Reviewing custom guitars poses a unique set of challenges. Rarely do custom builders have guitars kicking around to send out, simply due to the nature of the beast; everything in the shop is being built for a specific customer, to that customer’s specifications. This raises additional difficulties. Is it okay with customer A to send his guitar out to be reviewed? If customer A is fine with this, are they also okay with the month or two additional wait? The answers to these questions are generally no, and with good reason. Who the hell wants to save up for their dream guitar, sit through a seemingly endless wait from the builder, then voluntarily add even more time just so some shaky-handed, bleary-eyed guitar journalist can ruin a set of strings and cover their new baby in fingerprints before they’ve even seen it in the flesh?
Steve Helgeson, the mastermind behind Moonstone Guitars, sidestepped all of the above by sending in his dream guitar, an exercise in lavish, over-the-top guitar making: the Vulcan Custom Extreme. With a chambered African black limba body, 6A quilted maple top, beautifully figured Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, African purpleheart binding on the headstock and fingerboard, and Paua abalone everywhere, the Vulcan comes across like Jerry Garcia’s posthumous wet dream. Despite the Vulcan’s initial hand-crafted hippie vibe, and disregarding the fact that it is made in Humboldt County, California, home of some of the world’s finest, ahem, horticulture, nothing could be further from the truth. This is no trailer queen or wall hanger. This guitar plays as beautifully as it looks. No one we’ve encountered so far has been able to pass on an opportunity to heap high praise on the guitar’s almost gaudy beauty. Additionally, everyone who has picked it up has been left standing slack-jawed from the first unplugged strum.
To try and accurately describe this guitar’s almost preternatural good looks would be difficult for Oscar Wilde, and downright futile for me, being an aforementioned shaky-handed, bleary-eyed guitar journo. What I will attempt is a simple description, and the first thing that catches your eye is the quilted maple top. The top, enhanced by Steve’s subtle hand-stained cherry-burst finish, is exquisite. The Vulcan features a waterborne, self-crosslinking polyurethane finish, and the Brazilian head-plate is simply gorgeous. Its inlay work, as well as all of the other inlays on the guitar, is executed as perfectly as humanly possible.
Despite all of the flash and beauty of the instrument's top, my favorite part of the Vulcan is the Back. The African limba used for the body and neck is full of beautiful, dark streaks, and is a warm, golden honey color. Surveying the back also reveals the low mass, open-back Sperzel tuners and the well matched, limba control cavity cover. Flipping back to the business side, all hardware – tuners, Paua abalone-inlayed knobs, switches, Bartolini pickups and TonePros bridge and tailpiece – are gold, blending nicely with the honey-hued limba back and sides, and amber-to-cherry top.
After finally digesting the initial visual impact of the Vulcan Custom Extreme, the idea that it can feel and play as good as it does is nearly incomprehensible. The first thing that strikes you when you pick it up is the weight, or more specifically, the lack of weight. The chambers in the body afford a very comfortable heft, more akin to a medium-weight Strat than a typical setneck guitar. The workmanship across the board is flawless, as is the from-the-factory, medium-action setup, allowing the Vulcan to play easily up and down the fingerboard. The neck offers enough meat to grab on to, but doesn’t have a huge profile; it has more of a wide, flat vibe, similar to an old, generous SG neck.
Once plugged in, the coil-tapped Bartolini PBF 55 neck and PBF 77 bridge pickups, coupled with the guitar’s tonewoods, give the Vulcan a wide range of warm, useful tones, ranging from Broadcaster/P-90 bark to one of the sweetest, three-dimensional solidbody-with-humbucking tones I’ve experienced since playing a particularly magical ‘57 Les Paul Goldtop a long time ago. With African limba/korina being a mahogany variant, coupled with the Vulcan’s maple cap and set-neck construction, Les Paul comparisons are inevitable, and the Vulcan never shies away.
Okay, but where’s the catch? Well, this guitar is expensive. No one would argue that. But having been in the position to be able to play several newer offerings over the years in the same price range, I can honestly say that this guitar is priced fairly. I would actually consider it a bargain, since many of the guitars with which it shares a general price point don’t seem to be designed to be played, merely displayed. This guy begs to be played, although I wouldn’t try busting it out for the last-call encore down at the Plug ‘n Jug. Even Chuck Norris would weep unapologetically when he put the inevitable first gank in this beauty.
The Final Mojo
It would be easy to dismiss the Vulcan as just a pretty face, and that would be doing the guitar a great disservice, since it offers so much more than just good looks. It is one the finest playing and sounding guitars I’ve come across, with no further qualifications needed. Fortunately for our readers, this particular guitar, although built for Steve, is available for sale. I was going to say something uncharitably about the $9,000 price tag, but, amazingly, for this working-class boy, it doesn’t seem at all out of line. If you would like Mr. Helgeson to craft the Vulcan of your dreams, prices start around $4000.
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