Guitar Review: Preston Thompson D-SMA Is a Light and Powerful Dreadnought
The name Preston Thompson sounds like it could have belonged to a prewar poet laureate. And judging from the D-SMA dreadnought featured here, the master luthier, who passed away in 2019, handed down the best poets’ ability to bring fresh emotions to familiar forms.
If the typical dreadnought is a prosaic workhorse, the instrument I tested—handcrafted in Thompson’s Sisters, Oregon, workshop—has a poetic side you might not expect from an instrument of its size and ability to stand out on a crowded stage.
Prose is practical, factual, and lives on the page. Poetry lives in the air. Good poetry—especially when read aloud—lets the pauses do the work. It makes us feel without necessarily understanding. It’s in the white spaces after the words that emotions have time to steep and where the literal meaning of the words gives way to something more complex.
Out of the box, the D-SMA looks like a very fine example of handcrafted dreadnought construction. The company says its design is based on the 1937 Martin D-28 owned by the late Charles Sawtelle of Hot Rize. As you’d expect from a guitar in its category, it can do all the dreadnought things quite well, excelling as a loud, projecting rhythm guitar. And where some dreads have a bit of the bully to them, the Thompson is more persuader than pugilist. It only takes a light touch to have a big impact.
The guitar’s poetic power really comes through in the white spaces, the air between the notes, the trailing overtones. Those qualities allowed the instrument I tested to shine outside the dreadnought’s traditional comfort zone. All truly excellent flattop guitars produce rich but controlled overtones, and that’s often where you’ll hear the differences in tonewoods and construction. But when it comes to complex shimmering afternotes, I’ve rarely heard anything like the Thompson. It’s not just the sound, but the ease of sound production. I felt like I could whisper to the strings and get a spectrum of colors in response.
Premium Materials & Build Quality
The D-SMA I tested is fairly traditional in terms of materials, but there are plenty of options from which to choose. I enjoyed looking at the booklet in the case that showed what was used to build this particular guitar, as well as thumbnails of the other available materials.
The review guitar features the premium options of an Adirondack spruce top (the wood is also used for the advanced X-bracing) with strikingly figured sinker mahogany for the back and sides.
Visually, the instrument is understated yet stunning, especially on close inspection, and the build quality is impeccable. I especially like the reconstituted turquoise stone/white mother-of-pearl inlay work seen in the headstock torch motif and matching Regency fretboard position markers—a $695 option that lends a bit of flair to an otherwise traditional build.
Thompson’s website describes its design philosophy as original vintage. Having played my share of AARP-age guitars, I’d say a more accurate description would be vintage that’s been restored and fine-tuned to work better. The mahogany neck feels sleek, enhanced by a low-friction finish that makes it sort of a cross between a traditional profile and a fast neck designed to appeal to electric players. But what really sets the Thompson apart from a lot of older guitars—at least those owned by people with real-world maintenance budgets—is its consistency in action and intonation.
A Bearable Lightness of Being
Dreadnoughts tend to be heavy—remember, the name derives from pre-World War I battle ships. But the Thompson has a lightness that is noticeable as soon as I take it out of the case. This physical lightness foreshadows the instrument’s easy sound production. Some dreadnoughts—even really good ones—only come to life when you lay into them. The best of these are great rhythm guitars and can be kickin’ lead instruments when you work them hard enough, but they can lose some of their magic when you play delicately.
The Thompson I tested, however, rewards the delicate touch. Note the word delicate and not quiet. Of course, the instrument can be played softly. And doing so yields a wonderful spectrum of sounds and overtones. It’s always hard to describe sound without coming off like you’re writing a recap of The Great British Bake Off: “Sweet but savory with a touch of citrus, well done!” But I’ll put it this way. If you know what a really good mahogany guitar sounds like, adjust that tone as follows: Keep the sweet midrange, but give the bass a more articulate voice, like a baritone with good diction, and carry that clarity of voice all the way up the frequency spectrum.
Then tune the recipe until the vibrations build together for a controlled finish (that’s the citrus). What impresses even more are the tone and volume the instrument produces from a relatively light touch. I didn’t have to work as hard to produce the kind of strummy fullness dreadnoughts are expected to achieve, or better, demonstrate the body style’s capabilities more fully. The test guitar was strong in the bass without being tubby, clear in the midrange without being harsh, and detailed in the highs without making the upper register sound detached from the rest.
On big open chords, the Thompson produces a three-dimensional sound lush with consonant overtones. You’d probably want to get used to it before taking the guitar to a gig or session because otherwise you might play the first chord, get lost listening to it and forget to play the second one. All hyperbole aside, the combination of articulate balance and well-tuned overtones—and the ability to produce them with less effort—gives one a sense of control of both dynamics and timbre. My picking hand feels more relaxed, and that makes it easier to use hand position to change timbral colors. The ease of sound production also makes flatpicking lead lines a breeze; a relaxed hand is faster, more rhythmic, and more dynamic. It reminds me of the easy feeling you get when you pick up a sleek electric guitar after gigging with a large acoustic.
As good as all that big dreadnought stuff sounds, the thing that grabs my attention the most is the way the Thompson projects more intimate music. Simple little single-note lines radiate into the room. A big guitar that can play with the intimacy of a small guitar, especially one as light as this, offers rare versatility. I believe that’s especially valuable if you’re a player who composes and improvises; that alone can take you down a path to new ideas or enhanced emotional engagement with what you’ve been playing all along. This is what evokes poetry for me. A good guitar inspires you to play; a great one inspires you to listen in the white space.
BODY 14-fret dreadnought; Adirondack spruce top with Adirondack spruce advanced X-bracing; sinker mahogany back and sides; ebony bridge and bridge pins; bone compensated saddle with 2-1/8″ spacing; faux tortoiseshell binding; nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK 25.4″-scale mahogany neck with single-action adjustable truss rod; 20 frets; ebony fretboard; 1-11/16″ bone nut; nickel Waverly tuners; nitrocellulose lacquer finish
OTHER Elixir Phosphor Bronze Nanoweb Medium strings (.013–.056); Harptone case; left-handed available
MADE IN USA
PRICE $6,250 street; $6,945 as reviewed
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.