As you’ve likely noticed from checking out new acoustic guitars online or in the brick-and-mortar domain, there are some amazing deals to be had these days on instruments that look, play, and sound like they ought to cost more than they do. You even see some with solid-wood construction, which is something that has typically not been the case with more affordable instruments. Obviously, manufacturing guitars in China has much to do with making this possible, although, as this roundup points out, there are guitars with bodies made from laminated materials that sound just as good as some of their solid-wood cousins.
So many factors are at play in acoustic guitar design, and the woods—be they solid or ply—are only part of a complex and highly interactive network that includes such factors as the body dimensions, quality of the bracing, the solidity of the neck joint, fretboard scale, and the thickness and hardness of the finish.
And then there are the electronics that many guitars come equipped with—some sporting lots of knobs, sliders, and switches, and others with little more than a 2-band EQ. Most systems are well implemented for the guitars they’re installed in, but it’s definitely worth plugging in and seeing if you like the amplified sound it delivers and won’t be feeling either overwhelmed or undergunned by the interface.
With acoustic guitars you do get what you pay for, though, and a high-end model that’s hand made from aged, solid woods is going to score better for tonal balance, complexity, dynamic response, volume, and playing feel than a less costly instrument that is built on a production line and made from woods that haven’t been completely dried. That said, as this roundup of medium priced instruments shows, there are some pretty slammin’ guitars out there that offer inspiring sound and playability for about the same money as a set of tires for you car.
We tested these instruments in our studios and/or on live gigs, and plugged the pickup-equipped models into a variety of amplification rigs, including “acoustic” amps, P.A. systems, and standard tube amplifiers.
Cort has a reputation for importing guitars that punch above their weight class, and the AS-M5 is another good example of this. Although the AS-M5 slips in at the top of the range in this acoustic roundup, it brings the specs to justify its price: The top is made from solid Sitka spruce, with back and sides of solid rosewood. Neck and headstock are carved from a single piece of solid mahogany, with a second piece augmenting the heel-end, and the fretboard and headstock facing are both rosewood. The AS-M5 is elegantly dressed, too, with genuine abalone dot inlays on the ’board, an abalone soundhole rosette, and an abalone with mother-ofpearl headstock inlay. Body and fretboard binding are both maple, with a multi-ply purfling around the top that carries a wide mahogany stripe. The only mild blemish here is a slightly muddy colored dot at the 7th fret which doesn’t quite match the others, but the guitar is a sweet looker overall.
Nifty features on this large-bodied dreadnought include a Venetian cutaway for good upperfret access, and a rosewood bridge with a cleverly recessed string-anchor area, so the bridge pins sit on a lower plane than usual, thus producing a little more string tension over the bone saddle. String spacing is irregular at the saddle—the only glitch in an otherwise impressive setup—but there’s a spare saddle in the hardshell case. The nut is also genuine bone. A Fishman Ellipse Blend Matrix system hides its controls within the soundhole.
The AS-M5 has a bold, rich acoustic tone with plenty of high-end sparkle and an authoritative low end. Heavily strummed rhythm chords chug along with good balance, while flat-picked lead lines pop and ring with equal aplomb. All in all, it’s a great performer, and the Fishman system’s blend of internal mic and under-saddle pickup represent the package beautifully either direct to board or through a small acoustic amp. It’s all sturdy stuff that makes the AS-M5 a serious consideration if you have a little more to spend for an all solid-wood guitar. —Dave Hunter
It used to be that acoustic guitars with solid-wood construction were significantly more costly than their laminated counterparts, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Witness Fender’s new CD320AS, which has solid mahogany back and sides and a solid spruce top with scalloped X bracing. Sure, it’s made in China, and you won’t mistake the CD320AS for a high-end boutique instrument, but it sounds good, is gloss finished, and it features nice cosmetic touches that include gold-plated hardware, a rosewood headstock overlay, crisp white binding, an abalone rosette, and classy black bridge pins with abalone dots. The mahogany neck has a slim, comfy feel and is equipped with a dual-action trussrod for enhanced stability. The rosewood ’board grips 20 well-finished frets with trimmed tips that don’t feel picky as your hand slides over them.
