Opening the killer Geib-style case that the Harper arrived in revealed a guitar that, despite the fact that it was brand new, looked old, in the greatest sense of the word. The finish on the solid spruce top has a perfect hue thanks to the vintage toner, which lends a convincing old classic Martin vibe. The solid Indian rosewood back and sides sport beautiful grain, and Martin’s Style 45 back purfling is pure class. The target inlays on the headstock and fretboard are the only things that seem a touch out of place, although they’re perfectly rendered. What you can’t see is that the Ben Harper uses scalloped, solid spruce bracing on the inside. I didn’t get out my dentist mirror, but what I could see of the bracing looked perfectly clean.
The Harper’s body combines an M-style 16" width with a 000 depth (4r" at the endpin) for a super-comfortable feel. Speaking of comfort, the neck, which features Martin’s low-profile shape with a 16" radius, is very easy to get around on, and complex chords or single-note runs were a breeze to execute. And, although I normally require a fat neck (front to back) to support my fretting hand, the Harper’s comparatively shallow neck didn’t give me any problems or contribute to fatigue or discomfort.
So now we know that this guitar looks good and feels good, but what about the tone? Not surprisingly—a) because it’s a Martin and b) because it’s expensive—the Ben Harper sounds beautiful. It’s warm but sparkly and full-sounding without being boomy. It didn’t seem to matter who was playing it, the Martin performed brilliantly in every setting. Whether it was skiffle- style strumming, delicate fingerpicking, bluegrass shredding, or full-contact Michael Hedges slap, this thing just plain delivers the goods. It consistently pours out three-dimensional sound with astounding clarity. Perhaps because the body isn’t as deep as a dreadnought’s, the Harper doesn’t do the cannon-like low-end thing. Its bass response is tight and really musical. The treble frequencies are divine—bright and glistening. Lenny Breau-style cascades that combine fretted notes and harmonics are almost freakishly detailed on this guitar, sounding like each note was recorded on a separate track or something. And, when it came time for a hardstrumming rave-up, we were all impressed by how the Harper doesn’t compress. It just keeps getting louder but somehow retains its incredible balance. Capoing at the 3rd, 5th, and 7th frets was a glorious experience. Where some acoustics lose their personalities or just plain go dead when you shorten their scale length with a capo, Ben seemed to reveal more and more layers of voices, dialects, and timbres—all with great sustain and absolutely flawless intonation.
As befits a die-hard road warrior like Mr. Harper, this Martin comes fully equipped to plug in when you hit the stage. The onboard Fishman Ellipse Matrix Blend combines an undersaddle pickup with an internal mic, which are blendable with the stealthy soundhole controls. I plugged into an L.R. Baggs Acoustic Reference Amplifier and, with the Fishman’s Blend control set dead center (50 percent undersaddle, 50 percent mic), I heard a pleasant amplified sound, but one that was a little boxier than the natural sound of the Martin. I took down the low mids on the amp (this Fishman setup doesn’t have any onboard EQ) at around 500Hz and that’s when things really started to gel. The boxiness was gone and the tone was full and breathing. I was able to really dig in and bash it without the tone becoming harsh or woofy. When feedback crept in, the Fishman’s Phase button killed it. It’s definitely a natural sounding, forgiving system that translates the Martin’s depth and detail as well as any I’ve heard. Any pickup or amplifier would have a hard time really conveying the gorgeous sound coming off the Harper’s top and soundhole, though, and that’s why, despite my laziness, I threw a Neumann TLM127 up in the room during a recent recording session to capture the Harper’s sonic goodness.
There’s no denying that the HM Ben Harper is a truly great guitar. Everyone who played it was instantly impressed and it passed the “I don’t want to put it down” test with flying colors. But man—five large will post bail for a lot of “Innocent Criminals.” It would also buy you any number of new guitars from a slew of great builders or a vintage classic from Martin themselves. Ostensibly, it would seem that this instrument is designed for fans of Mr. Harper, and they’ll certainly dig the fact that he signs and numbers the decal inside each of his signature models (plus, the target inlays are definitely unique). But, whether you’re a follower of Ben Harper, Harper’s Bazaar, or neither, if you’re in the market for a high-end acoustic, you need to check out this guitar.
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