Maybe you know of Gideon Weigert, maybe you don’t, but you should. After starting his luthiery business on the outskirts of Sherwood Forest in Merry Olde England, Gideon relocated some time ago to the shores of Lake Galilee in Israel, where he continues to turn out some of the most soulful, unique and beautiful guitars money can buy. The guitar we’re looking at today, recently completed, is the Johanna, (named for Visions of Johanna) Gideon’s tribute to Bob Dylan.
Visuals and construction
A medium body size folk guitar, the Johanna displays a lot of the details that Gideon tends towards in his work. The body has a caucasian spruce soundboard, whilst the back and sides are of sweet gum. These tonewoods might be unfamiliar to you, so let’s look at them in a bit more detail. Caucasian Spruce, or picea orientalis, is found in the caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), and in neighbouring Turkey. Like any Spruce, the best wood comes from slow growing trees, often partly frozen at high altitudes, and the Caucasus mountains have no lack of appropriate growing conditions. The best caucasian spruce is very fine grained, and has the reputation of looking very “vintage” right from the outset, compared to German or Alpine spruces.
Sweet gum is native to most of US East coast, and down into Mexico, and as you can see, it can be gorgeous. As we finally start to take tropical forest preservation more seriously, and American guitar makers start to give more attention to local tonewoods, sweet gum has started to grab the spotlight, with Taylor being the best known maker to use it. The official String Theory line is that the back and sides woods make only a 10% or less of the contribution of wood choice to the tone, and even then, plenty of other factors affect the tone just as much. All of that said, the reputation of sweet gum is of a sweet toned wood well suited to fingerstyle, which certainly is a good match with the intent of a folk guitar. And, let’s be real, the woods in this guitar are beautiful; the top has a wonderfully aged look, and a honeyed tan from the french polished shellac that matches well with the back and sides. You can see the back and side woods, and my commentary feels a bit uneccesary, but the subtle figuring in the honey toned wood, the almost but not quite bookmatching gives the guitar a fabulously organic feel. The body is bound, front and back, with ebony, with the binding meeting in a beautifully executed point below the ebony heel cap. The rosette is inlaid with shells from the Sea of Galilee, in a simple, organic, homespun design.
The neck is mahogany, and the slotted, beautifully carved headstock is a real Weigert feature. Gideon doesn’t really make any two headstocks alike, but the beautifully rounded edges and the way the jointing is made into a feature echo his other designs. No headstock badge or inlay; self promotion is not a Weigert trait, and you’ll enjoy explaining the provenance of your guitar to admirers. The ebony fingerboard, which joins the body at the 12th fret for a fuller, more resonant tone, is adorned with simple dot markers of the same Galileean shell as the rosette, perhaps in keeping with the unflashy folk music for which this beauty is intended (those wanting complex inlays can specify anything their heart desires when commissioning a Weigert guitar). A nut width of 45mm, and a scale length of 645mm should give plenty of real estate to play on a guitar that is sure to be used for plenty of fingerstyle. The unique rosewood bridge is carved to echo the intricate fretboard end, and completes the look of this beautifully understated instrument. Nut and saddle are both bone, and the bridge pins and end pin are hand carved from an almond tree in Gideon’s back garden. It’s hard to imagine how a guitar could better showcase the beauty of the natural materials than the Johanna; the glorious warmth of the woods, the shell, not cut to uniformity, the general lack of over-fussy details; these are the trademarks you expect from a Weigert, and the Johanna delivers.
Sounds and playability
In the two attached videos, you can hear Johanna played two different ways. The first showcases the fingerstyle sweetness of the tone, the wonderful resonance of the guitar, the soft, complex high end, delicate midtones, with enough bass to keep things in balance, without the big, booming bottom of a good dreadnought. In the second, Noam Dayan puts the guitar through some country blues paces, and you can hear the versatility of the guitar in a performance that wanders almost into jazz in places. No guitar does everything; you wouldn’t choose the Johanna for bluegrass or gypsy jazz, but if you want a unique guitar that’s just as happy curled up on the sofa with you, playing by the camp fire, or on the big stage, you’re not going to go far wrong here.
Whether it’s delicate fingerstyle or accompanying you in song, the Johanna will be a companion for life, and at $3,500, it’s a bargain compared to most of it’s luthier built competition. If you want it, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org, but be quick; Gideon is trying to sell it to Dylan, the man who inspired it, so don’t waste any time.
Epiphone first rose to prominence in the 1930s when their archtop guitars, alongside those of Gibson and to a lesser extent Stromberg, made the guitar a viable instrument to play alongside horns in a jazz or dance band, or banjos in various forms of country music. Today, Epiphone is largely known as the Gibson budget brand, but alongside their Jnr Gibson offerings, they have continued to offer Epiphone specific models like the Joe Pass Emperor and the Casino. What they neglected, for a long time, was any acoustic archtop models, or at least they did until recently. In fairness, the entire acoustic archtop market has been pretty moribund for some time. You could buy a handmade boutique archtop for thousands, but if you anything affordable, you were pretty much reduced to finding an old Kay or Harmony archtop (probably all plywood with a steam formed top), either battered to death and in a junk shop, or overrestored and overpriced.
