Price paid: € 222
Purchased from: Thomann.de
Features: Ahh the 80s. Back then times were simpler, men wore eyeliner, belly revealing shirts, had big puffy hair, spandex pants, cops in Miami drove around in Ferraris, wore designer clothes to work and had pet alligators in their private boats. Yes, times were good and Kramer was enjoying the 80s ride. They were number one guitar manufacturer and were endorsed by guys like Richie Sambrora (Bon Jovi), Mick Mars (Mtley Cre), Vivian Cambell (ex-Dio, ex-Whitesnake, now Def Leppard) and Paul Dean (who was apparently big deal back then). But it was Eddie Van Halen who took them to the next level (that guy was everywhere). Yes, believe it or not, Kramer used to be a big name back in the 80s.
However, by the time 90s kicked in, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy and finally declared it in 1991. I could go on about its history and its ridiculous demise but you can look it up on Wikipedia and get the details at www.vintagekramer.com if you want to. At one point in the end of the 90s Gibson bought the Kramer brand and started manufacturing some of the old Kramer models. These models were of course cheaper counterparts to their originals. From what I understand, the Epiphone division is responsible for building these guitars, nowadays.
But this guitar is somewhat special. There never was an Imperial series when Kramer was still alive. Yes, there was a Pacer Imperial but it wasn't an Explorer shaped guitar and that was introduced after Gibson had acquired the company. As a matter of fact, the only Explorer shaped guitars Kramer had, were the Condor and Voyager (and Focus, which was a cheaper variant of the both), but these had the basic outline of an Explorer and looked very different. So where the hell did this Imperial come from? Well, I don't know, to be honest, but I imagine it has something to do with the fact that Gibson owns both Kramer and the Explorer design patent.
Now think about it for a moment. Why would Gibson be making another cheap Explorer? And these are cheap, mind you, cheaper than their Epiphone brothers. What I can gather is that these guitars are made for people who get turned off (and who can blame them) by the U2ish looks of a classical (cheaper, Epiphone made) Explorer and are looking for something more edgier (no pun intended). Think about it: Epiphone is already making a cheaper variants of the Explorer which look very similar to the original, they also have some other editions like the gothic EX and also some other Explorer based models (which look like doo-doo, yeah Futura, I'm looking at you). If you wanted an original Gibson, you wouldn't be reading this.
But this Kramer Imperial S-404 is a masterpiece. And it still boggles the mind how they achieved it at such a low price. Basically it's a direct copy of the Explorer but with one huge difference, which in my opinion is the only reason this guitar is cheaper than its Epiphone brother. This Imperial comes with a Strat-like bolt-on neck. What a pity. I think it really hinders the feel of the instrument. But then again, I've never seen a neck-thru construction or glued on neck on any Kramer. They're always bolt-on so I guess they tried to keep it close to original design ideas. The bolt-on connection is a lot more comfortable than on Strat, so at least that's a good thing. The neck sits a bit higher than on a regular Explorer. Word on the street (and by street I of course mean the internets) is that the neck is made of Hard Canadian Maple (sounds like a title to a Canadian porn flick. Get it? Maple is wood. I said wood, heh heh) while the fingerboard is an Explorer-familiar Indian Rosewood.
Another Kramer feature the neck has, is that there's no color on the back which is unusual for an Explorer but of course very typical of the Kramer superstrat (give it a cape and it can stop crime) design.
No Kramer would be complete without the phallic headstock which really looks great on this one. The logo is in huge-ass golden block letters demanding respect from anyone dares look upon it. The headstock looks like a traditional Kramer non-reverse banana headstock, which itself was copied from Eddie Van Halen's Ibanez Destroyer (which in turn is a Gibson Explorer copy), but with a sharp edge a la Kramer.
The tuners are Gotoh SG's and these mothers stay in tune! Really great tuners and quite sturdy. Wouldn't replace them like you have to on an Epiphone. The profile of the neck is slim, I really like the feel. Because of the bolt on neck the access to higher frets is somewhat more difficult than on a Standard Explorer. But in my opinion the Explorer is more of a rhythm guitarist wet dream (and maybe boobs). There are 24 frets and the neck is built in 25.5 scale which is a bit different from the usual Gibson and Epiphone 24.75.
