The Top Ten[ish] Most Bad-Ass Guitars!

The idea of this post is to show off guitars that I find cool, interesting, weird, or even strangely alluring. Before the “What? No mention of (insert classic guitar here)” responses come in, I’d like to admit that I’ll be leaving some of the more obvious and iconic guitars out of this post. For instance: I love SRV’s #1, Page’s double-neck and Jack White’s Airline, but you won’t be seeing them on this list. This list is reserved for the underdogs.

I give you, in no particular order, the top ten[ish] most badass guitars. (I say this because chances are I’ll finish this post, then think of forty other instruments I could have listed.)

Fender Telemaster

It's as if a Telecaster melted.

Envisioned as a sort of “what-if” experiment, Fender’s Telemaster pays homage to two of the company’s most beloved designs. Essentially a Jazzmaster body with Telecaster hardware and electronics, the Telemaster could have easily been one of those throw away designs that Leo never saw to fruition. Fender’s not the only one making these, with Nash doing them once in a while, and K-Line‘s “Texola” being a staple of their offerings.

These guitars give you the snap and twang of your favorite singlecut, bolt-on workhorses combined with the cool, retro feel of an offset body. And, to be honest, I’d buy one based on looks alone. I mean, how badass is that?!

Nels Cline’s 59 Jazzmaster

Ask me who I think is the greatest living guitarist of our time, and I'll say his name at least a dozen times. Jazz Times called him "the world's most dangerous guitarist."

Nels Cline (Nels Cline Singers, Wilco) is a big deal to us here at Leading Tone. Mike and I tend to geek-out over his other-worldly abilities and masterful use of both the tonal and atonal, and of washy, percussive soundscapes. He’s an absolute monster of free-jazz as well as rock, known for easily transitioning from sullen, mournful legato passages to deftly executed speed thrills, then into all-out sonic anarchy. For Nels, noise is just as important as notes.

His main guitar in both NCS and Wilco is his prized, “Frankensteined” ’59 Jazzmaster, purchased from Mike Watt some time ago.  But why a Jazzmaster? It’s not exactly the first-pick for either rockers or jazzers. Says Nels of his instrument, “The neck, body shape, neck pickup tone, and behind-the-bridge possibilities were instantly inspirational for me.” As a recent convert to the Jazzmaster flock, I’d have to agree; notes plucked from behind the bridge ring out clearer and truer than any other guitar I’ve ever played, and that kind of quirk is exactly what moves me about the design of this guitar.

Years of heavy play caused this down-to-the-wood wear. (via Fretboard Journal)

Though the guitar is not heavily modified, Nels favors Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickups. In case you’re interested, Nels keeps a log of his current (and ever-changing) rig at, and Fretboard Journal has explored Wilco’s extensive collection of instruments.

“Black Ed”, Matt Bellamy’s Manson 007

Custom built for Muse’s Matt Bellamy by Hugh Manson, this guitar has a lot more going on under the hood than simple pickup-pot-jack wiring. Imagine having an entire pedal board built into your guitar and still being able to make adjustments on the fly. Fuzz? Check. Phaser? Yep, it’s in there too. Wah? You’d better believe it. Control of your Digitech Whammy? Yes, yes, yes!

Manson had this to say of the guitar on Musewiki:

“Matt came to me and said, ‘Can you build a guitar with a whammy pedal in it?’ I thought for moment and said, ‘Of course we can‘. Then I looked at the back of a whammy pedal and realised it draws a lot of power. Unless he wanted a guitar full of batteries that he could only use for 40 seconds, it wasn’t gonna work. Then I realised the modern whammy has a MIDI controller system with it, so I went to a great friend of mine, Ron Joyce, who does all my weird electronic stuff, and said, ‘I want to control that pedal from this guitar’. He said, All you need is a pot. I looked in to pots but realised that rotary pots gave the wrong feel. Eventually we came up with the linear pot from the side of a keyboard, which acts as a MIDI controller pad and goes in to a microprocessor to control the whammy. It just number crunches MIDI numbers -you tell it what you want it to do and it’ll do it. It’ll control a whammy pedal, it’ll control a kaoss pad, it’ll turn the lights up and down, it’ll turn your heated blanket on, whatever you want in terms of MIDI. I don’t think anyone’s done that in a guitar before.”

Impressive, right? For the sake of being accurate, here’s what’s in this instrument: a Z.Vex Wah Probe, a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, and an MXR Phase 90 as well as MIDI control for the Whammy pedal in Matt’s rig. “But a wah inside the guitar? How do you even control that?”, you may ask incredulously. Not quite. Here’s an explanation of the Wah Probe taken from Zvex’s site:

“The Wah Probe circuit generates a small (one or two inches high) “bubble” of RF energy at about a million cycles per second above the copper plate. As your foot or hand (or any wet or metallic object, for that matter) approaches the copper plate, the RF field is disturbed and the circuit reacts by increasing the brightness of an LED, which drives a photoresistive cell and controls the Z.Vex wah circuit.”

