Weekend Test Drive: Comins GCS-1

I recently payed a visit to Action Music in Falls Church, which has arguably the best selection of boutique gear in the DC area; every visit I usually find something new and unique to salivate over. This time around, I was excited to see a pair of Comins GCS-1 semi-hollow electrics on the wall.

Philadelphia-based Bill Comins is best known for high-end, handcrafted archtops that usually fetch upwards of five figures. In 2012, he reached out to a new market by releasing a line of imported semi-hollow guitars. It would have been easy for the luthier to lend his credible name to the headstock of a generic factory guitar, but he instead worked closely with his Korean counterparts to spec a pro-level instrument. The GCS-1 is pricey for an import at $1500 street, so I was curious to find out if the instrument lives up to its boutique pedigree.

The single cutaway GCS-1 features a mahogany neck and center block, capped off with a laminated flame maple top and sapele back (a spruce-topped version is also available); the example I played at Action Music was finished in a gorgeous violin burst. The guitar is wired for sound with twin Kent Armstrong humbuckers, splittable via a push-pull tone pot. What really separates the GCS-1 from other imports is incredible attention to detail, discernible in the superb fretwork, flawless multi-ply binding, and premium hardware — the control knobs are even made of wood! When you think about the money this combination of features would command in an American-made instrument, the GCS-1’s price tag suddenly seems pretty reasonable.

I plugged the guitar into an original blackface Fender Princeton Reverb. While that particular amp can make just about any guitar sound like butter, the combination of Princeton and GCS-1 was truly inspiring. The pickups found in import guitars are often a weak link, but the Armstrongs in the Comins proved to be incredibly warm and sensitive, whether summoning lush rock and country clean sounds, or rolling the tone control back for vintage jazz. Even the split single-coil sounds were useful; while the GCS-1 won’t necessarily replace a good Strat, it can easily deliver spanky tones suitable for funk or even impromptu chicken pickin’. Overall playability was outstanding, owing to the comfy body shape, precision fretwork, C-shaped neck, and Gibson-esque 24.75″ scale length.

There isn’t really anything I would change about the GCS-1. It’s an astonishingly well-designed and well-constructed instrument that would be at home in a variety of musical settings — a true “go-to” ax for stage and studio. The GCS-1 is also one of the few present-day imports that I can imagine holding its value over time (much like Vestax-era D’Angelicos). I hope other U.S. luthiers and big-name manufacturers take a cue from Bill Comins, who has demonstrated with the GCS-1 that it’s possible to put boutique aesthetics, playability, and tones within reach of the working musician.

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