Whether it’s a result of the internet bringing together communities of common interest or some other pressure I cannot say, but last year Epiphone launched three archtops inspired by some of their historic models. I say inspired by rather than reissues of, because there were various different specs of Olympic during it’s production life, but none of them had a piezo pickup in the bridge, nor, as far as I know, laminate back and sides. Regardless, these three models, the largest, the Classic, the Zenith and this smallest, the Olympic, are a welcome addition to this still underprovided sector.
Let me level with you. I have always wanted an archtop (matter of fact, I have an old Colletti-Martin in the loft that I’ve never been able to get playing right), but when these three came out, I chose the Olympic, the smallest (almost parlour sized) and least lavishly appointed principally because David Rawlings plays a 1935 Olympic and makes it sound fantastic, playing exactly the sort of country folk I’m playing at the moment (he does it somewhat better than me). I’m sure that Epiphone were aware of the effect that Rawlings’ patronage has had on the price of the previously unloved vintage Olympics, because this reissue is visually very close to his guitar. I believe all the original models were all solid spruce and mahogany, whilst this is solid spruce topped, but laminate on the back and sides. Whilst Epiphone doesn’t specify, the general assumption is that the top is steam pressed to shape rather than carved; hand carving would seem to preclude the price the guitar comes in at, the only carving machines that I can find any record of are Gibson’s, taken from the Kalamazoo factory when it was sold to Heritage Guitars, and now used by the custom shop. More than anything, if Epiphone were handcarving these tops, they would probably say so; The Loar make plenty of play out of their handcarved tops, and their cheapest solid and laminate instrument is £100 more than the Olympic, despite Epiphone probably being able to charge a premium for their recognisable name.
The Olympic is the smallest in the Masterbilt Century range; with a 14.5” lower bout, it’s very similar in dimensions to my band partner’s Framus parlour guitar, and a little bigger than my own Gretsch G9511. For perspective, the Zenith, in the middle of the current range, has a 16 inch lower bout, in common with the iconic Gibson L5 and for that matter The Loar’s three acoustic archtops (see our review of the Loar LH700 here), and the DeLuxe has a 17” lower bout. In the classic era, archtops went even bigger; Gibson’s largest was the Super 400 with an 18 inch lower bout, and Epiphone’s own Emperor responding by going to 18.5 inches! That small body should equate to a very focussed tone, which can be just what you want in a lead guitar playing against other guitars (as opposed to in a band of horns and piano).
The spruce top is of decent quality; the fairly fine and very even grain is very visible through the finish. This is a vintage sunburst which, to my eyes, doesn’t look as good as on the more larger models. These have most of the upper bout dark, whereas the Olympic has a fairly even sized strip of dark stain all the way around, described as “violin burst”. This is different to the Zenith and the DeLuxe, but very much like the finish on David Rawlings’ guitar, so I think we can assume they’re pitching hard at that market. In addition to the dark vintage sunburst, you can have a very pleasing honeyburst. Unlike most flat tops, this and many other archtops have longtitudinal bracing; I haven’t had the chance to play an X braced archtop (they do exist), but I have compared X braced and ladder braced flat tops, and the former are punchier, where X bracing produces a sweeter and longer sustaining tone. The Olympic was, as well as the small body version, also always the budget, poverty spec model, and the reissue is similarly lacking in adornments. The body looks unbound at first glance, but actually, the black binding just blends in with the very dark sunburst, and the completely black back and sides (the honeyburst model has white binding that you can’t miss, and natural mahogany veneer on the back and sides). The F holes are unbound, and the tailpiece is a simple design (google frequensator tailpiece to see just how fancy Epiphone tailpieces can be). David Rawlings had a one piece ebony bridge made for his vintage guitar, but the Masterbilt series have a thumbwheel adjustable “ebonoid” bridge with a Shadowflex undersaddle pickup, which must be wired through the bridge itself. The tone and volume controls are hidden in the soundhole, and there’s a subtle jack socket and battery compartment in the side of the lower bout; at first glance, you would never know this was electrified at all.
The 25.5” scale neck is mahogany, and a solid chunk at that; not quite the baseball bat that my vintage Colletti Martin has, but much chunkier than you’ll be used to in most modern guitars. I love it, and I strongly suggest trying it before you dismiss it; neck profile is more a matter of fashion than of actual utility, and many players will find that they love the extra heft. The 20 fret board is ebony, with simple dot markers, with a plastic nut. The headstock is a departure from Rawlings’ guitar, a great spade of a thing that Epiphone call a Dovewing. This does allow space for the very impressive inlay featuring three mother of pearl banners and a sort of filligree plant motif, but compared with the smaller headstocks of the 30’s it looks a little out of scale with this dinky guitar. The tuners, modern 18:1 ratio jobs, feature nice marbloid crown buttons, and the neck has a double action truss rod (many older low cost archtops would not have an adjustable truss rod at all).
The guitar is well put together and we can’t point at any quality issues, but don’t buy this expecting a work of art such as you would get from most hand building luthiers; this is a simply appointed reproduction of a poverty spec model from the depression era, so there’s almost no flash. One thing I noticed when comparing it to my Loar LH700 is that the edges and points of the F holes don’t follow the curve of the top perfectly. This isn’t at all a fault, but I suspect it’s an indication of the holes being cut and then the top steam pressed, with the physics of the wood pulling it slightly differently there as it cools. I think it looks good, and I think it will look still better in 25 years when the tone of the honey coloured sections of the wood has darkened up a bit.
