Rob Chapman has become a figurehead in the online video gear review genre through his superb playing, great sense of humor, fun and laid-back approach to his reviews, and of course his British accent (we got to hear it in the wild when we spoke to him at NAMM this year). Having amassed over 200,000 YouTube subscribers and 70 million views, he decided to start a guitar company. He wanted Chapman Guitars to be The People’s guitars, so he held a series of votes on his official forum which allowed his fans to vote on the features of the guitar as well as the designs they liked most.
You’d think this kind of approach could lead to a design-by-committee abomination, but it seems that the people are more conservative in their voting than one would expect. The Chapman designs are simple, elegant, classic, and affordable – but not cheap. On top of that, you might expect that even with a decent design, a lower priced import could falter in the execution and wind up feeling very cheap and not play well. This also was not the case.
So, since it’s so close to Halloween, I decided that I would dress up for this review, and put on my damnedest British accent and see if I could capture a little bit of that Chappers magic. Did I mention he has a great sense of humor? Sorry, humour. I really hope he does. You’ll see why when you watch the accompanying video.
When reviewing guitars, I always judge them on a relative scale based on price. It’s sort of the weight class for gear. You might think Manny Pacquiao is a great boxer, but at 5’6″ and 144lbs, it wouldn’t be fair to put him up against the behemoth Butterbean (5’11”, 420 lbs). In that same sense, I won’t judge Chapmans the same way I would a PRS. But there does have to be a certain degree of objectivity, so I tried to be as fair as possible as I spent a few weeks with these guitars.
This picture is of an older model, they now have a matching headstock. Click to enlarge.
These guitars are both competing in the sub-$1000 weight class, and they are both strong contenders. The ML-1 weighs in at $500, and features a swamp ash body (also available in mahogany), HSS pickup configuration (Chapman Guitars Guitarnivore Humbucker and two Chapman Guitars Extreme Victory Single Coils) Grover tuners, 22 extra jumbo frets, a 25.5 inch scale, and a very nice padded gig bag.
This one is essentially Strat in its stylings, but with the distinct reverse Tele type headstock. This quirky visual grabbed my attention right away and endeared me to it very quickly. So I was a little apprehensive that it might not live up to its looks, which makes me a shallow bastard, but what can I say, I need some eye candy as well as ear and finger protein (?). Lucky for me, she didn’t disappoint. The guitar played very well, and felt great. The satin finish is a great complement to the natural ash and is just very comfortable to the touch. As I have whined about before, I’m not a fan of unmarked fretboards for practicality reasons, maybe I just suck at the guitar but I wish this guitar had some inlays aside from the infinity at the twelfth fret (is he trying to tell us that this is the infinity fret? WHAT IS LIFE) The bridge was pretty stable, and although it had the typical trem spring noise, some soft foam quickly cleared up the sound and a little lube on the nut would make for more stability, although I figured I’d leave that alone since I had to send these back. The intonation from the factory could have been better, although I get all my new guitars set up as soon as I get them, but that does add an unseen cost.
I think that with the selection of aftermarket pickups these days, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that you’ll swap them out, but of course with name brand pickups comes name brand prices. These are The People’s guitars, and that means keeping the prices within the everyman’s range, and when I look at buying a guitar, I think the most important thing is having strong construction and high quality hardware, but electronics are interchangeable and subject to whim and experimentation. So that shouldn’t deter you from getting a guitar like this, as it serves as a bit of a modification playground.
In fact, Chappers himself encourages this type of thinking in Chapman Guitars The Movie (The ML-1 Story). He made them intentionally inexpensive so you can find your own sound with pickups you like, because you can’t ship a guitar with no pickups. You can hear them in the video, I didn’t change anything about them for my demo, so you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Of course, when you can play like Rob, it hardly matters what pickups you use. Seriously, I know he’s known as a reviewer but hot damn that guy can PLAY!
ML-2 in Antique Sunburst – Click to enlarge.
The ML-2 is clearly the Chapman take on a Les Paul flat top such as a Junior or Special. This guitar was extremely well made and had a nice heft to it and will set you back about just $600.
This one has 24 frets, which, why would you vote for fewer frets? That’s like voting for no free ice cream in the cafeteria. Either way, somehow the ML-2 got lucky and wound up with the lion’s share, as well as a sexy little cutaway to aid in the already very good upper fret access. Also, inlay dots! Offset, because you need that room in the middle of the fretboard for to look at all the wood.
Once again, the guitar played very well right out of the box, and if you’re looking for Les Paul stylings in the $600 range, I’d say you’re much better off with one of these than an Epiphone or Michael Kelly. Even the headstock is more Gibson-esque than Epiphone’s.
One thing I found tough to wrangle about both of these axes was the inconvenient switch placement. An easy fix would be to just swap one of the knobs with the switch, and if I get to vote on the next incarnation, that’s gonna be how I use my democracy points.
Chapman Guitars have gained some serious traction recently, having just sold their 5000th guitar, no small feat for a tiny company, and there’s good reason for it. They toe the line between quality and price, something many companies claim to do but fall short. They’re by no means perfect, but they are great, which is kind of better than perfect, and if your budget is anywhere between $500 and $1000, you should give Chapman Guitars some serious consideration. You know they’ve given these guitars the same.