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This article was originally published in issue #5
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Before I talk about the I-35 guitar, I think it's worth a quick chat about the man behind the guitar. As we saw in Guitar Interactive's previous issue, where we had a factory tour of his impressive Austin, Texas, factory, Bill Collings is passionate about wood, guitar construction, and making instruments that are the best that can possibly be made. His acoustic guitars are among the best money can buy, if notthebest. These guitars are truly great today and in 40, 50, 60 years from now, when they all have stories behind them, and the look of a well loved, well played, aged guitar, they will be even better. Bill admits himself he isn't a natural guitar player, but what has come natural to him is building things. Especially in wood. The guitar world needs the skills of people like Bill Collings and his elite team of luthiers, because it's these people that create truly great instruments. Mass produced machine-made guitars are only really, in the words of Bill, "guitar shaped objects". And he is right. As much as we all love our Gibsons and Fenders, they are for the most part, mass produced instruments. I own a lot of Stratocasters, and a few Gibsons, but for every one that I have bought, I have had to try and then dismiss another four or five, because that's the nature of mass production. That's not to knock them - you get what you pay for - and both those great names have custom shops, too - and they do it for a reason. If you want a professional quality guitar, it really needs to be built by a professional to suit a professional's requirements.
So to the guitar. The I-35 LC (laminate construction) is an ES 335 style guitar - but it is not a copy. It is a guitar in its own right and one that makes most Gibsons 335s I've tried seem pretty average. Typical of the man, Bill was unhappy with the quality of the maple laminated wood available to him when he decided to build this model, so he retooled and actually started producing his own, higher grade, higher quality maple laminate to use in the construction of the top back and sides of this guitar. This gives you an idea of the mindset of the man. Every other guitar maker on the planet buys in what's available, Bill decides it's not good enough so makes his own!
There are plenty of reasons why a laminated semi makes more sense than an all-solid equivalent, by the way - not least the cost! But if you've won the lottery or just sold a zillion records and want to insist on an entirely solid wood version, Collings offers those to - the I-35 and I-35 De Luxe - built by the same guys who make the laminated versions, in the same painstaking way.
In the right hands, this I-35LC could take care of Rock, Country, Funk, Jazz and all the crossovers in between. It plays perfectly and is strung with what feels like 11's on top. (They're D' Addario EXL-115s (.011"-.049") - Ed) The flame maple has the great 3D movement that quality grain has. It sort of changes as you move the angle of the guitar and you just know it will look and sound better, the older it gets. In fact I would bet that it could even turn into an investment as the years pass, because rarity and quality usually add up to desirability.
This sort of perfection does not come cheap, but if you are serious about owning and playing the best, and if you consider the handmade, labour intensive skill and care that has been involved in this guitar, then the price becomes a secondary factor. It does not get any better than this. Well... maybe except for the all solid wood versions.
Giving four and a half stars to this guitar (as high a mark as we have ever given any instrument) may seem extravagant considering its price, but you have to compare it with the very top-end instruments being made today and you have to factor in what the use of laminated wood has done to ease down the price. Judged that way, the Collings I-35LC isn't just a fabulous guitar - it's actually very good value for money, too!