In recent years, guitarists have shown an increasing propensity for “old wood”—instruments that, due to decades of aging, have arrived at their peak resonant state. Many have also taken a shine to the aesthetics of these mature instruments, such as their ornamental flourishes and the patina that they acquire as their finishes are subjected to wear and fluctuating temperatures.
Guitar makers have certainly heard this. In recreating old designs—often with period-correct constructional techniques and materials—they have been offering new instruments that look and often behave like old ones, right out of the box, but lack many of the eccentricities and occasionally bad tuning of a decades-old guitar. And 2017 saw plenty of cool examples of this trend, from Recording King’s Depression-era doppelgangers to Collings’ Waterloo and T Series lines to Martin’s replicas of prewar classics. Here’s a sampling of what we checked out this year.
In 1933, a budget guitar like Gibson’s L-00 retailed for $27.50, or about $520 in today’s money. Recording King unveiled a pair of 12-fret, small-bodied guitars—the RPS-7 and RPS-9—patterned after 1930s department-store models but even more affordable, considering that their respective street prices, $149 and $199, would have been about $8 and $10.50 in 1933’s money. Writer Pete Madsen took both the RPS-7 and RPS-9 for a spin in the September issue and had a blast with these super-affordable guitars.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in parlor guitars recently, and in its retro-themed Roots collection, Gretsch introduced the mahogany-bodied G9511 Style 1 Single-0 Parlor. This guitar, with its Appalachia Cloudburst finish (one of the most evocative names for a sunburst) has a positively old-school vibe. Madsen reviewed the guitar for the November issue and found it to have a responsive and refined sound.
During the swing era, the archtop ruled the roost on the bandstand, but this guitar type was long ago eclipsed in popularity by the flattop. These days, new acoustic archtops are for the most part in the domain of independent luthiers and are quite pricey, as are good-quality vintage examples. Epiphone, which was one of the finest archtop builders of the mid-century, unveiled several old-school-looking and relatively affordable guitars in its Masterbilt series. In the April issue, I checked out the 17-inch Century De Luxe Classic, with a street price of $899, and was impressed by the punchiness and playability of the arched-top guitar. Likewise, the Masterbilt DR-400MCE earned high praise from reviewers in our 8 Dreadnoughts Under $500 roundup in the October issue.
Collings Guitars introduced its Waterloo line of vintage-inspired instruments in 2014 and continues to add awesome examples to the collection each year—guitars that cause everyone who plays them at Acoustic Guitar’s offices to swoon. For the August issue, I checked out a pair of ladder-braced 12-fret Stella-like flattops, the WL-S and the WL-S Deluxe, the latter boasting a lovely varnish finish. After I was done reviewing these lightweight and highly responsive beauties, I was loath to return them and would likely feel the same about the new maple-bodied WL-14 Scissortail and the all-mahogany WL-12 Mh.
In a new line, the Traditional Series, Collings is building with old-school materials like animal-protein glue and ultra-thin nitrocellulose lacquer finishes. These instruments, which include mahogany and rosewood dreadnoughts and OMs with Sitka or Adirondack spruce tops, were designed to have a vintage sound and response. For the May issue, I spent some quality time with the $5,535 Adirondack-and-mahogany OM1A T and can say that Collings absolutely nailed it. The company no doubt did the same with the new Parlor Series and with the late Bill Collings’ final project, the Julian Lage OM1 JL signature model, whose neck recreates the profile on the guitarist’s 1939 Martin 000-18.
Collings’ new hardshell cases deserve mention. Dissatisfied with the cases on the market, Bill Collings took it upon himself to make his own. The sleek new hardshells are currently available with new Collings guitars or sold separately. They share the aesthetics of 1930s cases, but are far more durable—and their hinges work really well. The Collings T-Series case I saw was as exciting as the guitar inside.
Prewar Martins are among the most coveted—and most costly—of all guitars. A 1930s D-28 in good condition, for instance, might set you back more than $100,000. In reaction to this demand, Martin has been making highly detailed reissues of its prewar instruments. This year the company revisited the first Martin-branded dreadnought in the D-1 Authentic 1931, a 12-fret guitar with a slotted headstock. Not only does this new guitar have an old soul, even at $5,529 it’s a killer dreadnought by any yardstick. See a full review in the June issue.
