From the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG CAHILL
Torrefied tops, the sweet smell of a freshly made Martin double-0, the smart sound of a well-designed compact acoustic amp—it was easy to get knocked out by the guitars and gear that paraded through the Acoustic Guitar office this year. I’m still yearning for that Waterloo WL-JK Jumbo, The Texas-based company’s interpretation of a big-bodied Recording King that Regal built for Montgomery Ward in the 1940s.
The fact that Waterloo, a subsidiary of Collings Guitars, released new affordable models at all was big news, especially for those familiar with the company’s earlier, vintage-inspired, ladder-braced, small-bodied WL-14. But there were other hits as well. Taylor Guitar revoiced its popular 300– and 700-series lines and introduced a deluxe version of the 800 series, featuring a radius armrest, Adirondack spruce bracing, and Gotoh chrome tuners. And then there was the relaunch of Guild, which released US-made M-20 and D-20 models; the introduction of the new Fender Paramount line, a group of sturdy steel strings that showed the venerable company has made a deep commitment to its acoustic side; the announcement of new Epiphone Masterbilt Archtop models; and revamped product lines from Ovation, Alvarez, and Washburn.
In the accessories realm, TC Electronics debuted the way-cool PolyTune clip tuner (a tiny version of its popular pedal tuner); D’Addario issued a tiny soundhole tuner and brought the guitar case into the digital age with the smartphone-talking Humiditrak guitar-case humidity monitor; Rainsong released the 12-fret SMCX Smokey, a charcoal-gray, all-carbon gem with DR Black Beauty Strings and enough mojo to dazzle any acoustic-guitar buff; the Yamaha TransAcoustic and the ToneWoodAmp company both found ways to create special effects without a standard pedal board; iSolo debuted its wireless acoustic pickup; and iRig got small with iRig Acoustic, a miniature guitar microphone and smart-device interface that gives big results via the Amplitube app by turning any iPhone or iPad into a portable studio.
And while tech impressed this year, there were lots of other developments in the acoustic-guitar trade. Here’s what AG’s reviewers had to say about some of the year’s top gear, more than a few of which caused a bit of G.A.S. (guitar-acquisition syndrome). Video demos can be found at AcousticGuitar.com/tag/topgear2016.
Play a Bristol BM-15 or BD-15 and you get the warm, midrange-forward tone you’d expect from a high-quality, solid-wood hog (or, all-mahogany guitar), only these budget beauties are built by Saga Music Co. with ties to Blueridge Guitars. Each Bristol (the BM-15 is a triple-0), the BD-15 is a dread) features a laminated soundboard, back, and sides, and sells for about the same price as a decent hardshell case alone. And both guitars offer yet another reminder of just how good even the least expensive imported instruments can be these days. PRICE: $199 street.
Another example is the Michael Kelly Forte Port, which has a highly playable neck and boasts a solid spruce top, and laminated sapele back and sides, as well as special bracing and offset soundholes, that deliver a surprisingly warm sound. And the sticker price is just $299.
The Washburn Woodline 10 Orchestra cutaway earned raves as “a total winner for the price” thanks to its easy playability and a tight, focused sound that lends itself equally well to strumming and fingerpicking. PRICE: $369.
With their substantial, but comfortable, V-shaped necks and their small bodies, the Alvarez Blues51 and Delta00 feel like 80-year-old steel-strings. And they’ve got a sound to match: a growl and bark perfect for fingerpicked blues and ragtime, conjuring up vintage vibes of the Mississippi Delta and the American South. Alvarez, long known for affordable, high-quality guitars, scores major points with these prewar doppelgangers. PRICE: 14-fret Delta00, $599 street; 12-fret Blues51, $649 street (just over our “budget” criteria, but worthy of mention).
MIDPRICE LUXURY GUITARS
The first thing you notice when you strum the Blueridge BG1500E Jumbo is the robust warmth of its tone—like a splash of sunlight filtering through the tall trees in the Smoky Mountains that lend this company its name. OK, the allusion to the Smoky Mountains is a bit misleading, since this guitar has several modern appointments that defy the laws of tradition. Those include a bright orange sunburst, Art Deco-style rosewood bridge and headstock inlay, and vintage-style keystone tuners. Overall, the effect is Gibsonesque. But strumming an open-G chord, unplugged, delivers a full, rich sound with punchy bass, clear mids, and shimmering treble—a sparkle that is characteristic of Blueridge guitars. Equipped with Fishman Presys Plus. PRICE: $799 street.
