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Soloway Swan LN6

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When Michael Jordan attached his image to the Hanes line of underthings, I doubt he ever said, “Those shorts gotta have a French cut.” Mike didn’t design those undies. But when a noted musician puts his or her Hancock on an instrument, it’s not your average product endorsement and it’s not just a way to sell more units. Signature musical instruments come about as a result of an artist collaborating with a manufacturer to satisfy his or her specific needs as a player. In some cases what’s produced is something of a novelty instrument built specifically for one person’s needs-the scalloped fretboard on shredder Yngwie Malmsteen’s signature Stratocaster comes to mind. When it works out best, a signature instrument fills a hole in the marketplace, like Epiphone’s Jack Casady signature bass-someone finally made an affordable hollowbody bass with great intonation.

In the case of the Swan, the signature is that of its maker, Jim Soloway. No, he’s not a name recording artist, and he didn’t collaborate with anyone but himself to build the guitar. So, while the ax isn’t actually a signature instrument, it does have signature-instrument quality. Soloway plays fingerstyle jazz, and picking with fingers can sometimes generate duller or muddy tone because so many notes are often plucked in such rapid succession-and part of the beauty of fingerpicked guitar lies in pedal tones left to ring while other notes sing melodies over top of them. Thus when Soloway aimed to create an electric guitar with clarity and sustain, he did so to complement his style of music.

Rosewood volume and tone knobs and pickup rings cut from pao ferro sit on the slab of koa wood that makes up the Swan’s top. The neck is shaped from three pieces of maple and topped with a cocobolo fingerboard and a back of stripy black limba, all of it covered in a Nitrocellulose finish that shines sleekly. It’s fitting that the Swan comes from Oregon, a logger’s state if there ever was. These beautiful, exotic woods have the Swan coming as close to looking like a plant plucked straight from the forest. The woods also make the Swan a lightweight ax, and weight was another of Soloway’s concerns as a player-he wanted a guitar that would remain comfortable over the course of a four-hour, stand-up bar gig. At just under six and a half pounds, the Swan shouldn’t burden anyone’s back.

With the guitar so light you might suspect Soloway crazy to think he could get his desired sustain out of the Swan. But instead of relying on mass, Soloway focused on increasing the instrument’s rigidity to increase sustain, placing graphite rods inside the slim neck and setting it in a deeper-than-usual pocket in the body. The method works splendidly.

While my fingerpicking skills could use a few thousand hours in the woodshed, I nevertheless plugged the Swan into a Fender Twin with EQ settings set flat and first began playing the guitar for the purpose Soloway built it. After finding that the neck-pickup-only position on the five-way switch yields the warmest, roundest tone, and after rolling off a bit of low end, it became obvious that the Swan is exactly what Soloway aimed to build. Notes ring out clearly, shimmering-and they hang around, creating gorgeous overtones that become ever more complex and sublime with every passing phrase. The Swan’s extended scale length-27 inches-hints at an instrument that will ring with clarity, but it’s something else to actually hear the notes declare themselves with such authority.

The pickup configuration adds to the virtues of the Swan. The two DiMarzio humbuckers (an Air Classic at the neck and an Air Zone at the bridge), a five-way switch and two tone knobs and one for volume allows for a trove of tones. The switch lets you access each humbucker by itself, both combined as humbuckers, both combined as split humbuckers, or just the bridge pickup as a split humbucker. All the possible sounds-from round and glowing jazz tone to ripping rock and roll-are further enhanced by the Swan’s semihollow body, which lends it an acoustic accent. Even when distorted heavily, the Swan’s sound retains its grace. I cranked it up and it didn’t get muddy, which makes the guitar a powerful weapon in blues-rock or fusion settings, where its clarity will serve solos and its sustain will get the most out of long, emotive bends. Funny that Soloway, a guitarist who’s own playing interests are rather narrow, has birthed such a versatile guitar.

Of course, the Swan ax Jim Soloway uses has seven strings, because he’s dexterous like that. Less special guitarists like me are fortunate that Soloway sympathizes enough to build guitars with six strings as well. The base price for a Swan is $2,000. Different options in pickups, controls, woods and decoration are available. The guitar described here sells for $2,500, with a flight case included.

Guitarists searching for a go-to instrument with a certain amount of character and a neck that’s hard to let go of it plays so well ought to visit and see about finding a Swan to try out themselves.

Originally Published