I’m in the middle of that quandary right now, something I’ve experienced many times but that doesn’t mean I understand it and the relative certainty that a fine guitar will improve with age and playing time doesn’t make my impatience any less. At least experience has finally begun to override my gut reaction with a new guitar. The impatient little man on my shoulder whispers in my ear: Yeah, it sounds good now but not as good as you’d hoped, so maybe you should send it back and try a different one?
I don’t listen to the little man nearly as much as I used to, which is the right course I think. What I try to do is address those two key questions – is this new guitar at its full potential, and if not, what will that potential be?
Let’s suppose I answer yes to the first question. This may be just fine. I recall a Martin HD-35 that I bought some years ago and it sounded fantastic from the very first strum. And more telling, it still sounded that way the next day, and the day after that. I knew it was a winner. That one ended up being traded for a smaller bodied Martin, which suited my playing style at the time a bit better but in spite of the fact that I find dreadnoughts just too big and unwieldy to play these days I’d love to be able to afford to have that one back. On the other hand, I spent $3k on a “revoiced” Taylor a few years ago and I only needed to play it for a half-hour or so to know it was dull and lifeless and it was not going to improve. Taylor just introduced yet another generation of “revoiced” guitars so my guess is that I wasn’t the only one to have that reaction. That Taylor, although gorgeous in every way except sound went back and I had no regrets (and perhaps a bit of relief!).
Then there is the second question: potential. This is where my experience with hundreds of guitars comes into play. And make no mistake, it truly has taken that many (both owned and played at guitar shops, and listened to student’s guitars over an extended period of time) to learn how to make a reasonably informed guess. I have to start by putting aside as much as possible the issue of aesthetics. I’ve made some mistakes in that regard. Some years ago I bought a very limited-edition Martin 000-40 Graham Nash model that was just about irresistible in looks with quilted mahogany top, back and sides that almost glowed and cool inlay. It sounded…plain. It took some swallowing of my guitar pride to realize the mistake I’d made and that one only stayed around for a couple months.
You would think that would have taught me a lesson, but no. A year or so later I bought a limited-edition Martin dreadnought that featured a curved three-piece back and koa binding. It was a joy to behold and sounded pretty good, but not good enough to justify the expense of the aesthetics. And there were other cases of falling for a pretty face, like the first-generation Martin GPC-1 that I realized too late was not much more than Martin’s attempt to imitate a fancy Taylor! It sounded unremarkable and the sharp edge of the new design, thin neck was downright painful to play.
Here’s where I’m going with all this. I just received my latest Martin, a brand new OM-28. Martin has made lots of noise in the last year or so about the improvements they’ve made in some of their standard series guitars. I’ve played the new 00-18, 000-18 and D-18 that have the new scalloped bracing and more modern neck designs and without exception they were all very fine guitars indeed, and definitely a step up from their already fine original versions. Until recently the OM-28, thought by many to be the perfect size Martin for both finger-style and strumming was a special order only model but it now is in their regular catalog. The only change they made with the new version of the OM-28 is to use the Performing Artist profile neck, which makes playing higher up the neck more comfortable. If mine is typical, they also are very slightly “rolling” the fretboard edge so that razor sharp neck edge may be a thing of the past, thank goodness. Can’t neglect the aesthetic entirely though, but hopefully my taste has matured in this regard. My OM-28 has the understated and elegant look of a vintage Martin, with small diamond inlays and old-style curved fine-line logo on the head stock rather than the raised gold foil logo that I never liked that much. They have also toned down the almost orange color “vintage toner” to something more subtle, which was long overdue.
So, how does it sound? To be totally honest, I was a bit disappointed when I tuned it up and began finger picking some blues tunes. Must be those coated strings they use on new guitars, I thought, so I immediately changed to my favorite Martin Clapton’s Choice light gauge phosphor bronze. This improved the tone a bit so my slight disappointment turned to reserved optimism. I played some more, finger picking and then strumming with my thumb. Better, better…..
But then I picked up a flat pick, fingered a 1st position E Major chord and gave it a solid strum. Oh my. There it was. Volume, clarity, excellent note separation, even response from low to high E strings, and resonance. Beautiful resonance. Yes, it faded away a bit faster than I would have liked, but that classic Martin sound was there, trying to come out like a bird emerging from its shell. I strummed it again. And again. And again, harder, trying to make the sound “break up.” And it didn’t. There was a wide grin on my face about time.
My conclusion: this is one fine Martin OM-28 that will surely “open up.” And with a bit of extra effort it sounds superb right now. This one ain’t goin’ nowhere!
But having said that, I have a confession to make. That impatient aspect of my guitar personality cannot be denied. I have no idea when the opening up process will really make this guitar bloom but I’m going to try to speed up the process. Next week a device called a Tone Rite will arrive in my mailbox. It is an electrical device that is temporarily attached beneath the strings near the bridge and when turned on it emits a low, steady hum and soft vibration that is supposed to at least somewhat emulate what playing the guitar does over an extended period of time. If used according to directions and employed for about 72 hours, many reports from other guitarists indicate a marked improvement in sound, especially in resonance and sustain. There are others who feel it is electronic snake oil. I will report back!!!
Peace & good music,