Player's Review, 8/24/07:
– Because I read guitar reviews to learn about other instruments
and the luthiers who made them, I find reviews that gush about particular
instruments to be boring. I’m pleased that the writer loves their
guitar, but then I question how much of the review is really descriptive,
and how much is colored by that ‘honeymoon feeling’, especially
since those reviews rarely seem to have anything to say about the instrument
that is not superlative. So no gushing here, even when there is reason
to. Specifically, if I ever use the word 'stunning' or any of its derivative forms in these reviews, may I be flogged repeatedly and unmercifully with a handful of rusty Black Diamond guitar strings (12-string, medium gauge).
– I am on record that I have found it
a rarity to encounter an instrument that I would call ‘Exceptional’
(which is my subjective category for the small handful of the finest
guitars I have ever played: less than 6 in 40 years of playing), and
my personal quest is to own a few of these Exceptional
– Evaluating a guitar is a personal, subjective thing, but in
describing the experience to others I strive to be as empirical and methodical in my
descriptions as possible.
– How would you describe the taste of an orange to someone who
never ate one? Similarly, all discussions of tone ultimately devolve
into metaphorical language as we attempt to describe in words that which
can only be experienced first-hand through the senses. We also tend
to choose metaphors that are value-laden (‘clear’ is good,
‘muddy’ is bad, etc.). I will strive to use value-neutral
terms unless a value-laden one seems more accurately descriptive.
John Slobod has worked for years with Dana Bourgeois (among others)
and makes his own guitars under the Circa name, based on the designs
of the great pre-war Martin 00, OM and dreadnaught guitars. He is passionate
about the use of Adirondack spruce soundboards, hide glue and thin finishes.
My Circa guitar #33 is an OM cutaway with Adirondack spruce and Madagascar
rosewood back & sides, ebony bridge & fingerboard, bone saddle
and nut, mahogany neck with a diamond-shaped volute, Madrose headplate
and nickel Waverly tuners. The body is bound in black plastic with thin
black & white maple purfling on the top, and single strips of white
maple purfling on the back and sides. The fingerboard and headstock
are bound with black & white trim and the rosette is John’s
custom rosewood & maple ‘radial’ design. The endpin
and strap button are water buffalo horn.
Playing a guitar is a rich sensory experience involving Sight, Sound
and Touch. A fine instrument should be pleasing to the eye in form and
construction, should feel good against the body with a neck and action
that make playing easy and enjoyable, and, of course, have a sound that
is satisfying to the ear. So here are my evaluations of each of these
dimensions for this guitar.
I told John that what I was striving for visually was an understated
elegance that let the wood itself be the ‘bling’, so we
used his thin, ‘short binding’ in black plastic & maple
strips for the body, fingerboard and headstock, which was also left
blank. The Madrose set we chose for its sound properties also had the
grain figure that I found most attractive, with chocolate and reddish
highlights reminiscent of Brazilian rosewood. It’s the Adirondack
top, however, that is truly special. Most Adirondack or red spruce has
some characteristic light streaking along the grain, but this one is
nearly uniform in color with only the slightest short streak an inch
from the bass side of the fingerboard. The grain is generally very tight
and narrow with lots of webbing across the grain, with one strip about
a quarter-inch wide on each side so tight it’s difficult to see
the grain unaided. With a magnifier, one can see about ten growth rings
in that quarter-inch, perhaps indicating a long period of drought in
the life of the tree. You can see it in the close-up photo of the area
just below the bridge. John had only a very few tops this uniform, which
he said he had never seen in Adirondack spruce before. The rosette is
John’s own design, incorporating 24 segments of rosewood, enclosed
by thin maple strips, with the grain running radially from the center
of the soundhole, and flanking black/white/black circlets on the inside
and outside of the rosette. The nitrocellulose finish is like glass
– flawless. I have put my face to the instrument and gone over
every inch of it, and shone a flashlight into the interior of the soundbox,
and with the exception of the central 5th fret diamond inlay, which
looks up close like the hole routed out for it was initially a little
overlarge, the construction, fit & finish are impeccable –
not a hint of tearout anywhere along the purfling, joints invisible,
interior kerfing and bracing absolutely even and clean with not the
slightest speck of glue to be seen anywhere. The fingerboard has John’s
‘long pattern’ of slotted diamond abalone position markers
at frets 5, 7, 9, 12 and 15 with double markers at 7 and 12, and abalone
dots down the side of the fingerboard at the same positions. There is
a slight bit of bi-refraction along the seam of the top just below the
bridge and just above the butt, which are mirror-images of each other.