Fender was also able to keep the CD320AS’s cost down by not adding any electronics. There are plenty of aftermarket pickup systems that can be installed without too much work if you need to go that route, but in stock trim the CD320AS offers a clear, warm acoustic sound that has a good balance of top-end sparkle and robust lows. The CD320AS isn’t exactly a sonic cannon (the mahogany construction may have something to do with that), but it gets reasonably loud, has good dynamic response, and stands up well to hard strumming without sounding overly compressed.
Overall, I found this to be a fun guitar to play, and a great choice if you’re looking for something you can take out for jams and such without worrying excessively about putting a few nicks on it. That’s always been the spirit of Fender acoustics—the CD320AS just puts a more, well, solid spin on it! —Art Thompson
Gretsch G5022CE Rancher
When I reviewed the Gretsch G6012P Rancher in the April 2002 issue of GP, the two of us really had a love thing going. It was a gorgeous guitar that triggered feelings of lust every time I played it. But the lack of onboard electronics and its $1,650 price tag conspired to cool me off somewhat, and I regretfully let that sweetie get away.
But love never dies—at least if you’re into Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals—and a decade later, this object of desire has returned as a cutaway acoustic-electric with a jaw-dropping street price of $489. [Cue sappy violins and glimmering stars in the eyes.] The new G5022CE Rancher retains most of the awesome vibe, beauty, and tonal wonders of the much more expensive 2002 version, while adding some rock-and-roll stage worthiness with its access to the higher frets and a truly excellent Fishman Isys+ preamp.
The G5022CE cuts a rather Rubenesque figure with its bountiful width, but it still fit comfortably between my arm and torso, and was a joy to play. The neck and fretboard welcome chording, fingerpicking, and soloing with equal ease, and I experienced absolutely no fatigue after banging around on the guitar during long recording sessions. Workmanship is excellent, especially considering the price point. I noticed a couple of prickly fret ends, a slightly sharp nut, and a few fuzzy spots on the internal wood bracing, but, interestingly enough, I found similar minor imperfections on the $1,650 model back in ’02. The action was set nicely at the factory, and the G5022CE does not buzz, fret out, or reveal dead spots at any point across the entire fretboard. Intonation is good, as well.
Although the G5022CE is a big ol’ jumbo, it produces a balanced tonal spectrum with taut lows, articulate mids, and subtle highs when played with a pick. Bass frequencies are never muddy—you can strum like the Hulk, and the lows will not rumble or overwhelm the guitar’s mids and highs. There’s a nice sparkle to the treble, but not a particularly airy shimmer. The G5022CE treads a very focused sonic space where every note rings with near-equal weight. Fingerpicked passages are similarly clear and punchy.
The G5022CE’s electronics are fabulous. The onboard tuner is extremely visible, and the guitar’s character is retained when amplified. Given the G5022CE’s resonant girth, you need to take care onstage to manage feedback, but normal precautions (lowering overall volume levels, avoiding close proximity to amps, etc.) should keep the gremlins at bay. While the G5022CE’s looks and sound may point more directly to rock, country, and roots styles, it’s a versatile and stunning guitar that will inspire you to genius no matter what type of music you play. —Michael Molenda
Ibanez Performance PF28ECE
If there’s one thing the PF28ECE proves, it’s that you really don’t have to spend a great deal of money to get a very happening acoustic guitar. This cutaway dreadnought has a surprisingly big and clear sound, and I say “surprising” only because its body is made completely from laminated woods. This allows the PF28ECE to come in under $300, but the affordability certainly doesn’t affect its appearance either, as witnessed by the PF28ECE’s neat binding, lovely flamed-maple top, and cool scripting on the rosette. The rosewood ’board is adorned with simple pearl dots, and the frets are shaped well and have a reasonable polish. The Ivorex II nut is slotted with care, and the bridge saddle is made from the same stuff and compensated for intonation. This helps the PF28ECE to sound very tuneful in all positions, and you can hear and feel the solid focus in the tones when you give it a strum.
