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Richmond Guitars Empire Mahogany Electric Guitar Review

Richmond Guitars Empire Mahogany Electric Guitar Review

Richmond’s latest, the Empire, rocks with a no-frills, budget-lux combination of appointments and playability that’s the stuff of pawnshop sleepers and minor classics like the Gibson Melody Maker.

For years, the Godin family of guitar companies—Godin, Seagull, Simon & Patrick, and Art & Lutherie—has built unique and often great guitars at prices that are competitive with just about any manufacturer in the world. It’s a trick the Canadian company pulls off with an inarguable regularity. So when Godin created the Richmond brand a few years back as a vehicle for more traditional ’50s- and ’60s-inspired electrics, few were surprised at how stylish, well built, and sweet sounding guitars like the Dorchester and Belmont were for the price.

Richmond’s latest, the Empire, is more of the same goodness. It rocks with a no-frills, budget-lux combination of appointments and playability that’s the stuff of pawnshop sleepers and minor classics like the Gibson Melody Maker.

Built for Business—on a Budget
With its chocolaty mahogany finish and compact heft, the Empire made it impossible not to reminisce about the 1971 SG that was one of the first electric guitars I spent any real time with as a lad. But though the beautiful grain, bass-bout carve, and sense of solidity in the Empire are very SG-ish, there’s a lot of cool design inspiration from less likely sources. There’s certainly a touch of PRS and some hints of Gibson’s ill-fated Sonex in the body profile, and the headstock is a bit of a nod to the slimmer Rickenbacker headstocks of the ’60s.

You can’t get much simpler than the control layout on the Empire: Volume and Tone knobs and a pickup switch in the forward bass bout. But the simplicity belies the range of sounds available from the bridge humbucker and the neck-position single-coil. The tailpiece is a wraparound design that’s elegant and well made, though its lack of adjustable saddles does beg the question of how to deal with intonation problems down the line. The cool-looking Kluson-style tuners are a great match for the headstock, though they lack the advantage of slotted posts that make Klusons the easiest string change of all time.

The Empire is very well balanced for its weight and feels really comfortable hanging over your shoulder. Much of the overall comfort is attributable to the 2-piece, satin-finished, 22-fret neck, which has a slim, fast-feeling, and slightly flattish C profile that makes chording and deep bends uniformly easy. A neck joint that tapers toward the cutaway facilitates access to the upper frets.

Straight Ahead
A vigorous strum of a first-position E chord long before I ever plugged the guitar in revealed a remarkable resonance that’s doubly notable given the bolt-on design. You can really feel the body sympathetically vibrating, and the sustain of unamplified chords is impressive.

The combination of the Empire’s solidity and simplicity called for a straightforward approach to amplification, so I hooked it up to a blackface Fender Concert, a blackface Tremolux, an Ampeg Super Jet, and a 50-watt Marshall plexi to probe the surprisingly wide array of tones on tap.

It’s hard not to want to rock with the Empire. It feels sturdy and thrashable in your hands, and the bridge humbucker possesses a snarly character when you open up the Volume and Tone controls—not totally uncivilized, but heavy on high-end content that helps leads and power chords cut through a mix. It’s a great match for Marshalls if you like the dry bite of Paul Kossoff ’s or Mick Ronson’s tones, but it’s also a perfect fit for slashing, mod-garage-style chords and punk riffs. Through the less powerful Fenders, the humbucker is no less effective for generating spiky punk textures and hot blues-rock lead tones, though it’s predictably a little more rubbery.

The Tone and Volume controls are effective and responsive—which is nice to see on a mid-priced instrument, given how many companies cut corners on electronic components in this price range. Used in conjunction with the bridge humbucker, the two knobs enabled me to shape the top end into a form ideal for use with fuzz—particularly if you’re into wooly and endlessly sustaining Randy California-style sounds. In fact, the Empire’s humbucker, with a little roll off in volume and tone, is a great guitar for taming your most hectic fuzz while retaining some meat and buzz in your signal.

The single-coil neck pickup is full of surprises, too. It’s a great all-around pickup that sounds wider than a neck humbucker you hear in an SG or Les Paul. It doesn’t have the wide-spectrum detail of a Rickenbacker toaster pickup, which it slightly resembles, or the high end of a good Filter’Tron in the neck position, but it has the versatile feel of a Telecaster pickup and works great in lead or rhythm situations without getting muddy. Like the bridge humbucker, it’s a great match for a fuzz—especially if you’re dealing with the sting and rasp of a squirrelly old germanium or silicon unit.

The Verdict
Like every Richmond we’ve encountered to date, the Empire is a steal. The fit and finish are excellent, the components are better than most that we see on mid-priced guitars, and the mahogany body is beautiful and magically resonant. And rather than throw together the same old two-humbucker set, Richmond selected a humbucker and single- coil that sound unique and expand the range of tones at your fingertips.

If you’re into punk, garage, or blues-rock, the Empire is an ideal partner in crime, but it’s equally at home grinding metal chords through a Marshall and a distortion pedal or jangling away at folk-rock arpeggios. At just 500 bucks, however, it represents an extraordinary value—particularly given the quality of the materials and build. If it’s a no-frills rocking machine you need, you’ll find that and a lot more in the Richmond Empire.
Buy if...
sweet, blossoming, mahogany rock tones on a budget sound sweet to your ears.
Skip if...
you’re just going to keep saving until the SG of your dreams is in your hands—no matter what it costs.

Street $595 - Richmond Guitars -