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Gather a gaggle of tone nerds around a great guitar long enough and inevitably the talk turns to magic, mojo, and other strains of pseudoscience—almost as if there were some robed and gray-bearded sorcerer behind it all. Yes, sometimes there is something beautiful about the sound and feel of a 50-year-old Telecaster that you can’t quite put into words. More often than not, though, an extraordinary guitar is the product of a luthier’s uncompromising standards, and hands and minds that consider anything less than perfection an affront to the art.
Bill Collings would probably be the first to admit that striving for absolute perfection in luthiery is a little like tilting at windmills. But his refusal to make anything but the best guitar he and his staff can build is what makes the instruments that bear his name among the most revered in the business. And though Collings’ acoustic guitars, which are treasured by players from Pete Townshend to Lyle Lovett and David Grisman, remain the company’s focus, Collings electrics are equally amazing instruments—and they’re still subject to Bill Collings eagle-eyed scrutiny.
The 290 DC S is one of the newest members of the Collings electric family. But don’t let the dead simple Les Paul Jr. lines and bare bones visage fool you into thinking this is some kind of exercise in mass-market efficiency. This is a Collings through-and-through—a guitar that significantly refines one of the most elegantly simple templates in electric-guitar history.
More Than Meets the Eye
There’s no disguising that Bill Collings looked to the double-cutaway Gibson Les Paul Jr. as inspiration for the 290 DC S. And just as he saw the simplicity of mid-century Martins as a perfect place of departure for his first acoustic designs, Gibson’s once-budget-branded Les Paul Jr. is the ideal vehicle for Collings design optimization talents.
The gorgeous cherry-hued, nitrocellulose lacquer-finished body is a single piece of beautiful mahogany—a formula for sweet resonance if there ever was one. But where the Les Paul Jr. is primarily a slab of right angles, the 290 DC S is contoured more like a Stratocaster—with a subtle body contour on the upper bass bout and a more severe taper on the back of the upper bass bout where an old Junior would leave your ribs bruised after a few Saturday night sets. There’s also a deep cutaway at the waist on the back of the guitar, as well as a gentle taper on the treble side of the neck heel that gives you a little extra access to the upper frets. This is a comfortable and well-balanced guitar.
The mahogany neck itself, which is topped by an East Indian rosewood fretboard and ebony peghead cap, is a remarkable piece of work by itself. Collings insists that a fairly substantial mass in the neck is essential to making an electric guitar work harmonically. But the balance Collings strikes between heft and comfort on the 290 DC S is remarkable. There’s a lot to hold onto for big blues bends, and the extra substance offers an ideal resistance to gentle neck flexing that’s great for subtle vibrato effects. The 12" fretboard radius has a sweet Gibson-style contour that’s good for chording or bending, though Collings deviates from tradition just a little by using a 24 7/8" scale.
Collings’ custom wraparound bridge is beautifully milled and pre-intonated at the factory, though players who use gauges lighter than .010s (the company recommends .011s) may encounter some intonation issues. Elsewhere on the guitar, the minimal hardware is similarly top-shelf. Tuners are Gotoh SG301s, while the lone pickup on the 290 DC S is a Lollar P-90 with Collings-made Bakelite covers.
Rip It Up, Mellow Out
While the 290 DC S is in most ways an exercise in luxurious minimalism, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a wealth of tones within. It was a thrill to hear how the 290 DC S responded to various power situations, as I ran the guitar through a Fender ’65 Twin Reissue, a Vox Bruno, a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead, and a Fender Pro Junior.
Part of the beauty of the Les Paul Jr. (and the P-90, for that matter) is its adaptability: Juniors are equally at home in the hands of country pickers, bluesmen, and punkrock thrashers. The 290 DC S stretches the protean and chameleonic capabilities of the now-classic design in both directions.
Through the Marshall, the Lollar P-90 demonstrated an almost gentlemanly and cultivated potentcy. Power chords rang with harmonically charged, pure Live at Leeds locomotive-scale horsepower, while single-note leads and quick stops had a nasty, Jimmy Page-like bite. Roll off the volume, though, and the 290 DC S gave the Marshall a smooth and powerful high-octane blues voice. An additional roll off on the tone knob had the Collings and Marshall sounding deliciously reminiscent of Danny Kirwan’s Fleetwood Mac tones.
Through the Twin Reverb, it was easy to coax the Collings’ Texas roots out of hiding. Kick the volume and tone wide open and pick a bit back toward the bridge, and you might have the nastiest honky-tonk tone yet heard by man at your fingertips— a sweet mixture of mahogany muscle and P-90 high-mid venom. Take a little tone and volume out of the mix, though and the Collings again becomes a much more tender animal. Wes Montgomery-style octave melodies sounded warm and full of character—a nice deviation from the usual hollowbody-plus-neck-pickup formula— while more languid leads and finger vibrato possessed the honey sweetness of Carlos Santana’s early singing leads. For the latter application, the balance of solidity and heft seems to really pay dividends. Again, the slab mahogany body lends warmth to the tone. But the construction integrity—and the way it creates a feeling this guitar is very much of a unified piece—give dimension to sustained bends that really shine through an amp with high headroom.
Those with small-amp proclivities—and perhaps a taste for Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s Chess sides or Joe Walsh’s early crunch tones—will love the way the 290 DC S can simultaneously wrestle grit and high-end clarity from 15 watts and a 10" speaker. If you ever had any doubt about how to match mahogany and tweed—the 290 DC S may be all the answer you need.
That the Collings 290 DC S is an exemplary guitar is beyond question. It’s a textbook study in how the simplest design concepts can be refined and given new life. And the combination of the immaculate construction, the Lollar P-90, and Collings’ own dedication to the guitar’s development give it a broad personality that runs from cultured to roughneck.
If there’s a downside to the Collings 290 DC S, it’s price. At $2850, it’s not exactly a cheap path to simplicity. But, like most Collings we’ve seen over the years, simplicity belies the complexity of tone and responsiveness to playing nuance you experience when you put fingers to strings. And what the 290 DC S gives the imaginative and resourceful player is a blank slate and a city bank’s worth of sweet sounds to work with—a luxury perhaps, but one that’s beyond value as a musician.
you savor the joys of elegant simplicity and your musical moods range from rowdy to refined.
you feel $2850 should at least get you a second pickup.
Street $2850 - Collings Guitars - collingsguitars.com