Back in 1994 when Fret-King originally raised its flag above the parapet at the Winter NAMM show, variations and mash-ups of classic guitars weren’t as commonplace as they are today.
The brainchild of Trev Wilkinson, then based in the USA, Fret-King has since had its ups and downs, but nearly 30 years on – and judging by these two new models – little has changed: these are electric guitars that draw on the classics, usually mixed up a bit, with tricky wiring and a whole lot of bang for your buck.
Country Squire Music Row
If this style of guitar was made in a small boutique workshop, you’d probably be looking at a £3k price tag. For some years now Fret-King’s guitars have been made in India, and this new model, based on the long-running Country Squire, might be loosely based on a T-style but just about everything is different. Except, as we’ve come to expect, it’s anything but boutique in price, listed at £749 and including a pretty rugged gigbag.
Underneath the nicely glossed Laguna Blue finish (one of three offered) is a standard three-piece alder body. Yes, it apes its inspiration, but it’s slightly offset, the treble horn thinned and the heel rounded for much more comfortable high-fret playing.
It uses a standard Fender scale length, though the four neck screws sit in recessed ferrules and there’s a lovely sloping line from the rounded upper shoulder into that cutaway. The neck differs, too, in that rather like PRS’s bolt-on CE it continues past the end of the fingerboard and sits under the neck pickup. Weight-wise, it feels purposeful, a medium weight for the style.
The hardware comes from the Wilkinson stable. The T-style bridge, which can be top-loaded as well as through-strung, features compensated brass saddles, while the control plate alters the classic shape so the five-way lever pickup selector sits at a 45-degree angle.
The pickup choice starts pretty Telecaster-like with a Tapped-Fifty single coil at the bridge, a Strat-like Dallas Special single coil in the middle position and a Country Road humbucker (two T-style single coils mounted side-by-side and wired in series) at the neck.
The lever switch gives us Strat-like selections, while the Varicoil – the upper portion of the dual-concentric tone control – works on both the neck humbucker, pulling down the bridge-facing single coil until it’s removed from circuit, while the bridge moves from the full coil (9.57kohms) down to the tapped coil (6.66k).
Like the Country Squire, the Elise has been a cornerstone of the Fret-King range for some years and is the basis for signature models for both Gordon Giltrap and John Etheridge.
In the new line-up it’s simply the Elise Custom, available with a Maestro-style vibrato or, as here, with a standard tune-o-matic and stud tailpiece. Outwardly, it comes across as a downsized 368mm (14.5-inch) wide thinline with distinctly offset horns and a back-angled six-in-a-line headstock that adds a sort-of Gibson Trini Lopez vibe.
The major difference is that instead of a thinline’s usual laminate construction, the Elise is constructed from solid wood. The two-piece centre joined back is heavily routed out, leaving a centre block that stops just after the stud tailpiece.
Meanwhile the top, solid maple with a flame maple veneer, has quite a pronounced violin-like carve – inside and out – and a pair of f-holes. Thanks to the construction it’s nearly a pound lighter than the solidbody Country Squire.
The dual Fifty-Five humbuckers look pretty classic in their brushed nickel-plated covers, and – just like on the Country Squire – we also get that Varicoil, the lowest control, while the middle master tone also has a push-push switch that puts the pickups out of phase when both are voiced. Also like the Country Squire, the output jack is side‑mounted within a circular Electrosocket-style jack mount.
Feel & Sounds
Despite the different styles, both guitars use the same medium jumbo fretwire (approximately 2.43mm wide by 1.2mm high), nicely fettled on a 254mm (10‑inch) radius fingerboard.
The Country Squire’s neck is lightly oil finished, with the exception of the glossed headstock face, and feels a little narrower and deeper: 42.6mm wide at the nut, 22.3mm deep at the 1st fret and 24mm deep by the 12th. The Elise is slightly wider at the nut and a little thinner in depth with a more shallow C profile. It feels a little slinkier, too, probably due in part to its shorter 628mm (24.75-inch) scale length.
If the Country Squire looks a little like an experiment in progress, it actually ends up sounding like one, too. With the Varicoil wound fully clockwise we get the full coil of the bridge, which certainly does the hotter Tele-style rather well. Switching to the neck position where we have both of those covered single coils in action, it has quite a contrasting, slightly round-nosed but classic humbucker voice.
Winding the Varicoil back there’s not much, if any, graduation, rather an audible drop in volume and sound as the bridge-facing coil of the neck pair is removed, and the lower output tapped coil of the bridge pickup is voiced – now we have more of a classic T-style in sound. Mixing these with the middle pickup gets us into those Strat-ier mixed pickup voices; again the Varicoil moves them from thicker to thinner.
