From the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG OLWELL
DEMOS BY DAVE RICKETTS
The dreadnought is big. Outside of its portly proportions, this form remains a top-seller a century after its birth. For all of the talk about how fun it is to play parlor guitars and other small-bodied instruments, the dreadnought still casts a tall shadow across the landscape.
That is why we decided to look at this perennial guitar at its most popular—and competitive—price point. We invited guitar makers to submit their best examples selling for under $500. Naturally, some models run right up against this dollar limit, but most of these companies have offerings with lower costs or other features. (Editor’s note: The price on the Taylor Academy 10 changed between our review and press time. It is now $549.)
The makers assembled here—Breedlove, Eastman, Epiphone, Martin, Seagull, Takamine, Taylor, and Yamaha—have either distilled the essence of the classic dreadnought in a new design or used its form as a canvas for experimenting with woods, finishes, and contemporary features like cutaways and electronics.
After spending hours with these beasts, I can safely say that what you can take home for around $500 these days is remarkable—a far cry from the subpar budget offerings of yesteryear. Every guitar has unimpeachable fretwork, quality hardware, and a setup that is ready to go from the first strum. All sound huge and respond best to a flatpick or fingerpicks. They like to be driven powerfully, which makes a lot of sense, as guitarists clamoring for loudness originally dictated the dreadnought’s large size.
Not every one of these guitars is perfect for every player—you have to find an instrument that speaks to you—but this group shows that there are ample options for an affordable dreadnought that you can rely on for years of inspiration and fun.
Classic Dreadnought Specs
From 12-fret bodies, to shifting internal braces, to cutaways, the framework of the dreadnought has lived through many variations. Below are the typical specs for a 14-fret D-shape guitar.
Scale length 25.4″
Nut width 1-11/16″ or 1-3/4″
Bridge string spacing 2-1/8”
Body length 20″
Lower bout width 15-5/8″
Body depth 4-7/8″
Breedlove Pursuit Dreadnought E
With its dark, richly figured sapele top and abalone rosette inlay, the glossy Pursuit is an eye-catching guitar that does its own thing in the dreadnought format. The plastic tortoiseshell binding around the body adds an elegant touch that helps set it apart.
Having a not-too-slender and not-too-chubby okoume neck, the Breedlove’s neck was one of my favorites of this roundup. It’s also one of the heaviest guitars in this group, likely due to its robust construction and onboard electronics.
Playing similar instruments made from different woods can sometimes feel like using different EQ settings on your stereo. In this case, the Breedlove’s solid sapele top seemed to lend less of a midrange cut than the typical spruce soundboard, leaving me with a full-range tone, from low-end thrust to high-end sparkle. This thick, even sound was conveyed nicely through a Henriksen Bud combo amp.
Body Solid sapele top; layered sapele back and sides; East Indian rosewood bridge with bone saddle, gloss finish
Neck 25.5″ scale okoume neck with 20-fret East Indian rosewood fingerboard, 1.75″ wide nut, chrome open-gear tuners
Electronics Fishman ISYS+ USB with USB port
Other D’Addario EXP16 coated phosphor-bronze strings (.012–.053), gig bag
Pricing $499 (MAP)
Made in China, breedlovemusic.com
With its plain appointments, matte finish, and lack of pickguard, the AC120 really nails the workhorse dreadnought vibe. Eastman cut its teeth by raising standards in the violin-family world, and they’ve shown the same dedication to building smart-looking flattop guitars out of fine tonewoods since jumping into this competitive field a few years ago.
The AC120’s setup and feel were buttery smooth. The string heights allowed all of the notes to ring freely up and down the neck and the generously proportioned C-shape neck felt plush to my hands. The only improvement I could want would be a softer edge on the top’s binding, which dug into my picking hand’s forearm.
With a hearty scoop taken from the mids, the Eastman’s big bass and lacey treble came closest to vintage dreadnought tone. Dropping to open-G tuning and fingerpicking through some easy slack-key pieces produced a massive sound, not unlike, say, a church organ.
