A mahogany-core guitar with acrylic wings delivers unique looks and tones.
Most guitarists can remember the moment that inspired them to pick up the instrument. For my father, seeing Roy Rogers on television when he was 4 years old planted the seed, and seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show watered, fertilized, and provided sunshine for that seed to grow. The combination of how cool Roy Rogers looked and the beautiful sounds the Fab Four made nurtured a love of guitar and music that has never left him. For me, what really got my blood pumping was seeing a power-chord riff being beaten into a cherry-red Gibson Explorer by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Not only did it sound great, but he also just looked so cool with that guitar. For me, that shape instantly became associated with razor-sharp tone. Over the years, my musical tastes have spread much, much further than ’90s industrial, but the image and the sound of that guitar have been stuck in my head ever since.
Don Bell of Bell Custom Guitars obviously has the same fascination with that body style, as evidenced by his SS-E and SS-ER guitars. His instruments have already attracted the attention of such players as Steve Stevens, who currently has his Bell Custom Jazzblaster with him on the Billy Idol European tour. I got the chance to give Bell’s SS-ER, one of his coolest-looking creations, a rundown recently. From the time that I spent with it, I came away very impressed.
Working in Wood and Acrylic
The defining feature in Bell’s striking production line is obviously his use of acrylic body wings. His original creations sported bodies made entirely of acrylic, but he wasn’t satisfied because he felt they sounded thin. He thought he’d make the acrylic sound better by adding a wood core (the SS-ER’s is mahogany, but certain Bell models use maple), but he says the acrylic actually made the wood sound better.
“Mahogany is normally dark sounding,” Don explains, “and the acrylic helps take that muddiness out of it without losing the essential tone. The highs become clearer and less brittle sounding, and the lows become tighter—almost like putting a compressor on a bass drum so it doesn’t have that flab in it.” The 24.75"-scale SS-ER’s mahogany core is stained a deep cherry, and it connects to the 22-fret neck with a traditional glued-in joint rather than the neck-through construction you might expect. But the rest of the setup—stop tailpiece, Tune-o-matic bridge, two volumes and a tone knob—is pretty by-the-book. Pickup-wise, the SS-ER is outfitted with a set of Amalfitano PAF-style humbuckers, which have been potted to reduce feedback.
Right out of the case, the SS-ER was set up perfectly and had spot-on intonation. The action was high enough to dig into the strings with minimal buzz, but low enough to facilitate quick runs up and down the neck. I really liked the feel of the neck taper, which was akin to the ’60s slim taper on my ’78 Les Paul Custom, but slightly thicker. As for other facets of playability, Explorers have never been known to be lightweight, and neither is the SS-ER. The added weight from the acrylic—which is heavier than mahogany—puts the guitar at 9.5 pounds. Luckily, unlike a lot of instruments with unusual body shapes, it balances well.
Flamboyant in All the Right Ways
So here comes the million-dollar question, “How does it sound?” I’m happy to report that not only does the SS-ER excel at the high-gain rocking that its flamboyant aesthetics practically demand, but it also offers some pretty unique tones. The addition of the acrylic wings seems to add high frequencies that are very noticeable and smooth sounding. Through a Friedman Naked 100-watt head and a 4x12 cab, I really dug how highs and upper mids sustained well without any ice-pick stabs. The materials compliment each other very well, with the mahogany balancing the bright acrylic tones with plenty of warmth and a lush, resonant midrange.
I was rather surprised to find that the moderate-output Amalfitano humbuckers pumped out such a punchy, powerful sound—especially with ratings of 8.5k (bridge) and 8k (neck). “With the acrylic added, the body is so much more resonant that it actually makes the pickups sound more powerful than they are,” explains Bell. Their balance and clean, crisp, detailed note definition all the way across the fretboard was one of the guitar’s best features. I love the sound of a great neck humbucker, in particular for clean tones, and the vintage-voiced neck pickup yielded some fantastic sounds with a nice, spongy feel. It was hard to get a bad sound out of the guitar, yet easy to achieve great traditional tones with impressive high-end response.
The Final Mojo
For lovers of this classic body style, the Bell Custom SS-ER is hard to beat. Some players might prefer the warmer, more conventional tones and feel of the original, but those looking for an added twist will find the SS-ER to be a great alternative—especially with its relatively affordable street price of $1199. Its weight might be a concern for some, but if you’re willing to overlook that in order to wield a well-built guitar with wonderfully unique tones, the Bell Custom SS-ER shouldn’t fly underneath your radar.
you’re looking for a vintage look and sound with a little more high-end bite and a visual twist.
you’re committed to single-coils or need a lightweight guitar.
Street $1199 - Bell Custom Guitars - bellcustomguitars.com