The Faith FMSB45-BNC, also known as the Classic Burst Mercury, is a modern parlor with boutique-like flourishes. This affordable spin on British luthier Patrick James Eggle’s design is made of solid, FSC-certified woods at the company’s workshop in West Java, Indonesia. It has that imported-guitar vibe, thanks to its polyurethane lacquer finish and its chemical-rich aroma, but unlike the typical budget guitar of past decades, it’s well-built. In short, the short-scale, 12-fret Mercury parlor—with solid red-cedar top, solid mahogany back and sides, and figured Macassan ebony bridge—is a joy to play. PRICE: $1,050 street.
The PRS Angelus A30E has a sound that’s lush compared to other examples in its price range. There’s good separation between the notes in all registers, and the natural harmonics up and down the neck have a brilliant shimmer and sparkle. The guitar might not be as loud as some, but it makes up for this with a healthy amount of sustain. The A30E definitely has a lot going for it: top-notch playability and an agreeable voice that reproduces well thanks to the guitar’s high-quality electronics. PRICE: $829 street.
The Eastman AC-GA1CE and AC-GA2CE are grand-concert models—a design splitting the difference between the dreadnought and the OM—with smooth cutaways. They’re identical in every spec, save for their soundboards. The AC-GA1CE has a Sitka spruce top, while the AC-GA2CE is sapele. Both are supported by hand-carved scalloped X bracing. These all-solid-wood guitars sound robust and balanced, play exceptionally well, and come with Fishman electronics. PRICE: $620 street.
Fender made a serious commitment to its acoustic catalog this year. Designed in the United States and made in China, the Fender Paramount series includes three basic body types—a dreadnought (the PM-1), 12-fret parlor (PM-2), and triple-0 cutaway (PM-3). Each sports electronics and is available in a natural or sunburst finish and in a deluxe version, with Indian rosewood back and sides, or a standard version, with mahogany back and sides and streamlined appointments. Their relatively thin C-shaped necks have a decidedly modern—and comfortable—feel. The action is low and buzz-free in all regions of the necks, which have none of the dreaded dead spots, plus the intonation is perfect. PRICE: $999 Deluxe; $799 Standard.
At first blush, Andrew White’s Cybele 1013W, which takes its name from the Greek goddess of nature, seems like a study in contradictions. With its stylish profile, the guitar has a modern look, but when you dig into the instrument, it has the bark and growl of an old blues guitar. And it sounds a great deal louder than you’d expect from a small, narrow-waisted guitar. In other words, the Cybele is far from your standard-issue Far East-made import. White is a luthier known to experiment with body shapes, bracing patterns, and the like. The average cost of an instrument he builds in his West Virginia workshop is more than $10,000, but the 1013W, whose manufacture is entrusted to Artec Sound, a Korean guitar company, sells for a tenth of that price. If the test model is any indication, Artec is doing good work under White’s direction. PRICE: $1,595 direct.
It’s a bit disorienting to open a Martin 00L-17 case to find an ebony, slope-shouldered guitar: an instrument more closely resembling a 1930s Gibson than any guitar Martin produced in the era. But playing a few strums and runs on this new offering from the 17 series reveals a voice that is unmistakably Martin. It’s got the impressive mids and overall warmth of a good 14-fret 00 in spades, and it just feels solid and reliable at hand. The guitar’s short scale, 24.9 inches, makes it easier to play chords requiring big stretches than does the standard 25.5-inch scale. And, with perfect low action, free from buzzing, it’s really easy to zip around the neck. Not surprising for a modern Martin—the company is making consistently great guitars at all price points—the 00L-17 sounds every bit as awesome as it feels. It’s got a lovely, uncluttered sound, heavy on fundamentals but with shimmering overtones and a nice natural reverb. It’s definitely a more powerful instrument than would be expected of one of its size and scale length. It features a solid Sitka spruce top with scalloped X bracing, solid mahogany back and sides, and rosewood bridge. PRICE: $2,299 list/$1,859 street.
