From the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Greg Olwell
In a normal year, golf clubs, bicycles, and guitars don’t have a whole lot in common, but 2020 was anything but normal. When dining out and attending sporting events and concerts became impossible, industry reports indicate that activities like golfing, bicycling, and playing musical instruments became wildly popular. Store inventories cleared out as people decided to pick up a new hobby or rekindle an old one. This led to extreme pressure on the supply chain at a time when guitar makers like Taylor, Martin, and Collings were forced to close for months.
With factories back in limited operation, the supply of fresh guitars remains far behind the pent-up demand at a time when shops are reporting sales of new and used guitars are at unprecedented levels—despite uncertain economic times. The trend among some of the bigger names in the acoustic market is familiar: introducing no-frills guitars that fit the reality of many players’ wallets. And mid-priced instruments continue to offer new features, such as innovative electronics, alternative woods, refined construction, and reliably good tones.
As for our part, to give you more of the up-to-date gear reviews and perspective that you expect from Acoustic Guitar, we added reviews of strings, accessories, stage and studio equipment, and, of course, guitars that you’ll find only on AcousticGuitar.com.
All prices shown are what you can expect to pay in a store or online, unless otherwise noted.
Guitars, Guitars, and More Guitars
Always quick to respond to change, Taylor introduced a new line of guitars made in the United States out of all-solid woods, at price points between the 200 and 300 series. The American Dream series applies a formula of stripped-down appointments and interesting wood choices, paired with the recent Grand Pacific shape and V-Class bracing. We checked out the Taylor American Dream AD27 ($1,399), with a mahogany top, sapele back and sides, and eucalyptus fretboard and bridge. Our reviewer likened the AD27’s playability and appearance to a pair of worn-in jeans, rich with Taylor’s signature sustain and treble clarity. There’s also a spruce-and-ovangkol model, the AD17, and both guitars are available with Taylor’s ES2 electronics for an additional $200.
We also looked at two new additions to Andy Powers’ Builder’s Edition guitars, the 324ce and 816ce ($2,999 and $3,999, respectively), which feature nonstandard appointments like integrated arm bevels, soundports, unique finishes, and more. The Grand Auditorium 324ce has a mahogany top on urban ash back and sides, harvested from Southern California street trees—a recipe for great frequency balance, sustain, and resonance. The larger Grand Symphony 816ce employs Lutz spruce and Indian rosewood with a distinctive soundport in its cutaway, producing abundant headroom and powerful tone.
With thriftiness in mind, Gibson added to its Studio line of updated classics made from spruce and sustainable walnut. An unbeatable buy for an all-solid, U.S.-made guitar, the Gibson G-45 Studio ($999) has “no lack of harmonic richness and overtones in the top end, and plenty of midrange projection, making it a solid choice as an all-purpose acoustic,” according to our reviewer.
With an offset waist, heel-less cutaway, and vivid blue rosette, the Martin SC-13E ($1,499) looks like it just dropped in from the future. Built from the ground up to be a high-performing acoustic-electric, this striking guitar has a solid Sitka spruce top and koa/mahogany laminated back and sides, along with a comfy, low-profile neck shaped with the electric player in mind. Our reviewer found that the SC-13E delivered Martin’s signature sound of great balance, detailed highs, woody mids, and compact lows. In the same price range, the spruce-and-maple Eastman AC622CE ($1,705) is a cutaway grand auditorium, offering a refined package with its chamfered edges, soundport, and tastefully unique inlays.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody who took notice of Fender’s American Acoustasonic Telecaster, the company expanded the innovative line with the Fender American Acoustasonic Stratocaster ($1,999). This Strat-shaped hybrid guitar features a resonating spruce top (optionally available in cocobolo or ziricote, for $3,299) over a hollowed-out mahogany body. As with the Tele version, a very interesting onboard electronics package lets players quickly select classic acoustic and electric guitar tones—or a blend of both.
With its exceptional sound, compact 00 size, and dynamic agility, the new Collings 001 14-Fret ($4,299) might be the ultimate couch guitar that’s also ready for just about any gig. And in a similar vein, the B&G Guitars Caletta ($3,499) is a 12-fret model that works well for fingerpickers and strummers who prefer comfort and balanced tones over a draft horse-sized instrument.
