Eastman ER2 El Rey Guitar

Naming a guitar El Rey takes a certain assuredness as, from the Spanish, El Rey translates to The King. Not that there needs to be any one singular king among six-strings, and not that luthier Otto D’Ambrosio is literally declaring his archtop design THE KING. Nevertheless, along with the name comes expectation. At the very least, D’Ambrosio has Eastman Guitars’ support. The company has placed the El Rey among its increasingly popular line of handsome jazz boxes, and Eastman wouldn’t have done that if the guitar weren’t something special. Still, in guitardom, it’s guitarists who truly play kingmaker. Let’s see if this one’s fit for a throne.

It’s pretty small for a king, really. The 14-inch El Rey body looks a bit like a Les Paul that’s been squashed lengthwise in a vise. It’s an oddly attractive shape that echoes aesthetics of the 1920s and ’30s while innovating guitar designs for the future. No one could confuse it with a Les Paul upon picking it up-it weighs five pounds and change, due to a fully hollow body that’s about two inches thick. The body is mahogany, save for the hand-carved spruce top and a few stripes of maple binding. All this beautiful wood grain is preserved beneath an antique-ish, deep brown finish that Eastman has been perfecting since introducing its first archtop guitar some six years ago. Mahogany makes up the neck as well, which is capped with an ebony fingerboard garnished with sleek, non-obtrusive mother-of-pearl inlay. A sculpted ebony tailpiece adds a nice bit of balance to the El Rey’s appearance. The gold-plated Gotoh tuners and gold-colored Kent Armstrong humbuckers and tune-o-matic bridge could use a set of matching gold-plated (or perhaps wooden) control knobs-that seems a more regal choice than the standard plastic used here. But without question the El Rey’s windswept profile and overall impeccable hardware additions create an understated, undeniable beauty.

After plugging the El Rey into a variety of electronics including a couple of jazz-leaning solid-state amps, an early-’70s silverface Fender Twin and direct to a mixing board, the guitar revealed its characteristic tone: slightly dark with great acoustic translucence and leaving little, if any, want for definition. It sounds much bigger than it should and has a bold bottom-end tone that can be tamed to preference. For a hollow-body guitar without soundholes, it sounds surprisingly good when it isn’t even plugged in at all, a tell-tale sign of a good-sounding ax. Sparkling string definition is readily apparent when it’s played unplugged, and that carries over when it’s amped, making the wide fretboard an all-the-more-glorious playground for chord work. Each note receives more or less equal billing.

A generous fretboard width (1 3/4 inches wide at the nut) coupled with a slim neck profile makes a great place for fingers to play. The El Rey fingerboard doesn’t feel cramped and provides plenty of room for fingering complex chords, yet remains compact enough to avoid feeling akin to handling a two-by-four. This El Rey arrived with a low action and a nice touch of firmness to the strings that was sympathetic for playing swing-based chord progressions and jazz soloing. The cutaway provides comfy access up to the 19th fret (it’s a 22-fret guitar). While the setup it arrived with smacks of jazz, it’s easy to tell that the El Rey could handle bluesier material and even music styles edgier than that, but perhaps a looser setup would be advised. Note, too that the El Rey is available in four configurations that vary the tonewoods, pickups and tailpieces used; this review refers to model ER2, aka Deluxe Jazz.

A great mystery is the El Rey’s near refusal to feed back. Surely plugging it into multiple or one very high-gain stage would do the trick, but the guitar can withstand quite a large amount of volume before it squeals. Without peeking at the patent drawings it’s uncertain to me what accounts for an anomaly in hollowbody design like this. Chalk it up to Otto D’Ambrosio’s seeming genius. The El Rey exhibits thoughtfulness and inventiveness in design, and the builders in Eastman’s factory in China must execute construction with great care to produce a quality-crafted guitar that looks and feels quality-crafted. For the $1,995 list price the El Rey offers ample bang for the buck, being a very playable, attractive guitar that can produce wonderful tone in numerous jazz contexts … long may it live.