Things have been slow on the blog for the last couple of weeks, but not behind the scenes. We've got some great new content coming in January. We'll be taking a look at master builder, Kevin Ryanand one of his students, Garren DakessianofLoucin Guitars. Other builders will include Marshall Bruneand Ron Tracy, and hopefully a word from McPherson Guitars as well. Also, we'll be looking at a couple of takes on the hybrid, or cross-over, guitar for the boutique market by Todd Lunneborgand Tim Reede. We'll also here more from Todd Lunneborg on tap tuning and the voicing process. Also, we'll talk a bit about the importance of humidity control and take a look at a new product by Acoustic Remedy Cases.
I had the good fortune of hearing a great player on an early McPherson during a wine tasting at a fantastic local Italian restaurant, Nonna Rosa's. The player was Scott Fraser, and the sound was just beautiful. Similar to many a classic Jazz archtop in tone, but somewhat brighter with its own unique voice (see audio samples below). I'm currently contacting McPherson to learn more about their official history, but according to Scott only 26 of these were ever made. I'll post more details when I get a chance to talk to McPherson.
You can check out Scott's website to here some more samples and read his bio, but the long and short (from my one evening listening front-and-center) is that he's a very versatile, capable player who knows a great guitar when he plays one. He's been playing his McPherson for 35 years, and will likely continue to do so for the rest of his career. I had a chance to play it myself, and I immediately understood why - it plays fast, feels great in hand and has a good sound and unique voice.
I apologize for the Minnesota-centric nature of this blog as I get started, but hey - we've got good builders, and it's cheaper and easier to start local. I'm open to suggestions for ways to get some wider variety up here - I'll be looking for contributors and opportunities to try all kinds of different instruments and everything related to them. For next week, watch for more guitars by more builders, including an original McPherson and probably a look at some world class inlay.
Charlie Hoffman is well known both as a builder and for his world-class repair shop, Hoffman Guitars. Many of his guitars are fairly conventional, but Charlie has a knack for subtle, beautiful combinations. Subtlety is one of Charlie's trademarks (in his building anyway). He cares little for extravagant inlay or anything that qualifies as the boutique guitar world's equivalent of "bling." What he does care for are guitars built to be played. He has spent nearly 40 years in this pursuit, and continually builds on the name he has built. He has made great guitars for years, but they somehow keep getting better and better. His latest work is easily his best, providing a great balance of presence, volume, tone with subtly unique and modern aesthetics. The american market for his guitars has taken notice, but are probably still a little underpriced for the quality he's putting out now - and the european market is starting to show some strong interest. So, whether you are in Brighton, England or in Minneapolis, Minnesota - stop into the best guitar shop you can find and try one out.
This particular guitar is Sapele with Koa accents, and it doesn't just play - it sings. The tone is a combination of crisp, deep bass and shimmering trebles, and the sustain has a refreshingly even decay. The body is very comfortable to hold and play - the arm bevel is a very nice touch. Some older enthusiasts may remember Stu Mossman's guitars. Charlie learned a great deal from Stu, and it still shows in his work - the same kind of solid build allows for heavier strings without limiting playability. It really is a joy to play.
Top: European Spruce
Back & Sides: Sapele
Binding & Bevel: Rosewood
Rosette & Purfling: Koa
Neck: Mahogany, Maple & Rosewood
Nut & Saddle: Bone
The lack of binding in the center of the back is a nice touch that really accentuates the Sapele
Jim Olson is one of the most recognizable names in hand-made guitars, especially in Minnesota and the surrounding area. Today I'm taking a look at his latest foray into the art guitar market. This is his "Tiger Guitar," made of Tiger Myrtle and Snakewood. He commissioned world-renowned inlay artist, Larry Robinson to do the tiger-themed inlay, and the pins, nut and saddle are fossilized walrus Ivory. This is definitely a collector's guitar. It will be featured in the hardcover release of my book, Meeting the Makers: Minnesota's Finest Guitar Builders, due out this spring. The book already included photos of the guitar in process, so adding the finished product as a key piece of Jim's repertoire seemed like a natural fit.
The inspiration for this guitar was a very unique and special set of wood from Tasmania, appropriately named "Tiger Myrtle" for its incredible color and figure not unlike that of a Tiger's fur. Featuring a special "sinker" Redwood top and ebony bindings, this guitar represents one of the finest pieces Jim has ever made. A Brazilian rosette with New Zealand Paua shell center ring and top edge create a dramatic contrast against the dark sinker redwood. Peghead back is also Tiger Myrtle with ebony binding. The neck heel cap is inset with Tiger Myrtle and bound with ebony. Fossilized walrus Ivory nut, saddle, and bridge pins. Given the "Collector Series" designation, this guitar's serial number is #1313 representing the 1,313th guitar Jim has made. Comes with a Deluxe Calton flight case. Priced at $45,000.
So, how does it play? How does it sound? Honestly, Jim had another Tiger Myrtle guitar - identical besides the jumbo gold frets and all the inlay - which sounded and played better. The jumbo frets made the "Tiger" a bit awkward in hand, and the price tag made playing it a little nerve wracking. Don't get me wrong, this is still a James A. Olson guitar. It does play quite well and sound great, but it's designed to be a collector's guitar. A player would likely enjoy one of his "cheaper" models more. However, for the collector - the inlay is stunning, and all of the pieces fit into the theme to create an incredible art piece that is sure to be well worthwhile for the right investor.
