Two seem like a lot of signature models for an artist from a shop that doesn’t actually make signature models. The Pete Huttlinger Signature OM1 has always had a touch of special circumstances, and the OM1 JL, well, it doesn’t actually have Julian’s signature anywhere on it. We joked that it could be John Leventhal or Julie London (see our interview with Julian about the development of OM1 JL on this website). And yet the people at Collings introduced another guitar called the JL, the 470 JL.
Julian first approached the idea of a new electric guitar with Mark Althans, artist relations and customer service manager at Collings, who brought the idea to Aaron Huff (Collings’ Director of Electric Guitars) and Clint Watson (Director of Engineering). As with the OM1 JL, the design and development process was intense and intensely collaborative. Although the very first prototype was essentially a modified version of the CL model with a hollow body and a plywood top, they didn’t really start from a fixed point. They spent a lot of time watching Julian’s play, noting his stance, attack, and so on. Her notes on his thumb position on his left hand helped determine the shape of the neck. Numerous, often subtle, tweaks found their way into each subsequent iteration through the prototyping process, which was understandably prolonged by the pandemic – the 470 JL was originally announced at the 2020 NAMM show, but the guitar, which I briefly put in a month later got his hands on was a lot more refined prior to the instrument’s official release during the NAMM 2021 virtual show.
And of course, the spirit of Bill Collings was everywhere.
As Aaron put it, “Some of what we’ve done in this back and forth was pretty fun because once we get a clearer picture we’re going to move fast and hard towards the goal in a very Bill Collings-like one A way that just goes: “Roll up your sleeves and make it happen. Dust off right now. ‘ I know in my heart that Bill would be proud of it. “
Fretboard Diary: How did the new model come about?
Aaron: I’ll start the story with this: Collings is an acoustic guitar company, and I don’t mean “round soundhole flattop”. I mean the way we pick wood, buy wood, think about wood, categorize wood, carve, everything – whether it’s a Solid Body Electric or a Waterloo mandolin, everything has the same philosophy behind it, so deliberately as possible to stick to the materials so that you have the best musicality and quality for whatever you play.
I gave Julian an assignment because when a guy like that comes to you there is a certain vagueness that makes it really hard to get pencil to paper. So I said to Julian, “What pickups are you interested in right now?” Because when you start talking about pickups, you think about how the characterization of some pickups filters the acoustic properties of the wood you might be working with. In other words, just by mentioning certain pickups will you know whether you are talking about plywood hollow bodies or ash solid bodies, or anything in between.
So when Julian decided what he was interested in, we went looking for what that meant. He’d spent some time with the old DynaSonic pickups in an older guitar, he’d done some recordings with them, he found things he really enjoyed, and he also found inherent limits that he didn’t like. This is where we come in and, in a Bill Collings-like fashion, we begin to understand this organism and how we can influence the musicality of building something that serves that purpose but then adding a lot of value if we just understand it.
That’s how it actually started when I said, “Okay, we want to talk to each other as a team, maybe to develop something special,” and I needed a starting place. That’s how we did it, which is a little different from how we approached other ideas. We try to clarify which “genre” we are working in here, and it enabled us to get an idea of “what is he up to?”. And when you watch him play and then see how he operates a guitar, from his posture to his striking technique, you begin to see what he’s relying on. So your choice of pickup can be very revealing of how closely you want to match the acoustic sound.
Mark: If he was really fascinated by the sound of a DynaSonic, if he knew how to move the strings, what his plucking hand is like, you probably wouldn’t want to put this DynaSonic in a solid body guitar because it would be too immediate and “ice-picky” an attack. It really influenced the way the guitar was built. An interesting task from this perspective.
FJ: The corpse is in a chamber?
Aaron: In general, a chamber guitar is thought of as having a solid body with air pockets, but this body, when made, is completely open. Just imagine a large salad bowl. The bracket system is then glued into this before the top is glued on. So instead of a series of brackets, it’s actually a singular structure in the center of the guitar that matches the top in the very bottom center and also matches the back in the center of the back too. What we’re doing there is giving the guitar’s airspace the open, throaty access you’d expect from a hollow guitar, with the attack or introduction of something with a center block. It’s derived from some of the other work we’ve done with trestle bracket, but it took it to the next level in terms of higher mass in the center, which gives us another attack for this particular model.
Mark: I think as a result it takes up this cool space between a center block guitar and a fully hollow guitar because you get increased nuance and dynamic response that approaches that of a hollow body guitar, but you also get some of the benefits of more solidity in there. It’s a cool area that not many home builders explore.
Aaron: This is really what we had to do. I spent a lot of time watching Julian how he played some of the earlier prototypes, how he played acoustic guitars, how careful he is with his introduction, you can see him Desire a hollowbody guitar, but you can see it require something with a little more attack. If you play him an acoustic guitar and he plays a telephoto, you can see that he needs both … you can see that he wants full control over how the guitar reacts – the guitar doesn’t make a decision for you, you can force it to be clear, you can allow it to be distant, you can Play it as an instrument and controls its range. Having a hollow guitar than it is inspired gives us acoustically more range, which we then have to counter with the structure we have developed.
Mark: The solid mahogany floor is interesting, the hollowed-out mahogany body definitely brings more acoustic properties and properties to the mix. Our original I-35 was an instrument carved from solid wood – a carved maple top, hollowed out mahogany shell and a [true] Middle block. That had a lot of the sound of the wood in it. For Aaron and Clint, building this guitar that has that solid backing really brings a lot to the table, but with the laminated maple top, things are neutralized in a controlled way. It’s just a really cool hybrid.
FJ: What about the top?
Aaron: We have a fairly thin maple plywood top with alternating grain in the layers and it rings. I mean it’s not dope. It’s very acoustic. It was chosen for its ability to move and ring the bell, but also to be a little neutral in the Julian preference.
FJ: The Bigsby tailpiece is a surprise …
Aaron: We tried both ways. The Bigsby changes things up in a number of ways: it adds a little bulk and has an entirely different attack with the spring that the tension of the strings is against. With players like Julian, you often don’t even see them hanging on the pole, they just like the way the guitar triggers the note on a spring-loaded tailpiece.
The thing is, if you have a much lower mass in this case then you have a completely different inertia and you have a different relationship to the string energy – if you have a lower mass then the string energy has a greater impact on the mass that you are have. Suddenly the player has a lot of control.
Mark: That thing is basically just a racing car. You need to know how to drive.
The 470 JL has a laminated maple top on a Honduran mahogany body. The neck is also made of Honduran mahogany, with an ebony fingerboard and headstock laminate, and its taper is unique among Collings electrics, with a taper that makes it slightly narrower at both the 1st and 12th fret than other models . The nut is “slippery Delrin”, 1-11 / 16 “wide, the scale length 24-7 / 8”. The bridge is a nylon saddled Tune-O-Matic with a pinned ebony base, the tailpiece is a Bigsby B3 vibrato. The pickups are “Ellisonic” single coils by Ron Ellis, inspired by DeArmond Dynasonics, but clearly different on closer inspection, wired with a master volume and two tone controls (earlier prototypes had more unusual two volumes and a master tone configuration) .
Publisher’s Note: This story originally appeared in Fretboard Journal # 48.