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  • Michael Kelly Mod Shop Patriot Instinct Bare Knuckle Electric Guitar

    By Chris Loeffler |

     Michael Kelly Mod Shop Patriot Instinct Bare Knuckle Electric Guitar

    Putting Lipstick on a Super Model?


    by Chris Loeffler




    Michael Kelly has been selling high-quality electric guitars built to boutique standards for more than 15 years at a fraction of the price of a true US “boutique” instrument. Built in small batches overseas to Michael Kelly’s custom design specs and inspected and set up in the US, Michael Kelly guitars separate themselves from the “me too” crowd by incorporating common post-purchase adjustments and component swaps players maker to stock instruments as a standard feature in the MK line.


    2016 Winter NAMM saw MK release their new Mod Shop series, which are alternative takes on their existing lineup. The Mod Shop guitars are specific models appointed with different electronics and pickups than the standard lines to achieve a very particular set of tones, and aren’t just additional configuration options to their current assortment. The Michael Kelly Mod Shop Patriot Instinct Bare Knuckle is the Mod Shop take on the single-cut carved top electric guitar with the premium appointments of the Instinct line and their Mod Shop hot-rodded electronics incorporated with Bare Knuckle Mules.


    While a mouthful at first, understanding the meaning of the name Michael Kelly Mod Shop Patriot Instinct Bare Knuckle is key to understanding the features MK is packing into this guitar (terms that apply across their electric guitar line)-


    Patriot- Michael Kelly Mod Shop Patriot Instinct Bare Knuckle is built upon the rock solid foundation of Michael Kelly’s lauded Patriot, an archtop single cutaway, solid body electric guitar with a dual humbucker configuration. The body is a carved mahogany with a quilted maple top and cream binding that has heft and weight without falling on the “too heavy” side of the spectrum (my back thanked me for that). The mahogany neck is deep set in the body, and the 22 fret medium jumbo rosewood fretboard is fast but solid at a 24.75 inch scale length; less “chunky” than some vintage necks, but thick enough not to feel like a surf guitar. The chrome hardware consists of Grover tuners and a Tune-O-Matic with String-Thru-Body bridge.


    Instinct- The Instinct series of the Patriot introduces cosmetic enhancements such as a true quilted maple top, genuine abalone and pearl fretboard inlays, and an abalone center stripe that runs the length of the body. The figuring on the particular guitar I reviewed had a gorgeously deep quilt to it that really popped, and the Partial Eclipse black-to-natural color is eye catching and looks fantastic up close. The darkest black at the heel still reveals some figuring upon close inspection, and the transition to a natural honey hue by the bridge pickup gives a unique “black and tan” vibe. The fretboard inlays are upgraded from standard bone pearl to genuine pearl with abalone inset on the 12th fret, and the abalone body stripe is a subtle but classy way to connect book-matched top (at least on my review model).


    Mod Shop- The Mod Shop refers to the addition of Michael Kelly’s enhanced Great Eight electronics configuration that, through coil splitting and various combinations, offers eight different pickup options (H/-, -/H, H/H, S/-, -/S, S/S, S/H, H/S). The two Volume knobs can be pulled up to split the Mules, and the Bridge/Both/Neck toggle switch at the top allows for intuitive access to dramatic changes in tone.


    Bare Knuckle- The Bare Knuckle refers to the inclusion of British boutique maker Bare Knuckle Pickups nickel covered Mules in both the bridge and neck positions. The Mules are set on a solid nickel silver baseplate with butyrate bobbins, maple spacers, nickel-plated slugs, and Fillister No.5 screws and Alnico IV magnets.  


    OK… got all that? Let’s move on to how these all play out in concert in the guitar.


    The Patriot plays very similarly to a modern Les Paul-style guitar, with the top and sides significantly carved to support the picking arm comfortably, and is balanced to pass the “hands-free strap test.” While not a lightweight guitar, the heft and distribution is just right when worn with a strap, and the larger bow gives a nice “rock” tilt to it. The contours around the neck help with access to the highest frets, and the neck is set seamlessly into the body.


