Top Gear 2018: AG Editors & Readers on the Best Gear of the Year

After several years of quiet trends in the acoustic guitar world, the legacy guitar brands announced big changes that will make this a year to remember.

After several years of quiet trends in the acoustic guitar world—like players discovering the joys of smaller-bodied guitars—the legacy guitar brands announced big changes that will make 2018 a year to remember. Big unveilings from Taylor and Martin at the NAMM show in January set the tone, while a leadership change at Gibson left many hopeful for the future of the treasured brand.

As detailed in AG’s May cover story, Taylor’s Master Guitar Designer, Andy Powers, had been quietly working on a revolutionary new bracing approach that the high-volume maker initially rolled out on its top-of-the-line guitars. Using hand tools and CNC machines, Powers spent countless hours refining this new bracing design—dubbed V-Class bracing—which the company later spread across its line of U.S.–built Grand Auditorium guitars.

Meanwhile, Martin was working to redefine its flagship Standard series. In the most significant update in recent years to the company’s core line, each model remixes player-favorite features into what are essentially new benchmarks that manage to embrace a considerable legacy and also look forward.

After several years of controversy, a long-anticipated bankruptcy filing came from Gibson in May. Under the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, the company plans to refocus on making guitars after a reorganization paves the way for the company to shed debt brought on by former CEO Henry Juszkiewicz as he tried to turn Gibson into a lifestyle brand.

Closer to home, AG debuted a new series of short reviews spotlighting items that are too interesting to let pass by without notice—or to evaluate items that may have slipped under the magazine’s radar, but which readers keep mentioning as valuable gearbox additions.

All prices shown are street, or MAP (minimum advertised price).

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Cut through the hype around Taylor’s new V-Class bracing, and you have to focus on that all-important question: Does the guitar sound good? If the Taylor Builder’s Edition K14ce Grand Auditorium ($4,999) is any indication, the answer is an emphatic yes. The instrument had noticeably superior intonation and tonal clarity—and sustain unlike any we’ve ever heard. You expect greatness at this price, and the K14ce certainly delivers. But Taylor is showing players the benefits of this new idea in models costing significantly less than the showpiece reviewed in the May issue, which also featured an in-depth cover story on Andy Powers and his ideas behind this evolution.

Likewise, Martin reimagined its Standard series with a host of refinements that manage to boost the vintage look and deliver the goods when it comes to sound. To check out the changes to the line—including aging toner and antiqued white binding for a vintage vibe, high performance neck taper, scalloped bracing, open-gear tuners, and old-style logo—we auditioned a brand-new D-28 ($2,629). From what we’ve seen of the refreshed line, the new Standard series is one of those uncommon instances when the promise of new-and-improved changes to an old favorite rings absolutely true.

As a small guitar with a respectable acoustic tone and full-bodied plugged-in sound that comes in at $479, there’s plenty to like about the Art & Lutherie Roadhouse Q-Discreteadd that denim-blue finish and Gibson-style volume and tone knobs and you’ve got a guitar that stands out from everything else out there.


Though Guild has made great guitars in many sizes for close to 70 years, the company’s jumbo 12-strings are the ones that have long made players dewy-eyed and weak-kneed. The Guild F-512 ($3,699–$4,099) is the company’s flagship 12-string, and it dazzled us with its fantastic playability, heart-stopping good looks, and all of the luscious sound you hope for from a 12.

We were at first dismissive of the playwear that the company adds to its guitars, but if the proof is in the pudding, then the $8,295 Pre-War Guitars Model-HD (recently renamed Herringbone) delivered on the promise of a guitar that absolutely nails the feel, sound, and look of an 80-year-old, well-worn instrument. No matter who played it, within a few strums and solos, one of the most controversial guitars we’ve ever reviewed quickly became one of the finest. 

It might have been introduced in 2017, but we didn’t get our hands on the highly anticipated Collings Julian Lage Signature OM1 JL ($5,535 as reviewed in the April issue) until this year. Everyone who played this spruce-and-mahogany wonder—with its stunning array of tones, lightweight build, and old-school vibe—absolutely swooned.

Washburn’s Solo DeLuxe Auditorium ($849) and Grand Auditorium ($999) were two great-performing guitars that left a strong impression on everyone who played them. The Solo DeLuxe was especially impressive with a satisfying tone, setup, and feel that played and sounded like a guitar costing considerably more.

The weathered steel finish on our National T-14 Cutaway ($3,295) tester made the guitar seem like Captain Nemo built it for a trip 20,000 leagues under the sea. But more than looking maximum steampunk, the T-14 answers the prayers of players who have long cried out for the tricone’s signature liquefied tone in a layout that gives them maximum access to the highest frets.

There aren’t necessarily a whole lot of good options when it comes to affordable Selmer-style guitars, and that’s what made the Eastman DM1 ($999) we checked out in the October issue so special. This guitar really delivered the goods when it came to authentic-sounding gypsy-jazz rhythms and leads—and it looks the part as well.

Fender apparently recognized that many future acoustic guitarists will have started off on electric, and the company came out swinging with its new California series of acoustic guitars. Featuring necks that will feel friendly to Fender players, onboard electronics, and bold finishes, the Redondo Special ($699) and Malibu Classic ($799) we checked out were guitars that could call out to the electric guitarist looking for a stage-ready acoustic or an acoustic guitarist into a bold look.

