1991 Levinson Blade R3 Guitar

Bob Leggitt | Saturday 10 December 2011
Levinson Blade R3 in Candy Apple Red
The Levinson Blade R3

From the late 1980s, the Levinson company brought something a little more sophisticated to the world of Strat copies. For the previous few years, much of the variation on the Strat theme had been focused around the genre of hard rock, with humbuckers, pointy headstocks, divebomb-compatible trems and luminous finishes combining to produce guitars of which Spinal Tap would have been proud.

Invariably, ads for these slick, metal-honed behemoths would feature whichever spandex/headband-clad dude could currently pack the most notes into the space of a single second. Or, the cheaper option: a model – once again, wearing the obligatory spandex/headband combo. So imagine the shock, in this climate, of asking for information on the Strat of the future, only to be handed a catalogue… with a bloke in a double-breasted suit on the front cover!…

Yes, that was the Levinson Blade brand. Guitars not for metal gods, but for, well… insurance salesmen, apparently. Actually, it wasn’t quite as laughable as it sounds. Admittedly, the guy did look like he’d be more at home auditing a high end furniture store than posing on the front of a catalogue with a guitar round his neck, but Levinson’s message that electric guitars could still feasibly be used by people who didn’t look like David St Hubbins, was refreshing. And indeed it was Levinson’s message. Gary E Levinson himself had directed the art for the catalogue, and the individuals in the photos were diverse. Of the ten men and women modelling guitars, only one looked as if he’d been anywhere near a metal band, and you got the distinct impression he’d been thrown out for trying a funk lick in the middle of Smoke on the Water.

Levinson Blade catalogue cover image
"Yeah, I lurve u babe, and you're so bea-oooo-tiful... but have you considered updating your life insurance this year at all?"... Yes, it's that catalogue.

It was obvious, then, that the main thrust of the Blade range was towards a market as yet untapped. Whether Levinson was expecting legions of yuppies to suddenly form bands in the ‘nineties I can’t say, but these were without question guitars for people who wanted sophistication, diversity, variety… and fundamentally, quality. Actually, if you could tear yourself away from wondering where the hell they’d bought all the clothes from, and look at the guitars, you realised that this was far from some comedy outfit trying to trick the staff of Sun Alliance into buying six-string fashion accessories. The spec was high (encompassing premium woods, innovative hardware, and active electronics), the look was contemporary and attractive, and you got the sense that Fender were in for another major challenge.

I bought my Blade R3 (serial number 90442) on payday, 26th September 1991. Blades at this time were Japanese-made. The ‘Levinson, Switzerland’ logos on them suggested otherwise, but in fact these markings, rather misleadingly, alluded only to the design, not the manufacture. The Blades’ reputation was high. In fact, International Musician magazine had voted the R4 Strat the best guitar they’d reviewed in 1988, and industry praise had continued in that vein ever since. I’d always been interested in the Blade R3, but with RRPs of £750 and above, depending on the variant, there was a heck of a lot else you could buy instead. However, Fender’s Strat Plus presented a serious challenge to the Blade, and aggressive discounting on the Fender USA range steadily drew down the prices of Blades in line. September ’91 was the month when I finally found a brand new R3 at the magic figure of £500.

The candy apple red body was made of soft maple, onto which was bolted a one-piece maple neck with a high standard of jumbo nickel fretting, and staggered-height, Sperzel locking machine heads. Locking only in the sense that they held the string firmly in its hole to stop slippage, that is – they didn’t actually lock the tuning in any way, and there was no lock at the nut either. The quality of (poly) finish was exceptionally high across the whole guitar, and the second you picked it up you could feel it wasn’t cheap. The edge blending on the body was outrageously smooth, with no hint of a corner in sight. I’d never seen a Fender with that level of smoothness.

Levinson’s Falcon tremolo was a serious upgrade on the vintage Strat type, looking impressively subtle, but in fact featuring a hidden, two-part, bi-directional block which allowed the player to set the trem flat to the guitar rather than floating, and yet still raise the pitch. Technically this overcame some significant problems with the trad Strat trem, like the issue of detune during harmonised string bends. But in practice it didn’t feel as nice as a floating trem to use, so I disabled the upward motion (you just tightened two screws) and set it to float.

Already it’s clear that not even Fender’s Strat Plus could boast that kind of innovation, but where the Blade really gave the mighty Fender USA a run for its money was in the electrical department. The R3’s electrics were not only of seriously high quality, they also offered virtually unrivalled tonal versatility. Levinson used their own pickups, which looked quite like Fender Lace Sensors with the guitar fully assembled, but beneath the covers they weren’t the same at all. Obviously very good quality though, as indeed was everything else beneath the scratchplate. But the big trick up the Blade’s sleeve was its active circuitry.

A lot of guitarists were sceptical about active circuitry, and I was moderately so myself. However, you could not possibly be sceptical about the Blade Variable Spectrum Control system. Firstly, you could disengage it, and use the untreated sound of the pickups. The single tone and single volume control (both acting universally on all pickups), did what you’d expect, and you had a regular, modern, high quality, single coil Strat sound.

But using the tiny switch above the pickup selector, you could also place the guitar into any of two active modes. The first of these was a super-hi-fi mode, where both the treble and bass end were boosted in a very refined way, giving scope for a raft of immensely well defined tones. The typical use would be sophisticated funk, but I found these semi-scooped tones also worked well with a little overdrive for blues. The second mode was a super-fat mid-boost, which gave the pickups higher output, along with a distortion-compatible rock tone more in keeping with a Gibson than a Fender. And just when you thought you’d seen it all, you found you could flip the guitar over, and via three trimpots on the back, adjust the levels of active boost so each mode was tailored to your own preferences.

As a piece of engineering, the Blade R3 of 1991 was truly a triumph. However, I found that I just couldn’t fall in love with it as I would a great traditional Strat. The R3 was by a long way the most tonally-versatile guitar I’ve ever had, but I think in the end there was just so much to mess with that I spent more time tinkering with the tones and prodding at the trimpots than playing the instrument. I’d spend half an hour getting what I thought was the definitive sound. Then I’d pick up my Tokai TST-60 and think: “Actually, this sounds more Stratty. Maybe I’ve gone a bit too too far with the Blade. I’ll just tweak those trimpots a little more…” Give people too much choice, and they’ll spend their life deciding. And that’s what happened to me with the Blade R3. There's no question that this was a very, very nice guitar indeed, but I think, ultimately, I just wasn't sophisticated enough to need its huge array of tonal variations. Plus, sadly, I could never find quite the right suit.