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December/January 2021

by Jarni Blair

Review: Duesenberg Starplayer III Guitar

by Jarni Blair

Review: Duesenberg Starplayer III Guitar

Fair to say that Duesenberg is a guitar brand that’s not anything like as familiar as those American juggernauts Fender and Gibson, but by no means does it make these German guitars any less special than the best of those marques. For some reason (likely cost because it’s definitely not quality), they haven’t been available to buy here until recently. With only a few dozen having been sold in NZ to date, through one independent retail distributor (Sound Lounge in Kerikeri), I felt privileged to get the chance to review this one which carries the healthy ticket price of $4250.

The history of the brand traces back to 1978 when guitar designer Dieter Golsdorf opened a small company for producing and selling guitars and parts. In 1986 Duesenberg was founded and the brand placed within his Goldo Music GmbH company. He began development of the Starplayer TV model in 1995, a now-famous model that has gone on to be the brand’s top seller, with many famed artists helping promote and spread the word. Ronnie Wood and Joe Walsh are among the major name guitarists who have their own signature models.

That said, Duesenberg remains a relatively small brand with worldwide recognition for high-quality instruments and also for sound equipment that includes amps and pedals. But we’re here to talk about their guitars.

Arriving in its own shaped case the Starplayer III is gorgeous to look at, and even more so to play. From the first touch, I was enamoured with its beautiful tone and oh so buttery fretboard. A re-issue of the original Starplayer TV model with subtle and improved changes, these guitars should not pass you by.

The guitar features two nickel-plated volume and tone knobs, with a ‘gear shift-like’ 3-way pickup selector (bridge, middle, neck), pleasingly sturdy in its construction and feel. The placement of the knobs is akin to a Fender Stratocaster, which means manual volume swells are available to do. As a Strat player myself, this was cool to find.

The pickups are Duesenberg’s apparently signature combo of a Domino P90 neck pickup and a GrandVintage humbucker at the bridge. The middle position of the 3-way switch features a special wiring that filters certain low-end frequencies out of the humbucker signal. The result is an open, funky and extremely versatile addition.

I found the overall tone of the guitar to be quite unique, while having tonal similarities with other famous guitars that have come from Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker. It seems like this richness is all rolled into one guitar somehow, yet never falls into the “Oh, that sounds like a Gretsch middle pickup sound,” or “…that bridge pickup has Gibson all over it,” realm of criticism.
Visually the Starplayer does at first glance remind of Gretsch’s Duo Jet and Gibson Les Paul guitars. The body is semi-hollow with a sustain block, bent sides and an f-hole. Refined since that 1995 model it is designed to block out unwanted feedback that can sometimes accompany semi-hollow guitars. I turned it up loud on my amp, and no feedback was intruding, even with high gains.

In a change from previous models, this one has a laminated spruce flat top and back, apparently for reduced body volume and improved handling on stage. Other than that, it’s effectively the same. The Starplayer III has a five-layer binding on the body and comes in black, red and Catalina Blue (this review model).

The back and sides are flamed maple and the fretboard Indian rosewood. The ‘Z tuners’ are equipped with a smart gear ratio that enables precise tuning and a promised service-free life. From the German attention to detail department, a drilled tuner shaft allows you to hide the end of the cut-off string inside to prevent any sharp ends sticking out to.

The brand’s unique Diamond Deluxe tremolo system is like a mixture of a traditional Bigsby system, and a Fender Strat system, making it highly versatile. The arm can be moved through 360 degrees and can be adjusted to your preferred angle and length. I found the whammy very responsive to the way it is hit, creating a lot of dynamic possibilities. From traditional country, to Hendrix-styled whammy bar action, a lot of ground can be covered.

Last but not least, the lush case looks built to have a car driven over it, so safe to say it should keep your instrument safe and intact. It also comes with a 9-in-1 pocket tool, with a bottle opener being one of the features. (Most important that one, cheers!) A manual, keys, and other wee accessories accompany the case, again illustrating that extra attention and appeal.

My real joy in playing this Duesenberg was searching for its tones. You can play many styles on it from jazz, blues, country, rock, pop, and even metal. The guitar is super warm sounding with a ton of sustain packed into it due to the semi-hollow design.

I played it through my Marshall Bluesbreaker re-issue amp, and the tone was very warm and buttery, especially on the neck and middle pickups. The bridge pickup has a kick-ass humbucker tone, with overdrive and distortion creating a spectacle of tone that avoids unwanted feedback even at higher levels. (I repeatedly tried holding the Starplayer against the amp and it refused to feedback!)

I did find that I had to pull back the treble on my amp as the pickups are a little on the trebly side. Rolling the tone knob back created an interesting tone that almost made it sound like it was ‘dying’, especially with some fuzz and overdrive tones. Almost like an intelligent evolution of the famous Woman Tone that Eric Clapton created by doing the same thing to his Gibson guitars.
The jazz tone on this guitar cannot be denied (neck pickup most noticeable) which seems natural as Duesenberg guitars were inspired by traditional arch-top jazz guitars. The neck is actually on the thinner side, which I love as they are easier to play in my opinion. Getting round on your left hand is a pleasure. I also recorded with it in the studio for my band Summer Thieves, and the output was nothing short of stellar. Slide guitar proved a real treat to play too, despite the lower action.

This is hands down one of the finest guitars I’ve played. The price of $4250 will not be in every guitarist price range, but I reckon that it’s worth every penny for those who can afford it. For anyone wanting a lush, innovative guitar with intelligently evolved features from a lot of famous guitars, this is for you. People who tour extensively and want a more than road-worthy guitar, this is it. The hollow body doesn’t make it any more fragile, which is testament to the design process. The Starplayer exudes beauty and inspiration.

You can tell the guitar scientists in the Duesenberg laboratory have done their research and crafted a stunning piece of electric woodwork. It’s very hard to fault this guitar, but I feel an option to cut to a single-coil/out of phase sound would provide the icing on what is already a tasty cake. I am a heavy Strat player, so this has bias attached to it, haha. And having a contoured back would provide even more comfort as the wood can dig into your stomach if playing long sets. It’s also a bit heavy for a semi-hollow guitar, but this is all scraping the barrel in terms of finding anything negative to say.

I was reluctant to part ways with this beautifully elegant guitar but was lucky enough to record with it for a day, so I do get to keep some sort of imprint of the Starplayer III with me. Yes, it’s pricey, but really I couldn’t recommend this guitar more. Check out The Sound Lounge in Kerikeri if you’re keen to get your hands on one!

Auckland musician Jarni Blair plays guitar with pop act Summer Thieves and solo. His latest single, Breakdown, is out now.