a guitarist's occasional blog
My good friend Walt stopped by the house today with a unique guitar that he wanted me to take a look at. Walt and I both suffer from GAS Type 1 (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome). In fact, it's how we met. Walt answered a Craigslist ad I had placed, we traded guitars, and we became friends!
I've mentioned that my GAS Type 2 (Guitar Accumulation Syndrome) is in remission. It's a good thing too, or I might have tried to shake loose this neat parlor guitar from him! Walt has a knack for finding these interesting instruments that are just a little off the beaten path.
Wes Peabody's instruments certainly are off the beaten path. According to Walt, Wes has made maybe forty or fifty instruments in his Gales Creek, Oregon workshop. Wes has shown his instruments at the Northwest Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit at Marylhurst University. But type "Wes Peabody Guitars" into an internet search engine, and the pickings are slim. He makes them one-at-a-time, and he isn't a household name in the guitar industry. If this one is any indication, he makes excellent guitars.
While some of Peabody's instruments take on non-traditional shapes and designs, this parlor guitar is built to fairly common dimensions. It fits comfortably in a hard case meant for a Larrivee parlor guitar. The slotted headstock is somewhat uncommon on steel string guitars, but even Martin makes some steel string guitars with this feature. So, at first glance, there isn't anything unusual.
However, the woods that Wes chose for this instrument do set it apart from most factory instruments. The Port Orford Cedar used for the soundboard isn't common, though Breedlove and a few other makers have started using it. The neck is made from the usual mahogany, but the fingerboard is made from black locust - a wood you aren't going to find anywhere on any Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Guild, or Larrivee fingerboards. In fact, the bridge and bridge plate are also black locust.
According to Walt, one element you won't see when examining the guitar is that the sides of this guitar are a three-ply laminate with sapele used for the outside layers and a core of western red cedar. A lot of builders use laminate sides for strength. However, the back of the guitar is solid sapele. And while sapele has become a common replacement for mahogany on many factory guitars, the piece used by Wes on this guitar is simply amazing. The ribbon pattern is incredible! This is not a usual piece of striped sapele. Wow!
Wes built this guitar with thirteen frets to the body, unlike most modern acoustic guitars which have either twelve or fourteen frets. This is not an unheard of detail but it's also quite uncommon; See this Paul Chambers NLS-13 guitar based on a 1928 Gibson Nick Lucas Special. Santa Cruz Guitar Company also makes a thirteen fret model called the H-13.
The workmanship is very good, and the guitar has some design elements that make it clear that it was handmade - dark hardwood binding, an unusual heel cap, black and white diamond inlays on the fretboard, a wood rosette, and even the "Wildcat Mtn" lettering engraved on the headstock.
Playability is excellent; the 1 7/8" nut and 25" scale length make for a comfortable neck for fingerstyle guitar, which is where this guitar excels. Despite its small size, it doesn't sound boxy. It has a good, strong midrange response that works well for blues and ragtime tunes. I sang a bit of Jessie Winchester's "That's What Makes You Strong" with it, and the little guitar also does well for vocal accompaniment. I would love to have this around the house for playing on the couch! (Reminder to self: I already have enough guitars.)
If I was a guitar collector, I think chasing down these unique, luthier-made instruments would be the way to go. It just seems like it would be a lot more fun than trying to find the iconic vintage guitars that come at spectacularly high prices. There are people making beautiful, handmade instruments like this, and it is interesting to see the little differences and designs that come from local artists and craftsmen. This Wes Peabody parlor is a fine guitar, and it isn't a carbon copy of anything else that is out there. I can appreciate that.
My friend Walt is pretty good at digging these things up, and I really enjoy it when he brings them by to share.
Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) is a problem for some guitarists, including myself. However, I have come to think of Guitar Accumulation Syndrome (GAS Type 2) as the larger problem. Think of the crazy cat lady with an uncontrolled population of pets who have overrun her home; now substitute guitars for cats. I know these people! So I've been doing my part to manage my GAS (Type 2) this past week by selling off my Paul Hathway Octave Mandolin, Gibson LP Special, and Goodtime Classic Banjo. In fact, I currently have three other instruments for sale, and I am considering listing another guitar. GAS (Type 2) is in remission*.
Yesterday I took delivery of a wonderful new Martin guitar. It's a variation on the iconic Martin D-18 that is apparently meant for the European marketplace in light of trade restrictions on endangered tonewoods like mahogany and rosewood.
My new guitar is a Martin DST Special Edition that I ordered brand new from Ted at L.A. Guitar Sales. I have wanted a Martin D-18 for a long time. (Actually, I have owned two of them in the past!) But when it can time to purchase a new guitar for teaching and children's music performances, I did the right thing and saved myself a little bit of money by choosing the new DST over the D-18. (If you aren't experienced buying new guitars, know that you should never pay full list price. Also, know that certain dealers will agree to sell you an instrument below the MAP that you see listed on internet sites.)
After years of buying and selling used instruments, the most striking thing for me as I look at this guitar is the light color of the new spruce top. As spruce ages it turns darker and sometimes even takes on an orange hue. But right now my new guitar is very white. It's going to be fun watching it age and change color.
This instrument checks off the most important boxes for me in terms of emulating the iconic D-18. It has scalloped, forward shifted bracing, a Sitka top, a 1 3/4" nut width, and ebony fretboard and bridge. These are most of the essential elements (to me) of the D-18 that Martin has been selling since 2012.
Some primary differences include a simplified neck joint, sapele as a substitute for mahogany, and the light satin finish. I don't know anyone who can hear these details in a blind test, but they do add up to a bit of a difference from the D-18. Other differences are mostly in the visual details. I'm not crazy about the gold tuners or the red "eyes" on the bridge pins, but these are small things that are easy and inexpensive to change. (My wife and kids like these details.) There is no rosewood or mahogany to be found anywhere on the instrument.
