By Leon Chalnick
I just took delivery of my fifth new guitar from Ron Thorn (www.thornguitars.com). This is a 3-single coil pickup, bolt-on-neck, Strat-style model which is named the R/S. The basic specs are laid out here on Ron’s site. Ron is simply a world-class master of guitar engineering, construction and “attention to detail”.
First he starts with some great wood selections. This guitar has a body made from very light (one piece) alder from the Pacific Northwest. The neck is hard rock maple, with some light Birdseye. The fretboard is old growth Brazilian rosewood. I got to try an R/S that Ron made on spec a little while back and loved the feel, the sound and the neck and overall craftsmanship. In fact…it was this very neck (and electronics) which was originally in that guitar, which also had an alder body. So I knew it was going to sound (and play) great. Ron built a new body for me as I wanted the simple, Olympic White look.
So once you’ve got some great wood…it’s what you do with it that matters right? Well the first thing Ron does that’s different from most (all?) high-end bolt-neck builders is the neck body joint. He uses his own “precision lock” design which not only creates more surface area on which the two pieces of wood meet, but also insures a tighter, more precise joint which cannot wiggle.
Ron’s fretwork is second to none. The frets are all cut precisely and the ends meticulously rounded. Their rounding is blunt which gives you a wee bit of extra room for applying bends and vibrato technique without worrying about running out of fretboard. The frets are perfectly leveled and with ‘.010 Regulars’ and low action, there is no buzzing or fretting out, even with large, 2 step bends. Ron is the first luthier I recall having employed a technique that results in no fret tangs being visible along the sides of the fretboard.
Over time, the fretboards on many guitars will shrink a bit. When this happens, the fret tangs pop out the sides of the fretboard, making it very uncomfortable to move your hand up and down the fretboard–your fingers are getting sliced up! To prevent this, Ron actually removes the last bit of tang from each side of the neck and precisely routs grooves (rather than slots) in the fretboard into which the frets are laid. This requires notably more effort than simply running a saw through the fretboard to create a complete slot and it also means that each fret must be cut to length in advance. The net affect is that as you run your hand up and down the fretboard and never notice any tangs…because they’re not there! Ron was the first luthier who I recall doing this; others have subsequently copied this concept.
The back side of the “precision lock” neck joint includes a low-profile, curved heel that is at once really easy on the hand and engineered for stability.
On any guitar—but even more so on guitars with vibrato systems—the cutting of string channels in the nut must be done so that the strings don’t get stuck in the nut and so the string is completely ‘deadened’ at the front edge of the nut (these are standard, non-compensated nuts). When your strings get stuck or rattle in the nut…goodbye usability. Ron’s nut-work is second to none. This is my fifth new Thorn (and I’ve played dozens of other new ones over the years) and I’ve never seen one where the nut wasn’t perfectly cut to perform flawlessly.
Ron designed his own floating vibrato bridge. It works similarly to PRS-type bridges but is designed with the additional thoughtfulness that I’ve come to expect from Ron. The 6-screw bridge is set up so with the screws raised and the lower front edge of the bridge is beveled so you won’t dig the front edge into the surface of the guitar. The holes through which the strings are fed are cut deep so that the ball end is close to the upper surface. This accomplishes two things—first it means the extra winding on the string that fastens it to the ball won’t get stuck as the string moves through the bridge when the vibrato bar is wiggled or dive-bombed. It also makes the string lengths shorter, increasing the ‘bendability’ of the strings and enhancing the overall playability of the guitar. So this 25.5″ scale neck plays as well if not better than my best Les Paul! The holes in the bottom of the bridge are cut so that there are no edges for the string to get stuck on when the vibrato arm is used. The slots in the saddles are smoothly sloped for the same reason. There is a set screw on the butt end of the bridge that enables you to adjust the firmness of the arm’s ability to swivel.
Then, in typical fashion, Thorn goes further with another thoughtful addition. On the back of the bridge, there is a set screw—accessible through the rear cover plate—that enables you to adjust the height of the arm, i.e., how far it sets in the bridge; recognizing that some like it seated higher than others. And the rear cover plate is held on with machine screws and anchors, rather than tiny wood screws that are likely to strip.
Tuners and string-Ts are often an issue with vibrato system-equipped guitars, especially with 6-in-line tuners. Ideally, you wouldn’t need string-trees as they can result in the strings getting stuck and going out of tune when you use the wang bar. But if you’re going to go treeless, you need to either pitch the headstock back (like on typical Gibsons—though a severe angle can result in the same tuning issue) or use tuners that are low enough to provide the string-break angle off the nut that is sharp enough to deaden the strings. This is the more elegant approach and Ron’s selection of the cleverly engineered Gotoh ‘height adjustable post’ (HAP) tuners is perfect. Their ingenious design allows the installer to individually adjust the height that each tuner post extends above the surface of the headstock. So Ron sets them up to gradually decline the further the string travels from the nut. This gets you enough of a break angle to maintain the deadening function of the nut and avoid the string-tree-de-tunifier! And it gets better...these tuners feature a very clever locking mechanism, which takes you one step further towards guilt-free dive bombing!
One other construction detail is worth mentioning. The truss-rod adjustment is at the headstock end of the neck. In classic “Thorn” fashion, Ron provides his own custom made allen wrench for adjusting the truss rod. Why? Well, the short-side on your store-bought allen wrench is a bit too short to completely clear the edges of the beveled hole; and he doesn’t want you chewing up the perfectly beveled edge. But when you stick the long end in, then you’ve only got the stumpy little end to turn, which doesn’t give you a lot of leverage and is rather uncomfortable. So he provides his own truss rod wrench. As you’d expect, he also provides the proper allen wrenches for the other adjustable parts (e.g., bridge height adjustment saddles, etc.)
Now we can move on to the electronics. I chose Ron’s Pasadena ’66 pickups. These are simple single coil pickups with the neck and bridge reverse-wound/reverse-polarity with respect to the middle pickup. (This common configuration means that positions 2 and 4 on the 5-way switch will be hum-cancelling.) They’re classic, great sounding Strat-style pickups. As you’d expect, Ron takes their engineering one step further than most. As the strings spread apart between the nut and the bridge, Ron has compensated the spacing of the pole pieces in each pickup so that each one is precisely centered below its string at its location in the body. This means that the pickups are not interchangeable and that he cannot use off-the shelf pickup covers as the pole piece spacings won’t match up perfectly. No worries—he mills his own.
I had Ron wire the potentiometers up in my favorite configuration: volume (master) / tone (neck + middle) / tone (bridge). This enables me to do the one thing I could never do on a stock Strat (which it invariably needed) – cut back the top end on the bridge pickup, when needed.
I went with a simple Olympic White finish on this guitar. Ron uses a thin, nitrocellulose finish on the body. The finish is flawless as you’d expect. The back of the maple neck is oiled and sanded to perfection with a wonderful silky feel.
The guitar comes in a snappy-looking, black/white, tweed, hard-shell case from G & G. It locks shut and includes a spacious, snap-close interior compartment. The guitar fits snuggly and securely.
Finally, I’ve included a youtube video review of the guitar so you can get a pretty good idea of what it sounds like.
I hope this gets you a real good feel for the kind of craftsmanship and thoughtful engineering that goes into a Thorn R/S guitar…and the kind of outstanding tones that come out of it!