The SST preamp and Fishman Sonicore pickup team up to deliver a potent amplified response that infuses chords with a rich, stringy texture and makes lead lines punch like an angry kangaroo. The Shape slider provides precise control of the midrange, allowing you to attenuate or accentuate as needed to mitigate feedback, eliminate honkiness, or thicken the sound. Not that the PF28ECE needs any help in the latter, as it proved to be a naturally girthy sounding guitar with a great blend of crispness and low-end authority. It gets even better too with the addition of a balanced XLR output jack, which facilitates connecting to a mixer for recording or live sound. All considered, the PF28ECE is an impressive guitar for a very reasonable sum, and it earns an Editors’ Pick Award. —Art Thompson
LÂG Tramontane T200ACE
In 2009, Korg USA and master luthier Michel Lâg-Chavarria invited me to tour the LÂG factory in Bédarieux, France, on the eve of the company’s debut in America. I immediately fell in love with the region’s magical beauty, and I was wowed by Lâg-Chavarria’s commitment to bringing French aesthetics to guitar design. The initial LÂG models we received for evaluation in the August 2010 issue of Guitar Player (a T100ACE, a T400J12CE, and a TN100A14CE) were striking instruments, and the STUDIOLÂG preamps were eloquent in their practical simplicity. We gave all three guitars high marks, but as is sometimes the case when entirely new lines are debuted, we also noticed some minor imperfections.
Well, kudos to Lâg-Chavarria’s quality-control team, because, two years down the development road, the T200ACE is practically flawless. From finish to hardware to internal bracing to intonation, this glowing, warm-hued treasure of a guitar is rock solid, with only a couple of sharp fret ends keeping it from absolute perfection. The T200ACE is nearly as light as air, and its cozy contours and eminently playable neck invite hours of relaxed, stress-free strumming and picking. It’s definitely one of those instruments that slyly seduces you into songwriting, practicing, or jamming. Before you know it, you’ve lost most of a day to playing— a wonderful thing, unless you tanked a bunch of chores.
Acoustically, the T200ACE is an extremely loud and jangly guitar with excellent projection. Notes seem to explode from its body whether you’re fingerpicking or strumming, and super-aggressive bashing does not trigger any compression. Low frequencies are tight and clear, and the articulate mids and ringing treble make for a shimmering and dimensional sonic barrage. What you may lose in low-end resonance, you certainly gain in dispersion, volume, and clarity.
The T200ACE is also a very dynamic guitar, so going from brash to peaceful simply requires easing up on your pick or finger attack. Happily, you get much the same sonic characteristics when you plug in, and while some guitarists may balk at the factory presets on the STUDIOLÂG preamp, they are well-considered and useable tones (and each preset can be further tweaked with the preamp’s dedicated Bass/Treble control).
Due to its lively personality, the T200ACE may not be the best choice for smooth jazzers or über-sensitive singer/songwriters, but it can cut just about any other style with radiance and conviction. By any definition, it’s an exquisite and unique-looking design that produces dazzling, front-andcenter sound. And, like all things beautiful, the T200ACE is almost impossible to ignore. —Michael Molenda
Maple Lake by Wechter DN 2411CE
For over three decades, Abraham Wechter has been designing and building acoustics for everyone from John McLaughlin and Steve Howe to B.B. King and the late John Denver. The Maple Lake DN 2411CE offers Wechter’s legendary design acumen with insane affordability. Thankfully, in this case “affordable” doesn’t mean austere—witness such slick appointments as crisp wooden binding on the front and back, an abalone rosette, and abalone dots on the bridge pins—or sonically lacking in any way, as the Maple Lake is rather astounding in the price/performance category. With its scalloped X bracing, the Maple Leaf offers up a rich, wonderfully balanced tone that is replete with beefy, well-defined low end, rich and punchy mids, and a lovely treble sheen.
The Maple Lake is also rewarding to play, giving back whatever you dutifully put into it. It offers a healthy dynamic range as it reacts to your touch beautifully, yielding a hefty amount of volume before it even starts to compress. The onboard preamp is super simple and provides the perfect amount of tweakability whether you’re plugged into a PA system or an amp. It didn’t matter if I was strumming or fingerpicking, comping or soloing, the Maple Lake made it easy with its excellent playability, punchy midrange, and overall musicality. Bravo to Wechter for delivering so much goodness at such an affordable price—the Maple Lake earns an Editors’ Pick Award. —Darrin Fox
Ovation Standard Balladeer
Featuring a deluxe, hand-selected AA solid-spruce top with scalloped bracing, and a slim, bowl-shaped composite body, the Standard Balladeer recalls the classic high-end Ovations of the 1970s—which were proven performers for amplified-acoustic players. This cutaway model has a slick feeling, satin-finished, 5-piece mahogany/maple neck, and it’s a nice looker too with its gloss black top and peghead facing (cherry is also available), white binding and pearl oak-leaf rosette, and multi-lam neck. The frets are well dressed and evenly seated, and the guitar sounds sweetly in-tune as you move around the fretboard.