Sounds and Playability
Whilst the guitar is very small and handy, it’s not light. It won’t break your shoulder like a 70’s Strat, but I was slightly surprised by the initial heft; my other main acoustics at the time are lightly built and resonant, and I think the contrast was a surprise. The combination of the long scale, the chunky neck and the way that floating bridges raise the strings much higher from the body than on a flat top conspire to make this feel less like a diminutive parlour guitar, and more like a weapon of war. That’ sense is backed up when you strum it; it’s punchy, insistent, short sustaining and defiantly midrange focussed. Played lightly, you can coax real sweetness from the guitar, but you’re not going to want this for delicate fingerstyle; it just doesn’t have the depth and complexity of tone. What it does really well is punch through the acoustic mix and make itself heard and unavoidable. Play it against a good flat top, like Rawlings does, and you’re going to hear it sing out, not muddying the tonal picture but cutting its own space. If you drive it really hard, it can become a little metallic, particularly at the top end, but the spruce should mellow with age and playing. Rawlings says his guitar is notable for it’s equal volume across the whole fingerboard, and that’s reflected here, but expect to notice slight boxiness at the bottom end, where the lack of sustain is most notable. Playing bluegrass riffs, the guitar cuts through beautifully, really projecting, and what can sound like a one dimensional tone solo comes into its own. Occasionally, Gillian Welch will strum a few chords on Rawlings’ guitar between songs as a demonstration, and it sounds at best ordinary, a bit flat and lacking, but in Rawlings’ own hands, played against Welch’s guitar, it comes to life.
Natural comparisons amongst my own guitars are the Loar LH700 and my Gretsch 9511 Parlour, and the Epiphone occupies a particular niche amongst them. The Loar does more or less the same thing, better, with a more resonant, three dimensional tone, but it costs about double, even without a pickup system, so we ought not to be surprised. The Gretsch is a much sweeter toned instrument; the Epiphone can do pretty, but the Gretsch will always do it better, but the Gretsch absolutely doea not have the mid range punch or cut; played against another flat top, it simply doesn’t sit in the pocket in the same way. Out in the wider marketplace, there’s little competition; Godin’s 5th Avenue is a laminate topped instrument for the same sort of money, whereas Gretsch’s G9550 solid top 16” New Yorker archtop has been discontinued, and is now only available with a floating magnetic pickup. The Loar do offer some direct competition, the LH 300 is a solid top, laminate back and sides instrument in the same price range.
Plugging the guitar in is a mixed picture; the combination of the natural midrange punch of the guitar and the natural quack transient of undersaddle piezo makes for a tone which is a bit abrasive. You absolutely can EQ it for a decent approximation of the unplugged tone, but my experience on stage is that most soundpersons aren’t listening that closely, and I have ended up with quite an unpleasantly cutting tone. I found that none of my piezos were giving me what I needed and decided to switch to microphones (not wanting to fit pickups in some of my currently acoustic only instruments was a big part of that too), but it’s good to have the piezo as backup. I would say it’s absolutely usable, but just not as nice as I would like it to be. If I were to be stuck using the piezo on stage, I might choose to use an acoustic amp and close mic that, rather than go into the desk and trust the sound person.
You can almost call these guitars peerless, by which I mean not that they are untouchable, but there’s basically no competition. You could try the Godin or go hunting for a Gretsch still in the wild, but ultimately, if you want a solid top archtop at a lowish price, it’s either an Epiphone Century of one size or another, or a Loar. The Loar scores by having a hand carved top, but good luck finding one you can try, and of course it doesn’t come with a pickup. For me, there was no question that I wanted an Olympic; it’s Dave Rawlings’ guitar, and that’s how I want to play. I didn’t expect a perfect replica of a guitar that’s been played in for nearly 100 years and beautifully set up, but it got me plenty close enough. I’m not sorry I bought it, and I would recommend one to anyone, particularly since they are now out there for as little as £400. If you want that punchy tone, backed by a reliable warranty, with the added bonus of onboard amplification, this really is your only choice. Go try one today, you won’t be sorry.
Stands out in a crowd of flattops, punchy and different sounding, power bridge a bonus
Our first double header here at StringTheory, and some full disclosure required. The Acoustic Collection Stadium I reviewed a couple of years ago for Acoustic, and loved it so much I bought it. This is my Stadium you see in the pictures, and on founding StringTheory one of the first things I did was to approach The Acoustic Centre about what else they might want me to review. They only carry interesting guitars, and I was delighted to be offered another one of the Acoustic Collection guitars to review, because genuinely, these are one of the biggest bargains to come out of the boom in Asian manufacturing. An all solid guitar, with a Fishman Ink4 pickup and head unit system and a beautiful hard case for £600? Can’t be a good guitar really, can it? Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’re mistaken. Read on.
