Many fine guitars pass through GI’s doors but every now and then we get something a little bit special that everyone wants to play. This time it was the Redwood GTO made by Sussex-based James Collins. We all know about custom shop guitars available from the big brands but having a guitar hand built from scratch is a whole different ball game and this is every inch a craftsman made instrument.
Regular GI readers will recall that we have reviewed Collins guitars before (GI issues 37 and 41) so you will already know that James is one of the very few authorised Gibson repairers in the UK, and you don’t just get that from doing a few good set-ups here and there – you need to be the very best. The two guitars that we have seen in the past, plus the work on our editor’s ancient and very worn Les Paul, which was when we first encountered James’s skills, have convinced us that he is one of the finest luthiers currently at work in the UK, so we were certainly keen to see what he had come up with this time!
Straight out of the case let’s just say that this guitar looks amazing – somehow familiar yet unique. The body shape has a classic feel with interesting alterations such as the crescent F hole and a cool maple line pattern that snakes down the fretboard. The high gloss fi nish with matching headstock gives it an extra classy look. Finish and attention to detail throughout were above and beyond. Even if you don’t play guitar you could be forgiven for just buying it to hang on your wall as a piece of art!
This GTO is constructed with a two piece hollowed-out Honduras mahogany body, meaning it started out as a solid piece, and is not just a hollow guitar with a centre block. To make matters even more luxurious, this sample came with a beautiful curly redwood carved top. The mahogany neck uses a mortise and tenon joint with a contoured heel making upper fret access a total breeze. On first glance you would be forgiven for thinking the fretboard is rosewood, but is in fact the little used wood cocobolo, once again underpinning the use of the finest materials. If you look
at our Tech Spec section, you will see that cocobolo has been used a fair bit on this guitar, which is a good choice as this wood creates a solid tone platform, a natural voice, with great tonal consistency throughout.
As you would expect, the GTO had fantastic natural resonance and sustain when unplugged, qualities that helped by the hollow body and overall light weight. Again, as you would expect, the guitar also felt very well balanced.
Grover Keystone 18-1 tuners and Nashville Tune-o-Matic bridge, plus a bone nut provided fantastic tuning stability and the guitar has a 24 3/4” scale with a comfy profile neck. Naturally, the action was set perfectly and there were no intonation or fret buzz issues anywhere. In fact I have to say that I was blown away by the intonation on this guitar, no matter how good a guitar is you normally fi nd a point where the tuning is a bit dodgy within a chord, it’s just the nature of the instrument, but on the GTO I really couldn’t hear anywhere where it sounded out.
The pickups James had chosen were a pair of Bare Knuckle Calibrated Mules, which, as you might expect are a high end choice mated with two CTS 500K Push-Push Pots, along with Jensen Capacitors.
Controlling the GTO’s output comes courtesy of a push function on the tone pot that splits the bridge pickup, and a push volume pot that splits the neck pickup. This is further controlled by a five way rotary selector, which gives you a variety of different settings to experiment with, all of which are demonstrated in the video.
This guitar really can do it all when it comes to tone. Warm Jazz, out of phase ‘quack’, shimmery clean, Country twang, classic Rock, biting lead are all at your finger tips. Sure it’s probably not going to be a Metal shredtastic guitar but that’s not down to sound or playability – more to the styling, but there are plenty of pointy ugly guitars out there to cover that…. (now, now! – Ed).
So was there anything I didn’t like about the GTO? In fact my only issue was the five way rotary switch. Yes it looks in place with everything else, and it works, but making
quick/seamless pickup changes on the fly is not easy. It’s of course doable, but nowhere near as slick and quick as just flicking a blade switch. I’m sure it’s something you could learn to live with and get used to though. And, of course, this being a handmade guitar, I’m sure it’s something you could discuss with the builder.
The Collins Redwood GTO was an absolute pleasure and joy to play, it has the potential to be used in a variety of situations, making it an ideal all rounder. It was light, well balanced with a mighty amount of tonal options. Fit and finish were top notch throughout as was the playability and set-up. The pickups sounded fantastic and as I mentioned above, the intonation was out of this world. I’ve no doubt that your first question when seeing the hand built part, was ‘So how much is this thing?’ Well, OK, it’s not cheap, but we are talking about a hand built from scratch instrument with the finest materials all put together by an expert builder and for that you are going to expect to have to pay some serious money and this is as good as it gets.
