The brainchild of hardware and guitar designer Trev Wilkinson, Italia originated back in 1999, although in recent years the majority of its designs were conceived in the US.
Irrelevant of heritage, this new incarnation offers considerable time-travel appeal. With chrome aplenty and high-gloss finish, thankfully it avoids the once fashionably bonkers control systems. Our Italia sports a trio of Grestch-y looking mini-humbuckers controlled in Strat-like fashion by a five-way lever pickup selector plus master volume and tone.
Named, as usual for Italia, after a Ferrari, the Modena Challenge sort of recalls a non-reverse Firebird’s top half with an offset waist with Jazzmaster-ish lower bouts. The solid body, made from Korina, apparently, has a pretty regular 40mm depth but adds a concave ‘German carve’ to the top’s edges, so the cream plastic-bound edge sits nearly halfway down the thickness of the body.
The back is uncontoured while the top’s German carve, which widens out on the lower bouts, acts as a pretty comfortable forearm cut. In typical Italia style you can always expect a pretty out-there glittery finish - here it’s a metallic burst that seems to change in the light from a deep coppery brown to a lighter golden centre. And just in case you forget the name of the guitar, a large chromed-plastic raised logo on the upper bout will remind you.
The neat trick with most Italia models, however, is the way they reference past pawn-shop prizes in body style, but use a pretty conventional, four screw bolt-on maple neck, topped here with a 22-fret rosewood ’board. The headstock is six-a-side but back angled (and colour matched with the body), truss-rod access is underneath yet another chromed plate and, hey, why apply a transfer logo to the head when you can use another chrome (and black) raised plastic logo?
The roller saddle tune-o-matic sits nearly flush to the body and allows a near-perfect back angle to the string retainer bar of the licensed Bigsby B50. To further aid tuning stability, a friction-reducing nut is used as well as rear-locking tuners, which provide another place for an ‘I’ logo just like the chromed Gretsch top-half knurled metal knobs. Yup, we get it. This is an Italia.
With their dual rows of slot-head pole pieces and partial covers revealing the black plastic pickup tops, it’s obvious where the inspiration comes from for the trio of IPM mini humbuckers mounted - in black-plated metal rings - directly to the body.
There’s no ID on the pickup backs and DC resistance of 9.66, 7.11 and 7.11kohms from bridge to neck illustrates a hotter bridge pickup. The long, almost baroque- looking, light-tortoiseshell pickguard holds the five-way pickup switch, a pair of Alpha 500k pots, a .022 microfarad tone cap and a 270 picofarad treble bleed cap.
This guitar does not place ergonomics at the forefront. The Italia feels like a Firebird or SG, the neck protrudes further out than a Strat or Tele and feels better strapped on than when played seated - a couch noodler this isn’t.
The Italia has a rather good, balanced, smooth response that’s got some resonance going on. The Italia feels mainstream in terms of its neck shape. A nice C with relaxed shoulder and satin finish and a depth of 21mm at the 1st fret and 23.4mm at the 12th.
It doesn’t ape an old Fender neck - the fingerboard’s edges are pretty sharp, the ’board radius flatter and the frets in the medium jumbo area - 2.7mm wide x 1mm high.
As ever with three pickups and a five-way, there’s definite Strat-iness to the Italia’s voice, except rounder in the highs with a bit more power and stridency. The bridge pickup alone, with nice tapered and graduated controls to clean up the crunch and up the jangle, means we have a home run straight off the bat.
Whether, it’s invented, like Italia, the influence of retro designs outside of the few real classics, continue to inspire designers... and long may it last. There are many players who fancy something different both aesthetically and sonically. If that’s you, here is a vibrato-loaded blast from the past that won’t break the bank.
Italia’s vision might seem a bit out there, but it’s a very well-sorted instrument that offers more than usable sounds with a thick, smooth Strat-like palette and quite contemporary playability.