bilt relevator onboard effects indie guitar

A mashup of Jazzmaster, Jaguar and Marauder, the BilT Relevator takes onboard effects to a new level of cool

Download Example 1
Relevator pickup switching: bridge only; neck/bridge; neck only; middle/bridge; all on; middle only; neck middle--Vol/Tone full.
Download Example 2
Relevator onboard delay, Vol/Tone full
Download Example 3
BilT Relevator-Fuzz, then Fuzz/Delay, then Fuzz/Delay with Oscillator, then Fuzz with Oscillator.
Vox Valvetronix AD120V modeling Blackface 2x12; Recorded on a Mac in Sound Studio using Digidesign MBox2 w/ Sennheiser e609 & Colossal 15' Brooklyn cable. 
I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that a lot more guitarists are spending their stage time bent over their pedalboards than they used to. I recall one particular Broken Social Scene show a few years ago in which almost everyone onstage (not just the guitarists) remained stooped like hunchbacks over their giant pedalboards for the duration of the show. I’ll admit that it sounded incredible, but it wasn’t particularly fun to watch. Since then, I’ve noticed the increasing regularity with which guitarists tend to sink to the stage, or crouch, huddle or otherwise hunker—between and even during every song—to tweak their pedals. It makes me wonder how long we’ll have to wait before occupational therapists start coming up with names for the related injuries, like “fuzz knees” or “delay tweaker’s spine.”

Don’t Stoop Now
Amid the effects-modulating arms race of the modern stage show, it seems only natural that someone would spot the need for a guitar with onboard effects and fill it. That the makers of this particular guitar would see past the benefit of useable effects and aim as well for an instrument that could easily achieve high marks without them is much to their credit. This axe is no gimmick. Past onboard effects solutions tended to come in the form of makeshift modifications, as if they’d originated on The Red Green Show. Remember Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh with his Electro-Harmonix pedals duct-taped to the guitar? BilT’s solution, on the other hand, came from the fortuitous combination of a need and an unexploited potential in the form of a guitar that Fender prototyped but never put into production: the Marauder.

From the tip of its generously proportioned Starcasterish headstock with vintage-style Kluson tuners and single string tree to bottom of its gadget-laden, contoured alder body, the BilT Relevator is designed for what creators Tim Thelen and Bill Henss call “space racey” good looks. Their adjective seems to hit the nail right on the head, as the guitar looks like nothing so much as a mash-up of the futuristic offset-waisted models Fender rolled out one after another in the early days of the space age. Though the guys at BilT have certainly found inspiration in Leo Fender’s creations, they clearly have not been content to keep to a single line of influence, and their intention is not historical—this guitar is not in any sense a replica, but rather an exercise in taking what those designs provided into new territory.

BilT has also moved things in a more refined direction with the kind of fit and finish you only find on custom-built guitars, as well as some rather upscale appointments like a nice, thick “C”-shaped neck of lightly figured hard maple with a bone nut, a slot head heel adjustment for the 2-way truss rod and a bound rosewood fretboard—which is also unexpectedly lavish with its 1.75" nut-width (2" at the 12th fret), a 7.25" to 9.5" compound radius and vintage-sized frets. And to be sure, playing this neck is very much like driving a luxury sedan: it doesn’t seem to invite quick bursts of furious speed or squealing bends, but it’s a comfortable ride that seems made for cruising. Once I’d gotten used to the size and shape of the neck, I found that unison bends and bluesy runs weren’t too tricky, but the real grace here is in chord work and single-note runs. The addition of the tortoise pickguard, cream pickup covers and all that chrome definitely give it the classy look that Fender must have been touting when they put the Jazzmaster and Jaguar at the top of their lineup starting in the late ‘50s.

Say That Again, You’re Breaking Up
The Relevator’s extra real estate, influenced by Fender’s Marauder and its surplus of switches, accommodates much more than just the extravagance of options such a mash-up ought to suggest: three pickups, modified Jazzmaster-style tremolo and all the switching possibilities you could ask for. It also leaves plenty of room to put you fully in control of the onboard fuzz and delay circuits. The delay circuit offers three roller knobs for Delay, Mix and Feedback, as well as an On/Off button and another button for Modulation, which provides a subtle pitch shift on the repeats—the width and speed of the shift can be changed via trimpots in the back of the guitar. Active control of the fuzz circuit is much simpler with a Power button, a Drive roller and something BilT calls an Oscillate switch: push that button down with the fuzz engaged for all sorts of difficult-to-predict noises, from interference to squeals and crazy theremin-like pitches you can modulate with the Drive roller. Engage the Oscillator with the fuzz and the delay on and you’ve got the sound-effect equivalent of a NASA space launch. If the tone of the fuzz isn’t to your liking (initially, I wasn’t crazy about it myself), there are five additional trim pots in the back of the guitar for Volume, Tone, Oscillation, Bias and Gate. The Relevator’s pickups will work just fine without batteries, but if you want the effects, they run on a 9V battery—the jack cuts power to the effects when not plugged in to save battery life. Since delays have a tendency to eat batteries, the clever guys at BilT also provide an external power supply with each instrument that will power the effects by means of a stereo/TRS cable; just run the guitar into the little black box, and from there to the amp or other pedals. As a bonus, the power supply also provides two additional DC power outputs to run your other effects pedals.

