Review: Michael Kelly Guitar Co. 1950's Series Guitar - 1957 Model

Sometimes the best "Telecaster" for the job isn't a Telecaster at all. The Michael Kelly Guitar Company took the best of what Leo Fender's pioneering guitar had to offer and with their 1950's Series, tries to improve a icon. Read on to see if they succeeded.
I love Tele-style guitars, I really do. This may be hard to believe for anyone who also knows my love for heavy metal music. There is something about a Tele that just makes me want to keep playing it for hours and hours. I distinctly remember being 16 and wandering into guitar shops and falling in love with several of these very iconic guitars. There is a feel about them that no other guitar has. 
Last year I had decided I was going to buy myself a Tele after many years of wanting one. I ended up purchasing a used Mexican Roadworn series that Fender released a few years ago. It plays well, sounds great, but I know in my heart of hearts that it does not sound like the Fenders I used to play years ago. I tried the American-made models as well, and the MIM one played better, so I bought it. Something has changed. Perhaps the fact that they produce over 500 guitars a day in the Corona, California factory is the factor I'm not considering. That fact is "invisible" to most people. New instruments don't seem to feel as "cozy" as they used to even just 20 years ago.
When I first laid eyes on the Michael Kelly 1957 guitar, I thought "If this sounds as good as it looks, I may have to trade in my Fender."
Photo By M.Fasano
The guitar body is made of swamp ash, and it has genuine flame maple for the binding, and a quilt maple top. Some Tele purists may scoff at the quilt maple top on such an instrument, but not me. My sample is the "black wash" color, and it is gorgeous. My model came with a white pearloid pickguard and it looks mighty handsome on the quilt maple top. The headstock is take on the traditional Tele headstock and has a simple "Michael Kelly" script on it. No flashy metallic poseur inlay here folks. 
The all maple (bolt-on) neck and fretboard (satin finish for both, with dot inlays) feels smooth and is comfortable to play. I have a small hand and had no trouble zipping up and down the neck. I'm also more of a fan of glossy necks, but in a Tele style guitar, you can't help but be drawn to the vintage simplicity of a satin neck. My only issue with the neck is that some of the frets felt like they could have used a bit more of a bevel but after playing it for hours, my hands and fingers still felt fine so this may be a moot point.
As far as pickups are concerned, the guitar comes loaded with a Rockfield SWV Humbucker in the neck, and a USA Seymour Duncan Little '59 in the bridge. What makes this guitar so versatile is the fact that it has dual coil tapped pickups, which means you can get a lot of different sounds out of it. On paper, this always makes me roll my eyes. I personally don't like too many knobs, buttons, and gadgets on my guitar. Things changed as soon as I plugged this gorgeous 1957 into my amplifier.
First off, the sound is clear and clean, much like you'd expect out of this style of guitar. Once you start to experiment with the coil tapping however, you quickly realize that this is not a one-trick pony. Within minutes, I was able to emulate the tone that Jimmy Page gets with his Tele on "Stairway to Heaven", the bark that Billy Gibbons gets out of his Les Paul, and the bluesy whine that Hendrix got out of his Strat. I put the guitar through several clean and dirty channels, through small and large wattage amplifiers, with effects and no effects, and each and every time, I was able to get a multitude of tones and sounds that I didn't think to associate with a Tele, even if it has humbuckers in it.
Second, the 1957 has a tone all its own that doesn't make it a "copycat" guitar. This is not just a guitar you buy if you can't afford the "real thing." This guitar IS the real thing. Every guitar I own has its own level of mojo, and this Michael Kelly definitely has a distinct vibe, straight out of the box. It felt so right to play some blues and hard rock-inspired licks on this axe. I didn't want to put it down, so I didn't. The more I played it the more it became apparent to me that this is one of the most versatile guitars I've ever played, and the coil tapping feature is definitely what makes that possible. In terms of sustain, it had no trouble holding long notes, even if played with a slide. 
Lastly, I inspected the build quality and seams, and this is where I really have an opinion that may not be shared by many. The workmanship on this guitar is apparent. Things are level where they are supposed to be, clean cut where they're supposed to be, and the chrome-colored hardware (Grover tuners and all metal bridge and volume/tone controls) suits the luxurious finish of the quilt maple top. "Why should this surprise anyone?" you might be asking yourself. It shouldn't, if you're purchasing a North-American made instrument that everyone loves to brag about. But in this case, you're not. The American-designed guitars are built in Korea. The MSRP on this guitar is $875. Yes, you read that correctly! I can guarantee one thing: I have played many guitars that cost a lot more than $875 that were made in North America that do not sound or feel nearly as good as this 1957.
  • Swamp ash body, flame maple binding, and quilt maple top make for a gorgeous looking guitar.
  • Playability is fantastic and the neck is comfortable into the upper registers.
  • Versatile: you can can get so many rich tones out of this guitar 
  • Workmanship: attention to detail is obvious on this guitar - no shortcuts or parts that don't line up
  • Sustain is great.
  • The price: for an MSRP of $875 this classic-looking guitar is a bargain! You can get other models in the 1950's series for considerably less as well, which is great news.
  • Fret edges could use a little bit more bevel
  • Neck sounds a little bit "buzzy" if you play some really aggressive types of music - this may not be the guitar for you if all you play is Slayer and Pantera.
  • No case included
  • Depending on where you live, not readily available at a local music store so you can try one out (but you can take my word for it because it is indeed a dream to play!)
The Michael Kelly Guitar Co. has done some amazing work on this line of guitars. I will say this - if I had played one last year when I was in search of my American-made Fender Telecaster, I would have chosen the 1957 over it any day of the week. Its versatility, great sounding tone(s), and statement-making looks make it easy to recommend this to anyone who likes to play rock, blues, country, or just about anything else. The only type of music I felt it would not be able to handle as well as other guitars designed to do so is heavy metal, but with the right stompboxes, I was able to coax a little Metallica out of the 1957 with relatively little effort. Stop buying guitars by checking what name is on the headstock and where it was made. I used my ears to review this one, and I may just have to trade in my Fender after all.
Check out the Michael Kelly Guitar Co. website for more information and for a list of dealers