You may know the name The Acoustic Centre; once upon a time they had a big central London store full of Martins and Taylors, but London property prices and the rise of the internet made that business less profitable, so now they are an online business with a despatch centre. Nil desperandum though, visitors are still welcome at The Acoustic Centre, and you can play any guitar you might be considering buying. They are the UK distributor for the Veillette Avante series, and Babicz guitars, and then the Acoustic Collection is their own line. I don’t know who designed and specced these guitars, or who is building them, but I can tell you that they are amongst the very best Far East sourced guitars, and better than a great many American and European made guitars which you can buy for much higher prices. Let my personal ownership of one stand as testament to that. Here we have the Stadium, a more or less jumbo sized instrument, and the Concert, a similarly sized but differently proportioned instrument.
The designers of the Acoustic Collection had a clear eye on doing something different, using some very old guitar design elements indeed. The obvious cues which make these guitars stand out are the smiley face lyre style bridges, and the heart shaped soundholes, and for sure, these give them an aesthetic which you will other love or hate. I love it. The two have more elements in common than differences, so I’ll take you through the two together. The Stadium has a cedar top and mahogany back and sides, whereas the Concert is all mahogany, handsomely striped. The Stadium’s top looks to be really good quality; cedar has a wider grain than spruce, but this is tight and even. Both guitars are bound in mahogany with black and white striped purfling, and there’s a centre stripe on the back in a sort of art deco take on herringbone. The lyre guitar bridges are of ebony, and whilst the material of the fully compensated saddles isn’t specified, it looks like micarta or tusq. Whether rosette is the right term for what surrounds a heart shaped soundhole, we’re not sure, but it’s mahogany again, dotted with other woods. The mahogany necks have a diamond shaped volute where they meet the headstock, which looks great and strengthens the neck joint, but looks as though it might impede your hand. Fear not, you don’t feel it at all when playing! The 21 fret fingerboards are ebony too, with simple MOP dots supplemented with diamonds at the 5th and 12th frets, and at the top is a nut which again feels like a particularly hard composite, though what, we do not know. The shapely headstocks are faced in rosewood, and carry a diamond shaped die cast plate bearing the initials AC. This is maybe my least favourite feature; it feels as though it’s missing a DC! Tuners are generic closed back items, and after a couple of years of use, I can confirm that mine work perfectly well and pose no problems.
The Fishman Ink4 head unit is as low profile as you can ask for from a full featured preamp; it has a tuner, three band EQ, volume and brilliance control, all mounted in a low profile unit which looks like a solid black panel until you turn it on, and is very understated. The battery compartment and output jack are at the endpin, put the jack is separate from the strap button, which is very practical but may confuse you if you’re used to the jack being the strap button. Once or twice I’ve found myself on stage groping for a jack socket which isn’t where I thought it was, though in practise you’ll get used to it. The differences are significant, few though they are; we’ve touched already on the topwood, which makes a big tonal difference; more on that in the next section. Another obvious difference is that the Stadium has a sharp Florentine cutaway, allowing easier access up to the 19th fret, so if you’re a fan of the dusty end, this might sway you. The other is overall body size; the depth is identical, but the Concert is significantly longer behind the bridge. This keeps the overall area of the top similar, as the Stadium has a wider body at all points; the Concert has a notably bigger difference between the already narrower lower bout, and the much narrower top bout. This gives the Concert a slightly bottom heavy appearance, but has a significant effect on the handling.
Do these guitars look good? I certainly think so, but the plethora of “me too” Martin and Gibson copies out there tell me that acoustic guitarists can be a conservative bunch. What I can tell you is that when I play live with my Stadium, people remember it visually in a way that they simply will not remember your Taylor.
Sounds and playability
I remember the first time I picked up my Stadium, how surprised I was by the light weight. This is a big guitar with a preamp and pickup, and far eastern guitars have a reputation for being a bit overbuilt, yet it feels light and wieldy, and the Concert feels similarly featherweight. In terms of accessibility, there is a significant difference however; I am a large man with the arms of an organgutan, and the Stadium fits me fine, but the slimmer waist of the Concert definitely makes it an easier reach for smaller people, and if you play sitting down, the smaller upper bout makes it still better, whilst the callipygian lower bout and still-deep body make sure you don’t go short of bass. The slim neck profiles will suit most players, although the gloss finish of the necks isn’t to all tastes it’s not out of line with many other guitars. Setup is good and playable straight out of the box, but the action could come down a little; I know that Acoustic Centre had their tech set these guitars up, but setup is very much to the player’s taste, so with any guitar it’s worth spending a little to get it playing just the way you like.
A strum on the cedar topped Stadium reveals just what you would hope for; a big, warm, full tone, that fills the room. The treble is deliciously rich; play a chord fragment up the neck with a couple of strings ringing, and you can listen to the overtones in the decay all day. It’s not as bright as a guitar like the spruce topped Gretsch parlour we reviewed last week, but so much warmer, which is echoed in the midrange. There’s lots of bass on tap here too; if you push this guitar hard, it’ll certainly fill a room, and in fact, comparing it with most of my other guitars, I have to be a little more careful and controlled in my strumming in order to avoid letting things get out of control. The fatness of the bass means that if you really wail on this guitar, the tone can start to muddy, but that’s really only if you’re hitting it very hard. Put down the plectrum and play fingerstyle, and you have a gorgeous, lyrical guitar, super responsive and beautiful to listen to.