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There are many paths to live sound, and sometimes the practicality of amplifying your guitar dictates the best solution. For players seeking only to magnify their acoustic sounds, the realistic capture from a mic is almost always preferable, even when it’s not practical. With its easy functionality and impressive performance, Audio Sprockets’ ToneDexter preamp and DI ($399) uses sophisticated programming to deliver a convincing microphone-like sound from an undersaddle piezo for the guitarist with uncompromising live-sound needs. It was easy to see why it quickly became a favorite of gigging players.

This year also saw a bumper crop of impressive combo amps for acoustic guitarists. We reviewed the Fishman Loudbox Mini Charge ($499), Genzler Acoustic Array Pro ($999), Henriksen The Blu ($999), Hughes & Kettner Era 1 ($1,199), and Mesa Rosette 300/Two:Eight ($1,149). Each had its charms, and all managed to pack gig-ready features into portable and powerful—and, most important, great-sounding—formats.

Like you’d expect, the Boss AD-10 Acoustic Preamp ($329) is ruggedly built and compact. It’s thoughtfully furnished, with functions like chorus, delay, looping, compression, and anti-feedback controls that make the unit as much a multi-effect processor for acoustic guitarists as a preamp. It’s definitely for the player who wants lots of acoustic capability in a small package.

L.R. Baggs released its Align series pedals—because sometimes you need a stompbox that does one or two things really well. With the Active DI ($159), Equalizer ($179), Reverb ($179), and Session ($179) to choose from, players can focus on the functions they need, with Baggs’ well-loved sounds and reliability, and faux-woodgrain chassis that stand out.

One of our first short reviews came from an idea sent in by readers who were raving about Bigrock Innovations Power Pins 2.0 replacement bridge pins. This quick, reversible bridge-pin swap added sustain, volume, and fuller tone to one of our trusty test guitars.


Cradle capos seem to be having a moment, and after checking out the G7th Heritage Capo ($139) and D’Addario Self-Centering Cradle Capo ($69), it’s easy to see why. These yolk-style capos evenly clamp down on the strings, so you don’t have to retune once you set them in place. They cost more than their clamp-style counterparts, but their functionality and elegant designs make them feel like fine machines indeed.

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AG asked readers to tell us about a piece of gear that they got in the last year that they love. Here’s a look at some of the things they said about their best purchases in 2018.


Guild M-20 and ToneRite “I’d wanted an all-mahogany guitar for several years and after a lot of comparison shopping, I bought a Guild made in the new Oxnard, California, plant. I loved the sound, but it was a little tight. It started to open up a bit with playing, so I bought a ToneRite and used the recommended initial treatment. It worked great on the M-20.” —mwguzman

Journey OF660 Carbon Fiber Overhead “Love the crystal-clear tone, great sustain, and imperviousness to the elements. Breaks down and packs into a TSA-approved backpack.” —wcknodell

Martin J-40 (2018 reimagined) “An often overlooked model in the Standard series. The new changes have improved the look and sound—it has just the right amount of bling, and a deep and balanced tone. I don’t use picks; the guitar is particularly responsive to my light fingerstyle attack and it projects well.” —joemuchka

Taylor Academy 10 “I’ve been taking lessons for a little more than a year now. Since I got my Academy, I have seen noticeable improvements in my playing. The guitar is easy to play, and it’s easy to notice its high quality of assembly. It’s also very beautiful.” —cmorales


Snark SN5 basic guitar tuner “Easy to use and the readout is large enough to see in daylight or in a dim club. For us working musicians with no roadies, gear needs to be simple, lightweight, sound good, be accurate, and reliable.” —anon.

BlueChip TAD50 Pick “It’s wearing in beautifully and sounds so much better than the cheap ones.” cornellgoldw


Roadie 2 Tuner “It takes the guesswork out of tuning. It’s also handy during rehearsals when one member has a 12-string and is constantly tweaking the tuning knobs. This tool keeps it in the right key!” —revtheodyke

Santa Cruz Parabolic Tension strings “I love the evenness between the different strings.” —anon.

Martin Tony Rice Bluegrass Retro strings “They sound broken-in and make my Collings D2H A sound like it’s made of wood, which it is, rather than tin, which can happen with some bright strings. The strings also make my guitar more versatile. I can go from bluegrass leads to Western swing rhythms that sound as if they’re coming from an archtop. It’s a good feeling when you find your preferred strings.” —holabaugh

Brass bridge pins “I’ve tried different bridge pins on an old Guild D-25 with Martin Marquis 80/20 phosphor bronze strings and nothing satisfied me. The brass pins made it pop with a clearer, more sustained ringing tone.” —fbuday

Stage & Studio

L.R. Baggs Align Reverb “It’s the most authentic, non-digital-sounding reverb I’ve ever used. Considering how difficult it can be to make an acoustic guitar actually sound acoustic when amplified, it’s great to have a reverb pedal that allows my guitar’s true personality to shine through.” —photojeep

Bose L1 Compact with Tone Match “It is the perfect sound system for solo gigs in small venues. You can fine-tune the sound to the specifics of your instrument and save the settings to re-create a sound that doesn’t isn’t at all boxy.” —dbeisegel


Fishman Loudbox Mini “Its features and tone make it perfect for me as a small yet powerful solo PA for one guitar and one mic.”


Ear Trumpet Labs Edwina “I don’t like any kind of pickup, yet I need guitar amplification and, occasionally, some EQ. Plus, a little reverb is nice in some rooms to blend sustain with vocals. Edwina allows all of that and still gives me the individual inspirational sounds of each of my 40-some guitars.” —mkrueger

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Greg Olwell
Greg Olwell

Greg Olwell is Acoustic Guitar's editor-at-large. He plays upright bass in several bands in the San Francisco Bay Area and also enjoys playing ukulele and guitar.

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