Sterling Steel: Three Top-Line Japanese Acoustics

A number of Japanese guitar companies have recently introduced high-end, steel-string acoustic models that offer the fine solid woods and attention to detail expected from such prestigious makers as Collings and Santa Cruz. Alvarez, Takamine, and Yamaha have mass produced professional-grade instruments for decades, but these new flagship models are handmade by each company's most experienced builders. These lavishly appointed guitars deliver deeper and more complex tones than their production-line siblings, and two of the three models offer outstanding bang for the buck. We auditioned these guitars in a variety of rooms and referenced their sonic performance to a pair of costlier boutique acoustics -- a Collings CJ and a Goodall Rosewood Standard.
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Alvarez-Yairi FY-200

The handsome FY-200 ($3,299) exudes a modern flair with its two-piece, direct-coupled ebony bridge. Compact and lightweight, this folk-sized guitar sports a wide, moderately thick neck that comfortably fills your hand while maintaining a sleek feel. The satin-finished frets are well shaped, and the bone nut is carefully fitted, but other detail aspects are disappointing. The fret ends are rather jagged, specks are visible in the body's lacquer finish, and oily stains appear on the back of the peghead. In addition, the staining around the soundhole is blotchy, and some very noticeable seams in the endpin area spoil the look of the otherwise pretty wood bindings. Though the braces are nicely sanded, there is quite a lot of glue splatter on the interior surfaces.

Performance notes. The FY-200 is a surprisingly loud guitar that delivers crisp note detail and the sort of high-end sparkle expected from a premium flat-top. This ax doesn't ante up much low-end oomph (which isn't a surprise considering its body size), but its sounds are balanced and clear. Above-average dynamic sensitivity and midrange complexity make this guitar well suited for fingerstylists or the singer/ songwriter who needs an intimate, yet expressive instrument. The FY-200 thins out noticeably when you strum it hard, but compression is not an issue here -- you can pound the snot out of this guitar and it just keeps pumping out the volume.

Pros. A bright-sounding fingerstyle/folk guitar that cuts well and has good dynamic response.

Cons. Finish and detail work is not up to par.

Takamine F-360SS-MT

Few large guitar makers rival Takamine when it comes to production excellence, and the F-360 ($1,899) features grade-A workmanship at every turn. The satin-finished neck has a silky feel, the frets are expertly shaped and trimmed, the neck-to-body joint is clean, and the binding work is nearly flawless (a few rough edges on the back spoil a perfect score). The body's gloss finish is immaculate, and the top grain is soulfully telegraphed by the ultra-thin clear coat. The bracing is clean and sturdy, and the interior is tight, clean, and free of sawdust and glue drips.

Where Takamine really kicks ass, however, is in the inlay department. The F-360's soundhole features a laser-cut mosaic of Japan's Takamine mountain. Flanking this grand display of light and dark woods are cloud formations, pearl snowcapped peaks (a motif repeated on the 12th fret), and at the base of the mountain, a pearl lake. Surrounding the scene are concentric circles of honey-toned wood, green synthetic material, and abalone. It's a feast for the eyes.

Performance notes. The F-360 plays beautifully and packs a compelling blend of roundness and top-end creaminess, but it's not an especially loud or dynamic guitar. Fingerstyle playing evokes plenty of depth and warmth, but hard strumming produces substantial compression -- you get a sense that the sound is trapped inside the body when you really push this guitar. The F-360's buttery tones and intimate response make it less than ideal for laying down snappy leads or jamming with a band, but this lovely guitar would certainly work well for recording or quiet ensembles.

Pros. Top-notch workmanship and playability. Tactile and warm sounding. Amazing inlay work.

Cons. Lacks the volume and punch expected from a dreadnought design.

Yamaha LS-500

The LS-500 ($1,599) shows off the fine craftsmanship that Yamaha puts into its top-of-the-line guitars. From its lightly polished frets (which have nicely rounded ends) to the intricate, multi-layer bindings surrounding the top and back, the LS-500 radiates a gem-like quality. The neck joint is razor sharp, the finish is nearly perfect, and a peek into the ultra-clean interior reveals smoothly sanded bracing and tight-fitting parts. Only a bit of excess glue around some of the bracing junctions diminish the high-quality appearance. Perfectly rendered snowflake inlays grace the fretboard, and the soundhole is circled by a tasteful rosette of abalone.

Performance notes. The LS-500 has one of the best factory setups I've encountered in some time. The combination of a low action and a compound neck shape -- which starts out with a mild "V" and becomes rounder as you move up -- make this instrument extremely easy to play. Coupled with its quick response and excellent sustain, the LS-500 is an excellent choice for soloing -- if you aspire to play like Al DiMeola, the LS-500 may be just the guitar for you. In fact, single-note lines gush so easily and crisply from this guitar that your fingers could become very spoiled. Everything comes at a price, though, and the trade-off here is that the LS-500 sounds a little thin for rhythm playing. Despite a respectable bass response and minimal compression, this guitar works much better for single-line and fingerstyle playing than it does for slamming out big, bell-like chords.

Pros. Editors' Pick Award winner. Above average quality and workmanship, and a real bargain at $1,499. A flatpicker's dream.

Cons. Not a great strumming guitar.