Pretty In Pink?
In which Gary Cooper finds a British guitar he'd love to own — but would be embarrassed to take out for a walk!
I've been an unashamed admirer of Hugh Manson's solid guitars (and his brother's acoustics for that matter) for more than a few years now, but it's been some while since I was last able to update myself on his products - largely due to Hugh working flat out to keep up with demand and not being able to spare much in the way of review samples. Threatening him with a late-night visit from the IT Cat, however, I managed to prise an American-destined sample of one of Hugh's 'standard' models from him during the recent Guitar Weekend show and have, at the time of writing, had it all to myself for a couple of weeks. The model I snaffled was The Manson. This has been just about long enough to get its measure - if not quite long enough to get used to Hugh's choice of what I can only describe as 'school blancmange pink with glitter' as the all over colouring of this fire-eater!
Now I don't actually dislike pink. It looks O.K. on, er, ballerinas' tutus, er, '59 Chevrolet Impala upholstery, and (sometimes) elephants. But on a guitar???!! Sorry, Hugh, I'm only joking; but this one really is off the wall colourwise. As an instrument, however, there's nothing leary at all about The Manson, and I must stress that this colour scheme is just one of many that Hugh offers. He's got more colours on his chart than Mr. Heinz has varieties, so don't worry if, like me, you find the thought of walking onto the stage of an Aussie pub carrying a pink glitter guitar a potential health risk!
So, what lies under that garish paintwork? The Manson's a relatively simple straight-through necked all Mahogany guitar, with the neck section and through-the-body extension mated to two Mahogany sidepieces. Hugh's decision to use Mahogany for this guitar might seem a shade unadventurous in these days of the growing use of previously unheard of exotic tonewoods, but novelty for novelty's sake is rarely a good idea and one should never forget just how effective a guitar can be made out of this material (SGs, Explorers, Flying Vs etc. etc.).
Ergonomically speaking, The Manson has a nice medium weight and, complementing that, Hugh has shaped the top rear bout of the body (a la Strat) to let it snuggle against your ribs in the way that has helped ensure Uncle Leo's protege such a reputation for enduring comfort. Having said that, the rest of the body's shaping (although obviously based on a Strat's) does manage to have an individuality of its own (see our accompanying pic). To me the edges look a bit unusual, being slab sided and giving the guitar an angularity and squared-off appearance that I don't personally like as much as the more rounded curves usually found on Super-Strats. On the other hand, as shape is only a matter of personal opinion, and what you want to know from me isn't a catalogue of my own likes and dislikes but objective comments on how well the instrument performed, I'll shut up and leave you to decide on the Manson's shape for yourselves.
Moving on to the neck, this is fairly wide (comfortably so, I found) with a flat Ebony fingerboard and what I'd probably be of the most help to you describing as medium/fat frets. These aren't the bruisers that you find on some over the top HM guitars and, to me at least, were all the better for that, being fast, comfortable and completely unobtrusive. Even better, they were polished to an immaculate standard of evenness. No player, however fast, is going to trip over a lumpy fret on this guitar!
As befits a top of the range craftsman built guitar, The Manson bears a classic choice of hardware, again superbly well set up. The black chromed bridge/trem unit are from Messrs. Kahler, as is the nut lock system, while the machines come from West Germany's Helmut Schaller. As I always seem to find myself saying at this point when faced with one of the 'big two' American trems (Kahler or Floyd Rose) - which you prefer is down to you. I happen to think that the Floyd Rose gives a much greater degree of 'feel' and is probably more accurate in its method of retaining string tension, but I realise that a lot of others either disagree with me or find the Kahler more than satisfactory. The nice thing, of course, about this guitar having come from a small British maker is that you could, if you wanted, order one with a Floyd Rose if that was what you'd set your heart on.
