Take a middle-aged UK guitarist on a trip back to the summer of 1986 for a look at the popular equipment of the time, and chances are their memories will be pretty strictly confined to the gear which has survived into modern folklore. Ask them the name of the best selling electric guitar of the day, for example, and you’ll very likely get the response: “Squier Strat”. That’s the wrong answer. Ask them to think again. Ask them to think of something cheaper. Something with an RRP of less than £140. Something with a distinctive, ‘blade/rail’-poled pickup in the bridge position, accompanied by a more conventional middle and a neck pickup with individual pole-pieces… D’you have your answer yet?… If not, just mention the fish inlay at the twelfth fret… “Ah!… Yes!” – your forty-something guitarist is now in full flashback mode. Two harrowing words will now be winging their way to the forefront of that tired, middle-aged mind: Marlin, Sidewinder.
Actually, the “harrowing” bit is just me being irreverent and melodramatic. Whilst the Marlin Sidewinder was an object lesson in cost-cutting and basically polishing poop, most people seemed to get on reasonably well with it. Indeed, the Sidewinder wasn’t only the UK's number one seller in 1986; the success continued through 1987, and the instrument was still being reported as sales chart-topper in spring 1988. Even in early 1989 it remained in the top two (having been pipped by the Korean Squier Strat the previous year). From spring ’89, however, the Sidewinder dropped quickly out of the top five, and there was a period of unchallenged supremacy for the Squier Strat before the next big story (the extremely cheeky Fenix Strat) came along.
But make no mistake, no other guitar dogged the Squier Strat’s UK sales in such a sustained and relentless manner as the Marlin Sidewinder. Possibly more than any other single piece of kit, the Sidewinder forced Squier’s production out of Japan, and into Korea. Marlin’s devastatingly popular budget ‘Strat’ won the Making Music Best Guitar of the Year Reader Poll multiple times in the mid to late ‘eighties, as well as netting the Retailers’ Association Award for Excellence over the same period - and all that in addition to topping the sales chart two years running. Quite a phenomenon. But what’s most remarkable of all, is that as I write this retrospective in July 2012 – a quarter of a century after its heyday – the Sidewinder is barely ever mentioned, and many current guitar enthusiasts on the Web know absolutely nothing about it.
To clarify before I get started with the details, one piece of online misinformation regarding the Marlin range is that the guitars were made in Wales. Actually, the distributor was Welsh – not the manufacturer. From 1986 the Marlins were made in Korea, and distributed across the United Kingdom by British Music Strings Ltd, Bedwas House Industrial Estate, Newport, Gwent. However, their beginnings were European (if not Welsh). You can find out where the earliest Marlins were made in Early Non-Korean Marlin Guitars: Obscure Info. That post also features a full page '80s ad for the Sidewinder. And whilst I'm adding links, you can also see a broader vision of the Marlin range, once again with original adverts, in More Marlin Guitars.
To briefly elaborate here though, other popular models in the Marlin range included the Stingray (a ‘Superstrat’ costing £159 in 1988), the Loner (a ‘Superstrat’ costing £169 in 1988), and the Blue Fin (a V-bodied metal machine costing £139 in 1988). The Sidewinder would cost between £129 and £149 in 1988, depending on the model, but the highest price for a Sidewinder in 1986, was £139.
So, the Marlin Sidewinder (model variants K34 / K34T / K34KT) was, loosely speaking, a Strat copy. It had a plywood body, and the hardware/pickups varied according to the precise model. At the basic end of the spectrum you had a pseudo-traditional ‘Strat’ with three single coils (although still a ‘rail’ type in the bridge position), a maple neck, and a standard, non-locking vibrato unit. At the ‘bells and whistles’ end of the spectrum you had a hard rock-orientated ‘Superstrat’ with rosewood fretboard, two standard single coils (neck and middle) plus a double ‘rail’ humbucker in the bridge position, a coil tap, and a locking trem with micro-tuners on the bridge. Amazingly, this would only cost about £20 more than the basic variant.
