Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400

3rd Sep 2010 | 07:43

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
4 semi-acoustics under £400
From L-R: Washburn HB30, Vintage VSA555, Peerless Wizard and Adam Black HS Centre (First Act CE530 Delia not pictured)

What the hell, you might ask, do I want with a semi-acoustic? After all, you might add, I'm not a besuited jazzman, sat on the terrasse of a Parisian cafe, blowing the froth off a cappuccino and annoying the waitresses by whistling John Coltrane's My Favorite Things.

At this point, allow us to interject. While the semi-acoustic format is a mainstay in jazz circles, there's no reason why the polo neck brigade should have all the fun. Rocker, bluesman, indie jangler or fret-mangler… find a good semi and you'll never look back.

If we're going to slap anyone's back for the semi-acoustic, let it be former Gibson boss Ted McCarty. Back in 1958 - prior to which Gibson had traded in hollow guitars - McCarty hit on the concept of a thinline jazz model that combined hollow 'wings' with a solid wood block running down the middle.

The theory was to fuse the tonal depth of a solid body with the sustain of a hollow body, and the result was the legendary Gibson ES-335, the daddy to which all other semi-acoustics aspire. There's just one thing about the ES-335: at £2,000-plus, it's bloody expensive. Not everyone can spend that on a big box of air, so we want to know if it's possible to get superior semi performance on a budget.

Semi-solid crew

Opening up an internet browser is a bewildering experience. Semi-acoustics. Thousands of them. It quickly became clear that we would have to slap some criteria on this, so we set an upper limit of £400 and turned to our mid-price heroes. We want cheap, but not nasty. First stop was the Washburn HB30 (£279), a semi-acoustic of some repute, and hopefully the latest example of the Chicago luthier's lightness of touch in the lower echelons.

With that in the bag, we turned to the 335-style contours of the Vintage VSA555 (£359), before dragging this round-up into the new millennium with the funky zebra vibe of Adam Black's HS Centre (£219). Finally, we requested the presence of the Peerless Wizard (£399) - a slightly pricier model and something of a wild card - and the none-too-shabby First Act CE530 Delia.

First up: Washburn HB30 review

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Washburn HB30 review
£279; Maple body with centre block; set maple neck; rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays; 24.75" scale; open-coil 621 (neck) and 623 (bridge) pickups; 2 x volume, 2 x tone, 3-way pickup selector; chrome grover tuners, tune-o-matic bridge and stop bar; tobacco sunburst finish

Review

Good old Washburn. Since 1883, we’ve been handing the boys from Chicago our shrapnel in exchange for their killer electric guitars, and we don’t remember the last time they let us down. Business as usual?

Washburn describes the HB30 as a “workhorse”, a term that sounds derogatory but really means that this semi-acoustic is for gigging, not hanging on the wall. Granted, it wouldn’t look bad in a displaycase - with the all-maple doublecut body looking suitably vintage beneath a lick of tobacco sunburst - but we were more interested to see what we got from those 621 and 623 humbuckers when we played.

As the first semi of the round-up, the HB30’s body reminded us just how damn wide these models get. It’s not the kind of shape that lends itself to shred. The good news is that the maple body is light and thin enough to offer welcome control for midtempo rock and blues. Despite a Les Paul-ish scale, we didn’t find bends easy, but a comfortable board and great access meant moving pentatonic boxes was smooth and easy.

Next: Washburn HB30 Verdict

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Washburn HB30 verdict
£279; Maple body with centre block; set maple neck; rosewood fingerboard with dot inlays; 24.75" scale; open-coil 621 (neck) and 623 (bridge) pickups; 2 x volume, 2 x tone, 3-way pickup selector; chrome grover tuners, tune-o-matic bridge and stop bar; tobacco sunburst finish

Verdict

The ‘classic’ semi-acoustic sound is warm and mellow, and the HB30 turns in a decent reading, with the dark warmth of the 621 perfect for blues, the 623 ragged enough for rock, and the inherent sustain bringing a sense of cut-price class. You’ll find better semis out there than the Washburn HB30 model, but few at this kind of price point.

