Italia, purveyor of all that is kitsch and kooky, has spawned a compact range of guitars under a sister brand, all costing just a little less dosh. Review by Richard Purvis
Designed by a Brit, made in the Far East yet named after a funny little country on the other side of France, Italia guitars have a deserved reputation for nostalgic frolics with an underpinning of modern practicality and solid construction. Now the company has that ultimate badge of big-time respectability: the ‘brand within a brand’. The instruments on test today are two of a new three-guitar range bearing the words ‘DiVill by Italia’ on their headstocks. They look a lot like Italias, really – neither quirkier nor more traditional – and are even built in the same factory, but toning down the kitschy opulence has enabled them to be priced a little bit more affordably.
Peculiar name, isn’t it? Its significance may be a secret known only to Trev Wilkinson, the designer behind Fret-King, Vintage and the Wilkinson aftermarket parts empire. Both review guitars are solidbodies with bolt-on necks and some discreet but unmistakable flourishes of Wilkinson design, most notably in the ‘nibbled by a leopard’ scratchplate shapes. They both look pretty cool, but not in a way that’s going to make granny fall off the settee.
The headstock shapes nod emphatically in the direction of the parent company, though gig punters won’t actually be able to see the ‘by Italia’ part unless they’re close enough to risk having a few teeth removed when you turn round to shout at the bassist. The DiVill name itself is quite hard to see anyway on the F100, because it’s been applied in gold on maple without a black border.
This guitar is only £20 cheaper than its closest equivalent in the Italia line, so we’re not expecting it to be a cruddy little plank with all the fun squeezed out. It certainly looks Italian, with distinct echoes of the Eko 700 and other lost gems of the ’60s. The vibrato tailpiece looks uncannily like a Jazzmaster unit, the bridge humbucker has the 3+3 screw arrangement familiar to all Tele Deluxe owners, and the plastic-covered single-coil pickups could have hopped right off a Mustang. The scale length is Fender’s favoured 25.5″ and in fact it’s only the bridge, a tunomatic type with roller saddles to aid tuning stability, that points to any other obvious influence. Overall, the guitar has been put together with impressive attention to detail and then finished immaculately in a red-to-orange sunburst that Italia calls ‘heritage burst’. The F100 comes equipped with master volume and tone controls plus a blade-style five-way pickup switch. The body is made of two pieces of agathis and the neck is satin-finished maple, with a dark rosewood fretboard and 22 frets. Jam it in as hard as you like, but the vibrato arm will work itself loose eventually; other than that, though, this seems to be an issue-free guitar. It certainly doesn’t feel expensive but it doesn’t feel like a throwaway budget model either, thanks in large part to the neatly-dressed frets.
The dynamic shape might suggest one of Fender’s offset-waist models, but pickups are king, and in this case – if only because of how many there are and where they’ve been sited along the string length – they’re taking us into Stratocaster territory. The F100 is agreeably light and breezy in feel and acoustic tone, and both single-coils offer fresh and snappy sounds. Digging in brings out a nice natural snarl, and the in-between positions offer plenty of that infamous out-of-phase cluck.
Middle and bridge is a touch darker than middle and neck – not surprising as the humbucker on its own is a pretty chunky slab of sonic beef. This is the place to go for solidity and lots of added aggression in the upper mids, but while lead players will quite rightly be rushing to slam that switch to the back position in advance of every trip up the neck, it’s worth pointing out that the single-coils overdrive nicely too.
Mixing singles and humbuckers is always a risky enterprise because the need for tonal compromise means one or the other can easily end up being too bright or too dark, but the F100 walks the line confidently and offers a good range of usable tones. It would be nice to hear the bridge pickup coil-tapped, especially in partnership with the neck unit for some Jazzmaster-esque sweetness, but there’s no such jiggery-pokery available in the stripped-down DiVill range. The whammy bar doesn’t do Jazzmaster tricks either, because of that non-rocking bridge, but it can manage gentle Bigsby shimmers and even flatten down by a fourth or so if you really hammer it, and the roller saddles help it return to tune with impressive precision.
Playing ‘spot the influence’ is not so easy with the M100, whose most striking characteristic is a blue sparkle finish that recalls the Bay of Naples shimmering under an August sun… either that, or a gaudy dress on Strictly Come Dancing. It has the same rough outline as the Italia Maranello, but with a proper cutaway on the treble side and without the Hagstrom-style plastic bits. Like the F100 it’s made of agathis with a bolt-on neck, but this model takes a few steps towards the Gibson tradition – most clearly with the twin humbuckers and bridge/tailpiece arrangement, but also with the neck material (mahogany) and the slightly shorter 25″ scale.
Build quality is sound again, though microscopic inspection reveals some scruffy unsanded timber beneath the lip of the rosewood fretboard. The neck feels maybe a tiny fraction more chubby than that of the other guitar but it’s still eminently graspable and again the fretting is excellent, making it a supremely easy player all round. The Grover-type tuners work smoothly and there’s no sign of badly cut saddles or nut slots. Inexpensive guitars really aren’t what they used to be – and hallelujah to that.
This one’s not as naturally ringy as the F100, perhaps because of the shorter scale length, but the acoustic tone promises plenty of fullness and warmth. The first strum when plugged into a clean amp quickly confirms that impression – if it were any more full and warm, you’d be able to dunk biscuits in it. The other side of that coin, however, is that there’s not a great deal of top-end zing, and clean sounds on the middle pickup setting are a little lacking in the twinkly character you’d get at similar amp settings using, for example, a standard-spec SG. You could say it’s more like a Les Paul with the maple cap missing. Having said that, single notes can sound very nice indeed, with just enough clarity at the top and a right old thump at the bottom.
What the M100 is really begging for is a bit of overdrive – ideally something that will add an element of bark to the upper mids while thinning out the low end. As it happens, that’s exactly why God created the Tube Screamer, and a little green box is just what this guitar needs to fulfil its real potential. Chords can still get swampy if you’re not careful but what we have on our hands now is a very decent stab at classic humbucker crunch – and that’s equally true in all three pickup positions, from smooth and jazzy at the neck to raw and growly at the bridge.
Things get even better when you trade in that Screamer for the full-on fizz of a higher-gain distortion unit such as a Rat. Now the M100’s true calling as a rock machine is revealed: it revels in executing chunky power chords at one end of the neck and authoritative lead runs at the other. For soloing work it doesn’t sound massively different to the other DiVill when you skip from one to the other with both set to the bridge pickup, but the added low-frequency content is still apparent even with gain at levels bordering on the irresponsible.
Well, the first thing to say is that both of these guitars are quite nice. They’re not offering anything wildly individualistic in terms of sound, but each does a conventional job in a nicely unconventional-looking way. If you’re looking for an affordable guitar with two single coils and a humbucker at the bridge, the F100 has to be a viable alternative to the thousands of copycat models out there; and if you’re after a Gibson-type solidbody with the emphasis on low-end thump, and don’t require bright and breezy cleans, then the M100 is an equally serious contender. The third model in the line, incidentally, is the B100: another offset-waist design, but this time with a P90 at the neck and a Firebird-type mini-humbucker at the bridge – an arrangement that seems to work well enough for Neil Young. That one comes in light blue or metallic orange and is surely worth checking out too.