Solimar  

Route 101
Guitars
Solimar™

See the two-year long-term follow-up review at the bottom of the page.


Route 101 Defunct?


Sadly, it appears that Route 101 Guitars may be defunct.  I started getting reports several weeks ago that their web site is down.

John Atchley
January, 2004

"I want a guitar that is quiet as a mouse yet quacks with in-your-face single-coil tone, is fast and comfortable, and, oh, by the way, I've got less than three-hundred bucks."

A few weeks ago my response to a statement like that would have been, "sorry, I don't know anybody who rents guitars by the day," followed by a hearty laugh.  Then I got my hands on a Solimarô from Route 101 Guitars.  I've been approached about representing products a number of times.  The Solimar is the first product that I've been comfortable, let alone enthusiastic about, endorsing.

Solimar guitars are available only directly from the manufacturer, either via telephone or their website at Route101Guitars.com.  They are semi-custom in that the production components you choose (body color, pickguard, fretboard, bridge, pickups, etc.) are assembled in response to your order.

I should mention here that ordinarily I am a big proponent of supporting your local guitar shop.  I am blessed by having a wonderful full-service guitar shop nearby even though I live in a small Texas town.  I make most of my purchases from that store and usually they meet or beat the big mail-order mega-stores' prices.  If the Solimar were available in stores I'd encourage you to purchase it that way.  But, even though it isn't available in stores, I have to recommend it in spite of my preference for supporting local stores – it's simply more guitar than you are likely to find in other lines at this price range.

The Solimar is the first electric guitar in the under five-hundred-dollar category that I've regarded as "finished" right out of the box.  What does "finished" mean?  It means that you open the box, tune the guitar, and play.  You don't have to replace wimpy pickups.  You don't have to shield it to tame hum.  You don't have to raise the action ridiculously high to stop frets from buzzing.  If you want to raise the action for playing slide you don't have to replace silly stamped, wobbly bridge saddles.  In short, it means that the Solimar is exactly what a guitar should be – a ready-to-use instrument.

For several years I've been very vocal in my criticism of an industry that seems more interested in selling trinkets and beads than in putting out a usable product at a reasonable price.  It's become trendy to sell cutesy names and "signature" guitars at outrageous prices while putting little effort into actually improving designs that are almost fifty years old (and that were poor even by standards of that time).

You could have knocked me over with a feather when Tom Cassell of Route 101 Guitars contacted me, asking permission to offer my shielding and wiring techniques as an option on some of their guitars.  Naturally I said yes.  I'd be tickled pink if every manufacturer would get the wiring right.  One thing led to another and eventually Tom sent me a guitar to look over, asking me to see if there was anything they could do to make it quieter.

So, what was the first thing that stood out when I received the Solimar?  Was it the wiring?  No.  It was the neck. Specifically the dressing of the fret ends.  This area is often overlooked on guitars with street prices two or three times that of the Solimar.  Maybe I just got really lucky, but every single fret end was dressed evenly and smoothly on the Solimar.  The tops of the frets were also smooth.

The neck profile is thin and feels fast.  The back of the maple neck has a very smooth satin or semi-gloss finish.  The front of the headstock is a very high-gloss finish over bare maple and the Route 101 Guitars logo decal.  The headstock is angled back; eliminating the need for string trees and presumably increasing sustain.  The neck is attached to the body with four bolts and a neck plate.  The truss rod is adjusted from the headstock.  A truss rod wrench is included.  Don't leave the wrench on the dashboard of your car – it looks enough like a crack pipe that you might end up starring in an episode of "Cops."

The rosewood fretboard is an honest tiger-stripe with tight, straight grain.  What does "honest tiger-stripe" mean?  It means that uniformly dark, rich rosewood is pretty much unavailable in any price range these days and I was glad to see that this wasn't darkened with "shoe polish."  The fretboard is smooth with only a couple of very small tooling marks.  Dot markers are bright white plastic and cleanly inlaid.  The side markers are also bright white although curiously the side marker at the fifth fret appeared to be a completely different, slightly dimmer and translucent, plastic.

The sealed tuners operate smoothly.  In fact, all of the hardware on the Solimar can be described as pretty good.  Smooth sealed tuners; real bridge saddles instead of wobbly stamped sheet metal; and a solid vintage-style bridge all contribute to confidence that this guitar isn't going to fall apart in the middle of a gig.  The guitar arrived with the bridge set up for dive-only, which is the way I like it.  If you prefer yank'n'slam, let them know when you order.

