One of my students who spends the winter in Florida began his lessons again yesterday and showed up with his new guitar, a Martin custom shop OM-28. Wow, wow, wow. What a spectacular instrument. The sound was sublime, rich and resonant and very even across the sound spectrum, already sounding mature and “open.” As usual from Martin, the fit and finish were perfect, although I continue to have mixed feelings about the “aging toner” that Martin uses on their tops with some instruments. Although it is not as orange-y looking as ones made a few years ago, recent examples are quite variable – I like it on my recent 000-18 but a bit less so on this new OM-28. But hey, that is truly a small complaint. I would be proud to own that OM!
This got me thinking about guitars I’ve owned over the years and what I liked about each one. If I could only take the feel of that one, combine it with the sound of another one, the looks of another…. That’s why we all get GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) I guess: the perpetual search for the perfect guitar that probably doesn’t exist.
So here’s what I came up with. My perfect guitar would be Grand Concert or 000 (OM) size. While a smaller OO body might be easier to hold I fear so much volume would be lost that I would notice. In contrast, a jumbo or dreadnought size guitar might have all the volume I wanted but these days that size has become annoyingly bulky for me, especially as I usually am sitting when I play. This has a lot to do with the depth of the bodies of jumbo and dread size guitars, which are deeper than most OM’s and similar size instruments.
Scale-length – the length of the neck and distance from the nut to the saddle – would be “short scale,” which is generally about 24.9” on a 14-fret-to-the-body 000 guitar versus 25.4” on a dread. The Martin OM does have the longer scale length but I think I would want the shorter length on my “perfect” guitar. Although a case can be made that shorter scale length results in less volume, resonance and sustain, on a high quality guitar I don’t think this is generally the case. Short scale is just easier for me as I am not a tall guy with long arms.
Neck profile would have to be what Martin calls their “performance profile,” which is fairly thin in depth with just a very slightly radius. I just don’t like thick, chunky necks. One proviso here though: I would want the fretboard edge to be oh-so-slightly beveled, such as you find on most Gibson acoustics. Martin necks (and Taylors too) have a very sharp edge and the slight rounding on the Gibson just feels more comfortable. And the action – the distance of the strings to the fretboard – must be as low as possible everywhere on the neck just to the point that finger-style playing and moderate volume strumming with light gauge strings does not result in buzzes.
Wood is the biggest conundrum. I love the complex resonance of rosewood but it can sound dead at times, especially when humidity levels are high or when the strings begin to go dead. Mahogany has a nice crisp, clear treble end but doesn’t often have the complexity and overtones of rosewood. I have yet to hear a guitar made of maple, walnut, koa or more exotic tonewoods that comes close to a high quality rosewood or mahogany acoustic guitar. I could be wrong about this of course. Neck must be mahogany or cedar; fretboard and bridge must be ebony for maximum hardness to transmit string vibration. So I guess my perfect guitar would have the complexity of tone of rosewood but with the clarity and crisp high end of mahogany.
High quality tuning machines are a must. Gotoh 510’s are the best feeling and most accurate machines I’ve ever used and I love them but they are rather modern looking and if my perfect guitar is to be traditional in looks (which is my preference) they might detract from the overall look. Waverlys are a great looking traditional single-gear exposed machine but I have found them to be not much better than good old Grover Sta-Tites, which cost about 1/3 what the Waverlys do, so I might just go with the Grovers. In any case, high quality machines have to be on my perfect guitar!
And what about looks? My perfect guitar would have subtle elegance rather than lots of bling. I’ve never been much impressed with the tons of inlay on 45-series Martins; perhaps just a abalone around the sound hole, not too wide. Binding must be dark in color and I prefer wood. Walnut looks great as binding! A matching back strip would be nice too. Gloss finish overall, including the back of the neck.
The guts of the instrument must include scalloped braces and a small size maple bridge plate. A pick-up is another whole discussion. My guess is that I would stick with K&K as I love the sound they’ve given in the two dozen guitars I’ve owned that had that pick-up.
So there it is, my perfect guitar. Maybe I’ll find it someday. Maybe I’ll hit the lottery and with an unlimited budget take a trip down to Nazareth and visit the custom shop at Martin and hand select everything that will go into my perfect guitar. But even then, would it be perfect???!
Peace & good music,