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Builder Profile: Trev Wilkinson

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Throughout his long career, Trev Wilkinson has always made a point to remember the beginner, and he considers every skill level when making such product decisions as adding features and pricing instruments. Recently, Wilkinson combined forces with one of Britain’s premier independent distributors, John Hornby Skewes & Co., to oversee their affordable Vintage guitars and add his own, more upscale Fret-King brand to JHS’s catalog. The idea behind Vintage is to offer accessibly priced, vintagelooking guitars with great finishes, quality parts, and features that are typically found on guitars costing upward of a thousand dollars. These instruments include Wilkinson-designed hardware, a bubinga neck extension that runs into the body to add rigidity and enhance acoustic resonance, and a Roll Control knob that allows variable coil splitting.

“I think the unfortunate truth of our industry is that an awful lot of things have been taken out [of affordable guitars] in order to achieve a price point,” Wilkinson says, “but the reality is if you go in at the beginning wanting to achieve all those things, the price point isn’t actually that different. So you say, ‘Why don’t we do it then?’ And I think that’s really behind an awful lot of the success of Vintage guitars.”

When it comes to Fret-King, Wilkinson keeps his designs classic without being forced into “nostalgia corner” as he describes it—the phenomena of guitar players snubbing useful innovations in exchange for blind loyalty to Fender and Gibson designs. According to Wilkinson, Leo Fender himself was a victim of this phenomenon. “In conversations I had with Leo,” Wilkinson says, “he could never understand why people held his early guitars in such reverence, when in his mind the [G&L] guitars he built before he died were far superior to his previous guitars. He couldn’t understand that he’d already created that nostalgia.”

It’s too soon to tell, but Wilkinson might be fostering some nostalgia for his own pioneering technological advances in the music industry. He’s been described as “Britain’s one-man think tank.” And at 62, he’s certainly not throwing in the towel anytime soon— asserting that there’s always more work to be done when it comes to improving guitar playability.

In addition to its Distressed Sunburst finish, this Vintage V6HMRSB has a pair of Wilkinson single-coils, a WHHB humbucker, a distressed WVCD trem, and Wilkinson EZ LOK tuners.

We’ll let him tell you the rest.

When you got onboard with JHS and the Vintage brand, what was your first order of business?
I took about 57 models and kind of went through each one, spec’ing it and putting what I considered to be the right pickup with the right guitar, and choosing the right vibratos, tailpieces, and tuners. I went through all the body shapes and all the body designs. Some obviously are paying homage to past classic designs and some are unique to Vintage guitars.

What would you say is behind the success of the Vintage brand?
They just offer so much value for money. They sound so good, play so well, and perform so well, that sometimes people look at them and go, “Wow! What a fantastic bargain—it’s too cheap—why don’t you make it more expensive?” And we say, “Why should we?” Everyone should have access to a working guitar.

There are manufacturers who have very, very high dollar instruments and are obviously interested in creating aspirational consumer brands. But then, as you come down the dollar chain from, let’s say, a guitar at $3000 or $4000, you have to take features out because obviously if you’ve got everything in a $4000 guitar, you can’t put everything in the $2000 guitar, because then your customer wouldn’t have to buy the $4000 guitar. We’ve always taken the philosophy of, “Why don’t we build it in at $299, rather than take it out at $299?” We can do this because we’re not trying to protect a very expensive guitar.

There came a point in our industry where prices came down so low it was actually impossible to make a reasonable guitar cheaper than what the big brands were doing. So the sensible distributors—the people who were in control of their own destinies—looked at the situation and said, “Well, we’ve got to change. We can no longer compete on price, so we have to compete on quality and features.” And I think that was the key for the Vintage brand. We concentrated on the quality of the product and the features. It’s part of a long-term plan and probably the most important way that we went from a “me too” guitar to a brand that people ask for by name because they know it’s a quality product.

The Wilkinson ADT Self-Tuning Bridge uses signals from the vibrating strings to control onboard electric motors and automated tuning gears. Located between the bridge pickup and ADT unit, the string sensor also provides a pitch readout for the player.

Certain features make Vintage guitars, as you say, “the bigger bang for the buck.” I partnered up with a company in Korea to do some very traditional bridges, but we’ve made changes to them so they perform much better. For instance, on the spring block, the holes are staggered in a way that allows the strings to leave the block and pass over the saddles at an angle that helps keep those strings in tune. I also developed some tuning keys called EZ-LOKs that work like a locking tuner, but actually don’t require any mechanical manufacturing. There’s nothing to unwind when you’re slacking the strings using the vibrato, and they always come back to pitch.

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