Though my lovely wife Minette and I got married all the way back in May, we’ve both been pretty swamped with work ever since, and the idea of a decent honeymoon has been on the back-burner. Well, that all ended this week, as we filled up our tank and decided to take a scenic drive through the south! We didn’t do all that much pre-planning, figuring that we would just set up a few hotels along the way, and do whatever struck our fancy on any given day… but knowing that we were going to be spending a little time in both Asheville NC and Nashville TN, I made sure to have a few fine guitar stores on my mental list of places to visit, and they did not disappoint. WARNING : if you’re not interested in some pretty subjective ideas about sound and a lot of out-and-out minutia concerning some positively lovely acoustic guitars, you’ve probably already read too much… things are about to get long and geeky! I’ll also take this moment to point out that for every minute I spent looking at guitars, Minette probably spent five in thrift stores and boutiques shopping for unique and vintage articles of clothing… so everybody came away happy!
About twenty minutes outside of Asheville, nestled inconspicuously along a residential country road sits Dream Guitars, a unique appointment-only showroom and internet store owned and operated by Paul Heumiller. Paul started the company a while back with none other than world-renowned fingerstylist Martin Simpson, and both men know more than a little bit about fine acoustic guitars. There are few places in the world where so many unique hand-built and small shop guitars are available to play, and I tried my best to take it all in… though it wasn’t easy! In 90 minutes I played just a handful of instruments, each one just as beautiful as the last, and each with its own particular set of aesthetic and tonal strengths… and though I’ll admit it definitely feels a little haughty to pick apart any of these guitars, as a longtime fan of the instrument, I had no choice but to follow my ears, and these are some of my thoughts.
First up were a pair of Osthoff 000-12Cs, both Italian spruce over African blackwood. Of all the builders whose guitars hang on the walls at Dream, John Osthoff is the only one I’ve actually met. He was nice enough to give me and a couple friends a tour of his shop last February, and he even made us lunch! The whole experience was completely fascinating, and John was nice enough to bring a couple of his newer instruments along to our show that night, and my buddy Matt Goulet picked up a storm on them!
Back to these 000-12Cs, though… one was a new specimen, sporting John’s sleek new logo and a side port, and the other was a pre-owned from 2007. For such small instruments, the Osthoffs had some serious weight to them, attributable to the blackwood. Craftsmanship on both was superb. Though the ported guitar was much louder than I would have expected, and both instruments had a similar warm tone, I much preferred what I was hearing from the 2007 model. To my ears, something about the port on the newer guitar seemed to not only amplify the sound, but also disperse it in an unexpected way, and in the short time I was playing it, I couldn’t get used to this “stereo” effect. Chock it up to inexperience with ported instruments, or maybe the 2007 had benefit from being a little bit broken in. In any case, one doesn’t come across a pair of John Osthoffs every day, and it was a real treat to play and compare the two.
I’d been waiting patiently for years to try a Franklin OM. As some guitar geeks might be aware, builder Nick Kukich’s guitars have gotten a lot of praise over the years from Stefan Grossman, John Renbourn and El McMeen, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time staring at pictures of these men holding and playing their Franklins (yup, I still put an LP on the turntable and sit there with the cover in my lap… the best way to enjoy guitar music, in my opinion!) Part of me thought that I’d never get the chance to play one, these guitars never got a lot of traction here in the states, and examples aren’t easy to find… but Paul didn’t call the place Dream Guitars for nothing! I must confess a little initial disappointment to find out that the particular guitar on offer had koa back and sides… for some reason, I had it in my mind that there was no way that the instrument would measure up to the sound of a similar model in mahogany or rosewood… was I ever wrong! This 1982 Franklin was not only classic yet distinctive in its aesthetics, with its not-too-silky koa and matching headpiece veneer, but it played and sounded wonderful as well! With its Engelmann spruce top, it had all the dryness and balance of a proper OM, but with a pleasing twist, a warm and subtle voice all its own. It’s no wonder why Franklins have developed the reputation they have. There is no doubt that for a long time, Kukich has been a luthier of immense talent with an eye for detail.
My fellow guitarists will have to forgive me the following contradiction: I’ve always loved guitars based on classic Martin designs, but have always had an aversion to Martins themselves! Perhaps it’s the fact that, like many folks, my most frequent access to Martin guitars is through places like Guitar Center (a guy has to go somewhere when his lady is browsing at Ikea) and the stock has a tendency to be predictable, poorly cared for, and underwhelming in the sound department. Over the years, friends have always had this or that Martin close at hand, and none of them ever really reached out and grabbed me. In recent times, I’ve gotten many chances to A/B certain Martins with their modern day counterparts from Collings, Bourgeois and Huss & Dalton, and for me, the small shop guitars have almost always won out in sound, fit and finish, and vibe. Well, I can say that Paul at Dream Guitars opened my eyes and ears again to that old Martin magic, by way of two great old instruments: a 1931 OM-28 and a 1930 000-45.
