The AXL SRO is conventional in some ways, clearly not so in others. While based on Fender's finest double-cutaway, AXL has opted for a sharper, more direct shape and a very unique look.
A lightweight alder body and convenient back contour make the SRO more than comfortable when on a strap and the rosewood 'board has a snug 'C'-profile rock-maple neck that's fixed to the alder body via a distressed metal four-bolt neck plate – nice and traditional so far.
The single humbucker/dual single-coil pickup configuration with its five-way selector switch should provide ample tonal variations or, as AXL claims, produce "hard rocking tones" with a "clean delivery".
Now on to the tasty stuff – the striking cosmetics of the SRO. The distressed crackle brown-over-white finish looks as though it was plucked from the watery side streets of New Orleans and then thrown out to dry in the burning sun – even the headstock has a scorched-style embossed AXL logo.
A unique-design, aged plastic scratchplate, control knobs and antiqued Strat-style hardware continue the distressed vibe; likewise, the anodised six-saddle vibrato and in-line enclosed tuners. Irrelevant of price, these blistered and crackled-looking cosmetics create a really original effect.
The set-up of the SRO out of the box was very poor. Before playing you'll need to oil up the fingerboard, fit good quality strings and then make a few adjustments for the radius and intonation – all of this makes a big difference.
It's enjoyable to play acoustically, loud and quite resonant, so no gripes there at all. Plugged in and starting off with the bridge EMG-designed humbucker, you're not greeted with a lot of output – although raising the pickup height slightly improved this a little.
A raspy and direct sound is what you get with a mid-gain setting, but hike the gain to 11 and you start to hear smoother tones, albeit still a little spiky in the top-end.
Position two, the bridge humbucker and middle single-coil, offers a slightly thin sound with a little more low-end. Position three – the middle single-coil – is a little more direct with slightly more honk.
Moving on to the middle and neck selection, the tones become slightly more recognisable and the output has improved to give us a rounded, quackier, Stratocaster-like tone.
Switch to the last position, the neck single-coil, and we're greeted with much the same, but with a little bit more spank and honk on hand.
It seems that even with extremely cost-effective, mass-produced Chinese instruments, there's still plenty of scope for stylistic tinkering. In fact you could probably con your less-informed mates that the SRO cost a whole packet more than its minuscule price tag.
There's no getting away from the fact that it's built to that price, though. It would benefit from better strings, a proper setup and, most importantly, better pickups.
If you were to install some Wilkinson or Kent Armstrong retrofits here and do the advised tweaks, you'd have something that looks, plays and sounds well beyond those bordering-on-silly prices.