What can you say about a solid-body guitar body?  This one feels substantial and sustains well without weighing a ton.  I'd never heard of Kapere wood but it certainly seems to work well.  The guitar fits in a standard SKB hard-shell case just fine.  The finish is attractive without being the ultra-thick "dipped in plastic" look common on some guitars.  The flameburst finish on this sample had a few very small imperfections, mostly on the back.  When I say small, I mean that you have to hold the guitar under a bright light and kind of twist it around just right to make them show up.  I don't know about you, but the only time I hold a guitar under a bright light and twist it around looking for imperfections is when I 'm writing a review of it!

The top of the pickguard comes very close to the pickup cavity.  If you look very closely "edge on" you can just see the beginning of the edge of the pickup cavity at the lowest part of the curve on the pickguard.  It says a lot about the guitar that this minor cosmetic flaw and one bridge screw that was installed at a slight angle were the biggest faults I could find.

The switch and pots were of acceptable quality, being neither premium nor poor.  Under typical use they should last for years.  If you're constantly doing volume swells and slapping the switch around roughly, they'll require replacement sooner.  This isn't unusual in this price range.  In fact, it's not really unusual in any price range.

So, the Solimar looks good.  A lot of guitars, even in this price range, look okay.  A few might even have solid hardware.  But, how does the Solimar sound?  In a word, fantastic!  The Duncan Designed single coil pickups have lots of bite.  I hate the word vintage because it is so overused and doesn't mean quite the same thing to any two people (and because I'm reaching the age where people are applying it to me).  Let's just say the Solimar sings, screams, and quacks just the way an "s-type" guitar is 'sposed to.  Frankly, when I buy a guitar in this price range I expect to throw away the pickups and completely rewire the guitar.  Throwing these pickups away is not only unnecessary, it would be a crime.

The Solimar is very quiet.  The single-coil pickups are individually wrapped with copper tape.  This is by far the most effective shielding for single-coil pickups and renders full body-cavity shielding (as described in the Quieting the Beast" section of the wiring pages) unnecessary in almost any circumstance.  Yes, there remains just a touch of single-coil "presence" at very high gain levels.  That's a fact of life that is pretty much inescapable with true magnetic single-coil pickups.  The fact that Tom came to me seeking help to make such a wonderfully quiet guitar even quieter speaks volumes about this new company and is much of the reason I am so enthusiastic about their product.

I am surprised that Duncan was able to design pickups that retain such good tone with the copper shielding.  In my shielding instructions I recommend shielding the coils directly only as a last resort because it can remove some of the high-end punch.  These pickups seem to have plenty of punch left even with the shielding.

How does the Solimar play?  Easy.  I'm a better tech than player, but even I can tell that this guitar handles very well.  The action is low and sweet, yet without a hint of fret buzz even when spanked pretty hard.  I was a bit concerned about the rather deep string slots in the nut but they proved not to be a problem.  Yes, the Solimar drifts out of tune a tad if you dive hard on the whammy – but I've yet to play a guitar with a vintage style bridge that doesn't.

I've written a lot about what the Solimar is, I suppose to be fair I should also mention what it isn't.  It's not a status symbol.  It's not going to impress any of your buddies who think that having a guitar hero's name on their guitar is going to make them play well.  It's also not a work of art.  It looks fine, but no abalone or oysters were sacrificed for this guitar.  It's also not perfect.  No guitar in this price range is going to be and I won't insult your intelligence by claiming that it is.  The trick is to find one that doesn't have any imperfections that actually bother you.  All of the Solimar's faults are minor and cosmetic, the sort of thing that doesn't bother me at all.


The Bottom Line


The folks at Route 101 Guitars seem to have made the right compromises and concentrated their money and attention on things that matter.  Compare a Solimar to the product lines of the "big guys" and it quickly becomes obvious which company is run by guitarists and which are run by marketing MBAs.  If you're looking for a reasonably priced guitar that gets the job done right out of the box with no fuss, you should love the Solimar.

John Atchley
July, 2000




The Rest of the Story


Shortly after writing the above review I got a second Solimar.  This time I ordered a maple fretboard, "Vintage Creme" body, and a tortoise pickguard.  This one is a stock factory guitar without the additional shielding that Tom had asked me to evaluate on the first one.  Otherwise, the guitar is identical to the first one, even to ordering exactly the same pickups.  (Yes, I really meant it when I raved about the pickups!)

