After decades of NAMM shows overpopulated by Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Les Paul clones, it’s gratifying to see current builders approaching vintage-influenced design with greater creativity and whimsy. Recent guitars from the likes of Eastwood, Fano, and Reverend are no less influenced by vintage design than all those Fender/Gibson doppelgangers, but they mix and match elements in imaginative new ways. Sure, this sensibility spawns the occasional ungainly platypus. Yet, at their best, these hybrid designs result in compelling instruments.
Challenger, from the Ohio workshop of luthiers Chase Gullett and William Galloway, definitely falls into the latter category. It’s a crazy quilt of vintage influences that somehow congeals into a winning new design.
A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That
It’s fun trying to untangle the branches of Challenger’s family tree. It’s got many Gibson genes, with its set neck, dual humbuckers, Tune-o-matic-style bridge, 24.5"-scale fretboard, and bountiful neck and body binding. Meanwhile, the elaborate German-style carving (that is, the indentations at the perimeter of the body and headstock) references Mosrite and various Roger Rossmeisl Rickenbacker designs.
There are also traces of Doug Irwin’s custom work for Jerry Garcia. And the carved reverse headstock looks Fender- and Gibson Firebird-influenced. (Actually, it’s one of my favorite six-in-line profiles since Fender swiped the idea from Paul Bigsby 60-some years ago.)
The striking body profile even brings to mind some of those fantastical Japanese guitars from the 1960s, which are totally awesome aside from such minor details as shoddy workmanship, ice pick tones, and poor playability. There are no such issues here, however. The labor-intensive body carve is stunning. The flame top glows through a tinted nitro-cellulose finish. The split pickguard looks wicked. The mahogany body balances beautifully. (Chasing Vintage builds with other woods by request.) The belly and neck-joint bevels are comfy as can be. The cutaways let you zip to the 22nd fret. The quartersawn mahogany neck has a substantial feel with a relaxed D profile. Challenger feels like a handmade guitar from the 1960s.
(Note, though, that our review model features $1,000 worth of optional cosmetic upgrades: a two-tone paint job, a flame maple top and matching headstock cap, large trapezoidal inlays, and an ebony fretboard.)
Unsurprisingly, Challenger’s tones have a Gibson solidbody flavor, with authoritative fundamentals and ample mass. But the sound isn’t too dark. As on a vintage Les Paul, there’s plenty of zing when you need it. Much of the character stems from the stock Seymour Duncan pickups: a vintage-y Alnico Pro II at the neck and a hotter-than vintage Custom/Custom at the bridge. (Chasing Vintage says they recently changed their stock bridge pickup to a Duncan 59/Custom.) Of course, with a handmade model like this you can request any humbucker you like. You might nudge Challenger in a modern rock direction with hotter pickups, say, or use vintage-output PAFs for cleaner, brighter tones.
Things to Fret About
As lovely as Challenger is, there are a couple of construction concerns. While the bone nut is a conventional 1 11/16" in width, the span from E string to E string is approximately 1/16" wider than on most Gibsons and Fenders. I was startled by how disorienting this was at first. It took me an hour or so to feel comfortable. This is more a matter of taste than a critique, and I suspect Chasing Vintage can modify the string spacing to suit your taste.
But the string spacing—with the outer strings slightly closer than usual to the neck’s edges—highlights a bigger issue: There’s a noticeable gap between several frets and the binding on the neck’s treble side. I could even slide a fingernail beneath the 6th fret. Several times over an afternoon of playing the high E string snagged in the gap. Fretwork should be close to perfect on a model in this price range.
The Challenger is a hip and inspiring mash-up of vintage influences. It positively drips with gorgeous cosmetic details. It’s comfy to play and it provides many attractive Gibson solidbody-style tones. Our review model isn’t perfect—some frets aren’t as tightly seated as they should be. Still, I dig Challenger’s vintage-with-a-twist aesthetic, its classy handmade feel, and its bold, definitive tones.