Too-cool-for-school players may be reluctant to admit it, but we love to play the guitars our heroes play. That gets a whole lot harder when the instruments in question are specialized or one-of-a-kind custom instruments like Trey Anastasio’s hard-to-find Paul Languedoc creations. But Los Angeles-based PHRED Instruments, which has a strong affinity for the music and instruments of the Grateful Dead and Phish, builds guitars inspired by rarities like Jerry Garcia’s “Tiger” and Anastasio’s own Languedoc, which is the primary influence on the DockStar Flame Maple reviewed here.
Birds of a Feather
The design elements that PHRED takes from Languedoc and other offset models flow together like a raging “Scarlet Begonias” from ’77. It’s easy to forget how smooth and welcoming a set-neck design can feel when heading into the upper frets, but the DockStar’s feels great. The DockStar is also a potential lifesaver if you dread the notion of slinging a Les Paul through yet another four-hour gig. It’s incredibly light and can almost feel like a toy at times. The hollow mahogany body is covered by flame maple veneer on both the top and back that gives the guitar an expensive vibe and look. Overall, the body shape is a bit more offset than say, a Fender Starcaster, which it resembles to a degree. But that little extra little bit of forward lean in the body profile gives the guitar more balance when wearing it. In general, the build quality, look, and feel of the DockStar was in line with other similarly priced semi-hollow models.
The 24-fret neck, 25.5” scale, and 1 11/16” nut give the guitar a spacious Gibson-like feel, and the extra fret preparation performed once the Asia-built DockStar arrives stateside really shows. When the guitar arrived the action felt a bit on the high side for me, but it was nothing a quick truss-rod tweak couldn’t fix. The model we reviewed was stock, but PHRED does offer some upgrades including a brass nut, Seymour Duncan humbuckers, and Schaller M6 tuners. A peek through the bound f-holes revealed that some extra care could be taken to tidy up the wires and perhaps add some shielding—more on that later.
What’s the Use?
PHRED insists that humbuckers should have a split-coil switch. Honestly, I can’t argue with that. Why wouldn’t you want the option for a different sound with the flick of a tiny toggle? And because I regularly move between single-coils and humbuckers myself, I was looking forward to testing out an a guitar that reduced instrument switches in the course of a set. The control setup is fairly standard for split-coil pickups with a pair of toggle switches tucked next to a 3-way pickup selector. As a Danny Gatton nerd, I was pleased to find how easy it was to reach for the master volume knob when I wanted to generate volume swells.
The Squirming Coils
Saturation, clarity, and sustain are the tent poles that Trey Anastasio builds his tone around, and he’s been know to favor PAF-style pickups. With nine different pickup combos, it’s pretty easy to find variations on those classic Gibson sounds as well as tones for settings from Jimmy Nolen funk to creamy classic-rock leads. The DockStar’s humbuckers might be just a bit hot for those who are purists about vintage humbucker tones—especially the bridge pickup. Interestingly, the extra bite reacted well to various overdrive and distortion pedals, but it lacks a little some of the airy character that I like in low-output humbuckers. The neck pickup has a unique roundness—evoking tones somewhere between Larry Carlton and B.B. King—that is especially well suited for a cranked TS-style stomp and a clean amp.
Moving to single-coils results in a little volume drop, which is normal and not too drastic—though I did use a clean boost periodically to help even things out. That said, both the neck and bridge single-coil settings sounded a touch thin and were plagued with a bit more hum and noise than I might have expected. Perhaps a little more shielding would pay off here. Although noisy at times, the bridge pickup was never shrill and it cut through a band mix really well. The neck single coil felt very responsive, and I was able to craft interesting tones easily by shifting my picking approach—moving from jazzy Joe Pass chord melodies to muted Lukather-style backing riffs.
I love a Stratocaster’s out-of-phase pickup positions, and to my ears, these same settings are where the DockStar comes to life. But what’s really thrilling is mixing and matching these settings and using them as contrast to the more familiar humbucker and single-coils tones. In this way, playing the DockStar can feel like manipulating a pedal with EQ presets. My preferred combination became the neck humbucker mixed with the bridge single-coil and a touch of compression and overdrive—a recipe that came very close to replicating Anastasio’s squishy lead sound.
Though the pickups in the DockStar didn’t blow me away, the bones of guitar were solid and the setup was very good, which makes this a very good guitar with the potential to be an exceptional one. If you do happen to find yourself in a Phish tribute band, then getting your hands on the DockStar is a no-brainer. But it also delivers versatility with applications beyond 20-minute Mixolydian guitar solos. And whatever your orientation with the jam scene, the DockStar is a blast to explore.