The second Solimar has not even the slightest imperfection on the body.  The finish is immaculate, the pickguard fits perfectly, the hardware is tack-straight, etc.  On the neck, the fret-ends aren't finished quite as perfectly as on the first one – oh, it's still a very good job, better than average for this price range, but isn't quite as stunningly perfect as the first one.  (The all-important tops of the frets are nicely finished on both guitars.)  This second Solimar also had a small problem with the nut.  Two or three strings were binding.   A couple of minutes with some 400-grit sandpaper and a #2 pencil (for the graphite) were all that were required to clean up and lube the nut and put it in tip-top shape.

I've been playing this guitar regularly for about five months now and I just like it better every day.  It is one of my favorite electric guitars, both for its tone and for its playability.  The Solimar is my "ready guitar," hanging on the wall above my amp, plugged in and ready for instant use on a whim.  In short, the bottom line is still that the Solimar is a great deal on a truly practical guitar.

John Atchley
December, 2000




More Rest of the Story


Two years and I'm still loving it – well, it's been almost two years since I got the second Solimar and it is still my "go to" guitar. I've been pounding on it almost daily now, the maple fretboard is taking on the dark stains characteristic of a well-used maple guitar in spite of my best efforts to keep it clean, and the frets are beginning to show a touch of wear, not at all unusual for a guitar that's seen as much use as this one has. The frets aren't near needing a re-crowning yet, but you definitely couldn't pass the guitar off as new!

I did shield the control cavity a while back. The stock guitar was very resistant to hum as I've mentioned (the pickups come from the factory wrapped with copper) but when I played in a friend's practice studio with big flourescent shop lights it was quickly obvious that the control cavity needed to be shielded. This is one area where an American Standard Strat™ will "outquiet" the stock Solimar because since about 1995 AmStd Strats have been receiving a shot of shielding paint in the body cavity at the factory. This paint is inadequate to control hum but does help reduce the RF noise from flourescent lights, dimmers, and so on. (Note, Route 101 may be shielding their control cavities now, about a year ago Tom Cassell sent me an e-mail asking about an issue with this that a couple of customers had raised and I explained to him what was going on. I haven't followed up but based on my past experience with this company I suspect that they probably took steps to correct this problem.)

I also used this guitar to prototype the S-Tastic™ modification.

So, how has the guitar held up to almost two years of almost daily use? Pretty well, actually. The plating on the hardware is still in good shape, the tuners still operate smoothly. I have had to tighten the nut on the jack a couple of times. The thin satin finish on the back of the neck is still in good shape but is worn through in a few places on the fretboard. I don't consider the latter unusual considering the amount of use it has gotten. I think maybe a thicker finish would be more appropriate on maple fretboards but the trend throughout the industry seems to be the "ultra thin" satin finish right now – I guess the manufacturers are just giving folks what they ask for.

The finish on the body is a bit puzzling, honestly. This is the "Vintage Creme" finish and it has shown no tendency to wear through, but has shown some tendency to bubble very slightly and even creep across the face of the guitar. The finish was flawless when I got the guitar, and I examined it pretty closely. After about a year I noticed some small bubbles beginning to form in a few isolated places. This process has continued, and where my arm rests on the guitar the paint has even been pulled up into a little ridge along the top edge. Yet, nowhere has the paint shown any tendency to crack, peel or even wear and I've even tried to break through the bubbles with a pick. The bubbles and even the ridge aren't really noticeable unless you are looking for them.

I'm not certain what is causing this behaviour, I suspect it may be a characteristic of the Kapere wood that prevents the paint from adhering tightly. In any case, this is a very minor issue and the guitar certainly looks better than many others that have received a similar amount of use. Besides, some otherwise bright folks are paying the Fender custom shop about $2500 to take a perfectly good guitar and beat the snot out of it... This paint issue certainly wouldn't stop me from buying another Solimar, but I've included some pictures so you can make up your own mind.

By-the-way, you may have noticed the little Danelectro Nifty-Fifty amp hiding behind the Solimar. I've modified that amp to run off batteries because I didn't like any of the batteried powered amps out there. This little sucker now weighs a ton with two Gel-cells tucked in behind the speaker but it's probably the best-sounding battery operated amp around. Someday when time allows I'll have to write that project up.

John Atchley
June, 2002