Except when the top is at the right angle it’s hardly noticeable.
A thin, clear plastic pickguard will be installed in a few weeks.
The instrument basically employs Martin OM specs for the body and feels
about as anyone who has played a similar instrument would expect. The
body is narrower than a dreadnaught, and tapers toward the neck. Having
played a Collings OM for years, it feels completely comfortable and
familiar to me. Other than requesting a slightly wider nut for my long
fingers, the other dimensions are John’s standard. Here are the
specs as I measured them, in inches: width, lower bout: 15, width, upper
bout: 11 1/4, waist: 9 1/4, depth at neckblock: 3 1/2, depth at tailblock:
4 1/8, body length: 19 1/2, total length: 40, fret scale: 25 2/5 (25.4),
nut width: 1 25/32, string spacing: 2 1/4.
For a rosewood instrument, it is surprisingly light at 4.4 lbs, and
when played, it’s easy to feel the guitar vibrating against the
body throughout its tonal range, even (faintly) with notes played on
the first and second string. The neck is a shallow, rounded ‘V’
shape that has replaced that of my Sobell cittern as the most comfortable
neck I’ve ever played. The neck profile stays fairly slim as it
approaches the body, and combined with a beveled edge to the fingerboard
binding, I have no trouble wrapping my thumb onto the 6th string even
up around the 9th fret. I notice some slight squeaking from my palm
against the neck’s finish when my hands aren’t absolutely
dry; I may ask my local repairman to take off a little of the gloss.
The action is set up for fingerstyle, but slightly on the high side
since I also use the guitar for rhythm accompaniment for flute and fiddle.
I play with a fairly thin pick and a light strum, so no buzzes so far.
For fingerstyle it’s pretty comfortable given the trade-off in
action height. The cutaway is a new feature for me, and I’m still
getting used to the feel and new hand positions when I venture above
the 14th fret. I usually string with light gauge phosphor bronze, and
the fretting is easy and comfortable, requiring minimal effort. The
Waverly tuners are smooth and efficient.
Before I begin this review section, let me relate the goal I gave the
builder for this guitar and three short anecdotes.
I told John that sound was paramount, and all other aesthetic and design
decisions about the guitar must be secondary to those made to reach
the sound I’m after. I’m a sucker for a small guitar with
a big, fat low end. I gave John several pages of detailed instructions
about the sound I wanted, but summarized them by saying, “Build
me an OM with the sound of a prewar dreadnaught.” (minus the 70
years of playing, of course). If he used that as the target, I was confident
that the smaller soundbox would give me the bottom end I wanted without
any ‘boom’ to muddy it up.
– John personally delivered the guitar to me at the Swannanoa
Gathering, and after a wonderful half-hour getting to know it, I gave
it to him to display at the Guitar Week’s luthier’s exhibit.
Most of the staff tried it out that week. At one point, Paul Asbell
was in an empty classroom putting it through its paces, moving from
blues and ragtime to swing chord solos and finally bluegrass, with G-runs,
licks and strong rhythm playing pushing the volume. Then he stopped
and said, “You know it almost sounds like a dreadnaught!”
You can perhaps imagine my grin.
– My old music partner, with many years experience in retail and
performance was in attendance that week. He owns several Collings guitars,
and he’s the toughest guitar critic I know. He gave it a strum,
pressed his lips together and began shaking his head. Over the next
ten minutes, as he continued to play, he gave an occasional noncommital
grunt, then stopped, looked at me and said, with deep sincerity, “Damn
you, you’ve ruined my life.” He played a little more, then
gave it back to me, soberly pronouncing it (to my astonishment) “the
best guitar he ever played.” We discussed the guitar in detail
over lunch the next day and I asked him to confirm the opinion he expressed
the day before. “Yep,” he said, “the best guitar I
– John Slobod has had a hand in the building of thousands of guitars,
but mine is only #33 under his own Circa brand. Of those 33, nearly
1/5 are owned by top professionals including Tony McManus (told me his
is the best he’s ever played), Al Petteway (bought his on the
spot at last year’s Gathering, then sold his Ryan), Stephen Bennett,
Ed Dodson (has a second one on order), Mark Cosgrove, Steve Baughman,
and, though I don’t consider myself in their league, myself. I
think that says something about John’s instruments. After all,
we know something about guitars, and we didn’t buy them by accident.