Who is it for? I think this guitar is probably going to appeal to two different types of people. The serious player who demands such high build quality/tone/ playability but wants something a little different, or a rich dude who can hang it on his wall purely to appreciate its beauty! That may sound sacrilegious but we have to face facts and a lot of the best guitars in the world end-up hanging on walls just being admired by people. That first group of potential buyers, though, is going to include the sort of owners who realise that however good a top of the line factory-made product may be, there is always something even better, something handmade by a great craftsman. That’s a rarefied world where the world’s most demanding customers are willing to go that bit further to get the absolute best. It’s the world this guitar comfortably inhabits and if you ever get the chance you really have to try one to fully appreciate its brilliance.
Collins Guitars, not to be confused with the US boutique guitar company, Collings, are made by luthier James Collins in East Sussex, UK. James is a highly experienced and skilled builder and guitar tech with a formidable reputation for excellence amongst those in the know.
James’ main model is the GT, a symmetrical, small body, double cutaway guitar available in a series of different specifications from both a hardware and construction perspective. James says ‘The concept for the GT models came from a custom build idea and a commission, with a scope to add a new dimension as well as create more of an identity. From the outset the guitar was to be a double cut and symmetrical design.’ For our review, James sent us one of his GTA Cocobolo guitars to check out.
The GTA Cocobolo is a flat topped variation of the original GT design featuring a one piece mahogany body with a premium cocobolo, book matched top and mahogany neck. The influence for the design is obvious but the smaller profile and less pronounced cutaways add a really cool, unique look to the guitar for a design that is individual enough to be remembered amongst the sea of boutique guitars on the market. Cocobolo is also used for the fretboard that features a gorgeous maple wave inlay across its length and up into the headstock, where a cocobolo veneer is used to further synchronise the design.
This level of detail extends throughout the guitar with the cocobolo/maple binding around the fretboard and body and the beautifully recessed control knobs, giving a design that is quality through and through without ever becoming gaudy or over the top. This is a really beautiful guitar in every aspect. Hardware is of equally high quality
thanks to James’ choice of a single Bare Knuckle Black Dog humbucker in the bridge position (other pickup options are available), CTS pots, a Nashville TuneOMatic bridge and a genuine Bigsby USA B5 Trem, all finished in gold, which matches very well with the cocobolo top (nickel is also an option ). James also offers the option of a hardtail bridge and a P90 as a custom order.
Each element of the GTA Cocobolo has been lovingly thought through for the best playability, stability and tone. The 17-degree headstock angle aids sustain and tuning stability from the Grover Keystone 18-1 ratio tuners. The mortice and tenon neck joint with its contoured heel adds to the strength of the build, whilst aiding upper fret access and comfort and the medium C neck with its 12” radius combines beautifully with the choice of medium sized, hard wearing 18% nickel/silver fretwire for playability that should suit a wide variety of players well.
The build quality is amazing from start to finish with exceptional fretwork, finishing and woodwork. All of the guitars in the Collins range are hand-crafted and it shows in the attention to detail that James puts into each guitar. The wave inlay is a particular highlight, demonstrating the level of woodwork that this boutique builder can achieve.
Tonally, the GTA Cocobolo is every bit as good as its looks would suggest thanks to the generous depth of its mahogany body and neck joint adding plenty of sustain to the guitar. It’s hard to know exactly what the cocobolo adds to the tone but it sure sounds great through that bridge humbucker with plenty of bite and punch and more versatility than you might imagine, given that there is no neck pickup here.
The lack of more tonal options is a shame though, since whilst Collins do offer guitars with dual humbucker set-ups and very in depth tonal options, they are quite a bit more expensive and it would have been nice to see a dual pickup option for a small upcharge here, as many will find a single bridge pickup too limiting. However, combined with the excellent tone and volume pots you can get a wider range of tones than one might imagine and the Bare Knuckle Black Dog is a superb performer with highly dynamic clean, crunch and fully distorted tones, offering clarity and plenty of grit when required, but subtler smoothness for cleaner tones too with the tone rolled off a bit. At last we have a guitar here where the tone control is actually useful!
The GTA Cocobolo oozes quality in every respect and considering that we have a fully handmade instrument here, is a superb price, especially for European buyers where there is no import duty to pay, something that heavily increases the price of US made instruments over here. The reduced tonal options may put some off, but Collins’ more expensive guitars cover that ground well and it may well be that custom options are available to build a flat top version of this guitar with a second pickup for an extra charge. What we have here is a superb instrument from a builder that deserves a lot more recognition and exposure in the boutique guitar world. Highly recommended!