Okay, I know… pre-war Martins. No-brainer, right? Well, just give me time to catch up to what everyone already knows! My practical side tells me that there are a few key things that will probably prevent me ever owning a guitar like one of these, not least of which their combined $90,000 price tag… but Paul saw fit to put them in my hands, so I decided to luxuriate a little bit. The OM was the lightest Martin that I had ever laid hands on, with an extremely thin, pronounced V neck profile, wonderfully straight-grained Brazilian back and sides, battle scars and vibe to spare. I wasn’t surprised by the guitar’s responsiveness, or its woody and wonderful tone… but I was floored by its playability. This guitar had been set up to perfection, with impeccably dressed frets and easy action. It was now crystal-clear why so many of todays guitar makers use this exact guitar as a starting point.
As much as I was impressed by the OM, the 000-45 was another beast entirely… as Paul handed it to me, he said “This is something different… more of a piano.” He was exactly right, just plucking the low E string sent a seemingly never-ending pulse through the guitar. I played it as gingerly as I could, and I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anything like it. It didn’t have the bluesy, boxy edge of a lot of today’s 12-fretters, it was more akin to a cello… big and round sounding, passionately musical. This guitar also somewhat rekindled my appreciation for classic “bling” on a traditional guitar, and it got me thinking about all the great old Larson Brothers designs again. It also had me snapping pictures of a whole lot of pearly purfling and rosettes at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum two days later!
I had come to Dream Guitars with the thought of exploring some more exotic guitars, designed with the fingerstyle guitarist in mind. It doesn’t get much more exotic than the M1 from Michihiro Matsuda, a work of art delivered in the form of a guitar. Matsuda is known for his stunning modern designs, which feature progressive construction and unusual, asymmetrical rosettes. I had seen pictures of the M1 online, and it was kind of hard to believe that it was there on the wall, waiting to be played! After all, Matsuda only builds six instruments per year! Behind all of those exciting twists and curves, this guitar had a powerful, expressive voice, which was both a surprise and a relief… I halfway expected the guitar to emit some kind of otherworldly sound, but no, it was the normal 12 notes. Like the Osthoff, the M1 had a sound port, but the effect on the sound seemed to be more subtle with the Matsuda. Definitely the most distinctive instrument I played on the trip.
The day also marked my first occasion to play a multi-scale, fanned-fret guitar. If you look quickly, it almost looks like a standard grand concert model with a florentine cutaway, but the “smirk” of the bridge angle and the very subtle angling of the frets (intended to give more scale length and resonance to the lower strings, particularly in dropped tunings, as well as improving intonation across the fretboard) reveal this Bruce Sexauer JB-15 to be a tool of a higher musical purpose. There was next to no learning curve in adjusting to the fanned frets (Paul told me that this, a 1/2″ fan, was about as minimal a multi-scale as one was likely to find) and the sound was all you’d expect from a meticulously hand-crafted German over Brazilian guitar. At over $10K, too rich for my blood, but something I could definitely imagine owning.
One of the last instruments I played at Dream was also one of the most affecting. Something about this demure Leo Posch OM-M, a “permanent demo” guitar that the shop sends around for prospective buyers to play while pondering a custom order, definitely got into my head… part of it was the guitar’s finish, a reddish tea-burst that reminded me of an older Tippin OM that was at Acoustic Music Works (my local shop) last summer. I would stop in frequently to play that Tippin, there was something about its dry, tight-ish tone that just begged to be played with fervor, poppin’ and snappin’ the strings with abandon… at the time, I was only a few weeks from receiving my custom ordered Collings OM2, so picking up another guitar wasn’t a possibility, and the Tippin will always live on with “one that got away” status. The Posch shared the Tippin’s salt-of-the-Earth, bright and dry OM vibe, and was incredibly light and responsive. While I picked away, I imagined that I could be happy just playing ragtime for the rest of my life on it.
Even though I didn’t walk away with anything, my first visit to Dream Guitars was a lot of fun, and extremely educational. It was great to get a chance to play all of these very special guitars, and shop owner Paul was a very gracious host. Looking back, I find it interesting that from a tonal perspective, I didn’t really get that complex, overtone intensive, modern fingerstyle vibe from most of these guitars. Rather, many of these luthier-built instruments had a markedly earthy, vintage sound that easily came to life in standard tuning and drop-D. I guess it never hurts to expect the unexpected!