Manson Merlin Custom
Faced by thousands of guitars that roll off the production line each year, it's hard to remember instrument building was once the province of lone craftsmen labouring in out of the way workshops.
In order to survive, present day luthiers have adopted some mass production techniques such as using other people's pickups and machine heads. But their expertise and care still lives, and one example is Andy Manson, established with his brother Hugh in their Crowborough workshop.
This particular model is flashier than most, but based on designs the brothers have perfected over the years. They've been responsible for, shall we say, "unusual" instruments including a triple neck acoustic — mandolin, 6 string, 12 string — for John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and even a quadruple neck.
The colour scheme is like a riot in a Dulux factory — a "burst" starting with blue at the centre, then panning through green, yellow, orange and red, finishing on black. Once you've taken in the silver and abalone bird shaped inlays, brass nut and gold trimmings, the eye is ready for a quiet lie down.
The mahogany neck runs through the strongly curved body, joining at the 19th fret and boasting a slim and effortless heel which routes you swiftly to the uppermost of the 22 frets. The Mansons must have bottled out with the headstock because it has only a natural brown veneer over a refined blossoming shape.
One distinctive fingerprint of Manson guitars is the bridge. A long search for simple-adjustment but a rattle free construction has resulted in a brass frame with attractive rosewood borders that grip six steeply curved brass saddles. One angled grub screw on each saddle raises it to the proper height while a normal straight headed screw and spring connected at the rear set the intonation. The frame can be tightened to scure them but it's not so complex that you need half an afternoon to change the action.
Another Manson trait is the fingerboard profile. Andy specialises in generously curved fretboards that most guitarists find strange at first greeting but many grow to adore. He's chosen Rainbow humbucking pickups by Kent Armstrong (whose creations also appear on the Burns Steer).
The twin coils are encased in an amber resin with Allen key height adjustment for every pole piece. They have a warmth and distinction that is a joy to find when so many other pickup manufacturers go for mega power at the expense of clarity and tone.
They suit the Manson which has a lively ringing presence and harmonic richness helped by the preponderance of brass. It feels most at home on the tail pickup where it gleams for lead playing. The neck coils were on the way to being fruity and full, but the extra light strings probably held them back.
Control positioning is something guitar builders often play around with but on this particular review sample, Andy's gamble hadn't payed off too well. The tone and volume knobs for each humbucker were reversed from their standard Les Paul order and the coil tap and out of phase switches situated between them weren't always quick or simple to reach.
The Manson brothers' superb construction standards, their attention to detail and careful choice of components — Schaller machines, macassar ebony fretboard, Armstrong pickups etc — make their instruments not only items of worship but great playable guitars.
This Merlin Custom has cheaper brothers like the Kestrel which is built to a similar philosophy. They stand alongside Gordon Smiths as examples of the best privately built electrics being made in Britain.