Pros: Looks, feel, watertight semi tone.
Cons:
Not the best for bends.

Next: Vintage VSA555 review

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Vintage VSA555 review
£359; Maple body with laminated top; set maple neck; rosewood fingerboard with block inlays; 2 x Wilkinson Alnico humbuckers; 24.75" scale; gold tulip tuners, tune-o-matic bridge and stop bar; 2 x volume, 2 x tone, 3-way pickup selector; ebony finish

Review

Vintage lives by a simple philosophy: affordable axes that kick ass. The fact that the 555 owes a teensy cosmetic debt to a certain classic of the '50s is merely a bonus for you, the impoverished showboater.

Despite being one digit from the number of the beast, the 555 is perhaps the most wholesome in the group. Vintage refers us to the “slim, bound f-hole body” and theorises that the “gently arched front and back feel attractive and comfortable to play”. And the Wilkinson alnico humbuckers? Well, they “push out thick dollops of prime guitar tone”. Blimey.

Next: Vintage VSA555 verdict

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Vintage VSA555 verdict
£359; Maple body with laminated top; set maple neck; rosewood fingerboard with block inlays; 2 x Wilkinson Alnico humbuckers; 24.75" scale; gold tulip tuners, tune-o-matic bridge and stop bar; 2 x volume, 2 x tone, 3-way pickup selector; ebony finish

Verdict

If you’re after a cheap semi that looks iconic from a distance, you’ll be hot for the ‘Mickey Mouse’ cutaways, f-holes and Gibson-style tuners. It feels tough and plays smooth, with a manageable neck profile and familiar scale. The body has a slight tendency to pull away when seated, but it’s so light you should be standing anyway.

Trev Wilkinson’s played a blinder with his twin ’buckers. We got the best results cranking the volume on the neck and peeling off some lazy rock licks. This setting was superbly powerful with moderate distortion too. The bridge item would eat up a solo in a live context, but doesn’t quite have the authority of its thicker-voiced sibling. Overall, though, this is one workhorse you should take for a ride.

Pros: Iconic looks, solid execution.
Cons:
Bridge lacks character.

Next: Adam Black HS Centre

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Adam Black HS Centre review
£219; Laminated maple body with solid centre block; set maple neck; ebony fingerboard with 12th fret dot inlay; 24.75" scale; 2x open-coil ASBO humbuckers; 2 x volume, 2 x tone; black hardware; white/black/white or black/white/black finish

Review

We're big fans of Adam Black, so when we stumbled across a semi that looked like a zebra and had pickups called ASBOs, we just couldn’t dial his number fast enough.

It’s refreshing to find a semi that doesn’t think it’s still 1958. "This is a modern classic with a finish to match," says UK distributor Rosetti. "It’s a hardrocking guitar hidden beneath a classic-looking exterior."

Structurally, the maple body isn’t a huge departure from what we’ve already seen, but we’re intrigued by those humbuckers. "ASBOs are for players who don’t care about clean tone, noise regulations or neighbours!" says the website. That’s us, baby.

Next: Adam Black HS Centre verdict

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Adam Black HS Centre verdict
£219; Laminated maple body with solid centre block; set maple neck; ebony fingerboard with 12th fret dot inlay; 24.75" scale; 2x open-coil ASBO humbuckers; 2 x volume, 2 x tone; black hardware; white/black/white or black/white/black finish

Verdict

Visually, the HS Centre is arresting, as is the physical performance. The finish is neat, the tuners held pitch well, and there’s a modern feel to the neck and board that meant we played this model with more technical ambition. We’d go as far to say it’s the best player of the day.

When you call a humbucker an ‘ASBO’, you had better make sure it rocks. Mission accomplished. Traditionalists will be pleased to hear that, played clean, you get the mellow flavour that’s central to the semi mythology.