The middle pickup on its own sounds a little out of place. It’s brighter than you might expect, although it’s a pretty strident rhythm voice, not least with a dollop of crunchy gain. In short, it’s all about options and although we have plenty, the dealbreaker for some is that you can’t produce the classic T-style neck and bridge together.
Sonically, the Elise Custom comes across as a less contrasting instrument in terms of its sounds, although the combination of the Varicoil and the phase switch means we’re certainly not short on textures. If you like your classic PAF-style neck pickups for jazz and blues, this one is very slightly rounded in the highs but very evocative. We spent too long here when we should have been testing what else is on offer.
The bridge humbucker is a bit of a surprise and maybe should be called the Seventy-Five, not the Fifty-Five. It’s a high-output 14k ’bucker with an Alnico (not ceramic) magnet that sounds thick and pretty juicy: an old-school rock humbucker.
With the ’buckers fully split by that Varicoil switch (voicing the screw coils) there’s a useful contrast, and just balancing between this split and full humbucker – like a partial split – adds a little fullness. It illustrates the potential of the Varicoil, but the ‘action’ still happens in a very small part of the pot’s travel.
The out-of-phase voice is a bit too thin and nasal as we have only one volume control, but it certainly gives you another flavour that works for nastier fuzztones or takes us back to the 70s with a phase pedal.
While some players might prefer a more classic-voiced version, there’s little doubt that the Elise model moves effortlessly from jazz, blues and fusion to classic rock and pretty much whatever you want to throw at it. It’s still one of this writer’s favourite Fret‑King designs.
It’s good to welcome back these designs, but Fret-King almost seems to be trying too hard and to cover too much ground, not least in the sounds and switching departments.
The lack of that classic bridge/neck mix on the Country Squire is a major omission – and we can’t help thinking that a more classic bridge humbucker with simple dual volumes and a master tone (with coil-splits) would suit the Elise.
That said, the tone-tinkerers among you with a soldering iron will find plenty of potential here, especially since the actual guitars really punch above their prices and are both, for the most part, good‑sounding and competently made.
Fret-King Country Squire Music Row
- PRICE: £749 (inc gigbag)
- ORIGIN: India
- TYPE: Single-cutaway, solidbody electric
- BODY: 3-piece American alder
- NECK: Maple, ‘soft C’ profile, glued-in
- SCALE LENGTH: 648mm (25.5”)
- NUT/WIDTH: Graph Tech Tusq/ 42.6mm
- FINGERBOARD: Maple, black dot inlays, 254mm (10”) radius
- FRETS: 22, medium
- HARDWARE: Wilkinson WTB bridge w/intonated brass saddles, Wilkinson WJ05 enclosed tuners
- STRING SPACING, BRIDGE: 55mm
- ELECTRICS: Fret-King Country Road humbucker (neck), Dallas Special single coil (middle), Tapped-Fifty single coil (bridge), 5-way lever pickup selector switch, master volume, master tone, Varicoil control
- WEIGHT (kg/lb): 3.89/8.56
- OPTIONS: No
- RANGE OPTIONS: See ‘What’s In The Range?’ box
- LEFT-HANDERS: No
- FINISHES: Laguna Blue (as reviewed), Gloss Black, Butterscotch – gloss body and headstock face, oiled neck back
- PRICE: £979 (inc gigbag)
- ORIGIN: India
- TYPE: Double-cutaway, chambered thinline electric
- BODY: 2-piece centre jointed, chambered mahogany with flame maple faced carved maple cap
- NECK: Mahogany, ‘soft C’ profile glued-in
- SCALE LENGTH: 628mm (24.75”)
- NUT/WIDTH: Graph Tech Tusq/ 44.2mm
- FINGERBOARD: Bound rosewood, abalone dot inlays, 254mm (10”) radius
- FRETS: 22, medium jumbo
- HARDWARE: Wilkinson GBR bridge and stud tailpiece Wilkinson WJ04 enclosed tuners
- STRING SPACING, BRIDGE: 51.5mm
- ELECTRICS: Fret-King (by Wilkinson) Fifty-Five covered humbuckers, 3-way toggle pickup selector, master volume, master tone control (with latching push-push out of phase switch), Varicoil control
- WEIGHT (kg/lb): 3.51/7.72
- OPTIONS: No
- RANGE OPTIONS: The Elise Custom is also available with Fret-King vintage-style vibrato (£1,099) in Cherry Red or Gloss Black
- LEFT-HANDERS: No
- FINISHES: Walnut (as reviewed) and Tobacco Sunburst – all gloss
- CONTACT: Fret-King