For several years now I have been in the market for a new acoustic guitar. I currently own a cheap and battered old Fender and a Takamine EG320C – both of these guitars would be classed as ‘low-end’.
Not dissimilar to a man who has always wanted to own a Ferrari or a Harley Davidson, there are certain brands that my ego likes the idea of owning, namely Martin or Gibson. But whenever I have tried those brands I have not been too impressed. Or rather, I have been impressed, but I haven’t been blown away, which is the feeling I would like to have if I am going to spend a large amount of money on a stringed instrument.
When I lived in Napoli I visited a number of negozio chitarre in Via San Sebastiano. I tried a few guitars and the one which impressed me the most was a Taylor 110 CE. It felt lovely to hold and to play. It looked beautiful. I had never been particularly keen on the idea of owning a Taylor, but the model that I tried in Napoli really spoke to me. I also tried 114 CE which was an equally positive experience.
I also visited Cled Art Music in Avellino. They performed a minor operation on my Takamine and introduced me to a brand that I have never heard of: Walden. I was told that the chief designer at Walden had previously been employed by Taylor (a fact that I have so far been unable to substantiate) and for an ‘unknown’ brand the Walden left a positive impression on me.
I tried the same model Taylor that I had loved in Napoli in Dawsons in Liverpool. It didn’t sound the same. It sounded great but it didn’t sound the same. This taught me a valuable lesson: that guitars of the same make and model will hardly ever actually be the same. So, what that means, is that if you play a Gibson J-45 in a music store and it sounds and feels amazing then you should probably go ahead and buy it right there and then. Because if you go to another music store and try another J-45, it might not sound and feel amazing. Strange but true. Guitars are not Playstations. I recently read an article in which John Meyer described his relationship with Paul Reed Smith which neatly describes this phenomenon:
“And Paul Reed Smith and I went in and our saying was sort of this: ‘You take 100 Strats and two or three of them are magic. The question is, what makes those magic and how do you replicate that so you get 100 out of 100 guitars that are magic?’”
Fast forward a few years and I have still not bought a new guitar. The way I see it is if I can’t find one which I feel like I have to own then I will not hand over the cash. You see I don’t want to settle for a good guitar, I want an amazing guitar. It doesn’t have to be expensive though. The two biggest influences on my guitar playing are probably Kurt Cobain and Noel Gallagher, neither of whom were known for using pricey instruments. Kurt might have played a Martin D-18E for the Unplugged in New York performance but is that the guitar that I should scour the globe for? According to Reverb, perhaps not.
The D-18E was an early attempt by Martin to produce an acoustic-electric guitar by installing two DeArmond pickups and three control knobs into a D-18 dreadnought. The electronics adversely affected the tone of the guitar, and the D-18E only remained in production for a year.
And whilst Noel Gallagher might today favour a Martin D-28, ‘straight off the peg’, the fact is that ‘Wonderwall’ was written and recorded using a relatively humble (compared to its Gibson counterparts at least) Epiphone EJ-200. With this in mind I tried out an EJ-200 at PMT in Oxford last week but I didn’t really like it. Pity, because it retails at less than £400.
Noel Gallagher on the Martin D-28:
“I bought it brand-new in a shop, just straight off the peg. It’s f***ing incredible. It’s got a new Baggs pickup system in it, which is pretty amazing.”
One of my favourite all-time acoustic performances is Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock. For that reason I have always wanted to try a Yamaha FG-150.
I have recently been scouring Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace for acoustic guitars. It’s becoming something of an obsession. Hopefully I’m not trying to fix something that’s broken within myself. Last week I saw a Taylor 612 CE for sale for £1400. I went to the seller’s warehouse in Witney to try out the guitar. It had a couple of light scratches that were barely noticeable but otherwise it was in really good condition. £1400 is a great price for a 612CE which can sell new over £3000. I played the guitar (plugged and unplugged) for a good twenty minutes. It felt amazing – all Taylors do. It sounded crisp, clear and bright. And the brightness is where the problem lies. Perhaps the sound I am looking for exists only in my mind but I would happily sacrifice some brightness for warmth. I didn’t buy the guitar. I came close though. As I explained to my wife afterwards: “I want my guitar to sound like the tree it came from”.
And so the process continues with seemingly miles to go until I sleep. In 2019 I am going to try out some of the following brands: Faith, Yamaha, Seagull and a few more high-end Takamines, Gibsons, Martins and Taylors.