"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 Solimar™ 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 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.