In simple terms, as Matt’s hand gets closer to that copper plate on the lower horn of his guitar, the wah filter sweeps higher.

I can wire your guitar like this... for $1000.

I’m not entirely convinced that the above wiring shot is of the same guitar, but as an illustration it’s quite poignant. I mean, yeesh! Look at all of it! Now I understand why a few years back Hugh Manson said he wasn’t doing this for anyone else. Now, of course, there’s a signature model with a built-in Kaos Pad, which is a great tool on its own.

Gibson Barney Kessel

The devil-horned Satan worshiper of the jazz guitar family.

Coming straight in from the last hot number on the list, you’ll be disappointed to know that there’s nothing electronically impressive about the Barney Kessel. Really, it’s just that body shape that makes me swoon. From the deeply-cut horns on the body to the music-note inlay on the headstock, the GBK is a seductive, non-traditional jazz box with loads of attitude. Another point for Wilco on this one, as Jeff Tweedy is often seen using one of these in concert.

Brent Hinds’ Silverburst V

This isn’t the best shot of Brent Hinds’ Silverburst Gibson V, but you get the picture. (Literally) Let’s take a look at what makes this guitar so “badass”:

1) It’s a Flying V.

2) I think most of us can agree that Silverburst- be it pristine and unfaded, or in its aged, green-tinted form- is one of the most alluring finishes known in guitardom. Flashier and more attention-grabbing than its sun-themed counterpart, Silverburst has attained an iconic status of its own without regard to the instrument on which it is applied. Les Pauls, V’s, Explorers… I’ve even seen a few low-end acoustics in this color. And it almost always looks good.

3) This instrument has Gibson’s usual “Custom” model visual cues including body binding (something you don’t often see on a V), an ebony fingerboard, pearl block inlays and the “split diamond” on the headstock. Always a recipe for bad-assery.

Fender Marauder MK 1

I feel an episode of "Where Are They Now" coming on... Inquiring minds want to know.

Sometime between ’65 and ’66, Fender prototyped their Marauder guitar, which stemmed from the tides of thought which brought us the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. There were three versions:

1) A proof-of-concept model made from a re-purposed Jazzmaster body, which had hidden pickups and a hidden vibrato unit- the arm was concealed by a rout in the body and poked out through the pickguard. An interesting concept for sure, but functionally I can see why they dropped the idea.

2) The Mk. I model (upon which this part of the article will focus) had an altogether different body style, like a cross between a Jazzmaster and Stratocaster. Still sporting the hidden pickups, this model had a more traditional strat-style bridge/vibrato unit. Some even sported slanted frets! Seen in the above catalog shot, the guitar made it to the pre-production phase but no further; Fender quickly dropped the model just after, never stating publicly the reason for abandonment. Some speculate a lack of interest from dealers was the cause, others wonder if it had more to do with tension between the company and the man behind the hidden, overwound pickups.

3) The Mk. II model was also ill-fated, this model eschewed the hidden pickup idea, having instead three normally mounted single coils. This guitar boasted a staggering amount of switches and a more stylized layout. More on that later.

Part of what makes the Marauder so cool is the aesthetic of hidden pickups. I mean, just looking at it makes you wonder just what’s going on under there. I stare at the picture just wondering how it sounds, dreaming of someday owning one. It’s got that classic offset look, of course, but it’s the mystery of it that really entices me. Also, it’s the rarest Fender guitar ever created. There were few instruments produced (somewhere around eight) that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever actually see one in person. Those eight or so guitars are owned by anonymous collectors, so there is a chance that one may come to market someday. Realistically, you have a better chance of winning the lotto (and miraculously gaining accounting superpowers preventing you from spending it all on something stupid) than you have of ever playing, seeing, touching, tasting, or breathing around one of these. (With all that, it’s still not as rare as Gibson’s Moderne, which no one’s even sure ever existed.)

Where are the pickups? Why, under the guard, of course!

That’s the reason that Offsetguitars forum member Kifla made the beauty you see above. Yes, he made it. Kifla is from Croatia and tends to spend his time making Fender style guitars by hand. His work is really top-notch, and he’s the kind of guy that isn’t terribly secretive about his methods; in fact, he’s happy to share photos and how-to style thread postings on Offset. Really a stand-up sort of chap.

Kifla studied everything he could find about Marauders, specifically the Mk I model. He’d be the first to admit that this guitar isn’t an exact copy, but more of a close-as-can-be effort to finally have this rare bird in his hands. He posted the entire design and fabrication process on the forum in step-by-step fashion, and his work is immaculate. Check it out here.

