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Before the latest wave of baritone guitar enthusiasm hit, Chapman Guitars was ahead of the curve in offering long-scale instruments – catering to a heavy crowd, with guitars fine-tuned for prog metal more so than surf-rock. So how does their latest baritone model hold up, now that long-scale guitars are firmly part of the landscape?
While a handful of recent Chapman instruments have combined the brand’s signature style with a more vintage look and feel, there’s no pretence of retro guitar design with the ML1 Modern Baritone. There’s a slim neck, a comfort carve on the lower horn to access all 24 jumbo frets, high-output humbuckers and, as eagle-eyed readers will have already noticed, the word ‘modern’ in the name. Let’s dust off those At The Gates riffs and get going.
Here we’re looking at a scale length of 28 inches from bridge to nut, the second-longest baritone scale commonly available before you get to the 30-inch mark and where the line between baritone and Bass VI starts to blur. For those of you into your extreme down-tuning, 28 inches is in our experience more than long enough to hit drop F without any issues. Alternatively, things will stay nice and snappy around the B standard / drop A mark.
Strangely, however, the first thing we notice upon giving our ML1 Modern Baritone a strum is how light the factory strings are. The stock Ernie Ball 12-60 set means things are a little slack in B standard, and there’s a few metallic buzzes thanks to the unwound third string. Swapping in an 13-72 Ernie Ball baritone set would be quick as anything thanks to the locking tuners, and adjusting the intonation for a wound third string shouldn’t be an issue either: the bridge here is a string-through six-saddle hardtail, so changing saddle position only requires slackening the string in question and remembering where you left your screwdriver. But for now, we just bump the tuning up a semitone to C standard and get playing.
The ML-1 Modern Baritone finds itself priced squarely in the midrange: not budget, but not boutique, at £729. Build quality is, for the most part, what you would expect at this price. Our unit has some slightly rough fret tops, but these are quickly polished out after an hour or so of playing. Slightly more alarming are the few bumpy spots where the neck finish has run onto the rolled fretboard edges, leaving a few noticeable protrusions on the bass side. It’s by no means anything major, and in a pinch the offending bits of finish could likely be removed with a guitar pick. Other than these spots, however, the neck is supremely comfortable, with the thin profile and rolled edges offering a speedy, smooth feel.
Before diming every knob on our HM-2, we sample some of the guitar’s more restrained sounds. Electronics-wise we’ve got a lot to play with: both pickups are from Seymour Duncan, with a Pegasus in the bridge and a Sentient in the neck. Each is split simultaneously with a pull of the tone knob, and the three position blade switch allows for standard neck / both / bridge selection. While the coil-split and neck pickup tones are definitely not the main event, they’re serviceable enough for the occasional dynamic clean passage.
The coil-split middle position is our personal favourite of the more sensible offerings, doing a reasonable impression of some spanky Strat sounds. And turning on some reverb and delay, the guitar really starts to shine: the bass-cut offered by the coil-split option means layered, ambient sounds stay clear and separate, rather than fighting for room in your signal chain. And the deep, bell-like chime of low tuning on a long scale is plenty suited to ambient noodling.
After the clean-tone starter, it’s time for the main course. Turning the bridge pickup up to full whack and introducing a healthy serving of distortion, palm-muted chugging is a delight, and fast death metal riffs are a blast to play. With a pickup this loud, bass response can be unruly, but the Pegasus is voiced to keep low-end tight and punchy, something we’re especially grateful for given the scale length and low tuning. On the flipside, there’s quite a lot of treble output – perhaps too much, as we find ourselves rolling back the tone knob just a hair to roll off the occasional icepick edge that pokes through when digging in.
Additionally, without a noise gate and with a high-gain sound, there are some rather odd resonances when stopping power chords short. The reverse headstock, aside from being an acquired taste in itself, means that a good couple of inches of your lowest string is behind the nut and free to vibrate, even with the string tree. This is another easy fix, as easy as finding a chunk of foam around the house, but it does somewhat go against the ethos of a modern riff machine.
But overall there’s a lot to like, ergonomically speaking. At first glance, the control layout may look like a little bit of a random deviation from the norm for the sake of it, but in the heat of the moment the tone knob is exactly where you’d expect for coil-splitting and on-the-fly adjustments, letting you rest your palm on the body behind the bridge rather than having to hover over the rest of the controls. The volume knob is also in perfect pinky reach for swells. The string-through hardtail bridge has thick, curved edges, which means very comfy palm-mutes: no sharp saddle edges digging into the side of your hand here.
The guitar’s also nice and light at a shade under 8lbs, and supremely balanced – not always the case at this scale length, as the longer neck can shift the centre of gravity drastically. The generous scoop carved into the lower horn also makes accessing all 24 frets a breeze, although this access does seem like overkill: at most baritone tensions, executing big bends above the 12th fret can be a bit of a nightmare.
So it does feel like the ML1 Modern Baritone is suffering from the same issue as a few other Chapman guitars: an identity crisis. The light factory strings, the deep lower-horn carve and the flat, 13.5-inch radius fretboard here all take the focus away from the primary benefits of a long scale length.
In some ways, this is a good thing: if you’re looking for a more solid, tight response for percussive metal riffing, then a new set of strings is only a tenner away. And if you envision yourself staying towards the dusty end and executing four-semitone bends, well, then you’re in business already.
DESCRIPTION Baritone S-type, made in Indonesia
BUILD Mahogany body with poplar burl veneer, bolt-on satin maple neck with 13.5” radius ebony fretboard and rolled edges, 24 jumbo frets, Graph Tech Tusq nut
HARDWARE Chapman string-through bridge, Chapman locking tuners
ELECTRICS Seymour Duncan Pegasus Humbucker (bridge), Seymour Duncan Sentient Humbucker (neck), three-way-blade switch, master volume and tone, master coil-split with tone knob
SCALE LENGTH 28” / 711mm
NECK WIDTH 42mm at nut, 57mm at 22nd fret
NECK DEPTH 23.5mm at nut, 25mm at 12th fret
FINISHES Rainstorm (as reviewed), Storm Burst. For £130 less, with a plain top and Chapman pickups: Mally, Abyss, Red Sea.
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