Body Solid Sitka spruce top with laminated sapele back and sides; rosewood bridge with bone saddle; black plastic binding
Neck 25.4″-scale mahogany neck with 20-fret rosewood fingerboard; 1-3/4″ bone nut; pearl dot inlays
Other Padded gig bag; D’Addario EXP16 (.012–.053)
Pricing $550 (MSRP); $439 (street)
Made in China, eastmanguitars.com
Epiphone Masterbilt DR-400MCE
Epiphone recently revived the Masterbilt name from its 1930s heyday. Since then, the company has stormed the affordable guitar scene with contemporary versions of classic archtops, as well as modern flattops that show an extraordinary level of detail. This cutaway dreadnought—the only all-solid-wood offering in our lineup—has a feast of features for the live performer.
The softly sculpted fingerboard edges and plump neck profile were comfortable for long picking sessions. Soloists will dig the cutaway for shenanigans on the higher frets.
Open chords have a big tone with a clear and warm bass, making the Epiphone a strong performer for acoustic playing. Of the guitars with built-in electronics, the Masterbilt had the crispest electric tone, so I found myself using the tone thumbwheel to dial down some piezo zing.
Body Solid Sitka spruce top with solid mahogany back and sides; torrefied FSC-certified blackwood bridge with compensated bone saddle; tortoiseshell pickguard; satin faded cherrysunburst top and natural finish back and sides
Neck D-shape mahogany neck with 20-fret torrified FSC-blackwood fingerboard; 25.5″-scale; 1-11/16″ bone nut; pearloid dot position markers; nickel open-gear tuners
Electronics Shadow NanoFlex undersaddle pickup with eSonic HD preamp
Other Installed strap buttons; Cleartone strings (.012–.053); Hardshell case (optional)
Pricing $665 (MSRP), $399 (street)
Made in China, epiphone.com
Martin Dreadnought Junior A
If the words dreadnought and junior seem incompatible, you probably haven’t played Martin’s somewhat downsized version of its best-selling body type. Given that the company effectively defined the very large body a century ago, it makes sense that this guitar ticks off the boxes that say dreadnought to my eyes. It’s only when you get a little closer that you might notice that the soundhole is a little large to its proportions.
The shorter scale and downsized body of the Dread Jr. didn’t make me miss the full-size guitars. Typical of the excellent work from Martin’s factory in Mexico, the Dreadnought Jr. has a wonderful setup and is easy to play. This may be the guitar for players seeking dreadnought tones from a smaller body.
While the instrument didn’t necessarily have the massive stage-filling output of a full-size guitar, it did produce a solid tone, with a stronger midrange than the other dreadnoughts here. The wood choices and finish also gave it a drier, woodier voice, compared to the brighter timbres of its glossier counterparts.
Body Dreadnought Jr. 14-fret; Sitka spruce top and sapele back and sides; Sitka spruce X-bracing; Richlite bridge with compensated Tusq saddle; faux tortoiseshell pickguard
Neck 24″-scale hardwood neck with 20-fret Richlite fingerboard; 1-3/4″ wide Corian nut; chrome sealed-tuners
Other Soft gig bag; Martin SP Lifespan 92/8 phosphor bronze strings, medium-gauge (.013–.056); available left-handed
Pricing $699 (MSRP); $499 (street)
Made in Mexico, martinguitar.com
Seagull Coastline Momentum
Gorgeous wild cherry back and sides, rounded upper bouts, and a narrow headstock give this cedar-topped, slope-shouldered dreadnought a unique yet classic look. A herringbone rosette and small tortoiseshell pickguard add vintage touches.
While most of the test guitars here go for a close riff on dreadnought neck shapes, as noted in a recent review (June 2017), the Seagull’s thick and wide profile lends itself well to fingerpicking. Paired with the laminated cherry body, you’ve got a rugged guitar that’s built to last.
The Coastline’s acoustic tone was tight and responsive, with more-present midrange frequencies than the mahogany guitars assembled here, not to mention a projective punchiness. The cedar top seemed to mellow and warm the maple-like snap of the cherry back and sides. Run into a Henriksen amp, the Seagull had a warm sound that, while not rich with overtones, was very pleasing and would work great in a group situation, where tones that are more fundamental-heavy excel.
