Eastman Strings is a Chinese manufacturer renowned for building violins, cellos, and other acoustic stringed instruments in the “old world” style. In other words, the shop utilizes no machines other than a band saw for rough cuts, and a special saw for cutting scrolled tops. Every other task is done by hand. Eastman began constructing archtop guitars in late 2001, building on Bob Benedetto’s classic designs—which isn’t surprising given that the Chinese luthiers’ introduction to guitar crafting was via Benedetto’s instructional manual and video.
Eastman archtop models are available in either the 800 Professional or 900 Luxury Series (and there’s also a signature John Pisano model). The 900 Series guitars sport higher-grade tone woods, wooden binding, Schaller tuners with ebony buttons, and other refinements—but essentially they conform to the same specifications as their more modest counterparts reviewed here. Both levels of guitars are available in either spirit varnish or lacquer finishes, with a choice of colors.
Both review guitars are “CE” models, indicating that they have cutaways and are equipped with electric pickups. Each features solid flamed-maple back and sides, a three-piece maple neck, and an aged solid spruce top. Seven-layer celluloid binding graces the top and back, five-layer binding is employed on the fretboard, headstock, and along the bottom joint, and three-layer binding is used on the heel and pickguard. The pickguard, tailpiece, truss-rod cover, and headstock all have ebony facings. The carved bridge, which is curved slightly to provide compensation, is also constructed of ebony. Gold hardware is used throughout, including “stair-step” Jinko tuners, the metal portions of the tailpiece, and the strap endpin, which also houses the output jack. (Note: there is no second strap button.) Both instruments have a floating Kent Armstrong mini-humbucking pickup, and a simple volume “wheel” located underneath the pickguard is the only control.
The guitars come with classy-looking fiberglass cases based on Eastman’s cello case design. While the cases are sturdy enough, and can be fitted with included straps for convenient backpack-style carrying, they scuff relatively easily and lack the ever-useful accessory compartments.
The AR810CE’s construction is remarkable throughout aside from a few imperfections here and there. The generally excellent binding work shows tiny rough spots and evidence of finish bleed in a few places, and there’s some discoloration on the fretboard where the glue has seeped in from below the frets. The nut is also a bit rough looking, with overt file marks and other irregularities, and there’s a ragged file mark near the low E string on the bridge (as well as the number “19” mysteriously drawn in pencil). That said, the wood used throughout is absolutely gorgeous and beautifully matched, and the classic sunburst lacquer finish adds just the right measure of elegance.
The first thing I noticed while playing the AR810CE was how inviting it felt. The frets are nicely positioned and polished, which, combined with the rounded neck profile and smooth binding, flat heel, and ultra-accommodating setup, made for a super-seductive playing experience. Playing a few chords, it also became apparent that the instrument’s construction endowed it with above-average acoustic volume and projection, while retaining balance across all notes in all positions, with no annoying dead spots. A quick check with a strobe tuner confirmed that the intonation was as consistent as the volume.
Plugged into a Rivera Chubster 55 and a JBL-equipped ’70s Fender Twin Reverb, the AR810CE’s amplified sound delivered all of the tone that you’d expect after hearing it acoustically. By rolling the volume back to slightly over half way, with the tone controls on the amps set flat, I was able to get the sort of classic fatback jazz guitar sound associated with instruments costing many times more. Experimenting with the guitar’s volume control and the amp’s tone settings produced enough cool variations to satisfy even the most demanding jazzbo (though if you are seeking gnarly Steve Howe ES-175 tones look elsewhere, as the AR810CE did not respond well to the Rivera’s overdrive). Feedback was an issue, as it always is with these sorts of instruments, though I was able to turn the amps up relatively loud before the howling ensued.
The AR805CE is very similar to the AR810CE, though players used to less-than-full-sized guitars may find its 16" body width more accommodating than that of its 17" sibling. The AR805CE also has a more angular cutaway, and this particular example sports an Antique Red finish, which dramatically highlights the instrument’s extraordinary flame patterns. Other than those structural and cosmetic differences the two guitars’ appointments are nearly identical, and, significantly, the nut, bridge, and binding irregularities noted above were almost entirely absent on the AR805CE, suggesting that they are anomalies, or possibly evidence of inconsistent manufacturing standards.
Tone-wise, the AR805CE has a slightly brassier acoustic sound and a somewhat less beefy electric sound than the larger AR810CE, but otherwise they sound a lot alike. Playability and intonation are also almost identical, though the AR805CE’s second string goes a tad sharp at the 13th and 14th frets.
It should be obvious to anyone reading this review that a new day has dawned on the world of carved-top jazz guitars. Despite whatever minor cosmetic flaws may dog some Eastman guitars, the fact remains that these instruments look, play, and sound more or less like guitars costing up to ten times as much, and that is no doubt leading to more than a few high-end manufacturers casting wary glances over their shoulders. Whatever the outcome of that soul searching may be, one thing is for sure: If you have longed for a professional quality carved-top jazz guitar, but lamented the prohibitive prices, your day is finally here.
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