A Bone To Pick
The Fingerbone Fastback Std.
Gary Cooper Rolls Dem Bones!
You have to be pretty careful round this place at times. Mention words like 'fish', 'meat' or 'rent man' and there's a distinct likelihood of finding yourself trying to prise the IT Cat's claws out of your backside. 'Fingerbone' was just too dangerous a name to use, so for the past couple of weeks we've been referring to this sleek-looking British made instrument by just about every name imaginable except its maker's chosen appellation. The rest of the world, on the other hand, could very soon have the name 'Fingerbone' if not on its lips, then at least at its fingertips. One of the 'second generation' of British handmakers, Fingerbone are going to be big — mark my words.
Fingerbone are, in fact, the products manufactured by ex-violin and cello maker Paul Richardson, and the tight discipline of making such delicate instruments has certainly rubbed off on his electric guitars and basses. But let's not blather on; I've a lot to say about this instrument and it's time I got down to it.
One of the best features of craftsmen guitar makers is that they all have their own, sometimes very definite, ideas on what players want. This individualism means that whatever you, the musician, desires, someone is bound to offer it somewhere, and that variety is (apart from value for money and the excellent quality offered by most British makers) what makes the current custom and semi-custom guitar scene so rewarding. Taking the Fingerbone Fastback Standard as an example, it's very obviously the work of a guitar maker who plays and who's thought about what makes a guitar a player's instrument, rather than just an exercise in quality woodworking and design principles. That impression started growing soon after I strapped it on; a feeling that here was a guitar I could live with, an instrument that feels right and where every feature makes sense.
In some ways the Fastback is unusual for a British guitar. It's better looking than many, for a start; with a genuinely original shape, but not one which jars the eye as do so many own-designs. The great and good Mr Doug Chandler maintains that the shaping is where many British guitars fall down. He argues that the Americans get their original shapes right, and although I don't entirely agree with him, I feel he has a point — but I'd strongly argue that the Fastback is an exceptional case in this respect. Mind you, taste is a very personal thing, and I'm not so sure that I like Fingerbone's (admittedly unusual) headstock as much as I wholeheartedly admire the body design. Still, the choice is yours, not mine! Getting back to that body, my sample was deliciously finished in a deep, almost bottle green sunburst (green sunburst!? — must stay off this giggle water!). Polyester finishes come standard on Fingerbone guitars and basses, but purists can specify good old cellulose lacquers if they prefer. Nice to have the choice, isn't it? The body on this version of the Fastback was a solid great chunk of Brazilian Mahogany (nicely contoured at the back) to which had been applied a beautiful piece of 8mm thick Bird's Eye Maple. I shan't torture you needlessly by drooling over how good this looked under the green shading — just imagine a guitarists' heaven for a while, will you? That should give you the picture!
The Fastback's neck is of Flame Maple, and of an equally exacting standard. Fingerbone are another of our makers who source their wood from tonewood supplier David Dyke — about whom far too little praise has been heard, and to whom all we luxury guitar lovers should bow down at least three times a day! Staying with the neck, this is a bolt-on type. Now, argue about this as we might, there are as many guitar makers who will tell you that a bolt-on neck is every bit as good from a sustain and reliability angle as there are who stick-up for the alternatives. To me it's a matter of taste, pure and simple. I've got guitars with both types of join, and I'm happy with either. What really counts, I suspect, is how well the join is achieved, and in the case of my sample it was immaculate. Better still, it was superbly dimensioned, coming out at 1 5/8" at the nut, and broadening to 2" at the twelfth fret. These measurements, however, can't explain how the neck feels, and the only word I can find to describe this one is 'sensual'. Complementing the Fastback's 25 1/2" (Strat-like) scale, the standard curvature on the guitar's exquisite Macassar Ebony fingerboard is a fine 14" radius, but 'flat' radius necks of 18" can be ordered for this model, and that's what I had on my sample. Go for whichever turns you on the more!
The final details of the Fastback are deceptively simple. My version came with the optional Kahler trem and locking nut, and they all have Kent Armstrong's superlative wood-look enclosed Rainbow pickups, wired rather unusually to give perhaps the most versatile range of sounds I've heard in a very long while indeed (i.e., since back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, etc. etc). The Rainbows comprise a twin coil (humbucker) at the neck with a single coil version at the bridge. These are wired to four pots (two tones, two volumes) fitted with eminently grippable knurled metal knobs. A small flick-switch serves as a pickup selector, and there's also a two-way selector switch set further back (between the bridge pickup's tone and volume controls) which works, like God, in mysterious ways. I'll explain more later.
