Arguably the Fret-King® story starts all the way back in the Northwest of the United Kingdom in the latter part of the 1950’s and Trev Wilkinson’s early fascination with what was then still ‘the nascent electric guitar’, it’s heroes of the day, and how Trev could get himself one of these exotic objects of desire. Even back then Trev was prepared to improvise and innovate to achieve his dreams.
Early experiments with ukuleles and analogue telephone voice coils gradually gave way to a succession of guitars of the era, a time when US produced guitars were as good as unavailable in the UK and cost almost a King’s ransom.
Progressing through a series of Futuramas, Graciosas, Burns and other brands of the day, playing in bands from the age of just twelve, Trev developed a fascination for what made guitars ‘tick’ and later during his graphics course at art school went on to produce his first guitar, a plexiglass ‘T style’ for which an Italian Graciosa guitar, (now an über collectible rarity), very generously gave up its heart and soul to provide the electronics, pickups, and neck.
Time moved on, and through the seventies and eighties all the skills which would eventually go into creating Fret-King were being honed around the world in auto and guitar paint shops, playing and building guitars, repairing and refinishing them, and along the way, developing clear ideas about how to “build that better mousetrap”, a process which continued unabated ‘til Trev moved from Australia to California USA in September 1984 to bring one of the most innovative pieces of hardware the guitar industry has ever seen to the wider world; the Wilkinson® Roller Nut, from which followed a whole other story of development, commerce, engagement with the guitar industry and musicians in R&D, prototyping and production, and the development of Wilkinson hardware and pickups and eventually led to the superb bridges, machine heads and pickups designed for Fret-King, and of course the all-important Wilkinson vibratos we use on Fret-King to-day, with their amazing return to zero pitch stability.
The story continues, with very first Fret-King guitar line, featuring three models all with unique but familiar characteristics which were developed during 1993, and in a cooperation with a start-up US distribution company, were shown at the 1994 NAMM show in Anaheim California.
Although well received the project was temporarily shelved, but Trev knew that the unique design concepts, the Fret-King name and the philosophy of “doing it for the guitar player” had validity and legs.
After half a lifetime in Australia and the US, in 1996/97 Trev was commuting between the US and the UK, running Wilkinson USA, and working with Eggle guitars in the UK as resident guitar technician, administrator and production manager, staying with the operation as it changed hands and developing what became Fret-King® by Eggle and eventually Fret-King® by Trev Wilkinson.
Subsequently, Fret-King manufacturing was moved to Europe, the Fret-King® EU Series was born, and Trev, who was now 100% UK based and working from a facility in his native Southport, near Liverpool, was also producing low volume, UK masterbuilt Fret-King guitars of astonishing quality and continued to consult for other brands, developing relationships with the best producers in the world.
In 2003, Trev and Dennis Drumm, CEO of UK distributor JHS® signed an accord which saw the beginning of a cooperation which was to have a significant impact on the guitar industry as they worked to develop JHS’ Vintage® line.
During this period, the Fret-King EU series fell out of production and in the background, Trev continued with the UK Fret-King masterbuilt construction and the development of a premium offshore production Fret-King range with exceptional design attributes, high end hardware and custom designed pickups.
In 2007, as JHS relationship with Trev grew ever closer, JHS acquired the Fret-King® brand from Trev and at Winter NAMM 2008 in California USA, launched the Fret-King® Blue Label™ line, which were produced in a small-scale luthier-built environment and brought the innovative Fret-King ethic of “Radical/Sensible/Useable” and “doing it for the guitar player” philosophy to a much wider audience.
Blue Label used high quality imported tonewoods and timbers, incorporated Trev’s custom designed Fret-King pickups and premium hardware by Wilkinson® and Gotoh®, along with true vintage construction methods to produce beautiful, superbly crafted tools for working musicians.
To quote Trev at the time; “We’re all playing guitars designed in an earlier epoch: 50, 60 or 70 years ago, with all the limitations we’ve come to live with and work around. Do you think the geniuses who came up with those benchmark designs way back when didn’t want to innovate and improve?
Sure they did, and they’d love what’s possible today. And you can have it; now. Exactly what you’re used to, with the improvements only Fret-King knows how to blend in, so you hardly even notice the traditional gremlins have been banished”.
Alongside Blue Label, from the UK Fret-King workshop, JHS introduced Fret-King® Green Label™, which were exceptionally high quality, custom shop environment, low volume hand-built instruments. So subtly nuanced, these traditional designs were fettled to feel like the ‘go-to’ guitar you’d played every day for fifty years but were imbued with modern reliability and all the benefits of Trev’s decades of knowledge of hardware, pickup design, fit and finish.
The lucky few who own a Fret-King Green Label guitar or bass have a thing of beauty and a peerless musical instrument easily the equal of the highest dollar instrument produced by any maker.
Of even greater rarity are the few Fret-King® Atelier Series™ guitars produced, which were one off cosmetic enhancements of stock Green Label guitars.
Rarer still, as literally only a few were made, are Fret-King® STVDIO Series™, which as the brochure of the day said were “Beyond exclusive, these unique atelier design exercises showcase the outside of the envelope of Fret-King’s capabilities. Created personally by Trev Wilkinson and his master builder Mike Smith, in Trev’s Southport workshop, these one-off instruments blur the boundaries between guitars and art with off-the-wall cosmetics, mind-blowing configurations, tonal capabilities that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, and playability to die for.
Between 2008 and 2012, Blue Label and Green Label Fret-Kings attracted huge attention and became the instrument of choice for many, many guitar players, and we found that in a world which as a dizzying choice of brands and instruments to choose from, the most discerning players were understanding that the values, ethic, and philosophy of Fret-King matched their needs and aspirations almost perfectly, which led us to the epithet, “your next guitar is here”.
