By Harold Steinblatt | Photography by Massimo Gammacurta
There was a time when serious guitarists on the hunt for a top-quality acoustic knew what their options were when it came to tone woods. Rosewood, spruce, mahogany, ebony, maple—very little, relatively speaking, to agonize about.
Today’s guitarists, on the other hand, have to familiarize themselves with the tonal and cosmetic possibilities offered by a host of exotic woods with colorful names—amboyna, jacaranda, cocobolo, and narra come to mind—to get a real sense of what’s out there. Of course, plenty of players pledge eternal loyalty to classic tone woods and configurations.
That loyalty is sorely tested by the beautiful and booming McPherson Camrielle CMG-4.5 ZI/RW cutaway acoustic-electric. Its back and sides, peghead, bridge, and fingerboard are all made of ziricote, a heavy wood from southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The grain on the back is positively mesmerizing. I detected swirling, abstract lines as well as defined images that reminded me of hill clusters, clouds, and polished rock. The ziricote’s brooding beauty is perfectly complemented by its soundboard made of glowing redwood. Even a lifelong rosewood/spruce man would be hard-pressed to deny that this is one majestic-looking guitar.
McPherson guitars have been around for decades, long enough that no one drops to the floor in a dead faint at the sight of the company’s signature elliptical soundhole, its incongruity heightened by its positioning on the upper bass bout. Designer and company founder Matt McPherson put it there to allow more of the soundboard’s surface area to vibrate, which in turn boosts the guitar’s resonance and sustain.
McPherson’s carried his single-minded quest to increase soundboard vibration to another level with his design of the cantilevered neck, which is not connected to the guitar’s top, like on a jazz archtop. The fretboard soars (relatively speaking) over the body, with the result that the top’s capacity to vibrate is unhindered by the neck. McPherson also had great vibes in mind in his decision to eschew standard X-bracing. Using what he calls his “overpass/underpass” design, the braces cross at different angles over each other, but they don’t touch, eliminating yet another impediment to the top’s vibration.
The theory is sound, but do his designs lead to the desired increase in resonance and sustain? The short answer is: yes. The CMG-4.5 ZI/RW rings and resounds like a choir in Carnegie Hall. Its sustain is also impressive. Single notes and open and barre chords linger sweetly in the air for a satisfyingly long while. And the guitar plays like a dream. The review model was strung with medium-gauge strings, and although I’ve always been a light-gauge sort of guy, I soon found myself traipsing up and down the fretboard as if I’d been born with silver medium strings in my mouth.
The smallest body style in the McPherson line, the Camrielle comes with a reputation for being a fingerpicker’s dream, although at 4 1/2 inches deep, our example was at the larger side of the line (body-depth options range from three to five inches in 1/2-inch increments). It’s hardly a slouch as a solo instrument, but ultimately I found that the McPherson really rocks as a rhythm guitar, especially when you plug it in and take advantage of its built-in L.R. Baggs electronics, consisting of an Element pickup, a preamp, and a volume control.
The first-position chord patterns I played on this decidedly untraditional guitar—especially when embellished with country- and folk-influenced bass runs and pick-strum rhythms—brought an uncharacteristically large grin to my usually taciturn face. Pick up this guitar, play Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” or even John Lennon’s accompaniment to “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and you’ll be smiling, too.
LIST PRICE $9,900 (Includes Hoffee case)
McPherson Guitars, mcphersonguitars.com
Deep Impact: McPherson founder and CEO Matt McPherson reveals the personality of his tonewood choices.
How do you explain the unusually powerful bass produced by the CMG-4.5 ZI/RW?
On a simple level, the guitar’s body is 4 1/2 inches deep at the tail block, which is very conducive to a more powerful bass sound. But a lot of that also has to do with the ziricote, a very dense wood that produces dark, robust sound tone similar to ebony. Others who’ve heard it are reminded of Brazilian rosewood. The redwood top adds a crisp, sweet element that ensures that the guitar has the balance that makes it special.
What do you find particularly appealing about redwood?
It’s my favorite top wood. It’s more complex than spruce and produces greater overtones. It’s sort of like Celine Dion versus Michael Bolton: Celine, with her pure, focused sound, would be like spruce. Redwood is more like Michael, who seems to produce more than one note when he sings.
You started building guitars as in 1980. What was it about existing guitars that led you to take the plunge?
They sounded funky and boxy to me. I started from the ground up with the intent of producing a guitar that sounds like a grand piano, with great power and sustain. Other guitars always sounded like uprights to me.