Roundup: 5 Acoustic-Electrics for Under Five Bones

January 30, 2014

THE FLAT-TOP ACOUSTIC GUITAR WITH ONBOARD electronics is one of the most “go to” instruments in a guitar player’s arsenal. By definition, the acoustic-electric is sort of the amphibian of the guitar family. Equally at home in a practice or small performance situation as it is on a big stage with a loud band, the modern acoustic-electric is a highly evolved instrument whose design has been refined over decades of trial and error to be the versatile hybrid that it is today. Adding a pickup and some controls to an acoustic box certainly isn’t brain science, but designing an affordable production guitar that has to do double-duty in the acoustic and electric realms does require considerable R&D to optimize the woods, body size, bracing configuration, and numerous other details that will ultimately result in an instrument that responds well acoustically, but isn’t so light and resonant that it becomes a howling feedback monster when plugged into an amp or played next to cranked up stage monitors. The fact that said guitar also has to look great, play well, and, finally, make a profit for the builder, presents a rather daunting set of challenges for any manufacturer in this highly competitive sector of the guitar market.

The five guitars in this roundup cover the price spectrum from $299 to $499, and each has its own set of qualities that would make it an attractive choice for just about any application. We gave them all a thorough shakeout to test their acoustic performance, and auditioned them through a variety of acoustic and standard guitar amps, including a ZT Lunchbox Acoustic, a Bad Cat Bob Cat 100, a Fender Deluxe Reverb, a Fishman SA 220, and a Victoria 20112. That was the easy part. Finding a clear winner less so, because despite the $200 spread between these guitars, all of them have their charms and interesting things to offer. You could hardly go wrong with any of these guitars, but especially when shopping for an acoustic-electric, try out as many as possible to see how they groove with your playing style and sonic tastes. It will be time well spent to end up with something that’ll satisfy and inspire you for years to come. —ART THOMPSON


Breedlove Passport Series C250/CMe

Based on the body shape and voicing of Breedlove’s Custom Shop C25, the offshore-made C250/ CMe is a modern-looking instrument that comes with a satin finish and a tasteful cosmetics package that includes black binding on the body and fretboard, a simple black/white rosette, and tiny pearl dots on fretboard. The guitar’s construction is first rate throughout, and the interior areas are also clean as a whistle. The pin-less bridge with compensated saddle makes for quick and easy string changing due to the strings loading through the rear section of the bridge.

The C250’s two-piece neck has an inviting feel and the frets are evenly crowned and well polished for enhanced playability. The action is low enough to invite a bit of buzzing here and there when you pick or strum hard, but overall, the setup and tuneful intonation throughout all reaches of the fretboard make it a gas to play. The C250’s acoustic sound is highly enjoyable, as everything sounds well balanced and open, with crisp highs, vibrant mids, clearly defined lows, and above average sustain that produces the “bloom” on notes and chords that you expect from costlier guitars. The C250 gets loud when you lay into it, and there’s little compression to hinder its punchy output.

The visible part of the electronics package is the VTC preamp on the upper bout, which is a stripped-down affair with just three controls (Volume, Low, High) along with a built-in chromatic tuner that stands out by featuring a large LCD with a backlit needle-style indicator that’s very easy to see in all lighting conditions. Also, just above the endpin jack is the compartment for the 9-volt battery, which has a slide-out holder that grips the battery one way only for correct polarity.

The amplified tones offer a good representation of the C250’s acoustic sound, and they have all the punchiness needed for live playing with a band. Some piezo artifacts are noticeable when you really dig into the strings, but the tone controls make it easy to dial in sounds, and I never felt like I was fighting honkiness or needed more control over the mids to get happening tones from this guitar.

Breedlove’s distinctive styling is well represented by the C250/CMe, and if your tastes don’t demand a guitar that looks like it was built in the 1930s, this is an instrument with some very appealing attributes that lands at a price almost anyone can afford. Well done! —AT

PRICE $499 street, gigbag included

NECK Mahogany
FRETBOARD Rosewood, 25 1/2" scale
TUNERS Mini die-cast chrome
BODY Laminated mahogany with solid cedar top
BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated saddle
PICKUP Passport Active VTC undersaddle piezo
CONTROLS Volume, Low, High; Tuner on/off
STRINGS D’Addario EXP, .011-.052
WEIGHT 4.68 lbs
KUDOS Plays and sounds like a higher-priced guitar. Excellent build quality. Large tuner display.
CONCERNS Sharp corners on nut.

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