Road Trip I Reviews and Recordings: SW England

June/July 2010: Keith, Somerset

 

 

 

Two very different pieces recorded by Keith in standard tuning, first Keith's arrangement of Erroll Garner's "Misty" followed by Matteo Carcassi's "Study in A". Both recorded on a Zoom H2 with no EQ or effects. Next up is Keith's own composition "Nice One" - a ragtime piece in standard tuning followed by a lovely waltz in DADGAD capo III written by Ken Nicol called "I.H (Scottish Tune)". Finally Ian Melrose's arrangement of "Huntingtone Castle" in DADGAD Capo III. Keith also did a recording test with the side soundport open and closed and you can hear the results here. Then five videos of Keith's own compositions plus one arrangement - "Caroline's" played in standard tuning with the capo at the seventh fret, "Love, Joy, Peace" in dropped D tuning, "Take Me Where The Music's Playing" in standard , Carlo Galantini's "Bliss in Connaught" in standard and finally a tune he wrote for me called "Travelling On" is standard, Capo II:

 

"Caroline's"

 

 

"Love, Joy, Peace"

 

 

"Take Me Where the Music's Playing"

 

 

"Bliss in Connaught"

 

 

"Travelling On"

 

 

Here's Keith's review:

 

"I have been playing acoustic guitar since around 1962, and have played all sorts of less than wonderful guitars for 15 years or so, but eventually acquired an Guild D35 which was my only guitar for quite some time. When I eventually tried non-dreads, and especially UK built models there was no looking back. For the past twenty years or so years I have played Lowden and Fylde guitars as I very much like their sounds, playability, build quality, dependability and aesthetics. I play mostly fingerstyle though with some strumming and various half-way hybrid styles. Standard tuning with occasional (double) dropped D is where I play. I've never really got "into" DADGAD et al. I grew up through Shadows tunes, Beatles songs and was lucky enough to be around during the folk "revival" of the 1960s, and have played mostly folky stuff of various kinds ever since. I love playing with other musicians, especially if they play instruments other than the guitar. I enjoy solo playing/singing and especially enjoy playing solo fingerstyle instrumental pieces, either my own compositions or arrangements of not-especially-guitar-type tunes.

 

Appearance: This is not a large guitar by any means - about the same as my Lowden S10 across the lower bout, but shallower in depth, and with a squarer, more angular shape that I liked a lot. The pale European Spruce top and Colombian Rosewood back and sides almost glow under their hand-rubbed lacquer finish which has a silky sheen and feel. The back and sides are especially prettily grained. I prefer darker tops from a visual aspect, but this one will darken over time! The wooden rosette looks classily elegant. The bindings and purflings suit the overall look of the guitar well, with neat detailing around the end graft and heel cap. The headstock shape is, to my eyes, very pleasing, resulting in straightish string paths and carrying attractive front and rear Malaysian Blackwood veneers. The custom tuner buttons, also of Malaysian Blackwood, set off the visual effect well. Perhaps a small inlaid headstock makers logo might add something too. The neck, in Sycamore and with a bulky stacked heel, is oil finished, interestingly grained and very pale in appearance. I feel this light colour does not fit too well visually with the rest of the guitar, and would prefer a darker looking neck. The bone nut has, I suspect, moved a little, and protruded about 0.5 mm. on the treble side and had a similar sized wooden ledge on the bass side. Measured at right angles to the string path, the fingerboard width at this end of the guitar is 46mm and the string spacing is 38mm. This suits me well. Dave has removed the unnecessary excess material from the top of the nut which leaves the strings sitting correctly in shallow notches rather than at the bottom of deep slots; excellent. The large-ish frets, which look well finished, sit in a nice bound Malaysian Blackwood fingerboard with no face markings and with side dot markers. There are b/w/b purfling lines along the fingerboard side edges too, and though well done, are visually unnecessary, to my eyes anyway. The multiscale nature of the guitar means that the angled bridge is a striking feature, even more so than the fanned frets. I quite like this very different look. The bridge itself is a very simple but effective design, angular from above, but smoothly curved in profile. The ebony unslotted pins look well, though their distance from the saddle varies, as does the spacing. This latter has resulted in uneven string spacing over the saddle, which, once spotted, looks odd. The bone saddles are very high indeed (part of Dave's design philosophy) and have a string to string spacing of 58mm measured at right angles to the string path. This is 1mm wider than my Fyldes, and a couple wider than my Lowdens, but felt very similar in use. The soundport is a visual novelty for me, and though I am very keen on it from a functional aspect I find it odd to be able to see inside the body from the playing position. Interesting though, as the extra carbon fibre flying braces that Dave uses are well seen from this viewpoint. The internal appearance is mostly neat and tidy, though with overlarge cutouts for some of the braces and some dried glue residues here and there - the soundport view is perhaps too revealing! An excellent and well fitting Hiscox Pro II case is supplied, and as well as the guitar, contains a care and specification leaflet, a CD with the build log and pictures as per the website and Dave's forum postings, and a cloth for general wiping down after playing. Wiping down the guitar that is.

