Mitchell is a company that has, in recent years, established itself as a manufacturer of both high-quality and affordable acoustic guitars. Many professional musicians use them, using their more exotic instruments at home or for recording in the studio. So I was intrigued when I learnt that their new range of electric guitars was being launched and was pretty excited when invited to review one.
I already own a couple of electric guitars. I tend towards more traditional styles and have a Squire Vintage Modified Strat I bought to learn on and an Ibanez SZR which is a more modern take on a short scale Gibson. So a modern hard rock super strat type guitar like the Mitchell HD400 was going to be interesting. I’ve long been a fan of NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) from the 80’s but as a player with intermediate skills I tend to play slower more traditional genres.
When the guitar arrived I was eager to give it a try. Once it settled in my hands, my first impressions were good:
The Guitar Body
The Mitchell HD400 is fairly light and very comfortable. It has a flat top with arm and belly contours that are shaped just right enabling it to hang close to the body without any awkward tilting off of the ribcage. The double cutaway has unusually deep bevels that allow you to reach deeper into the neck for better access the highest notes on the 22nd to 24th frets. The fit and finish are excellent comparable to the Vintage Modified Strat but with hardware that feels distinctly better quality. If I’m honest I was somewhat apprehensive of the Floyd Rose double locking bridge on the Mitchell because you hear a lot of horror stories about the complexities of the Floyd Rose bridges. My Strat had the vintage floating tremolo blocked because it wouldn’t stay in tune, something that isn’t a problem with the locking bridge and nut on this guitar.
The body of the guitar has a quilted maple veneer painted a transparent cerulean blue while the sides and rear are a solid French ultramarine blue finished with a polyurethane varnish that has been buffed to a high gloss. In low light the guitar leans towards black but any light source that skims across the surface brings out the quilted top subtly producing a sort of dark ocean green cast while in brighter light the quilted maple comes through much stronger with more blue emerging. It’s very nicely done but typically looks better in person than in photos.
One of the stand-out things for me was the neck. It’s a thin C shape neck that feels wonderful and is very smooth and fast. It feels like smooth sanded raw wood. I looked into it some more and instead of going with a polyurethane gloss or satin varnish typical of cheaper guitars in this price range, they actually used raw wood with tung oil rubbed into it. The tung oil seeps into the wood and dries with the lovely water resistant satin finish that gives this neck its distinct natural wood feel. The maple fretboard has extra jumbo frets. Previously I have only played the more common medium jumbo. These are extra thick gauge with a fatter top. They only took a little playing to get used to. They require less pressure to fret cleanly which offers some distinct advantages if you’re hoping to play fast passages of notes but also make playing chords much easier thanks to the lighter pressure. And the trussrod in the neck is double action so the relief bends from both directions. In a Fender or Gibson this would only be found in a more expensive American made instrument and is rare in more budget oriented imports.
Hardware and Electronics
The pickups that come on the guitar are ceramic and come in HSH configuration. there are two humbuckers. One is at the neck and the other is at the bridge with a single coil in between. Behind the pickups you have the Floyd Rose Special bridge. The Special is a licensed version of the classic German made one. It’s built in Korea to exact specifications with a steel bridge like the original but using cheaper cast saddles and tremolo block. Since they share the exact same specs, all the parts are interchangeable. This means that it can be upgraded cheaply with genuine or aftermarket upgrade parts. Along with the bridge you have a pair of chrome dome knobs. One is for volume and one for tone plus a 5 way switch that lets you select pickup combinations.
The pickup combinations are unusual to me. They are similar to a traditional Strat but only the first and last position play the neck and bridge humbuckers full on with both coils. The in-between positions 2 and 4 split the humbuckers into single coils which mix with the middle pickup. The middle 3rd position on the switch plays the middle single coil pickup on its own.
The bridge is a nice meaty smooth, warm humbucker that is great for soloing. The transition to the treble neck humbucker is distinctive, producing a much more defined and precise high frequency sound that is great for rhythm but still pleasantly smooth without sounding ice-picky in the high frequencies like a lot of guitars do. The single coil in the middle is a little more noisy. It has the hum that is the signature trait of traditional single coil. In the three settings that use the single coil you get a more traditional Strat-like sound with the familiar quack when you mix either the neck or bridge with the middle pickup. All together this allows for a pretty diverse range of tones that suits a wide range of genres from classic, jazz, country and blues through to hard rock and metal.
