With the current state of the economy, it seems all we ever get is bad news—bad news about stock prices, unemployment, the housing market and banks. Life can be downright depressing these days, but Atomic Guitar Works has figured out a way to shine a big ol’ light of hope and happiness, giving us a fantastic playing shredder’s guitar that’s hand-built in America for well under a grand. See, there’s that smile… I knew it was in there somewhere.
The STD1 is Atomic’s baseline model: a basswood Strat-style body and a bolt-on maple neck and fingerboard with a 25.5” scale length. The simple design houses a single Seymour Duncan JB humbucker and comes standard with a Gotoh hardtail bridge and Hipshot tuners. The model reviewed came in a blindingly bright canary yellow urethane finish with all black hardware, and it may very well be the lightest guitar I’ve ever played. It also shares a standard feature with all Atomic guitars, the Atomic Direct Mount Pickup System, which bolts the pickup right to the body using a clever mounting system that really increases both sustain and harmonic resonance. The appointments are simple and to the point, and everything is built by hand (no CNC) by Tim Mulqueeny and Harry Howard in their two-man, Peoria, AZ shop, just outside Phoenix.
Did I mention this guitar is light? I’ve played some featherweight guitars that fell flat tonally, but that is not the case with the STD1. Not only will it save you a trip to the chiropractor after a long night, it’s sonically well balanced, with plenty of snap and pop as well as a solid bottom end. You can see why basswood remains popular—not only is it affordable, it’s toneful stuff.
The hand-carved neck is neither too slim nor too chunky, and the ease of play (the action is low without being ridiculous) make it a highly addictive guitar. The Tung oil finish seals the neck just enough to protect it, yet retains the feel of an unfinished raw wood neck. This once again adds to the fun factor. While the unfinished feel might not appeal to all players, I found it to be a welcome detail, and something that would form itself to my touch over time.
Over the course of the review I developed an organic connection with the guitar. I think the fun is built into its DNA; it’s constructed by hand from start to finish by people who live to build guitars. You can feel the care that was taken in each step, and some of the imperfections add to its appeal. Small details, like the black painted pickup cavity ever-soslightly showing a masking line between it and the yellow body paint reminds you that this was made by a person, not some factory cranking out product in the thousands. It’s charming—it brought me back to the days when saving up for a guitar was exciting, and the anticipation of what it would turn out like kept me up at night. Since all of the guitars are built by hand, they’re all going to be slightly different. Sure, Atomic has templates to work with, but the small details in the finishing and sanding of the necks are going to make each guitar feel like a custom instrument. In fact there’s no way around it; each guitar is unique from the next.
Plug It In
Plugging in the STD1 was a great experience. All of the acoustic properties of the guitar translated well into the variety of amps I tried it through. Because it’s a simple design, with just a volume knob and nothing to get between it and the amp, its personality shines through. The guitar easily spit out aggressive lead lines with plenty of chime through a Lee Jackson modified Marshall Superlead, and was able to chunk out 80s metal riffs with focus and conviction. Through an AC30 the sparkle of the basswood/maple team pronounced itself and commanded attention with incredible detail. On a silverface Fender it was a virtual chameleon, letting the amp shine while retaining a personality of its own. I found after playing the STD1 for a while that even one of my favorite mahogany-bodied/maple-neck shredder guitars seemed a bit off balance tonally, showing more of a darker and duller tone that left me a bit, er… flat. The perfectly dressed 6105 frets and nice, thick maple cap fingerboard ensured there wasn’t a single dead spot to be found on the neck, and the perfectly cut nut let the open strings ring out naturally without buzzing or tuning issues. While this particular model came with a reverse headstock, Atomic offers it in a standard configuration as well, for players who prefer the conventional tuners-on-top style.
The Final Mojo
Maybe it’s the 325 days of sunshine a year in Phoenix that makes this guitar such a bright prospect, or maybe it’s the fact that Tim and Harry at Atomic Guitar Works have figured out a magic formula. Either way, they offer all of us the opportunity to own a genuine American, hand-made electric guitar of fantastic quality for an MSRP of $895 (with a gig bag). And if you want more options, like an additional pickup, different hardware or wood choices (they offer gorgeous tops and finishes), they’re ready to take it to the next level and beyond. For me, the Atomic STD1 proves that in this day and age you don’t have to break the bank to get a killer guitar from an American company, and that’s refreshing. There’s your economic stimulus package!
you want a quality hand-built, American made rock machine for under a grand.
you need more features than a single humbucker, stop tail and volume control.