Now, on to the discussion of sound. The guitar was first strung up on
July 30, 2007, so the sound is the feature most likely to change, of
course. I hope to update this evaluation after it’s been well
played-in. A guitar’s sound has a number of different qualities:
volume, sustain, responsiveness (including the speed at which the guitar
responds to the touch, as well as the energy required to produce it),
overtones, balance, a quality I call ‘depth’ or ‘spaciousness’
(does the sound appear to come from the surface of the guitar or from
deep down at the bottom of the soundbox?), and that most difficult-to-describe
quality we call tone. My evaluation is, of course, subjective, but some
of these qualities seem easier to measure than others.
Sustain: I measure sustain by using a stopwatch, hitting a firm
strum, then closing my eyes and leaning in close until the sound fades
to silence. I do this 4 or 5 times, then average the times. I’m
usually within a second each time. My 1985 Sobell cittern is my benchmark
instrument for a long sustain at 42 seconds. For some styles of music
it’s almost too long. I consider a guitar with a long sustain
to be around 30 seconds. The Circa sustains for 30+ seconds.
Volume: This is not the loudest guitar I’ve ever played
(some prewar dreads were louder), but it’s pretty close. When
giving it a firm strum, it’s difficult to hear conversations in
the room, and people sound like they’re shouting. Because it’s
set up with light gauge strings and a low action, I get string buzz
before I ever max out its headroom. With higher action and/or heavier
strings the volume might be even greater.
Response: As to responsiveness, sound comes off the strings very
quickly, and when one digs in for more volume, the response is immediate.
The response at low volumes is less dramatic, but still respectable.
Played fingerstyle without picks, it responds reasonably well to a light
touch with a volume that is intimate and somewhat restrained, but with
flat or fingerpicks it gets huge quickly and with little effort. The
low-volume response may improve as the guitar continues to open up.
Depth: The depth or spaciousness of the sound is what gives a
guitar that solid, ‘fat’ quality across its dynamic range,
and this is an area in which this guitar excels. The bottom end is what
I hoped it would be: a deep, substantial rumble, unusual in a guitar
this size, that you can feel in your chest when you play, but one that
still retains its clarity. When you move across the open strings into
the higher registers, that throaty quality continues on all strings,
revealing this instrument’s greatest strength – its balance.
Balance: A big low end and plenty of volume quickly become a
liability if they overpower portions of the guitar’s dynamic range,
but this instrument is consistently strong and fat from 1st through
6th strings. It just sounds solid and substantial on every string, anywhere
on the neck. I’ve owned well-balanced instruments before, but
combined with the depth of its tone, the balance in this guitar’s
voice is right up there with the best guitars I’ve ever played.
Overtones: Overtones are the harmonic frequencies complementing the fundamental tones. Some limit the definition to partials of the plucked strings, but I use it to encompass sympathetic vibrations in the unplucked strings as well. As luthier Alan Carruth puts it, "An acoustic guitar acts as a complex filter, reducing the output of some frequencies and enhancing others relative to the mix the plucked string produces. Every guitar is a bit different in this regard." An instrument that generates a lot of overtones is said to be 'complex' or 'sparkling,' while one with fewer overtones is said to be 'dry.' These complementary frequencies add tonal color and give the sound personality. As one might expect with a guitar so new, and one
based on the vintage Martin sound, #33 has very strong fundamental tones,
with, at this point, subtle overtones which have grown steadily stronger
over the last few weeks. The rosewood gives the sound some richness,
but there is also a surprising clarity to the individual strings when
strummed which I have found to be more typical in mahogany guitars.
Overtonic complexity is the area where I expect to see the most development
as the instrument gets played more, ‘opens up’ and the tone
Timbre/Tone: If the overtones give the sound 'personality,' timbre describes the quality of that personality, combining the fundamentals, overtones and all other resonant frequencies generated by both the vibrating strings and the vibrating wood to create a particular instrument's unique voice. It's what makes a middle 'C' played on a clarinet sound different from a middle 'C' played on a trumpet. It's this 'quality of personality' I believe most folks refer to when they speak generally about a guitar's 'tone,' and this is a subjective area I find difficult to discuss at all without the heavy use of metaphor. The tone
is, of course, immature, but already I hear a quality in it that I might
describe as ‘regal,’ ‘sumptuous,’ or ‘aristocratic.’
