By Jack Devine
Hey TGP! Jackaroo here with another gear review to whet your appetite or keep you informed for that next purchase…depending on your wallet. Until now, my columns have only featured amplifiers. This time, UPS dropped off not one, but two new guitars from K-Line. So read on for reports, opinions and soundclips from my K-Line geekfest.
I have been playing vintage, or what I used to call old or used guitars since the early 1990’s. I’ve sold almost all my best stuff at what seemed like peak prices only to watch them keep going higher (until recently). I sold my 1965 Strat and I’ve always missed it a bit. In a vain attempt to get back the magic, I’ve also been following the pre-aged or “relic” phenomenon since Vince Cunetto started working with Fender. In fact I bought (and sold) a 1996 burgundy mist relic Strat. I have built, painted and aged several Teles and Strats over the years. After all that… I’ve still never had the experience of playing a well worn vintage Fender replicated. That said, the feel of an artificially aged guitar is still more to my liking than a new one generally. So with this in mind it was with great excitement that I signed for and hastily opened the packages from K-Line guitars.
K-Line is short for Kroenlein, as in Chris Kroenlein, head honcho at K-line Guitars of St. Louis, Missouri. Chris, an active player, has been building guitars for the last seventeen years and got into it after being frustrated with off the rack options. So he decided to try building guitars for himself. Since then, the process has become refined and consistent but it’s still a small shop, making 75 to 100 instruments per year. Chris now has bodies and necks CNC’d by a few trusted sources where he can get good, musical, resonant and light wood. Chris doesn’t see himself as a luthier so much as someone who has a good understanding of what a great guitar plays like, looks like and feels like. To quote the man, “I just understand the beast”. Let’s see!
The first guitar I got is the K-line equivalent of a 1950’s spec Telecaster done in a two tone, paper thin, all nitro finish. Slab o swamp ash body? Check. Fat maple neck? Check. Two pickups? Check. Man…that combo is pretty great. Right away, I noticed the super beefy, but still comfortable, neck and the lively nature of the guitar's unplugged sound. While I generally shy away from a 1” neck, I got used to this one right away. It’s big… but “nice big”. So while I was glad to hear from Chris there are lots of options, as far as necks are concerned, it turns out the one on this guitar is really nice.
Quickly, I plugged in the guitar and was reminded why this tonal recipe took off like wildfire. Immediate and dynamic transients from a spanky bridge pickup, creamy, throaty neck tones and the hollow, clucky beauty of the two pickups on at once left me wondering why I hadn’t gone for my Tele on my last few sessions. The Lollar pickups (Vintage T neck & J-Street ALIII bridge) pickups on the guitar are well chosen to the ash/maple platform and have a little better sound than many I’ve heard in the past. Honorable mention goes out to the neck pickup, often too dark to balance with the ideal tone setting for the bridge pickup, this one is open and has a great sound and texture. An added plus, the two pickups worked really well together while sharing one tone setting. The 6105 frets and 9.5 inch radius are a nice nod to modern bending needs, and are in my opinion a welcomed deviation from the classic Telecaster recipe.
The guitar is lightly worn, and features some very understated aging. This is nice for me, as I don’t like to baby guitars…especially a Tele. But, I also don’t dig a guitar that appears to have been put through a cheese grater. The aging isn’t going to fool you into thinking it’s an old guitar, it’s not trying to do that. It’s more about feeling relaxed from the get go with the instrument. Sometimes it’s easier to go for broke, when you’re not stressing about hurting a flawless, virgin finish. Mainly for me, a worn finish and aged hardware just gives the guitar a push in the right direction. That little bit of help makes the guitar feel a little softer, rounder and less “new” in all the ways I don’t like new guitars… like new haircuts.
Negatives? I have a few niggles. Pretty small, but just the same in the effort to give my full, honest opinion, here they are. The guitar came setup a little low and buzzed on a few minor third bends. I do a lot of those so I had to tweak it a bit to get it right. No biggie. I also think the finish could have been a little better applied. Specifically the burst seemed a little less finely misted then the older Fender stuff I’ve seen. And while I like a thin finish, I guess I like a little more than this. A few more coats of clear, or perhaps a little more pore filler before shooting would have looked a little more convincing to me. I do like the finish sunken in a bit, but this seemed like a little too much of a good thing for me aesthetically. Even with these small critiques, I still think it’s a fine choice in its price range if you’re looking for a T style aged guitar with a vintage vibe but some key modern appointments. This instrument it turns out is Chris’s personal guitar and he intentionally went super light on the finish and pore fillers to keep it open and ringing. It worked! Chris informed me that he offers several different degrees of distressed finishes, ranging from NOS and Closet Classic to Light and Medium.
The second K-line guitar is a sixties spec S style model. Sporting an aged green guard, Lollar “Dirty Blonde” pickups, .022 Orange Drop cap, rosewood fingerboard, 6105 frets and a 9.5” radius; the S model is a vintage style guitar, but with some modern choices that greatly improve its playability. Again, all the essential parts of the Strat are intact, but there are a few modern touches like a five-way pickup selector switch and the second tone knob is wired to the bridge pickup. This last mod in particular helps keep things a bit more balanced tonally when switching pickups. The guitar has a nice vibrant Olympic white color, like the original ones that didn’t have a clear coat that yellowed over time. There’s no “banana pudding” color to the finish. The guitar also sports a vintage style Wilkinson tremolo with a push-in bar that stays really snug but not overly stiff. Nice touch. The neck shape is a nice full C (.85” at 3rd fret), with some lightly rolled edges…comfy feeling from the start. This guitar had no issues with setup at all, and was in tune out of the case…kinda fun. Once again, light tasteful aging (closet classic) is present throughout, and the guitar feels softer and a bit more forgiving than a “new” off the rack guitar.
The first clip is the Tele. I figured I’d do some country style stuff, sorry to only use the bridge pickup! Anyway the guitar is just plugged straight into my 1972 Marshall Super Bass with the Volume on about 4. There’s some slap delay and verb added in Pro Tools.
The Strat clip is once again just straight into the Marshall, this time Volume on about 5. All effects are in the box. The first bit of the tune is using the bridge and neck pickups together and then about half way through it goes to the neck pickup.
For the money, I think these guitars are a very fine choice, especially if you’re looking to get something specific. If you always wanted a played in, 1950’s spec Fiesta Red Tele, but like bigger frets and a flatter radius, have some special pickup preference, or have a favorite bridge, then a K-line is a nice option for you. So if you’ve got an itch for a broken in F style guitar, but with a few custom tweaks, all for reasonable dough…check out K-line guitars.
Stay tuned and stay positive
Coming soon: Rex Iron Amps “Red Sonja”, Soloway guitars NYA model, Diamond Lane Pedals Memory Lane 2, Boost-EQ and Fireburst Fuzz pedals, Doctor Soul's Custom Instrument Cables, and V-Picks.