Long a notable builder in his own right, for the past few years Gene Baker has headed up the Premier Builders Guild team in Arroyo Grande, California, and this is the shop where the b3 Fire SL is made. At first glance this guitar might seem like just another double-cut Les Paul variant, but the shape shifting of the upper horn helps the b3 Fire SL hang differently, putting it in a playing position that I found more comfortable than the traditional Les Paul. The entire guitar is so beautifully put together that it just begs you to play it—and when you do, it rings sweet and true even before being plugged in. As the spec box indicates, the b3 Fire SL comprises many of the classic elements of the LP format, with quality components at every turn: TonePros hardware, Lollar Imperial pickups, a Tusq nut with Buzz Feiten Tuning System, and Dunlop Strap Loks. More fundamentally, the wood itself screams of similar quality and attention to detail. The softly V’d ’59 neck carve feels superb in the hand, with nary a ragged fret end, and a lightly chambered mahogany body keeps the overall weight equally appealing. Finally, a distressed “lemondrop” nitro finish, with cherry back and neck, seems the perfect way to show off the remarkable flame of this carved maple top. Fired up, the b3 presented ballsy, confident dual-humbucker tones, yet with the oft-surprising finesse of a great Les Paul when called for. It laid down anything in the broad range of classic rock just as effortlessly as you might suspect, yet when eased back, exhibited a depth and grace that is rare in guitars of this format. The neck pickup rolled effortlessly from warm, vocal, jazz tones to singing blues-rock, and there was even more versatility across the board when I popped up the neck-position Tone control for some single-coil action. But kick it to the bridge pickup, crank the amp, and the rock-all- day bluster is where this guitar really won me over. For its effortless playability and rich, muscular dual-bucker tones, the b3 Fire SL wins an Editors’ Pick Award.
It’s a familiar formula these days. Take a bit of a certain iconic guitar, mix it with elements artfully chosen from another, and hey presto, you’ve come up with a design that’s new but also has instant appeal.
The Premier Builders Guild is an umbrella organisation for various amp and guitar manufacturers including Fano, Two-Rock, Tone King and Koll. Gene Baker is the outfit’s Chief Guitar Master Builder, and the Phoenix Driftwood we’re reviewing this month comes from Baker’s own B3 guitar line.
The influences behind the Phoenix Driftwood are obvious; ‘a Tele on steroids has a collision with a Firebird’, says B3. Yes, a Gibson Firebird, with its unique combination of through-neck and stepped body; there are plenty of Firebird copies out there, but very few have the authentic through-neck construction like the Phoenix.
Building guitars with through-necks is tricky and expensive, but Gene Baker has done it properly. The ‘through’ section is as wide as the neck, and the body is formed from glued-on ‘wings’ that are top-routed to create a raised central section. The body and neck are mahogany, and the neck is all of a piece with no heel stack or scarf joints. In true Firebird style there’s a tummy tuck at the back and a simple rosewood fingerboard with pearl dots.
Although later Firebirds had P90 pickups, mini-humbuckers are a prerequisite for classic Firebird sounds, and the Phoenix has two of them. The Tele influence comes into play with a Barden bridge with slanted brass saddles and a stacked, noiseless Dimarzio Area T bridge pickup. The T-type control layout looks stock, but the tone knob doubles up as a push/pull coil tap switch for the mini-humbuckers, and the switch is a five-way.
The headstock is Baker’s own design, and we think it suits the guitar. The strings follow a straight path to vintage-style Tone Pros Kluson tuners, and the shape of the trussrod cover is actually that of the headstock in reverse.
As for the build quality, it’s top-drawer modern production standard. The fretwork is precise and the edges of the board are gently rolled over for comfort. The poly finish can’t be faulted; it’s like a modern twist on TV yellow.
Predominantly off-white, the grain is highlighted in dark brown and the effect is not unlike chocolate chip ice cream.
Yummy… but if a poly finish isn’t for you, a nitro-cellulose finish is an option, and these are also available in various grades of relicing.
One Firebird feature that Baker has wisely sidestepped is the neck-heaviness. With no off-kilter centre of gravity or heavy ‘banjo’ tuners, the lightweight Phoenix balances superbly on the strap and in the lap. Acoustically it’s bright and chimey, but there’s extra sustain and a more even response than you’d expect from a regular T-type.
We first encountered the mini-humbucker/Tele bridge combo on a Fender ’52 Hot Rod Tele some years ago. The Phoenix brings back happy memories of that fine guitar but adds a whole lot more. The through-neck and all-mahogany construction give the Phoenix an SG-style grunt, growl and harmonic complexity that’s all too often wasted on mediocre humbuckers. Not so these rather remarkable mini-humbuckers, which combine ballsy aggression and fat mids with a wide-open high frequency response that’s almost Fender-like.
It’s a unique tone that’s articulate, touch-sensitive, super-clear and cuts right through a mix. Sustain is effortless and there’s no shortage of dynamic response or touch sensitivity. These pickups even do the ‘note bloom’ trick that some associate with vintage PAFs, harmonic overtones shifting as you hang onto a note.
The output of the Area T pickup balances well with the others, but with extra bite and twang. An out-and-out vintage replica bridge pickup might have been too much of a contrast, so the fatter, more modern voicing of the Area T is a better fit.
The Phoenix is one of those guitars that are equally adept at clean stuff and high-gain shredding. The tonal range spans blues, contemporary rock, country and even metal. When you activate the coil tap, the pickup combinations become almost Strat-like – especially the in-between positions. You can even order this guitar with a vibrato bridge and S-style control layout, and with pretty much any combination of pickups you want.
Retro ‘hybrid’ guitars are often best on paper, and some demonstrate why certain timber, neck joint and pickup combinations were never used back in the day and why they should never be used again. In contrast, the B3 Phoenix is a triumph – a light, comfortable, well-balanced blend of simplicity and style.
The only negative thing we would mention is the squared-off edge of the Barden bridge, which can dig into your palm, but other than that, the Phoenix plays and sounds as good as it looks.