Though the D-1 Authentic 1931 looks new with its glossy, unblemished finish, Martin introduced a model that looks as though it’s been played heartily for decades: the D-28 Authentic 1937 Aged. This dreadnought recreates the specs of the original instrument, but for the first time Martin has used a hand-distressed antiquing treatment to give it a convincingly aged feel and appearance. At the other end of the price spectrum, Martin’s StreetMaster series offers all-mahogany guitars, an 000 and a dreadnought (both $1,399 street), whose rustic satin finishes suggest that they’ve gotten lots of playing time.
Gibson’s L-00 might have been introduced as a budget guitar, but Bourgeois uses it as a platform for a luxurious modern guitar in the L-DBO ($6,003 as reviewed in the January issue). Our test model pairs a torrefied Adirondack spruce top with mahogany back and sides, assembled with hide glue. And though the guitar has a terrific bark characteristic of the best old 00s, its sound is deeper and more resonant than a typical vintage example—making it a best-of-both-worlds type of instrument.
Quality and value are two words that keep coming up, and the power of these two words may be most apparent in the make-it-louder part of the acoustic guitar world. Several new amps, DI/preamps, and personal PAs debuted this year, and they all raised the bar for what a performing guitarist can expect when it comes time to getting onstage. With plentiful EQ adjustments, inputs for vocals and guitar, and thoughtful and tasteful onboard effects, lightweight, modern acoustic guitar amplification has advanced light years beyond having to plug into a club’s abused Fender Twin Reverb or battered DI.
Chief among this new breed of all-in-one combo amps are the Fender Acoustic 200, Boss Acoustic Singer Pro (both reviewed in the July issue), and the Mesa Rosette (look for a review in the January 2018 issue). These portable, feature-laden amps sound way better than we have come to expect from guitar amps—and they’re built to last many gigs.
Guitarists looking to bring even less to a gig have been snatching up new preamp/DI pedals that offer many of the tone-enhancing features of today’s combo amps in floor-mounted enclosures that add even more effects and, often, a looper. The Trace Elliot Acoustic Transit-A (reviewed September) wedges a bunch of effects and a boost function in a bomb-proof box, while other boxes, like the new T.Rex SoulMate Acoustic and Boss AD-10 Acoustic Preamp (look for upcoming reviews), check off every option box in the acoustic guitarist wish list.
Two of the biggest names in acoustic guitar amplification dove into the popular portable PA scene this year. The new LR Baggs Synapse and SA Performance Audio System from Fishman (reviewed August) offer sterling high-fidelity sound in affordable, multi-component systems.
Restrictions on Rosewood Have Makers Looking Homeward
Thanks to news of new restrictions on rosewood, 2017 started with a bead of sweat for many guitar players and makers. The immediate fallout from increased regulations on rosewood imports and exports was all the talk inside the music trades. Shipments of newly made guitars sat on loading docks, sometimes for months, awaiting approval from US Customs, before makers were able to get in-demand acoustics into the hands of eager players.
However, several new models introduced throughout the year showed that large and small makers were looking for solutions that will work for both customers and for guitar makers. Choosing to build guitars using something other than rosewood is one popular response to the issue. (Many insiders are speculating that ebony will be the next beloved guitar tonewood to make the list of highly regulated woods, so they’re looking at ebony alternatives, too.) While this tropical hardwood has been a favorite material for bridges, fingerboards, and bodies for centuries, there is an equally long history of high-quality guitars made from other, more locally grown woods. If there’s a bright light for players in these new restrictions, it’s that players have a better chance of experiencing guitars made from woods that may be less exotic, but also offer ear-satisfying tones and eye-pleasing looks.
For the most part, makers are turning to native North American-sourced woods like walnut, cherry, and sycamore—all commonly seen in guitars made in the 19th and early 20th century. While collectors still prize guitars made from rosewood and mahogany more, many discriminating players who have actually played these vintage guitars made from alternative woods know that they can offer competitive tones at bargain prices. And, it’s true for guitars being made right now.
Walnut was used on some of the finest-sounding Epiphone archtops of the ’30s and is currently getting a lot of attention as a controversy-free rosewood substitute. With a number of guitars in its Earthsong and Blackbird Vegan lineups, Oregon’s Bedell Guitars has several models that use sustainable, US-sourced walnut for fingerboards and bridges. This summer, Martin introduced the Model America 1, a D-18-styled dreadnought constructed using all native US woods, including an Adirondack top on sycamore back and sides, cherry neck, and walnut fingerboard and bridge.
