From the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG OLWELL
“Giant steps” might just be the motto of guitar makers in 2019. It was a year in which we saw the results of several large makers looking to the future of the guitar and daring to do something different. Martin hit the ejector-seat button on its popular Vintage series to launch the new Modern Deluxe line; Taylor built on last year’s buzz around a new bracing system to debut an all-new guitar that’s unlike anything they’ve made before; and Fender dropped an ambitious new acoustic/electric hybrid. Each move stirred the souls of the brands’ biggest fans, and you can say one thing for sure: These companies aren’t treading water. They’re challenging their own legacies by rethinking what can be done—and they’re delivering some of their finest guitars yet.
We also changed here at AG, adding gear reviews that exclusively run on our website. It’s a move that helps us keep up with the many cool guitars and products that come out during the year and in some instances gives us the chance to look at gear that might not make it into the pages of the magazine. You’re missing out if you haven’t seen these reviews, because they cover a diverse bunch of equipment that’s definitely worth knowing about. We also began looking back regularly at pieces of gear from the last few years that perhaps didn’t receive the attention they deserved on their debut, but have found many fans since.
Plainly put, the Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster ($1,999 street) really pushes people’s buttons. That’s understandable, because Fender is famously good at making electric guitars and has a checkered past with acoustics. In a few important ways, the Acoustasonic is profoundly different than anything else out there, and we found that it delivers on its promise of providing inspiring and useful acoustic and electric tones.
The Acoustasonic’s thin body is not capable of producing the volume or full-bodied sounds of a good dreadnought, but that’s not the point. Instead the guitar uses a resonating spruce top on a hollowed-out mahogany body as the source for an innovative electronics system that lets players quickly dial up a selection of acoustically rich and exciting sounds, classic Tele sting, or a mix of both—all in a comfortable instrument that is making believers out of some skeptics and maybe even a few haters.
By jettisoning its Vintage line, C.F. Martin & Co. ended confusion about the lack of differences between the Vintage and Authentic series. In doing so, Martin carved out a new space for the Modern Deluxe line, which adopts such essential ingredients as a VTS-treated spruce top, dovetail neck joint, and hide glue to hold everything together, along with very modern features like a carbon-fiber bridge plate, Liquidmetal bridge pins, and gold frets. We found that the OM-28 Modern Deluxe ($3,999) is everything a good OM should be: tonally balanced, dynamically responsive, and rewarding to play.
Taylor rolled out guitars featuring its V-Class bracing and also debuted a new guitar shape: the Grand Pacific, a rounded dreadnought with a wide waist that offers a tone that’s darker, rounder, and, dare we say it, more vintage-y than any Taylor before. We looked at the Grand Pacific 717 ($2,899) and 517e Builder’s Edition ($2,999) and found that Andy Powers—the company’s master luthier and newly named partner—has some vision for where he can take Taylor with his designs.
In the resonator department, for under $400, Recording King makes it easy for you to get into the game with the Rattlesnake, a very affordable choice for players who want to hear some of that single-cone growl and chime. National Reso-Phonic recently began offering the M-14T Thunderbox ($3,060), a 14-fret single-cone offering with a mahogany body that’s one inch deeper than the standard version. We found that this translated to a deeper, richer tone with added warmth and complexity that surrendered none of the resonator’s volume and power. Add to that National’s excellent construction and setup, and you’ve got an uncommonly useable resonator.
With its stable of quality guitars inspired by classics from the 1930s, Waterloo has created its own niche. This year the Collings subsidiary debuted the WL-AT ($4,500), an archtop that signals to the Gibson’s mid-’30s L-30, but made with Waterloo’s unmatched quality for players craving what reviewer Joe Henry called “under-utilized color dimension” not available in small archtop guitars new or old.
Farida is a relatively new player on the U.S. scene, and we checked out two guitars from the Chinese maker’s Old Town series, the OT-65 and the OT-25 ($774 and $720, respectively). The OT-65 is a contemporary take on the classic round-shouldered dreadnought; we liked its deep tones. We also dug the less boomy sounds of the smaller OT-25, which takes its cue from Gibson’s LG-3. The Iris Guitar Company OG Standard ($1,999) also explores the small-bodied slope-shoulder LG shape in a surprisingly affordable, luthier-built guitar aimed at working players.