Should I be forced to choose a single word to describe the James Collins GTA, it would have to be `formidable’ – in looks, feel and weight. It’s an absolute timber-fest, too, with a one-piece Honduras mahogany body and a book-matched, flat-quilted maple top cap.
The mahogany neck is set into the body with a mortise and tenon joint and there’s no back angle. The neck has a multi-layered construction with a maple/rosewood/maple stringer all along the centre. More quilted maple is used to bind the rosewood fingerboard, which features a maple `wave’ along its length that continues through the rosewood peghead veneer.
There’s even a thin layer of maple veneer beneath the rosewood front, which adds definition to the GTA’s headstock shape. It’s all high-quality timber, and a very thin, almost perfect, high-gloss polyester finish really enhances the grain.
A single Bare Knuckle Black Dog humbucker teams up with volume and tone controls. Collins has come up with the novel approach of seating the T-style knobs in T-type jack cups.
The controls must have been pulled into the body through the pickup rout, `ship in a bottle’ style, because there’s no control cavity cover on the reverse.
The sides of the fingerboard are bound with maple but not the end, which effectively shows that the `wave’ isn’t simply an inlay. In creating the wave motif, Collins demonstrates his impressive woodworking skills by hand-cutting and rejoining the two separate parts of the fingerboard with a maple layer in between. Unfortunately, the finish at the end of the fingerboard does look a bit scruffy when it’s compared to the rest of the guitar.
GTA models are built to order, so many of the specifications given here can be changed. However, the standard features include a medium `C’ neck profile, medium frets, a Jensen paper/oil tone capacitor, a Bigsby B5 tremolo and a Hiscox hardshell case.
There’s an art to carving `fat’ necks which feel
wonderful, rather than just, erm, fat. The GTA’s doesn’t quite hit the mark, and my recent experience with mid-1950s Les Paul Goldtops provided clues to explain this – when studied closely directly from the back, the binding on the vintage Gibson necks was clearly visible and I could even make out the dots.
When the GTA is examined in the same way, the binding can’t be seen on the neck, which indicates that the profile is more of a straightsided `U’ than a `C’. The upshot of this is that it fills the hand but doesn’t have that `comfortable as old slippers’ feel. However, Collins will work with customers on an individual basis to achieve the neck profile they desire.
Having a neck with no back angle has possibly had a knock-on effect on the positioning of the Bigsby. Since the strings are closer to the body at the bridge position than they would be on, for example, a Les Paul Junior or Standard, the tuneo- matic bridge is obliged to sit in a routed recess.
One requirement when installing a Bigsby is to achieve an adequate break angle over the bridge. Because the GTA’s bridge is relatively low, the Bigsby’s front roller is positioned a little closer to the bridge than might otherwise be the case, simply to make the break angle more acute.
The upshot of this is that the position of the Bigsby, combined with the recessed bridge, meant I had to be careful to avoid hitting the Bigsby with my wrist.
Acoustically, there’s not a great deal of woody resonance, but the GTA sustains exceptionally well and there’s an even volume balance across all of the strings.
Starting with clean tones, the GTA delivers a surprisingly jangly and lively tone with snappy definition and a characterful hint of phasiness from the wound strings. The pickup isn’t at all microphonic, so it can’t quite match the airiness and open treble of an accurate PAF replica, but you can be confident of a squeal-free high-gain response.
The power hinted at by the clean tone comes to the fore when overdrive levels are increased. The bass end’s solidity and considerable depth become more apparent and the nasal midrange is transformed to a honking, raunchy bite.
Moving on to high-gain, the GTA is really in its element. Powerchords sound appropriately huge and lead tones combine full-bodied bite with crisp pick attack and sustain. Although there’s no treble bleed capacitor across the volume control, you can still back it off to clean up the sound while maintaining a consistent frequency response, clarity and body.
Compared to any two- or three-pickup guitar, a single pup will offer a limited range of tones. However, well configured volume and tone controls should still allow you to cover a lot of ground. The GTA has both, but access is somewhat restricted by the Bigsby and the T-style jack cups. The latter are a neat idea, but viewed from the side you’ll see that they sit proud of the top. Maybe a chamfered edge would allow the cups to sit a little lower, to expose more of the control knob and provide better access. It’s workable as is, but this tweak would really improve their usability.
Ultimately, the GTA has the sound, feel and (to some extent) look of a type of custom-built guitar that a really good luthier might have produced in the late 1970s or early 1980s. If you like to dial in a tone and keep things simple, then the GTA could really work for you.
