The convenience of on-line shopping notwithstanding, it’s always better to be able to see, play, and hear the guitar you’re planning to buy. Playing feel and sound are next to impossible to suss from a computer screen, and because they can make or break the experience you get from your new ax, try to get some actual trigger time on your potential purchase by visiting your local music store.
Plan to amplify your guitar? If so, does the preamp/ pickup system being offered have the features you want, such as a built-in tuner, multiple pickups with blending capability, and maybe even stereo outs if you want to get fancy and route the pickups’ signals to separate amps or an amp/P.A. setup.
If you’re favoring a purely acoustic instrument, then the quality of the woods is going to be of primary importance. A guitar made of solid woods will typically improve with age, whereas, a plywood guitar probably won’t, so pay attention to the solidarity factor of the instrument you’re considering as comparatively priced models can offer all solid-wood construction, a slightly less groovatious recipe of a solid top and back with laminated sides, or an all laminated body with a solid top. And if you plan on primarily recording your guitar with a mic, you might also want to opt for a gloss finish to minimize rustling sounds that can be created by the instrument brushing against your clothing.
The five guitars on review here represent all points on the features curve and at a pricing scale that runs from $349 to $999 street. We tested these instruments in our studios and ran the models with electronics though a Fishman Soloamp.
ONE OF THE LOWER PRICED MODELS IN THE BREEDLOVE LINE, THE Korean-made Stage C250/EF has a gloss finished body and rosewood peghead overlay, and a natty set of appointments that includes ivoroid binding on the body and neck, abalone rosette and top purfling, and “stage” style abalone fretboard inlays designed by Kim Breedlove. The solid Engleman spruce top features Breedlove’s “improved” bracing, which includes a JLD bridge truss assembly that’s designed to add stability and increase sustain by coupling a lightweight wooden block under the bridge to the tail via a wooden dowel. The C250/EF is well made and finished in all areas, including the frets, which are set evenly and have consistently rounded tops. The interior is spotless.
The C250/EF arrived with a good setup that places the strings low over the frets for easy fingering. The neck’s medium thickness and smooth satin finish combine for an excellent playing feel, and everything sounds in tune as you move around the fretboard. The C250/EF is lively and open sounding, with strong bass and clear, resonant mids and highs. This guitar has good acoustic projection and is very satisfying to play without amplification.
Plugged into the Fishman SoloAmp, the C250/EF kicked out a solid acoustic sound without any harsh piezo artifacts. The controls on the L.R. Baggs Stage pro Element preamp barely had to be touched to get stageworthy tones, and only the guitar’s phase switch and Notch controls needed to be called upon to get rid of some pesky feedback. This is a great electronics package for the C250/EF and it makes this guitar a worthy choice for those who want the best of both worlds when it comes to an acoustic-electric. The C250/EF pushes the price envelope pretty high for a guitar that uses laminates for the body, but it’s hard to fault what it offers in terms of tone and playability. And if you like the modernist lines that have made Breedlove guitars such a recognizable marque, you’ll certainly want to give the C250/EF a test drive.
LOOKING MUCH LIKE A ’30S-ERA EPIPHONE ACOUSTIC, THE AJ-500RE features all solid wood construction with full binding on the body, neck, and headstock. The Chinese-made guitar has a satin finish, a plain (no center stripe) back, and the interior workmanship is clean as a whistle, with carefully sanded scalloped bracing and neat kerfing around the inside perimeter. The neck’s generous “C” shape feels great in your hands, and the frets are nicely finished and evenly crowned and trimmed. Gold “butterbean”-style open-gear tuners turn smoothly and add a classy touch to what is essentially a modern guitar in a vintage guise. The modern part, of course, comes from the AJ’s advanced electronics system, which combines an E-Sonic 2 preamp with dual pickups: a Shadow Nanomag pickup mounted at the end of the fretboard and a Nanoflex transducer located under the bridge saddle. Separate jacks for each pickup allow you to route the signals to different amps, with one jack combining both pickups for mono use.
The AJ-500RE has a ringing acoustic sound with a volume potential that befits its dreadnought- sized body. The bottom end is strong, the mids are upfront, and the top end is sweet and complex. Plugged in, the AJ offers the widest range of sounds in this group. With the magnetic and piezo pickups placed respectively in the neck and bridge positions, it’s easy to get anything from dark jazz tones to crisp, airy acoustic sounds. Through the Fishman Soloist amp with its tone controls set flat, some of our best amplified acoustic sounds were obtained with AJ’s Blend slider slightly favoring the bridge pickup, and with a touch of treble enhancement from the neck pickup’s Tone control. Suffice to say, the AJ-500RE is one of the best made and best equipped mid-priced guitars we’ve tested, and that’s why it gets an Editors’ Pick Award.