Thanks to its flawless construction and choice materials, including an Adirondack spruce top and old Honduran mahogany that had been curing for decades, the Alvarez-Yairi Honduran DYM60HD ($2,699) was memorable for its silky playability and resonant sounds that only come from a quality mahogany dreadnought. We took another dreadnought for a ride and found that no matter whatever exciting things could be said about a double-top guitar, the Eastman DT30D ($1,999) cranked out snappy, powerful sounds like a guitar that costs a lot more. The Collings C100 (from $4,600) has a relatively deep body—4-3/4 inches—and our reviewer, Tony Marcus, thought the guitar would serve a singer-songwriter who’s looking for a stage partner that delivers tone in a manageable size. Similarly, the roadworthy Sheeran by Lowden S02 ($1,225) packs a potent guitar in a small but deep body, with many of Lowden’s signature touches and grand tones.
Making effective acoustic bass guitars is not easy, but Guild knows how to do it. Two new instruments we tested took different paths to bass bliss. The Jumbo Junior has a short scale (23-3/4 inches) and small body, while the 30-1/2-inch scale B-240E uses a jumbo guitar shape. These basses impressed with their big tones and ergonomic comfort, and at $499 each, they make it easy to get in on the grooving side of music. Guild also excels at 12-string guitars and recently reintroduced the F-412, now renamed the F-512 Maple ($3,699), a jumbo with an arched, laminated back; it boasts a sparkling sound and dazzling looks.
STAGE & STUDIO
The era of sweet-sounding, uber-portable acoustic amplifiers is here. One of the latest trends in features for gigging guitarists is amps that are Bluetooth compatible, so you can stream a choice playlist from your smartphone or tablet through your amp and keep the party going while you go see a man about a horse. Henriksen jumped in with the Blu ($999), a Bluetooth-ready version of its popular two-channel Bud amp. The Blu shaves one channel from the Bud, saving you $300 in the process, all of which makes this a pretty sweet option for guitarists who may also find themselves playing DJ between sets at a gig. The solid-state, two-channel Genzler Acoustic Array Mini ($699) captivated us with its excellent sound, small footprint, and host of features, such as tasteful effects.
A good-sounding preamp/DI with basic features can make life onstage or in the studio so much easier. We tried out a few that delivered great sounds at different ends of the price spectrum. Though it eschews some of the gig-ready features that many acoustic guitarists find essential, like a notch filter, boost switch, or mute, the Orange Acoustic Pre ($899) is a stereo preamp and DI that delivers a great tube sound “in spades without compromise—and with a distinct and musical personality,” according to reviewer Doug Young. Meanwhile, the much lower-priced Palmer Acoustic Pocket Amp ($199) “didn’t have a bad sound” in it and it had plenty of controls for EQ and feedback resistance in a compact package.
There is much to be said for simplicity. The Sunnaudio Stage DI ($299) exemplifies that approach in a stage-ready DI that features only basic input and outputs, plus controls for treble, bass, and volume. That’s it. Just quick adjustability in an elemental, useful design. CEntrance MixerFace R4 ($349) is a rechargeable audio interface and mixer for laptops and mobile devices. Its built rugged for players who need durability and pro-level sounds in an acoustic-guitar-to-digital-interface. The CloudVocal iSolo Choice ($499), a wireless condenser mic that fits in your guitar’s soundhole, captivated our reviewer by offering a tone that was more acoustic-sounding than is possible from most pickups. For YouTube videos, podcasts, or video lessons with a great teacher far away from home, and good mic can boost the results immeasurably, and the Blue Ember XLR mic ($99) showed itself to be a smart choice for anyone getting into recording.
STRINGS & ACCESSORIES
String giant D’Addario rolled out additions to its new XT series of strings, adding two sets for acoustic guitar, phosphor bronze and 80/20 bronze alloys, available in a range of gauges. At $12.99, they cost a little more than most D’Addario sets, but we felt that the treatment to extend life, the quick stability of the strings, and their punchiness and bass response on flattops and archtops made the few extra bucks worthwhile.
While we’re trained to think of strings in terms of their gauges, Santa Cruz Parabolic Tension Strings ($18) encourage us to try a different approach: string tension. Coming in low- or mid-tension versions, this collaboration with Roger Siminoff, the banjo and mandolin parts maker, prioritizes a balanced feel across the strings and a harmonic output that led reviewer Sean McGowan to proclaim, “These strings are definitely worth obsessing over.”
