If you were playing guitar back in the late ’80s and liked your gear, you would have undoubtedly come across Gary Levinson, the creator of Blade Guitars.
To some, they were just another Strat-alike in some pretty contemporary colours, but virtually every facet of the benchmark design was re-evaluated, not least the dual-block Falcon vibrato and the onboard active VSC circuit, which offered a combined treble and bass boost or a midrange solo boost. For those pristine rhythm parts or gained leads – essential voices for the time – the Blade was the near-perfect tool.
Back to today and Gary’s latest design venture is Sceptre, a mini-range of three electrics and a pair of basses commissioned by UK-based Tanglewood Guitars, known for its value-for-money acoustic guitars that are distributed worldwide.
Now, you might be groaning, ‘Not another Fender-inspired ‘new’ design…’ and we hear you. But with Gary at the drawing board there’s got to be some merit, hasn’t there? When this unshowy Ventana Deluxe arrived we plugged straight in and in moments concluded, ‘We’re good to go!’
There’s no country of original label visible on the guitar yet Gary confirms it’s Chinese-made – and rather well, too. The two-tone ’burst to the front reveals a stripped ash-looking body, though it’s actually (two-piece) alder with a thin ash veneer to the front only.
“We’re using two- to three-piece bodies whereas, typically, in this price area you’d be looking at three to five pieces, sometimes more. Since I’m not into horizontal plywood, that was one spec that came in early on,” Gary tells us from his HQ in Basel, Switzerland.
“Originally, the factory used a swirly grain Mongolian ash veneer that looked like it should be on a piece of decorative furniture,” he laughs. “It took me six months of hounding to get them to source the American white ash straight-grain veneer you see there.”
The body contours are well done, too. The rear ribcage cutaway is quite expansive, while the forearm bevel is quite deep with only a slight ridge as it graduates from the top into the curve.
That old-school colour (there are a couple of more contemporary ones, too; see spec list) is contrasted by the blingier pearloid scratchplate, the usual dished S-style output jack plate is omitted in favour of a side-mounted output plate, and we get a simpler master volume/master tone control circuit. By design, this is a more contemporary take on that classic 69-year-old benchmark.
The actual outline is subtly modernised, too, with slightly thinner, more pointed horns, while the heel area is lightly dished, and the hard rock maple neck, which has a vintage-y tint to the satin finish, is topped off with a Suhr-alike black-faced headstock with rather large logos that are a little busy.
It might be lower-end in terms of price, but the six-screw Wilkinson vibrato is a tidy piece, not least its large deep-drilled full-size block and push-in tension-adjustable arm.
“I called up my longtime friend Trev Wilkinson and said I wanted to work together with him on this,” Gary tells us. “The Sceptre range wasn’t supposed to be a range of vintage knock-offs; the idea from day one was, while we paid homage to the classic electric guitars, we actually looked at it as making a more contemporary instrument.
“I didn’t want pressed saddles on the bridge, I wanted a block style, which I knew would give me a little fatter sound, and with Trev’s stuff I knew the plating would be good, the baseplates [being] properly hardened steel.”
The smooth-actioned enclosed Der Jung tuners reflect modern over vintage style as well. Like his Blade range, all the Sceptre pickups are designed by Gary, and are not off-the-shelf designs. The two single coils both have vintage staggered rod magnets with a measured 51.8mm spacing; the covered humbucker’s slot-head poles are slightly wider at 52.5mm to match the bridge spacing.
Feel & Sounds
Weight-wise, the Ventana is in the right zone and feels pretty inviting from the off. While we didn’t have a Blade RH-4 for comparison, our measurements from the 30th Anniversary Blade we reviewed back in issue 446 illustrate that the Ventana’s neck is pretty similar in depth (20.9mm at the 1st fret and 21.9mm by the 12th), and although both share the same 43.5mm nut width, the Ventana’s neck widens slightly as we move up.
The fingerboard radius is the same as the Blade, too, at 240mm (9.5 inches). Fretwork appears good from a medium-low wire (approximately 2.64mm wide by 1mm high) and our setup was spot on: 1.5mm on the treble side, just a fraction higher on the bass side.
Like any good HSS, this Ventana Deluxe has a very positive Jekyll and Hyde character. Using a PRS SE Silver Sky and a first-generation Fender Road Worn Strat as single-coil references, we’d be lying if we said the Ventana stood out as inferior.
Listening with a pretty clean amp voice there’s a really rather good balance of percussion and woody chop to be found from the neck, the middle is slightly more focused, and the neck/middle mix is quite full with the expected bounce and funk. Solo, the bridge humbucker is quite the contrast: big and powerful with a slightly cocked wah midrange character and rounded highs.
With the humbucker split, however, which voices the screw coil, it sounds far from underpowered and is a great match for the single coils with a controlled high-end that sounds like you’ve just pulled the tone back a little. The Ventana comes across as a pretty cool, classic, rock-ready tool with that coil-split engaged. The full-coil bridge humbucker is almost your secret weapon if and when you really want to heat things up.
Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of similarly priced HSS bolt-ons out there, particularly big-hitting industry standards such as Fender’s Player Strat HSS and Yamaha’s Pacifica 612V Mk II, to name but two.
But the detail is good here and those overwound sounds create a subtly different, bigger voice that will have less appeal to the vintage crowd by design but more to those of us who need some tougher, meatier voices.
Of course, it’s a great platform for any modders, too, not least that the body already has an HSH rout so you could really take it wherever you wanted (maybe Sceptre could offer us some different SSS or HSH scratchplates?). So, granted, it’s a crowded market, but this is a perfectly viable, well considered and executed entry.
- PRICE: £649
- ORIGIN: China
- TYPE: Double-cut, solidbody electric
- BODY: North American alder w/ striped ash facing
- NECK: Slab-sawn hard rock maple, bolt-on
- SCALE LENGTH: 648mm (25.5”)
- NUT/WIDTH: Bone/42.54mm
- FINGERBOARD: Hard rock maple, black dot inlays, 240mm (9.5”) radius
- FRETS: 22, medium
- HARDWARE: Wilkinson WOV02 vibrato, zinc die-cast saddles & full-size block, Der Jung DJ234 enclosed die-cast tuners – chrome-plated
- STRING SPACING, BRIDGE: 52.5mm
- ELECTRICS: Levinson Sceptre S-E2 Alnico V single coils (neck and middle), HB-E2 covered humbucker (bridge), 5-way lever pickup selector switch, master volume and master tone (with pull-push coil-split switch)
- WEIGHT (kg/lb): 3.47/7.63
- OPTIONS: Black walnut fingerboard w/ See-Through Red, Ocean Blue colours
- RANGE OPTIONS: SSS Ventana Standard and T-style Arlington Standard (both £499)
- LEFT-HANDERS: No
- FINISHES: 2 Tone Sunburst (as reviewed), See-Through Red, Ocean Blue – high gloss polyester to body; vintage tinted satin to neck with black headstock face
- CONTACT: Levinson Sceptre