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Guitarists in a tone rut tend to look to different pedals or amps, or perhaps switch from single-coils to humbuckers. Those who look to semi-hollows as a means of transformation are fewer in number. On the surface, it’s not hard to understand why. Less experienced players who tinker with hollows and semi-hollows often return with harrowing tales of wailing feedback and opaque, dark, and wooly tones. For others, the very sight of an f-hole suggests uptight, uptown, precious, and a not-very-rock-’n’-roll approach—no matter how many Marshall stacks Alvin Lee ripped to shreds with his ES-335.
But as any half-resourceful player who has taken the time to explore that world can attest, they are guitars of incredible potential—brimming with overtones and resonance, and capable of moving from mellow to explosive with the twist of a volume or tone pot. Godin’s new Canadian-built Montreal Premiere delivers on the promise of this potential—sometimes spectacularly. It’s also a cool deviation from established semi-hollow design templates that, beyond good looks, delivers a more playable, comfortable, and even unique sounding guitar.
Cool and Compact
Godin’s ability to deliver killer quality at an exceptional price never fails to impress. At around 1,500 bucks, the Montreal Premiere is a little more than some guitars in this category, but you’re also getting a lot of attention to detail from workers right here in North America.
The Premiere’s handsome sunburst finish is almost entirely without imperfections, save for a little finish build up at the binding around the neck joint. The subtle grain of the arched cherry top looks good with the sunburst, though some suitors might wish for a more spectacularly grained top at this price point. The arched cherry back is finished in a flawless and shiny mahogany-like finish that matches the mahogany neck. But here again, both the grain and finish are subdued to a point that some players may wish for a little more flash. Customers looking to the Montreal as a sonic tool probably won’t give a hoot, but those who like a combination of flash and playability might expect a touch more.
Ergonomically, the Montreal Premiere is a joy to hang out with. The dimensions are pretty similar to Gibson’s compact semi-hollow ES-339. But the Montreal’s single cutaway, light weight, and comfortable dimensions are at times reminiscent of a Guild Bluesbird or slimmed-down Ibanez George Benson. Elsewhere, the construction is well executed and thoughtfully designed—most overtly on the inside of the body, where you can behold Godin’s breathe-through core. Unlike more traditional semi-hollowbodies that rely on a solid center block to improve sustain and quell the feedback potential of hot humbuckers, the Godin uses a relatively more engineered approach. The result is a spruce block just a little wider than the pickup rings that’s arched at the three points along its length. The visual effect is akin to having a old stone bridge or Roman aqueduct inside your guitar, and the practical result is a smart compromise between weight savings, sustain, and structural integrity. According to Godin, this core considerably enhances the guitar’s resonant qualities.
The hardware is familiar, fairly straightforward and tasteful stuff—two Godin Custom humbuckers, a 3-way switch, volume and tone knobs, and Kluson-style tuners that are visually well suited for the slender headstock. The bridge is a Graph Tech ResoMax, but you can also get the Montreal Premiere with a Bigsby and roller bridge.
If you’ve ever been scared off by a semi-hollow for any of the reasons discussed above, you’ll be surprised at how forgiving the Montreal Premiere can be. If your first-call amp is a 100-watt 4x12, this might not be the best match, but it will do amazing things at high volume—particularly if you’re a player who savors the sounds you can find at the boundaries of chaos.
Through a wide-open Fender Twin Reverb, the Montreal was less prone to feedback and more inclined to highlighting the amp’s natural compression at high volume—an effect you rarely experience with a Stratocaster on the other end. At these higher volume levels, the bridge pickup exhibits a unique mix of boxy, compressed, and ringing, harmonically charged tones. You don’t have to work too hard to send the amp into fairly musical feedback zones. But the more compact body is fairly easy to control and with a little practice you can get into some cool spaces where the singing qualities of the humbucker mingle with the resonance and edge-of-feedback overtones generated by the body. If there’s one thing you won’t really get, it’s the stinging tones and response you get from a solidbody—but then again that’s true of most semi-hollows. And even with the Montreal’s tone control wide open and a fat dose of amp treble and mid, there is a slight but discernible softness and compression to the attack.
While the Montreal Premiere will both behave and yield cool tone surprises at high volume with a big amp, it’s definitely most at home with small- to medium-power amps. The bridge pickup will dish nasty garage rock chords and singing-to-snappy lead tones. The guitar’s airiness—an acknowledged design objective of the breathe-through core, is most apparent in the middle position, where the two pickups work in unison to generate a paradoxically spacious-but-tight tone that’s perfect for fast, syncopated Tony S. McPhee clean rhythm work or compressed Nashville leads. The neck pickup, as you might expect, is well suited for mellow Wes Montgomery moves, but it does lack some of the harmonic complexity of a bigger bodied guitar, which gives you less room and range for manipulating the tone control. I tended to keep the tone wide open to generate the most dynamic range, and in the lower three-quarters of the tone control’s range the capacity for pick dynamics fell off considerably.
If you’re a dedicated solidbody player, you might make a case that the Montreal Premiere tries to be a jack-of-all-trades at the expense of doing any one thing extraordinarily. But the more time I spent with the Montreal, the more I was impressed with its versatility. The lack of dedicated tone and volume controls, which would have expanded the tone and expressive potential significantly, was an ongoing frustration—particularly in louder rock settings where you could use a four control set up to generate feedback effects and explore more dramatic color shifts on the fly.
But while there are times the Montreal Premiere feels a bit unorthodox, it also inhabits a pretty unique stretch of tone turf that ranges from airy and spacious to bossy and rowdy. The balance and playability are excellent, the guitar is beautifully built, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a classier looking date onstage. The near-$1,500 price tag does give pause, but for such a carefully crafted guitar, the price tag isn’t unfair either. And if you’re intrigued by the potential of a semi-hollow but less keen on going down the same-old imported semi-hollow route, you’d be a fool not to explore where the Montreal Premiere fits into your own tone agenda.