God-like gold-foil tones from a boutique beauty.
Coincidence or emerging trend? That’s what I wondered after unboxing the Grez Mendocino. It’s the third consecutive guitar I’ve reviewed that integrates elements from 1960s budget guitars into a high-performance boutique beauty.
The main retro touch here is a pair of Lollar Gold Foil pickups. These are modernized versions of the inexpensive rubber-magnet pickups once used in cheapo Japanese Teisco guitars. (The pickups are no longer cheap: A pair of these will typically set you back north of $300.)
Beyond its pickups, the Mendocino is an intriguing mix of traditional and iconoclastic design. The single-cutaway body, set neck, dual-pickup configuration, and Tune-o-matic bridge are familiar Les Paul design elements. But elsewhere Mendocino strays far from the Gibson path.
Not from Nashville
You won’t mistake the Mendocino for a Les Paul when you strap it on. With its chambered mahogany body, the guitar weighs a mere 5 pounds. Despite the featherweight construction, the instrument balances nicely seated or standing. The top is solid old-growth redwood. (The use of salvaged redwood is a design hallmark of luthier Barry Grzebik.) It’s a gorgeous slice of wood with attractive figuration and a warm, golden hue that refracts through the guitar’s light nitro finish. The top is flat, not carved as on a Les Paul. Light-colored binding provides the perfect frame for this pretty picture.
The neck is also a thing of beauty. Carved from a single piece of Honduran mahogany, it has moderate heft and a slightly flattened D shape. I love the headstock look, with its not-quite parallel lines, delicate keyhole cutout, and retro-style Grover open-backed tuners. The 25"-inch-scale Macassar ebony fretboard is the stuff of 6-string dreams. All 21 jumbo-sized frets are masterfully installed, with perfectly rounded ends. Fretboard feel doesn’t get much smoother than this. Small, understated position markers keep the visual focus on the striking redwood top. The wooden knobs add a fitting rustic touch.
That Hollow Feeling
As you might expect, the light, hollow body provides an open, acoustic-like quality. A metal tailpiece adds to the zingy resonance. (Naughty guitarists who enjoy strumming behind the bridge and the nut will dig the pretty Aeolian harp textures, as heard at 00:31 in the demo clip.) Strummed unplugged, Mendocino has ample sustain with tons of treble energy, but not in an overbearing way. It simply feels lively and responsive, and plugging in only reinforces the impression.
Mendocino’s dynamic response is extreme. It seems to amplify the nuances of your touch—so much so that it may initially seem hard to control. But after only a few minutes of playing, I relished those hair-trigger dynamics and their expressive possibilities. Players who emphasize subtle variations in touch and dynamics are likely to be smitten.
The Gold Foil pickups amplify all the above qualities. By nature, they have an “acoustic-like” character, with spacious highs and wide-open mids, reinforced by gratifyingly beefy lows. They also excel at transmitting delicate dynamic variations. They are a superb choice here—but they have their quirks.
I know these particular Lollar pickups well and love them dearly. When I first got a pair, I tried them out in several guitars, learning a few things in the process. I used to think that “the gold-foil sound” was a combination of rubber-magnet pickups and the lightweight (oh heck, we can just say “flimsy”) construction of the budget guitars that originally housed them. In reality, you get the same “acoustic-like” quality regardless of guitar body type. And here, combined with the Mendocino’s light, resonant materials, they produce the mother of all gold-foil tones.
The top end is so pretty that you might be tempted to focus on clean tones. But Mendocino has a cool and unconventional overdriven sound—fat, loose, and full of ear-catching midrange resonances. (For the distorted portions of the demo clip I plugged into a homemade Tone Bender Mk I clone, which is also fat, loose, and resonant. You could get tighter tones with a more contemporary distortion circuit.)
If you’re new to gold-foils, be aware the capacitive relationship between the pickups and guitar controls differs from that of most other pickups. When you roll back the guitar volume, tones get dark really fast—it’s almost like you’re lowering the tone control. Don’t expect to go from hot distortion to crispy clean via the guitar’s volume knob. This isn’t an issue if you always play with the guitar volume wide open. But if you’re accustomed to using the guitar’s volume knob as a distortion control, you’ll need to modify your methods here. (Consider this an FYI rather than a criticism.)
Just One Thing….
I bestowed our Premier Gear Award on the Mendocino without a second thought. Still, there’s one significant caveat: As installed, the neck pickup is several dB louder than the bridge pickup. At some amp settings, the neck can sound distorted while the bridge remains clean. (You can hear this in the final seconds of the demo clip, where I strum an open E chord with identical force on the bridge pickup, the neck pickup, and then on the bridge pickup again.)
Oh well, I figured, tastes differ when it comes to pickup height. I’ll just grab my little screwdriver and … uh-oh. The pickups are screwed directly into the body without mounting rings. You can’t adjust their height without adding a shim or routing the body. Since Grez guitars are custom-made to order, consider requesting more distance between the neck pickup and the strings if you want evenly matched pickup output. If it weren’t for this detail, my ratings below would be even higher—perhaps even a perfect 20.
Mendocino is a unique instrument full of striking tones. If you dig the “acoustic-like” character of gold-foil pickups, you’ll probably love they way they interact with Mendocino’s light, resonant body. The workmanship is stellar across the board, but especially on the smooth, sensual fretboard. This guitar delights the eye as much as the ear. The sole issue for me is the unequal output of the non-height-adjustable pickups, though you can always request modifications on a custom instrument like this. The $2,800 admission fee is steep, but Mendocino has everything you expect in this ultra-premium price range: superb materials, masterful workmanship, and, best of all, uniquely beautiful tones.