Guitarists who don’t like to plug in will be glad to know that the Martin 00-15E Retro’s natural voice is warm and mellow, clear and balanced throughout the sonic spectrum. There are no dead spots anywhere on the neck—all of the notes ring clearly and are buzz-free, and the intonation is perfect. If you want to plug in, though, you’ll love the electronics: Fishman’s F1 Aura+, which is designed specifically for Martins. For this clever system, the guitar company recorded a tone donor—a 1935 Martin 00-55, which is essentially a 00-17S—with nine high-quality microphones. The images, or timbral samples, work in tandem with an undersaddle pickup to make this modern Martin sound like a miked Golden-Era model. PRICE: $2,549 list/$1,999 street.
Two new Waterloos—the 12-fret WL-K and the aforementioned WL-JK jumbo—made it immediately clear that this Collings-associated brand lives up to the buzz that has developed around it. Each instrument has its own personality, but both share the same cool aesthetic, paying homage to 90-year-old budget guitars: the 12-fret WL-K is inspired by the small number of guitars made by Gibson between 1930 and 1932 and sold under the name Kel Kroydon; the aforementioned WL-JK of which I continue to pine is a replica of an old Montgomery Ward jumbo. Both feel uncommonly responsive and playable: total winners in all regards, and, best of all, selling for much less than the typical high-end guitar. PRICE: WL-K, $2,600 list/$2,340 street; WL-JK, $2,300 list/$2,070 street.
The Taylor 12-fret 552ce 12-string also received a lot of attention during its all-too-brief stay in the AG office. Twelve-string guitars are notoriously tricky instruments, particularly in terms of playability and intonation, and it can be hard to find a great one, though Taylor has a good reputation for building playable 12-strings. So it’s satisfying to make the acquaintance of not one, but two new Taylor 12-strings, both equipped with the Expression 2 pickup system and excellent in all aspects. The good news is that the 12-fret 552ce and the 14-fret 858e models produce the gloriously shimmering effects characteristic of the best 12-string examples. The bad news is that choosing one over the other might present a serious dilemma. PRICE: 552ce, $3,398 list/$2,599 street; 858e, $4,378 MSRP/$3,399 street.
Playing the Breedlove Journey Concert, you’re reminded of the depth of sound that a set of Dalbergia nigra—or Brazilian rosewood—back and sides lends to a steel-string acoustic guitar (the guitar features a solid Sitka top). The bass notes have an unmistakable oomph, as if the guitar is outfitted with a subwoofer, and overall, the guitar has a lush, ringing sound that makes putting it down a challenging proposition. Brazilian rosewood guitars of any constructional style are getting harder and more expensive to come by. Thanks to the Journey Concert’s onboard electronics—LR Baggs Anthem TRU-MIC, combining a miniature microphone with a piezo pickup—the guitar sounds warm and detailed. The guitar is highly recommended for anyone wanting to get in the door with a guitar made from this precious tonewood—while it’s still available on a new instrument. PRICE: $5,332 list/$3,999 street.
If you haven’t played a Takamine of late, give the company another look. The Takamine EF75M TT is a limited-edition series based on the company’s popular EF75S model (which had Brazilian rosewood back and sides). The new OM model has a thermally treated solid spruce top, and Madagascar rosewood back and sides. Add abalone purfling and flame-maple binding and this impressive-sounding guitar can also boast about its good looks. Equipped with Takamine’s Line Driver electronics. PRICE: $6,659/list; $3,999 street.
Spending a few minutes with the Gibson J-45 Vintage, with its torrefied Adirondack spruce top and mahogany back and sides, it’s easy to understand why this guitar is known affectionately as the Workhorse. It’s got a brawny, but balanced voice and is just as friendly to fingerpicking as it is to flatpicking. This iteration, introduced this year along with a Vintage Hummingbird, Vintage L-00, and a Vintage SJ-200, is particularly strong in the departments of warmth, resonance, and projection. In fact, it just might be the most satisfying modern J-45 that AG has auditioned, not to mention one of the finest recent production-model acoustics in general. Gibson is making some of the best flattops in its long history—guitars that sound convincingly like their legendary wartime counterparts, but play even better. PRICE: $5,190 list/$3,999 street.