Body Slope-shouldered dreadnought; solid cedar top with laminated wild cherry back and sides; Adirondack spruce bracing; rosewood bridge with compensated TUSQ saddle; high-gloss finish
Neck One-piece silver-leaf maple with satin finish; 21-fret Indian rosewood fingerboard; 25.5″ scale; 1.8″ TUSQ nut; high-ratio sealed tuners
Electronics Fishman Sonitone electronics with volume and tone controls
Pricing $605 (MSRP), $499 (street)
Made in Canada, seagullguitars.com
Elegant appointments like maple headstock, neck, and body binding give Takamine’s GD93 the glamorous appearance of a boutique guitar. The instrument also stands out as the lone contender here with a three-piece back—and an eye-catching one at that—with luxuriously quilted maple wedged between two respectable pieces of rosewood.
Light-gauge strings made the GD93 likely to lure electric players to the acoustic side. Once there, they are bound to be drawn to the shapely, full-bodied neck.
As the only guitar here with rosewood back and sides, the Takamine sounds like it’s jet-propelled. Paired with a solid spruce soundboard, the rosewood might also be able to take credit for shifting the mid-scoop of the standard dreadnought’s smiley-face-EQ tone to the lower-midrange. Think of it as more like a Martin D-35 style than the mahogany D-18 types gathered here.
Body Solid spruce top with laminated rosewood sides; three-piece rosewood/quilted-maple back; maple binding; rosewood bridge with split synthetic-bone saddle; gloss natural finish
Neck Mahogany neck; 21-fret rosewood fingerboard with 12″ radius; maple binding; and dot abalone inlays; 1.6875″ synthetic bone nut; gold tuners with black buttons
Price $738 (MSRP); $479 (street)
Made in China, esptakamine.com
Taylor Academy 10
In our recent review of the Academy 10 (July 2017), we praised the new guitar’s simple styling, which is a result of Taylor’s master luthier Andy Powers taking the Academy series to a more elemental state. The result is a refinement of the important parts into a slightly smaller dreadnought that looks cost-conscious, not cheap.
A guitar with a genuine ebony fingerboard in this price range felt luxurious, as did the Academy’s slender neck and easy-playing setup. The arm bevel is a great touch, especially comforting for my right forearm after playing all of these dreadnoughts.
As a dreadnought should, the Academy really hits its sweet spot when flatpicked. Like the other shrunken dread here (the Martin), it had a less magnified low end. Its voice is crisp, with a punchy, woody midrange and a zingy, singing high end.
Body Solid Sitka spruce top with laminated sapele back and sides; ebony bridge with Micarta saddle; armrest; varnish finish
Neck Mahogany neck; 20-fret ebony fretboard; 24-7/8″ scale length; 1-11/16″ NuBone nut; chrome tuners; matte-varnish finish
Other features Elixir Phosphor Bronze Light strings (.012–.053); gig bag
Pricing $798 (MSRP), $549 (street) (Pricing changed at press time)
Made in Mexico, taylorguitars.com
Yamaha A1M VN
With its glossy, vintage-tinted Sitka spruce top, mahogany binding, and a pickguard that looks like it was taken from a singing cowboy’s guitar 60 years ago, the Yamaha A1M VN exudes a cool, Western vibe. Onboard electronics and dual strap buttons complete the gig-ready setup.
Like every other Yamaha I’ve ever played, the sturdy A1M VN seems ready for a long life of steady use. A satin-finished neck and rolled fingerboard edges gave the A1M a played-in feel that is extra inviting.
While Yamaha built its A series guitars with the stage in mind, it didn’t skimp on the guitar’s acoustic tone—it’s rich and lively like a good dread should be. The company’s easy-to-use pickup system offers lots of tonal flexibility. The sweeping midrange control is very cool for sculpting your sound for different rooms, or to give the guitar a very different amplified voice.
One odd point: the output isn’t muted when the onboard tuner is engaged, leaving the audience to hear you tune up.
Body Solid Sitka spruce top with laminated mahogany back and sides; mahogany binding; Western-style cutaway; rosewood bridge with urea saddle; plastic tortoiseshell pickguard; vintage tint gloss finish
Neck 3-piece mahogany neck with 20-fret rosewood fingerboard; 1.692″ urea nut; chrome sealed tuners
Electronics SRT undersaddle pickup and System72 preamp with tuner, volume, low, high, and selectable mid-frequency controls
Other Two strap buttons; Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 bronze light-gauge strings (.012–.053); soundhole cover
Pricing $815 (MSRP), $499 (street)
Made in China, usa.yamaha.com
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.