Though he’s been building custom instruments since 1993, these two models, the Ranchero and the El Camino, represent Mike Potvin’s first standard offerings, if you take standard in the sense of stock designs with a few options rather than completely custom built, that is (although there are still quite a few options available). If you take standard in the sense of routine, typical or conventional, then not so much. Our first up-close encounter with these guitars at the Montreal Guitar Show last July put us in mind of what might happen if you stuck an Esquire and a Junior in a dark place and let nature take its course. We were pleased to discover, though, that Potvin’s experiment in hybridization had gone well beyond the coolness of the idea, so we knew we’d be able to review more than a pair of eye-pleasing gimmicks. As luck would have it, the two guitars we received were the very same ones we’d had a chance to look over and play in Montreal—although Mike had made a few small changes in the meantime.
What is so impressive about the guitars (again beyond the cool-factor of this particular crisscross) is how unique they are. Both instruments are as unlike the guitars that inspired them as they are unlike each other. And, although it’s hard enough to imagine a more diametrically opposed set of energies than those of the rarified, exclusive cult of the modern boutique guitar and the blue-collar, workhorse vibe of the Fender Esquire and Gibson Les Paul Junior, Potvin has somehow managed to harness those engergies and make them work together. That he’s able to do that and offer a very healthy array of options, and still sell them at a price that won’t make a working musician blush … well, it sure impressed us.
||Download Example 1
El Camino rear selector pos. (regular tone control), Vol 2 up to full
||Download Example 2
El Camino fwd selector (first cap, no tone control) Vol. full
|Recorded with XITS Sadie Channel 1, Bass noon, Treb. 1 o'clock, Cut
9:30, Vol. full; AQDI ZeroCap cable; recorded on a Mac using Digidesign
Starting well within the Junior-style domain with a double-cutaway slab body of white limba (or korina)—made dramatic with dark grain filler—the El Camino reveals a number of upscale touches, from the pao ferro fretboard to the matching headstock overlay with black pinstripe, the five-ply pickguard and truss rod cover, black mother-of-pearl inlay logo and Gotoh 510 tuners. Though it clearly possesses the qualities of a well-thought-out, handbuilt guitar, it nevertheless retains a sense of downto- earth directness. The three-piece maple neck, instead of mahogany or korina, was unexpected, and there was a bit more mass in the shoulders than on most Gibsons, but the headstock angle, neck shape and scale length all combine to give it a familiar feel.
The pickup is one of Jason Lollar’s Special T series, and this bridge is a modern T-style, but a 3- or 6- saddle vintage bridge is available—for those who are more interested in mojo than intonation, as Potvin suggests. And, while the straight-ahead mojo of a korina guitar and a P-90 is pretty much inarguable, combining that body, neck and wood with a Tele/Esquire bridge and pickup seemed like uncharted territory. I’m happy to report a pleasant journey with some real surprise discoveries. Because of the Esquire switching, the El Camino turns out to be a seriously versatile instrument: forward engages the first capacitor (fixed-bass, no tone control); middle is the wide-open pickup, no tone control; and back engages the second cap with standard tone control. There is less snap and twang than the pickup would have in its more ordinary context, but there’s still plenty of sizzle. Somehow, through the alchemy of this particular combination of elements, Potvin has produced a no-bullshit, balls-out rock guitar. With the 3-way selector in the forward position, it’s pure classic rock beast with all the thick, sweet mid-focused punch you could ask for—think AC/DC and KISS. Although you can get it very crisp if you lay off the gain, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was no way it had a Tele pickup if you had your eyes closed. Throw the selector all the way back and roll the Tone control off just a bit for all bite and woolly swagger that goes from the Stones to MC5, depending on the gain. Somehow, with a Vox-voiced amp like the Xits Sadie dimed, the El Camino in the middle position even does the raunchy “bag of nails” overdrive jangle of the early Jam, like the Byrds on steroids. If you like it raucous and rebellious, you’ll definitely like the El Camino. The fact is, I’m unable to offer a detailed report on the quality of the guitar’s clean tones because … well, I only passed through them on my way to the dirt.
Hit page 2 for our review of the Ranchero...
you want real versatility in a uniquely styled and stripped-down workhorse.
you’re not looking to kick out the jams.