Fret-King guitars' Black Label series marks an interesting progression for the brand, which is masterminded by the ever-inventive British guitar designer Trevor Wilkinson. Whereas the Blue Label and Green label Fret-King ranges respectively offer production-based and more expensive high-end versions of models in the Fret-King line, the Black label series gives guitarists the unique opportunity to sample Fret-King's more experimental and esoteric side, without necessarily having to re-mortgage your granny in order to afford one!
The Super-Hybrid is a great example of the Black Label series rationale. Electric guitars that aim to offer a choice of usable electric and acoustic tones in a single package are not unusual but they do tend to be either fairly expensive, or else housed in designs that are maybe a bit too eclectic to appeal to the typical guy who just wants a decent 'meat and potatoes' axe to gig with every weekend.
The Super-Hybrid's double cutaway design feels reassuringly familiar. However, to really convince a seasoned guitar player to adopt the Super-Hybrid as his main guitar, its electric sounds need to cover all of the most popular tones, while its electro-acoustic sounds need to be both easy to access and up to scratch. So does the Super-Hybrid make the grade?
Plugged in, the Super-Hybrid feels like a fairly neutral guitar, conveying the impression of a vintage Fender that has been tweaked slightly to update its playability to a sleeker, more modern, standard. The slim 'C' profile neck has a smooth and non-sticky satin finish on the rear and the 10 inch radius rosewood fingerboard displays a near-perfect blend between a comfy curve that naturally fits the player's left hand while offering better access to wide vibrato and string bends, compared to a narrower vintage radius board. The two-octave fingerboard isn't something demanded by many guitarists but the extra range is still handy and whilst the fingerboard seems to extend fairly deep into the body, the slim neck heel and generally well conceived lines mean that upper fret access is still relatively unhindered.
The overall physical impression of the Super-Hybrid is that it feels solid and well made but also a bit bland. The neck's generic pale maple satin finish is partly to blame, it just feels like a typical Far Eastern guitar neck: an application of gun oil as per Musicman would definitely grace this neck with a touch of class - but then it would probably also add to the price so maybe it's better to live with it as it is!
Still, the Super-Hybrid's electronics display the huge experience that Trevor Wilkinson has bought to bear on this instrument. The conventional pickups comprise a pair of Wilkinson WCV ceramic humbuckers that Fret-King claims are carefully voiced to sound closer to the warm chunky delivery of a classic PAF, instead of the more aggressive slicing treble that ceramic humbuckers are usually known for. That said, these humbuckers sounded a little thin on clean tones until they were properly dialed-in. They benefit from a little bit of help in the low end but through an overdriven amp both humbuckers begin to sound a bit more enticing. Nobody is going to be fooled that this is an original '59 Les Paul but the Fret-King's humbuckers still display a warm and transparent sound with good definition between notes and a nice tightly focused delivery.
The middle single coil makes a nice contrast to the humbuckers. It sounds surprisingly fat and punchy and makes a great rhythm pickup if you find the humbuckers a bit too overbearing, especially if you don't particularly want to fall back on the 'in-between' sounds available from positions two and four on the five-way bladed pickup selector. As an extra measure, both humbuckers are also linked to a universal coil-tap located in the electric circuitry's push-pull tone control. All-in the Super Hybrid definitely leaves virtually no stone unturned in its quest to deliver the full gamut of tone's required by the working guitarist.
The ease of access between the Super-Hybrid's electric and built-in acoustic sounds is definitely worthy of praise. I had absolutely no access to the guitar before I took it out of the shipping crate to shoot the accompanying video to this review but the familiarization process was happily fairly swift and painless. The Piezo under-saddle transducers are linked to a rotary volume control located where you'd expect to find the bottom tone control on a typical Strat-style guitar. To access the acoustic tones, simply roll off the magnetic pickups master volume control to disengage the electric circuit and turn up the Piezo volume pot. Both circuits feed to a common output in the form of standard quarter-inch jack socket but if you'd still prefer to send your acoustic signal to a dedicated acoustic amp or direct to the PA you could use an A/B box on stage to re-route the acoustic signal to a separate source.
Sending a Piezo signal to a conventional electric guitar amplifier isn't always ideal but to help compensate there is a three-band active EQ that can be adjusted with a small screwdriver via three holes drilled in the rear cavity cover.
I really enjoyed using this set-up; it is definitely very stage-friendly, especially compared to carting a spare electro-acoustic guitar around that you might only use once or twice during the course of an entire set! The magnetic and Piezo pickups' output can also be blended together for an extra shimmer, which also creates some very interesting new sounds.
Fret-King's Black Label Series offers a genuinely interesting opportunity to sample the seemingly endless flow of fresh ideas from this ever-creative brand. The Super-Hybrid genuinely succeeds in its goal to provide a great all-round axe for the working guitarist; yes it does have certain idiosyncrasies but these don't cloud that it offers easy access to virtually all of the most popular electric guitar tones together with a more than decent Piezo acoustic facility that takes the pressure out of having to swap to an acoustic sound in a live setting. Good common sense with an engaging flare for lateral thinking shouldn't come this competitively priced, but I for one am very glad that Fret-King has nailed it.