Papa Got A Brand New Axe (long read)

Weird situation. I have some festival gigs coming up but I found I had no suitable guitar. Oh, I could schlepp my Martin D35, but I don't care to subject such a pricey axe to the risks involved in travel these days. (Like a casino - don't go with what you can't afford to lose.) I have another guitar that would be OK that way, but it requires amplification, and maritime folk festival shows can be either plugged or unplugged. So I started looking around for a guitar that would...

  • Be cheap enough I could potentially stand it's loss if the worst happens
  • Sound OK plugged or unplugged
  • Be comfortable to play with my smallish hands
  • Not require a trip to Moscow to find in stock

The Quest begins

YouTube was a great research tool. As I identified brands and models that met the above and a few other nice-to-haves, I looked for demos, and kept links in a Google Sheet. Frustratingly, the guitars I was most interested in were either available only in Moscow shops, or from internet stores with no return policy. Unless there's obvious shipping damage, you keep it. For a guitarist, that's kind of analogous to a woman having to buy a bra or a pair of heels online and just hope for the best.

It was pure accident that in a "related video" thumbnail on YouTube I saw the face of Sasha Dmitrienko, a musician I know in Moscow, who was reviewing a guitar. I ran the video and discovered he was in a really nice looking acoustic guitar shop... but of course in Moscow (sigh!) But I followed the link to their site and - lo and behold! - they also had a shop here in Saint Petersburg!

A gold nugget in the mud

The typical music store here is trying to be many things to many people. They cram so much merchandise into their space there's barely room to move around. Like a sub-miniature Guitar Center store. There's no place you can sit with an acoustic guitar, much less 2 or 3 that you want to compare. And just over there is invariably some guy with an electric guitar evaluating the max volume level of an amp with his favorite grunge metal tune. If you do manage to get hold of an acoustic, the strings are old enough to be on a pension. If you want to try it with new strings, they won't change them, even if you offer to pay for them. They'd rather lose a $500+ sale. (I know of 2 shops that did.)

So I was pretty amazed when I discovered Even though they were in the process of moving the local shop into a new space, the showroom was a joy after those other places. Check out the sofa!

Gitaraclub showroom

The Gitaraclub showroom sofa!

The friendly and helpful guys (and patient with my bad Russian!) assisted me to try 7 or 8 guitars that fell into my price range. In that range, frankly, I was not expecting much. But then I'm gettin' old and was still thinking in terms of lower-priced guitars 25-30 years ago. It seems things have improved.

But the really great thing about this shop is that they understand that every acoustic guitar, regardless of price, needs to be examined and adjusted because it contains organic materials that are affected by travel. The shop has a master guitar tech who goes over every instrument they sell, and sets it up to be the best it can be given its price point. That is incredibly valuable, and it's a shame how rare it has become everywhere these days.

Old dog learns new tricks

I soon discovered that the shop had quite a few Ovation brand guitars. Those feature wood tops fixed on a composite "bowl". I first encountered them in the 1970s and was underwhelmed, especially with the plugged in sound. I swore long ago I would never own one. However, they have always been known for durability on the road, so I thought I'd better at least try a few. I did, and hey - they've come a long way, baby! I finally narrowed things down to 2 guitars... one of them an Ovation. Wonders never cease. Never say "never".

A Tale of the Unexpected

I called my wife who was shopping nearby. I've learned over 25 years that she has an annoying tendency to be right about things, and hers is an audience viewpoint rather than a musician viewpoint. I wanted to see which one she fancied before finally choosing.

I had 15 minutes to wait, so I perused the racks again and noticed another Ovation that they hadn't shown me. When I took it out of the rack, my first impulse was to put it right back. The top was maple, a hardwood rather than the generally more resonant spruce I have always favored. And it was "quilted" maple - a look many people like, but which feels a bit ostentatious to me. There was also glitzy abalone inlay around the sound hole. (I prefer my abalone left on the sea bottom!) In short, I just didn't like that critter's looks!

But since I had time to kill, I sat down with it (on that amazing sofa!) and strummed an E chord to check the tuning - and was taken aback. The whole body resonated - I could feel it in my gut and chest. I've only ever experienced that on fine high-end all solid wood guitars (owned by somebody else). Was this really happening with a hardwood top on a composite body? I went into my try-out routine.

It happens sometimes. One individual guitar has "mojo"- a certain "something" that others, even the same make and model, even more expensive, just don't have. I began to realize I'd stumbled upon such a guitar. Loud or soft... the response and presence were balanced and smooth, both finger-style and flat-picked. Many less expensive guitars are noticeably better at one or the other. This one was fine with both. It also sounded quite fine plugged into an acoustic amp. No excessive bass boom, minimal coloring by the transducer. I was starting to get excited by everything except its looks, and I still wasn't quite believing it.

Robert not believing he liks this guitar

The moment you realize "I can't believe I'm liking this thing!!"

Feminine intuition clinches it

Well, the spousal unit showed up, listened to my short-listed guitars (now 3), and picked that "quilty" one right away. She said it looked fine, and that I shouldn't be an old sitck-in-the-mud (or words to that effect). But then, she grew up with regular visits to The Hermitage museum, and this top looks kind of like a lot of the old Baroque furniture in there, but no matter. She didn't give me time to argue or dither, just told the guys to ring up that one. Right as usual.

So it came home and I've been working out on it. The more I play it the more I realize I wasn't just wishfully imagining things. I set out hoping only to find a guitar I could tolerate for live performances. I certainly wasn't expecting to find something for it's price that I like this much. What's more, I find it's voice works well with my original maritime folk music. So it might just be that I have found "my sound". And I didn't break the bank. Or have to go to Moscow.

The new axe at home

What? You're still here? Wow. OK, so how do you like the look of this beastie? Leave a comment!

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