 

Playability and feel: For a smallish guitar, it feels heavier than I imagined it might, though this is not a problem in any way. It was not possible to try playing standing as there are no strap buttons as yet. Sitting down, the guitar feels well balanced and sits well placed on either leg, crossed or uncrossed. The size, and especially the relatively shallow depth makes it very easy to reach around and play for long periods. The oil finished neck felt ever so slightly sticky to me at times - usually during the hottest days (and there were quite a few!) and when my hands were sweaty. I think I would have preferred the feel of a neck finish similar to that on the body. The neck profile felt a little flatter than I was used to, but was very comfortable to play, and the width suited me perfectly. The fairly constant depth made Shubb capo placement very quick and simple almost anywhere on the neck, though the bar was a little short and needed careful placement on the most diagonal frets and the curved rear padded bar tended to result in the capo sitting unparallel to the fret in these places too. I found it easier to use my Planet Waves NS, as it has a longer bar which coped with diagonal placement better, as did the flat "behind the neck" pad. The fret ends felt fine when I first got the guitar, but shortly after, and for several days, they felt very edgy and sharp indeed on bass and treble sides, as if the fingerboard had maybe shrunk a little during the hottest weather. This had settled down a lot by the time I passed the guitar on to Andrew, though there was still a trace of sharpness to the fret ends on the bass side. Hopefully this will continue to settle down. With the tiniest bit of neck relief and a first fret action as low as possible this guitar was effortless to play in the lower positions. The 12th fret action on Traveller had been set deliberately low (a fraction under 2mm bass E and a fraction over 1mm treble E ) for gentle fingerstyle playing, and as such was equally effortless to play higher up. Heavier fingerstyle playing did bring out some fret buzz, though this is no criticism as the guitar could be set up to any personal requirements. My preference would be for perhaps 0.5 mm more on the 12th fret action, which would mean 1mm more on the already very high saddles. The neck profile, width and depth suited me well, and I found the guitar to be a delight to play anywhere on the neck, with it's volume, tone quality, clarity, balance and separation being remarkably consistent across the strings and up the neck. Intonation was excellent everywhere, allowing low strings played high up to sound in tune with high strings left open. The tuners kept the pitches stable, even when making quite drastic changes, and the custom tuner buttons felt nice to use. The erratic bridge string spacing was not at all noticeable when playing, though the outer ends of the saddles felt a little sharp and obstructive at times, especially when palm-muting - if it were my guitar I would round them over a little at the corners for increased comfort. When playing sitting reasonably correctly the guitar was very comfortable to hold and play. In my slouched in front of the TV playing position though, the binding edges felt slightly sharp to a bare forearm, and I would have preferred them to be ever so slightly rounded for the sake of comfort. Maybe I watch too much TV.

 