The body has rear routing and therefore no pickguard. The body is a Standard Explorer and not Explorer Pro or Futura. Its wood is Solid Alder (often mistaken for Steven Adler of Guns N' Roses fame). I really like the metallic blue color it has, it changes its tone depending on the light. Don't like the black satin finish though. Never seen it with me own eye but looks really ugly. Also, I hear there's a red version. Don't even wanna think about it. Yuck.
There's a tone control, which is push-pullable, a volume control and a 3 way switch. While the buttons on them are great and I would definitely keep them, however, the potis need to be changed in the long run, which isn't a big deal, this is a cheap guitar after all. The pickups are something called Quad Rail, which are splittable. They are covered with a plastic layer, which is odd and really cheap looking. More about their sound later on.
The hardware is all black and glossy, looks good to me, although I think it'll take some time to see if the finish lasts. This guitar has a Standard TOM bridge.
Overall, this guitar looks awesome. It is definitely catered for the rock/metal community. The headstock is commanding and the black hardware on a dark blue metallic body looks amazing.
There is a problem with the strap locks, however, but more on that later.
The bolt-on neck is (like my accountant) a big con so that's why I'm giving this guitar 8 out 10. // 8
Sound: The humbuckers on this baby are labeled as Quad Rail, with no brand name given. The neck pickup is N4S and the bridge pickup is called B4S. As mentioned before, these pickups are probably best suited for metal and rock (although, not tough enough for quarrying and/or ore mining, I suppose). They're also hot pretty hot, which make them perfect for Indian food and/or heavy metal music. These humbuckers are actually amazing; knowing I would be replacing the pickups with DiMarizios, I though that well, at least I won't have to suffer for a long time. Turns out that these pickups are really great for this price. Of course they're not world class, but they are really good. With this price you get the usual faults like muddiness and fuzziness. // 9
Action, Fit & Finish: I touched upon these subjects before but will clear up the main paints. I have read that while this guitar is awesome (some claim it is the Messiah), the factory setup it comes with, leaves to be desired. But I wouldn't write it up as a fault. With this price, you can't really expect everything to be super good. Get it fixed or fix it yourself. I actually still haven't touched my setup, it just happens to be quite good on mine. I do plan on setuping it later on.
But that's where we come to some of the faults of this great instrument. First of all, it seems to me that there is a slight bump on the shape of the guitar, but this is not so clearly visible, actually, without really looking for it, you probably wouldn't see it at all. Another bad thing about it, is the rear routing: it's cut improperly and the plastic cover is somewhat makeshifted on the routing. It has 4 screws hold the cover down, while 3 of them are of same length, one of them is longer and placed under angle. It seems that someone had noticed this later on and tried to remedy situation.
As mentioned before, the electronics look a bit weak, but I already knew that before buying it. Also, for some reason the pickup Switch wouldn't work in the bridge position when I was first trying the instrument. The nut and the fretboard look great.
Now, the biggest and the only real serious issue with this guitar, are the strap locks. By default they are fixed like on any older Gibson Explorer or like on an Epiphone Explorer today, which means that the front lock is located above the neck. This brings up a the issue of balance. This is fixed by placing the strap lock on the neck-body connection. Since this one has a plate on the neck-body connection, you can't really drill a hole in there that easily. You could try and put the strap locks on one of the screws bolting the neck to the body, but you'd have to make sure you know what you're doing. The neck is under a lot of pressure from strings and tross rod in it, the screws are an integral part of this. // 9
Reliability & Durability: I haven't gigged with it or owned long enough to say this but I would think that after changing the electronics and doing a proper setup for your instrument, it would serve you well. So yes, I wouldn't gig with it unless I fix it up first. Other than that, I definitely would. // 9
Overall Impression: Before buying this guitar, I read as much as I could find about it. The only negative thing everyone could agree on, is the setup it comes with. But of course, you always need to set it up how you need it to be.
I own a custom built Stratocaster, which was built according to my specifications and I can say that this Kramer feels and sits with me really good, as good as my Strat. I also knew that I'd have to change a lot of things on it, definitely electronics at first, and then tuners. But it turns out that electronics are the only thing I need to change - the tuners and bridge are great.
The only thing I'm thinking about is how to fix the strap locks.
This guitar definitely beats Epiphone Explorer and despite its low price, this guitar is awesome and I would re-buy it were it stolen (like my Epiphone Explorer) or broke for some reason. // 10