It’s obvious that the GTA has been made with genuine love and care, and that Collins has incorporated some really good and original ideas. There are some minor details, which I feel aren’t quite on the money, but I’m left with a sense that the best is yet to come from this very talented guitar builder and I look forward to seeing more of Collins’ work in the future.
Sussex based James Collins is one of the very few authorised Gibson repairers in the UK. You do not become authorised by Gibson unless you are the best of the best at what you do. This is demonstrated by James’s own line of guitars which are nocompromise instruments and truly hand built. Our review sample was one of the quilt maple GTS models, and there are quite a few options you can choose from, any of which can be hand built for you with a few variations of tone wood and finishes (more details on the Collins website – see the Tech Spec box – Ed). The version James sent us featured a Honduras mahogany body and neck with an unbelievably pretty AAA hand carved quilt maple book-matched top which is stunning. James is also fond of cocobolo and walnut in construction which would offer a different overall tone, but we are on safe ground here with the classic mahogany and maple combo we all know and love!
On the face of it this looks like a simple twin humbucker guitar set-up, with its usual neck/bridge/
rotary switch and coil tap. Each guitar comes with a diagram to tell you exactly how each setting is obtained, but I just used my ears and enjoyed the options whilst playing it. For those who really must know we have (deep breath)….
1 Bridge, Bridge split.
2 Neck screw pole pieces and Bridge magnet.
3 Neck & Bridge, Neck split & Bridge split, Neck with Bridge split, Neck split with Bridge.
4 Neck & Bridge out of phase, Neck with Bridge split out of phase, Neck & Bridge split out of phase, Neck split & Bridge out of phase.
5 Neck, Neck split.
In my demo I probably didn’t get through every option, but hopefully what does come across is the versatility of this guitar plus the sheer choice of tones available.
The craftsmanship in this guitar is up there with best I’ve seen. Worth a mention is the incredible maple wave inlay that goes the length of the 12” radius Indian rosewood fretboard and joins the headstock to carry on. This is just flawlessly done and very tasteful in my opinion. The neck is lovely to play because it’s a substantial C profile. Bigger necks always means bigger tone and this has a slightly bigger than usual feel to it which I love.
If James builds you a guitar, he will factor in your preferences, but trust me this is the neck you want. The 22 medium 18% nickel silver frets feel great and again are flawless in their installation and make string bends a breeze. The mortise and tenon neck joint has a contoured heel and access to the dusty end is stress free and easy. Another incredibly well done and tasteful appointment are the five pearl inlays denoting the five positions of the rotary switch. The ‘Tone Dome’ knobs are also recessed much like the input jack of a Fender Telecaster. The whole thing oozes quality and plays and sounds as good as it looks. The supplied hard case is also a thing of beauty too.
James Collins certainly knows how to make a guitar and will try to accommodate within reason any special requests that don’t deviate too much from the design of the GTS. I should imagine choosing a colour for this guitar would be a tough one, because with the fantastic quality wood stock that James uses, any colour stain is going to look great. Or you could simply check out in the finished guitars that are finished and ready to go via email or in the flesh. If you are looking for a Gibson style guitar that really delivers on all aspects and yet offers the ultimate in tonal flexibility coupled with the exclusivity that having a truly handmade guitar gives, then maybe you should give James a call. In fact you definitely should.
GTS – QUILT MAPLE
After spending some time with James comparing the sounds of various GTS’s that were in stock, I decided that the quilt maple sounded the best through my rig. The deal breaker though was the rosewood fingerboard on one of the examples that I tried that had been reclaimed from an Indian temple….quite possibly the smoothest feeling fingerboard I have ever played. Married up with the mahogany back this gave me overall tonal balance from the wood that I had been searching for and a couple of vintage style humbuckers finished it off perfectly. From then on it was a case of personally choosing the various woods that caught my eye and having the guitar sculpted and tweaked to my personal preference. I am lucky enough to live in close proximity to the workshop and I had
the opportunity to regularly see and feel the guitar and give my opinions as it was being crafted, this is custom building on a whole new level for me. The skills and precision that James put into this guitar was above and beyond the price point in my honest opinion. For the finish I was after a vintage style sunburst reminiscent of Les Paul played by Peter Green and once again it was as if my mind had been read, the deep burst really brings out the quilt top with almost a three dimensional quality to it. The attention to detail was awe inspiring!
