By Harold Steinblatt
I used to be a strict acoustic guitar traditionalist, so much so that for a while I carried photos of Orville Gibson and Christian Friedrich Martin in my wallet. With the passage of time, however, I came to realize that innovation is not a dirty word, and that an acoustic’s design and appearance can depart quite radically from those of the past and still play and sound beautifully.
I knew that my progressive attitude would be severely tested by the Camrielle, which, like all McPherson acoustics, is anything but traditional. As I lifted the guitar from its custom-fit, powerhouse Ameritage case, I noted the cantilevered neck, which not only isn’t glued to the body of the guitar but actually soars above it entirely, creating what looks like a two-tiered highway system. A close look inside the Camrielle revealed McPherson’s unique “Overpass-Underpass” bracing system, carefully designed so that the braces do not touch.
Most egregious, however, is the offset soundhole, which, far from being round or occupying its usual place at the center of the top, is shaped like an ellipse and positioned considerably south of where it ought to be. The particular Camrielle I examined had bee’s wing mahogany back and sides and a bear claw Sitka top, stunning, exotic woods whose pairing, both aesthetically and in terms of sonic synergy, was an inspired choice. (The Camrielle is available in a host of other tonewood combinations.)
These and other unorthodoxies are explained in greater detail (see below) by the man responsible for them, Matt McPherson, the company’s founder and CEO. But do his innovations succeed in fulfilling their shared purpose: to create a terrifically resonant guitar by maximizing the vibrations produced by the top, body, and neck? I cannot testify to the actual level of the vibrations, but there is no question that the Camrielle’s tone is extremely resonant, and a whole lot more.
The Camrielle, with its 15-inch lower bout, 9 3/8–inch waist, and 10 3/4–inch upper bout, is the smallest guitar made by McPherson and is touted by the maker as particularly suited to fingerstyle play. I happen to be a small-bodied man who is primarily a fingerstylist, so the Camrielle, which fit snugly in my lap, and I got on famously. I immediately launched into a Merle Travis–style tune and noted the solid contrast between the muted thump of the bass and the clear melodic statements of the treble. I sailed up and down the 1 3/4–inch fingerboard with movable three-note chords with the greatest of ease, confirming that the string spacing (2 3/16 inches at the bridge), action, and ebony fingerboard are positively fingerstyle friendly. I switched gears and tried some Delta-style blues, snapping the hell out of both the bass and treble strings as I played. Strings high and low cut the air with appropriately harsh force. Most impressively, the strings remained in tune. Like all McPherson guitars, the Camrielle employs the Buzz Feiten tuning system, and the system works.
I switched gears and played Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” which features Bach-style counterpoint, memorable hammer-ons, and some bold strumming. The results were impressive, with the bass and treble co-existing harmoniously with each other and those drama-laden chords. The hallmark of a good fingerstyle guitar is balance, and the Camrielle has it in spades.
The Camrielle is more than a fingerstylist’s dream. Open string, first-position chords sounded pleasingly chunky, and the guitar did a fine job projecting the barre-chord extravaganza that is “Pinball Wizard.” Single-string lines? No problem. The Camrielle’s handsome Florentine cutaway allowed me to easily negotiate high notes way up the fingerboard. And with its built-in L.R. Baggs RTS2 system Ribbon transducer pick-up, the Camrielle will please those who must plug in their acoustics.
List Price: $8,800
McPherson Guitars, mcphersonguitars.com
Holding the Center: McPherson Guitars CEO Matt McPherson discusses his unique design philosophy.
Why the unusual soundhole shape and positioning?
The center of a guitar top vibrates more than any other portion of the top, so traditional center-hole designs rob a guitar of the most flexible and crucial area of the guitar top. Moving the soundhole to the edge of the top increases the surface area in the most flexible portion of the soundboard, allowing for more vibration, sustain, and resonance.
And the cantilevered neck?
The cantilevered neck lifts the fretboard off the top, alleviating the dampening normally associated with traditional acoustic guitars. This, again, increases top vibration, resonance, and sustain.
What is unusual about, and the value of, the Camrielle’s bracing system?
The top braces weave over and under each other, allowing them to vibrate independently. This lightweight design maximizes top vibration, resonance, and sustain.
Photo: Massimo Gammacurta