Hü Tonelabs Psychlone Jr. Review
Custom-shop style and quality collide in a unique axe that references Fender and Gibson via George Jetson and Lindy Fralin.
Psychlone Jr. into a Catalinbread Topanga, a J. Rockett Audio Archer (set to clean boost), and an MXR Reverb, routed to a Jaguar HC50 miked with a Royer R-121 and a Goodsell Valpreaux 21 miked with a Shure SM57, both feeding an Apogee Duet going into GarageBand with no EQ-ing, compression, or effects.
Clip 1: Tone and volume at max. First bridge pickup, then middle position, then neck.
Clip 2: Tone and volume at max. First bridge pickup, then middle position, then neck.
With a research and development “brain trust” made up of friends like Jackson Guitars founder Grover Jackson, Abasi Guitars luthier Frank Falbo, and Bay Area maintenance guru Gary Brawer, Hü Tonelabs’ main man Hugh Schick says he aims to craft “stunning instruments of superb quality and playability.” And while there’s certainly no shortage of luthiers making similar claims, it’s also true that many of those builders offer fairly humdrum designs fancied-up with figured woods and eye-candy inlays. What’s more, such instruments are more often than not priced out of reach of anyone not in the attorney-blues brigade.
Meanwhile, even a cursory look at Hü Tonelabs’ new Psychlone Jr.—which goes for $1,399 street, as tested, with gigbag—tells you you’re looking at something unique. And it only gets more so the closer you look.
Psyzing It Up
Considering how traditionalist guitarists tend to be in their aesthetic and tonal tastes, it took guts for Schick to come out with a guitar as far afield as the Psychlone is from the Gibson- and Fender-inspired visuals that dominate guitardom. And yet the Jr.’s swooping offset curves, mutating-paisley pickguard, and rocket-like headstock retain enough fluidity of form to feel simultaneously futuristic and retro. In terms of practical appointments, the Psychlone hews fairly classic, too, albeit in a pretty unusual blend: Although the 25.5" scale is Fender, its glued-in neck and mahogany body are very Gibson. There’s also a Hü P-90 bridge pickup with alnico 5 magnets, a wraparound bridge—compensated for more accurate intonation—master volume and tone controls, an ebony-topped maple neck with a 12" radius, and Wilkinson tuners.
Functionally, the Jr. has only one appointment that’s not decidedly traditionalist: Two chromed on/off pushbuttons on the bass bout avail the standard complement of pickup options: bridge, neck, or both. Contrary to what you might think, though, they’re no harder to use—even mid-song—than traditional 3- or 5-way switches.
The neck-position pickup is a bit unique, too. Developed with Lindy Fralin, it’s a mini-humbucker inspired by Fender’s Seth Lover-designed Wide Range humbuckers from the early 1970s. Although Schick insists on keeping the mini-humbucker’s recipe close to his chest, he will divulge that it uses traditional, nonmagnetic pole pieces, unlike original Wide Ranges (which used threaded CuNiFe rod-magnet pole pieces). He also points out that the six pole pieces that aren’t visible from the face of the guitar are accessible on the underside of the pickup and can be adjusted for a more single-coil-like response.
More than these unique appointments, however, what’s most impressive about the Psychlone Jr. is its overall craftsmanship. The space-age red-sparkle finish is flawless and impeccably applied, without so much as a hint of bleed or mess at its juncture with the clear-finished maple neck. More importantly, the Psychlone Jr.’s “disappearing ends” fretwork is masterful and inviting, outshining instruments we’ve seen costing much, much more. Even the robustness and rock-solid stability of the pots stands out in comparison to many more expensive guitars.
Jiving with Junior
I tested the Psychlone Jr. with a variety of amps, including a silverface Fender Vibro Champ, and a 6973-driven Goodsell Valpreaux 21 running in tandem with an EL34-powered Jaguar HC50. As I typically do, I started out on the bridge pickup, with the tone control at max. Candidly, even as a devout fan of the two most treble-notorious electrics on the market—the Telecaster and the Jazzmaster—I found the P-90 to be on the strident side. Though perhaps not as piercing as the most ice-pick-y bridge pickup on the aforementioned models, the Jr.’s P-90 also possessed none of the compressed “give” one might find in a snappy Tele pickup. On the other hand, this harshness was easily remedied by the Psychlone Jr.’s tone control, whose throw is so wide that it could function as a mighty wah if it were in rocker-pedal form. With the tone knob at 40 to 50 percent, the P-90 divulged brawny, tough tones suitable for classic, hard, or even punk rock—albeit without some of the sparkle some players might hope for.
The mini-humbucker—which, along with the wraparound bridge (in place of the regular Psychlone model’s Jazzmaster-style tremolo), earns this model its “Jr.” designation—is the antithesis of the P-90 in just about every way. Soloed, it’s thick, warm, and full sounding, with a very vintage voice well suited to everything from decadent jazz chords to gorgeously old-school R&B rhythm chucks to corpulent riffery with a fuzz pedal. Make no mistake, this pickup is mini in name only. To my ears, it doesn’t quite have the string-y, textural nuance of pickups that follow the threaded-rod-magnet recipe of Lover’s original Wide Range pickups. But players who find authentic Wide Range-style pickups too gritty might find Hü’s mini-humbucker to be a fantastic middle ground, adding a little more pristine clarity to that trademark luxuriant warmth. Speaking of which, the mini pairs wonderfully with the Jr.’s P-90, mitigating the bridge pickup’s harshness at just about any tone-knob setting and yielding everything from big, jangle-rock rhythms to bristling psych-rock fare.
The Hü Tonelabs Psychlone Jr. offers superb craftsmanship and attention to detail in virtually every way one could hope for. Fit, finish, fretwork, and setup really couldn’t be any better. I’ve seen top-of-the-line and custom-shop instruments that could learn a thing or two from it. What’s more, the Jr. strikes a great balance between familiar and fresh in both looks and appointments. Although I found its P-90 bridge pickup a bit disappointing, especially in comparison to the delectable mini-humbucker, it’s good to know that Hü also offers an array of other options that might fit one’s taste (including a square-poled single-coil inspired by ’60s Teisco guitars). Even with its minor flaws, this is truly an astounding instrument for the money.