I thought the guitar was going to come with a soft case, but mine was delivered with a basic flat-top Martin hardshell case. That didn't matter to me because I already have a padded gig bag for hauling my guitar and teaching materials around town.
How does it sound?
Well, it has a Sitka top and scalloped, forward-shifted bracing, and it is made from Martin's basic dreadnought recipe. To my ears, it sounds like a D-18. It's a new guitar, and it will change as it gets played and ages. Some people say the sapele will give it a slightly brighter tone than a mahogany guitar. Personally, I don't hear it. But I have no horse in that race because I already like what I'm hearing. I've put it through the paces with flatpicked fiddle tunes, fingerstyle blues, heavy strumming, and even some classical guitar etudes. The D-18 has a reputation as a "Swiss Army Knife" guitar, and this DST is just that.
Also, this is a very loud instrument. It is louder than the two straight-braced D-18's I have owned in the past. It's possible the lack of a gloss finish contributes to its volume; I can't be sure. Compared to my (2011) Martin D-21 Special, I'd say the DST has less bass power and more emphasis on treble. The D-21 Special is very lush sounding with a dark, growling character, and the rosewood back of the guitar really rumbles against your body as you play. The DST seems more articulate but also has solid, clear bass response. None of that should surprise anyone who has played a number of Martin dreadnoughts.
Which guitar should you buy? A DST or a D-18?
If you have your heart set on the classic Martin guitar, I honestly think you should spend the extra money and buy a D-18. It is maybe the most iconic acoustic guitar in American music, and the price difference (if you know how to shop) isn't enormous. But if you need to save some cash, or if you just like to be a little bit different, I think the DST represents a worthy musical alternative. In my case, I'm trying to control my own GAS (Type 2), and this seemed like a wise choice. I'm happy with it, and I'm grateful to be able to play such nice guitars.
(*OK. I admit it. I'm now shopping for a classical guitar.)
I'm a bit of a Craigslist watcher. (OK. That's an understatement. I'm a Craigslist addict. I suffer from a bad case of G.A.S., otherwise known as Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.)
This guitar you see to the right is a 1960's Fender Regal Classic. It's nothing special—or at least it wasn't until it survived to old age—and it isn't necessarily a desirable instrument by most standards. But it was for sale on the Craigslist classifieds, and I'm kind of a sucker for old guitars. I traded some other guitar gear for it. And I am happy.
I'm not an expert on the history of it all, but at some point during the 1960's Fender Sales began selling rebranded guitars that had been made by Harmony in Chicago. When I was a kid in the 1980's, one of my very first guitars was a terrible imported, plywood Harmony guitar that we probably purchased at Service Merchandise or Montgomery Ward. It was a wreck of a box, and it's far too generous to even refer to it as a musical instrument. However, back in the Sixties, Harmony made their instruments here in the USA. And while they weren't really competing with Martin, Gibson, or Guild for customers, their modestly priced student guitars were of a quality that at least deserved the title musical instrument.
From what I can gather searching through the mess of the internet, this Fender Classic is really a rebranded Harmony H173. It's a student guitar. But unlike during the Eightees, the child of the Sixties was able to get an affordable Harmony acoustic guitar made of all solid woods—spruce top, birch body, and poplar neck—with great tuning machines and enough attention to quality that the damn thing could make music. Real music!
My new, old guitar—also a child of the Sixties—shows some signs of age. (Hey, so do I and I wasn't even born until 1970. Cut us some slack!) There is a long crack on the top with an effective but somewhat crude repair. A guitar like this probably began with a perfectly flat neck, but this one has a slight amount of relief. And there are the unavoidable bumps and bruises that come with age.
However, someone did some work to keep this one going. The tuners look like original tuners with bell buttons. They are very clean and function perfectly. The action over the first eight frets or so is lower than most traditional classical guitars, and up to the body it is still within range of what can be expected for a nylon string guitar—though a bit high if all you know is steel string. There is a slight dip of the fretboard once you get to the body. There is also some saddle left at the bridge, which is good. The guitar plays well and in tune (no kidding!) all up and down the neck, and the neck joint seems to be rock solid. In other words, this is not a project. It's a playable guitar in need of no work or repair.
The old spruce top is impressive with straight, even grain and nice silking. It isn't so different from the tops of my other more expensive guitars, and I'm guessing it is Sitka. Old wood is often good wood. I suppose good wood used to be easier to get.
This isn't a true classical guitar. This is a folk guitar probably best used to accompany singing. It responds to a light touch, and I am enjoying fingerpicking folk songs and tunes like Steve Goodman's "The City of New Orleans" on it. Admittedly, the guitar needs to be played lightly. It doesn't do well with a heavy right hand attack, especially with the light tension strings it has on it. You want to bash out Neil Young tunes? Wrong guitar. Lightly pick a John Denver tune or two? Good choice. Need a character guitar for your hip recording studio? Excellent choice!
This begs the question, "What are you going to do with this guitar, Chuck?"
Well, I will eventually sell it or gift it. But first I'm going to enjoy it.
I figure this old guitar has some stories in it. It has its history. And I'm going to go looking for the song in this box. I will hold on to it until I find the song in it. Then I'll pass it along to a new owner and wish it well.
And then I'll go looking for another modest Craigslist treasure to play. Because I have incurable G.A.S., apparently.
This fellow plays very nicely in a Jerry Reed style, and that seems to be what a lot of folks want these old guitars to do for them. It doesn't sound all that different from the one I've got here. Enjoy!
Chuck Cheesman writes hopeful, loving, and sometimes funny songs for people of all ages.
All materials ©℗ Chuck Cheesman
Banner photo by Gina Dazzo