In 1966, Yamaha introduced its first folk guitar, the FG-180. This Japanese-made dreadnought offered an affordable alternative to the popular steel-strings making the rounds of the folk circuit and, sure enough, one ended up onstage at Woodstock in the hands of Country Joe McDonald. The Red Label series of Yamaha guitars from this period built a reputation as hidden gems amongst a sea of American-made acoustics, and over the years, singer-songwriters such as Big Star’s Chris Bell, Jeff Buckley, and Elliott Smith crafted some of their best work on the FG-180.
Yamaha has been paying tribute to the first-generation Red Label guitars with its FG/FS Red Label acoustics. While not copies of the originals, they’re modernized instruments that are inspired by the series. The line offers two body styles: the smaller concert and the Traditional Western, which is a big-bodied instrument offered in several models—the FG3, FG5, FGX3, and FGX5. I took the FGX3 for a spin to see what these modern Red Labels are all about.
Solid Build and Simple Looks
On appearance alone, it’s clear that the FGX3 is meant to be a no-nonsense workhorse, much like its predecessors. No time was wasted worrying about decorative details when Yamaha created the FGX3—the guitar sports a simple black-and-white rosette and binding, a single-ply black pickguard, and chrome open-gear tuners—but it possesses an understated elegance.
The solid Sitka spruce top features scalloped braces, and the solid mahogany back and sides include additional side bracing, giving the guitar a strong and extra-durable feel. All of the wood on the FGX3 has been through Yamaha’s Acoustic Resonance Enhancement (A.R.E.)—basically, a torrefaction process that uses heat, moisture, and pressure to mimic wood’s aging process, enhancing sustain and volume. While there’s certainly no mistaking the FGX3 for a vintage instrument, it does have a loose, played-in feel right out of the case and is responsive throughout the frequency spectrum.
Breezy Strumming and Slinky Feel
Maybe it’s because of the big body size—19-7/8 inches long, 16-1/4 inches wide, and 4-5/8 inches deep—but sitting with the FGX3, I couldn’t help but notice how sharp the body’s edges felt. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but I did settle in after playing the instrument for a spell.
Dimesions aside, the guitar has a soft, warm tone that works great for fingerpicked chord patterns and breezy strumming. When strumming chords with a pick, I found it definitely sounds best to approach the FGX3 with a more delicate touch—a thinner pick and a soft strum can go a long way—while heavy-handed strumming and picking tend to get harsh. Approached with a light to medium touch, chords sound rich while maintaining a clarity that allows individual notes to shine.
The 25-inch-scale matte-finished African mahogany neck is a breeze to play, with an agreeably low action in all positions of the neck. I quickly noticed how slinky this guitar feels—it’s particularly easy to bend strings across the ebony fretboard, which is a fun treat that had me playing lead lines up and down the neck. In this way, I found the FGX3 to be much more than the folk guitar that the series claims it to be. In fact, it’s a versatile modern instrument that is well-suited for a variety of playing styles and uses.
Singer-songwriters would certainly feel comfortable heading out to open mics or hitting the road with the FGX3. With such easy playability and durable construction, it’s a reliable instrument to travel around with. I wouldn’t worry about throwing it into an overpacked van for full-band gigs. The FGX3 comes equipped with Yamaha’s Atmosfeel pickup system, which includes an undersaddle pickup, contact sensor, mic, and three low-profile controls—master volume, mic blend, and bass EQ—on the guitar’s top side. I had higher hopes for the versatility and amplified sound after reading about the pickup system, and was a little let down when I plugged it in. But it is certainly a more dimensional system than your standard piezo pickup, and it offers a good amount of tonal control.
The Bottom Line
The FGX3 is a solid, gig-ready instrument. Much like the well-loved Red Label Yamahas of the 1960s and ’70s, this guitar almost calls out to be played, and features a sound and playability that makes it a worthy candidate not only for folk but for a variety of musical situations. At $1,000 street, it’s a nice mid-price guitar that could be a big step up from an entry level instrument or a great alternative for a gigging musician who needs a guitar that’s sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the road.
BODY Traditional Western size; solid Sitka spruce top with mahogany back and sides; ebony bridge with urea saddle; semigloss finish
NECK 14-fret African mahogany neck; 25″ scale; 15 3/4″ radius ebony fingerboard; 1 3/4″ urea nut; open-gear chrome tuners
OTHER Yamaha Atmosfeel electronics; Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 Bronze Light strings (.012–.053); hard bag
MADE IN China
PRICE $999.99 street
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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