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This article was originally published in issue #10
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It may be the prettiest guitar we've ever reviewed, but how does the Collings SoCo 16LC play and sound? Who do we know who really appreciates fine, grown-up guitars? Time for Michael Casswell!
Back in issue five I had the pleasure of playing, and giving my thoughts on, the Collings I-35. I loved it. It was as good as guitar production gets. To be honest, it was the only Collings electric guitar I'd played, but I have played enough guitars in my time, and personally own quite a few vintage and modern high-end guitars, to know when a guitar isn't just good, but when it's extremely good - and the I-35 was indeed extremely good. Which gave this SoCo 16LC a lot to live up to.
The name SoCo is named after "South Congress Avenue" which is in Austin Texas. A colourful, happening place apparently, and the home of Bill Collings and his team. Maybe an English guitar builder could make a guitar and call it the "North Circular"? No, it doesn't work, does it? Somehow the USA always seems so much cooler.
As I lifted the lid, the look and finish of the guitar really made an impact, to the point where both myself and the camera guys just stopped and took a moment to simply admire the thing in its case. One of the spotlights happened to be in the right position to illuminate the colour and the flame maple top. Very pretty, very cool and glowing from the nitrocellulose finish which is so traditional, and, some say, so important to the eventual tone of a properly made guitar. I don't know what the burst finish is called but I call it a fireburst. More orange than a cherry burst but darker than a lemon burst. In my books, that's a 'fireburst'. The beautiful laminated flame maple wasn't just on the top. It carried on round the back and sides, making this an all maple semi-hollow body, with a solid maple centre block, cream binding, and a subtle arch to the top and the back. Quite a slim depth to it, maybe a bit slimmer than a Les Paul, but the visuals exudes class, and it is a very 'grown up' looking guitar indeed.
For wood fetishists (he means me - Ed.) the SoCo is made from Collings' own maple laminate, as was the I-35. Not satisfied with the quality of what he could buy, Bill Collings apparently just decided to make his own laminates. That's the kind of company you are dealing with here. The traditional set neck is mahogany with a rosewood fingerboard and the hardware is of a matching quality throughout, from the custom engraved Gotoh machine heads to the TonePros bridge. I know I keep saying it but it can't be said too often - this is as good as it gets.
Within seconds of strumming a few chords acoustically, I could immediately tell it was great, which is a top tip for any of you guys when buying an electric guitar. Play the thing first unamplified. If a guitar rings, resonates, and acoustically has a large sound, then when you plug it in, even if the pickups are average, chances are the guitar will sound fab. And the pickups on this SoCo certainly are not average! In fact they are Lollar Imperials Alnico humbuckers. They are voiced perfectly for a semi-hollow body like this, giving very articulate, sweet sounding humbucking tones that I have only really encountered on genuine '59 Les Pauls. Yes, really. This guitar could handle many styles - probably more than the average player could play! The Lollar pick ups just sound great with the semi-hollow body, and the maple, which is a bright but sweet sounding wood. The SoCo would easily be at home playing warm Jazz, rooty Blues, Funk and Country. The bridge pick up is wound and voiced specifically for this guitar and even the volume pots are graded and tailored by their value, to achieve the optimum tone from each individual instrument.
At volume, with a good valve amp, the volume pots will act as tone and gain control, because they tell the Lollars to be darker, brighter, sweeter or dirtier as you turn them up and down. Work the tone pots as well, and you have a whole range of possibilities for great humbucking sound. A technique often overlooked by less experienced players.
The frets and neck were fantastic. Some of the best fretwork and nicest feeling frets I have played in a long time. The neck has a nice played-in feel with some rounded edges, which gives the feel of a neck that has done thousands of gigs over many years, but on a brand new guitar. The actual neck feels quite old school in size. Not small, but not too big and with a nice C-shape that fills your palm. The whole thing reminded me of my James Tyler neck which I love, but I'm not one of those players that has to have a certain size neck. I just pick up and play. But this neck suits this guitar and feels fantastic. The strings feel like 10's or 11's, so I opted to demo the guitar with a bit of smooooooth Jazzzzz, mainly because I wanted to try and appear as cool as this guitar is! I tried...I failed!
The SoCo 16LC works on all levels. The whole thing works in harmony. The wood is chosen specifically for the sonic imprint it makes. The pickups are wound and voiced to work with the wood. The pots are chosen for the pick ups. The semi-hollow chambers add a lovely warmth and grain to the overall amplified sound. All the components works as one, such is the quality and care put into this guitar. Collings only produces three or four guitars a day, when the more money driven companies churn out 50,60,70 guitars per day. That's the difference. That's what you are paying for when you buy a guitar like this.
If your playing deserves the best, and you can afford it, then you should definitely try this Collings. It comes in quite a range of finishes and you can even have a Bigsby factory-fitted if you choose. Even more troubling is that the 16LC has a big brother - the outrageously beautiful DeLuxe model, which oozes even more quality. If you go to the Collings website you'll see a Deluxe version in quilted maple, but be careful - you may suddenly find yourself compelled to mortgage your house and buy one. Our Editor says it's possibly the best-looking guitar he's seen in a decade and editors are never wrong, are they?