5 Outstanding Boutique Guitar Companies at NAMM 2018

In case you've recently abandoned all forms of social media or haven’t been checking in on your favorite gear news sites, NAMM 2018 took place over this past weekend. Throughout the enormous music industry trade show, your humble correspondent roamed the halls and booths of the Anaheim Convention Center doing my due diligence. In plain English, I played a lot of guitar.

While monolithic brands like Fender and Ibanez came through mightily on a number of new models and initiatives, the real highlights of NAMM for me were the smaller boutique brands. With the ever-rising prices of household name guitars, the price/value gap continues to close between the base entries of those big brands and the offerings of smaller builders.

Frank Brothers Signature Model

Many players are rightly realizing that a headstock is just a headstock and a classic-design is just that—a single design (and one of many). What it really comes down to is the guitar itself, how it plays and sounds compared to the cost.

When people hear the term "boutique," their minds may automatically go to guitars that are prohibitively expensive. The unfortunate truth in guitar is that the general cost of all instruments—boutique or not—are going up. In fact, you could say that boutique costs are actually more stable and value-packed compared to the big brands when you factor in things like innovation and the increased quality control.

If the price difference between a base "professional" model from a major company and a mostly (if not completely) hand-built instrument is within the range of only a few hundred dollars, why not save up the extra money for a one-of-a-kind boutique guitar of your dreams?

With that in mind, I went ahead with great pleasure (and blues licks) and found some of the most superb boutique brands in all of NAMM. All of these guitars are high-quality instruments that sound as nice as they look and deserve to be played by lovers of the instrument. There were a huge number of excellent boutique brands at NAMM this year, but the following guitars took the cake and then some during my one-on-one demos.


Shabat Guitars

The first on this list (and arguably some of my favorite builds of the entire show) come from a Los Angeles-area company known as Shabat Guitars. Named after its founder—former LsL Instruments luthier, Avi Shabat—Shabat Guitars is poised to become a heavy hitter in the world of boutique guitars.

With a variety of classic-styled models with eye-popping thin nitro finishes, there is a sure to be a Shabat that any player could obsess over (like the Tele-ish Lion Custom and Bobcat or the Jazzmaster-styled Puma), especially vintage Fender lovers.

Shabat Guitars Puma

On an aesthetic level, the guitars are stunners and per the website, whatever model you want is completely customizable with the cost ranging from $2k to $3k (a steal for the level of quality).

From the headstock options (who doesn’t want a matching Snakehead headstock in Sherwood Green?) to the quality of the relicing (if that’s what you’re into), it’s hard to find a fault with the work that Avi and company are doing. Across every model that I tried, the hand-built craftsmanship was virtually unparalleled and the playing experience was a total pleasure.

If you are looking for a buzz-free Fender-style guitar with super fast-playing action and absurd tuning stability---these are the guitars for you. With the 9.5- to 12-inch radii, you can really dig in and bend like a bluesman on these guitars.

Shabat Guitars Bobcat

The models I tried came loaded with hand-wound Lollar pickups (arguably the best boutique pickup company out there) and as a result, they all sounded articulate and crisp from the first riff. I was bowled over by the Bobcat after I was able to get tones that ranged from biting country to blistering blues all the way to round almost archtop-like jazz with just the flick of a pickup switch and the turn of a tone knob.

Truthfully, I don’t think that it is possible to dislike these guitars once you see them in person and play them. You can read more about Shabat and see its full line on the brand's website.


Soultool Instruments

Another must-play from this year’s NAMM were the offerings from Switzerland-based Soultool Instruments by luthier Egon J. Rauscher. In a year almost defined by eye-popping guitars and a return-to-form for many companies in terms of design, Soultool and its small display of guitars stood out like a sore thumb among other boutique lines.

To me, this guitar looks like the single-cut of the future. On a convention floor full of guitars trying to figure out a new way to make a single-cut design (without bastardizing the Les Paul), Soultool’s Laguz "The Junior" model really makes a lasting impression, not just visually but sonically and in terms of playability.

Soultool Instruments Laguz The Junior

From the moment the guitar is in your hands, it feels right at home, and you won’t want to put it down. There is no part about this guitar that feels cheap—everything about it screams expertly made. While the bodies are sleek and contoured with a tummy cut and rolling neck joint, the necks as a whole are a bit chunky, sort of like a vintage Gibson. Paired with the GoodTone P90s, this guitar will remind your ears a lot of a ‘50s Les Paul Special in the best way possible.

The standard C to D neck shape is a real winner, at least personally, and allowed me free range to switch from rhythms to leads with ease no matter where I was on the fretboard. There’s something about the design of the guitar that gives it a serious weighted feel while you’re playing it without adding any real pounds.

To that effect, it is very balanced as an instrument and the tuning stability was rock-solid, especially in comparison to a modern Gibson or PRS. At around $4000 for a Laguz, it is more than a worthy contender for your next high-end guitar, and, at that level, it is even arguably one of the most value-packed boutique guitars when you factor in the quality of build.

You can check out Soultool's website for more.


