2016 Top Gear: The Year in Acoustic Guitars, Amps & Accessories

From the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG CAHILL

Exerpt below: Read the full article HERE




At first blush, Andrew White’s Cybele 1013W, which takes its name from the Greek goddess of nature, seems like a study in contradictions. With its stylish profile, the guitar has a modern look, but when you dig into the instrument, it has the bark and growl of an old blues guitar. And it sounds a great deal louder than you’d expect from a small, narrow-waisted guitar. In other words, the Cybele is far from your standard-issue Far East-made import. White is a luthier known to experiment with body shapes, bracing patterns, and the like. The average cost of an instrument he builds in his West Virginia workshop is more than $10,000, but the 1013W, whose manufacture is entrusted to Artec Sound, a Korean guitar company, sells for a tenth of that price. If the test model is any indication, Artec is doing good work under White’s direction. PRICE: $1,595 direct.


It’s a bit disorienting to open a Martin 00L-17 case to find an ebony, slope-shouldered guitar: an instrument more closely resembling a 1930s Gibson than any guitar Martin produced in the era. But playing a few strums and runs on this new offering from the 17 series reveals a voice that is unmistakably Martin. It’s got the impressive mids and overall warmth of a good 14-fret 00 in spades, and it just feels solid and reliable at hand. The guitar’s short scale, 24.9 inches, makes it easier to play chords requiring big stretches than does the standard 25.5-inch scale. And, with perfect low action, free from buzzing, it’s really easy to zip around the neck. Not surprising for a modern Martin—the company is making consistently great guitars at all price points—the 00L-17 sounds every bit as awesome as it feels. It’s got a lovely, uncluttered sound, heavy on fundamentals but with shimmering overtones and a nice natural reverb. It’s definitely a more powerful instrument than would be expected of one of its size and scale length. It features a solid Sitka spruce top with scalloped X bracing, solid mahogany back and sides, and rosewood bridge. PRICE: $2,299 list/$1,859 street.


Guitarists who don’t like to plug in will be glad to know that the Martin 00-15E Retro’s natural voice is warm and mellow, clear and balanced throughout the sonic spectrum. There are no dead spots anywhere on the neck—all of the notes ring clearly and are buzz-free, and the intonation is perfect. If you want to plug in, though, you’ll love the electronics: Fishman’s F1 Aura+, which is designed specifically for Martins. For this clever system, the guitar company recorded a tone donor—a 1935 Martin 00-55, which is essentially a 00-17S—with nine high-quality microphones. The images, or timbral samples, work in tandem with an undersaddle pickup to make this modern Martin sound like a miked Golden-Era model. PRICE: $2,549 list/$1,999 street.

Two new Waterloos—the 12-fret WL-K and the aforementioned WL-JK jumbo—made it immediately clear that this Collings-associated brand lives up to the buzz that has developed around it. Each instrument has its own personality, but both share the same cool aesthetic, paying homage to 90-year-old budget guitars: the 12-fret WL-K is inspired by the small number of guitars made by Gibson between 1930 and 1932 and sold under the name Kel Kroydon; the aforementioned WL-JK of which I continue to pine is a replica of an old Montgomery Ward jumbo. Both feel uncommonly responsive and playable: total winners in all regards, and, best of all, selling for much less than the typical high-end guitar. PRICE: WL-K, $2,600 list/$2,340 street; WL-JK, $2,300 list/$2,070 street.


The Taylor 12-fret 552ce 12-string also received a lot of attention during its all-too-brief stay in the AG office. Twelve-string guitars are notoriously tricky instruments, particularly in terms of playability and intonation, and it can be hard to find a great one, though Taylor has a good reputation for building playable 12-strings. So it’s satisfying to make the acquaintance of not one, but two new Taylor 12-strings, both equipped with the Expression 2 pickup system and excellent in all aspects. The good news is that the 12-fret 552ce and the 14-fret 858e models produce the gloriously shimmering effects characteristic of the best 12-string examples. The bad news is that choosing one over the other might present a serious dilemma. PRICE: 552ce, $3,398 list/$2,599 street; 858e, $4,378 MSRP/$3,399 street.


Playing the Breedlove Journey Concert, you’re reminded of the depth of sound that a set of Dalbergia nigra—or Brazilian rosewood—back and sides lends to a steel-string acoustic guitar (the guitar features a solid Sitka top). The bass notes have an unmistakable oomph, as if the guitar is outfitted with a subwoofer, and overall, the guitar has a lush, ringing sound that makes putting it down a challenging proposition. Brazilian rosewood guitars of any constructional style are getting harder and more expensive to come by. Thanks to the Journey Concert’s onboard electronics—LR Baggs Anthem TRU-MIC, combining a miniature microphone with a piezo pickup—the guitar sounds warm and detailed. The guitar is highly recommended for anyone wanting to get in the door with a guitar made from this precious tonewood—while it’s still available on a new instrument. PRICE: $5,332 list/$3,999 street.


If you haven’t played a Takamine of late, give the company another look. The Takamine EF75M TT is a limited-edition series based on the company’s popular EF75S model (which had Brazilian rosewood back and sides). The new OM model has a thermally treated solid spruce top, and Madagascar rosewood back and sides. Add abalone purfling and flame-maple binding and this impressive-sounding guitar can also boast about its good looks. Equipped with Takamine’s Line Driver electronics. PRICE: $6,659/list; $3,999 street.


Spending a few minutes with the Gibson J-45 Vintage, with its torrefied Adirondack spruce top and mahogany back and sides, it’s easy to understand why this guitar is known affectionately as the Workhorse. It’s got a brawny, but balanced voice and is just as friendly to fingerpicking as it is to flatpicking. This iteration, introduced this year along with a Vintage Hummingbird, Vintage L-00, and a Vintage SJ-200, is particularly strong in the departments of warmth, resonance, and projection. In fact, it just might be the most satisfying modern J-45 that AG has auditioned, not to mention one of the finest recent production-model acoustics in general. Gibson is making some of the best flattops in its long history—guitars that sound convincingly like their legendary wartime counterparts, but play even better. PRICE: $5,190 list/$3,999 street.