Peerless offers a tantalising mix of cool looks, great build and prices that belie the apparent quality. This year, the Korean company celebrates 40 years of guitar making with five very limited-edition models. Three of these are archtops: the 30s-style Monarch 40, the rockier Gigmaster Custom 40 and the understated but classy-looking Leela 40, as reviewed.
The body employs laminated flamed maple for the back and sides and reserves a thick lump of the same timber - solid this time - for the hand-carved top. The set-neck is also maple, with a headstock scarf-jointed in place behind the 1st fret, while fingerboard, raised pickguard, control knobs, tuner buttons, bridge and tailpiece are all ebony. Hardware is gold-plated, including Grover tuners, pickup cover, bridge adjustment screws and strap buttons.
Finished in glossy plum-coloured sunburst and bound all round in maple, it's a thing of simple beauty. Borrowing from D'Angelico's tradition of using Art Deco motifs in his fabulous guitars of the 1930s, which was carried on by D'Aquisto, the Leela's headstock and 'board inlays, drooping pickguard and stylised f-holes evoke the look in a more understated manner. With Gibson's standard 16-inch (406.4mm) body width, the visual balance is all but perfect.
String changing is easy due to the 'easy-load' ebony tailpiece, and fitted with D'Addario flatwounds and with a low action over the almost flat (400mm) radius fingerboard, the Leela's slim C-section neck is a breeze to navigate. Jazz-style chords move seamlessly under the fingers while picked lead lines and arpeggios are fuss-free. Playing fingerstyle is equally rewarding, and within minutes the guitar feels like a slightly upper-class old friend.
Unamplified, the Leela exudes the thin, scratchy acoustic tone typified by this style of construction - archtops were designed to cut through the band, so warmth was never the maker's remit. It was only the introduction of amplifiers and neck-position pickups that gave birth to the 'jazz' tone we know today. Therefore, a single Kent Armstrong humbucker is set into the body up front. This, and single volume and tone controls, means that the guitar's tones live at the softer end of the sonic spectrum.
With the tone pot wide open we're greeted with a pleasing, slightly nasal voice through a Fender Blues Junior - enough to power through any jazz ensemble. Knock it back to zero and we're in Joe Pass or Johnny Smith territory; it's as warm as a 18-tog duvet and extremely convincing. This setting is fantastic when played fingerstyle, or with a pick for smooth lead lines. Set the tone to around 30 per cent and the balance between extremes is perfect: the traditional tone remains, but the level of articulation means more modern jazz or bebop solos are served - the merest hint of amp drive sounds great, too.
With a street price of two grand or so the Leela 40 is no bargain-basement beauty. But compared to £6,000-plus for a Gibson L-5, it's a steal. Nothing short of stunning in the looks department, it also plays superbly and wouldn't disgrace any top recording artist. Indeed, the fact that players as diverse as Martin Taylor, James Dean Bradfield, Bill Nelson and Big Jim Sullivan happily endorse them should be enough to reassure doubters.
Being picky, we'd say the headstock's scarf joint could have been concealed under the finish a little better - perhaps the 'bursting could have crept down the neck a little further. Otherwise - and it seems churlish even to raise such a point - it's an exceptional piece of work at a very fair price.
There are just 50 of these worldwide, so if this one has your jazz juices flowing, you should get out there and snap one up fast. Or just go for the standard Leela. It's just as cool - peerless, in fact.