How does it sound? See and hear for yourself on Youtube!

Like most of the guitars on this list, I want one.

Fender “La Cabronita Espesial”


This stripped-down T-style makes my one good eye well up with tears. Elegant yet simple, the “La Cab” just looks stunning. One Filter-tron is all you really need, anyway. Also, this guitar wins the award for “Most Offensive Guitar Name in the Spanish Language.” Pretty sweet.

Glen Hansard’s Takamine NP15

If you haven't seen Once yet, you should.

Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard plays hard. A cursory familiarity with his music will inform you of his super quick right hand strumming, but you’ll never be prepared to lay eyes on that.

A hole through the wood down to the braces. Glen is most famous for being in the indie musical Once, for which he won a Grammy in 2007. He’s also the front man of The Frames.

Purchased from a music store in 1990, Glen made a living busking with his new guitar. Dubbed “The Horse”, this NP15’s Cedar top gives it a softer, rounder sound than most acoustics and perfectly compliments Glen’s throaty, raw voice. I’m sure we all love a nicely worn-in guitar, but the fact that this guitar is still in once piece is impressive enough to warrant its inclusion on this list. Just by looking at this guitar you can tell Glen’s a passionate artist.

I remember reading an interview with Glen where he talked about having been invited to meet with “Mr. Takamine”, who offered Glen a brand new guitar on the condition that he play it instead of The Horse onstage. Mr. T felt that the old, beat up guitar brought shame to his company. Glen refused.

I took this photo after seeing Glen and Markéta live in Prague, CZ back in 2006. I was stuck in a sort of reverential awe as I stood there with my camera, close enough to touch this gorgeous workhorse.

He also owns a perfectly worn-in Telecaster Thinline.

Martin Porter Wagoner “Wagonmaster”

That Batwing guard makes me crazy!

An acoustic guitar with a “batwing” pick guard? Yes, please. Intended to honor the long-time veteran of The Grand Ole Opry, this Martin signature model is also hand-signed by Porter himself as well as Marty Stuart.

Some would ask, “Why don’t you just buy that pick guard and put it on your guitar?” Because that’s not the point. The gaunt guard alone isn’t worth the price of admission, of course, but I’m not certain it would look as good on any other guitar. With the abalone trim and wagon wheel inlays, each visual element works together to create something truly inspiring. Add to that the Martin tone and it’s something special.

Photo taken from Elderly Instruments

Bilt Relevator

If anyone wants to spot me this exact guitar, I'll be your best friend. Promise.

With design cues taken from Fender’s Marauder Mk II prototype and the Starcaster (see headstock), the Bilt Relevator should come with a concealed weapons permit. Hand-built by Bill Henss and Tim Thelen in Iowa with “vintagey oddball spaceray looks”, these guitars come standard with the Mastery Bridge (a must-have, as far as I’m concerned), Seymour Duncan Antiquity II pickups (Jazzmaster neck and bridge, Jaguar middle), “breadboard” fuzz and delay circuits, and enough switching options to have you endlessly deliberating over what sound you actually need. They all sound that good.

Take a look a their gallery and marvel at the beauty that is this hand made wonder. Attention to detail abounds in this piece, with switches positioned perfectly within reach, beautifully applied finishes, and even a matching accent stripe on the headstock! All of the colors are appealing to me, but when they do a 3-tone sunburst, that stripe just looks downright sexy.

I love my Jazzmaster, don’t get me wrong, but these days I find myself wanting more. More switches, more tones, more warmth. It seems to me that the Relevator has all of this in spades, judging from the demo videos on their site. I especially like the ability to add in the Jaguar middle pickup to any combination of the other two. I’ve never thought about having delay on-board, but it would be great to have another color with which to paint.

I have to tell you, though, of all the features this guitar boasts, it’s the built-in fuzz that drives me mad. It sounds great, of course, but the real draw for me is the oscillation mode. When engaged, this mode turns the fuzz circuit into a squealing beast with pitch manipulation at your fingertips. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a million uses for such a deadly weapon.

Do check out this instrument for yourself. Perhaps even cooler than the oscillation mode is the price range. Trust me; they’re affordable. And, with the ability to customize this guitar from pickups to finish, this guitar is the ultimate in offset cool.

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3 Responses to The Top Ten[ish] Most Bad-Ass Guitars!

  1. devin reese says:

    fender starcaster?

  2. michaeladams says:

    You’re a lucky man, Jim! I saw some cool Telemasters at the guitar show this weekend, and I’ve got to say I was smitten… Let us know how your T-master works out!

  3. Jim McConnell says:

    2 for 10 on the all-time badass guitar list! Well, as soon as my Telemaster body is finished and shipped that is 🙂

    Build, buy, borrow, or somehow get your hands on a La Cab. Scrappiest little girl I’ve ever owned for sure.

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