The new Preston Thompson guitar arrives, as carefully packed instruments do, mute and with its strings completely slackened. As I twist its Waverly butterbean-knob tuners, it really comes to life. I can sense its great resonance and sonic potential just from hearing the open strings coming up to pitch.
Fully tuned, the Thompson is a dreadnought at its finest. It’s got a huge velocity of sound and great clarity, whether strummed or fingerpicked. Its robust but not overwhelming bass notes are the perfect match for its clear and singing trebles. And the more I play the guitar, the better it feels—it seems to start opening up not long after I unbox it.
In his workshop, in Sisters, Oregon, Thompson—along with a small team of fellow guitar makers—builds instruments inspired by prewar classics. The line includes everything from a size-2 parlor to a 000 to a dreadnought. With its mahogany back and sides and Martin Style 18- inspired appointments, our review model, the D-MA, is one of Thompson’s least fancy offerings. But it’s a formidable guitar. Like all of Thompson’s dreadnoughts, it’s based on the 1937 Martin D-28 once owned by the late Charles Sawtelle of the bluegrass band Hot Rize. Thompson had the opportunity to scrutinize this famous herringbone dread and to take measurements from it for use in his own designs.
The D-MA boasts an Adirondack spruce soundboard—and a nice one at that, with a lovely reddish coloring and a bit of bear-claw figuring. Other true-to-vintage specs include hand-carved, scalloped Adirondack braces; a dovetail neck joint, hide-glue construction on the body; and a thin nitrocellulose lacquer finish, glossy on the top, back, and sides.
But the D-MA is not a slavish copy. The neck has a traditional soft-V shape, a bit shallower than that on the typical prewar dreadnought. This streamlined profile, coupled with a sleek satin finish, lends the Thompson excellent modern playability.
The craftsmanship of our D-MA is superb, inside and out. The bracing, kerfing, and cloth reinforcement strips are all meticulous, and the body’s finish has been buffed to a faultless gloss. And without any adjustments, the setup is perfect. The frets are impeccably dressed and polished and the slots on the nut and saddle are cleanly articulated. The action is low, but not overly so, and the neck’s relief has been dialed in just right.
A Bluegrass Workhorse—& Beyond
Given the D-MA’s power—no doubt benefitting largely from its Adirondack top—it’s a joy to play even the simplest things on this guitar. The instrument has a quick response and an open voice. Cowboy chords take on an expansive quality, and you can really feel the bass notes vibrating against your chest. Diatonic melodies sound rich and present as well.
The D-MA arrived at an opportune moment; when I received it I was preparing some of the notation for this bluegrass-themed issue, and the dreadnought is, of course, the instrument of choice for bluegrass pickers. It’s satisfying to work through some classic G runs on the Thompson. The instrument sounds rich and full even when picked with a light touch—there’s an ideal balance between single bass notes and chordal accents, as well as between the open strings and the fretted notes.
The dreadnought is the instrument of choice for bluegrass pickers. And it’s satisfying to work through some classic G runs on the PK Thompson.
The guitar’s balance and clarity is particularly evident when I play through national flatpicking champ Scott Fore’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Blackberry Blossom.” The melody is stated in three different octaves, and the guitar has a consistently strong sound in each one, across all six strings, for both regular and cross-picking. Also, a portion of the melody in the arrangement is negotiated using natural harmonics, and those on the D-MA are brilliant and sparkling.
It’s a terrific instrument for bluegrass, but the D-MA responds equally well to in the chord-melody jazz arrangements, country-blues fingerpicking, and other styles. And it sounds just as vibrant in standard tuning as it does in D A D G A D or open C.
It’s quite an agreeable guitar.
Priced at $4,875, an instrument this good doesn’t come cheap. But on the other hand, it’s much less expensive than a prewar example. Whether for performing or recording, the D-MA would make an ideal go-to guitar for the serious picker: an heirloom-quality instrument that sounds excellent out of the box, and which is sure to only sound better with age.
BODY: Non-cutaway dreadnought size; solid Adirondack spruce top; solid mahogany back and sides; gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish.
NECK: Mahogany neck; ebony fretboard; 25.4-inch scale length; 1 3/4-inch nut; Waverly tuners; satin nitrocellulose finish.
OTHER: Elixir Nanoweb phosphor bronze strings (.013–.056); hardshell case.
MADE IN: USA
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.