    I’m going to spend an inordinate of time on the pickups, as the BKP Mules are the primary reason someone would pick this guitar over the standard Patriot Instinct.


    The BKP Mules are scatter-wound pickups voiced in the vein of a vintage ’59 PAF humbucker. Unfortunately, the ’59 PAF “tone” has some variations on a theme, as one of realities of hand-wound pickups (some would say “virtues”) is that they aren’t as tight in tolerance as machine-wound. That said, there certainly is a reference tone that is ball parked by tone enthusiasts, and the BKP Mules are squarely there. They are vintage-sounding and fall on the lower-output side of the humbucker volume scale, are well voiced, and (as I’m assuming the name is meant to evoke), really nail the 00’s Warren Haynes tone in their standard humbucking settings. Compared to a pair of ’57 Classics, the Mules sound a touch less round in the mids and lack the distinctive Gibson “honk”; the low end is slightly more defined in the Mules, there is a sizzle to the treble, and it's a touch more expressive with attack. It’s slightly easier to sound “good” with the ‘57s, but a skilled, nuanced player will sound “great” with Mules.  


    Clean, the Mules have depth and dimension and are quite articulate, but that sizzle I mentioned in the highs gives the Mule an aggressive, if vintage, edge, especially in the bridge position; lively but balanced. I mention this first because the moment the Patriot Instinct starts overdriving a preamp that’s breaking up it’s easy to forget how deep and pleasing the cleans are. Any amp (or pedal) worth its salt makes the Patriot sing, and that edge and sparkle jumps to the forefront for the gain to form around.


    In both the Neck and Bridge positions, the Mules change their character quite a bit when tapped to split coil. They certainly sound like single-coil pickups, but there’s something about the character of a purpose-built single coil that isn’t 100% realized with the split Mule; they are crisp and responsive while retaining a surprising amount of volume. Just like dedicated single coil pickups, there’s a lot more opportunity for hum and noise.


    The Great Eight Full-Tap mod allows for eight different configurations, as highlighted above. While the standard configurations (H/-, -/H, and H/H) are easy to conjure, and even the semi-standard configurations (S/-, -/S, S/S) aren’t a stretch to imagine, there’s a lot of interesting sonic ground covered in the new options the Great Eight opens. Running split in the neck with the full humbucker in the bridge adds extra lower-mid thickness to lead tones without the somewhat overbearing “dual humbucker” tone in a H/H setting, whereas running the Mules split in the bridge and humbucking in the neck gives the darker rhythm tone (my personal favorite) sparkle and a touch of additional cut.


    I confess the unorthodox pickup configuration options lead to some unorthodox tones (and most guitar players, as progressive as their social politics may be, are firmly rooted in tradition), but the moment I opened my mind (and ear) to what they offered, I realized how valid some of these tones are in specific settings. There certainly are signature tones to be mined from the Mod Shop’s marriage of the Great Eight Full-Tap mod with BKP Mules.




    Splitting the Mules can introduce a significant amount of 60-cycle hum in environments with dirty power and when facing the speakers.




    The Michael Kelly Mod Shop Patriot Instinct Bare Knuckle exemplifies what Michael Kelly does so well… modernize and specialize a classic guitar design without abandoning its roots. The Patriot plays beautifully, the Instinct appointments are gorgeous without going over the top, and the Mod Shop electronics and BKP Mules make this guitar a must-play for people seeking the classic “humbucker” guitar style and feel with a decidedly vintage tone for well under $1,000.





    Michael Kelly Mod Shop Patriot Instinct Bare Knuckle Electric Guitar Product Page (MSRP $799.99)

     Join the discussion about this Michael Kelly on Harmony Central

    Available Colors -

    Partial Eclipse (Reviewed)




    Blue Fade






    rszchrisphoto-21e10e14.jpg.452d4d416c1bb74a2f4873b617f83d5b.jpgChris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer. 

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