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This article was originally published in issue #10
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What happens when top US Telecaster wielder Jerry Donahue gets together with top UK guitar designer Trev Wilkinson? The answer is the Fret-King Black Label JD. We asked our own Country Boy, Lee Hodgson, to investigate. Only to find out he'd beaten us to it...
The Fret-King Black Label JD is the culmination of a project between American mind-bending string bender Jerry Donahue and renowned British guitar guru Trev Wilkinson. Jerry's objective was to somehow combine the best aspects of three of the most iconic guitars in a single instrument. This has been achieved, quite successfully I can confirm, thanks to Jerry's well-known obsession with tone, allied to Trev's enviable know-how. The JD has the honour of being the first model in Fret-King's Black Label range - a line of guitars developed by Wilkinson for one of the leading UK disributors, JHS, and is claimed to offer virtually boutique quality at affordable prices. (Editor's note: there are several ranges of Fret-Kings, including Black, Blue and Green label models and the concept behind them is something we are going to be investigating at a later date)
I should state for the record that even before I was asked to review this guitar, quite independently, I had already bought a JD, a few months ago, and I've been gigging with it ever since. It was an amusing coincidence that I was later asked to review one - but at least I had some hard won experience with it 'in action'! To be clear, the natural finish guitar you see me playing at first in the video demo is my own instrument - paid for out of my own pocket of course!
As I already have one and didn't rush to take it back for a refund (!) you can guess that I'm not going to give this a bad review. It's a fabulous guitar, designed for real gigging musicians, so what follows is more of a tour round how it performs in real life than a traditional 'is it good or bad?' review.
I must start by saying that I've never gone for a signature instrument before. So why the change of heart/mind? Well it's simply that this is a very versatile guitar that plays well and sounds great in a wide variety of applications. Review over? Er… Well… Um… OK, I wanted something different. But hang on, doesn't the JD claim to sound like all other guitars combined? Well, no, that would ridiculous, but what it does do is remind you of other guitars and in a rather unique way. I'm sure Jerry, and even Trev, wouldn't be offended if I stated that it doesn't sound exactly like guitars X, Y and Z but that it gets close enough to sounds that you may be fond of and, more importantly perhaps, that producers/bandleaders expect; and, in a creative sense, it will surely make you play a certain way. Imagine Steve Cropper playing some in-the-pocket double stops and the JD will take you there. Then again, imagine Clapton or Hendrix playing the Blues or whatever and the JD will send you in that direction. Thinking along those lines, adding overdrive or distortion is your prerogative and the JD works well in this respect - it's not just a country picker's axe! Mind you, I can feel some hybrid-picking coming on…
Of course you'd expect a guitar such as the JD to twang with the best of them and it sure does! The bridge pickup in particular has been carefully designed to produce a gutsy, sustaining sound - using a compressor helps but is not an absolute requirement I can assure you (see my later comments about using a compressor with the JD.) Note that Jerry specified symmetrically staggered pole pieces for the bridge pickup. Then there's the "special" circuit that the Trev added for the mixed pickup combination, which is a little brighter than you'd expect and apparently exactly what Jerry wanted. There's also that unusual choice of pickup in the neck position: Jerry loves a Tele-style guitar but has always preferred the neck pickup of a Strat.
The really cool - or should I say warm? - thing about the JD is that, with the five-way switch in position two (one notch down from fully up according to Fret-King nomenclature), the guitar instantly produces a full-bodied Jazz guitar tone! As I say on the video, I really do appreciate being able to twang away in a Country hoe-down one moment (using the bridge pickup), or a Duane Eddy-style low note run (using the neck pickup, position one, whilst picking near the bridge), then quickly having to deal with a Western swing-style tune that needs a more rounded, less sharp sound, and finding the JD delivers just that in an instant! Still, I have to be honest and say that the 'in between' 'quack' tone (position four on the five-way) is an acquired taste. To be fair though, it does suit some songs or parts perfectly. Moreover, Jerry is adamant that positions two and four of a "standard three-pickup guitar" (he means a Strat - Ed) often get lost in the mix: he knows from experience that this is the case. On a professional level it's also good to know that using position three, i.e. both pickups combined, in phase, the guitar operates in humbucking mode with all the noise-rejection you'd accordingly expect. Sometimes that really does matter. So why doesn't Jerry specify humbuckers in the first place? If you have to ask…
While on technical matters, I should also report that, what with the volume pot having a treble-bleed capacitor across it - and I'm certain that it does - then you have to accept that if you choose to use a compressor, and if the compression ratio is set high (especially with a low threshold setting) then turning the guitar's volume down, even a long way, still produces a quite loud, bright sound. This is not a design fault. It's merely a technical issue that I've encountered myself and bothering me as it does occasionally, I would simply not use a compressor. (I gig and record variously with a modern modelling device that offers, amongst other things, compression, as well as a valve/tube amp, which I prefer to use 'pure', although I do sometimes add studio quality FX in parallel). Still talking tone, I can imagine that Jerry and Trev probably did their sound designing and auditioning using a high quality valve/tube amp, which likely has wonderful sustaining properties of its own.
I used my JD guitar with 9's on it for a term of teaching and it was good: it plunked and popped nicely and was easy to play. But when I gigged with it, with a live drummer (bashus extinctus), it did not project at all well. So I changed to 10's for the video review and used the guitar for a few gigs soon thereafter and I can report that projection was resumed! (I use 11-58 on my Fret-King Corona but I know Jerry doesn't like heavy strings).
So what about a compromise? I'd never tried a .0095 gauge set before so I was curious as to how it'd work out on the JD. Well then, I've just done a couple of gigs using this particular "half gauge" and I can report that things are just as you'd expect: there's a little more firmness and power than you get when using 9s, without losing much in the way of pliability. This might appeal to you in terms of player comfort (string bending, especially behind the nut, is a delight!). Still, if you are working with a live drummer then I'd say 10s are the way to go. I'm even going to try hybrid 10-52 for some rockier gigs that I have coming up, where a solid bottom end is desirable - I should add that the .044 on the bottom of that 9.5 set goes noticeably sharp when you hit it hard (yes, I know the physics but still…). So, tone being important of course, you'll need to consider how hard you play and in what style and band context. I'll say it one last time: the 11-58's that I use on another Fret-King guitar are extra solid and help me punch through the mix for sure.
In conclusion? Having already said that I bought one and I Love it, I'm not going to do anything other than say it's a great guitar, am I? So what I've tried to do is discuss some of the features and aspects that you may find if/when you buy one for yourself. Only you can decide that but you'd be missing the chance of owning a fabulous, versatile, guitar at a great price if you don't try one.