Midrange guitars can offer exciting packages with big playability and great tones. This year we saw several instruments that stood out in this category. Made with sustainable, all-solid woods (including a torrefied European spruce top), the Breedlove Organic Signature Concert Copper CE ($599) merges tasteful design with sustainably harvested woods for a guitar that is lively, punchy, and dry. With a pro-level L.R. Baggs pickup, the solid African mahogany Orangewood Sage Mahogany Live ($945) produces thick and chewy mids, glittering highs, and nice low-end definition.
The PRS SE T60E Tonare ($1,049) uses the company’s hybrid X-bracing, combining a traditional X brace with fan bracing usually seen in classical guitars. This spruce-ziricote offering features PRS’ trademark headstock in a guitar with bold low-end and bold visuals. The elegant-looking Washburn Bella Tono Elegante S24S ($469) hit the target for a rich tone with full clarity and projection in a smallish body with a comfortable neck. Besides its distinctive headstock, the D’Angelico Tammany Premier LS ($299) is an acoustic-electric mahogany OM that may have little in common with the archtops made by the company’s masterful namesake, but it delivers a lot for the money.
With a unique finish and some bracing tweaks that distinguish it from other guitars in its lineup, the limited-edition Recording King Dirty 30’s Deluxe Single-0 ($449) has all-solid woods and electronics in a small-bodied guitar that looks like a treasure from grandpa’s attic. A remake of a rare 1960s dreadnought, the Epiphone Masterbilt Excellente ($899) is a strummer-friendly guitar with onboard electronics. Rounding out our midrange coverage was the Lava Me 2, a $799 guitar with onboard effects and a one-piece carbon-fiber body that’s impervious to the elements. This unusual instrument delivers surprisingly good tones and is available in several outrageous colors.
Nylon-string guitars can offer players a lot of expressiveness and comfort, and makers are offering instruments with features that close the gap between the familiar feel of a steel-string and the dulcet tones of a classical guitar. With a cutaway, relatively short scale and narrow nut, and electronics, New World Guitars’ P640S FS ($1,900) was designed by luthier Kenny Hill to appeal to the fingerstyle steel-string guitarist who wants to paint with a new brush.
With its onboard signal processing that delivers reverb and chorus effects without an amp, the Yamaha CG-TA TransAcoustic ($650) shoehorns a lot of fun and inspiration into a comfortable nylon-string. At the other end of the price spectrum, the Lowden WL-35 Jazz ($7,600) shows the maker’s attention to detail and premium woods in a parlor-size nylon with clarity and quickness that works great for pick and fingerstyle playing.
As for resonator guitars, the brilliantly voiced Beard A-Model Odyssey ($3,900) has a spider-cone setup and delivers warm and full sounds with more bass power than you might expect from a spider-cone model. At $1,149, the Gold Tone PBS D Paul Beard Signature is a Dobro-style squareneck lap steel that covers all of the basics for a player looking for high performance in a traditional package.
The Brazilian rosewood and 41-style appointments added considerably to the cost of our most expensive test model, the Preston Thompson 000-14SBA ($15,490), but the result was a guitar with the sort of breathtaking and spectacular tone and craftsmanship you’d expect from such a rich guitar. Oppositely, the least costly instrument we’ve reviewed, the Loog Mini ($79 direct) is a child’s (or adult’s) three-steel-string gateway to playing guitar.
Strings and Things
There have never been so many options when it comes to guitar strings, and we checked out a couple of promising new sets. SIT American Roots Monel ($8.44) strings cater to the folks who hunger for the warm sounds of the strings of yesteryear. Sonotone positions itself as a premium string maker, and our reviewer found the Symphonic phosphor-bronze strings ($18.99) to have great, bright (and not brash) sound and sustain.
If you’ve ever had your guitar slip off your strap, or just live in fear of it happening, then look for the $19.99 Music Nomad Acousti-Lok. It replaces your acoustic-electric guitar’s endpin jack with a clever device that allows you to use a strap lock with a guitar fitted with an output jack/strap button.
