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This article was originally published in issue #45
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AXL? The brand has been around for a while in the USA, but is new in the UK and possibly to many other countries. Lewis Turner checks out an intriguing newcomer.
I found myself in quite a unique situation with this review, faced with a guitar company I had never heard of! As a result I experienced a mixed emotions of excitement at trying something new and apprehension as to why hadn’t I heard of these guitars before. AXL, it turns out, is based in the USA and has just found itself a UK distributor (which explains the why I've not heard of them until now...). The solid bodied Bel Air is designed and assembled by hand in Hayward, California, we are told but we think the body parts are actually made in the Far East. Does this matter? Not really, is the collective wisdom of the GI team and anyway, we suspect it's probably more common than some manufacturers let on!
The Bel Air is designed very much along Gretsch lines to be a single pickup work-horse guitar with a Bigsby and a TV Jones Power Tron pickup, all of which sounds very promising so I was chomping at the bit to get it unboxed and have a play.
This guitar certainly looks cool - familiar yet unique with a modern twist on a classic retro design that the company likes to call “Old School Cool”. The body shape is a classic with interesting alterations, such as a deeper scooped out lower horn and set neck, making upper fret access nice and easy (despite lacking a top horn). The high gloss light blue finish on our sample, with neat binding and funky scratch plate coupled with the high gloss headstock, adds to the classic look. Finish and attention to detail throughout were excellent.
Constructed with a flat-topped, single cutaway, double-bound solid mahogany body, and a one piece mahogany set-neck neck with rosewood fingerboard, you have a solid tone platform delivering a natural voice, with great tone consistency throughout. Fantastic natural resonance and sustain when unplugged, are helped by the overall lightness of the guitar which also felt very well balanced. As you might expect from an all mahogany guitar with a rosewood fingerboard, the Bel Air does lack a little high end sparkle, but that is something for personal taste to decide.
Fitted with Kluson tuners, a Graphtech Tusq XL nut helps tuning stability a great deal, which is essential on this guitar as it's also fitted with a Bigsby B5 Vibrato system. This is a substantial bit of kit to stick on any guitar and I'm not normally a fan, but it seems to really work on the Bel Air. Not only does it look the part but it works really well too! Don’t get me wrong you won’t be able to do massive dive bombs or hang off the thing, but for light chord shimmers and the like it works just fine. The TonePros Locking Roller bridge and a great set-up really help to keep it all in tune.
As mentioned above this is a single pickup guitar which features a TV Jones Power'Tron but it does have an extra trick up its sleeve in that the tone control is also a coil tap, so you can split the pickup. I will say the position of the Bigsby and the tone control made performing the coil tap trick quite a hard task on the fly, because it's tricky to get your hand in there.
The pickup was good, delivering a punchy tone with plenty of sustain. Being so close to the bridge and the only pickup it was naturally quite bright, but that seemed to balance things up with the all mahogany construction. The coil tap certainly bought some more 'quacky' tonal options, but as is often the case a fair bit of output volume was lost when it was switched in.
I'm happy to say my first play of an AXL guitar was not disappointing. The Bel Air was a pleasure to play and has the potential to be used in a variety of situations, well balanced with a classic control configuration that many will find familiar. Fit and finish were top notch throughout as was the playability and set-up. The single pickup means it does Rockabilly and light Rock really well. There are a few tiny frustrating things like the coil tap access and volume loss, but these things you could get used to/ or work around. If like me you have never tried one before but you like the look and are in the market for something new and different, then I recommend you go check one out.