MONEY IS NO OBJECT
($5,000 and up)
The Rayco Squareneck Resophonic is made from the most exquisite maple, quilted and fiddle-back, the three-dimensional figuring of which pops under a rich, hand-rubbed sunburst finish. The body, neck, and headstock are trimmed with natural-colored curly maple binding, and the gleaming Art Deco-style hardware lends a nice counterpoint to the woody proceedings. And this Canadian-built instrument sounds even better than it looks. The instrument has a tone that’s warm and brilliant at the same time, drenched with harmonic color. It’s an impressively loud and lively instrument, and when you pick it, it almost sounds like multiple guitars played at once. PRICE: $3,700 direct ($5,200 as reviewed).
At Brooklyn-based DDK Guitars, luthier Dan Krugman specializes in crafting three archtop styles: the 14-inch Archtop, 16-inch Modern, and 16-inch Concept. The inspiration for Krugman’s Archtop is the small-bodied, budget-conscious archtop guitar that was popular among 1930s and 1940s folk and blues players. The cheaply made original didn’t get much respect in its day, so Krugman has lavished his update with care. “I do everything with this guitar that I’d do on a larger guitar,” he says. It’s small for an archtop—most are about 17 or 18 inches—but any archtop guitar will project well, he adds, “because archtops were [originally] designed to compete with brass instruments in jazz ensembles.” PRICE: $4,500–$5,000.
The Big Hollow Plainsman Double 0—Adirondack spruce top; Honduran rosewood back and sides; ebony bridge—has perfect intonation and a voice that’s warmer and richer than those of the vintage instruments that inspired it. Big Hollow is the brainchild of Bevan Frost, a luthier in his mid-30s who doesn’t build a ton of instruments in his Frisco, Colorado, workshop—only about eight guitars a year—but focuses instead on stellar craftsmanship. Frost’s guitars tend to have small bodies inspired by the old school, with features such as hide-glue construction and pyramid bridges. The Plainsman pairs a concert-size 12-fret 00 body with a long-scale neck, 25.4 inches. It strikes just the right balance between the historic and the modern in an awesome little package that’s damn near impossible to put down once you fingerpick a few chords on it. PRICE: $6,995.
With the Solomon Phidelity model, New Hampshire luthier Erich Solomon offers his personal take on the classic American archtop. Inspired by the visual and sonic characteristics of Gibson’s early L-5 models—as well as midcentury instruments built by John D’Angelico and James D’Aquisto—the Phidelity is at once classic and modern. It features a wide-grained, hand-carved European spruce top; beveled oval soundhole; solid-brass tailpiece; and shapely back, also carved. There are clean lines and elegant curves everywhere you look—front, back, outside, and inside. The Phidelity has a complex voice. Individual notes seem to have an abundance of overtones, while the fundamentals remain strong and clear. Simple chords sound rich and perfectly tuned. Extended harmonies also benefit from these overtones and true intonation. It is remarkably responsive to varied flatpicking techniques and to different types of picks, as well as to various fingerpicking techniques. PRICE: $6,249.
Boost Your Tonal Palette
It’s the nightclub bouncer of guitars. Like any six-string baritone guitar, the Taylor 326e Baritone—tuned a perfect fourth lower than standard—sits between the register of a standard guitar and a bass guitar, and not always gracefully. Your go-to chord-melody arrangements might sound murky. But dig deeper and experiment both with repertoire and register, and you’ll soon begin to appreciate the tonal possibilities inherent in this nicely executed modern baritone with its throaty low voice. Simply put, despite a 27-inch scale length—1.6 inches longer than the standard dreadnought or OM scale, and 2.1 longer than a short scale—it feels natural to play the 326e. Grand Symphony size; solid mahogany top; solid sapele back and sides; ebony bridge; satin finish; Expression System 2 electronics. PRICE: $2,318 list/$1,799 street.
