Risk makes the blood flow. Maybe that’s why, after Knaggs’ new Severn Trembuck Tier 3 came off the FedEx truck perfectly tuned and ringing beautifully, I took it straight into the studio to cut the final track on an in-the-works album—before I’d ever plugged it in.
Then again, maybe I did it because quality inspires confidence. Any solidbody guitar that sings unplugged like the Severn Trembuck is bound to sound good through an amp. And considering that Joe Knaggs was once the top designer at Paul Reed Smith, the guitar came with a very positive pedigree.
Tracks Of Their Tiers
The Severn models (named after the river that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay near the company’s location) are part of the company’s Chesapeake line of electric guitars and basses. The pricier Severn Tier 2 offers options including Seth Lover or Lindy Fralin single-coils and humbuckers, coil splitting, and boutique hardware choices. Curly maple tops and diamond inlays are staples.
The Trembuck Tier 3 reviewed here doesn’t offer those options. But even though it costs about $1,400 less than the Tier 2, it’s far from a Plain Jane. It’s packed with craft-built charm and the quality of a custom shop instrument. The test model came in a rich, high-gloss black with a natural wood finish at the sloping outer contours, a fresh yet classic look.
The fretboard is cocobolo with dots, not diamonds, and the body is alder with a sapele or maple cap. Standard hardware includes Gotoh tuners and Seymour Duncan pickups (a TB4 in the bridge and a SH2 in the neck position.) All Severn models have a 25.5" scale, and a 22-fret neck carved to a comfortably rounded early-’60s ‘C’ shape with an 8.5" radius, a 1 5/8" GraphTech nut, and comfy jumbo frets. The deep-cut horns of the neo-S-style body and contoured heel make every inch of the instrument available. The electronics are simple: volume and tone speed dials with a three-way blade selector switch. The tone dial pulls up for single-coil mode.
Knaggs’ four-spring proprietary whammy works via a hinge system (rather than a blade, block, or cam approach). This design keeps the Severn Tier 3 in tune after radical, Hendrix-style dive bombs and feels a lot like an old-school Stratocaster whammy.
Trials of the Trembuck
In the studio I was tasked with conjuring a vintage Clapton tone for an overdub supporting a raging (and very long) Hammond B-3 solo. I plugged the Trembuck into a ’72 50-watt Marshall plexi with the bass on two and mids and treble on 10, and then flipped the pickup selector to the neck humbucker with the tone pot rolled back to two. The single Eminence 50-watt Private Jack speaker began speaking “Cream” instantly. After the track was cut, I eased back on the amp’s treble, bumped the bass, and flipped the pickups into single-coil mode. The result: screaming distorted tones, sustain, and a beautiful wealth of overtones, especially in the middle and neck positions. In fact, just about anywhere I set the amp and guitar, something beautiful happened.
The single-coil mode also yielded some of the best tones I’ve ever heard from my ’66 Blackface Twin. Living in Nashville, I get an earful of twang. And in the single-coil bridge position the guitar yielded perfect, high-gloss modern country bite: full of snap, but with a big-bellied character. Using the same amp settings (volume, bass, and treble at six, reverb at two) the belly rumbled even more warmly in the mid and neck positions.
With such cleanly defined classic tones at my disposal, the urge to plug in a Big Muff was irresistible. The Knaggs produced more than enough clarity to punch through the basically muddy Muff, plus enough sustain to keep a note singing for a week. I got more of the same in humbucking mode, with even richer lows and mids.
Something magical happens when you roll the Trembuck’s humbucker volume back to seven and the tone back to four. Soft-edged, warm tones suitable for mellow jazz pour from the Knaggs. As I increased the Twin’s volume, the tones remained essentially the same, but louder. This is a guitar that will stay clean while very loud if you set it up right.
Swatting the Curveballs
Since we don’t all play through hand-wired amps that cost as much as a car, I pulled out a Roland Cube 30X set to JC mode. That amp and setting can be less than forgiving with guitars lacking nice natural tone, but the Trembuck sounded great. As I varied my picking intensity and traveled the neck, the guitar’s dynamic response remained remarkably spot-on.
My Supro Lightning Bolt’s fantastic natural break-up makes a great platform for de-tuned blues, so I turned to a nice, saggy open D and whipped out a slide. The Trembuck put me right in touch with my inner R.L. Burnside, delivering fat chord sounds and sustaining fingerpicked notes. Back in standard turning and single-coil mode, it was easy to dial up Jimmy Page’s “Dazed and Confused” tone. The guitar is equally happy in metal settings—pairing it with a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and 50-watt Eminence speaker produced a viciously abrasive chug.
The Knaggs’ Severn Trembuck Tier 3 is an outstanding, highly playable jack-of-all-trades suited to every style from surf to Stonesy blues-rock to mellow jazz to razor-edged metal. That’s a good thing, because while it is Knaggs’ lowest priced Severn electric compares favorably to other guitars in its range, it’s still a sizeable investment for the average working musician or weekend warrior. It might be the only electric guitar a lot of players need, but it might also be the only truly high-end instrument they can afford.