Kiesel Guitars (formerly Carvin Guitars) has been producing the headless Allan Holdsworth Signature guitar for many years, but only recently started expanding their headless offerings — first with the Vader in 2015 and now with three additional models in 2018. The Zeus, as reviewed here, was introduced in January of this year.
The Zeus is custom built to order with multiple options to choose from, including; 6, 7 and 8 string standard scale and multi-scale models, 14 or 20-inch neck radius, various neck and body woods, numerous finishes, frets and pickups. All Zeus models feature a beveled body and, unlike most headless designs, has the bridge mounted tuners recessed in the body giving the guitar a modern, yet familiar shape. The bolt-on neck has a minimal, sculpted neck heel which allows easy access to the higher frets. The headpiece accepts standard single ball guitar strings only — double ball (Steinberger style) strings will not work.
My Zeus arrived in flawless condition and I was immediately impressed with the top-notch build quality. Try as I may, I could not find a single blemish on the ultra shiny British Racing Green finish. The tung oil neck was satin smooth, the royal ebony fretboard was stunning, and the stainless steel frets were dressed expertly. Intonation was spot on, but I found the action to be too low for my playing style. As such, raising the action was necessary before the guitar was enjoyable to play. The standard neck profile felt good in my hand for both chording and leads and seemed similar to a Warmoth “Standard Thin” or modern Fender American Standard Strat neck. Some may find the top bevel on the guitar too extreme, but in person, it is visually appealing and yields an extremely comfortable playing guitar. Thanks to traditionally placed strap buttons, the Zeus hangs perfectly balanced on a strap.
The Hipshot/Kiesel tremolo operates smoothly, returns to pitch well, and has excellent sustain. Keep in mind this is a floating tremolo, so if you are accustomed to resting your palm on the bridge, you may have to adjust your technique to keep the tremolo in its neutral position. Tuning is definitely fidgety, with a fair amount of back and forth balancing, but not insurmountable. It is unfortunate Kiesel no longer offers the JCustom tremolo (a Steinberger clone) as this design was impervious to palm pressure and could be locked in place for easy tuning. Thankfully, the Hipshot/Kiesel tremolo does not exhibit the pitch wavering/oscillation that plagues other floating tremolos. Even with the added mass of the tuners at the rear of the tremolo assembly, the tremolo flutters nicely for those seeking to emulate David Torn or Steve Vai.
The installed Kiesel Holdsworth Passive humbucker pickups have proven to be a versatile choice and offer a variety of tones thanks to the 5-way Strat-style selector switch. From the factory, the pickups produced a honky tone, but by adjusting the pole pieces to match the neck radius, the bridge pickup opened up to provide a rich full-bodied tone with a slight raspy edge and the neck pickup provided a balanced jazz-like tone with a touch of chime. By further refining the height of the pole pieces on each coil, I was able to dial-in usable split coil sounds with negligible loss of gain.
Only time will tell if the Zeus is a keeper, but so far it’s been a joy to play.
For players searching for a custom headless guitar in the $1100 and up range, the Kiesel Zeus is an excellent option worth considering. Well done Kiesel!