These are heady days for Eastman Music Company. At the time of going to press, the brand had recently announced a strategic partnership with Bourgeois Guitars, while Eastman’s own output over the last couple of years has served up more than a few slices of humble pie to those who still don’t believe that a great vintage-style guitar can be built outside of North America. In addition, 2019 saw the launch of Romeo, an original design from master luthier Otto D’Ambrosio that sought to answer the question: “What would the Telecaster of the archtop-guitar world look and sound like?”
The R&D process that gave birth to Romeo took about two years to go from drawings to the initial production run. From the outset, Otto established the following criteria: the guitar had to be light and resonant, yet perfectly balanced, while the cutaway was to be as deep as possible for upper-fret access and the lower bout had to be 14-15 inches across.
“The first sample was maple back and sides, which made for a very poppy and bright tone,” Otto recalls. “We decided on mahogany laminate. All of a sudden, we heard the more throaty, twangy midrange. The Lollar Imperial humbuckers are perfectly suited to colour some of the electric signal with this semi-hollow resonance. Our Lollar humbuckers are partially wax potted, so they are slightly microphonic. They are also lower wound. What that does to this guitar is magical.”
Lightweight maple was chosen for the neck thanks to its stability and the way in which it transfers vibrations, but it has the benefit of being pretty, too – our review example has an attractive figure with an almost holographic flame.
Other than a mahogany block under the bridge and tailpiece that couples the arched top and back, the Romeo is fully hollow. Although this inevitably means the headstock begins to journey south when you are strapped on and hands free, when playing, Romeo is balanced effortlessly by your forearm resting on its lower bout. In our experience, neck dive is only invasive when your fretting hand has to compensate for it – that’s definitely not the case here.
Indeed, whether standing or seated, this is an extremely comfortable guitar to play, with a deceptively compact feel. “We looked into making the body shorter – this pulled the neck lower in the body, resulting in a better hand and wrist playing posture,” reveals Otto. “For a smaller semi, we think [a body width of] 14.75 inches is about perfect. Small and nimble, but not too small like a 13-inch solidbody.”
From the semicircular pearl side-dots to the ebony dome knobs and the straight-grain spruce top with its gorgeous Goldburst finish, the Romeo is an exercise in understated elegance. We’ve noted in the past that what Eastman’s hand-built electrics lack in manufacturing precision they more than make up for in sheer vibe, but there’s no shortfall here. Our review guitar is largely pin-sharp and stands up to close scrutiny, with only very slight hints of untidiness around the neck join, but we’re splitting hairs – this is a very handsome machine indeed.
With a new headstock design that allows for a clean and relatively straight string path behind the nut, plus a set of smooth-action 1:18 ratio tuners, the potential for tuning stability issues has been minimised. This guitar feels like it could handle a gig straight out of the shipping box and its performance is every bit as enthralling as we remember from our first encounter with the Romeo design at Summer NAMM back in July.
Eastman’s Traditional Even C neck profile is precisely as advertised and the gloss nitrocellulose finish is devoid of drag or stickiness, which helps promote a fast and fluid feel. As you might expect from a hollowbody, there’s no shortage of acoustic volume, along with plenty of harmonic interest and impressive sustain at the cowboy end.
Above the 12th fret, the acoustic tone is smooth and sweet and although high-register single notes don’t approach solidbody levels of sustain as they would on a centre-block-equipped semi, Romeo certainly offers more decay to play with than a typical ES-330.
The amplified tale of Romeo is one of three distinct acts. At the bridge, you get a versatile blend of ES-335 and Telecaster with a raunchy twang; it loves alt-country as much as it does windmilling classic rock and it rewards digging in.
The hollower middle position on a twin-humbucker archtop has long been a favourite for Leo Nocentelli-style funk, but the Romeo seems to tip the scales a little further towards Fender with a light, spanky flavour. Here, it encourages the kind of soulful Curtis Mayfield and Jimi-style rhythm embellishments usually reserved for Stratocasters, especially with the guitar’s volume knocked back a couple of notches.
It’s in the neck position that this spruce-topped hollowbody is perhaps at its most predictable, as there are sophisticated blues and smooth fusion tones aplenty. We agree with Otto when it comes to the partially potted Lollars – these custom-voiced Imperials are a great match for this guitar. Clarity, air, dynamics; everything you want from a great vintage-style humbucker is present and correct and working in tandem with the Romeo’s natural timbre.
With just one master volume and a pair of tone controls, you don’t get as much room to manoeuvre as you would from a wiring harness that includes individual pickup volumes. That said, the Orange Drop-equipped tone pots offer plenty of high-end roll-off and a sweep that works well with overdrive for Cream-era Clapton and thicker Texas blues tones.
Creating a new body shape that feels simultaneously fresh and familiar is one of the most challenging tricks in all Guitardom, but we think Otto and his colleagues at Eastman have pulled it off. Sure, there’s some Gibson in there, a slice of Telecaster, some Rickenbacker and perhaps a pinch of Gene Baker – nothing is designed in a vacuum – but Romeo is a body shape that Eastman can proudly call its own.
It’s also a design that the company sees as a platform for a whole range of instruments in the future, and on this evidence, that’s certainly no tragedy.
- PRICE £1,950 (inc hard. case)
- DESCRIPTION Thinline single-cutaway hollowbody 6-string electric guitar. Made in China
- BUILD Solid spruce top, mahogany laminate back and sides, ivoroid top and back binding, set maple neck with ‘Traditional Even C’ profile, 12”-radius ebony fingerboard, 22x Jescar 47104 frets, single-action truss-rod, bone nut
- HARDWARE Nickel-plated Gotoh aluminium stop tailpiece and tune-o-matic bridge with hard zinc saddles. Gotoh 1:18 ratio HAP sealed tuners
- ELECTRICS 2x custom-wound Lollar Imperial humbuckers, master volume, 2x tone, 3-way toggle pickup selector
- SCALE LENGTH 24.75”/629mm
- NECK WIDTH 43.8mm at nut, 54.5mm at 12th fret
- NECK DEPTH 22.1mm at first fret, 23.0mm at 12th fret
- STRING SPACING 36.8mm at nut, 51.6mm at bridge
- WEIGHT 2.49kg/5.5lb
- LEFT-HANDERS No
- FINISH Goldburst gloss nitrocellulose
- CONTACT Eastman Music Company eastmanguitars.com
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