The Standard Balladeer doesn’t offer a lot of acoustic mass, but if you think of it as more of an electric guitar the picture becomes clearer as to why you’d want to own it. The OP-Pro preamp—which was designed in collaboration with Al DiMeola and Melissa Etheridge— works in tandem with the OCP-1K pickup to yield well-balanced amplified tones and excellent resistance to feedback. It’s easy to use too, which is great in live situations. The bowl body feels a little tricky to hold onto without a strap, but otherwise this is a cool guitar to play and certainly one that invites being cranked-up onstage.
True-to-form, the Standard Balladeer is a rugged and easy playing instrument for stage performers who need something that will hold up on the road while delivering happening sounds though an amp or a P.A. system. And if you’re into black, this baby will definitely groove with your guise. —Art Thompson
PRS SE Angelus Custom
A relative newcomer to the acoustic guitar market, PRS introduced the Angelus Cutaway and Tonare Grand acoustics in 2009. These gorgeous steelstring flat-tops have received high praise from players like Tony McManus, Ricky Skaggs, and Martin Simpson for their craftsmanship, playability, and sound—but the cost of ownership is admittedly a barrier for a lot of players. The SE Angelus Custom is the company’s affordable alternative to the U.S.-made models, but it doesn’t at all look or feel like a budget model. The frets are immaculate, the finish is flawless, and the body, neck and headstock are attired in crisp white binding. Decorating the fretboard are classic bird inlays rendered in pearl, and the top is adorned with multi-layer black/white binding, as is the wooden rosette.
Featuring the same hybrid X bracing pattern of its much pricier siblings, the Angelus Custom gushes with a big, full-bodied midrange that enhances quiet musical passages and stands up to punishing ones as well. Play it hard and the volume keeps coming as the Angelus resists the urge to compress and buckle under your attack. Picked softly, the Angelus Custom maintains the same dynamic responsiveness and ability to embellish your playing with round, deep lows and a clear, super sweet treble that brings out the detail in chords and single-string work.
The Angelus Custom plays very easily and intonates well in all regions of the neck. Factor in the overall warmth of its musical and focused tones, and you have a guitar for acoustic purists that is well deserving of an Editors’ Pick Award. —Darrin Fox
Simon and Patrick Natural Elements Heart of Wild Cherry Dreadnought SG
Think you can’t have your cake and eat it too—as in getting a quality North American-made guitar for an import price? Think again, as the Natural Elements Dreadnought SG comes in at an astonishing $549. The two other models in S&P’s Natural Elements series—the CW Folk and CW Mini-Jumbo—are a little more expensive, but all of them are made from eco-friendly alternative woods from Northern Quebec—the choices are cherry with a solid cedar top, heart of wild cherry with a solid spruce top, and figured “Amber Trail” maple with a solid spruce top. The bodies are made from three-layer laminations of solid wood and feature natural maple binding and flame-maple veneer on the headstock facing. All models have a polished semi-gloss finish and feature “Natural Elements” burned into the top.
The Dreadnought SG on review here is a highly responsive guitar with a wonderfully natural and organic look and feel. The neck is a pleasure, and the polished frets and careful setup make for a nice playing instrument that also intonates very sweetly. The engraved, nickel-plated open-gear tuners are also a welcome addition.
The absence of a typical gloss polyurethane finish helps to imbue the Dreadnought SG with enhanced resonance, though the construction techniques used on the series—including pressure testing the tops and giving them a compound curve obviously affect the sound and dynamic responsiveness as well. The integrated set neck and double-action trussrod ensure stability, and it’s worth noting that silver leaf maple is also a traditional choice for violins and cellos.
