G&L CLF Research Skyhawk review

Leo’s last stand

  • £1,699

Our Verdict

Put simply, an extremely likeable guitar.

Pros

  • Excellent design, build, sounds and price.
  • A different ‘Stratocaster’ with numerous upgrades from the early 1980s.

Cons

  • Some will say, ‘Don’t mess with the Stratocaster!’

It’s been quite a while since this writer has had his hands on a USA-made G&L, and on first impressions there’s something very vintage-y about this guitar, as if it has been laid in storage since the early 80s. 

The truth is, while G&L (rightly) has a large fanbase, its original models seemed to almost place function over form and style, and even back in the day they seemed slightly at odds with where music was heading. Is it any different today? Let’s take a look. 

Obviously, this model is based on Leo’s masterstroke design and - as many contemporary designers have found - improving on a ‘perfect’ design isn’t easy. Whether or not the Skyhawk improved on the Stratocaster is not actually the point: the design illustrates the restless spirit of Leo Fender. Virtually every part of his Stratocaster has been tweaked, from the body outline to the control circuitry, creating a hugely familiar but different tasting dish. 

The Skyhawk plays with the Strat’s outline a lot. Its waist is slightly thinner and subtly offset, but the bridge sits further up the body - approximately 172mm from the break point on the E string saddle to the body’s base. The Skyhawk’s neck sticks out from the body (about the distance from the nut to the 1st fret), but allows subtly easier high-fret access, even though both have a classic Fender-style squared off heel, on which sits the usual neck plate and quartet of screws. The body wood is okoume, a central African hardwood that’s also know as gabon - it looks very much like a lightly figured mahogany. It appears centre-joined, too, and the aptly named Old School Tobacco Sunburst finish again seems a slight throwback. 

The neck is maple, of course, and rift-sawn where the grain is at a diagonal to the headstock face

The neck is maple, of course, and rift-sawn where the grain is at a diagonal to the headstock face. Back in the day, G&L pioneered the Bi-Cut neck - the neck blank was cut into two pieces, the curved truss inserted into one side, then the two pieces were glued back together. 

The Skyhawk’s is chechen (also known as Caribbean rosewood), another alternative to Indian rosewood with a less deep, almost light brown colour and a slightly polished surface. Fretting is seriously impressive, not to mention the nut work: smooth, with very tidy edges and filled slot ends and a nice rollover to the fingerboard edge. G&L apparently uses the Plek process to finally fettle the nut and frets. The Skyhawk headstock design looks a little quaint, not least with that pointed cut-out on the treble side. 

In terms of hardware, it features the Dual Fulcrum vibrato which was very much a part of the improvements Leo Fender made to the original G&L guitars. It takes that classic design and runs with it, using two sturdy Allen-key height-adjustable pivot posts, brass saddles with a large central hole, and nicely shaped ramp leading up to the break point of each. The hole from which the strings emerge has a slightly radius’d edge - the block is apparently brass and you can see the anchor holes are drilled deeper into the block than on a vintage-style vibrato. Height adjustment screws sit well inside each saddle. Only the collar that holds the arm looks a little oversized, but it not only offers tension adjustment but also provides a very firm positive drive. 

Another bit part of the original G&L guitars were the MFD (Magnetic Field Design) pickups for which Leo Fender was granted a patent in 1980. The Skyhawk’s pickups look conventional, although they feature the distinctive polepieces where a height-adjustable screw sits within a threaded insert. 

Feel and sounds

Warming up our test amps with a pair of Strats, we then plug in the Skyhawk. This one really excels when you dial in a cleaner Fender-like amp voicing, add a little treble and bass and some generous reverb, and the rich, balanced cleans are big and very bold. The combination of the volume (which, pulled back, cleans the sound a little via the treble bleed capacitor) and those treble and bass cuts means there’s a lot of ‘Fender’ here.

It shares a slight ‘hint of humbucker’, especially with the treble control pulled back, and is very usable with crunchy to actually pretty gained voices. Switch over to that clean amp, though, and you have a very serviceable jazz voice at the neck for your comping, or kick in a boost and you’ll find that it’s perfect for those fusion leads. If you want to just run everything full up, you’d be missing a trick here. 

The Expander function is aptly named. The additional all-three-pickups-together sound gives us yet another hollowed mix choice, while the combined bridge and neck shouts Tele - or again with that more humbucker-y voicing, it chases a more Gibson-like mix. 

Smartly made and now more smartly priced thanks to direct-to-dealer pricing in the UK, G&L is clearly pitted directly against Fender’s USA production lines. But unlike so many Fender-alikes out there, not only does G&L have plenty of genuine Leo Fender DNA, but the tweaked recipe makes for a different sonic stew that, for a Fender guy, could well augment more classic designs. 

Yes, there is some time-warp vibe - we guess you could now call that ‘vintage’ - but it’s simply the excellent feel and those different flavour that kept us playing it. In fact, this is the sort of guitar that the more you play, the more you discover. It covers a lot of tonal ground and to some extent blur the lines between single coils and humbuckers; it has a low noise floor, which could help in recording or higher gain situations, too.