Splendid neck. Many cool, unexpected tones. Excellent build quality.
Expensive. Relic finish could be polarizing.
Abernethy Sonic Empress
When you talk about great guitars from the ’50s and ’60s, you typically talk tone. Less well-appreciated, perhaps, are the era’s achievements in ergonomics. The earliest maestros of ergonomic electric guitar design were, of course, Leo Fender and his associates. The Stratocaster destroyed norms about how the contours of an electric instrument should function and feel. It didn’t take long before bodies from rival companies began to slim down and smooth out at the edges.
Clearly, Abernethy’s Sonic Empress borrows more than a few outward styling moves from these contoured, slim-bodied ’60s classics: There’s a touch of Mustang, a lot of Jaguar, a hint of Harmony, and even what I suspect is a nod or two to the obscure and fleeting ’60s SoCal company Murph. But what hits you after you’ve moved past the what-came-from-where styling, is how comfortable and playable the Sonic Empress feels.
Much of this inviting feel is down the neck, which is substantially thicker than what you typically experience on a ’60s Fender or, for that matter, what you’d expect from a guitar that so clearly borrows from ’60s Fender style. But put that neck on a body that feels as slim and natural to hold as the nicest old Jazzmaster, add a clever combo of pickup and switching features, and you realize that the Sonic Empress is much more than meets the eye.
Raid the Reliquarium
Relic finishes tend to be a love/hate proposition among players. But Abernethy has, for the most part, done a convincing job here. The wear on the nitrocellulose lacquer finish looks more genuinely weathered by the decades in some spots than others. But the more I played the instrument, the less any “inauthentic” spots bugged me. And on the whole, the relic job—along with the yellowed 3-ply tortoise pickguard, aged TonePros bridge and tailpiece, and aged pickup covers—ultimately adds to the familiar, broken-in feel of the instrument.
The materials are all beautiful stuff. The body is century-old reclaimed fir, which is occasionally used as a tonewood among flattop builders, but rarely on electrics. The fretboard is Indian Rosewood and caps the quarter-sawn maple neck, which is perhaps the most unusual and satisfying element of the guitar’s design. While not what you’d call a baseball bat, it's pretty hefty, with a just-barely-perceptible super-soft V profile. (Or is it a hard U?) Either way, it’s very comfortable, conjuring recollections of some of Rick Kelly’s less boat-like T-style creations and some late-’60s Gibson SGs and Melody Makers I’ve encountered. (Justin Abernethy says the profile, which is officially called a ’59, is based on a 1959 Les Paul.) It has much more girth up toward the nut than all but the thickest Fender necks, but that never feels like an impediment to moving swiftly around the fretboard and is well suited to the 25.5" scale. Plus, the slotted, classical-style headstock (another nod to the old Murph Squire 12?) looks awesome.
A small company called Gemini provides the unique pickups. They are dual-single-coil pickups that can be switched between single-coil and humbucker mode using the Jaguar-style slider switches. The twist is that the individual single-coil units are based on DeArmond and Supro single-coil designs.
Tone differences between the two can range from subtle to pronounced. The Supro-styled pickups are, in general, softer on the bass side of the spectrum and a touch fuller—ranging from very dynamic and touch-responsive jazz tones on the neck pickup to thrillingly growling neck pickup sounds when you push a small-to mid-size amp. The DeArmond coils can sound comparatively thin, but that perception can also be deceptive. They give you a lot of headroom to work with and they sound very cool with overdrive and fuzz—particularly units that have a more low-end or low-octave content. When the pickups are combined in humbucker mode, they sound fantastic. The Supro sounds tend to emerge strongest when the two are combined, but the balance between the pickups is a lovely thing. Notably, the pickups are relatively quiet in all modes.
Any guitar that feels this natural under the fingers is worth a lot. That comfort and tactile responsiveness translates to ease of expression, which in turn verges on the invaluable. At $3,200, this guitar represents a significant investment for most of us, so it’s good that it feels as fine as it does. But the sum of the Sonic Empress’s thoughtfully assembled parts is considerable. The neck is a delight, and the pickups are full of possibilities. For many players out there, the Sonic Empress may well represent an ideal. But even for those for whom it’s less than perfect, the Sonic Empress is an instrument of impressive, unexpected possibilities.