||Download Example 1
||Download Example 2
|Clips recorded using Fryette S.A.S. distortion pedal, Fender Pro Junior amp,
Planet Waves Custom Pro cables, and Apogee Duet into GarageBand.
When AXL introduced the Badwater
series several years ago, the company
gave players access to value-priced, vintage-styled
guitars that are often a lot more
expensive. Like most guitars in their price
range, the original Badwaters were assembled
overseas. But AXL recently unveiled a line
of American-assembled guitars at similarly
competitive prices, including the Strat-inspired
USA SRO and the more Gibsonesque
1216 and 1030. The USA Badwater
line offers a choice of features and components,
too. We checked out the 1216, which
is built with top-shelf components—including
Seymour Duncan Seth Lover pickups
and TonePros hardware—and put together
at AXL’s Hayward, California, workshop.
The American Badwater 1216 uses the Les
Paul Jr. as a jump-off point and adds a little
more personality with some unique shaping
around the cutaway and upper bout. It’s built
with a mahogany neck set into a mahogany
body—about as simple and straightforward
as it gets. But it also features some more up-to-date design elements, like an asymmetrically
contoured neck heel for better access to
the highest frets on the treble side.
Perhaps most beneficially, the 1216
features an electronics package rarely seen
on guitars in this price range. The pickups
are a pair of Seymour Duncan Seth Lovers.
The internal components include CTS
pots, Sprague Orange Drop capacitors, and
a volume kit that keeps treble frequencies
consistent when the volume is rolled off.
And everything is connected with vintage-style
The 1216’s hardware is high grade, too.
The nut is a Graph Tech Tusq XL, which
Graph Tech claims brings out harmonics and
richness while improving tuning stability.
Tuners are three-per-side Grover Rotomatics,
and the TonePros Tune-o-matic–style bridge
and tailpiece—parts commonly used as
upgrades even on expensive guitars—lend
solidity and sustain.
With its walnut finish and minimal
adornment—an AXL logo branded into
the headstock and rectangular fretboard
inlays—the 1216 is a handsome guitar. It
is well made, too: The fretwork is tidy and
the neck-to-body joint is tight and clean.
However, the guitar’s distressed treatment
reveals more about the sacrifices you make
at this price point: The satin finish looks less
like it’s relic’d than sloppy, with irregularities
that could’ve been smoothed out in the
manufacturing process without sacrificing
the aged feel. The white binding on the
neck and body is also smudged with brown,
which looks more like rushed work than an
From Cutting to Smooth
At 8.68 pounds, our 1216 is light
for a mahogany, 24 3/4"-scale Les
Paul–style guitar. It’s comfortable to
hold and, with its action set low, it’s
a joy to play right out of the box. The
neck has an agreeable C shape—a
bit less hefty than what you’ll
encounter on many vintage-
and a definite plus in my
opinion. Without an
amp, the 1216 has a
fair amount of sustain,
but not quite
the resonance you’d
associate with the
finest Les Pauls.
To test the 1216 I
plugged into a Fender
Pro Junior amp and,
on occasion, a Fryette
S.A.S. distortion pedal.
Overall, the 1216 sounds appealingly meaty,
with lots of midrange punch. The volume
kit, as advertised, does help ensure tonal
consistency when the knobs are tweaked. But
the knobs don’t have the smoothest taper,
and one of the knobs on our review model
grinded stubbornly against the guitar when
turned—a small detail that could turn into a
major annoyance at a gig.
Although it certainly wasn’t a fair comparison
given the major price difference,
for the heck of it I compared the 1216 to a
1960 Gibson Les Paul Historic. The 1216 is,
predictably, a tad darker than the Historic.
And as you’d expect, the AXL doesn’t sound
quite as warm and harmonically complex as
the Gibson. To be fair, though, the AXL costs
a tiny fraction of the Gibson, and it actually
held up pretty well considering its dinky price.
On the bridge pickup, the 1216 bites—without sounding strident—and lends
itself well to Mike Bloomfield-style soloing.
The neck pickup, meanwhile, sounds
thick and spongy. Rolling off the tone, I
got a surprisingly reasonable approximation
of Slash’s rounder lead tones. In tandem,
the pickups seem to holler for some gritty
rhythm work and pentatonic riffing, which
the guitar delivers with clarity.
While the 1216 sounds most at home in
rock and blues settings, it’s a pretty adaptable
guitar. It wouldn’t be mistaken for, say, a
Gibson L5-CES, but with a clean tone on the
neck pickup, it sounds good enough for some
Wes Montgomery–style octaves and chord
melodies, with good separation between the
individual notes. And the neck pickup, with
its Tone control around 8 or so, works well
for countrified pedal-steel-style bends.
With the Badwater USA 1216, AXL offers
a remarkable value in a single-cutaway,
humbucker-equipped guitar with appointments
typically found on instruments many
times its price. While it wouldn’t necessarily
be an adequate substitute for a Gibson
Custom Shop Les Paul, the 1216—with its
excellent playability and versatile sonics—is
well-suited to any guitarist who likes to
keep things simple and rock. And at a price
that’s nearly impossible to beat.
you want a Les Paul-style ax but
can’t afford an authentic Gibson, or
you need an inexpensive but
you’re a Gibson loyalist or can’t tolerate
minor finish-work imperfections.