We all know the story of Gibson’s ES-335, the perfect marriage of solidbody and hollowbody.
Since its introduction in 1958 the thinline ES-335 has become one of the most copied and imitated guitars there is. Protecting designs like it has been a constant job for Gibson and numerous copycat brands have fallen foul of its legal team if they’ve got too close for comfort.
Vintage’s new VSA500 is case in point: it’s now the only semi it offers and is noticeably offset, unlike previous versions like the VSA535, that sailed too close to the original. Vintage, the house brand of UK distributor John Hornby Skewes and the Fret-King range, benefits from the considerable experience of designer Trev Wilkinson.
We are constantly surprised by the quality of today’s low-end guitars. Our Vintage sample is exceptional and once again we find ourselves double-checking its price.
Its heritage remains obvious but, rather like the Fret-King Elise, the offset body adds a boutique vibe that is rather classy in this cleanly applied, almost faded looking ’burst. Weight can be a problem with the style but the VSA500 is lighter than some new originals we’ve encountered recently. Peering inside the bound f-holes you can see that the centre-block is mahogany, not maple, although the rest of the build follows protocol.
The mahogany neck adopts a palm-filling slightly flattened ‘C’ profile, measures 21.5mm at the first, 23.6mm at the 12th with a nut width of 43.5mm widening to 53.5mm by the 12th. The cream fingerboard binding is pretty cleanly scraped of colour finish and the ends of the medium gauge frets (approx 2.73mm wide x 1.2mm high) sit over the binding and are well finished.
Importantly, the neck pitch seems spot on meaning that the tune-o-matic sits just right on the classic domed top. There’s very little to complain about: the scratchplate is a rather poor fit by the bridge pickup, the output jack is a little close to the neck pickup’s tone control and the rather foreshortened square-topped head isn’t the classiest we’ve seen, but it’s churlish to split hairs.
There certainly is a Gibson vibe to the VSA500. The Vintage sounds archetypal ‘Gibson’ with a gutsy grind from the pokey bridge pickup, and a super soupy neck voice, although the mix really could do with a little more ES-335-like sparkle. Yes, that can be achieved by lifting your amp’s treble control - and it of course depends on how you voice your rig - but in our test environment it does sound slightly veiled, less ‘organic’ somehow, in comparison to our reference semis.
It must be said that the standard strap button placed on the back of the heel of the Vintage certainly affects its strapped-on feel.
Vintage is a brand that has been overlooked by many a guitar snob because of its copy-cat status. The truth is that, not least with Trev Wilkinson’s regular visits to their Chinese factory to tutor and tweak, the guitars might be slight in price but, using this VSA500 as evidence, they are far from generic guitar-shaped objects. For the asking price this semi is excellent as is and maybe with a few personalised tweaks could become a serious keeper.
This example illustrates just how good ‘low-end’ Chinese guitars have become. It is a great choice fresh out of the box, but with a little modding - like we all do - the potential is considerable. Unlike its cost.