Many of today’s acoustic guitar players use instruments with smaller necks and lighter strings than what was common 40 years ago. This change means that some of the older capo designs might be too large and clamp down too hard for today’s guitarists. Enter the Kyser Low-Tension Quick-Change Capo ($19.95) with a spring that’s 25 percent less tense than the classic model, which makes using it easier than ever and less likely to squeeze your guitar out of tune. The G7th Performance 3 Capo is a lightweight and easy-to-use refinement of the company’s stylish and functional capos that makes its $57.99 price worth it.
For $59.99, the GrooveTech Acoustic Guitar Tech Kit offers a wide-ranging and compact tool kit for light guitar maintenance tasks, such as adjusting a truss rod, changing strings, or perfecting a setup. It makes it a good gift for the guitar player in your life, even if that person is you.
Readers Sound Off
AG asked readers to tell us about a piece of gear they bought in the last year. Here’s a look at a few of the things they shared as their best purchases of 2019.
Taylor 614ce: “After a lengthy trial-and-error and testing period, it ended up being the hands-down winner for what I needed it for, which is primarily plugged-in praise and worship music.” —Gredwine88
Santa Cruz PJ: “I wanted an acoustic that was a better fit for me and still gave me the good tone and volume that I was used to. The Santa Cruz is a small guitar with a big sound, and it fits me better than the lovely old Morgan jumbo I used as a trade.” —riverbank
Martin D12X1AE 12-string: “I had wanted a Martin 12-string since my early 20s, and I didn’t want to make guitar payments.” —mborsick
Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster: “I tried a friend’s and fell in love with it.” —miguel404
Hill Guitar Co. New World Player: “It simply sounded better and played easier than any other classical guitar I tested in its price range.” —jim
Gibson J-45 Studio: “I’ve always wanted a Gibson acoustic and tried the J-15, G-45, and J-45 models. The value for my money seemed to go toward the J-45 Studio.” —Padrejohnb
1937 National Duolian: “I was able to get it and have Marc Schoenberger rebuild it for $1,000 less than buying a new one. I read about Schoenberger rebuilding a resonator in AG, and I live only 150 miles from him—so thank you, AG.” —bo2walk
D’Addario Humiditrak: “It’s a great way to keep track of the conditions your instruments are being subjected to and as a reminder to not let them get too dry.” —rlf241959
G7th Performance 3 Capo: “I was attracted to its features after seeing ads and the review in AG, and I thought it might work better than the capos I was using.” —bobwrobel
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Fred Kelly Freedom fingerpicks: “I like the sound of fingerpicks and do not want to deal with long fingernails. I am hopeful this design will give the control and sound that I want.” —srmac2007
Acoustic Remedy guitar cabinet: “I got the cabinet because it is a safe, humidity-controlled environment for my more valuable guitars.” —Seafiction
D’Addario Nickel Bronze strings: “I was curious about the sound of these strings, and different strings are an inexpensive way to alter/upgrade the sound of your guitar. The nickel bronze offers a unique voice that is cool to use on one of my instruments.” —srmac2007
Stage & Studio
Fishman Loudbox Mini Charge: “I needed an acoustic guitar amplifier that could be played at a wedding in a beautiful remote setting.” —Pmtnroy
Tonewood Amp: “After seeing Tonewood ads in AG, I spent a lot of time online watching their promos. I feel it was a good investment.” —yodaskate
Cling On Pickup: “I found one for a good price on Reverb and liked the ease of installation and no modification to my guitar. Sounds as good as advertised.” —joemuchka
Henriksen Bud combo amp and T-Rex Soulmate Acoustic preamp: “I bought many things this year, but I must mention these two items. After trying everything, I found the best acoustic preamp and amp.” —russell
Audio Sprockets ToneDexter preamp/DI and Roadie 2 guitar tuner: “Playing live through the ToneDexter makes my guitar sound as close as I’ve heard to its actual unamplified tone. The Roadie 2 allows me to tune my guitars quickly and perfectly, even when playing out with loud background noise—I use it all the time with all my instruments, at home and when playing out.”—garycparks1
Genzler Acoustic Array Pro combo amp: “Because it’s awesome. I’ve never liked the sound of the dome tweeter in most acoustic amps. The mini array in this amp is a superior idea and it’s the best amp for a nylon-string guitar I’ve ever heard.” —randywimer
Boss TU-3W Chromatic Tuner: “I love the accuracy and the blue-on-black light works best for me. Plus, it’s built like a Sherman Tank.” —paulie.decesare
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.