The pickups, meanwhile, I defy anyone to quibble with. Hugh Manson has been stepping-up his use of Seymour Duncan pickups during the past year or so and I'm glad to see the inclusion of three of them on this model. The arrangement of pickups sticks to the current high-fashion concept of having a powerful humbucker at the bridge (a Duncan Alnico Pro-II) with two single coil types (also from Duncan's Alnico Pro-II series) in the middle and neck positions. As you'll have seen in this month's Newsxtra, these Alnico IIs are new introductions to the UK and this was my first chance to try them and see how they stood up to the claims made for them by Seymour Duncan's importers, Labtek International. Labtek say that the type of magnetic material used in them (Alnico II as opposed to Alnico V) produces a 'softer' magnetic field, making for greater sustain. Well, how much sustain was being endowed by the guitar's through the body neck format, and how much by the the use of Mahogany I couldn't say, but the sustain this guitar produces is exceptional and I'm sure that at least some of it must have been coming from the pickups. What's more, they have a beautiful, piercing sweetness about them — not something which you usually expect to find from this general class of guitar, where power is far too often chosen at the expense of tone. In this instance the pickups really must be the deciding factor, because the power is there aplenty, but so is a rare musically. Controlling the output are just three rotaries (a volume and two tones) with a five-way selector; all, as you'd expect, a la Strat.
By the time I got round to plugging this guitar in I'd already half-realised that I was going to love it to bits. I can't for the life of me recall which famous player it was who once said to me that you can almost always pick out a good guitar just by playing it acoustically, almost without needing to plug it through an amp. Whoever it was, he was definitely right. Ultimately dependent on pickups and wires for its sound a solid bodied guitar may well be, but if it isn't right acoustically, if the strings don't sustain and the harmonics and half harmonics don't ring properly when you play unamplified, no amount of electrics will put them back. On that acoustic test the Manson performed to perfection. It just had to sound right through an amp!
And the acid test proved the point. Through my Laney AOR the Manson certainly was hot, but it was subtle too — no doubt thanks in part to those superb pickups. In fact, if you haven't, you really must get an earful of these Alnico II's — preferably on a guitar of this class, preferably on this guitar! The sound has all the balls that you'll get from any of the hot Japanese drivers, but wins by light years through having a rare subtlety, the potential for sweetness and feel that can (I kid you not!) bring tears to your eyes when you push a long bend and let it run over into feedback through a good valve amp. The combination of all that straight-through Mahogany feeds the Duncans with sustained string vibrations, and the pickups handle it perfectly. Rarely have I encountered such a deceptively simple guitar. On a spec, by spec, basis it may seem straightforward, but the combination of construction, materials and electronics makes it a unique proposition, a sophisticated Super Strat, as far above the average of the class as a Rolls is from a mere Granada.
Despite my comments about Hugh's choice of colour for this particular sample of The Manson, this was undoubtedly one of the finest 'Super Strats' that I've ever played, only JayDee's Hooligan and Jerry Bix's Sheer Ptera 'Elite' worth mentioning in the same breath. Looking overseas, a Charvel 6 (selling at RRP £739 when we reviewed it in Issue 11) really cannot compare, The Manson is more comparable with a US-made Jackson, at heaven knows how much over £1,000. Likewise, the admittedly excellent (despite its oversized neck) Westone Pantera X390 at RRP £679 isn't in the same class. The Manson has both them and all the other Japanese contenders that I've tried beat for subtlety, musicality and what I can only describe as an unimpeachably professional guitar sound. When you hear it (better still, produce the sound yourself) you'll know what I mean! Looked at in isolation, £860 does seem a lot of money to pay for a guitar, but what you're shelling out for with this instrument is a combination of superb build quality, top class materials, first rate hardware, immaculate setting up and a sound and playing feel that only a mere handful of other guitars can equal — and they either cost about the same or a heck of a lot more. If you've got this much money to spend then you'll be hard-pressed to find anything better, believe me!
RRP £860 inc. VAT
More on Manson Guitars from them at (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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