Potvin Guitars El Camino & Ranchero Electric Guitar Reviews
What do you get when you cross a Junior with a Tele? Two workhorses that rock in different ways, with tones that defy expectation.
Though he’s been building custom instruments since 1993, these two models, the Ranchero and the El Camino, represent Mike Potvin’s first standard offerings, if you take standard in the sense of stock designs with a few options rather than completely custom built, that is (although there are still quite a few options available). If you take standard in the sense of routine, typical or conventional, then not so much. Our first up-close encounter with these guitars at the Montreal Guitar Show last July put us in mind of what might happen if you stuck an Esquire and a Junior in a dark place and let nature take its course. We were pleased to discover, though, that Potvin’s experiment in hybridization had gone well beyond the coolness of the idea, so we knew we’d be able to review more than a pair of eye-pleasing gimmicks. As luck would have it, the two guitars we received were the very same ones we’d had a chance to look over and play in Montreal—although Mike had made a few small changes in the meantime.
What is so impressive about the guitars (again beyond the cool-factor of this particular crisscross) is how unique they are. Both instruments are as unlike the guitars that inspired them as they are unlike each other. And, although it’s hard enough to imagine a more diametrically opposed set of energies than those of the rarified, exclusive cult of the modern boutique guitar and the blue-collar, workhorse vibe of the Fender Esquire and Gibson Les Paul Junior, Potvin has somehow managed to harness those engergies and make them work together. That he’s able to do that and offer a very healthy array of options, and still sell them at a price that won’t make a working musician blush … well, it sure impressed us.
|Download Example 1|
El Camino rear selector pos. (regular tone control), Vol 2 up to full
|Download Example 2|
El Camino fwd selector (first cap, no tone control) Vol. full
|Recorded with XITS Sadie Channel 1, Bass noon, Treb. 1 o'clock, Cut
9:30, Vol. full; AQDI ZeroCap cable; recorded on a Mac using Digidesign
Starting well within the Junior-style domain with a double-cutaway slab body of white limba (or korina)—made dramatic with dark grain filler—the El Camino reveals a number of upscale touches, from the pao ferro fretboard to the matching headstock overlay with black pinstripe, the five-ply pickguard and truss rod cover, black mother-of-pearl inlay logo and Gotoh 510 tuners. Though it clearly possesses the qualities of a well-thought-out, handbuilt guitar, it nevertheless retains a sense of downto- earth directness. The three-piece maple neck, instead of mahogany or korina, was unexpected, and there was a bit more mass in the shoulders than on most Gibsons, but the headstock angle, neck shape and scale length all combine to give it a familiar feel.
The pickup is one of Jason Lollar’s Special T series, and this bridge is a modern T-style, but a 3- or 6- saddle vintage bridge is available—for those who are more interested in mojo than intonation, as Potvin suggests. And, while the straight-ahead mojo of a korina guitar and a P-90 is pretty much inarguable, combining that body, neck and wood with a Tele/Esquire bridge and pickup seemed like uncharted territory. I’m happy to report a pleasant journey with some real surprise discoveries. Because of the Esquire switching, the El Camino turns out to be a seriously versatile instrument: forward engages the first capacitor (fixed-bass, no tone control); middle is the wide-open pickup, no tone control; and back engages the second cap with standard tone control. There is less snap and twang than the pickup would have in its more ordinary context, but there’s still plenty of sizzle. Somehow, through the alchemy of this particular combination of elements, Potvin has produced a no-bullshit, balls-out rock guitar. With the 3-way selector in the forward position, it’s pure classic rock beast with all the thick, sweet mid-focused punch you could ask for—think AC/DC and KISS. Although you can get it very crisp if you lay off the gain, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was no way it had a Tele pickup if you had your eyes closed. Throw the selector all the way back and roll the Tone control off just a bit for all bite and woolly swagger that goes from the Stones to MC5, depending on the gain. Somehow, with a Vox-voiced amp like the Xits Sadie dimed, the El Camino in the middle position even does the raunchy “bag of nails” overdrive jangle of the early Jam, like the Byrds on steroids. If you like it raucous and rebellious, you’ll definitely like the El Camino. The fact is, I’m unable to offer a detailed report on the quality of the guitar’s clean tones because … well, I only passed through them on my way to the dirt.
you want real versatility in a uniquely styled and stripped-down workhorse.
you’re not looking to kick out the jams.
