The old saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover” may be overused, but it’s a good analogy when it comes to distressed guitars, like the Pre-War Guitars Model-HD seen here. Some folks will be turned off by distressing or antiquing—the process of making a new instrument look much older than it is. Why and who would do such a thing to a new, and in this case expensive, guitar and risk being labeled a poseur?
I’ve had these thoughts, too. But what if you didn’t know the instrument was a “fake,” and just heard the sounds it made when played by a talented player? How would you judge it then? What if Molly Tuttle, Tommy Emmanuel, and Eli West were seen and heard playing distressed guitars? Would we call them poseurs?
All of these master musicians have played instruments from Pre-War Guitars, a small North Carolina shop offering acoustic guitars made to look, sound, and feel like flattops of the 1930s and 1940s. These are not just big names, but players who care deeply about sound and feel. Tuttle is quoted on the company’s website, enthusing, “This is the best new guitar I have ever played,” as is Emmanuel, who raves, “You have exceeded my expectations . . . and they were high.” I don’t think either player is worried about being labeled a poseur.
Who Is Pre-War?
Wes Lambe and Ben Maschal started Pre-War Guitars in 2014, after decades of repairing and researching both old and new guitars. Lambe was known for building seven- and eight-string fanned-fret guitars for clients including David Crosby, Charlie Hunter, Pat Metheny, and Nels Cline. After becoming obsessed with acoustic instruments as a teenager, Maschal graduated from the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in 2001, then went to work building and repairing guitars in his garage. He later gained a reputation for his vintage-instrument expertise during his time working for mandolin guru Tony Williamson. Lambe and Maschal connected through a deep passion for prewar instruments, and so they began their company to make new interpretations of the play-worn guitars they loved, with a few slight updates to help the instruments live long, healthy lives.
Pre-War sent a model HD (herringbone dreadnought) to AG, and I knew something was up when I saw the Harptone hardshell case. Established in 1886, Harptone made the cobble-grained cases often found with vintage guitars from Martin, Gibson, Guild, and others. My editor, Greg Olwell, told me nothing about the guitar, so as he opened the case, I thought I was looking at an authentic prewar Martin. The wear marks from many years of picking had a natural arc that you would expect from a player’s picking hand. The checking of the nitrocellulose finish seemed to have resulted from a long, slow process.
It wasn’t until I looked at the back of the guitar that things seemed a little askew. There were a couple of small dings in the back, but no real belt rash or other signs of age. The lightly finished neck was smooth as butter and the ebony fretboard had no pits or wear.
One key difference that breaks from Pre-War’s vintage replica concept is the addition of an adjustable truss rod. Martin, whose D-28 clearly serves as this guitar’s model, wouldn’t feature a truss rod on its guitars until 1985, and few would argue that an adjustable truss rod isn’t a massive improvement over previous designs that used an ebony rod (introduced mid-1920s), a T-bar (late-1934), or square-shaped steel tube (1967).
I dove in with some single-string lines and basic cowboy chords, and noticed immediately that the HD has a pronounced growl, with a midrange crunchiness complemented by a deep bass that’s clear and never boomy. I play mostly fingerpicked blues on smaller-bodied guitars, but I instantly fell in love with the deep, rich tone of this Brazilian rosewood guitar. The mids and deep bass do not take anything away from the sparkle of the treble, which shines through so clearly.
I played some bluegrass runs, as well as Hank Garland’s “Sugarfoot Rag,” and was impressed with the overall balance between treble and bass—each note sounded precise, even, and bold. The neck’s light finish makes it smooth and easy to navigate. Pre-War calls its profile a 1937 C-to-V shape. What starts as a C shape at the nut transitions to a soft V around the sixth fret, becoming more pronounced towards the 12th fret. This transition feels subtle to my hand. Also, I found that the 1-3/4-inch nut and 2-5/16-inch string-spring at the bridge gave ample room for fingerstyle excursions, such as John Fahey’s “Last Steam Engine Train.”
Even more of the HD’s lush bass tones were brought out in open-D tuning (D A D F# A D). I wore a slide, using Tampa Red’s “Boogie Woogie Dance” as a springboard for some bottleneck fun. An alternating bass played between strings 6 and 4 on the HD sounded like a train chugging down the tracks.
When I realized the guitar I was playing was new, I had the same the knee-jerk reaction I assume many of AG readers will also have: this has been faked! But it sounded so good and played so well, I wondered how much distressing has to do with it. Would this guitar sound just as good without the faux playwear?
Lambe claims that in addition to using a very thin layer of nitrocellulose lacquer, that the finish checking—the process by which fine cracks form on the surface of the lacquer as the guitar ages—opens the guitar up for increased tonal projection. Also, the simulated pick wear does a similar job by scraping off more of the finish. Okay, I’ll buy that. Without an identical guitar that has not been distressed it would be hard to qualify the differences. I have to rely on my subjective instincts and the grin on my face as I dig into a few more licks.
Which Level Is Right for You?
Pre-War offers four levels of distressing. Level 1, New Old Stock, replicates the look and feel of an old guitar that has spent most of its life in a case. The finish is checked but has no added play wear. With Level 2, Well Loved, Well Played, the checked finish shows some sign of pick and elbow wear on the soundboard. Our test guitar was antiqued to Level 3, The Road Warrior, meant to approximate a guitar that has spent 60 years on the road, with more wear near the soundhole and generally on the top of the guitar. Level 4 takes it even further—not quite as worn as “Trigger,” Willie Nelson’s famously worn nylon-string companion, but with considerable wear over the top.
Lambe told me about an experiment he did with his distressed guitars. He would place them in stores next to new guitars and watch to see which instruments customers would play. More often than not they were drawn to the aged-looking guitar: the Pre-War. That makes sense, as there is a certain mojo to an old instrument, a vibe that it has been down the road and seen some things.
However, would there not be an equal reaction of revulsion when the player finds out the guitar she is playing is a fake? Maybe, but if you are playing one of these Pre-War guitars by then it’s too late: You’re probably hooked. The $8,295 price may seem steep, but this is the Brazilian rosewood version of the guitar. Pre-War also offers the Model D, with mahogany back and sides, for $4,995, right in the ballpark for a boutique guitar made in a small shop. Also available is the International HD ($5,495), which uses granadillo in place of Brazilian rosewood.
There are guitars we play and love, even though they may not have everything we want, and then there are guitars that provide a benchmark for how good a guitar can sound. I have played a few Martins from the 1930s, and I own a 1933 Martin 0-18. My main observation of these old guitars is that they sound complete. There is nothing I would change. I feel the same way about this Pre-War.
I have come across a few distressed guitars that didn’t pass the muster. When one detail is wrong, it can throw the whole vibe off. If you are going the commit to the process of distressing you have to do it right. Pre-War did it right.
Body Torrefied Adirondack spruce top with torrefied spruce bracing; CITES Brazilian rosewood back and sides; herringbone binding; ebony bridge with bone nut and unslotted bone bridge pins; distressed nitrocellulose finish
Neck 25.4″-scale Honduran mahogany with 1937 C-to-V shape; ebony fretboard with abalone diamonds and squares long pattern position inlays; 1-3/4″-wide bone nut; 2-5/16″ string spacing at bridge; Brazilian rosewood headplate; Gotoh tuners
Other Harptone hardshell case; D’Addario EJ17 phosphor bronze medium-gauge strings (.013–.056); available left-handed; shade-top finish; limited lifetime warranty
Made in USA
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.