From the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Matt Blackett
To quote the illustrious players of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” Well, maybe not completely. We’ve seen variations on the hybrid acoustic/electric for ages. Some, like the Taylor T5, came at it from the “acoustic guitar with an electric pickup” angle. Many others have approached the problem by slapping a piezo bridge on an otherwise standard-issue electric guitar.
All designs have yielded musical results in the hands of skilled players, but has any manufacturer truly nailed a great acoustic tone and a great electric tone in the same instrument? Well, our fine Aussie friends at Cole Clark guitars would have you believe that yes, someone has indeed cracked that code, and it’s them. A lofty claim, to be sure, but they put their money where their mouth is and sent me the AN2EC-BLBL-HUM that you see here. If that name doesn’t roll off your tongue, you can call this grand auditorium-sized beauty Angel (as designated by the AN).
You can tell at a glance that this Angel is a different breed of guitar, but before we talk about what this instrument is, let’s talk about what it’s not. By design, Cole Clark did not set out to build a guitar that would compete—in tone or volume—with a traditional acoustic in the same room. Instead, they conceived, designed, and built this guitar to be the best-sounding amplified acoustic you’ve ever heard. (Remember that lofty descriptor from before?) That means the bracing, electronics, and overall construction are done with the amplified (or direct, in the studio) sound in mind. OK.
There’s more. You might have noticed that there is a Lollar humbucker nestled in the bridge position of the Angel. To make that work, Cole Clark needed to further stiffen up the construction of the guitar, presumably sacrificing even more acoustic tone in the pursuit of an acoustic-electric that might not even be possible. Is there no end to their madness?
In the Crossover Matrix
I wasn’t expecting much sonically when I first strummed the Angel—although from a visual standpoint I was very impressed with the gorgeous (and sustainably sourced) Australian Blackwood top, back, and sides. So I hit a chord, and the fact is I immediately loved the acoustic tone of this guitar. No, it’s not a cannon like a D-28, but it’s sparkly and resonant and has great sustain. I actually had tons of fun playing the Angel before I ever plugged it in. The neck is fast and comfortable, with a flat 12-inch radius that makes lead lines fun and easy and an overall solidity that makes me feel like I can hit it as hard as I want, which I did.
But if the whole idea here is to create an amazing amplified sound, I knew I had to try that. Like all Cole Clark guitars, the Angel features a three-way acoustic pickup system that consists of an undersaddle piezo, a face sensor for picking up the sound of the top, and a condenser mic. Seems logical enough, but where Cole Clark really excels is in the crossover matrix that allows each of these elements play to its respective strength.
Essentially, the piezo handles the lows, and only the lows, with attack and immediacy. That means this piezo won’t see or reproduce any of the frequencies that bring about the ping and splatter of a piezo gone wrong. The mids then go to the face sensor, but with none of the frequencies that can make a top go into gig-ruining feedback. The microphone only deals with highs, and even then only above its feedback zone, so you get top-end zing without squeal. It’s like you have the world’s greatest sound engineer living inside your guitar. When you’re done dialing all that in, there is a three-band EQ to tweak the overall tone. Wow.
No Ping, No Quack
Then there’s the whole humbucker thing. This guitar has a specially voiced Lollar in the bridge position, with a separate output jack, volume and tone controls, and a three-position mini toggle right on the top of the guitar to select acoustic, humbucker, or both. Some people don’t like seeing volume and tone knobs on an acoustic guitar and I have two words for them: John Freaking Lennon.
They told me I could get all this working and sounding great with no fuss. I am somewhat cynical, so I didn’t believe it one bit, despite the undeniably friendly and trustworthy attitude of the Cole Clark people. But I set up a rig where I sent the 1/4-inch acoustic signal to a Tascam US 20×20 interface into a pair of KRK V6 powered monitors, and the humbucker’s output went to a Kemper PowerHead feeding a 2×12 cab loaded with Celestion Greenbacks.
I strummed a chord on the purely acoustic side, with all the controls at noon, and all EQ flat. And it sounded amazing. No ping, no quack. A pleasant, musical, forgiving acoustic tone. I played around with the controls and heard what they brought, but I swear, after hours of testing, my favorite amplified acoustic tone on this guitar was with every control straight up. I don’t think that’s ever happened in 40 years of testing gear. Color me impressed.
I did some recording, tracking the Angel direct, and I was truly pleased with the results, which were very musical- and professional-sounding. The guitar sat in the mix beautifully, and I didn’t feel the need for a traditional miked acoustic at all. So, Cole Clark delivered on their promise, but I knew my work was not done. There was that humbucker.
I wasn’t sure how an electric guitar pickup would deal with acoustic guitar strings, but this pickup works just as you would expect and sounds awesome. It provides crunch and bite that really doesn’t seem possible from an acoustic guitar. Through my Kemper, the tones sounded perfectly electric, maybe in a Gibson ES-335 kind of way, and never in that hollow, creepy, “I plugged an acoustic into my high-gain amp” kind of way. Rather than offer the option of splitting the coils (which I’ve always thought was overrated) Cole Clark lets you go from series to parallel operation on the humbucker’s coils by pulling up on the tone control, for a super-cool and very useable additional sound.
I must concede that the .012–.053 strings that the Angel shipped with are a little too beefy for me to truly do my electric-guitar thing with—particularly bends on that wound G. But there’s no denying that it rocks, and I can crank out big riffs with abandon. When they feed back—and they do—the feedback is musical and controllable.
I’ve never been a fan of blending acoustic and electric tones on instruments such as this, but I have to admit that I got a bunch of great sounds in the middle position, with a big acoustic tone on one side and a Vox AC30 cleanish pop tone on the other. Even high-gain tones were blendable with the acoustic timbres by judiciously riding the volume knob and dialing in as much rock as I needed. I’m not a big looping guy, but I assume that loopers would love this guitar for laying down a beautiful acoustic bed and then burning on the humbucker, or conversely layering dense, droning electric lines and then floating over the top with sparkly acoustic parts.
Achieving the Impossible
I’m not sure anyone has done what Cole Clark accomplished with this fine guitar. It’s obviously not for everyone. It can’t do everything that a classic dreadnought or a meat-and-potatoes electric can do, and they candidly acknowledge that. You want to play in your living room with a huge acoustic sound? There are lots of fine manufacturers who can help you. But if you want to play in a coffeehouse, or alongside a loud band, or record direct, or do all those things with the option of adding in amazing electric tones (courtesy of a boutique pickup!), with killer tone, controllable feedback, and eco-friendly sustainable woods, well, I’m gonna suggest you look Down Under. Congrats, Cole Clark. You might just have a unicorn on your hands. And to anyone who says, “That’s impossible!” I was once like you. I encourage you to plug in a Cole Clark guitar and see for yourself.
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BODY: Cutaway grand auditorium; AA-grade Australian blackwood top, back, and sides; river she-oak bridge with Graph Tech Tusq saddle; natural satin nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK: Queensland maple; 25.5″-scale river she-oak fretboard with 12″ radius; 1.73″ Graph Tech Tusq nut; 20 frets (14 to body); natural satin nitrocellulose lacquer finish
OTHER: Cole Clark three-way pickup system; Lollar Imperial humbucker (with separate output and tone/volume controls; series/parallel switchable on tone control); Grover tuners; Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze strings (.012–.053); Cole Clark tweed hardshell case
MADE IN: Australia
PRICE: $2,899 street
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.