The Dreadnought SG has a very open acoustic sound with good volume and the ability to keep on pumpin’ when you strum it hard. It sounds great played softly too, which is a good reason for fingerstylists to give this model an audition. Plugged in, the Dreadnought SG’s B-Band system delivers a full, punchy, and natural sound without any significant piezo artifacts. Some players might wish for a sweepable midrange EQ and/or a phase switch—not to mention that the use of dual “watch”-style batteries means you better keep a spare set handy—but otherwise, it’s a fine system for amplifying this excellent sounding Editors’ Pick Award winner. —Art Thompson
Takamine G-Series EG523SC
With its stunning blonde finish and jumbo cutaway majesty, the EG523SC is a head turner that holds its own cosmetically against much pricier acoustics. Pearl/abalone fret markers, cream binding with multi-ply black/ white edging on the top, an abalone rosette, and a brownwhite- brown back stripe give the EG523SC a lot of visual flair—and this guitar plays wonderfully too, thanks to its smooth fretwork and a comfy neck that invites everything from campfire cowboy chords to speedy single- note lines. The nut could have been trimmed more precisely on the ends, but the slots are expertly cut.
Sonically, the EG523SC exudes crystalline highs and snappy lows. You get a touch of jumbo-style volume and power, but this guitar doesn’t offer a lot of presence or complexity in the lower mids. What it excels at is clear string-to-string definition and lean, focused tones with enhanced treble and upper-midrange frequencies that make arpeggiated chords ring with bell-like transparency. With its tight bass response, the EG523SC also lets complex chords and intervals speak with a clear and authoritative voice.
Plugged in, the EG523SC’s onboard electronics make it easy to obtain more midrange or bass to offset the guitar’s natural brightness, and the Mid Contour switch and bypassable notch filter help to mitigate feedback and/or get a better balanced and less honky sound with acoustic amps. Bottom line: If you’re in the market for a beautiful looking, easy-playing acoustic that delivers shimmering tones and would cut through well with a band, the Takamine EG523SC is worth trying out. —Darrin Fox
CONTACT Cort USA, (847) 498-6491, cortguitars. com
PRICE $899 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Mahogany, medium “C” profile
FRETS 22, narrow
BODY Solid Sitka spruce top, solid rosewood back and sides
ELECTRONICS Fishman Ellipse Blend Matrix pickup and onboard preamp
CONTROLS Volume, Mic/ Pickup Blend, Phase switch, Mic Trim
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXP16 Light
WEIGHT 4.2 lbs
KUDOS Well-crafted flattop with subtly elegant looks. Good volume and a rich, balanced sound.
CONCERNS Inconsistent string spacing over bridge saddle.
CONTACT Fender, fender.com
PRICE $599 street
NUT WIDTH 1.69"
BODY Solid mahogany back and sides, solid spruce top
BRIDGE Rosewood w/compensated bone saddle
FACTORY STRINGS Fender Dura-Tone Coated 80/20 Bronze .012-.052
WEIGHT 4.4 lbs
KUDOS Solid wood construction. Plays well. Sounds clear and balanced.
CONCERNS Lack of electronics limits utility.
Gretsch G5022CE Rancher
CONTACT Gretsch, gretschguitars. com
PRICE $700 retail/$489 street
NUT WIDTH 1.6875"
BODY Laminated flame maple back and sides, solid spruce top
BRIDGE Compensated synthetic bone saddle, rosewood base
ELECTRONICS Fishman Isys+ preamp
CONTROLS Volume, Bass, Treble, Phase, Tuner, Battery Indicator
FACTORY STRINGS Fender, .012 set
WEIGHT 5.72 lbs
KUDOS Fabulous, focused tones. Stunning looks. Comfy player. Excellent value.
