From the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER
At first blush, Martin’s LE Cowboy 2016 seems more whimsical than serious. The guitar’s soundboard is emblazoned with an image of a bronco-riding cowboy, his ten-gallon Stetson thrown high into the air. This effect calls to mind the toy and budget guitars of the 1930s and ’40s, stenciled with Western themes.
But my impression of the Cowboy takes a sharp turn when I actually play it. The instrument has all the hallmarks of a great 000: a brilliant, piano-like response and a sound that’s distributed evenly across the frequency spectrum, from clear, generous trebles to rock-solid bass notes. I even warm up to the guitar’s artwork, courtesy of William Matthews, known for his watercolors depicting ranch life. His whimsical design makes the guitar just a little more fun to play.
A Well-Rounded Champ
The Cowboy is built on Martin’s 12-fret 000, or auditorium platform, which many players consider the ultimate fingerstyle guitar. This test model does not disappoint in that capacity. Whether I’m playing an arrangement of a Scott Joplin rag or a Celtic piece in drop-D tuning, the Cowboy feels dynamically responsive to the pick hand. The guitar has a vivid and pretty voice and it sounds broken-in, likely owing to the fretboard’s torrefied Vintage Tone System (VTS) treatment: the Adirondack spruce soundboard has essentially been cooked under pressure, transforming its cellular structure such that it behaves and looks like the wood on a prewar guitar.
Single-note flatpicked lines sound terrific on the Cowboy, with plenty of brawn and definition in all registers and a light natural reverb to boot. The guitar responds favorably to strumming as well. It has a decent amount of headroom for a small-bodied instrument and sounds just as good when treated to cowboy chords in the Carter style as it does for four-to-the-bar jazz comping with closed-position seventh chords. It’s definitely a well-rounded performer at home in a range of styles.
The Cowboy is a beautifully made and lovely sounding 000 that is worthy of any serious guitarist.
A Luxurious Cowboy
I’ve been consistently impressed by the playability of all the new Martins I’ve tried in recent years, and the Cowboy is no exception to this trend. The neck features the modified low oval profile, which is one of Martin’s most comfortable standard shapes. This profile, paired with a satin neck finish, feels sleek and fast—and generally non-straining on the fret hand. A Plek treatment, or computerized fret leveling, also contributes to the smooth playability.
The instrument is dialed in perfectly.
I’ve also been wowed by the craftsmanship on recent Martins, and the Cowboy is one superlatively built guitar from stem to stern. The gloss finish on the body is perfectly polished and free from any imperfections. The box’s interior aspects have been tended to with great care—there are no rough surfaces, glue gobs, or tooling marks. I can’t find any flaws at all on the instrument.
In addition to the soundboard design, the Cowboy 2016 is brimming with special details. The slotted headstock has an ebony headplate, decorated with a mother-of-pearl saddle inlay. Engraved Golden Age Relic tuners with ivoroid knobs lend a nice old-school effect to the headstock. The rope purfling and back strip are similar to that used on Martin’s Style 30 guitars, from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. This pattern, incorporating multi-
colored wood fiber, adds a subtle bit of eye candy to the guitar. Also, the mahogany used for the back and sides is dramatically quilted, instead of the usual straight-grained stuff.
Martin’s LE Cowboy 2016 clearly isn’t a guitar for everyone. Some players will not appreciate the bucking-bronco artwork, and purists might be put off by the guitar’s simple dovetail neck joint, rather than Martin’s traditional dovetail, which is considered sonically superior. But the Cowboy is a beautifully made and lovely sounding 000 that is worthy of any serious guitarist.
And, with a limited run through the end of 2016, it’s an instant collectible for the diehard Martin fan or lovers of Western lore.
At a Glance
Martin LE Cowboy 2016
Auditorium 12-fret 000 size
Adirondack top with VTS
Quilted mahogany back and sides
Bone fingerboard and nut
1 3/4-inch nut
Golden Age Relic nickel side-mount tuners
Martin SP Lifespan 92/8 Phosphor Bronze Light (MSP7100) strings (12–56)
Ply hardshell case
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This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.