Santa Cruz H 13

While discussing his predilection for 12-fret acoustics, Steve Earle once told me, “Hell, there ain’t no money up past the 12th fret anyway.” It’s a feeling shared by many fingerpickers, tone hounds, and traditionalists alike. Unless you’re playing something high-toned and progressive, all the real action in acoustic playing is going on between frets one and 12, so you might as well benefit from the full voice and rich resonance that a 12th fret neck/body joint often lends a guitar. With that in mind, the Santa Cruz Guitar Company offers the recently reintroduced H 13—a deep-bodied, .00-sized instrument with a 14e"-wide lower bout, a slotted headstock and, yep, 13 frets clear of the body.

Lucky 13

The H 13 was first developed in this format in 1978—simply as the H model—at the suggestion of California guitarist Paul Hostetter. The instrument was partly inspired by Gibson’s rare, but prized original Nick Lucas model, and revamped by Santa Cruz founder Richard Hoover into a guitar that, when the bridge is repositioned optimally within the top’s sweet spot, finds 13 frets north of the body rather than the 12 that is the norm for the style. In addition, the H 13’s body has the depth of a much larger guitar, and graduates from around 3e" at the neck joint to 4j" at the tail block.

The H 13 is a fingerstyle instrument with chutzpah to spare, but the rather unusual nature of the design saw it fall from favor shortly after its introduction. A more conventional, 14-fret H model followed. However, according to Hoover, after Santa Cruz incorporated the H 13 into its 25th Anniversary series, Hostetter approached the company with a consortium of 15 “old-time” players—including Henry Kaiser, Bob Carlin, and Jody Stecher—who said they’d buy the guitar if Santa Cruz would build another run of H 13s.

“It was so well received that we put it in our catalog, and now we can hardly keep up with the demand for it,” says Hoover.

The H 13 carries a solid Sitka spruce top with scalloped X-bracing, and a solid mahogany back and sides. Where visible beneath the antique sunburst finish—which runs from a near coffee-black shade to a golden amber at the center (natural is also available)—the top reveals a very tight, straight grain. The ivoroid top binding is edged with a delicate and extremely attractive purfling that follows a pattern best described as a herringbone split with a line of colored-wood marquetry. This elegant trim comprises a six-ply purfling (excluding the edge binding), and is repeated in the heel and back stripes, which are edged by a narrow mitered purfling. The tapered soundhole foregoes the modified herringbone for a 12-ply double-ringed rosette. In all, breathtaking stuff.

The mahogany neck blends a gentle “V” profile with slightly bigger shoulders than found in a traditional boat neck. I’d describe it as a marriage between a “V” and a rounded “C” shape. Whatever you call it, it’s sublime in the hand, lending more leverage for perpetually shifting fingerstyle work than the flatter “C” shape usually provides. A slight elevation in the fretboard was

initially noticeable near the neck joint, and the action was also rather high. A few clockwise tweaks of the double-action trussrod was all it took to bring the action into the low zone, smoothing out the rise in the process. The ebony fretboard has no position markers whatsoever, but the side dots on the ivoroid binding provide as much guidance as most players will require. An ebony overlay with mother of pearl “SCGC” logo inlay adorns the slotted headstock, which carries open-geared Santa Cruz tuners with ivoroid buttons. The fretboard is echoed by an ebony pyramid bridge that, while reminiscent of the vintage Martin design, features a compensated back-slanted saddle that is notched back at the B string for more accurate intonation.

Finger Tone

I played the H 13 first with bare fingertips and a little fingernail, and I was extremely pleased with the blend of body and attack elicited by a fairly gentle touch. Even when the strings are plucked lightly, this guitar responds with a crisp, yet mellow snap that establishes the note definition while the deep body couches it in a resonant, blooming warmth. It’s an ideal sound for laid-back, atmospheric instrumentals, or more folk-style self accompaniment. Put on the thumb and fingerpicks, however, and the H 13 opens up considerably, adding a silvery pop at the center of each picked note that lends more ring and sparkle to the overall voice. And with its impressive volume and punch, the H 13 is adept at anything from rags, to blues, to hybrid fingerstyle bluegrass workouts. Whether approached with bare or pick-laden fingertips, it’s difficult to elicit a duff tone from this instrument, and the wide fretboard—along with wide string spacing— make it a breeze for both left and right hand fingers to navigate.

Mahogany has gotten a little bit of a bum rap as an acoustic wood over the years, thanks largely to the disparity between Martin’s mahogany-backed Style 18 and more expensive rosewood Style 28. A cursory glance at the H 13’s specs might inspire a raised eyebrow at the use of mahogany in an instrument of this style and caliber, but the Santa Cruz luthiers know what they’re doing. Many excellent small-bodied flat-tops use rosewood to boost the warmth and depth, but the H 13’s deeper body, revised neck, bridge, and soundhole placement yields a gutsy voice on its own. In this guitar, the mahogany lends the sparkle, definition, and high-frequency to produce a rich, balanced tone. The design works, and works very well.

The H 13’s strengths as a fingerstyle instrument are apparent, but attack it with a flatpick, and you open up a versatile and exciting range of new voices. That sliver of plastic produces a sylvan sweetness and astonishing volume from a guitar this size, making the H 13 suitable for anything from pop or folk-rhythm accompaniment to traditional bluegrass flatpicking. It still doesn’t have the boom or projection of a big dreadnought, but from the business end of a good recording microphone that isn’t going to matter much. Bottom line: The H 13 is a simple, yet powerful instrument, rendered in grand style, and it’s everything that I would want a top-flight, .00-sized guitar to be.