The image that keeps recurring to me is that of a thoroughbred colt
with champion bloodlines, young, but already impressive, with the promise
of enormous, perhaps even unlimited, potential.
My goal is to own a few guitars that I would consider ‘exceptional;’
the best of the best. So does this one qualify? I think it’s too
soon to go quite that far, so, as good as it is right now, I’m
trying to contain my excitement. It surprises me every time I pick it
up. I seem to hear something different in the sound of it every day.
It will take some time, and experimentation with different brands of
strings, picks, playing techniques and styles for me to really get familiar
with the specific character of this instrument’s voice. I guess
you could say it’s still ‘imprinting’ itself on me.
However, I will say that I already feel that I have been entrusted with
the stewardship of something extraordinary, an instrument that may very
well prove in time to be to be a truly ‘exceptional’ guitar.
See photos of Al Petteway’s Circa here: www.alandamy.com/circaoomaple.html
See an Acoustic Guitar profile of John Slobod here: www.acousticguitar.com/article/default.aspx?articleid=7007
In August, my Circa OM will be three years old. During that time it has been my main, do-everything guitar, and, until the arrival nine months ago of my Bashkin 00, my only guitar.
Most of what I play these days is Celtic music, and when I do gigs with my wife (flute) and son (fiddle), it's a rhythm guitar and gets played pretty vigorously, but when I gig solo, I play fingerstyle exclusively, with a lighter touch, in a variety of altered tunings, so I've 'played-in' the OM in several different ways.
With another Circa, a custom 00, due to arrive in about a month, I thought it was time to update how the OM has fared, and how it might have fulfilled the potential I first saw in it.
– Soon after I received the guitar, I had a clear plastic pickguard installed by Randy Hughes. It's essentially invisible and provides the finish with a bit of extra protection when I'm strumming it as a rhythm instrument.
– A few months later, I had Bob Colosi send John Slobod a saddle blank of west African hard ivory (WAHI), which John shaped, compensated and sent to me to replace the original bone saddle (more on this below).
– A friend of mine has a ToneRite device for speeding up the maturation of an instrument's voice, and I borrowed it on two separate occasions to give the OM a few days' treatment.
In my initial review, I described the OM metaphorically as "like a thoroughbred colt with champion bloodlines," and now, with a few years perspective, the metaphor seems especially apt, in a number of ways. A champion thoroughbred can be particular in what it likes, and require special accommodations, but when handled properly, can achieve true greatness. Similarly, the OM has required a bit of special handling and some accommodations on my part.
This guitar has been more sensitive to humidity changes than any instrument I've owned. I got the guitar in August, and a few months later, as we moved into cooler, drier months here in the mountains, a hairline crack developed in the finish (not the wood) about two inches long directly above the center seam between the bridge and tail where the two pieces of the top were joined. Since it was in the finish, it was only visible when light refracted through it at just the right angle. It was a simple cosmetic flaw, and was repaired under warranty by arrangement with a local repairman, Randy Hughes, and it has been stable since.
While John told me that this top, with its flawless, tight, straight grain is unique in his experience with Adirondack spruce, it has also proved to move more, seasonally, than other tops he's seen. I'm picky about having the action just right, and if it's off by 1/64 inch, I'll notice it, so although I was careful to keep a moistened humidifier in the case except during our humid summers, I also gigged with the guitar frequently, and during the dry indoor heat of the winter months, fret buzzes would develop from action that had become too low. I found I had to loosen the truss rod every winter and tighten it back in the summer. The day John delivered the guitar to me, he expressed concern that the neck angle might need to be increased slightly, and after this summer's Guitar Week he may take it home with him to do just that in order to give the neck a bit greater range of adjustment.
This guitar also demands a precision in tuning unlike any other guitar I've owned. It takes me a bit more time and focus to get it tuned just right, because if a string is off by even a few cents, the guitar's voice is so clear and revealing that it's a noticeable distraction to me. On the other hand, when I get it just right, everything about the sound falls exactly into place, and all I notice is the music. This guitar compels the player's focus and rewards fine technique and sensitive dynamic control. Conversely, it can also be unforgiving, and an unimaginative, pedestrian or clumsy technique will be painfully apparent.