Sound: Small guitar - big sound! I had to keep reminding myself just how small this guitar is, because both the quantity and quality of sound, even when played gently, are extremely good indeed. The soundport, of which more later, increases the player's awareness of this, but the first thing my guitar mate Glyn said on hearing me play it was "Expletive expletive, that's expletiving loud!" He was also as enthusiastic as I was about the quality of sound - very fast responding, full, sustaining, balanced etc . The fullness of tone from such a new guitar was amazingly good, though I did feel the unwound string tones have a little way to develop yet. Having listened to my recordings done over the fortnight, I think tone has changed in even that short time - the final recording (Travelling On) seems to me to have fuller sounding trebles than the earlier recordings like "Misty", though that may be in part due to my nails being less than ideal when making the earlier tracks. No matter, the tone was very pleasing, and will no doubt become even more so. Dave has achieved his objective of making a guitar that has a distinct non-U.S. tone, being much more "English" sounding. Sorry, but I'm rubbish at describing tone, it's so subjective anyway - one person's "clarity and balance" is another's "clinical and bass-light". The B string had a slightly plunky and non-sustaining sound when played open, which disappeared as soon as it was fretted. I suspect the nut slot might benefit from a little attention - had it been my own guitar I'd have had the razor saw and files out, but as the string height was perfect I didn't want to risk upsetting that in any way. Perhaps the slight nut movement mentioned earlier is a partial culprit. I play quite a lot with high capo positions, and was very pleased to find that the Traveller liked this a lot. No tuning adjustments were necessary when placing my Planet Waves capo as far up as fret 7. I suspect the longer scale bass E has something to do with this, as that string is sometimes the one I need to tweak on my Lowdens. The tone, balance and sustain are still remarkably good right up here, unlike many guitars which disappoint in this respect. It was as good here as my Lowdens and Fylde Custom, and loads better than my Fylde Oberon. The strong sympathetic vibrations and overtones that occur during playing this guitar were even stronger in DADGAD tuning, and enriched slow passages in a very musical way in whatever tuning is used. This characteristic, and the excellent sustain were, for me, the guitar's most endearing sound qualities. As a DADGAD avoider, I was pleased to find I got further with the tuning than I have ever done before, and may well spend more time on this in future now the Traveller has given me a piece or two to play! I do a bit of strumming, flatpicking etc, and here again I was very pleasantly surprised with the sound. Using a light pick it was easy to get a full strummed sound with little effort, and bass runs rang out clearly and easily. Treble fills and twiddles were again easy to accomplish, though I had to be careful not to pick too hard on the top E, which, as a 12 gauge and very short, didn't like being attacked too forcibly. Dave recommends D'addario 12-53 strings, and supplied the guitar with these fitted, plus several spare sets for the current leg of the Road Trip. I played these very hard and frequently for the first couple of days and then put on a set of (my usual) Newtone Masterclass PB 12-54. These gave a slightly mellower tone all round, which I preferred. The more flexible feel to these strings is also something I really like. All my recordings were done with these strings, and this review is based on their use also. At Andrew's request I left them on when handing the guitar over so he could try them before putting Dadds back on. For what it's worth, I'd describe the guitar as sounding to me in many respects like the offspring of my Lowden O25 and my Fylde Oberon. Whatever, very classy, and in spite of what I've just said, with a character entirely its own. It doesn't quite (yet) have the mid-range warm "hum" that I would like to hear, though many would argue this to be a good thing! A great sounding guitar that can only get better.

 

Special features: The guitar has a scale length of 660mm bass E and 630mm treble E, necessitating frets at varying angles. The appearance of the frets is a little unsettling, but I found no real adjustment in playing was necessary, with the exception of the thumbover F shape. I use this a lot, but in first and second positions, the angle of the fret meant moving my thumb a bit further towards the nut to avoid a damped note on the bass E owning to my thumb landing on top of the fret, or even on the wrong side of it. Not a huge problem, but I was still conscious of it after a fortnight's intensive The advantage of the 660 mm bass scale over a more ususal 648-ish mm is that detuned bass strings of the same gauge and construction retain slightly more tension on the longer scale. Dropped tuning enthusiasts would know better than I whether or not this really makes a big difference, but I can well see it might. I liked it mainly because the consequent slightly increased tension on the 6th string even in standard tuning gave it a feel more like the others in the set - often on "normal" guitars the bass E feels a bit floppier than the other strings which is why I tend to use 12-54 gauges instead of 12-52. The treble scale is, at 630mm very short when compared with a "standard" scale of around 648mm. I found this not especially to my taste, and on this guitar would have replaced the 12 and 16 unwound gauges with 13 and 17 gauge strings had there been time to experiment. The top E in particular would have responded better to a medium heavy right hand with a 13 I'm sure, and possibly the plunketty open B might have improved a little, though obviously I'm speculating. When tuned to DADGAD I found the floppiness of the top two strings to be quite annoying - the scale is short already, and detuning the top two strings exaggerated my need for heavier strings here. If I were commissioning a Samhain I think I'd want a standard scale throughout for my purposes. If a multiscale guitar had a standard scale at the treble side and a longer, maybe even a little more than 660 on the bass side, perhaps that would suit me well too. The other special feature of the guitar is a soundport - in this case a small and simply shaped hole with a well finished edge. I did like this a lot. The benefit to the player is more volume and a tone more representative of that heard by a listener out front. The difference became immediately apparent to me when I blocked the post with a sock, and began to play - removing the sock (preferably with the help of an assistant) brought me an obvious increase in volume and a subtle improvement in tone. All this is with no detriment to a listener a few feet in front of the guitar. Win/win! Recording the sounds as heard by the player confirmed this - the volume improvement was not in doubt, but the tone change as recorded was more apparent. I described the closed port tone to the player as being "honkier" than the open port tone. Dave's description of the players experience from the recordings was of an open port "airier" tone and a closed port "compressed" tone. I'd go with that - much better description than mine. I'm definitely a fan of the soundport, even though it affords what seems to me to be a strange an almost too intimate view into the guitar. I could easily get used to that as the sonic benefits are great. I'd like to try the guitar in a noisy session to see if the soundport has a practical and usable benefit there.

