From the multi-coursed proto-guitars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to Leo Fender’s Eames-like utility of the mid-twentieth century, the combination of art and design has been a constant in the evolution of the guitar. Today, makers like James Trussart combine recognizable shapes with non-traditional materials while others, like Teuffel, ignore all constraints to pursue a singular vision, with the results often looking more like modern sculpture than something resembling a guitar – Michael Spalt’s Voodoo twins, from his Totemguitars line, fall somewhere in-between.
While it might seem easy to dismiss his Totemguitars as function following form, closer inspection invariably leads to a different conclusion. The Victorian Era curio box faces are the most captivating aspect of the Totem series, but more subtle design cues are just as impressive once your eyes acclimate to the incredible amount of visual information these guitars provide. By placing everything from doll parts to rattlesnake rattles in resin, Spalt has deftly combined artistic conceit with function-focused design.
Sharing little more than a similar shape and the same body wood, the disparity of the two Voodoos speaks to the one-off nature of Spalt’s instruments. In fact, Michael informs us that each guitar is a one-off, although he will sometimes make up to three similar instruments within a series. Both guitars benefit from Michael’s collaboration with pickup guru Lindy Fralin – the P-90 inspired units feature colored bone bobbins crafted by Spalt, which are then sent to Lindy for winding. The Voodoo II is equipped with an upside-down Tele-style pickup in the bridge position, patterned after Fralin’s SP 42, which also features a bone bobbin.
The Voodoo II creates a cubist-influenced, guitar-shaped motif by placing plywood and weathered, solid wood cutouts throughout the resin impregnated top, offering a visual pun via the rustic cutout’s more traditional shapes. Further inspection reveals dried flower petals, a pocket watch, a charm bracelet, a button, what appear to be mangled, rusty bottle caps, a crude, homemade domino and a coral necklace.
|"The Victorian Era curio box faces are the most captivating aspect of the Totem series, but more subtle design cues are just as impressive once your eyes acclimate to the incredible amount of visual information these guitars provide."
The Voodoo II has a mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard, aged hardware and Gotoh tuners, along with a creepy-cool dismembered baby doll eye in the tip of the lower bout. A closer look at the mahogany reveals plenty of visible grain, following the recent trend of thin finishes and no grain filler. The organic look suits the natural shapes on the back of the instrument, allowing the multiple, functional contours to stand out and highlight thoughtful touches such as a flush-mounted neckplate and a 3/16” recess for the Tele-style string ferrules. The input jack resides on the same side as the rear-recessed Straplok receiver, pointing perpendicularly out of the back of the guitar to keep the cable away from clumsy feet.
The mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard are beautifully offset by a green-tea colored bone nut, abalone Spalt logo and the most attractive six-on-a-side headstock shape since Leo busted out his French curve and designed the headstock for what would become the Telecaster. In pure design terms, the appealing headstock profile gives a good indication of what Michael is up to; keeping the instrument’s visual appeal on par with its functionality.
Tonally, the Voodoo II draws the inevitable Telecaster comparison due to its bridge and pickup choice. While it does offer up Tele-like definition, it delivers its own thing. The unmistakable Tele “cluck” is nowhere to be found; instead, the Voodoo II skews more toward a single-coil Gibbo, with added definition provided by the bolt-on neck and Tele bridge. While the bridge pickup’s angle is completely reversed, the neck pup is also angled slightly, adding to the II’s warm, individualistic tonality. While (attempting to) play a James Burton tune which required plenty of palm muting, I repeatedly hit both E strings against the bridge pickup’s adjustable pole-pieces. Once I lowered the pickup slightly, I was not only greeted with less breakup, but also with added depth and dimension from clean and overdriven tones, all while retaining a good volume balance with the front unit. The neck pickup is a real treat, blending well with the bridge unit while bringing fresh, mid-heavy tones and typical P-90 dynamics to the mix. Both the P-90- ish pups and the SP 42-based model are exactly the kind of pickups that beg for you to lose the pick, plug straight in and begin exploring just what the volume and tone controls have to offer.
The Voodoo I came to us with Sperzel locking tuners, a Wilkinson tailpiece with two compensated sections covering the A and D, and G and B strings respectively, and a birdseye maple neck with bloodwood fingerboard and headstock veneer. The dyed nut falls somewhere between British racing green and evergreen and sets off the dark, red hues of the bloodwood nicely. The I has a larger profile, soapbar-inspired pickup in the bridge position, but shares neck pickups with the II. The body is impregnated with more Santeria-inspired baubles such as dismembered doll legs, seashells, what looks to be a broken, feminine totem, a rattlesnake rattle and an unsettling baking mold that looks like the back of Hansel. Additional, less “Voodoo” influenced bits include coins, another poorly made domino, several additional old bottle caps, keys and more old costume jewelry. The distressed, multi-colored wood cutouts adorning the I’s face are more an exercise in pure design than any cosmic in-joke, offering up enough visual texture to hold their own against all of the other interesting tchochkies.
While providing an overall darker sound, the Voodoo I delivers even more depth and responsiveness than its sibling, going from warm, delicate passages to raucous dirt with little more than a nudge on the volume knob and an increase in attack. Rolling down the volume close to halfway landed me close to Fender territory. The bridge pickup was better suited to cleaning up, due to the neck pickup’s seeming reluctance to give up its delightfully throaty growl, no matter the volume setting or level of attack – it cleans up well but retains its signature mids.
However impressive the Voodoo II’s tonal dynamics are, they come at a price that not even the Dark Lord himself, let alone Michael Spalt and Lindy Fralin’s dalliance with black magic can cure: noise. There was enough that it was a bit distracting when switching from the II to the I, but no more so than any other high-end P-90 pickup. Most fans of this design accept this as the price of admission, but consider this a heads up if you’re new to the game. The pickups are wired in series, offering hum-canceling when both are engaged.
An honest criticism I have was with the Voodoo II in particular – it smelled like the unholy combination of styrene and a Diaper Genie. The fact that the I smells mostly good, like delicious lacquer with just a hint of the plasticy trash smell, plus the fact that it dissipated quickly once out of the case suggested that it might not be the resin. A quick email to Michael cleared up the cause of the problem: the cases. Spalt had difficulty sourcing cases that would fit the Voodoos. In fact, they held up our review. Because of time constraints, the Voodoo II’s case didn’t receive the thorough airing out that the Voodoo I did. Michael informs us that he only uses odorless resin which has been “FDA approved for food preparation surfaces due to its low toxicity once cured – one of the considerations besides its tonal qualities that led me to this formulation.” Sweet! A couple of additional things need to be noted here – I can smell cigarette smoke at stop lights with my windows rolled up from three or four cars away, and an hour or so out of the case cleared up the problem.
The Final Mojo
For what it’s worth, I’ve always considered myself a Tele guy, yet I kept finding myself drawn to the I for its responsiveness, and no, it wasn’t because the II initially smelled funky. The II covers the most stylistic ground of the two Spalts, but the I has plenty of tonal flexibility and more mojo, no pun intended. While other guitars have successfully melded art with guitar design, the Spalts are among a handful that have blurred the distinctions to the extent that the Voodoos would be equally at home hanging in an art gallery as they would played on stage. That they play and sound as phenomenally as they do – without any caveats – speaks to Michael’s success as both an artist and guitarmaker.
you're in to gut-bucket blues and Picasso.
the search for the perfect Strat isn't over.
Our expert has stated their case, now we want to hear yours. Share your comments and ratings below.