Harden Engineering''s Switchblade has unique looks and down ''n'' dirty tone

“She’s sure fine looking, man. Wow, she’s something else!” That’s the Eddie Cochran lyric that came to mind when I first laid eyes on the Harden Switchblade. It oozes tail fins, chrome, and custom-car culture. It’s the cool kid on the block with a duck tail and a leather jacket listening to the gritty sounds of Link Wray. Blending retro-cool and classic American-modern design, this guitar is unique and fresh. Harden guitars (as well as amplifiers and overdrive pedals) are handmade in a little shop in Chicago. Every aspect of this guitar, from the body to the handwound pickups, is made to order. You pick the wood and the details you want, as well as finish color and number of pickups. On their website, Harden proudly states, “We are dedicated to making guitars and related items the old-fashioned way.”

Under the Hood

Our review instrument resembles a maverick Les Paul with a cocky attitude. It’s fairly heavy and obviously built for strength and durability. The solid, single-cutaway body appears to be made of three pieces of mahogany with a maple cap. The neck is glued to the body at the 17th fret, but the single cutaway allows full access to the entire 22 frets. The neck is also mahogany, and the fretboard is of rosewood.

The appointments are very creative. A stylish faux tortoiseshell pickguard accentuates the body curves. The handmade pickup looks like something out of a ’50s sci-fi movie, and it’s mounted on a plate that’s shaped somewhere between a rectangle and a trapezoid. The chrome tailpiece looks handcrafted as well, with a convex center that tapers down at the ends. A distinctive chrome piece is mounted right where your arm would create wear on the guitar finish. Pretty smart detail. Target-shaped fretboard inlays give the axe a pop-art vibe, and the headstock logo is most unusual—a V-shaped chrome triangle with an “H” cut out of the middle and filled with faux tortoiseshell.

The instrument’s single Volume and Tone pots sit on an oblong chrome plate. The knobs—which look like they came from an old guitar amplifier or radio—complement the overall design. The Tuneo- matic-style bridge and Wilkinson tuners are probably the only stock parts on this guitar.

Taking a Test Drive
I plugged the Harden into my trusty reissue Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb. The “C”-styled neck was easy to grip and invited me to dig into some riffs. With a clean amp setting, this guitar kicks up some grit and a dirty tone—think Danelectro, Airline, or National. It has a Link Wray bite that cuts through with clarity and character. The tone also reminded me of a smoking bluesman from Chicago’s south side—like Hubert Sumlin knocking out some killer riffs behind Howlin’ Wolf at a rough-and-tumble, ass-pocket whiskey, gun-toting establishment in the late ’50s.

When I cranked up the amp, the Switchblade got to the beef fairly fast, offering chunky power chords and single-note sustain. Adding a Boss BD-2 Blues Driver pedal to the mix, I was able to throw down fat pentatonic lead lines, as well as some buff, hard-rock riffage. I really had fun exploring the nastier side of overdrive with this guitar. With only one pickup, it does have a limited range, though. You can get a little more tonal variety by rolling back the tone knob some, but it gets a bit muddy before long. A neck pickup would make it possible to get that out-of-phase tone and add a thicker, Santana-type sound that would really make solos sing. My only other minor gripes are that the mustardy finish doesn’t have a lot of panache, and that, considering the guitar’s overall vibe, it seems to beg for a Bigsby tremolo.

The Final Mojo

A Harden may not be for everyone, but it has many of the capabilities of the classics. It looks amazing, and it offers a mean, cutting tone you just don’t find in many current guitars. Add a good amp and overdrive pedal, and you just might find that elusive tone you’ve been hunting for all these years.

Buy if...
you’re looking for a one-of-akind guitar that’s down ’n’ dirty.
Skip if...
you need a unique guitar that also has a lot of tonal flexibility.

Direct $1500 - Harden Engineering - hardenengineering.com

This vintage-vibey reissue is worth a try if you''re looking to add a rhythm guitar workhorse to your stable.

Radios Appear

The first thing that popped into my head after flipping open the case of the Worn 1966 Wilshire was the image of the Australian band Radio Birdman’s debut LP Radios Appear (Trafalgar, 1977). Front and center was the guitar player, coolly holding an Epiphone Wilshire. Almost immediately, songs came pouring forth from my memory: “Man with Golden Helmet,” “Descent into the Maelstrom,” and the underground punk classic, “Aloha Steve and Danno,” with the obligatory searing rendition of the Hawaii 5-0 theme appearing as the middle eighth. It was certainly a mainstay in my high-school-era Oldsmobile Omega (albeit in its portable 8 track form.) Upon further research, I learned that Radio Birdman’s lead guitarist Deniz Tek was actually playing an Epiphone Crestwood Deluxe with three pickups, but pickup complement aside it’s virtually the same guitar, and certainly has the same vibe.