It hardly seems like a coincidence that two of our favorite guitars of the year were made with cherry backs and sides. Canadian maker Seagull has been championing cherry for years and the Seagull Coastline Momentum slope-shouldered dread got a lot of love for its tight and snappy tones in a June 2017 review and in our Dreadnought Roundup (October). Likewise, with a small, vintage Stella-sized body and cherry back and sides, the Waterloo WL-S (on this issue’s cover) and WL-S Deluxe (reviewed August) floored us with a warm, buoyant sound and a forceful projection and volume that seemed to run counter to its compact size.
Readers Sound Off
We asked readers to tell us about a piece of gear they got in the last year that they love. The answers were as diverse as you’d expect from a group of opinionated guitarists ranging from new guitars to capos to amps. Here’s a look at some of the things that you loved in 2017.
Eastman E20D “Great prewar-style dreadnought. With the same wood and workmanship from most makers, it would cost three to four times as much. It was more guitar than I expected when I ordered it.”—Gary DiMuzio
Martin CEO-7 “I’m in my late 60s and have been playing for more than 50 years, and this smaller guitar with a shorter scale doesn’t stress my hands and wrists as much, which has become a problem. Still, it has lots of sound.”—Forrest Anderson
“It’s both modern in playability and old in terms of look and sound.”—anon.
Fraulini Decalomania Guitar and Waterloo WL-14 “Both are ladder-braced, lightly built guitars that harken back to the songsters and blues artists of the 1920s and 1930s—and both sound lovely.”—anon.
Taylor GS Mini Mahogany “It’s like Bob Taylor scanned me and built this guitar just for me and I’m not a small person. It sounds like it’s worth two times the price.”—ergnis666
Taylor 562ce 12-string “It’s a well-made, good-looking guitar that lives up to its reviews.”—mcdonaldbrown
“This guitar is everything they said and more. It’s the best-sounding and easiest 12-string I’ve ever played.”—anon.
Guild D-40 “One of the best-sounding acoustics I own. Beautiful tone and a great tactile feel when playing. This is the one guitar I grab (out of 24) if disaster strikes.”—lokkust
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Martin StreetMaster series “I’ve always loved vintage-looking guitars, so I took a chance on the new Martin D-15M StreetMaster. Not only is it a beautiful-looking guitar, but the sound is fantastic. I liked it so much that I bought its little sister, the Martin 000-15M StreetMaster. The guitars are far beyond my expectations.”—pjridlon
D’Addario Acoustic Guitar Humidifier “My guitar sounds better now that I have been using this product.”—carvin01
G7 Performance capo “Best capo I’ve owned—and I’ve owned most of them—easy to use and no tuning problems.”—anon.
Thalia capo “I like the inserts for various radius necks.”—mshaeffer
“Always keeps my strings in tune.”—anon.
D’Addario CinchFit Acoustic Jack Lock “Secure, easily removable, and user friendly.”—wagneda
Boss Doctor Rhythm DR-3 drum machine “It’s assisted me greatly in developing rhythm.”—chasingsummer
Dunlop Primetone picks “It has the stiffness I need without making the sound dull. I tried thicker picks, but they just sounded thuddy. The Primetone’s beveled edge provides a smooth feel and a brighter tone than other picks of comparable stiffness. They’re expensive as picks go, but they last me four or five times as long as any other pick I’ve used.”—robinhayes
Guitar Tree Stand “It holds six guitars in a limited space.”—gitarman4
LR Baggs Lyric mic “The Lyric makes my guitar sound more natural than anything I’ve ever heard amplified.”—johna665
Bose L1 Model II with B2 Bass “It’s the best, most convenient PA sound system we’ve ever had. It’s awesome for acoustic guitars and voices.”—Don Ablett
Boss Acoustic Singer Live “Great features, tone, and price—and it’s lightweight!”—anon.
DigiTech Trio + looper “Helps improve your playing in so many ways, while making it fun and creative.”—nickbradshaw1967
iRig Acoustic Stage mic “It captures the natural stage sound of the guitar without altering the guitar or sound when played without mic or pickup.”—anon.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.