Much like a 12-string, the Michael Kelley Triad 10E is a ten-string guitar that features courses of doubled strings, except on the low strings, which do away with the 12’s typical octave strings. Why? This format offers players a guitar that has much of a 12-string’s special charm, but with more clarity, better articulation, and enhanced playing range. Also, the affordable Triad’s normal-sized headstock is far less likely to dive—or require extra work from your left hand to keep it balanced. And the Triad will fit in a gigbag that fits a six-string. But these ergonomic and technical bits aren’t what the Triad 10 is about: It’s about offering players a new format for play and creativity—this unique guitar blends the low-end clarity and punch of a six-string’s lower strings with the best of the chime and chorus effect of a 12-string’s unison and octave pairs. Bass runs over chord comps, in particular, take on an entirely new flavor. Solid spruce top; three-piece back with flamed okoume and ovangkol; flamed okoume sides; Fishman Sonitone pickup and preamp. PRICE: $580 MSRP/$399 street.
The Kala Guitarlele is a fun instrument to have around and it’s a perfect instrument for guitarists who want ukulele sounds but don’t want to learn ukulele chords. Available in mahogany and koa, the Kala Guitarlele is a ¼-size guitar that serves as a cross between a nylon-string classical and a baritone uke. Its mahogany top, back, and sides produce a warm tone and the deep body delivers considerable volume. If you’re searching for a hybrid instrument to lend a touch of uke sound (but with those familiar guitar chords), the Kala Guitarlele is worth a try. PRICE: $224.99 MSRP (mahogany); $429.99 MSRP (koa); $70 more with built-in electronics.
ALL AMPED UP
The Fender Acoustic Pro and the Acoustic SFX look completely different from any previous Fender amplifier, let alone any acoustic amp on the market. Taken together, they’re like Mutt and Jeff, the SFX being tall relative to the short and squat Pro. Each is housed in a molded plywood cabinet, stained in a butterscotch color, calling to mind stylish, midcentury modern furniture. Not only is this design cool-looking, it’s said to increase the amps’ responsiveness and projection. The Acoustic Pro is the more straightforward of the duo. This 200-watt amp has one 12-inch Fender Special Design speaker and a horn tweeter. Each of its two identical channels has a combination XLR/quarter-inch input (making it, of course, a mini PA system); volume and reverb controls; four EQ controls, low, mid-frequency, mid-level; and high; and a phase switch, for attenuating feedback. As its name suggests, the Acoustic SFX (that’s Stereo Field Expansion technology) is geared more toward the electro-acoustic guitarist. This 2×80-watt amp is tricked out with an eight-inch low-frequency driver, a high-frequency tweeter, and a side-radiating six-inch speaker, plus the horn tweeter. To put it another way, the amp has a wide field of sound—unlike a traditional amp, on which sound is projected forward. The two-channel SFX has the same basic controls as its portlier counterpart, except the EQ section includes only a single mid control and adds an effects level. Each channel has buttons for engaging four effects—two delay types, a chorus, and a vibrato effect. PRICE: Acoustic Pro, $999.99 street; Acoustic SFX $899.99.
The Bud by Henriksen is intended for anything with a pickup or microphone, and is well suited to acoustic guitars, delivering a natural sound. The small combo amp is a nine-inch cube and weighs only 17 lbs., making it easy to transport to a gig, especially handy for a musician who travels frequently by subway or air. Its chassis, which is made from Baltic birch, feels rugged and durable, as does the amp’s handle. A top-mounted control panel is easy to navigate. There are two channels, each with a combination quarter-inch/XLR jack, gain, and volume controls, a five-control EQ section, and a reverb control. The channels are fully independent, making the Bud quite flexible. You could plug an electric-acoustic guitar into one channel and a vocal microphone into the other, or a guitar into one and a backing track on an iPhone into the other. AG was impressed by the loudness and fullness that emerged from the amp’s 6.5-inch Eminence Beta speaker. The 135-watt amp is certainly powerful enough for many ensemble situations, though its optional extension cabinet ($499) might come in handy for playing with a heavy-handed drummer. PRICE: $999 direct.