When In Doubt, Go Mod
As with the original, the worn ‘66 Wilshire is a streamlined, minimalist, mod axe. One could imagine The Move’s Trevor Burton or The Creation’s Eddie Phillips sawing away on this inexpensive axe at The Marquee Club during the heady days of Swinging London. The asymmetrical double cutaway body has the look of a cooler Stratocaster or SG. I totally dig the six-on-a-side “batwing” headstock and have always preferred that setup for easier live tuning. It features a functional, unadorned dot-inlayed rosewood fretboard and an aged cherry-red finish. It comes equipped with two mini-humbucker pickups, two Volume and two Tone pots, a three-way toggle pickup selector, a LockTone Tune-O-Matic bridge and stopbar tailpiece. The unobtrusive pickguard adds to the austere look of this utilitarian guitar. Apart from the gold peghead logo, there are no decorative aspects to this pure rock-‘n’-roll machine.

Working Man’s Guitar
With the first strum of the unplugged guitar, you’re greeted with a pleasant ringing tone that exhibits decent sustain. The ‘60s slim-tapered neck is comfortable in the hand, and the ensuing chord changes were made with ease. It has a flat fretboard radius of 14". This neck works great for power chords and tight rhythm jabs, but it may not be the most lead-player-friendly. Try a few pull-offs or bends and you’ll see what I mean—it’s just not that responsive. This could be due to the original setup, and the action could possibly be lowered to an extent to make it more lead-player friendly.

The body of the guitar is not a single piece of Mahogany but several glued together. This still looks great from across the venue, but may take away from the sustain and tone a serious lead player might be looking for at a gig. This is not a shredder’s guitar by any means, but since I wouldn’t use it in that fashion, I don’t really care. This guitar is very lightweight and should get any player through a grinding three-set show without the need for post-gig physical therapy. It does come with a sturdy, contoured hardshell case for banging around in the back of the van.

Garage Rock, Anyone?
So let’s plug this thing in. The amp I chose for the test drive is my trusty and versatile Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue. Set at a clean low volume, the Wilshire delivers a sweet, clear, and accurate tone that could be suitable for a variety of genres. Country, folk-rock, indie-rock, you name it and the Wilshire delivers a broad range of tonal possibilities. As we move into amp cranking mode, the bridge pickup serves up some much-needed raunch. Stinging lead tones materialize, too, with the toggle set in the middle position. The mini-humbuckers don’t bark as much as single-coil pickups, which I typically prefer, but they certainly get the job done. They are surprisingly sensitive for an inexpensive guitar. The neck is joined at the 22nd fret, which makes for easy accessibility all up and down the neck, but it also adds a flexibility that some players may not care for, though it increases the ease of producing feedback. If your gig is a Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth tribute act this could come in handy! In my mind, this guitar would be perfect for old-school garage rock. Think Sonics, Standells, Music Machine, or any one of a thousand Stones-worshipping beat-and-soul combos that popped up across America back in 1966. The Wilshire just has that aura; it looks, feels, and, sounds like a classic workhorse guitar that just about any musician on a budget could afford.

Quest For Tone
Overall, I would have to say that I enjoyed playing this guitar a great deal and would like to own one myself. I already own an Epiphone Casino and an Epiphone SG reissue, and both of these guitars see stage action on a monthly basis. They are light, reliable guitars with good tone and delivery. And when you’re playing a lot of gigs, believe me, you need dependable gear that won’t let you down in the heat of the battle. (Side note: Back in the early ‘90s, I played in an alt-rock band whose other guitarist played Epiphone Wilshires through a 300-watt Ampeg bass head, and that is a whole lot of air being pushed through a 4x12 cabinet, let me tell you.) Make no mistake, this is no milquetoast beginner’s guitar. On the contrary—set to stun, the Wilshire can provide boatloads of tone… along with boatloads of hearing damage.

The Final Mojo
The Epiphone Worn 1966 Wilshire is the epitome of functional design. It’s simple, durable and versatile, yet it’s stylish enough to leap off an album cover—even an obscure one from 1977. Good for both bar gigs and outdoor festivals, the possibilities the Wilshire offers are ample.
Buy if...
you’re a stylish rhythm guitar player on a budget.
Skip if...
you’re a lead player looking for a responsive guitar for fast playing.

Street $379 - Epiphone - epiphone.com