September 28, 2010
Vintage goldtop-inspired with unusual tonewoods and custom P-90s
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More Than a Pretty Smell
The guitar feels and looks bigger than a Les Paul, yet lighter, warmer, brighter, and more resonant. Its weight made me wonder if perhaps the guitar was a semi-hollow body, or at least chambered. It is, in fact, solid Spanish cedar with an Eastern maple cap over the body and headstock. The neck is also Spanish cedar with curly maple bindings and a wenge fretboard—another unique choice, as wenge is far more common on bass necks and fretboards than electric guitars. The wenge fretboard is polished but otherwise unfinished, with inlaid with mother-of-pearl trapezoids. The neck is smooth and well-lacquered, though the grain can be felt on your palm, especially with lateral movements. The grain feel did not impede my playing or speed, and was just another reminder of the organic and lively nature of the instrument. The d-cut neck and 12" radius seems built for tone and comfort with minimal compromises to speed and dexterity. The neck's 22 frets lie across a 24.75" scale, all making for very Les Paul-like dimensions. With the Gibson-esque goldtop finish on the maple body cap and P-90-style soapbar pickups, a mental comparison is immediately drawn to early Les Paul Goldtops. Builder Doug Kauer confirms that the sought-after vintage instruments were an inspiration for the Kauer Daylighter Standard.
With the wenge and Spanish cedar wood selections, clearly Kauer is aiming for a guitar with its own feel and tone, and not just an artisan version of the tried and true. And while the neck specs may remind a player of a Les Paul, the feel of the neck didn't quite. It felt good, but thicker than its measurements, and despite gravitating toward slinkier superstrat profiles, I was surprised out how natural it felt moving up and down the neck.
The guitar features a pair of custom-wound Wolfetone P-90s based on the company’s “Mean” model (8k output with alnico II magnets) with an underwound neck pickup. The model sent to me shipped with a typical three-way pickup toggle mounted in the upper horn, and a set of gold-finished volume and tone bell knobs for each pickup. If you prefer a simpler setup, the guitar is also available in a two-knob master volume and tone setup. The open-back Sperzel SoundLock tuners have an anodized finish and pearl-colored tuning keys. As the name implies, the tuners incorporate a string-locking feature that is friction-based and allows for quick, reliable stringing. Just run the string through the shaft and out into a slot on the post. A quick turn of the tuner locks the string in place. The tuners were very smooth and ultra-precise strobe tuning was a breeze.
The Daylighter Standard also comes stock with a TonePros wraparound tailpiece and an optional bridge. That's the right, you can get this guitar with or without a bridge, like early Les Paul goldtops. This setup did cause me to worry a little about intonation, but I perceived no intonation issues up and down the neck.
While the Daylighter Standard may have been inspired by the 1954 Les Paul goldtop, the guitar's tone is very much its own thing. Some consider Spanish cedar a suitable substitute for mahogany, but I have to say it sounds warmer and more resonant than any mahogany instrument I have played. It is very lively with a resonance beyond traditional solidbody electrics—so much so that it is hard to compare it with any benchmark electrics. The highs were very organic, warm, and not thin—definitely not super bright like a Fender, nor dark like a Les Paul, but with elements of each. The bottom on both neck and bridge pickups was slightly Fenderish, but with more dimension. The satisfying sustain was reminiscent of a Les Paul.
The guitar distorts really well, allowing its tonal character to really come to life with plenty of bite and an excellent harmonic range. This was especially true with chordings where the complex harmonics of six-string chords really come to life. Where a distorted power chord on many guitars can sound like a single—albeit, fat—musical element, on the Daylighter the same chords sounded complex, like six strings working in concert instead of six strings acting as a single sound. This unique attribute definitely is a product of all of the components coming together, rather than just the pickups or tonewood.
The Daylighter's character translated to lead lines fairly well also, though busy shred solos didn't translate as well as elongated, whole-note melodies. Single-note vibratos and bends made for better lead lines than arpeggios and sixteenth notes, and allowed the guitar's lively, harmonically rich voice to sing out. For some, the guitar may not get dark enough. Still, it's the kind of guitar where you can do a lot with just one note on one string. The P-90s are no doubt a factor in all the above, and the guitar is an excellent example of why P-90s are still popular today—as well as a reminder of the amount of hum inherent in a hot P-90 running through an overdriven amp.
Physically the guitar feels good on your shoulder, against your gut, and in your hands. Not overly lacquered like some boutique instruments, the Daylighter is very much a guitar to be played. The body style is somewhat retro, and subtly contoured. As mentioned earlier, the body looks bigger than a Les Paul's, and with that much surface, placement of the controls matters quite a lot. With the pickup toggle on the upper horn, and the pickup knobs very near the bottom of the instrument, the controls felt too spread out. I had to reach quite a bit for the bridge pickup knobs, which, like the neck pickup knobs, are slightly recessed. Placement, combined with the glassy, Gibson type bell-shaped knobs on medium-stiff pots means this is not a guitar you can adjust quickly. Controlling volume and tone and pickup selection, while not quite cumbersome, was methodical at best. Given the hot P-90s, cranking back guitar volume is mandatory for a true clean sound. This highlighted the navigational challenges of the instrument. And while the goldtop finish was nicely done with just the right amount of metallic sheen to it, the body size and shape lends itself to finishes with more contrast and color. It’s an aesthetic preference, and luckily Kauer offers additional finish options if the gold doesn’t float your boat.
Kauer Guitars deserves respect for evolving the classic features of a vintage electric into something that sounds and feels very original in tone and construction. While today’s Gibsons haven’t strayed much from their 50-year-old ancestors, the Kauer Daylighter Standard shows that pleasant surprises lie outside the traditional mainstream conventions of solidbody electric guitars. Though the Kauer Daylighter sounds great, a $3400 dollar price tag for a vintage-inspired, 'no frills' instrument may give pause in today's economy. However, if you are going to spend that much on a guitar, it ought to be for the tone and not the legacy.
you want big, lively, warm original tone, with very good playability, and can swing for the boutique price.
you need a dark tone, shred speed, or an affordable instrument.
MSRP $3400 - Kauer Guitars - kauerguitars.com