Even more amazingly, the Marlin Sidewinder’s pickups were wax-potted. This process of pressure-saturating the coil windings with hot wax was virtually unheard of on budget guitars. But if a cheaply-made guitar was to stand up to any sort of professional gigging or recording situation, wax potting was usually vital. Low budget pickups tended to be wound loose, with low tension on the winding machines. With no further attention (i.e. no wax-potting), the loose coil windings would then microphonically vibrate when the amp volume was turned up to stage levels. The result was an uncontrollably squealing guitar which simply couldn’t be used outside of bedroom/practice scenarios. The instrument would of course sound acceptable in the shop at moderate volume, but as soon as the guitarist tried to rehearse with a full band, or to gig, it was game over.
The overwhelming majority of cheap guitars I used suffered from this problem to varying degrees – including the Korean Squiers. Indeed, I’ve even used a post-CBS ‘60s Fender with a microphonic pickup. But Marlin, despite all their cost-cutting antics, had the sense to realise that even young guitarists with limited budgets wanted to be able to USE their guitars. A simple measure like wax-potting clamped down on the scourge of microphonic pickups, and gave a budget guitar’s reputation some staying power. It certainly worked for the Sidewinder, despite the generally dull, lifeless tone of the pickups and the single coils’ tendency towards in-ya-face background noise.
The Sidewinder came in a choice of seven finishes, including Black, Pearl White, Charcoal Fire, Candy Apple Red, Midnight Blue, Flamingo Pink and Purple Haze. The inclusion of some rather attractive metallic finishes was another surprise on such a cheap guitar, and the actual standard of assembly was usually impressive for the price too. The parts were inevitably going to be cheap (single-layer scratchplates, basic machine heads with a mind of their own, thin and flimsy bridge, etc), but in my experience the assembly showed few if any glaring problems. I certainly didn’t see any of the comically skewed scratchplates often found on other low budget guitars of the day. Some quality control problems were reported in relation to the Sidewinder during 1987 – particularly concerning ‘overhang’ on the fretting – afterwhich guitar journalists re-assessed the model and seemed to conclude that any issues had been rectified. So by and large, the standard of assembly was better than you’d expect on such a cheapie, but there was no real universal seal of approval.
Naturally, this guitar wasn’t going to rival a Jackson ‘Superstrat’ or a Fender Strat Plus in use. There were some very cheap components under the scratchplate, and whilst plywood is not an exact science, it’s never gonna match a premium piece of solid wood for tone. And of course, low end components, even when they work, rarely prove very durable. Realistically, the Marlin Sidewinder was never the vintage guitar of the future. Twenty-five years plus is a long time to stand up to the punishment dished out by a working musician, and it would be naïve to think that the majority of Marlin Sidewinders are still in playable, original condition. But they did take the impoverished guitarist’s world by storm in the mid 1980s, and those still surviving should, theoretically, have the same kind of status as a late ‘80s Korean Squier.
Of course, a quick browse through Google tells us that’s definitely not the case. Why not? Well, because the reputation of the Squier brand is easy for today’s secondhand dealers to manipulate. Some old Squiers (particularly from the 1982 to 1984 period) are marvellous guitars. Others (from the post 1987 period) are absolute crocks with more serious limitations than the Marlin Sidewinder ever had. All dealers need do is use the reputation of the good Squiers to drive sales of the bad ones – and that’s exactly what many are doing. But with Marlin, it’s different. Unlike with Squier there was no early ‘JV Series’ with USA pickups, stunning build quality and a feel/tone on a par with pre-CBS Fender. Marlin was always a budget brand through and through, and there simply isn’t any public confusion to exploit or abuse.
It’s therefore a very simple picture. The Marlin Sidewinder was cheap, packed with features, usable, pretty feeble and ‘mongrel’ in its tone, rather angular around the edges of the body, and not very durable. It came, it ruled the world of budget rock guitars, and it went. But for a sustained spell in the second half of the 1980s it was every guitar vendor’s dream. It looked eyecatching, it could feasibly crank out Smoke on the Water, and drooling kids with their sights set on being the next axe god of rocksville, had parents who could afford it. So come on you online dealers, with your “fine vintage piece” early Korean Squiers (lol); let’s see you do the Marlin Sidewinder some justice! In the United Kingdom it was a worldbeater for two years. If you can price up an '88 Squier at a thousand dollars (more lolz), surely you can do better than seventy quid on an all-original Sidewinder?
Don't forget this additional material on Marlin guitars...
Early Non-Korean Marlin Guitars: Obscure Info
More Marlin Guitars