An organic material called casein has been finding favor with some flatpick fanatics and boutique pick makers. Accessory powerhouse D’Addario now offers its own heavy-gauge Casein picks (starting at $21.99) that deliver clarity and presence while mellowing out those harsh tones.
Stage and Studio
Until mid-March, 2020 was turning into a great year for gigs, but since gatherings have been put on hold, stages have seemed lonely and quiet. When the time arrives for more performances, there are some nice new sound reinforcement tools for acoustic guitarists that are worth knowing about.
On the smaller side, the Orange Crush Acoustic 30 ($399) is a 30-watt, two-channel 1×8 combo that can be powered by ten AA batteries or via a wall outlet, so it’s something of a busker’s delight. With five channels, 400 watts of power, two eight-inch speakers, and a one-inch horn, the Schertler Roy ($2,088) caught our attention when it debuted two years ago. With its bountiful input options, semi-parametric EQ, and quality onboard effects, the Roy has as much power and flexibility as many of the portable PAs on the market, but in a compact combo form. Like the Schertler, the AER MM200 ($1,999) wasn’t new for 2020, but this compact, powerful combo amp warranted coverage. A signature model for Monte Montgomery, it delivers 200 watts to its twin eight-inch speakers and turns hard-hitting, piezo-squawking strums into punchy, focused tone.
It’s near impossible to match the sound quality of a guitar through a good microphone, and we checked out a few good ones. The DPA 4099 CORE ($619) condenser mic improves the clarity, openness, and consistency of its predecessor to give guitarists more natural sounds for recording or stage use. This petite mic attaches to your guitar using a safe bracket and a flexible gooseneck, so that you can dial in exactly the sound you want.
Just as guitars come in many flavors, so do microphones. For the home recording enthusiast, this can quickly become an expensive obsession. The Townsend Labs Sphere L22 microphone system ($1,499) uses a large diaphragm mic that can be used on its own or with a collection of plug-ins that mimic many desirable (and fabulously expensive) mics and has software that allows you to change the mic after recording.
Magnetic pickups can offer players tones they just can’t get any other way, and Curtis Novak is one of the most respected pickup builders in the game. Novak’s magnetic soundhole pickups include a very hip gold foil ($225) patterned after vintage DeArmonds, and a slimline humbucker ($195). Our reviewer found that these pickups offered warm sounds and controllable feedback.
Effects give players tremendous power on stage or in the studio. Looking sweet in their woodgrain cases, the L.R. Baggs Align Series Delay and Chorus pedals ($179 each) enhance and expand your guitar’s sonic possibilities while preserving its acoustic character. With four slots for pedals, a built-in DI, tuner, and speaker simulator, the Nexi Acoustic Pedalboard ($229) aims to check all the boxes that an acoustic guitarist might need in a pedalboard. The Nexi system includes a reverb pedal and you can add the company’s compressor, looper, or chorus—all analog with true bypass—or your own favorites.
Though the humble DI is less than glamorous, its ability to prepare your guitar tone for the mixing board is critical. The Radial HDI High Definition Studio DI ($799) is a pro-quality DI with extensive outputs for flexible routing for the studio. With construction rugged enough for studio or stage use, the HDI has two signal paths, one clean (with an optical compressor) and one heavily adjustable using a Color control, which can add anything from clean warmth to crunchy distortion.
Whether dropping off repairs or taking lessons or trying out guitars, almost nothing about shopping for guitars and accessories is like it was before the pandemic. Richard Johnston of Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, says, “For people who play music, it’s made playing music more important to them. We also have a number of people who are saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to play guitar and I just didn’t have any time.’”
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But now, many have the time—and stores are struggling to keep up with the demand. From online powerhouses to smaller brick-and-mortar shops, I spoke with a few of the retailers navigating new challenges that have made them reorganize their businesses under new guidelines. I also asked them for their takes on top gear for 2020.