The Concert sounds very different; the mahogany top and different body shape having a large effect. The sound is considerably more focussed, particularly in the bass, so you can drive this guitar hard with more confidence. Listening to the strings one by one, the tone is much drier, with less harmonic overtone overlaying the fundamental note. This is again especially noticeable down at the bass end, where the volume is probably a little lower, but also the more focussed tone makes for a compact tonal footprint. The treble isn’t any brighter than the cedar topped guitar, but it’s bright enough, and that fairly dry, direct tone continues through the midrange. You can strum this guitar, with fingers or plectrum, to your heart’s content, knowing you’ll get a good, controllable tone, but played fingerstyle it’s a little flat. This is not necessarily something you would notice if you played it alone, but compared to the cedar guitar, it’s a clear difference. When I purchased my Stadium, I was playing mostly on my own, and once I started Honey and Bee, playing two acoustic guitars together really made me start to consider how the tones matched and complimented each other. My playing partner has a mahogany topped parlour guitar, and there while the Stadium sounded great for rhythm, it was somehow a bit unsatisfying playing lead lines over her guitar. I tried a couple of other guitars in that role before settling on an archtop, and now the Stadium is mostly kept for songs where only I am playing. We tried the Concert in place of her little parlour, and found that the extra bass filled things out beautifully, while the fact that it remained a pretty focussed tone meant that it didn’t get all over my lead playing. For comparison, if she plays her Gretsch G9511 and I use my Epiphone Olympic, the resulting combination is not pleasing at all.
The point of this really is that listening to a guitar on its own isn’t the full story. Do that with these, and you’ll be left with the sense that the Stadium is the better guitar, with its rich, pleasing tone, and indeed, that might continue to be the case if you’re in a band with a bass and an electric lead guitar. With another acoustic, you need to test the blend of the two instruments, and you might find that the Concert, with it’s slightly drier, more unassuming tone, will work better for what you need.
Both guitars are equipped with a good Fishman system; I’ve stopped plugging mine in, but when I did, it gave me a good enough approximation of the acoustic tone for most situations, with plenty of tone shaping possibilities, and the built in tuner is of course a godsend.
These guitars are superb value for money; it’s hard to find another all solid guitar with a hard case and pickup for £600 full stop, finding one as good is all but impossible. The looks will divide people, but I say be brave; they both have stunning visual appeal and will stand out from the crowd. The real reason to buy them, however, is the tone; these are wonderful, resonant, vibrant guitars at an incredible price, an opportunity which doesn’t come along every day. Find a chance, play one, and see if I’m wrong.
£600 including hard case
Standout looks, rich, warm, complex tone
If you drive it really hard, things can get muddy.
This little Gretsch looks nothing like the image that comes to most people’s heads when the name Gretsch comes to mind, but it’s an absolute category killer that other manufacturers would be wise to take note of. I reviewed this guitar for Acoustic early in the year (Link to that review on Musicradar at the bottom of the article), and I loved it so much that I bought one, and so did my partner in Honey and the Bee, Clare. In fact, I bought the exact one I reviewed, because I wanted to be damn sure that if this was an anomaly, I would be getting the absolute cracker I had played. Clare’s turned out to be every bit as good, and on that basis, I’ve been recommending it to everyone since, including a friend who had bought a Gretsch Jim Dandy, and was distinctly unimpressed. He ended up buying the sister model, the 9521 Triple O model, and was blown away by that also. I reviewed two other Gretsch acoustics, both from the Rancher series, and was impressed with those too, so that I now see Gretsch as a very underrated manufacturer of acoustic guitars.
So, straight out of the gate, this guitar looks like a blues box, which gave me some initial preconceptions about the tone. When you see Robert Johnson, he’s holding a guitar which looks like this, and that barking, short sustaining, ladder braced blues box tone is what I am half expecting. Inspired by old Gibsons though it is, the 9511 is quite original in shape; the neck to body join is at the 12th, and so though the bridge is very near the bottom of the instrument, the body isn’t too tiny. The finish, described as Appalachian Cloudburst, is very very dark, with only a little patch of honey coloured spruce between the soundhole and the bridge. I love it, it’s one of the most unusual and handsome sunbursts I’ve seen, and it really makes the guitar stand out. The spruce of the top, as seen in that patch, looks pretty decent; it’s rare to see a poor quality spruce soundboard these days. Top and back are laminate, with a mahogany veneer, which looks nice; in fact, mahogany veneer, not needing to be structurally strong, is often more attractively figured than the solid mahogany used in most more expensive guitar builds. Something I appreciate about Gretsch is their honesty about the materials they use; their site clearly says “laminated mahogany”, and when the rule you usually have to use is “if it doesn’t explicitly say solid, it will me laminate”, I give a lot of kudos for that.
This is a simply appointed guitar; it is after all designed with a depression era vibe, and also, it’s really low cost. A quick google while writing this article revealed that the street price of the G9511 is currently about £265, which doesn’t buy you a lot of abalone or herringbone, and if it does, probably means the underlying guitar isn’t much good. The G9511 is bound in plastic, but with an aged ivory colour that’s appropriate to the vibe. There’s a simple black and white soundhole rosette, a simple rectangular rosewood bridge, and not much else to tell about the body. As standard, these come with off white plastic bridge pins, but I have replaced mine with bone pins with an abalone inlay. I honestly did it because I wanted to give the little box a treat for being so much better than it should be, but as I installed them, keeping the same strings on and just slackening them, I was able to hear an improvement in the already excellent tone, so I would say they were well worth the money. Gretsch don’t specify the saddle material, but it seems to be plastic, while the nut, according to the spec sheet, is bone.