Ibanez Performance PF28ECE
CONTACT Ibanez, ibanez.com
PRICE $299 street
NUT WIDTH 1.69" Ivorex
BODY Laminated mahogany back and sides, laminated flamed-maple top
BRIDGE Rosewood w/ Ivorex II saddle
ELECTRONICS Ibanez SST Shape Shifter preamp w/Fishman Sonicore pickup
CONTROLS Volume, Bass, Middle, Treble, Shape, Phase, Tuner on/off
FACTORY STRINGS Ibanez Coated Acoustic .012- .052
WEIGHT 4.7 lbs
KUDOS Plays and sounds above its price point. Balanced XLR and 1/4" outputs
LÂG Tramontane T200ACE
CONTACT LÂG, usa.lagguitars.com
PRICE $750 retail/$549 street
NUT WIDTH 1.69" graphite
FRETBOARD Indonesian rosewood
BODY Mahogany back and sides, solid red cedar top
BRIDGE Indonesian rosewood base, graphite compensated saddle
ELECTRONICS Studio LÂG Plus
CONTROLS Volume, Bass/ Treble, Bypass, 5-position preset knob (Natural Folk, Bluesy, Studio Rhythm, Fingerstyle, Jazz), Tuner, Battery Indicator
FACTORY STRINGS Elixir, .011-.052
WEIGHT 4.4 lbs
KUDOS Excellent projection and volume. Tons of chime. Warm, organic woods and finish. Comfy player.
Maple Lake by Wechter DN-2411CE
CONTACT Wechter, wechterguitars. com
PRICE $449 retail/street $299
NUT WIDTH 1 3/4”
BODY Solid Spruce top, laminated mahogany back and sides
ELECTRONICS Wechter AW-1
CONTROLS Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble, Tuner on/off, battery status LED
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario
WEIGHT 4.34 lbs
KUDOS An incredibly affordable guitar with tones that compete with guitars three times its price.
Ovation 2771AX-5 Standard Balladeer
CONTACT Ovation, ovationguitars. com
PRICE $699 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
NECK Mahogany/maple 5-piece
FRETBOARD Rosewood w/compensated saddle
TUNERS Chrome Die-cast
BODY Deep contour Lyrachord hybrid fiberglass/ resin body, solid AA spruce top
BRIDGE Walnut w/compensated saddle
ELECTRONICS Ovation OP-Pro preamp, OCP-1K pickup
CONTROLS Gain knob, Low, Mid, High sliders, Pre-EQ Shape switch, chromatic tuner on/ off switch, battery indicator LED
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXP11 .012-.053
WEIGHT 4.9 lbs
KUDOS Quality construction. Nice feeling neck. Great choice for live performance.
CONCERNS Sounds best through an amp.
Paul Reed Smith SE Angelus Custom
CONTACT Paul Reed Smith; prsguitars.com
PRICE $1,299 retail/$799 street
NUT WIDTH 1 11/16"
TUNERS PRS SE tuners
BODY Solid Spruce top, solid rosewood back and laminated rosewood sides
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario Phosphor Bronze .012- .052
WEIGHT 4.6 lbs
KUDOS Excellent build quality. Killer playability and tones.
CONCERNS No electronics.
Simon & Patrick Natural Elements Heart of Wild Cherry Dreadnought SG
CONTACT Simon and Patrick, simonandpatrick. com
PRICE $549 street
NUT Width 1.72" GraphTech Tusq
NECK Silver leaf maple
FRETBOARD Rosewood 24.8" scale
TUNERS "Butterbean”-style engraved opengear
BODY Heart of wild cherry laminated back and sides, solid spruce top
BRIDGE Rosewood with compensated GraphTech Tusq saddle
ELECTRONICS B-Band AC1.5ST w/built-in tuner
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Tuner on/off
FACTORY STRINGS Godin A6 LT Acoustic Phosphor Bronze light .012-053
WEIGHT 4.7 lbs
KUDOS A great sounding, North Americanmade dreadnought for a fabulous price.
CONCERNS Controls on the B-Band system are very spartan.
Takamine G-Series EG523SC
CONTACT Takamine; takamine. com
PRICE $999 retail/$699 street
NUT WIDTH 1 5/8"
BODY Solid Spruce top, flamed laminated maple back and sides
BRIDGE Rosewood w/twopiece saddle
ELECTRONICS Takamine TK40 preamp
CONTROLS Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Notch Filter with In/Out switch, Tuner on/ off switch, Mid- Contour switch, Battery check switch
FACTORY STRINGS D’Addario EXP16
WEIGHT 7 lbs. 8 oz.
KUDOS Eye-grabbing looks and sparkling tones make it a strummer’s dream.
CONCERNS Not a lot of midrange warmth.