classic rocker: Dave Mason, a founding member of Traffic and a venerable sideman and solo artist since the Seventies. The results are revelations to the ears and the eyes: the Dark Star I reviewed this month provoked the same reaction every time I took it from its case: “Wow, cool guitar.”
Guitars with neck-though designs are said to have “wings,” but the term is especially apt in the case of RKS guitars. Strapped on, the Dark Star seemed to hover at a distance from my body, under its own aerodynamic power. A written description can outline the components, but the RKS must be seen in person, and held; its lines and curves defy the camera’s twodimensional limitations.
The Dark Star hollowbody exemplifies how RKS has completely rethought conventional guitar acoustics with respect to materials and structure. The guitar is manufactured from wood-based polymers, high-tech alloys and raw wood, and while RKS describes the Dark Star as “hollow,” it’s more like an open-ended resonating shell.
The core is the guitar’s central component, a one-piece neck/body made of maple and alder. It’s on this small, blocklike structure that the pickups and bridge rest. Ribs made of a resonant aluminum alloy radiate outward from the core, transmitting its vibrations to the polymer wings. The neck has a rosewood fingerboard with 22 jumbo frets and features a metal cap designed to increase sustain.
The Dark Star’s design, in addition to imparting certain acoustical properties, affects how you hold and play the guitar. The open shell and construction materials make the guitar exceptionally light, while its shape is both balanced and contoured to fit the player. Obstacles near the upper frets have been eliminated, giving the RKS the best upper-fret access of any guitar I’ve played. What’s more, the picking position is equally ergonomic. Because the body has no top to get in your way, your hand can surround the strings, allowing you to find the most comfortable picking angle.
The controls consist of two large knurled wheels mounted within the ribs, onto the side of the body. Their location lets you grab them easily, without interrupting your playing flow, simply by curling your fingers down from your normal picking position. The pickup selector is a large lever mounted on the bass side of the body and can be engaged with a flick of the thumb. Nothing interrupts the Dark Star’s sleek lines. Even the output jack, mounted on the base, keeps your cable out of the way.
My test guitar arrived with a beautiful setup. The action was low, and the intonation stayed true, even through radical climate changes owing to an unusually erratic New York winter season.
Some quality time with the Dark Star helped me fully understand its sonic subtleties. I was surprised to find that small adjustments in my playing technique yielded many shades of sound, which demonstrates the rather dramatic responsiveness of the RKS design. The pickups—two proprietary humbuckers that are modeled on the classic PAF—are brighter than typical double-coils but have the grunt to push an amp to distortion.
While the Dark Star boasts exceptional sustain and can wail the blues, I was struck most by the balance, clarity and sustain of chords played on it: they had the power of an electric and the openness of an acoustic. What’s more, this highly articulate voice lets you hear each note distinctly even when blasting a flurry of fast runs with distortion. Thanks to this, the Dark Star is the rare guitar that can cover everything from jazz to metal.
The Bottom Line
Unique looks and design may be the Dark Star’s most obvious qualities, but its sound and playability make it more than a stage prop or conversation piece. Spend enough time with one and the tone will speak for itself.