Schaller machines (of course) and the aforementioned Kahler trem with locking nut complete the detail picture. As it's the guitar that I'm reviewing, and as we've talked about Kahlers before, I won't go into this wham-bar favourite, except to say that Paul Richardson had set the Kahler on my sample perfectly. Love wham bars? Decided you want a Fastback? The option is yours. Constructionally faultless and beautifully finished, my sample Fastback felt substantial and purposeful once strapped on. This was a real player's guitar I had in my hands — there were no two ways about it. Into battle!
Set up fairly low (with Dean Markley 009s), my sample Fingerbone, as I explained earlier, had the non-standard 'flat' (18") radius fretboard. I'm personally not used to this profile, my own guitars all having conventional curved fretboards, but I do realise that some players like flat necks, and it's nice to have the choice. What matters much more, however, is the neck's depth. This was shallow to the ultimate degree, and gave a blitz-fast action, my fingers barely recognising the Strat-gauge fretwire. Talk about speedy — the Fastback could just as well have been called the Fastneck!
But if the Fingerbone felt uncommonly good to play, its sound was something else again! The way in which the Armstrong pickups have been wired is a bit hard to explain, but I'll try. Kent has come up with superb pickups for this guitar, and has worked with Paul Richardson to arrange the wiring in a most unusual way. The result gives possibly the most versatile range of sounds I can recall obtaining from a passive guitar. Although the rotaries and the pickup selector work quite conventionally, the back selector switch has some unusual uses. Set it to 'down' with both pickups on, and you have them working as out of phase single coil types. In this position something remarkable also happens — what is normally the volume control for the bridge pickup functions as a variable coil tap. As a result, if you wind this back you go towards an 'in phase' sound and vice versa. Throw the switch 'up' and (with both pickups on) you get the bridge pickup twin coil in phase with the single coil at the neck.
Perhaps more to the point is what you can do with these settings. As you'd expect from a Maple/Mahogany sandwich, the Fastback has prodigious sustain with tremendous highs. It also has some of the most exciting harmonics that you'll hear in a month of Sundays. Playing through my Laney AOR valve combo I got the most absurd range from this guitar — everything from the sickest-sounding empty-garage sound (strings stretched over a galvanised dustbin with a pickup beneath!) to a Telecaster clang and (notwithstanding those extreme sounds in one direction), the most astonishing Gibson-like sound from a setting which I've got to pass on to you!
If you get the chance to try this guitar, just plug it into a good amp, set the neck pickup on, wind the tone full off, and let rip! Paul Richardson says this sound will appeal to the over-25s — I reckon it would make any player weep with joy, because it's the closest I've heard to the harmonic-rich Gibson crying sound since '68!
In recent issues I've had some remarkable handmade guitars pass through my hands — the Kinkade Montpelier (Issue 7), the Jaydee Hooligan (Issue 8) and the Chris Larkin Reacter (Issue 9). Each has excelled in its own way; the Kinkade ideal for the Jazz and semiacoustic player, the JayDee for the manic over-the-top HM speed-freak, and the Chris Larkin for the subtler player who loks for 'feel' and class in his sound. Now I've found the Fingerbone Fastback, and I'm fighting hard to choose the words that will explain to you how this guitar is different yet again.
As with all Fingerbones, the Fastback is offered in many versions. My sample was at the top of the range, featuring exotic woods and the Kahler trem. As such, at an RRP of £760 (including a fine solid case) it's very fairly priced for such a superb handmade guitar. On the other hand, if such sums give your bank manager apoplexy, you can get the basic Fastback for as little as RRP £495 — and that's no more than quite a few Japanese also-rans cost these days!
To sum up, let me put it this way: the Fingerbone isn't a natural HM guitar like the Jaydee, nor is it as Gibson-ish in feel as the Larkin, although it can deliver an amazingly Gibson-like sound if you want it to. The essence of the Fingerbone Fastback's appeal is as a natural hybrid. The 25½" scale and the slim neck will appeal to the Fender player, and the sound, too, will get right in there and slug it out on more than equal terms with a Tele or a Strat in the ultimate top stakes. Give it that other job to do, though, and you're alarmingly close to a vintage Gibson 'Junior' on full fire. Versatile isn't in it! For the player who's most comfortable on a Fender scale length, likes the thinner frets of a brand F but who wants far more versatility than you'll ever get from a Strat (or any other Fender for that matter), the Fingerbone Fastback could well be the ultimate guitar. I can't leave the darned thing alone!
RRP £495-£760 inc. case.
Fingerbone Guitars are at Windsor Place, (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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