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Hit page 2 for our review of the Ranchero...
|Download Example 1|
Ranchero Tone 5, Vol. 3 up to 8; XITS Sadie Ch. 2 (EF86) Tone noon, Vol 3 o'clock
|Download Example 2|
Ranchero Tone 9, Vol 8; XITS Sadie Ch. 2 (EF86) Tone noon, Cut 9:30, Vol. 3 o'cl
|Recorded through AQDI ZeroCap cable to XITS Sadie in Sound Studio on a Mac using Digidesign MBox2.|
Early on, the Esquire-inspired body, retro pickguard and Junior-style electronics of the Ranchero made it a front-runner over the El Camino—for me anyway. Truth be told, I warm up more readily to Fender-style guitars. It’s not because I think they’re better, but just because I’ve owned more of them and spent more time playing them. I find the neck profile, the scale length and the string tension more familiar, even the way they balance. To be quite frank, though, the big, black dog-ear P-90 and wraparound tailpiece on a Tele-esque body with wonderfully grained swamp ash in vintage Butterscotch finish—it has to be among the coolest looking things I’ve seen this year, Fender and Gibson inspiration aside. It just looks like it sounds raw and keen. Mike Potvin will make it for you in korina or mahogany, with other vintage colors for the finish if you like, but why would you?
A 12"-radius African blackwood fretboard with pearl face and side markers is unmistakably nice, but the hidden treasure of this guitar is the bocote neck. You can also get a maple neck if you really want it, but you should definitely treat yourself to the bocote. It’s an oily wood, so Potvin has left it unfinished from behind the nut down to the heel—it’s neither slippery nor sticky, but actually very gratifying to play. I can’t find a better word than luxurious, both in the way it looks and the way it feels. If I could convince Mike Potvin to sell me just the bocote necks, I’d take three or four in a heartbeat.
Unexpected improvements aren’t limited to the benefits of the criss-crossed designs and that opulent neck. There is also that head-slapping moment of wonder and thoughts of “Hmmn, why didn’t this happen sooner?” when you go to plug the guitar in and realize that the Strat-type output jack has been mounted on the back of the guitar, just below the mid-point, but angled slightly upward rather than downward. It’s actually kind of remarkable how much difference a few inches can make in placement. The angle will minimize the chance of pulling the cord out by accident, but you’re not very likely to step on it anyway—at least not while wearing this guitar on a strap—since this setup actually works better than looping the cord through the strap to move it out of the way and keep it from getting underfoot, or being yanked out by a clumsy step. It also has the advantage of leaving the front of the guitar free of … well, clutter. Potvin won’t take credit for inventing it, and I’m inclined to believe him; it’s just that I can’t recall where I’ve come across this before. It should become a standard option on all kinds of solidbody guitars—another stroke of genius, really.
Like the El Camino, handling and inspecting the Ranchero reveals all the attention to details—in fretwork, nut, intonation, etc.—that is the calling card of a skilled builder. Playing it unplugged for a while first revealed some very positive signs: it’s just ringing with overtones and full of lively resonance. Plugged in to both an Xits 15W Sadie and a Mojo Tweed Deluxe replica, those characteristics made for a rich, chiming textured tone that’s a clean player’s delight. Although it doesn’t cover what I’d call a wide tonal territory, you can achieve a very precise control over it with just the two knobs and touch (and most of the time I played it, I didn’t mess with the Tone at all).
As you’d expect, the Lollar P-90 and TonePros wraparound tailpiece keep it from sounding particularly like an Esquire—there isn’t too much of the bright twanginess or stinging bite at the top end. What it does have, though, is one mean snarl and a snappy thickness that’s bold but not syrupy. Set clean, it’s balanced and full; set to overdrive an amp, it is forceful and lean, but easily tameable with just a touch of the Volume knob. At every volume the Ranchero refuses to become either achingly bright or roundly dull sounding. It’s likely that has a lot to do with the high-quality paper in oil cap we found lurking in the well shielded control cavity, but I suspect that the choice of wood here is also responsible for the guitar’s tonal balance. There’s a clearer attack and less of the mellow midranginess you often get from mahogany or korina guitars … which is not to say better, but still another interesting byproduct of a successful hyrbridization. There really isn’t anything to readily compare it to.
Considering its pedigree, it may seem strange to say I probably wouldn’t consider it first for either pure classic rock or country, but there’s a lot between those two that it could be perfect for, from roots music and folk rock to grunge and punk, where lack of versatility is no weakness, where earnest simplicity is a virtue, and where so much comes down to plain old-fashioned craftsmanship.
you want custom-built quality with unpretentious straightforwardness and dependability.
you want greater tonal versatility.
Street $1750 - Potvin Guitars- potvinguitars.com