By Adam Perlmutter
The Plainsman looks like a non-descript vintage blues box but plays like a million bucks
Imagine Blind Willie Johnson evangelizing on a dusty street corner in the east-central Texas of the 1930s, a small-bodied blues box in his arms. He could have been playing Big Hollow’s Plainsman Double-0, if the guitar had existed back then. That’s how much the Plainsman looks like the kind of instrument bluesman were drawn to back in the old days: nice narrow waist, slotted headstock, and a deep, dark, sunburst finish.
The difference: This new guitar has perfect intonation and a voice that’s warmer and richer than those of the vintage instruments that inspired the Plainsman Double 0. 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.
Echoes of the Golden Era
Big Hollow Guitars 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 review model of the Plainsman pairs a concert-size 12-fret 00 body with a long-scale neck, 25.4 inches. Aficionados of vintage instruments will appreciate that the guitar, like most Big Hollows, has an advanced X-braced soundboard of Adirondack spruce. It’s the wood—known for its lightness and sonic power—that was used in the construction of most prewar Martins and Gibsons, but which is now much rarer, mainly because supply is limited.
I remove the Plainsman Double 0 from its Hiscox molded case and I’m struck by its lightness—about 4 pounds—and luxuriousness. The carefully applied oil-varnish finish looks and feels elegant. Frost initially used the oil-varnish finish for health reasons, as it’s much less toxic to work with than nitrocellulose lacquer, but he’s come to favor its cosmetic attributes—it is softer and more durable than nitro—as well as its musical benefits. He says it tames the harsh trebles of new guitars.
Frost builds all of his guitars with the fingerstylist in mind, and the Plainsman is a winner for playing country blues, ragtime, and chord-melody-style jazz, whether in standard or alternate tunings. The guitar’s overall voice is great. Frost has somehow managed to make it feel and sound old right off the bat—with a sense of immediacy in the response; surprising dynamics and projection; and a warm, complex tone, well-balanced between fundamentals and harmonics as well as among the registers. The sound will most likely get better as the guitar is broken in and the wood ages.
The Plainsman responds well when played with a pick, too. Using a BlueChip TP50, I strum some open-position chords and it takes very little pick-hand force to create a robust accompaniment. Strummed more energetically, the sound blossoms, without the breakup associated with lesser guitars. And the Plainsman delivers the most complex chords equally as well. Harmonies involving clusters have excellent note separation and definition; coupled with an impressive sustain, the little guitar almost sounds like a piano.
The Plainsman plays as well as it sounds. Its satin-finished neck has a modern C profile, just ample enough, and the fretboard features medium-jumbo gold EVO wire, which looks and feels great. The setup is perfect, with an action that’s neither too elevated nor too slinky, and not a buzz or unwanted noise to be found anywhere on the neck. Should the neck require adjustment, a handmade, double-action truss rod by the luthier Mark Blanchard has a smooth action and should prove reliable.
The guitar also has a lovely design that’s packed with special details. In place of celluloid binding is reddish-orange bloodwood, which offers a nice counterpoint to the dark edges of the soundboard and inkiness of the ebony fretboard. The bold herringbone trim on the edges of the top and on the rosette looks sharp, as do the matte-brass Rubner tuners with rosewood buttons. To cap things off, on the ebony headstock face, Frost inlaid a cross section of juniper—a nice use of a local species.
At nearly $7,000, the Plainsman Double 0 is prohibitively expensive for many players. But for a guitar that some modern luthiers might charge tens of thousands for, it’s not unreasonably priced. Any skilled player looking for the ultimate fingerstyle guitar would be remiss not to consider a Big Hollow—before Frost’s wait list grows interminably long and his prices shoot even higher.
Adirondack spruce top
Honduran rosewood back and sides
25.4-inch scale length
D’Addario EJ11 strings (.012–.053)
Hiscox Artist series hardshell case
$6,995 as reviewed
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Adam Perlmutter transcribes, arranges, and engraves music for numerous publications. adamperlmutter.com.