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
Steve Miklas, owner, Acoustic Music Works, Pittsburgh, PA: We’ve focused on repairs and internet sales and have really upped our social-media game on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, as well as our monthly newsletter. Sales of musical instruments via our website slowed in March but picked up in April and May, and by June hit record levels. July and August were also very strong, so we are on track to have a great year, in spite of—or partially because of—the new reality of social isolation and quarantine. It seems that folks stuck working from home and in quarantine decided to take our advice and pass the time with a new guitar, banjo, or mandolin.
Frank Navarro, director of Guitar Gallery operations at Sweetwater, Fort Wayne, IN: We moved into our new 480,000-square-foot distribution center in February 2020—just before the pandemic hit—with the mindset that we’d have plenty of space to handle the current needs of the business, with room to grow. We soon realized that wasn’t the case and we started utilizing 50 percent more production area by adding a third line for processing and creating a new weekend shift. As a result, we just completed a 50,000-square-foot addition that makes even more space for growth.
When the state of Indiana issued stay-at-home orders, founder and president Chuck Surack continued to pay everyone and Sweetwater has not laid off or furloughed a single person. For those employees whose jobs weren’t able to be done from home, we found other ways for them to contribute and stay employed. We had to change some of the workflow to meet the needs of our employees and customers. Despite challenges, we were able to pivot quickly, and sales have skyrocketed, with some months surpassing our best ever. Added sales brought the need for additional support so we’ve added new team members to keep up with the existing guitar demand and influx of gear as it is received, inspected, and photographed.
Richard Johnston, co-founder, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, Palo Alto, CA: We don’t need as much retail staff because we don’t have the same number of people in the store, but the email load is off the charts because everyone has to make appointments to come into the store. We ask people to tell us what they want to try out, because if we have three people wanting to try out resophonic guitars, we have a problem because they’re all in the same room. We’re also actively seeking used instruments because we can’t get enough new instruments from our regular suppliers to meet the demand.
Our guitar instructor, Carol McComb, found a downside because she couldn’t teach classes here, but she was able to reconnect with old students from all over the country through video lessons and classes and find new students.
Have you noticed any changes in what is popular?
Navarro: People are playing and buying more instruments than I’ve seen in my 25-plus years in the music industry. There are days where we receive a shipment from a vendor and the bulk of that shipment is already sold and waiting to go out to our customers. The mid-priced guitars have seen a bit of an increase in demand, but that doesn’t mean sales have slowed down on guitars at the higher price points. Our customers are still buying Martin D-28s, Gibson J-45s, and Taylor 814ces at an amazing rate.
Johnston: There is an interest in more intimate guitars—the light-construction instruments that are small enough that you’re holding them rather than crawling over them.
Miklas: Brands that have been particularly resilient for us include Eastman, Waterloo, McPherson, and Calton. Also, consignments have picked up, and we have our choice of high-end acoustics being consigned by Baby Boomers who are all in the mode of “thinning the herd.”
Michael John Simmons, Gryphon: I really like all of the Builder’s Editions that Andy Powers at Taylor has been coming up with recently. They are solidly in the Taylor tradition but expand on it in some intriguing ways. I’m particularly taken with the 652ce, a guitar that draws on the 12-string’s long history and modernizes the design in a thoughtful way. Martin’s new SC-13E is a guitar I find myself playing often in idle moments. The cutaway is an amazing piece of woodworking and makes it a dream to play above the 12th fret, a place I don’t often visit on an acoustic guitar.
I’ve also been experimenting with different flatpicks and have been blown away by how different shapes and materials affect my tone and technique. For example, the beveled edge of the Wegen M350 just glides across the strings, and the thickness of the pick mellows the tone a bit and tempers the brightness of an acoustic archtop. I also really like the Dunlop 206, another thick pick with rounded edges, and one that is much cheaper than a Wegen. By varying the tightness of my grip, I find I can get a much wider dynamic range from my picking than I can with a thinner pick.
Navarro: I have two favorites and they fall on different ends of the spectrum. The PRS SE Parlor guitar that was introduced earlier this summer; they did a great job at a really reasonable price point. My other favorite acoustic this year is Taylor’s 816ce Builder’s Edition. The volume that this guitar can put out with the clarity you get from it is something I lean toward, and the soundport built in the cutaway makes you do a double take.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.