 

Conclusion: What a lovely guitar! It has a characterful tone ideally suited to fingerstyle playing, where it's sustain and responsiveness allow a wide range of dynamics to be produced with little effort. The balanced sound allows multi-part pieces to come across clearly and musically. It does, however, cope extremely well with a wide range of playing styles. I found myself wanting to try a cedar topped version - Dave's own cedar/maple Samhain had, as far as I can remember, a sweeter top end more to my taste, but the Traveller will develop a little more in this respect given time - it'll be interesting to play it again at Hebden Bridge - if I get the chance! Having thoroughly enjoyed the reviews and sounds from previous players on this Road trip schedule I'm also looking forward very much to hearing how subsequent folks get on. It seems to me that everyone has encouraged something different from the guitar and demonstrated its versatility well. I am entirely convinced of the benefits of a soundport, but would probably not consider a multiscale guitar to be a must for me, though I have enjoyed trying out the particular scale range the Traveller has. The guitar was also very appealing in its size and overall appearance, and I particularly liked the finish on the body. Most of the occasional minor less-than-perfect aspects mentioned are largely personal preferences which, were I to be in a position to commission a guitar for myself, would not arise as issues. I found the Traveller to be different from my usual instruments in many ways, but after two weeks enjoying its company I was very sorry to see it go. I felt my playing had been enriched by it's company. Huge thanks must go to Dave, of course, for instigating and organising the Road Trip, for making such a great guitar, and for entrusting each of us with it! I am sure that the Trip will continue to provide useful feedback, and hopefully encouragement to you Dave - thank you. Keith"

 

July 2010: Andrew, Plymouth

 

 

Here's Andrew's first recording - his take on Bert Jansch's "Strolling Down the Highway" in standard tuning Capo III. Next up is Rab Noakes "Together Forever" in standard tuning. Then we have Andrew and Jane's version of Mary Chapin Carpenter's "The Moon and St. Christopher" with Samhain Taistealai in double  dropped D tuning (DADGBD) capo V. Here's Andrew's review:

 

"I've been playing guitars of one sort of another for more years than I care to remember...mostly when accompanying myself or someone else singing...in bands and solo. I have a couple of "special" acoustics...a Manson and a Brook and still have my first "good " guitar [a Levin] which I bought in the late 60's.I've only ever commissioned one instrument from a luthier...the mandocello that Gary Nava made for me a couple of years ago...that experience was excellent. Any commissioned instrument can be exactly what you want it to be albeit within the confines of the makers style and skill...choice of woods,hardware, nut width, string space, neck profile etc, etc is all down to you.

 

I really like the modern, slightly quirky appearance of ST... the choice of woods compliment each other from the elegant rosette to the matching tuner buttons and headstock veneers...I wasn't completely sold on the sycamore neck to begin with but now I think it blends beautifully with the overall look. The semi matt finish looks great to me and seems to give reasonable protection. On first picking up the guitar it seemed heavier than I expected and was maybe slightly head heavy...this might have been more noticeable when using a strap but wasn't noticeable sitting after a minute or two. I found I adapted to the fanned frets very quickly [a slight problem with getting my thumb over for F shapes in the open position] and I found no problem switching backwards and forwards between ST and my other normally fretted instruments. The string spacing was slightly wider both at the nut and in the playing area than I'm used to but didn't seem to cause any problems. The spacing between the 3rd and 4th strings was slightly wider than the other spaces but wasn't noticeable when playing. The intonation was excellent with minimal adjustments to tuning when placing a capo and the action was beautifully low...a slight buzz at the 10th fret on the top E string...easily fixed at the next "service".

 

I took off Keith's well used Newtones and put the 12 to 53 Dadd's that Dave kindly supplied on...to me the tone was sweetest with the capo on between the 3rd and 5th fret particularly on the treble side. Even when capo'd on the 5th fret the bass notes chimed out beautifully...not the case with lots of instruments. I think the open position tone will develop more as time goes by...I preferred the tone of the wound strings here. The separation between individual strings was clear either when fingerpicking or strumming and the volume balance between the strings seemed perfect. I use double drop D tuning quite a bit and think there was some advantage to the longer scale bass side but not to the extent that I thought it essential. One small disadvantage of the steep break angle at the saddle is that when changing tuning the string "catches" slightly on the saddle which causes the pitch to change suddenly sometimes. The soundhole gave a good view of the struts and bolt on arrangement for the neck [great idea ... although there was a very stable feel to the body so a neck reset probably will never be required!]....I tried covering it up to test the sound difference...a bit louder open but ST is beautifully loud anyway! All in all a lovely, distinctive instrument with Dave's individual style and sound...in my book that is exactly what you hope to get by commissioning a custom made guitar.

 

Those of you "up the line" have a treat in store."