The 19 fret mahogany neck has a rosewood fingerboard, and is a slim modern C section. Eagle eyed readers will note that when I first reviewed the guitar, Gretsch’s spec stated it had a vintage V profile, but they have since changed this, and the influential guitar journalist in me would like to think that’s my doing. Many online retailers still retain the vintage V claim from the original spec sheet, but take my word, that’s not what you’re going to get, and most people will prefer it as it is. I personally love a hard V, but I’ve long accepted that those with hands like polar bear paws don’t get to make the rules for everyone. Fingerboard inlays are simple, but replacing dots with mother of pearl diamonds does give you a sense that at least some thought has gone into the decoration. The headstock is faced with mahogany, and has a simple Gretsch script; the headstock ornamentation from a White Falcon would indeed be out of place on this guitar! It has very simple vintage style open back tuners with aged ivory coloured plastic buttons; these seemed a little flimsy to me at first touch, but 9 months on, they work perfectly, and I think there’s nothing to worry about. The scale length, befitting such a dinky body, is 24.875″ (632 mm) , so the board has a lovely compact feel.
It’s nicely put together, simple but well executed, and after lots of play, a slight drying of the fingerboard at the last three frets (I don’t play a lot around the 18th on an acoustic parlour) is the only issue I’ve experienced, and a little lemon oil deals with that. Is it a looker? I would say so. I think it stands out from the crowd, which at this price point includes a lot of samey, me too guitars. It’s the cheapest acoustic guitar I own by some distance, but it sits in the herd holding its own visually.
Sounds and playability
The G9511 is so accomodating you barely know it’s there. The little body and short scale mean it perches in your lap perfectly, an ideal companion for late night sofa sessions and off the cuff strumming. Mine lives next to my chair in the lounge, and is my go-to for any unplanned playing; I have no reason to take any other guitar down off the wall. The action on the review model was nice and low (neither mine nor Clare’s guitars have needed a setup), and the neck profile is accommodating, while the satin finish is easy to play on. It’s also incredibly light; tiny body, light construction, lack of electronics all add up to a really
You know what to expect from the tone here; a spruce and laminate parlour is going to be bright, twinkling, and intimate, but with a boxy bottom end, right? Well, yes and no. Bright it certainly is, sparkling in fact, a dancing beguiling tone at the treble end of things. Laminate bodied guitars can be a bit fundamental heavy, over direct, lacking in nuance, but none of that here; certainly the tone isn’t like my cedar topped jumbo, but any concern about a two dimensional tone can be put aside; it’s alive. The bright airiness continues through the midrange; there’s no fat, harmonic laden body to it, but it’s a winning sonic picture all the way down to the bass. This isn’t as boxy as you might expect; perhaps it’s the 12th fret join, but bass response is pretty decent, and the slightly quieter low E that I noted in my initial review has either improved, or I’ve got accustomed to the tone. This is not my go to guitar for big, bass heavy riffs, for sure, but the tone is balanced, and there’s certainly sufficient bass.
For fingerstyle, it’s sweet and delicate, I like to strum with my fingernail, and the brightness of the tone really compensates for the attack you lose by putting down the plectrum. It’s a surprisingly good lead guitar too; the tone is quite reminiscent of Kenneth Pattengale’s battered vintage Martin, as used in the Milk Carton Kids, so for a sweet, sustaining alternative to my arch tops, it’s wonderful in that role too. I have not found very many things this guitar can’t do.
This is the cheapest acoustic guitar I own, but it gets played the most. There’s a message in that. It sits by my chair, and is picked up several times a day. If I’m going camping, or to a festival, it gets thrown in the back of the car in its hard case. If I need to grab a guitar to play in the garden, it’ll be this. Since I bought it, nearly every song I’ve written has been on it. Clare’s sister guitar has featured on the radio in the hands of her husband, Dead Dead Dead gutiarist Matt Canning, because anyone who picks up this guitar loves it. In my original review, I said it wasn’t a stage guitar, but I’ve bought a set of condenser mics because I cannot bear to leave it behind. I would say that this is the best sounding spruce and laminate guitar I’ve ever played, and as an even higher compliment, it might be the best parlour I’ve ever played, and that’s up against some very high end instruments from makers like K Yairi and Santa Cruz. I would like to issue a challenge to any manufacturers, luthiers, distributors or retailers; send me a better laminate back and sides instrument, or a better parlour. I would love to play that instrument.
If you’re buying a parlour, play this. You have to. If you’re considering things like an OM, looking for a sweet voiced picker’s guitar; try one too. There aren’t many better bargains in the world right now.
Great looks, really cheap, wonderfully sweet resonant tone
I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for 30 years, and for most of that time, I couldn’t afford a high quality guitar. What I needed was something I could plug in to any PA, get a reasonable tone, and be ready to gig. My PA was generally one of those Peavey 6 channel mixer amps and a couple of JBL Control 1 speakers, the whole lot would be chucked into the back seat of my borrowed Skoda and I’d be off. If I’m honest, most of the venues I played in around the North East weren’t really suited to perfect acoustic tone and fancy woods. On one memorable night, the Ship Inn on Holy Island was so packed that a couple of people fell into me, taking out my mic stand and knocking the jack socket through the side of my guitar.