The Relevator’s two Seymour Duncan Antiquity II pickups form the regular Jazzmaster complement, but are augmented by a single Antiquity for Jaguar pickup in the middle position (complete with the bona fide “claw” pickup ring). Along with Jazzmaster-style controls and the traditional rhythym circuit (the preset circuit switch and control wheels are mounted on the upper cutaway next to the relocated pickup selector switch) there is a dedicated switch to control additional combinations of the Jaguar pickup. The number of pickup switching options is truly impressive, as is the range of tonal possibilities they give you easy access to. When you add in the switches and roller knobs for the effects, the number of available controls might seem to approach excessive. Admittedly, it will take some patience to master all the switching options on the Relevator, but happily it won’t require discipline. The urge to simply play will take over and you’ll be completely absorbed in the discovery of its sonic possibilities—at least, that’s been the case with everyone I’ve seen engage with it. As for myself, I can’t even speculate on how many hours the Relevator has taken from me; it matters little since I was blissfully unaware of them passing, and I wouldn’t ask for even five minutes back.

But Wait, There’s More
In another step away from the past, the Relevator uses The Mastery bridge, which brings a whole new saddle design to Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Mustang and Jag-Stang guitars, as well as Bigsby-equipped Teles. It’s got four intonation-adjustment screws that stay out of the way of strings going to the vibrato and allow each side of the saddle to move independently. The saddles are radiused and adjustable from 7.25" and up, and they’re deeply grooved so the strings won’t fall out with some hard playing; the grooves are fanned out front and back so there’s no string pinching even if you’ve got a heavy hand. This bridge succeeds masterfully (pardon the pun) at its main purpose, which is to eliminate the rattle and tuning instability associated with the traditional bridges of this type, but it doesn’t seem to squelch that peculiar resonant quality that can give these guitars such a distinct sound.

Sounds Like … A Lot
The Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickups deserve their reputation for offering all the full sound with the balanced highs and low end that marks great Jazzmaster and Jaguar tones. Their percussive snap and big, round shimmering cleans will put you smack dab in vintage surf, rock and ska territory. They also handle themselves impeccably with a screaming tube amp, never getting mushy or overblown sounding. You could take this guitar straight from a gig doing Shadows covers to a performance with your Sonic Youth tribute band and not feel like something was missing. The fact that the Relevator wouldn’t look out of place at either gig is a great perk, too. Given the neck that BilT provides, the blues is probably the style least ideally suited to this guitar, but even so the thick growl of the neck pickup, the cutting leanness of the bridge pickup, spare and wiry single-coil bite of the Jaguar pickup—even the Strat-like quack I got by adding them together—those along with the supremely accessible delay and fuzz circuits, prompted me into long excursions of Electric Mud-style riffing … punctuated by protracted experiments in producing artful noise and, I have to say, some of the most musical and easily controlled feedback I’ve encountered in a guitar of this type.

There may be a touch of irony in finding so sophisticated and refined an instrument that is nevertheless so well suited to the styles of music that thrive by opposing sophistication and cultivating the image of raw, homespun … well, grunginess. Without a doubt, the indie cred of offest-style guitars came along with the rebel poses of earlier adopters like Elvis Costello and J. Mascis, but their popularity as an alternative instrument has been continuously on the rise since they began to be adopted in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s by players looking for workhorse guitars with vintage mojo, who found them more affordable than the more popular models, whose prices were beginning to take off. The look and sound of these kinds of guitars—and the tinkering and reinvention they’ve been subjected to—have become integral to the styles of music in which their use has proliferated. Although the Relevator is, to be honest, heavy enough to almost be more than one of these guitars, it does seems to offer all of their best attributes, and then some, in a single instrument. It makes sense that in its short life the BilT Relevator has already been onstage with bands like The Killers, Blitzen Trapper and more recently Wilco (Nels Cline is now the proud owner of a Relevator).

The Final Mojo No single element of this guitar’s design is what you’d call revolutionary, but the sum total of all these elements, and the thought and care that went into making them work together to be the instrument that this is … well, it certainly raises the bar for partisans of the offset-style solidbody electric. If you’re on the lookout for an exceptionally well-built guitar with huge tonal versatility and sonic utility—and one that will also give you instant street cred with the indie crowd, you won’t find very many reasons to look further than the BilT Relevator ... unless you’re in post-rock, artcore alternative group or a shoegaze outfit, in which case you probably won’t find any.
Buy if...
a guitar with great looks, sound, playability and a few onboard effects is all you need to be a hero.
Skip if...
you’re a shredder, a blues purist, or you need the lightest guitar you can find.

Street $2200 - BilT Guitars -