Visually, the new Yamaha FG9 R exudes stunning simplicity. Sonically, it’s remarkably complex. The guitar’s unique combination of these two qualities make it one of Yamaha’s finest steel-strings to date. However, even if this elegant offering looked like a concussed hippie’s psychedelic fever dream, its almost effortless explosion of overtones would still mark it as a serious instrument.
The FG9 R’s design adheres to the classic dreadnought shape and materials, showcasing luthier-level craftsmanship typically associated with boutique builders or custom shops rather than the world’s largest manufacturer of musical instruments. This limited-edition beauty indeed feels like a bespoke guitar, and it truly shines whether flatpicked or fingerpicked.
The Build and Execution
Handcrafted in Japan, the FG9 R is made with time-honored materials—solid Indian rosewood back and sides (mahogany on the sibling FG9 M) and solid Adirondack spruce top with scalloped X-bracing. The mahogany neck is topped with an ebony fingerboard. The nut and compensated saddle are bone, and the body is finished in delicately applied nitrocellulose lacquer, while the neck has a smooth semi-gloss polyurethane finish.
But under the hood, things aren’t as retro. The top has tapered edges, which are said to provide strength and allow the body to vibrate more freely, translating to a powerful and dynamic sound. The neck joint uses a hybrid of bolt-on and glued construction, designed to increase the body’s vibration while making it easier to do a future neck reset if needed. While it’s impossible to know how either a pure bolt-on or glued neck would sound with the rest of the design, the guitar’s tone suggests exceptional contact between the neck and the resonant chamber.
Yamaha has achieved a remarkable level of quality in this new design. The fit and finish of our test model are exceptional, with a smooth feel throughout. The action is low but not excessively so, and the intonation is outstanding.
Before delving into the remarkable tone of the FG9 R, let’s take a moment to appreciate the visual simplicity mentioned earlier. Yamaha aptly describes it as an “understated Japanese aesthetic.” The fingerboard inlays pay homage to traditional Kumiko woodworking, and they are particularly distinctive. These inlays feature small rectangular dashes on the bass side of the fingerboard that elegantly wrap down to the edge. Set against the dark ebony, the inlays incorporate color elements from the body, with the light edges echoing the natural spruce and the reds beautifully complementing the warm tones of the mahogany and rosewood.
The top sports rope purfling, also seen in concentric rings on the soundhole rosette as well as the backstrip—another motif Yamaha has drawn from Japanese tradition. I was particularly impressed by the understated aesthetic of the headstock, with the simple Yamaha inscription in light wood against the dark finish. The addition of the black open-gear Gotoh tuners further enhances the overall sense of elegance.
If the FG9 R’s appearance is about restraint, then its sound is about exuberance. It’s not the six-month-old golden retriever kind of exuberance, but more like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, where pure joy meets absolute mastery.
I use the term sound instead of tone because what strikes me when playing the guitar is how it fills the room. I was initially a bit taken aback not to see electronics on the guitar; Yamaha may or may not like being characterized as a practical choice, but most players I know seem to think of the company that way. And what could be more practical than a pickup on what’s clearly a professional-quality guitar?
However, when I played it for the first time, I understood. There’s almost no point in putting a pickup on a guitar like this; it wouldn’t be able to capture the way the sound pours into the air. Electronics would simply detract from the wood’s vibrations. If I had to pick one word to describe the sound, it would be vibrant. In terms of sympathetic resonances and overtones, the FG9 R I tested ranks among the best guitars I’ve played.
Even a simple single note on the high E string sent the top shimmering with sound. It’s not quite orchestral, and it’s not out of control; it’s just very full and very present. Those overtones are impressive enough on the attack and main sustain of a note, but what really caught my attention was the decay. I can only describe it as linear, where the overtones seemed to fade in parallel with the main body of the note.
The sustain and decay also have an interesting quality. Think of the way an acoustic guitar note sustains. It goes from peak to quieter to very quiet and then—it’s gone. On the FG9, there seemed to be more levels of quieter where I could still hear remnants of the note, like it was still ringing to the end of my ability to hear it and beyond. In real life, that’s probably not something you’d be able to use in performance or recording—most people would have faded the track out long before the point I’m describing. But just as a sheer expression of the instrument’s resonant quality, it’s impressive. Vibrant, indeed.
Of course, even I like to do more with a guitar than listen to a note decay and contemplate the universe. The dreadnought has been described as the workhorse, and Yamaha says its FG9 models are voiced to accompany singers. Perhaps. Chords sound big and bold, with impressive clarity between the individual notes. All that resonance on single notes I described above doesn’t translate into confusion when you play chord harmonies; it’s quite the opposite.
The FG9 has a very distinctive midrange voice. In fact, that’s what made me think of the Gene Kelly analogy, one of those old-school singers who could annunciate and move smoothly across his range. The FG9 has a warm, chest voice in the lower and middle register, but it can deliver very punchy percussion to the attack when your playing demands it.
Played with a flatpick, the attack is clear and clean. The treble is strong but not bright: more Frank Sinatra than Robert Plant. Few things tell me more about a guitar than playing some open G chords and throwing in some single-note lines, then holding one big chord. After everything I described about the FG9’s sustain above, I was still taken aback when I switched from rhythm to lead to a final G on the high E string. The chord was still ringing as the overtones rose up to take over, like a natural crossfade.
In the context of fingerstyle playing, I found that the rich midrange of the FG9 was particularly effective. It seemed to me that using my fingers allowed for greater exploration of the FG9’s wide range of timbres and provided enhanced control over balancing tones from the lower register to the higher notes.
The Bottom Line
Having a street price of $4,099.99 for the FG9 R we tested ($3,999.99 for the mahogany version), this is clearly an instrument designed for demanding players. With its focus on acoustic tone and lack of electronics, I would think of the FG9 R as a guitar for the studio or the concert hall, as opposed to the pop/country music stage.
As a reviewer, I have had the privilege of playing hundreds of great guitars, each with its unique qualities. However, over the years, it has been a rarity to come across an instrument that truly changed the way I listen to my own playing. The FG9 R accomplishes just that.
BODY 14-fret dreadnought; solid Adirondack spruce top; scalloped X-bracing; Indian rosewood back and sides; ebony bridge with bone saddle; tortoise pattern pickguard; gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish
NECK Mahogany with hybrid bolt-on/glued-in joint; 25-9/16″ scale length; 1-3/4″ bone nut; ebony fretboard with 15-3/4″ radius; Gotoh SXN510 tuners; semi-gloss polyurethane finish
OTHER Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 Bronze Light strings (.012–.053); hardshell case
MADE IN Japan
PRICE $4,099.99 street
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.