The playability of this GTS though is what really astounds me! Due to the very personal nature of having the guitar custom built it feels like an extension of you, your fingers just seem to naturally fall in the
right place and you can play comfortably for long periods without even realising it. The switching options are so vast that there is no sound that is unachievable making it very versatile in the studio and on the live stage. The controls are positioned in a way the your hand falls to them automatically which is a real bonus considering how much the volume and tone can change the feel and sound of each pickup setting. Having had the guitar for some months now I am still finding different combinations that blow me away. This is by far the most responsive and inspirational guitar I have ever had the pleasure of owning.
Jamie. East Sussex. UK
GTS – QUILT MAPLE
Due to the distance from my home I was unable to return to James’ workshop to thrash out the specifications of the guitar. Nonetheless we started emailing ideas about dimensions and components. I also received multiple pictures of different woods to be used for the body and between us we settled on the preferred option. Once the specification was locked in I received regular email updates from the build process along with pictures of all significant stages all the time spent thinking and discussing the build, the unveiling of the guitar was quite a tense moment; but I needn’t of worried. The guitar was truly
beautiful. A wonderful piece of hand built artistry with a flawless finish. It was so beautiful – and played so well acoustically – that James actually had to prompt me to plug it in so that he could take me through the pick-up and coil tapping options! I went for a really, really thick neck allied with Bare Knuckle picks ups, so the guitar sustains for days. The variety of available sounds is remarkable for a twin humbucker guitar and the quality components make it an extremely smooth and responsive guitar to play. I have a few decent guitars (Les Paul Standards, US Stratocasters, SG Standards etc.) but this one is hands down the best
instrument I own. The Custom Hiscox case it comes in is also provides a reassuring place to keep my prized possession.
The guitar is a top quality instrument made by a dedicated and highly skilled professional. Work of this standard is never going to be cheap, but if you’re a life-long guitar fanatic then having a lovely guitar like mine built is a memorable and rewarding experience.
Andy, London. UK
GTS – QUILT MAPLE
I really enjoyed the build process where I was able to choose the wood for the body and the neck and even specify such relatively trivial items as the fret wire.
The guitar sounds fantastic and plays even
better than I expected. The customised neck fits like a glove and as an owner of Gibsons, Fenders, a PRS and even a Pensa, I am absolutely delighted with the product and how it compares with the other guitars
All in all I am highly delighted I would be very happy to recommend your guitars.
Neil. Hampshire. UK
GT – FLAME MAPLE
012 (LEFT HANDER)
I first met James Collins at one of his excellent Guitar Tech Courses. It was there that I got to admire and play some of his guitars from the GT range. I was sold and placed my order then and there.
Left handed guitarists are often ignored by mainstream manufacturers but as an independent luthier, James was able to build exactly what I wanted with no extra
surcharge. I got to choose tonewoods neck profile etc etc. I was kept informed of the guitars progression with a series of photos during construction.
When I went to collect my amber flame maple GT masterpiece it was a joy straight out of the supplied hard case, the quality and attention to detail is exemplary.
Plugged in it comes alive with the tone and
sustain you dream of.
I cannot praise this guitar highly enough for its quality and versatility.
Thank you for making my dream guitar a reality.
Phil Hunt, Kent. UK
GT – FLAME MAPLE
First off, the flame maple top is visually stunning. A beautiful 3D flame is hypnotizing and this one doesn’t disappoint. The trans black finish came out just as you described it. The maple binding offers the right amount of contrast to the finish while offering some organic warmth that you don’t get with the typical plastic binding on other guitars. The recessed knobs, no pickup mounts, and the maple stringer in the fretboard, as well as on the back of the neck, set this guitar apart from all the rest on the market. Everyone who sees it is blown away by the look and the attention to detail.
Since I took delivery the GT has been my go-
to guitar for recording. The Bare Knuckles Black Dog pickups you recommended were the perfect fit! I’m planning on replacing the pickups in my Les Pauls with Black Dogs by the end of the year. But the advantage I have with the GT is the wiring configuration with the 5 way rotary switch. There are so many options beyond the three basic settings on a Les Paul. Now I layer rhythm tracks with either an out of phase or split configuration, depending on what each song needs.
My favorite part of the guitar, however, is the feel. The neck profile is similar to a ‘59 Les Paul but it feels better than the reissues coming out of my hometown. I have better
access to the upper frets and the fretwork itself is spot on. Acoustically the guitar rings out and resonates out of the box like a vintage guitar. On most days I have a hard time putting it down and getting back to reality. Just one more song!
Simply put this is the guitar I’ve been wanting for years: sophisticated yet traditional style, modern wiring offering a variety of voices, and a feel that puts mass-produced guitars to shame. Thank you for making my dreams come true!