Alexander James Guitars Ursa Review
Ever since I was a young child, I’ve wanted a custom-made left-handed guitar. Being a lefty, very few of the guitars I saw in my local music shops were playable, and some flat out didn’t sell lefty instruments. Walking into a musician shop is still, to this day, like walking into a candy shop where every piece of candy is a delicious jawbreaker that won’t fit into your mouth. I was on the search for a custom lefty guitar for a few years before I found Alexander James Guitars and his small team, owned by Alexander James Colarassi. Despite wanting a custom, I didn’t put aside money for the occasion since I assumed it was out of my budget and couldn’t give me much more value than my current collection of low-end Ibanez and ESPs. I found Alexander James Guitars on LeftFretz.com’s blog, a website dedicated to left-handed guitars and basses, and within moments of seeing his Macassar Ebony Ursa, I fell in love with his guitars and was writing him an email to enquire about prices, details, and endorsements. It’s been a few weeks and a year since I’ve owned my Ursa and about two years since I placed the order, and I want to share why I think anyone who loves exotic wood guitars should consider buying one of his instruments.
There is a lot to be said about Alexander James’ guitar designing process. We went through a plethora of guitar designs based on his signature Ursa shape. After me asking what he thought on various shapes and wood combinations, we finally settled on a modified Ursa shape that gave it a slightly unique “metal” feel. There are subtle angles that make this nearly perfectly smooth guitar have a moderately edgier look. The wood selection also contributes to making the guitar fit well with the genre I’m most familiar with.
When Alex sent me a picture of the Black and White Ebony piece he was eyeballing, one of the first things I thought was, “black metal!”. That, and cookies and cream. As most black metal fans can appreciate, the wood of the front body is black, white, and dripping. The color combination is far from grim, though, mainly due to the lacquers, glossiness, and the other types of wood used for the guitar.
Alex and I enjoyed long talks about different colors, wood combinations, the practicality of certain types of wood for guitar parts, etc. I never realized how many different options I’d have and I never realized that lumber could be so beautiful. Our conversations opened my eyes to a new world of craftsmanship that I, along with many guitar owners, are unfortunately ignorant of. I don’t imagine I’ll ever buy a painted guitar again knowing there are such beautiful wood materials for luthiers to choose from.
Seeing Alex’s work through pictures is one thing, but as one might presume, his guitars look much sweeter in person. The small nuances of the wood make the guitar look like it was freshly extracted from a tree. Alex has taken nature and molded it to his will. The design and craftsmanship make the entire cost of the guitar worth it, but the tone and its playability put this guitar into the higher echelons of quality.
Tone & Sound Quality
I can’t say I’ve ever cared about the “tone” of a guitar before. What is there to care about? I’ve thought, “the amp muddles it with awesome amounts of distortion, compression, and saturation”. It’s true that amplifiers do twist the sound of a guitar, but there is something to be said about how a guitar affects this mutilation. Like most parts of the audio signal chain, exponential increases in expense make a relatively small difference in sound quality, but for the first time in my near-thirteen years of guitar playing I can say this guitar has made a drastic difference my guitar recording sound quality.
Before I dig into how this tonal upgrade exists and why it’s important, lets dive into the guitar’s technology and its ability to customize its sound. My Ursa has four knobs — volume, tone, a magnetic pickup switcher, and a push-pull piezo volume knob — and has two switches: piezo on/off/combine and single/humbucker switch. Most guitars have switches for pickup selection, but with knobs, you literally have thousands of tonal possibilities. For an excellent, clean tone with my Line 6 amps, I mix the two magnetic pickups and a 50% mix of the piezo pickup. Switches always seemed ideal since they are easy to swipe at on stage, but if you’ve ever performed technical or fast tunes, you’ll find that using stomp boxes are superior for quick tone changes. A guitar with this customization works perfectly in the studio, and with some practice, it will be easy to dial in the tone on stage as well.
The pickups Alex chose are diverse and work well in every genre I’ve experimented with. In one of our first few phone calls, Alex was chatting about the new piezo pickups he was experimenting with. For the price, the piezo pickup sounded like a steal, so we went ahead and installed one on my Ursa. Beyond the piezo bridge, I gave Alex the freedom to choose the best pickups for metal that could also handle clean tones. Alex chose well. Both of the magnetic pickups are great and satisfy my need for a heavy metal tone. The bridge pickup excels at high gain rhythm tones while the neck pickup works perfectly for solos. At 100% volume, the neck pickup is overwhelmingly fatty for most rock uses, but it’s beautiful at 20–50%. With a little bit of the piezo bridge added, solos have the sought after John Petrucci plucky solo tone. Interestingly enough, Petrucci has a piezo pickup on his latest premium Ernie Ball guitars.
With these possibilities, you can pair this guitar perfectly with any amplifier or amp simulator. If you’ve ever worked with amp simulator programs, you will notice they lack the presence of moving speakers and for the nicer amps, vacuum tube saturation, but by dialing in a slight amount of the piezo pickup, you can add additional harmonics that add a surprising amount of tonal personality.
