Lars Mullen for Gear News talks to the legendary British guitar builder and designer Alan Entwistle, about how he was inspired to launch a new generation of Rapier guitars.
Guitar players of a certain age group will recall, back in the mid 60’s, noses pressed up against the guitar shop window, staring at the totally unaffordable solid bodied American guitar in red. What was it about a red guitar back then? Most TV sets were black and white, all we had was the cinema, guitar magazines and the real thing…in red.
“Oh, It’s all so clear, I remember it so well”, says Alan. “I was one of the many young lads in the mid 60’s eager to be the next big name in the guitar world, misting up the shop window every Saturday.”
There were indeed, less than a handful of influential British brands which could be classed as affordable alternatives. These included the three pickup Rapier 33, the double cutaway solid bodied electric, which was instantly recognisable with its forward slanted middle pickup.
Whilst the two pickup Rapier 22 and the 44 loaded with a quartet of pickups looked fab, it was the 33 that played a major role in the industry of British guitars, serving countless up and coming 60’s British Beat groups and helped launch the careers of many guitarists in the 60's and 70's.
“There were some finished in White and Light Ice Blue, and a custom Sunburst”, Alan recalls, “Although Red was certainly the most popular colour. But it was also expensive and, at around 29 guineas, still unaffordable for most of us youngsters.”
For those whose parents ‘gave in’, or for the paper round guy who saved every penny, it was probably their first decent electric guitar compared to some other brands available at the time.
“They have certainly become a legendary guitar name and very collectable,” continues Alan. “I thought as I had one back then, maybe I should have a Rapier 33 once more, it’s from here that I could see the potential of a re launch of such an iconic brand which, like so many classic British names in the music industry, started out in a shed in the garden or someone’s front room.
I found one in Curvy Music up in Newcastle, in the UK, and all the memories came rushing back, and I thought now I’ll have to buy a 44”, he laughs. “I tracked one down in Brighton which I purchased for a mere £100…as it was a complete train wreck. I couldn’t wait to get back to China where I’m based and work on these cool guitars in the factory where I’ve built my own designs and hardware lines.
“Both necks were warped a little as they didn’t have truss rods of course, I also had to plane down the fingerboard on the 33 and install new frets and worked on the original hardware and wiring. They both turned out so well, that I thought, hang on, the whole retro scene is massive, worldwide, so why not re-introduce the Rapier Series.
Although the originals were and still are sought after, they did have some niggles, so I looked at various upgrades so they would appeal to the modern guitar player, collectors and old school musicians who they inspired during the 60’s and 70’s.”
There are hundreds of factories manufacturing electric guitars, and whilst they can all produce a guitar shape, only a very small handful are capable of working with real retro based instruments and 60’s wiring. Our factory has made a great job of some guitar designs I gave them, and straight away I could see their potential, and they’ve proven invaluable ever since.”
Whilst Alan has successfully retained all the glorious charms and visual characteristics of the original Rapier models, he’s paid significant and meticulous attention to upgrades within construction, playability and hardware, as he explains,
“Let’s look at the pickups for example, the originals were ok, but only had 5 magnets, one of which was actually upside down. This was intentional and a unique concept aimed at boosting the treble, but as a result, the trade off was that the top 3 strings were out of phase with the bottom 3 and also resulted in a loss of volume. The 3rd string did fight back a little, as wound G strings were in use a lot more during that era.
To overcome these sonic problems, I’ve designed a medium wound mini humbucker, the Entwistle EWR64 which now feature on the new Rapier 33.
They’re the perfect match, with a balanced output, a low noise floor and an exceptional tonal response throughout the frequency range. There’s clarity in abundance when played clean, with ample output to drive affects and the front end of an amp and, when used in conjunction with the bass-cut switch, delivers that much-loved classic 60’s jangle along with a punchy vintage tone.
Both Volume and Tone controls are wired with 500k pots, linear and log respectively,” says Alan “And, with jazz and blues players in mind, the Tone control includes a 0.015 mfd cap which retains warmth and clarity when wound back and, when used with distortion or overdrive produces that classic, rich thick solo note sound, recognised on so many early blues and rock albums and still very popular today.”
Old school guitar players and collectors alike will be aware of the history behind the black and red slide switches mounted on the 3-ply scratchplate.
“Like various early guitar and amplifier brands it took a while before there was any uniformity with the hardware”, says Alan. “As often was the case, they’d nip down the street to the electrical shop and install the same control knobs that were also used on TV and radio sets.
The two switches, the bass-cut and pickup selector on the lower bout of the scratchplate on the Rapier models for example, were made by the Pifco Corporation and were the same ones used fitted to their hairdryers. For a little more reliability, I’ve upgraded these now with a modern equivalent.
DOUBLE EDGED RAPIER
Some of the wiring back then could also be slightly irregular, which I feel was all part of their character, so in accordance, but now in a uniform way, I’ve replaced the two-way Rhythm/Solo toggle with a 3-way pickup selector switch accessing the neck, neck and bridge together, and bridge by itself, whilst the first slide switch introduces the middle pickup.
All in all, this new generation Rapier 33, now with 7 pickup permutations is an extremely versatile guitar, with additional modern sounds and, with both, headroom and clarity.”
The other half of the sonic equation is of course, the tonewoods used in the construction, it’s here that Alan thought long and hard, he explains,
“I wanted a tonewood for the body that would showcase the full frequency range of the mini-humbuckers and finally decided on okoume. This is a fast growing timber from Central Africa, which I picked specifically for its naturally bright, clean characteristics.
In keeping with modern playability, the four-bolt neck has also been upgraded with a fully adjustable truss rod, so it’s much easier to achieve a really good playing action, especially with the 25.5 inch scale.
The neck itself is now crafted from hard rock Canadian maple with a soft ‘C’ profile and with a 12in radius rosewood fingerboard and 23 medium jumbo frets, which includes the zero fret, this is also in keeping with the original design. I’ve slightly changed the headstock profile and updated the Rapier logo with cool looking blue, white and red RAF style emblem.
I spent quite a while deciding on further hardware upgrades, it all had to look as close as possible to the originals, whilst taking advantage of new hardware technology to overcome the pitfalls that owners of the early models had to put up with.
Whilst the original vibrato design remains untouched, I’ve made sure accurate intonation, tuning stability and perfect return to pitch after vibrato action is ensured with the installation of a smooth, friction-free, precision cut 43mm GraphTech Nubone nut which also enhances string vibration.
Wilkinson is my choice for the machine heads. Whilst they look great and offer quick string changing they are essential for a smooth, accurate performance of the vibrato.”
It’s ironic how Alan has almost come full circle recreating the Rapier 33 which, thanks to his skills and craftsmanship, is now built from quality tonewoods and features modern hardware, for superb playability and performance.
“I‘m really pleased”, says Alan, “Especially how we have managed to keep the price as low as possible in comparison to the 1960’s, even with better quality components. I’m also looking at extending the Rapier range to be launched in 2022, exciting times ahead.”