Times have changed, and my needs have changed with them. For a while, I’ve been using an Acoustic Collection Stadium, an all solid guitar with a high quality piezo system. It sounds quite a lot like the acoustic tone, but not quite like it. I’ve got a Boulder Creek jumbo, also with good piezo. Last winter I added an Epiphone Olympic archtop, again with piezo, this time a little further from the acoustic tone. I was struggling with my ukulele playing into a dynamic mic, so I drilled a hole in it and fitted a pickup. I bought a nice mandolin and guess what, I paid to put a pickup in it. These all sound at least ok, but you know, I love acoustic tone. When I buy a guitar, I buy the look and the feel and the acoustic tone, and the amplification is a bit of an afterthought. Not only that, but if you’re using two or three guitars, a mandolin and an ukulele in a set, that’s a lot of disconnecting and reconnecting cables between songs, and if you have a not too alert soundman, you may break everyone’s ears too.
The final straw came with the acquisition of even more instruments. First, an acoustic Gretsch parlour which I intended only to be used as a home guitar, but was too charming not to gig. Then, a Loar LH-700, and a wonderful 150 year old double bass came along too, and piezo’s time was gone.
The solution? Well, it was staring me in the face. In the back of the alcove full of kit I laughingly call my office was a large diaphragm condenser mic, from the days when I did more YouTube music. Coupled with an AKG C1000 small diaphragm condenser pointing at the neck, that should get me really good acoustic tone, and I’ll be able simply to approach those mics with whatever instrument I’m using, no noisy unplugging. Of course, I can’t rely on every house PA to have or understand phantom power, so I’ve got a Presonus Blue Tube two channel preamp with phantom power, which should also afford me a bit of extra tonal control too. Perhaps this would be too feedback prone in a loud rock band, but in an acoustic country folk duo, I think I’ve found my perfect solution. Goodbye, pickups!
Part of the same family of brands as Recording King, and named for famous archtop designer Lloyd Loar, The Loar guitars are built in the far east, heavily influenced by depression era designs. I’ve tried a couple of Recording King guitars in the past, and been very impressed, so when I came across The Loar, my long held desire to haveave a a real, handcarved acoustic archtop was awakened. The difficulty was, finding one. They have a range of acoustic only instruments, the LH-300 has a solid handcarved top with laminate back and sides, the LH-600 is all solid, and the LH-700 is the top of the range, with all solid top grade tonewoods. I could find a couple of stores which had the 300 and 600, at widely varying prices, but nowhere that had the 700, and nowhere I could try either of the other two. There was also a dearth of in depth reviews, textual or video, to help me get a feel for the instrument. When I found a used model in good condition offered on eBay, it was a bit of a gamble; I won’t tell you the price, but it was plenty of moolah for an unknown quantity, even from a factory whose goods I know and respect.
It’s with that in mind that I decided to make this the first review on StringTheory, and I hope those considering one of these fine instruments will find it helpful.
To my eye, this is a stunning guitar; it’s not loaded with bling, and it hasn’t cured me of wanting a D’Angelico, but it really captures the depression era Gibson L5 vibe nicely. The L5 changed gradually over the years, both in terms of size, later gaining pickups, and with a variety of inlays, but this looks very close to the late 20’s model, as played by Mother Maybelle Carter. The top is solid spruce, apparently hand carved in the far east, which made me wonder how many top carving machines there are in the world? I know that the current Epiphone archtops have pressed tops, and that the Gibson Custom Shop still has the old carving machines from the Kalamazoo facility that’s now owned by Heritage Guitars. Whatever the case, the top here is finely grained, with some subtle cross-silking, but not too much is visible, due to the very dark and pervasive sunburst, leaving only the area around the bridge visible. Gretsch call this kind of finish “Appalachian Cloudburst”, which I love, and it really adds to the feel of the instrument. The holes aren’t bound, and the ding near the upper bout F hole was courtesy of the previous owner, rather than coming as standard with the instrument. Top and back have simple ivory coloured binding, which contrast nicely with the way the sunburst continues onto the sides. Back and sides are solid maple, with beautifully bookmatched flaming on the back, which has been left much more visible than the top. The whole body is finished in high gloss nitrocellulose, and whilst you can argue whether that finish has the magical sonic properties that some claim, it’s certainly period appropriate.
Whilst not ornate, the thumbwheel adjustable bridge is all ebony, including the compensated saddle. The neck is of hard rock maple, with a centre stripe, and cut in a vintage appropriate hard V profile which some thumb-behind players struggle with, but I particularly love. The 19 fret fingerboard is ebony, bound once again in ivory, with simple mother of pearl dot inlays reinforcing the depression era feel, and topping out with a bone nut. The headstock is faced in ebony, bound, and carries a The Loar logo and a fancy “flowerpot” inlay very much like that on Mother Maybelle’s own L5. Tuners are Grover Sta-tite open gear nickel tuners with “butterbean” buttons. These look vintage, but are an 18:1 ratio, making it easy to get your tuning right where you want it.