How invasive the hum of the single coil is depends on your environment. Since I am in a room surrounded by computers with a wifi router within 4 feet and power lines on wooden poles with transformers feeding the neighborhood outside the hum can be quite loud. I actually got out my multimeter and checked behind the backplate/covers to look around. The wiring was all very cleanly soldered with wires bunched and ziptied neatly. The multimeter showed continuity around the walls of all the pickup cavities. So the matt black paint is conductive. The same paint was used on the cavity for the controls with the plastic plate backed with aluminum foil. So everything was shielded except for the tremolo block and spring cavity.
One of the things that struck me when I first received the guitar was the action. Usually manufacturers ship out their guitars with fairly high action. It hides any small flaws in construction and is a lot more forgiving for quality control at the factory, hiding string buzz caused by uneven frets or poor truss rod adjustment which would result in poorer sounding notes. So it was a surprise when the HD400 arrived with an astonishingly good setup. The action was lower than both my other guitars (and that after many hours of me fiddling with them). So I was impressed. When I started to play it, I noticed that it was tuned a bit flat with both E strings a few cents off pitch. This was when I started getting a little nervous about the complicated and rumored to be tricky to tune Floyd rose. I spent a few minutes on youtube before I got started. In the end it was actually pretty easy. I chose to remove the backplate from the guitar and tightened both the block springs ¼ turn retuned with the fine tuner knobs on the bridge, saw that the bridge was starting to pitch backwards slightly off of parallel so I tightened the spring screws another quarter turn. Then I used the fine adjuster tuning knobs again and viola, everything was perfect. And the best part is that the string intonation on the 12th fret was perfect. I think that since it’s brand new, the guitar was de-tuned flat to take the tension off of the neck during shipping and potentially long storage. Someone must have done a good job previously because it came out perfect. I didn’t have to touch the locking nut or headstock tuners at all.
I don’t have any fancy guitars. Both my other guitars are really direct competitors for this one. My strat had $150 extra spent on choice mods and the short scale Ibanez is around the same ballpark as the HD400 with $200 of pickup and nut upgrades. So how does the HD400 compare? Looks are subjective, but playability-wise it is fantastic. The low string action and pretty much perfect setup make it the easiest to play guitar I have laid hands on. It took me about 20 minutes to get used to the distraction of the pale neck, extra jumbo frets and the tiny offset markers. But once I adjusted to the look and feel and how gently you can press on the strings to get the notes to play cleanly it was a dream to play. With the floating bridge I was worried about bends and expecting it to be harder since bends would pitch the bridge towards the neck making the strings shorter and flatter sounding. I needn’t have worried. I actually had an easier time controlling pitch with bends. Legato hammer ons and pull offs were also easier and can be played faster than on either of my other guitars. I should mention that the neck is thin with a roughly 15 inch radius. So it’s quite flat. This might also be part of why the bends are easier; you’re not pushing up against a curve and the string won’t bottom out as easily the further into the bend you push.
So it’s a great guitar to play, fairly light and comfortable. There is very little to dislike about it. When picking I was worried that the volume knob might be too close to the bridge. It is positioned quite close leaving you fewer choices on where to plant your hand. Surprisingly, strumming wasn’t a problem like I thought it might be. Other than that, the center pickup is a little more noisy than I’m used to. The buzz was the pickups picking up EMI and RF airborne electromagnetic and radio waves that generated the hum and not a fault with the guitar itself. I found that I could vary the noise by rotating my seating position on my stool a few degrees. The humbuckers were pretty silent. (Humbuckers were originally developed to cancel out the hum single coils make.) The only modifications I may make in the future are strap locks as insurance against my clumsiness and similar knobs with numbers inlaid at the base. Only because I use the numbers to quickly change the tone for different amp settings as I play different songs.
So my final verdict is that this is a very playable guitar. It stayed in tune the whole week I have had it and although I’m no shredder, I’m finding faster passages much easier to play. Going over more complicated songs in Yousician exercises, I find that I’m playing them consistently cleaner and playing more advanced techniques like bends are easier. So I really like this guitar and recommend it to anyone looking for good value in this price range. I feel Mitchell have tried to up the ante in this price range to help establish a reputation to match the one they have built with their acoustics. I like that the setup was spot on with only minor tuning adjustments. The range of tones you can get out of it are very versatile, from traditional cleans to ripping hard rock. With a good amp, it has quite a repertoire and is very satisfying to play. Before I got this Mitchell I’d have recommended a Squire Classic Vibe or Vintage Modified Strat as a good starter electric guitar that could grow with you and see you through intermediate level. But now that I’ve tried the Mitchell as well, I feel that the latter is a significant step up with a higher level of quality in the hardware and some additional features that would require mods or significant upgrades which would normally push it into a higher price bracket.