In the electric guitar market, there’s often a no man’s land between budget-priced Asian instruments and pricier models from the U.S. and E.U. But since the quality and consistency of low-cost imports is better than ever, purchase decisions often come down to a simple calculation: Is it wiser to buy a costlier instrument from Europe or the States, or go Asian and budget a couple of hundred bucks for upgrades?
Some savvy manufacturers are undermining that two-tiered system. At least that seems to be the strategy of Florida-based Sublime Guitars. Their instruments’ parts are made in Asia (sourced, they say, from smaller, hand-picked production facilities), with final setup done in the U.S. Sublime’s initial offerings are the offset solidbody Tomcat and the semi-hollow Chieftain Deluxe reviewed here.
Sleek and Semi-hollow
The Chieftain is a fetching fantasia of vintage-flavored design details. It’s a sleek, set-neck double-cutaway. The molded-maple body’s top and back are subtly arched. It’s comfy in all playing positions. The neck meets the body at the 20th fret, making it easy to access the top frets. The faux-ivory top, back, neck, and headstock binding is attractive and even. The headstock has classy Grover “stair step” tuners and an elegant profile with a top contour that suggests a bird with spread wings. The onyx black finish is deep, consistent, and lovely.
Another striking touch is the Epiphone-style bifurcated trapeze tailpiece. (If you like plucking behind the bridge, you’ll love the substantial string length between tailpiece and bridge, as heard at 01:47 in the demo clip.) The bridge is a standard Tune-o-matic, but with roller saddles. These will aid tuning stability if you opt for the $1,119 Bigsby model (not reviewed). But you’d better be cool with gold: The Chieftain comes in black or white versions, and gold is the sole hardware option. Sublime also offers a classy Gator hardshell case for an additional $130.
No Upgrades Required?
Sublime lavishes special attention on the traditional weak links of Asian production-line guitars. The medium-jumbo frets are expertly seated, their ends comfortably rounded. The fretboard feel is exceptionally smooth and buttery for a model in this price range. A GraphTech TUSQ nut is another welcome upgrade. The review model arrived with low, comfy action, though the intonation wasn’t perfect. (But that’s a quick fix if you know what you’re doing, and an inexpensive shop task if you don’t.)
Instead of the blandly generic humbuckers you usually encounter on equivalently priced imports, Sublime offers something interesting: a pair of Gatekeeper H90 pickups. These are licensed Korean-made versions of Porter H90s. (Porter is a boutique winder based in Idaho.) And that brings us to what will probably be the Chieftain’s most controversial feature.
Personality vs. Power
H90s are P-90-influenced single-coils in a humbucker-sized housing. This format accommodates fewer winds than a traditional P-90 soapbar housing. That means less output. With D.C. resistance of between 5k and 6k, H90s are noticeably quieter than traditional P-90s, whose resistance is usually around 8k. In fact, they’re a bit quieter than, say, vintage Stratocaster pickups.
I happen to dig lower-output pickups, and I wish more guitars employed them. These sound cool and unique to my ears—and how often can you say that about today’s budget guitar pickups? But players accustomed to hotter pickups should probably test-drive these before committing.
Gatekeeper H90s aren’t as low-powered as Gibson’s historic Charlie Christian pickups, but they remind me of them in some ways. The H90 pickups don’t overdrive amps as readily as hotter pickups, though you can always turn up the amp gain or plug in a pedal. But paradoxically, they often sound rough-edged even with fairly clean amp settings. It’s a distinctive flavor, rich in character. It probably won’t suit all tastes, though I find it attractive and engaging.
The H90s can add a gravel-voiced grind to roosty/bluesy music, and they’re gorgeous for old-school R&B. Pulling back the tone controls yields full, fat jazz sounds. (The knobs are wired Les Paul-style, with individual volume and tone controls per pickup.) The pickups sound great with distortion, too, though tones tend to be relatively spiky and pointed. (The guitar’s innate brightness contributes to the effect.) Still, they rarely get harsh. When playing bright, Beatles-esque chords, for example, the rough edge offsets the stab factor (as heard at 02:38 in the demo clip).
The Chieftain Deluxe offers sharp looks and tones at a terrific price. Its sleek neck and smooth frets are a pleasure to play. Sublime Guitars smartly addresses the traditional weak links of budget Asian guitars: notably the fretwork, hardware, setup, and pickups. And the instrument recalls an era when budget guitars were unique, quirky, and cool—not just cheap-as-possible knockoffs. Strong character elicits strong reactions, so not all players will relate. But I’m thrilled to encounter so much personality in such a reasonably priced instrument.
Watch the Review Demo: