From the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Greg Olwell
The power and magic of a prewar steel-string guitar is often reduced to the presence of choice materials like Brazilian rosewood and Adirondack spruce, which were once plentiful but are now difficult to find in any quantity—and nearly impossible to source in the quality that was commonplace in the first half of the 20th century. This has led more than a few guitarists to shop by spec sheet, which doesn’t always work as expected. Sometimes even Adirondack spruce and Brazilian rosewood just don’t deliver dynamic performance on a new guitar, no matter how well-crafted.
There are, however, a few contemporary builders who consistently deliver exceptional-sounding guitars using tonewoods that seem to have been gathered through time travel. Carrying on the work of company founder and namesake Preston K. Thompson, who died April 11, 2019, the small cadre of builders at Preston Thompson Guitars, in Sisters, Oregon, is one of those teams that’s capable of delivering extraordinarily crafted steel-strings time and again, and this Thompson 000-14SBA is one of those fine instruments.
No Expense Spared
Our test model is a 000, auditorium-sized guitar, and as such shares body dimensions with the standard orchestra size but has a shorter (24.9-inch)-scale neck and 1-3/4-inch-wide nut, which may suit fingerpickers or players looking for a little more fretting-hand space. The soundboard is made from the kind of tight-grained Adirondack spruce seen on the finest prewar instruments. And the vintage toner in the top’s finish feels warm and integral, making it look less like a new guitar with a fake tan than one that’s decades old.
The back and sides are made from beautifully grained, colorful Brazilian rosewood, recovered from a ship that sank off the Spanish coast in 1936, as it was delivering the wood to Danish furniture makers. This salvaged Brazilian doesn’t have the straight grain you’d find on, say, a prewar Martin, but it’s obviously very high-quality stuff, making it ideally suited to a high-end guitar like this Thompson.
While the wood is commanding all of the attention here, it must be said that the review model’s 41-style abalone ornamentation (a $2,390 option) adds a lot of visual beauty. The shell surrounding the body and soundhole have a lot of soothing green hues, shimmering with purples, blues, and white, and the headstock’s torch inlay adds a regal touch.
An Abundance of Presence and Tone
As I fingerpicked chords, the Thompson’s immediate bass response punched my ribcage. But more than just a boom, the overtones and notes on the higher strings seemed to float on top of that thick, tight foundation of the lower notes. The effect heightened as I dug in looking for this guitar’s headroom. I found that the Thompson’s dynamic range was there for delicate fingerpickers and brutes alike. It’s not going to create the banjo-killing volume of some dreadnoughts, but this guitar has enough horsepower to keep up with most situations.
This power at your fingertips is more than just for keeping up with others. The feeling I get playing this guitar is that it’s ready for whatever direction I might turn next, and indeed its ability to serve up luscious sounds quickly seemed only to increase the more I played it. The neck has a nice, full shape that is meatier than some, but far from bulky, and I immediately loved its fit in my hand and its silky finish.
The setup is outstanding, as you should expect for a guitar costing this much; overall, the Thompson is one of the most inviting, easy-to-play guitars I can remember spending time with. The finish and setup show that a lot of work went into making the instrument easy to enjoy—whether playing it or listening to it, as I found when I heard a few other guitarists try it. Even rudimentary chords from a beginner-level player were enough to stop me in my tracks with their uncommon abundance of presence and tone.
Craft and Sound
Several questions come up when reviewing a new $15,000 guitar—and they add a layer of scrutiny to the review. What does the instrument offer you that you can’t get for considerably less? I can easily narrow it down to two criteria: craft and sound. The Thompson 000-14SBA is a meticulously made, flawless piece of gorgeousness that will make guitarists dewy-eyed just to behold it. Then, once you begin to play the guitar, you find it’s nearly effortless, and the tone it creates makes you say, “Okay, I get it.” It plays so sweetly and sounds so good that it brings the flaws of other guitars into focus. It’s a wonderful instrument, a piece of craft, and tribute to the dedication and skill of Preston Thompson.
BODY 000-size, 14-fret; Adirondack spruce top and shipwreck Brazilian rosewood back and sides; Adirondack advanced X-bracing, prewar scalloped-style; Brazilian rosewood binding with abalone top trim; tortoiseshell pickguard; gloss with vintage toner
NECK 24.9″-scale mahogany with adjustable trussrod, soft-V profile; 1-3/4″-wide at bone nut; ebony fingerboard with 41-style abalone inlay and Brazilian rosewood binding and BWB purfling; Brazilian rosewood peghead overlay with “The Regency” torch inlay and mother-of-pearl logo; Waverly relic tuners; satin finish
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OTHER Ebony belly bridge with compensated bone drop-in saddle; bone nut; Elixir phosphor bronze strings with Nanoweb coating (.012–.053); Harptone hardshell case
MADE IN USA
PRICE $15,490 street, as reviewed; $13,100 base, plus 41-style appointments ($2,390)
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.