Frank Brothers

While we are on the subject of guitars that do the vintage-Gibson feel right, one boutique entry did a dirty number on this writer in an isolation booth at NAMM. I’m talking about the new Arcade model by Frank Brothers out of Toronto, Canada.

The Arcade is the second and newest model from the company (founded by three brothers) and is sure to wow boutique and vintage lovers wise enough to give it a chance. The build quality is superb and the feel of the guitar is definitively electric. It’s like the guitar equivalent of a sledgehammer and I’m pretty sure that if Malcolm Young were still around, he’d be a huge fan.

The Arcade (like the carved top and back semi-hollowbody brother Signature model) has a deadly double-cut ‘50s Les Paul Special feel to it. The main difference between the two is that the new Arcade model is a solidbody that includes a stoptail/tune-o-matic or wraparound bridge.

Frank Brothers Guitars

Like Soultool, Frank Brothers obviously takes influence from classic models while quietly reinterpreting their hallmarks. The results are aggressive guitars with tons of tone. At the risk of being hyperbolic, my first time playing Frank Brothers’ Arcade model was a raw and overwhelming experience.

By the end of my demo, I was sweating bullets and overcome with a rush of endorphins. Having had this type of experience within only 20 minutes or so of playing-time, it’s no wonder why many notable players including Phish’s Trey Anastasio have started playing on Frank Brothers recently.

If you are considering a Gibson CS (or a vintage double cutaway Gibson model) you might be better off checking out Frank Brothers’ solidbody Arcade or their semi-hollow Signature instead. Their custom-built guitars start at $2,950 USD for the Arcade and $3,650 USD for the Signature. To learn more about Frank Brothers, visit their website.


Prisma Guitars

In a brand that is quickly becoming heralded by guitarists the world over, the previously profiled Prisma Guitars again made a splash at NAMM 2018 with its line of guitars made out of repurposed skateboard decks. While this concept may seem gimmicky in theory, in practice these are handmade instruments for serious players and some of the more visually spectacular guitars being produced today.

The sound of these guitars too is equally impressive to the visual design (featuring McNelly custom pickups) and range from a full-bodied warmth to spot-on vintage surf/spaghetti western tones.

Prisma Guitars at NAMM 2018

What was new for Prisma this year was their first non-skateboard deck composed model, the Mattsonia. That’s right—unlike every other model of theirs to date—Prisma is now building guitars out of regular ol’ blanks of wood like most everybody else.

This, according to founder and luthier Nick Pourfard, was done to show that Prisma is not a gimmick or just the "skateboard guitar company" and is instead a premier boutique guitar company. In my opinion, they more than succeeded in terms of craftsmanship, playability, and the build quality. The Mastery bridge system on these is a nice touch too and allows for deep dives and an undeniably smooth playing experience.

All in all, when you play a Prisma you get the feeling that they were made with the blood, sweat, and tears of the builder. Depending on the model you prefer, Prisma Guitars tend to start in the mid-$2k range, making them a very attractive challenger for your next boutique buy. You can learn more on the Prisma Guitars website.


Koll Guitars

Last but not least for this year’s NAMM boutique standouts is Portland-based Koll Guitars, the brainchild of longtime luthier Saul Koll and Brooklyn-based filmmaker/photographer Gary Hustwit. This company has been around for a number of years, though in the most recent previous years, these guitars had been previously licensed to an outside company. Since 2015, most of all of Koll’s guitars have been hand-built in-house by Saul Koll himself.

These guitars play like a labor of love and while I’m not familiar with the previous iterations, I can’t help but recommend these builds. Whether you are looking for a guitar that nails the early Gibson/Gretsch-sound or ‘50s-era Fenders, Koll likely has a stylish and worthy offering that is almost guaranteed to satisfy even the most stubborn tastes. The models displayed this year evoked classic eras of lost excellence in guitar design and sound, and it was hard not to walk away impressed.

Koll Guitars at NAMM 2018

Koll’s newest offering at NAMM, the Super Cub, was a tribute to lightweight rockers of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. This guitar was as light as a feather and, if you closed your eyes, you might think that you were playing on a vintage Kalamazoo-made Epiphone. In the words of Saul and Gary about this new model:

"Our inspirations for that one were sixties American guitars we love, like the Epiphone Wilshire or Harmony Bobkat or Melody Makers. The Super Cub has some aesthetic DNA from those guitars, mashed up with Saul's classic Glide shape and a new headstock design. The body is thinner than our other solidbodies, and the body edge is softer. The pickguard and headstock have sort of a mid-century vibe. Bottom line: we wanted a thin, light guitar that's just plain fun to play."

In case you couldn’t tell by their inclusion, I think they were wildly successful in this mission. Most of the Koll models range from upper-$2k all the way to $5k or more, but the quality of the instruments more than speaks for itself. For those interested in their newest guitar, the Super Cub, it will retail at a price of about $3k and will be customizable, similar to their other offerings. You can read more about Koll Guitars here.

See more New Products and Highlights from Winter NAMM 2018

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