I don't know a lot of builders that still have their first guitar or even the first of any design they tried. Reason being that first attempts are learning experiences, and the more obsessive a builder is about their work the more likely they are to have smashed, burned or otherwise destroyed the flawed products of those learning experiences. Today I have the pleasure of taking a look at a builder who resisted that urge and kept his very first archtop, Tim Reede.
This particular guitar does have some cosmetic defects from getting banged around as a show piece in the 5 or so years since Tim first built it. However, the first thing I notice (knowing that it is a first attempt) is that it doesn't look, feel, play or sound like a first attempt. I definitely echo the sentiments of the judges that saw it at the first ASIA Student Guitar Review Tim attended: it would make a fine studio instrument. It's solidly built, feels great to play and has the classic sound you would expect.
One interesting feature that I really appreciated as an acoustic guy is the saddle in the bridge. Tim says he avoided an adjustable bridge because he doesn't like the effect the metal screws have on the tone, and makes the action adjustable via interchangeable saddles.
Top: European Spruce Back and Sides: European Maple - Both are Hand Carved Fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece, head cap and body binding: Cocobolo Fingerboard and Head stock binding: Curly Maple Inlays: Gold and Mother of Pearl Pickup: Hand Made by Kent Armstrong Tuning Machines: Gold Gotoh Keystones Bracing: "Parallel" Scale length: 25" - Lower Bout is 17" Finish: Amber Shellac and Mcfadden Lacquer
On a personal note: headstocks make or break a guitar for me. It's a silly thing since they typically affect little beyond the aesthetics. In any case, I like this one a lot.
Here's one that I've been playing for a long time (about 6 years): an experimental stage acoustic by Rob Ristow. The lack of binding and other frills is due to the fact that it was only meant as an experiment and never meant to be sold, the wear and tear is because I wanted to buy it anyway and subsequently played it everywhere from Poland to New Orleans.
The basic premise was to "build it like a bridge," according to Rob Ristow, the guitar's builder. What he meant was that the bracing is quite abnormal - it's a narrow "X" style bracing that isn't continuously attached to the top (leaving little arches that look like bridges).
It certainly has a different look, but the construction is quite solid. It's held up quite well despite the true oil finish and climates I've subjected it to. The wear on the top is really just due to my (former) playing style, and is now covered by a transparent pick guard.
So, how does it sound? Also different. The attack is minutely delayed, sometimes giving it a natural reverb-type quality. The tone is great for featuring intricate playing with balanced highs and mids that really cut through a mix. The lower notes are thin, but it is a stage acoustic - designed to minimize feedback and pack light. It is exceptionally light, and I've never had any trouble with feedback. Also, the Fishman Matrix pickup does a respectable job of representing the guitar despite its low cost, and gives you the ability to boost those lows if necessary.
What really makes this guitar shine is its playability. The action is extremely fast, and there are surprisingly few fret buzz issues for an acoustic with an essentially electric-style action. That combined with the tone that just begs for lead parts make for an incredibly fun live playing experience.
I'm trying out a Shure KSM32 large diaphragm condenser mic for recording some of my posts for next week. I also upgraded my studio headphones to ensure better mastering of comparative samples. Here's a quick little comparison between one KSM32 and the Zoom H4n's built in stereo microphones. It's absolutely night and day... or night in Toledo Ohio and night on the French Riviera.
I've been playing this six string by Ron Tracy for about a month now, and I love it. It's a beautiful, smaller bodied instrument that really delivers. The tone is well balanced and clear with great sustain and harmonics - not as punchy as a traditional dreadnaught nor bottom heavy, but the lower notes do provide a subtly rich foundation for articulate playing. One of the primary features that drew my eye to it was the cut-away - not too sharp, not too soft, leaving maximal body and top intact for tone and volume. The action leaves very little to be desired, if anything. It's a great guitar for singer/songwriter or gigging musician that does a wider variety of acoustic music because it is such a good balance of features, tone and playability.
I've had a few days with the Zoom H4n, and I'm impressed. It certainly doesn't beat getting in a real studio, but it's great for recording on location. I wish I could get a bit more definition out of the built-in condensers, but hey... they do a pretty good job for under-sized, built in microphones. Here are some samples of the guitars I've been playing lately:
Here's a sneak peak at some of the work of the new builder being added to the hardcover edition of my book, Meeting the Makers: Minnesota's Finest Guitar Builders. The lit-up, blue side dots are done via fiber-optic cable running through the neck to LEDs in the body cavity. I'll be doing a more in-depth expose on the builder in the coming weeks. Anyone who can guess the builder gets a coupon for 50% off the hardcover when they pre-order. Contact us with your guess.
Recording samples is a necessary part of reviewing some of the world's best acoustic instruments. For those situations when I can't get a certain instrument into the studio, I'm trying out the Zoom H4n. The built-in stereo condenser microphones capture a respectable sound, but I selected the H4n for its combination of extreme portability, rugged build AND ability to record 4 tracks simultaneously through the use of it's balanced auxiliary inputs. I'll be researching some microphone options for future audio samples over the following months. Suggestions are more than welcome.
I've got some great content coming from builders in my own backyard here in MN. Watch for reviews of their latest guitars, as well as a sneak peak at the new content from the hardcover edition of my book, Meeting the Makers: Minnesota's Finest Guitar Builders, due out this spring. More details to come later this week.