Wilkins WJZ is a Jazzmaster-styled custom guitar from a guitar industry veteran
Pat Wilkins’ involvement with the nascent LA custom guitar scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s provided a comprehensive and unique education in luthierie that serves as a foundation for Wilkins Guitars. That education began in 1976, when Wilkins moved to the LA area from Washington, DC, to pursue a career in music (he’s a bass player). He worked during the day building speaker cabinets for Acoustic and jammed at night with his band, which included Tom Anderson on guitar. While the music career never materialized, he was asked by Anderson to join him at Schecter Guitar Research as one of the original 10 employees. Wilkins spent six years at Schecter, first in the wood shop, then in assembly, and finally in the paint shop, learning all aspects of custom guitar production. The emphasis upon quality was a central theme of his Schecter work experience, and Pat embodied that emphasis on the guitars he worked on for famous players such as Mark Knopfler, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend.
Wilkins left Schecter in 1983 and, after a brief stint at LA Guitar Works doing finish work and restorations, formed Wilkins Guitars in 1984 in Van Nuys, California. As the era of hot-rod guitars entered high gear, Wilkins Guitars became the shop of choice for custom guitar finishes. He finished guitars for many artists, including the original bullseye Les Paul for Zakk Wylde, Eddie Van Halen’s “red cloud” Ripley guitar, and “marble rock swirl” guitar for James Hetfield. After 10 years as a custom finish and restoration shop, Wilkins Guitars moved into production initially as a subcontractor for Yamaha and then solely under the Wilkins name in 1997. Today, Wilkins Guitars offers guitars and basses directly to the public through a marketing and distribution partnership with Chris Campbell of Rockbox Electronics.
A Broad Color Palette for the Eyes and Ears
Initial impressions are lasting, and Wilkins’ update to the classic Fender Jazzmaster design is very visually pleasing. This WJZ model features a solid alder body (ash is also available) finished in an intricate “blue foil” polyester that is a layered metallic finish swirled with various hues of blue and black. This 3D finish just pops under the lights. The body features both a top arm contour and tummy cut to enhance playability. The quartersawn maple neck is satin finished and features a gloss matching headstock. The neck carve is a classic vintage C shape with a fair amount of taper between the 1st and 12th frets. The Indian rosewood fretboard features a player-friendly 14" radius and contrasts nicely with the 21 polished, 6150 jumbo frets and imitation clay-dot fret markers. Brazilian rosewood, maple, and ebony fretboards are also available.
The single-action truss rod is accessed at the base of the neck and can be adjusted without removing the neck or strings.
Although Wilkins makes pickups in-house for other models, Pat gave the WJZ model its own distinct electronics package, voiced with a pair of crème-colored DiMarzio Virtual P90 pickups. These ceramic-magnet pickups sound fairly hot, even though they’re listed at 9.14K DC—perhaps due to the active electronics package. The dual pickups are wired to a horizontal three-postion white-tipped Switchcraft switch with master Volume and Master tone controls. A notable feature of the electronics package is an active mid boost and presence boost manufactured by Demeter and powered by a 9-volt battery, which is easily accessed via a compartment recessed into the back of the guitar. The system provides +9dB of boost when engaged by the black on/off switch on the face of the guitar, and the frequency sweep for each boost is controlled by the dual thumbwheels above the pickups. The thumbwheels allow the player to quickly and easily access a broad range of tones to find the most appropriate one for just about any performance situation. Combine this versatility with the WJZ’s hot-rod aesthetics, and you have the trappings for a cool stage instrument.
The Jazzmaster-style chrome tremolo bridge features Schaller roller saddles and is set up in traditional fashion. The tremolo stays in tune well and offers a pleasing, subtle effect consistent with its design—with the help of the roller saddles and a well-cut 1-5/8" bone nut. The chrome strap buttons are traditional style and pair well with the chrome facemounted Switchcraft input jack. The 25.5"- scale neck is attached to the body at the 16th fret with the use of a four-bolt neck joint and nickel neck plate. I found that the neck joint had shifted slightly during shipping, leaving a gap on the bass side of the neck pocket, which caused the high E string to be closer to the edge of the fretboard in the higher registers. The problem was easily remedied, though, and it’s very rare for any guitar not to need even minor setup adjustments after shipping. The chrome Sperzel tuners are well seated and feature staggered posts that improve string tension, which is augmented by a single, round string tree. The white Stratstyle control knobs, crème pickup covers, and three-layer pickguard are nice design touches.
Strummed unplugged, the WJZ is highly resonant, with a round, prominent acoustic voice. The fretwork is excellent, and strung up with a set of .010–.045 Thomastik Infeld Power- Brights, two-step bends were executed easily. The classic combination of tone woods (alder body and rosewood board) delivers a broad acoustic tone with a slight midrange emphasis and a pleasing touch of harmonic overtones. Plugged in, the WJZ and its active electronics offer up a sonic palette that is diverse enough to handle many tone-challenged performance venues. The DiMarzio pickups offer the representative tones that we all love about the renowned soapboar: the bridge has that bark and midrange growl; the neck has the huge, sustain-laden woody tone; and the combination offers the clarity with a subtle quack. When the Demeter boost is engaged, the additional tonal control gives you more than enough sweep to dial in a tone to combat the effects of a tone-sucking venue. It’s also effective in changing the coloring of a pickup on the fly. For example, the bridge pickup can go from very PAF-ish to Tele-esque through a flick of the thumbwheels. I found quite a few usable tones, with some highlights being the unboosted neck pickup’s big, round, organic tone and the bodacious blues tone of the neck pickup with the Demeter electronics engaged. The bridge pickup with the presence boost dimed produced some snarling, Tele-like tones.
The Final Mojo
The WJZ stands out as a versatile player’s tool. As such, it is not surprising that Dwayne Larring of the band Theft has recently adopted the WJZ as his signature axe. Its broad frequency response, smooth playability, and attractive aesthetics make it an instrument worth checking out. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that you can get one with virtually any custom finish possible by one of the best in the business.
you’re seeking an attractive, versatile stage guitar that offers up a broad array of tones.
you’re looking for more traditional appointments
MSRP $3600 (as tested) - Wilkins Guitars - wilkinsguitars.com