Leach Voyage-Air

January 6, 2006

Now that airline restrictions have made it virtually impossible to carry your prized guitar with you into the cabin, you’re probably thinking that the only alternative is to pack your ax in the toughest case you can afford, hand it over to the baggage handlers, and say a little prayer that it survives the trip. But that would be to overlook a hip solution that comes in the form of a folding guitar made by Harvey Leach, a California-based luthier who is also known for his fine inlay work on one-of-a-kind custom Martins. The nut of Leach’s Voyage-Air ($4,200 retail/street N/A) is its revolutionary neck-block system that allows the neck to fold back 180 degrees—a trick that makes it possible to fit the entire guitar into a lightweight padded backpack case that measures only 8" x 14" x 20". That’s compact enough to fit into an overhead baggage compartment or even under the seat in front of you.

Especially cool is that unlike typical “travel” guitars, the Voyage-Air is actually a full-sized dreadnought (parlor-, OM-, and cutaway-style models are also available) and features solid rosewood back and sides, a three-piece walnut neck, and a solid spruce top. Inside and out, the construction is immaculate. The hand-carved braces are smoothly sanded and carefully installed, the bindings around the top and back are flawless, and the 19 frets (plus a zero fret) are expertly shaped and polished. The Voyage-Air sports a satin finish and its ornamentation consists of a pretty herringbone rosette and hexagonal abalone fretboard inlays. The neck joins the body at the 12th fret, which is also its hinge point. With the neck extended, you have to look very carefully to see the almost invisible line where the two fretboard sections meet.

To get the Voyage-Air ready for action, you pull the neck away from the top until the heel contacts the body, and hold it securely against the string tension while you screw in the strap bolt (which is kept in a separate compartment in the case). Undo the strap that secures the strings, tune up to pitch, and you’re good to go. Now you might think that a guitar with a hinged neck would have to be sonically challenged in some manner, but the Voyage-Air has all the complexity, depth, and ringing pianistic qualities you expect from a high-end instrument. It also plays beautifully thanks to its comfortably low action and slim neck. Like a good dreadnought, the Voyage-Air is loud and present, offering lots of low-end chunk, a strong midrange punch, and a bright, clear top. It feels as solid as a guitar with a rigid neck, and it intonates solidly too—providing sweet, tuneful chording in all positions.

Hitting the Trail
Before packing up the Voyage-Air, Leach recommends loosening the strings a whole step in order to relieve some of the tension. It’s also a good idea to wrap the supplied Velcro strap around the neck to keep the strings anchored in their respective nut slots. The folding procedure is straightforward: Clamp the body between your knees, hold the neck firmly as you remove the strap screw, then slowly let the neck fold back toward the face of the guitar, gathering the slack strings in your free hand and guiding them into the soundhole. Place the guitar in its case and then position the padded cover so that it’s sandwiched between the neck and the top of the guitar. Attach two Velcro straps that keep the cover in place, zip up the case, and you’re ready to ride.

As well conceived as the Voyage-Air is, a few improvements are warranted. One would be a way to keep the strings in their nut slots when folding the neck that doesn’t involve a strap, and the other thing I’d like to see is some means of incorporating the strap bolt into the heel, so that you don’t run the risk of losing this essential piece of hardware. The good news is that Leach has already designed a “captured nut” to solve the first problem, as well as a strap screw that’s incorporated into the neck heel to keep it from being separated from the guitar. Both will be installed on all future Voyage-Air models. In all other regards, the Voyage-Air appears to be an ideal solution for any acoustic player who needs a professional-grade ax that can be slung like a backpack and stashed anywhere a large handbag would fit. For many, such convenience will be well worth the price of admission.

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