By which we mean, in a world where players have arsenals of guitars, Fret-King was grabbing attention because here was a genuine alternative.
In 2012 the Fret-King® Black Label™ series was unveiled to the world.
Black Label was tradition, blended with boutique design, custom shop quality, pro playability, unique circuitry and comfortable individuality.
The design brief was to prove that it’s possible to create spectacular guitars that are totally acceptable as a real journeyman player’s working tool, fit for the highest profile player on the biggest arena stage in the world, deliver more than was expected with a feature set which opened up the tonal palette and maximised versatility – and yet was affordable to all.
As the very highly respected UK journalist Dave Burrluck said at the time, “You'd be foolish not to audition the Black Label range – the bar has been raised!"
Fret-King Black Label included one of those tipping point moments in the development of the electric guitar, The Fret-King® Super-matic™, with its self-tuning bridge.
Self-tuning guitars and guitars with variable tunings had been a bit of a ‘Holy Grail’ amongst the fraternity, and various brands had approached the issue from several different directions, using either microprocessor controlled, motor driven machine heads, or software solutions, with varying levels of success.
The Super-matic, featured an assertive, contemporary double cut body, with tight edge radiuses, 24 fret, 25 1/2” scale length neck, Hum-single-Hum pickup configuration and control layout which enabled the guitar to cover the basic tonalities of virtually every popular style of solid body guitar, was an immediate hit.
As for the autotuning aspect, Trev, as ever, pursued a most elegant solution, and with the design team at Autotune Developments Ltd., (ATD), developed the Wilkinson ATD HT440 hardtail bridge, which was unobtrusive, low profile, dropped into a standard vibrato cavity rout, and featured automatic tuning of six fully programmable pre-set tunings, with the tuning accomplished by an unobtrusive controller, and a magnetic hex pickup and microprocessor, delivering pitch information to super high geared micro motors within the bridge itself. The Wilkinson ATD HT440 was a design and technological ‘tour-de-force.
Less than 250 Fret-King Super-matics were ever built, as sadly, Autotune Developments Ltd., entered financial administration shortly after the guitar was launched and the technology was permanently lost.
Fret-King was already in the hands of many of the world’s most serious and influential players.
Black Label saw the start of relationships with some of those players to develop signature instruments and from that cooperation were born guitars with players such as Dave (Bucket) Colwell, Bad Company’s guitarist, Gordon Giltrap, the famous UK guitarist, who has an incredible sixty plus albums to his name, Geoff Whitehorn, a long time Fret-King supporter, who’s filled the shoes of the incomparable Paul Kossoff in Crawler, and been associated with the likes of Eric Clapton, Sir Paul McCartney, Bad Company, The Who, Kevin Ayers, Elkie Brooks, Manfred Mann, Billy Ocean, and many others been the long-time guitar sound of Roger Chapman's band, and featured as Procol Harum's lead guitarist since 1991.
The signature cooperation featured several instruments with the incomparable Jerry Donahue, doyen of the string benders, and founder member – with Will Ray and John Jorgensen – of the legendary Hellecasters and whose chops are to be heard on tracks by Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, Joan Armatrading, Gerry Rafferty, Robert Plant, Elton John, The Proclaimers, Johnny Hallyday, George Harrison, Cliff Richard, Chris Rea, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Hank Marvin, Roy Orbison, Nanci Griffith, The Beach Boys and The Yardbirds.
Jerry, who knows ‘tone, said of his Fret-King® JD “Of all the special guitar projects I’ve ever been involved with in my quest for the perfect guitar, the JD beats them all – it’s the best, and the most affordable…I couldn’t be happier!”
Another player who knows his tone is one of the UK’s finest jazz guitarist, John Etheridge, who’s signature Fret-King® Elise™ semi-acoustic was used to great effect by John in a wide variety of contexts, from Gypsy Jazz to ballads to the outer edges of the Soft Machine repertoire. Long term co-operator with Jerry Donahue in the Hellecasters, was legend, John Jorgensen, with whom who in 2016 Fret-King launched the Fret-King® JJ™, a classy rendition of the bolt neck single cut, which had some super clever trickery which allowed John to get signature single coil vintage tone, and then some, but minus the noise.
Along with all the designs which preceded them, Trev’s Black Label guitars proved to be a great success and continued until mid-2022, bringing innovative features and cool body styles to countless guitarists.
In 2018, the long and fruitful relationship between Trev and JHS changed to one of greater independence, with the JHS Fret-King team taking on the design mantle and continuing to work with Trev on specific projects and cooperating in the incorporation of Wilkinson® designed pickups and hardware for Fret-King.
Summer NAMM Show 2022 in Anaheim California saw the launch of the all-new Fret-King® 2023 Collection, featuring the likes of Eclat™, in Standard and Custom versions, the hugely popular Country Squire™ in a range of versions, the Classic, Modern Classic, Semitone De Luxe™, Music Row™, Stealth and Tone Meister™. Fret-Kings wonderful Elise™ semi-acoustic was refreshed and a vibrato loaded version introduced, the Corona, Fret-King’s signature bolt neck double cut was reworked with the Classic and the intensely versatile Custom version and Fret-King’s long term bass success, the Perception™ was totally reworked into an ultimate bass machine featuring Aguilar’s outstanding 4/5SD-D1 pickups and amazing OPB3 active pre-amp.
So, that’s the story so far, three solid decades of design excellence, enhancement, advancement, and all with the innovative Fret-King philosophy of “Radical/Sensible/Useable” and “doing it for the guitar player”, an approach, we’ll always take, looking after Trev Wilkinson’s ‘baby’.