The quality seems excellent; the woods live up to the claim of AAA quality, and the appointments, while simple, are well executed; there are no clumsy cuts or bodged sections to give away the instrument’s relatively humble price (for a hand carved archtop). The only criticism I could make is that the finish around the join between neck and body is a little brushmarked, but you have to be looking closely, and when you bear in mind that you can get this guitar new for under £900, it’s hard to be too upset.
Picking it up, this guitar is big but not huge; the 16 inch lower bout isn’t up there with the biggest archtops of the golden age, or indeed with super jumbo flat tops, and the body is relatively slim compared to most dreadnoughts, more like a typical OM thickness maybe. The V profile of the neck is much more pronounced than on most electric guitars which lay claim to use it, which you will either love or hate; thumb around players with big hands like myself are likely to find it very accommodating indeed. Overall, it’s an easy guitar to get to grips with, comfortable and friendly.
Full disclosure here; many of you may see this guitar and think “jazz box”, but that’s not at all what I bought it for, I’m no jazz player, and this guitar does duty playing lead in a country folk band. In reality, in the 20’s archtops had found little traction in the jazz world, where banjos still led the way fretted instrument wise, and as mentioned previously, Maybelle Carter was a more visible user than any jazz great at that time. I came to this by way of David Rawlings, having picked up an Epiphone Century Masterbilt Olympic reissue, which I loved, to play his style. I was expecting this guitar to have a considerably deeper voice, and that I would use it alongside the Epiphone in much the same way Rawlings uses his 50’s D’Angelico, but in fact, it has supplanted the Olympic as my main lead guitar.
Giving this a strum, it sounds bright, punchy, resonant and somehow, hollow. The note separation stands out; even strummed, there’s little blurring of the notes in each chord (not to say that that’s a bad thing; it’s absolutely what you want in many situations, but perhaps not from an archtop). Spruce and maple is a bright combination of woods no matter what the guitar, and then the combination of the arch of the top, the pressure of the bridge (which is pushing down on the top, rather than pulling up as in a flat top guitar) and the parallel ladder bracing mean that archtops have powerful mid projection. Here, the brightness of the treble is pretty direct, with relatively few harmonic overtones, and noticeably shorter sustain than you might expect from an all solid flat top. As you work through the midtones, the punch and projection are noticeable, particularly if you dig in a little with the pick, and the bass is powerful but not deep. Compared to my little Epiphone Olympic, the bass is definitely more pronounced, but again, it has that hollowness to it, not at all like the boom of a dreadnought. Picked lightly, the Loar is lyrical and pretty; push harder, and it edges towards brash and aggressive. Strummed hard, it’s almost offensively loud, particularly with the action jacked up a little at the bridge (I tried this, and the difference in volume is higher than you might imagine); you can tell that it was designed to make itself heard in a world of horns and pianos but no amplification. Played alongside a flat top in my band, it cuts through beautifully, and when played hard for bluegrass flavoured stuff, it retains its robustness even on the high strings, where many guitars start to sound thin. Comping jazz chords, at least as well as I can, provides the expected chunk and projection too.
This isn’t a guitar for all seasons, but it’s probably for more seasons than you’ve been thinking. If you want to be heard, even now in the age of amplification, this will give you a tonal signature which will cut through the flat tops playing rhythm, and get your lead playing front and centre. Fingerstylists may find the short decay and lack of overtones less to their taste, but when you want to punch and punch hard, accept no substitutes. The fact that The Loar can make a hand carved archtop of this quality for less than £900 is incredibly impressive; there’s nothing I’ve found in the same price range that gets close.
Great depression era looks, fantastic built quality, powerful tone.
The tone is perfect for what it is, but not an all-rounder.
Certainly the best value for money archtop on the market.
Here’s Petr Furch showing me the CNR truss rod and neck stability system on my recent visit to the Furch factory in the Czech Republic. See upcoming issues of Acoustic Magazine for the full story on that visit, but linked below is Furch’s web page explaining how the carbon sleeve and unique heel brace casting keeps setup more stable and predictable.
Welcome to String Theory! I’m Sam Wise, guitar player and guitar journalist. Over the coming weeks, months, and possibly epochs, this site will be populated with reviews of guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and other stringed instruments. The focus at first is probably going to be acoustic instruments, but I make no undertakings about where it will go in future.
Less frequently, there will be interviews, possibly factory visits, and other features, but the focus will remain instrument reviews. Wondering why you should trust my opinion on these instruments? Well, I have been playing guitar for 30 years, I currently play guitar, mandolin, ukulele and double bass in Honey and the Bee (link below) . More than that, though; since 2006 I have written almost every month for Acoustic Magazine, the UK based guitar mag. I’ve done artist interviews, CD reviews, factory visits, shop features, but most of all, many many guitar reviews; well into the hundreds. Simply, I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in learning about guitar construction and wood choice, and most of all, honing my ability to accurately describe what you hear when a guitar is played, and also to capture the intangible something which makes some guitars really special, while most are simply “perfectly ok”. It’s this search for great guitars which really excites me; I have a reasonable collection of guitars myself, and I have benefited greatly from playing so many, and discovering real standouts. I want to share that insight with you.