By now, the guitar has received its share of minor dings and small scratches from string changes, the occasional capo falling off the neck onto the body or top, or other consequences of inattention on my part. The finish, already impossibly thin, is now revealing slight contours to the grain and pores in the woods of the body that I find quite beautiful. Bellying behind the bridge is slight and just what it should be at this point in its life. The frets have just begun to show some slight signs of wear, and the fingerboard is about due for a light steel wool polishing to remove some finger oil and dirt buildup.
All in all, life with this guitar requires a little more attention than I'm used to, but not much.
Now to the heart of the matter – how the sound has changed. The basic character of the sound that I described in my initial review remains, but there have been some developments.
Replacing the bone saddle with one made of WAHI made a noticeable change for the better on this guitar. The new saddle seemed to give everything about the sound 'just a little bit more,' as if a layer had just been removed from it. On another guitar that might initially be on the bright side, WAHI may add an unwanted crispness, but on this guitar, resonance, volume and sustain increased, and the entire dynamic range gained a bit more presence without sacrificing warmth.
You can find lively debates about the merits of the ToneRite device on most guitar forums, but my own experience with it was ultimately inconclusive. After two treatments, I think it did give a slight boost to the presence, similar (but to a lesser degree) to that of the WAHI saddle, but whether the change was actual or imagined, I couldn't say for sure.
Other changes, occurring over a longer time period, have been even more subtle and difficult to quantify. In this guitar forum thread, I question our ability to notice such gradual changes based on memories from years ago. Has the guitar 'opened up' and improved? Yes, I think so, but it might be more useful to say that what has really improved is my opinion of the sound.
Like many fruitful partnerships, the OM and I have 'grown into' each other. There are still some days when it doesn't sound quite as good to me, and, until I got a second guitar in the house, there were times when I think I was habituated to it and didn't fully appreciate it, but most of the time I can easily get lost in its voice, discovering new layers of richness.
In thinking about my guitars one day, I came up with a '3-Word Review' for each, summing up their qualities in three descriptive adjectives. For my Bashkin 00, they were 'Warm, Sweet, Intimate.' For the OM they were 'Regal, Assertive, Complex.' The OM demands my best efforts, but rewards them spectacularly, and in so doing makes me a better player.
The real question for me, of course, is, "Is this OM an Exceptional Guitar, my own term for one of the very few of the Best Guitars I've Ever Played?"
The Perfect Guitar, the Holy Grail, The Best, the guitar that completely satisfies the player every single time, is an ideal, not a real guitar, and so, unobtainable. For this reason, I avoid the term 'best' because I believe over-use, and perhaps any use, devalues it into meaninglessness, even if I'm just expressing my own opinion. Even the phrase, 'one of the best,' makes me squirm. But regarding this guitar, some things have become clear to me.
I knew soon after its arrival that the OM was undoubtedly the best guitar I've ever OWNED, but whether it was among the best I'd ever PLAYED was still in question. The OM re-kindled my love affair with the guitar, and in these three years I've made it a point to play many outstanding guitars by some of the world's top luthiers. There was one that dazzled me in a way my OM didn't, and a few more I thought might be comparable, but most just emphasized to me what an extraordinary instrument I was privileged to own.
It's been a slow realization, but each guitar I've played over these three years has brought me closer to the conclusion that, yes, in fact, I am in possession of one of the Best Guitars I've Ever Played, that my Circa OM is truly an Exceptional Guitar, and in that, I am a fortunate man, indeed.
Over the past year, I noticed that there was a slight bowing in the center of the saddle as the string tension pulled it toward the headstock. I was also getting some buzzes when I played it hard and the saddle slot in the bridge was too shallow to risk raising it with shims. John's saddle was the traditional thickness of the Martins his OM was based on and, having noticed this deformation in other guitars, he was now building with a thicker, stiffer saddle.
In August, he decided to bring #33 into the shop to re-rout the bridge for a new saddle, but once it arrived, he decided to just make an entirely new bridge for it. When the guitar arrived home after the modifications, I found that John had also dressed the frets, cleaned nine years of finger-gunk off the fingerboard and polished & buffed out the entire guitar. It gleamed like it was brand-new with an action that was slightly higher and just right for vigorous rhythm playing. And there was something else as well... the sound was subtly different – in a very good way.
Perhaps the thicker saddle caused it or the new bridge varied in density from the old one, but the voice seemed a bit smoother and somehow more satisfying. It could be that the spruce-up just made me want to play it more and this renewed my appreciation for it, I don't know. But I do know that I feel like I have re-discovered my delight in this extraordinary instrument.