Longevity in music manufacturing can be deceptive; although iconic guitar and pedal brands still live on, many have been swallowed up by international monopolies and shadowy private equity. The key to real longevity, as with many industries, is a dichotomy: buy up your competitors or keep things determinedly small-scale. Xotic Guitars chose the latter in a Californian garage 20 years ago.
The company has managed to expand to a worldwide operation while retaining a sizable part of the hand-manufacture within the U.S. Even the manufacturing they do export to satellite locations is still done by hand. If you’re still not convinced, Xotic provides charts that show what percentage of each product originated from which country. The brand’s current Product Specialist, Kenny Echizen, swears they’ll never change.
“We strive for the best quality in every way. So even if it takes a lot of time and elbow grease to make each guitar, we cannot compromise that by mass-producing our guitars.”
Back in 1996, the company was a one man operation dedicated to producing craftsman quality basses in the San Fernando Valley. As the company expanded, they needed a point of difference beyond their DIY attitude; the invention of the Tri-Logic Bass Preamp gave Xotic the confidence to produce their first pedal. The Robotalk 1 was an auspicious market debut; a three-in-one random arpeggiator, envelope filter, and low-pass filter. The pedal still regularly sells for a mint on Reverb and has received several sequels, but primarily it set up a dynasty at Xotic. The brand’s AC boosters and SL Drive pedals have been fixtures on most pro rigs for years. In 2015, the company broadened its base with the California Classic guitar series, split into the XTC and XSC models (Telecaster and Stratocaster shapes respectively). It’s a range that harkens back to their garage days in more ways than one.
“The same designer that built the pedals now designs the California Classic Series, so you can expect a similar quality of tone,” Echizen explains.
The flagship XSC and XTC models are also built using similar ash and alder tonewoods from the U.S’ Midwest and Pacific Northwest to what Xotic’s “founding fathers” used in their original bass guitars. The roasted maple neck is really the frosting on top, giving them that inexorable mark of premium. Its unique feel is achieved through a lengthy torrefaction process, removing moisture from the wood and opening up its pores.
“We love how they sound with our Raw Vintage pickups that are voiced like the ones back in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Echizen says.
The Raw Vintage pickups, handwound in Xotic’s L.A shop, piqued the ears of our reviewer back in May who wrote they had “a character, attack and spank” he had never heard before. Even without playing them, a YouTube demo will have you quickly realise these are a little more than your average single coils. Their sound is modelled forensically off 1963-style pickup tones. The celebrity guitarist endorsements the two ranges have garnered so far highlight the immediacy of the vintage tone. That tone is bolstered by two other Raw Vintage trademarked touches, including the RVTS-1 Tremolo strings and saddles. Elsewhere, Gotoh locking tuners imitate the classic oval knob stamped housing tuners on old Fenders.
The out-of-time feel extends to the use of the relic’d finish across the California Classic series, something many players have fairly deep-set opinions about. Echizen’s defence is earnest.
“It’s like hanging out with an old friend, or wearing your favorite pair of worn out jeans. It just feels right even if you haven’t been with it for a while, or in our case, the first time! Part of that comes from the distressed, or as we call it, aged finish.”
Xotic also give you three choices for the degree of the aging, be it light, medium or heavy. Ironically, nitrocellulose lacquer finish on each of the guitars means they will probably age far better than any of their non-relic’d competition. And, if you believe the words of Billy Corgan, the guitars are bound to sound better too.
Echizen recently showcased the California Classic Series at this year’s Melbourne Guitar Show for the first time ever. If you've played one and caught the bug, fill out a quick form online with your very own specs (with 20 colours to choose from) and send it off. You’ll be able to see their unique aged finishes up close and make your own call, but you’ll likely fall in love with the way they feel.
“Every guitar has the consistency in terms of playability and feel but at the same time has their own mojo,” Echizen says.
The Product Specialist is cagy when it comes to the future of Xotic guitars, only committing to discussion of the California Classic Series. Current research and development at the company is focussed on a “little bit of both” guitars and pedals. The only adjacent guitars the company has available are the now-Japanese produced XS and XT guitars. Knowing Xotic, you can bet they’ll remain committed to doing the classics right.