The difference is, we felt this guitar was that bit more convincing when we cranked the gain, spitting aggressive lead at the bridge and a scary rumble at the neck. Granted, it still wouldn’t cut it at Download, but hard rockers might be surprised.

Pros: Modern vibe, good at distortion.
Cons:
We can’t complain at £219.

Next: Peerless Wizard review

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Peerless Wizard review
£399; Laminated flame maple body; set maple neck; rosewood fingerboard with mother-of-pearl inlays; 25.5" scale; 3x dog ear P90s (humbuckers also available); 3 x volume, tone; chrome finish; vintage sunburst or violin high gloss finish

Review

Don’t dismiss Peerless as the ‘new boy’ - this '70s luthier was knocking out archtops when you were a glint in the milkman’s eye. The Wizard does stretch the budget, but that vintage vibe cast a spell on us…

On spec alone, the Wizard is the most interesting semi in contention. Built on the base of a single-cutaway maple body, it seduced us with its oldeworlde trapeze tailpiece, gonzoid control layout and trilogy of ‘dog ear’ P90s (we could also have specified humbuckers). Peerless is clearly after the traditionalist dollar, confident that it’ll pay a little more for the trimmings.

Next: Peerless Wizard verdict

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
Peerless Wizard verdict
£399; Laminated flame maple body; set maple neck; rosewood fingerboard with mother-of-pearl inlays; 25.5" scale; 3x dog ear P90s (humbuckers also available); 3 x volume, tone; chrome finish; vintage sunburst or violin high gloss finish

Verdict

We can’t take our eyes off the Wizard, and the same goes for our fingers. With a whopping 17-inch width, this model is built for comfort, not speed, with a lovely, lazy feel to the neck and fretboard that leaves you wringing out vibrato-heavy notes with your eyes closed. It feels like playing an instrument from a bygone era.

Following an afternoon of humbucker action, the P90s stood out from the pack. While not as thick as the competition, they’ve got grit, attitude and character, and the lack of a dedicated pickup selector is more than compensated with three volume controls, letting you dial up a bespoke tone, and making this model perfect for anything from blues to melodic rock.

Peerless? We’re not arguing.

Pros: Genuine vibe, versatile P90 tone.
Cons:
Most expensive in the test.

Next: First Act CE530 Delia review

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
First Act CE530 Delia review
£149; Basswood body; American maple bolt-on neck; rosewood fingerboard: 24.75" scale; 2 x Alnico V vintage-style humbuckers; 2 x volume, tone, 3-way pickup selector; chrome hardware; solid metallic black, powder blue or velvet red finish

Review

Guitars named after your aunt are generally bad news - but the Delia’s kooky semi-hollow construction, violin-style f-holes and oddball cutaways marked it out as ‘individual’ to say the least.

First Act reckon she’s “all dressed up and ready to go out”, and you’d have to agree, with the gorgeous finish drawing the eye and the twin humbuckers ensuring she’ll make her voice heard in the lairiest rock club.

Next: First Act CE530 Delia verdict

Round-up: 5 semi-acoustic electric guitars under £400
First Act CE530 Delia verdict
£149; Basswood body; American maple bolt-on neck; rosewood fingerboard: 24.75" scale; 2 x Alnico V vintage-style humbuckers; 2 x volume, tone, 3-way pickup selector; chrome hardware; solid metallic black, powder blue or velvet red finish

Verdict

OK, so she won’t do it for metallers - the neck ain’t fast enough and the semi-hollow body doesn’t thrive on filth - but anyone else should seriously consider this axe.

We loved Delia’s individual looks, found moving chords and riffs over the neck really comfortable, thanked the sweet baby Jesus for the comparatively light mass and were knocked out by the characterful tone of those ’buckers.

Played clean, they deliver a stunning warmth that brings authenticity to your Byrds riffs, while pushing them takes you closer to the ragged roar of vintage Pete Townshend.

Pros: Visual flair and classy rock tone.
Cons: Not one for metallers.


Liked this? Now read: The best electric guitars under £1000

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