When most guitarists spend a decent amount of money on their instrument, they don’t particularly care about the pickups or knobs, they care about the craftsmanship and the quality components and how both of these add to the tonal quality. Not noticeable right away, this guitar has more sustain than any other I’ve tried. You do feel and hear the build quality of this guitar.
If the fine details in tone are important to you, than Alexander James Guitars is a company that will cater to your needs. Over the year of my guitar’s development, Alex has demonstrated his knowledge of the complexities of “tone”. He casually mentioned that the lacquer he chose has the least tonal compromise. This small statement blew my mind; it made me consider how every design choice on the guitar effects its feel and tone. With this statement and other discussions with Alex, I understood that the design and the tone of the guitar were interconnected, and my Ursa was beautiful in both regards.
Waiting for the Guitar
Despite the guitar taking longer than the anticipated four to six months, the wait was obviously worth it. When you invest this much time, thought, and money into a quality instrument, you can’t help but feel impatient by any length of time spent waiting. I had to remind myself that quality, and especially perfection, is something you can’t rush. You can’t rush the time it takes for wood pieces to achieve the right moisture content, nor would have I wanted him to rush any of the guitar’s construction. Alex had to build two necks for my guitar due to the first one being faulty, so it would be unfair to critique him on taking close to a year to finish it. Being a graphic designer and recording artist, I understand that patience is an important element in the artist experience; revisions are often necessary in the pursuit of perfection.
Alex and his team provided more than 40 pictures throughout the construction of my Ursa. Receiving the pictures of the guitar in my inbox was such an awesome treat. With Alex’s pictures and the questions I asked throughout the construction, I learned a lot about guitars, the wood they are constructed with, and their components. Despite being a guitarist for so long, it turns out I knew very little about the process of designing a guitar. It goes without saying, but it’s very fascinating.
Alex took one last picture of the guitar in its shipping box and a few days later it arrived at my house. It was well packed. The hardshell case was wrapped in bubble wrap and the guitar inside the hard case was wrapped in even more. It was quite an experience slowly uncovering the guitar from its mounds of protection. Once it was finally naked, my face lit up like a teenager’s would when getting a brand new car for his birthday. I dreamt of owning a custom guitar most of my childhood, and not only did I then have one, but the one I owned looked, felt, and held like I expected it to: like an incredibly well-built masterpiece of an instrument. After holding it in awe for a few minutes, I needed to plug it in and give it a test run.
Unfortunately, there were some electrical issues that likely occurred in transit which didn’t allow me to play it for another hour. I gave Alex a call and ran through a few tests to diagnose the problem. I had to dig through the wiring in the back cavity to find the culprit — a set of bundled cables that connect all the pickups together. A simply unplugged and replugged in the cables to get everything working. Despite the guitar’s complex electronics, it was easy to fix and I have never had an electrical issue again. Goes to show you how much they toss around “fragile” packages during delivery. Since the guitar was so well packed inside the box and inside the guitar case, there was no damage to the guitar beyond these loosened wires.
The only thing more classy than a handcrafted exotic wood guitar is a handcrafted exotic wood guitar created by Alexander James. When it comes to my day-to-day interaction with this guitar, the solid feeling of the guitar’s body, its solid construction, and its even weight distribution are the details I constantly notice. Literally every time I take my Ursa out of its case, I can’t help but think “damn this is solid”. I’ve always preferred thin guitar necks, but there is no doubt that the slight increase in neck thickness — coming from the S-series Ibanez guitars, extra thickness isn’t saying much — comes with the benefit of feeling like I am holding a guitar than can withstand the elements and trauma. Never would I expose the guitar to either, but regardless, it’s something any customer of Alexander James Guitars easily understands. Alex certainly fulfilled my desire for a thin guitar, all while feeling much more stable than any Ibanez S series guitar I’ve ever held. My Ursa feels like no other guitar, and that is no surprise when understanding that I’m holding something one-of-a-kind and built from scratch.
With my Ursa’s ideal thinness, perfect weight balance, and sturdy feel, it should be no surprise that this guitar is extremely comfortable to play. Early on our conversations, Alex and I discussed how much the guitar should be chambered for its tone and weight, and I told him that I wanted it heavy with a very thick sound. Nine pounds on many guitars is uncomfortable but forgiving, but perhaps as I’ve gained more muscle, the weight on this guitar is truly a non-issue. This guitar does not at all feel like other nine pound guitars. It’s always extremely comfortable on my lap and when used with a strap. I have no issues with the guitar being top heavy and tipping over in my lap or when standing up.
Being a left handed musician, I don’t get to try the majority of musical instruments out there, but I’ve certainly tried enough to understand where Alexander James Guitars fits on the spectrum. I am fond of Alex and his work; he has similar aspirations as I and his work is top-notch. If you like the exotic wood aesthetic and are in the market for a low to high end custom crafted guitar, I couldn’t recommend Alex’s guitars more. I can’t imagine anyone not loving one of his guitars, even if they had the pickiest preferences. The quality and customizability are things you can only get with someone who takes true pride in every single instrument they build. My guitar is tonally diverse, looks beyond beautiful, one-of-a-kind, and is built like a tank. Every pro-musician owes it to themselves to get in touch with Alex and his team and see how they can accommodate your dreams for a surprisingly affordable, truly custom guitar or bass.