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New JGT Review: Comins GCS-1ES

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Jazz Guitar Today contributor Brad Jeter reviews the Comins GCS-1ES. A must read for anyone looking for a semi-hollow body.

Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room. The semi-hollow body concept was perfected by Gibson with the introduction of the ES-335 in 1958. It is, that by which all others are judged. It is one of the longest-running, continuously produced electric guitars in that storied company’s history. Adjusted for inflation, the 1958 ES-335 was about $2000. Herein lies a big issue. Today, a new ES-335 with a gloss finish like the original is north of $3000–and you can spend a lot more if you opt for upgraded versions. 

There have always been alternatives and things are no different today. Historically, inexpensive options have been imported from Asia. From the 1960s until today, you can easily find guitars inspired by (and often nearly cloned) the original manufacturers. From the 1960s, seemingly back alley pressboard abominations to embarrassingly accurate reproductions that spawned lawsuits, the quality has evolved over the decades. 

Comins GCS-1ES

We are now living in a golden age of options as far as all things guitar. Asian manufacturers have upped their games and truly great instruments are coming out of those factories. There are now guitars for well under $500 that are surprisingly decent instruments. Please notice that I said, decent. By this, I mean that the overall surface appearance is adequate–they look like a guitar you would want to pull down from the wall at the store and check out. They tend to play, more or less, a measured step-up from what players of a certain age will recall as student instruments.

An important point I want to elaborate on is what I referred to as “the overall surface appearance is adequate”. What about under the hood, you ask? That is where all the corners are usually cut–out of sight, out of mind.

I have always been overly curious, and, how a guitar is put together and functions is no exception. I try and divine not only the what but also the why…what is the reason for doing it that way and, often more importantly, why is it done that way. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to quickly expose the shortcomings of the “too good to be true” guitars. Aside from not-quite-right geometry and structural integrity, the one seemingly consistent factor with all of these guitars is poor hardware and even poorer electronics. The main culprit has always been disappointing pickups. Really disappointing pickups. Sure, they can be changed (and often are). You can always get a full professional set-up as well because I have rarely if ever, picked up one of these “too good to be true” guitars that set up well. They always seem to be lacking proper fret installation and polishing. They always have poorly adjusted intonation, and, when plugged in, they usually sound flat and lifeless. On the other hand, a great pickup doesn’t draw attention to itself, rather, it simply inspires you to keep playing because it just sounds right. A poor pickup draws attention to itself like an agitated 300-pound gorilla. You simply can’t ignore it and it is not going to be a pleasant experience for you or anyone within earshot.

So where does that leave the player who wants a semi-hollow body that is not only a great guitar on all levels but is also considered a good value? Fortunately, it leaves the player with a lot of good options but with discrimination. Remember I said we are in the golden age? Once you start exploring what is available starting at roughly $1200 and going up to around $2500 you have options–really good options. So much so that you may just forget about selling a kidney just for the “big name” on the headstock.

I will not mention names, but I recently had a guitar in my possession for review that is in demand–actually, in high demand. It falls into the Asian, semi-hollow body realm and dealers can’t get them fast enough. I am just going to say that there were so many negative issues encountered that I declined to review them. Period. I will never gloss over inconsistencies and/or errors in materials, construction, or aesthetics. Rather than waste my time and yours on an inferior instrument, it goes back. Period. 

With that preface, let’s get into this. The guitar that I have been playing for the past several weeks is one of the good ones. Actually, it is one of the great ones and I don’t sling that appraisal around willy-nilly. The Comins GCS-1ES packs so much value into a semi-hollow it should be on everyone’s shortlist.

As soon as I took it out of the case, the overall appearance is one of obvious quality. The finish is an almost flawlessly applied thin poly. I found that the instrument rings true with no attenuation of harmonic content. In other words, the finish does not have the slightest hint of choking the resonance. 

The finish, being properly applied and cured, has a smooth feel with no hand “drag”. It goes beyond simply protecting the wood and looking gorgeous. Little areas that even the “Big Boys” often ignore are done to boutique standards. An example is the neck/body intersection at the top bout. No orange peel or uneven “ditches” from aggressive or inattentive sanding. I’ll mention one other area that is impressive: the binding is expertly scraped of overspray before the clear coats are applied to leave the transition seamless. Attention to even the smallest details such as these speaks volumes.

A finish, no matter how impressive, means very little if what lies under is inferior.  A builder has to make a critical decision that ultimately defines the instrument’s potential: materials. All the woods on the GCS-1ES are very high quality with nary an imperfection visible. It is a handsome guitar by any reasonable standards.

Initially, what really struck me is how effortlessly it plays. The frets are finished to such a high degree that I thought it was strung with 10s. After checking and finding out they were 11s, I was mildly taken aback. In my active gigging days I would sometimes use 11s if, and only if, I had been practicing for hours every day. Even with my hands strong I always had an adjustment period. Not so with the Comins. This is simply world-class fret finishing. Needless to say, that same attention to detail was also implemented with the intonation: it is spot-on.

The neck carve is very comfortable and should feel comfortable and inviting to most players regardless of hand size. I find it to be somewhat between a classic late 50s carve with a hint of a flatter, wider 1960 spec. This is just my inner nerd observation. The fretboard is ebony and well-sourced because it lacks the often used black dye to cover grain and color imperfections. If there is any dye, it is subtle and I have never had an issue with that. I can’t imagine anyone picking up this guitar and not enjoying the feel and performance of this neck. Tuners are precise feeling and accurate with a well-defined turn ratio. No hide-and-seek tuning issues here.

The hardware is high quality. The bridge and stop tailpiece do their respective jobs as they should. Saddles sit flat within their slots and their edges do not dig into your palm. 

I really like the volume and tone knobs: They have the appearance of wood and have a positive feel with a very nice indicator line for quick reference. Potentiometers are smooth with a nice, positive mechanical resistance. 

The pickups are custom wound Kent Armstrong. Before plugging in I had in the back of my mind that if anything, they could well be the Achille’s Heal. I was more than pleasantly surprised! These are worthy pickups that have a very balanced, smooth response with no edginess or exaggeration. They compliment the guitar with a warm, inviting tonality. After playing it through various amps, I didn’t even contemplate the idea of what it might sound like with different pickups. Again, it is simply right out of the box.

The guitar is very balanced either sitting or standing with it on a strap. Very comfortable and a nice weight overall which I would describe as on the lighter side. I purposely did not put it on a scale because that is just a number out of context. Again, it just feels right. 

In conclusion, I believe this guitar offers exceptional value. It plays great, it sounds great and it looks great. Really, what more could a player ask for? For substantially less money compared to its direct competition, The Comins GCS-1ES is not only an instant classic but one that will be a go-to in any player’s collection.

Price ranges from $1699 to $2399 depending on features. For more on the Comins GCS-1ES.


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