The JazzKat TomKat is a whole lot of amp in a small and lightweight package. It measures 15x15x9 and is only 16 lbs. Overall the amp is rugged and roadworthy, though its handle feels a little insubstantial, as do the mini-toggle switches for the Master Phase and Tweeter controls and for switching the assignment of the built-in effects between the two channels. Each of the channels includes a gain control and five-band EQ. Channel 1 has a standard quarter-inch instrument input, while Channel 2’s input will accept either a quarter-inch plug or an XLR. This means that you can plug a guitar into Channel 1 and a microphone into Channel 2, making the amp a mini-PA system. Channel 1 has a cool feature: a single 12AX7 tube that can be switched on or off, giving the user the benefit of getting both a solid-state and tube sounds in one convenient package. At 200 watts RMS, it’s more than robust enough to fill a medium-size club and to cut through drums and bass for ensemble playing, and it’s relatively noiseless to boot. The EQ controls have fairly wide sweeps, and the tweeter can be switched to Hi, Low, or Off, meaning that the amp can easily be optimized for any guitar electronics system. PRICE: $1,499 list/$1,099 street.
In developing the black-matted, passive magnetic soundhole pickup known as The Black Angel—the cousin to The Angel, its active counterpart—DiMarzio sought to create a magnetic pickup that reproduces the exact sound of an acoustic guitar. The New York-based company, which built its reputation with stellar electric-guitar pickups, concluded that “the most important characteristic for an acoustic pickup is [that] it should sound and feel good. The sound part is obvious. The pickup has to ‘hear’ the entire range of the acoustic guitar from top to bottom, with no gaps anywhere. The ‘feel’ is just as important. It has to track your right- and left-hand dynamics, and respond immediately to the sound coming off the string.” Mission accomplished. Recommended for acoustic guitars with 3 ½ inch (89 mm) or larger soundhole using bronze or steel strings. PRICE: $169.99 street.
Jason “Krivo” Flores balked at spending his income as a touring Gypsy jazz guitarist and upright bassist on magnetic pickups, so he decided to make his own. As Flores improved his designs, his one-man shop in Portland, Oregon, started filling orders from players. Fast-forward a couple of years and his handsome Krivo Nuevo Single Coil and Krivo Django Bucker pickups have developed a strong following and a good reputation among Manouche-style jazz guitarists. The single-coil Nuevo is closer in concept and tone to the pickups that Django Reinhardt used and has a narrower profile than the Django Bucker, so it takes up a little less right-hand real-estate. But the Django Bucker is the more innovative design of the two. While it cuts the 60-cycle hum that’s a part of every single-coil pickup, the Django Bucker isn’t made like a traditional dual-coil humbucker. To keep weight and size down, the Django Bucker instead uses two small single-coils in the same housing, wired like a humbucker to eliminate the background hum. The Django Bucker also has adjustable pole pieces, so you can balance the string-to-string volume to your liking. PRICE: Django Bucker, $229; Nuevo Coil, $169.
TUNERS & TRACKERS
Bluetooth technology comes to the humble hygrometer. D’Addario introduces Humiditrak, a Bluetooth-sensor that communicates between your guitar case, where all manner of humidity highs and lows can be found, and your smartphone (either iOS or Android). The device can alert you when the temperature or humidity levels drop above or below the optimal range, before the hot or cool, or dry or wet microclimates can start causing damage to your prized acoustic guitar. The easy-to-install device can deliver hourly, daily, and monthly data reports. PRICE: $78.95 list/$47.99 street.
The TC Electronic PolyTune clip-on guitar tuner snaps onto the headstock, and incorporates features found in its bigger pedal-board cousin. (You can tune in both chromatic and stroboscopic mode.) When attached, the tuner can be tucked in toward the headstock, but cannot be pivoted toward the player (like a Snark). That might be a deal breaker for some. But the PolyTune has a certain charm—in fact, in strobe mode, it is accurate to +/- 0.02-cent sensitivity. PRICE: $49.99.
The D’Addario NS Micro Soundhole Tuner can be attached to the inside edge of the soundhole on most guitars (as long as there’s no bracing to get in the way) creating an alternative to headstock clip-on tuners that may be unsightly. The easy-to-read, green-and-red LED indicates whether the note is sharp or flat. You do the rest. PRICE: $15.99 street.
Paul Mehling, Adam Perlmutter, Greg Olwell, and Doug Young contributed to this article.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.