AS WITH MANYGUITARS IN THE “AFFORDABLE” CLASS, THE INDONESIAN-MADE DL500CE has a solid top with laminated back and sides. But in this case, the wood happens to be highly figured lacewood koa, which looks awesome. A gloss finish, crisp looking abalone fretboard inlays and rosette, a pearl headstock logo, and nicely done wooden back and end stripes add to the upscale vibe. However, closer inspection reveals some flaws in the bindings that rim the entire perimeter of this guitar. There are also visible glue lines on the base of the bridge and the neck joint. The interior workmanship falls short too, where we find glue stains, wood debris, and unsanded braces.
On the plus side, the DL500CE plays well and doesn’t suffer from string buzz or serious intonation problems. The GraphTech nut and compensated saddle undoubtedly help in this regard. The DL500CE’s acoustic sound is about what you’d expect for a guitar that streets for $349. The tones are balanced enough, but there’s not a lot of depth, complexity, or upper-end zing on tap here. Sonically, the best thing going for the DL500CE is its Fishman 4T Classic preamp and dual-element pickup system, which needed very little tweakage to deliver good sounds through the Fishman SoloAmp. An all-ply guitar such as this is best suited for amplified rather than acoustic duties, so the DL500CE might do the trick if cost is a primary consideration and you plan on plugging in most of the time.
IF YOU’RE LOOKING TO GETAS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO A BOUTIQUE-GRADE guitar for minimal cash outlay, it hardly gets better than the RG- 26. This small-bodied beauty from Chinese manufacture features all solid woods, a gloss finish, and sweet looking appointments. Running down the list we find neat wooden bindings on the body and neck, inlaid wood back and end stripes, a heel cap and rosewood headstock facing, and a perfectly rendered abalone rosette and fretboard dots. The construction is top notch in all areas, including the inner workings, where we see carefully shaped and sanded scalloped braces, tight joints, and not a stray speck of dust or glue.
Playability-wise, the RG-26 rules thanks to its moderately slim neck, which sports a low action and well-shaped frets with smooth ends. The guitar’s intonation is excellent— thanks in part to the properly cut bone nut and compensated bone saddle—and its acoustic voice is crisp and open with good complexity and presence in the upper mids and highs. The RG-26 has what the company calls a “00 thin body shape,” which, though comfortable to get around on, is a limiting factor to both its volume and projection. But while the RG- 26 doesn’t have the low-end mass of a dreadnought- or jumbo-sized instrument (which is something that solo performers tend to look for), it is ideally suited for recording. Slap a good mic on this guitar and revel in the pure and balanced tones that come back at you. Built by people who obviously care about attention to detail, the result speaks for itself and the RG-26 gets an Editors’ Pick Award.
COMING IN AT THE SECOND LOWEST PRICE IN THIS GROUP, THE D710 is a dreadnought-sized guitar that features a satin finish, a solid top and back, and nice looking appointments. The bindings (white/black on the body, black on the neck) are grade A, and the multi-layer back stripe and wedge-shaped end piece are precisely set. Ditto for the abalone rosette and the abalone “Walden” logo that’s inlaid into the rosewood headstock facing. Tortoiseshell buttons class up the gold-plated tuners, and the nut is carefully worked and polished. Despite a white-ish mottling on the fretboard’s surface, the frets themselves are finished well and don’t have any sharp ends to dig into your hand. The D710’s interior construction is generally clean and tight, although some of the bracing could stand a bit more sanding to remove “hairs” that pop out of the wood.
Set up with reasonably low action, the Chinese-made D710 plays easily and sounds musically in tune. As you’d expect from a dreadnought, the tones are muscular and present. The D710 delivers a good amount of volume, and with its abundant bass and punchy midrange, notes ring out clearly and have good dynamic feel. With no onboard electronics, the D710 is less suitable for stage use, but it sure records well. We had the opportunity to hear it miked with an SE Electronics SE4400a condenser and tracked it into Logic on a Mac laptop though a Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56 multi-channel audio interface, and the resulting tones were warm, rich, and nicely detailed. A versatile guitar for an attractive price, the D710 stands out as an excellent value for those seeking a purely acoustic experience (the D710CE comes with Fishman Aero+ electronics and a cutaway for $609 retail).