From the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER (Video by Pete Madsen)
A couple of years ago, Adam Buchwald, the luthier behind the Vermont-based Circle Strings, realized he had a small problem. He had no difficulty selling his custom steel-string guitars and mandolins, priced at $4,000 and up, but as he recently told AG contributing writer Nick Millevoi (see Makers & Shakers in the February 2019 issue), he felt bad that most of the working musicians he knew could not afford them.
To address this problem, Buchwald started a new brand, the Iris Guitar Company, and designed a no-frills guitar that would be easier to produce while sounding and playing just as well as a Circle Strings instrument. With the price point of $1,999 in mind, the luthier did away with the pearl ornamentation, pore filler, and high-gloss finish of a Circle Strings guitar—details that require a considerable time investment to do cleanly—and he also opted for a two-piece neck instead of his standard one-piece.
For these instruments, Buchwald also settled on a single slope-shouldered body shape, which he dubbed OG, inspired by Gibson’s X-braced LG guitars. The body is designed to appeal to a wide range of players. It’s deeper at the tailblock than an LG, for enhanced bass response. For the fretboard, Buchwald settled on a 25-inch scale length—easy to measure, comfortable for the fretting hand, and right in between Gibson’s shorter 24.75-inch scale and Martin’s standard 25.4-inch.
With the help of his employees, Nick Durkee and Bobby Webb (soon to be joined by Dale Fairbanks of Fairbanks Guitars), Buchwald hand-makes each Iris OG with quality woods: a Carpathian or Sitka soundboard with non-scalloped Adirondack spruce braces and Honduran (or African) mahogany back and sides, naturally all solid. Instead of ebony or rosewood, he uses katalox for the fretboard and bridge, which means the guitar can be shipped internationally without issue. To keep things simple, Buchwald limits the options to a natural, sunburst, or black finish; a mahogany top; and an electric version with a Curtis Novak P-90 pickup. I checked out the base model Iris OG and found it to be a winner in every respect.
A Superb Player
Being a sucker for a good glossy lacquer finish and tasteful mother-of-pearl decorations, it was slightly underwhelming to remove the Iris from its included lightweight Gator polyfoam case for the first time. The satin finish and absence of pore filler felt a bit less refined than what I’m accustomed to. But it was immediately clear that the guitar was a top-notch instrument, and I thought nothing more of the missing bling after playing the OG for just a few minutes.
The Iris’ terrific-feeling neck, with a perfect rounded-C profile that’s .880 at the first fret, split the difference between skinny modern and vintage hefty. Buzz-free and set up with low action, the neck was nice and easy in all positions, and the satin finish gave it a smooth and fast feel. Though the nut is 1-11/16 inches wide, as opposed to the 1-3/4-inch nut many players prefer, the neck isn’t noticeably narrow, and it doesn’t feel cramped for fretting chords or for fingerpicking.
The OG body size is super comfortable, too. Though my personal preference is for an OM, I felt right at home on the Iris. This lightweight guitar seems to float on the lap, and it feels well balanced between its body and
its headstock. The body’s satin finish feels inviting as well, without any of the stickiness under the forearm (and the accompanying finish clouding) that’s par for the course with gloss-finished instruments.
It might be a cliché, but in this case, it’s true: The Iris sounds every bit as good as it feels and plays—far beyond any vintage LG I’ve tried. Overall, it has a warm and dry voice, with an impressive midrange response. It takes equally well to being strummed with a pick or fingerpicked, in standard or open tunings, and it has a generous amount of headroom and projection.
I had the pleasure of using the Iris in preparing some of this issue’s notation, and the guitar sounded terrific in the various contexts covered in these pages. When I played through Fred Sokolow’s Basics lesson on the minor pentatonic scale (see page 40), using a BlueChip TP50 pick, the guitar had an appealing bark and presence, and it felt easy to bend the strings. For Richard Thompson’s “She Twists the Knife Again” (page 54), with its aggressive hybrid picking, the notes had excellent clarity and assertiveness.
To put it another way, the Iris has a wonderfully adaptive voice, and it’s easy to see how it will appeal to musicians of all genres, whether for accompaniment, lead work, or for ensemble or solo performance.
The Bottom Line
If this Iris OG is any indication, Adam Buchwald has hit the nail on the head with respect to creating a relatively affordable handcrafted guitar for the working musician. Although it’s true that the Iris Guitar Company faces formidable competition from other US makers offering guitars with similar styling and price points—Martin’s 15 series and Collings’ Waterloo line come to mind—Iris has the distinction of being made in a much smaller shop, by a single builder and his two colleagues. It’s an almost unheard-of value in a market where a luthier-made new guitar can easily cost ten grand.
BODY OG body (14-3/8″ lower bout, 11-1/4″ upper bout, 19-1/4″ long); Carpathian or Sitka spruce top with red spruce non-scalloped X-braces and scalloped tone bars; Honduran or African mahogany back and sides; tortoise pickguard; open-pore satin nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK 14-fret 25″-scale mahogany neck with scarfed headstock joint and glued-up heel. Full C-shape profile; two-way adjustable truss rod; mortise-and-tenon bolt-on neck joint; katalox fretboard with 1/16″ plastic dot position markers; 1-11/16″ nut; nickel Grover Sta-Tite tuners; satin nitrocellulose lacquer finish
OTHER Bone nut and compensated saddle; katalox bridge with 2-5/32″ spacing; white plastic bridge pins; D’Addario EJ16 strings (.012–.053); Gator polyfoam case
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MADE IN USA
PRICE $1,999 direct (as reviewed); $2,250 direct (sunburst option), $2,750 direct (OG-e with custom-wound Curtis Novak P-90 pickup)
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.