Anyone who says there aren’t any new moves left to put in Leo Fender’s solidbody electric concept hasn’t played a Mario guitar. Based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Mario Guitars is run by Mario Martin, who worked in the Fender Custom Shop for five years and knows what makes a good T-, S-, or J-style guitar tick. Indeed, Martin’s guitars are some of the snappiest-sounding, smoothest-playing solidbodies you could hope to encounter.
With the Serpentine, which debuted as a single-pickup guitar at Summer NAMM 2010, Martin revealed his willingness to dabble with some less-explored Fender-style design templates, combined with tonewood and pickup configurations that resulted in a unique sonic signature. The newest two-pickup version, the Serpentine 2 is Martin’s most complete realization of the design, and the sounds you can extract from the hyperlight, super-playable, and sweet-sounding guitar can range from beautifully familiar to revelatory—and just might change the way you see and hear the potential in shortscale, Fender-style solidbodies.
While the Serpentine’s body profile differs subtly, it’s clearly inspired by Fender’s Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic student models on which about a gazillion aspiring rockers cut their teeth in the late ’50s, early ’60s, and beyond. It’s a pleasing, well-proportioned shape that looks as sharp as a little hot rod in candy apple red. Another nice touch is the pickguard that extends along the upper bout in the fashion of an early Precision bass.
One of the most important—and perceptible—differences between the Serpentine 2 and a similar Fender is Martin’s use of paulownia, an ultralight Asian wood that’s also grown in the American South—which is where Martin gets his. Its light weight has made it appealing to, of all things, wooden surfboard builders who cherish it for its durability-toweight properties. But as Mario Guitars has discovered, paulownia can pay sonic dividends too, and it makes the first time you pick up a Serpentine an almost shocking experience. It seems to weigh almost nothing. And at just about five pounds, in guitar terms, that’s very nearly true.
Once you get past the sense you’ve got a bag of down feathers strapped about your neck (a positively delightful sensation toward the end of a four-hour jam session), you’ll notice the cool-looking TV Jones Power’Trons. These humbuckers work really well in terms of visual balance on the Serpentine’s compact body, but also work almost magically with the resonant range of the paulownia wood.
Otherwise, the guitar is as simple as they come. Two T-style chrome knobs and a 3-position switch are arranged in a line just out of the way of aggressive strumming strokes, but close enough that you can pull off volume swells with your pinky.
Power’Tron Tunes and
Playing the Serpentine 2 is a physical, sometimes visceral experience—which is to say it’s a an instrument that invites and responds to body language and a dynamic approach, and feels alive in your hands.
Not all players are willing to tinker with a short-scale fretboard, but it can be a ticket to nimble bends and quick picking when strung up with a set of .010s, or alternatively, a steady, resonant, but pliable platform with .011s. Either way, it’s a beautifully playable guitar. The guitar is so light but balanced that putting a little leverage behind a bend with a downward pivot on the neck is both easy and precise. The medium jumbo 6105 frets on the essentially C-shaped neck also help make bends a breeze. This is a great guitar for expressive players who use movement beyond fretwork to add texture to their tunes.
That expressive potential is compounded by the marriage of the paulownia and Power’Tron pickups, which adds up to one of the more fascinating combinations of wood and electronics I’ve heard in a while. With the Serpentine 2 running straight into a Marshall 100-watt Super Lead, both the bridge and dual-pickup positions sound super lively and percolate with deeply focused harmonic detail.
With just a little bit of reverb from an outboard Fender Reverb unit, the little Mario conveys a spaciousness that belies its dimensions and heft (if you could call it that) and makes a simple, 1st position C arpeggio sound more like a cathedral choir.
Through a smaller Fender piggyback the guitar sounds no less spacious. But exploring the jazzy potential of the Power’Tron in the neck position becomes doubly inviting. Here again, the lively resonance of the paulownia body seems to work with the Power’Tron’s hot, but balanced output and the warm, round glow of 6L6s to create an uncommonly wide palette of neck pickup tones.
Even with the Serpentine 2’s tone knob rolled back significantly, the guitar still communicates a subtle high- and high-mid detail you won’t hear from most humbuckers. At the same time, it delivers more girth than you’ll get from a typical single-coil used in that context. Crank the tone back up on neck or dual-pickup settings and the Serpentine 2 becomes a Texas sidewinder capable of bite and a sweetly detailed, dirty overdrive that works with everything from Marshalls to tweeds.
The amazingly chameleonic Serpentine 2 is capable of serving the Nashville twang dealer, uptown jazz cat, rowdy roadhouse rumbler, or folk-rock jangler. The union of paulownia and Power’Trons is a potent one we expect to see more of in the wake of this axe. And that such versatility comes from a body and scale configuration that’s typically been regarded as an also-ran among traditional Fender-style templates makes this beautifully built Mario a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. The $2,699 price may put a hitch in the get-along of anyone who’s challenged to look past the Telecaster or Stratocaster. For those who have the courage—and the coin—to venture beyond, however, the sonic rewards are substantial.
you’re eager to move past standard Fender-style templates, are unafraid of a short scale, and have wondered about the potential of Filter’Tron-style pickups in a solidbody.
short-scale necks feel like toys to you, or you prefer more traditional designs.