In case you haven’t heard, Summer NAMM was a little slow this year, with many of the big manufacturers opting to stay home. Though they were missed, the good news was that smaller, newer manufacturers who might ordinarily have been overshadowed by the big boys were able to come to the fore. At any normal winter NAMM or busier summer session I might easily have missed the small Hanson Guitars booth off to the side of the show floor—and that would have been a pity. Fortunately, I had time to discover them.
Here’s what I learned: despite being new a brand name, the Hanson folks were far from newbies to the guitar manufacturing biz. In addition to producing pickups for guitar and bass, they have spent a decade behind the scenes creating and manufacturing boutique and mid-priced instruments for others. And though most of the Hanson line consists of solidbodies reminiscent of cool European vintage guitars, the one that caught my eye was a semi-hollowbody instrument with a distinctly American look to go with its name— the Chicagoan.
Sweet Home Chicagoan
The mini-humbucker-equipped Chicagoan recalls an Epiphone Riviera in some respects, but the fingernail inlays set into the ebony fingerboard combine with the headstock shape, gold hardware, and gold pickguard to imply some heavy Gretsch White Falcon vibes (or more specifically the rare “Black Falcon”). The double-bound maple body is about as thick as a Gibson ES-335 and constructed similarly with a center block and hollow “wings.” the guitar is painted a subtle black sparkle, as are its bound maple neck and headstock.
The Chicagoan’s design, gold appointments and binding make for a classy look, but unfortunately the design of the “H” logo on the pickguard and the Hanson name printed on the cool, elongated trussrod cover seem at odds with this otherwise upscale appearance—they look like they would be more at home on a power tool, or a toy. That said, the Chicagoan would make a striking appearance on any stage. The finish work is largely very good, but a few indicators of the lower price point include pinstriping that is a tad uneven and some acoustic buzzing in the lower fret positions. The instrument’s playability, however, is uncompromised. None of the acoustic buzzing came through the amp, nor did the medium jumbos fret out while bending anywhere on the neck—even with the factory setup extremely low. I raised the action a bit to my preference and found that it improved the Hanson’s already significant ring and sustain.
The Chicagoan’s body slopes off enough to support the Bigsby B6 that was installed on the one I tried at the show, but the review model came with a B7. The B6 has no extra tension bar to hold the strings down. The folks at Hanson realized that some players might prefer .009 sets of strings, and the low E in these sets might jump the roller bridge with hard playing, so they ultimately opted for the B7 with the string tension bar for the production model. I always found that the B6 rocks more easily and stays in tune better, but the B7’s extra tension across the bridge does aid sustain. The .010 strings on the B7-equipped production/review model remained firmly in their saddles, as well as staying surprisingly in tune—whether bending notes or vibrating the arm. This is a tribute to a well-cut nut with a little graphite lubrication applied.
In general, the Hanson was a joy to play. The neck is wide enough to make chording easy, yet it carries a hefty front-to-back that fills the hand. The frets are high enough to facilitate bending even with the low factory action, and their rounded crowns facilitated jazzy slipping and sliding into notes.
Mini Buckers, Major Tone
Whether plugging the Chicagoan into a Reverend Hellhound or Orange Tiny Terror, it was easy to hear the results of Hanson’s pickup-making experience. Mini-humbuckers can often have a slightly brittle sound, but these were warm as a Southern summer’s evening. Through a Hellhound dialed to a clean setting, the neck pickup offered up everything from a rich darkness suitable for traditional jazz, to a more edged fatness ideal for blues and funk solos. The bridge pickup sports too much midrange to be called twangy. It sits in a very useful place between single-coil bite and humbucking beef—higher in the midrange spectrum than a P-90 but with comparable girth.
Driving the Tiny Terror, it served up everything from meaty but sharp R&B “chunks,” to classic ’60s British solos. The Chicagoan cleans up quickly when backing off the guitar’s volume knob, with the high end dropping off precipitously at the first hint of a turn. Some players use this treble loss, never turning their guitar’s volume up full and setting their amps accordingly. They feel that this takes any harshness out of the sound. Others use the instrument with the knobs full up and lower their volume with a volume pedal, retaining the full high end. On a guitar like the Chicagoan—with separate Tone and Volume knobs for each pickup—a pedal helps maintain a consistent balance between the pickups when both are on, but set to different levels. The Hanson responded well to both applications, but some might prefer pots that didn’t drain quite so much high end when turned down, especially since the highs on these pickups are so pleasing.
Playing with the tone controls revealed a nice, throaty voicing. Adjusting the neck pickup tone through a clean setting on the Reverend added mellowness while never descending into murk. The bridge pickup tone control seemed to kick in about halfway. Through the Orange with the gain up, it added a musical treble roll-off all the way down to a classic “woman tone.”
The Final Mojo
The Hanson Chicagoan is a professional instrument that offers a wide range of character- filled tones for jazz, roots, blues, alternative and even Queens of the Stone Age- or Racontuers-type rock. In terms of sound and playability, it will get you within hailing distance of instruments asking three times the price, all while looking great on stage. If I quibble about the Chicagoan’s need for a classier logo, it’s only because this cool guitar deserves one.
you want a high-style semi-hollowbody at a low price.
your guitar body must be solid.