My Mariachi Vihuela

I created a minor sensation recently when I took my mariachi vihuela to Maple Street Guitars in Atlanta to get them to cut a new bone nut for it. Practically everybody there had never seen one close up, so I thought I’d provide this post.

My Vihuela
My Vihuela

There are so many unusual things about the vihuela that I hardly know where to start. I’ll try to explain them in a logical order.

Mention a vihuela to most classical guitarists, and they will think you are talking about a European Renaissance instrument associated with Portugal that is the direct ancestor of the guitar, kind of a missing link between the lute and the guitar.

However, my instrument is a Mexican mariachi vihuela, a more-or-less 19th-century cordophon which is the rhythm instrument in the strolling band of players and singers that just about everybody has encountered at some point in a Mexican restaurant–the colorfully dressed guys that, as one patron of the guitar salon put it, “you pay to go away.” Well, not me.

Anyway, it surprises me that even experienced non-Mexican musicians like those in your local guitar shop have never seen a Mexican vihuela close up and really have no idea what one is–even if they’ve spent some time in Mexican restaurants and seen and heard a mariachi band.

I bought my vihuela when I traveled to the legendary mist-shrouded mountain village of Paracho, Michoacan, Mexico several summers ago. Now I have never played mariachi music, before or since. When I went to Paracho, I wanted to buy a modestly-priced instrument, just to have something to hang on my wall as a memento. This instrument just called out to me, asking to be bought. It wasn’t expensive, and it was easy to transport, so I got it. I brought it back to Atlanta a few weeks later, having hand-carried it carefully in a small gig bag on numerous trips on buses, taxis, and finally an airplane.

Here is a link to Paracho on Google Maps, and another link to the article about Paracho on Wikipedia.org. It’s in Spanish.

Me selecting my vihuela in the store in Paracho

Paracho is renowned for luthiers and guitar-making. At least until recent times, more than half of the people in the town were luthiers or directly involved in making guitars and other plucked stringed instruments, specifically the bandurria, requinto, guitarron, and vihuela. My instrument was hand-made there, mostly of indigenous woods and materials. Paracho luthiers are legendary for making guitars and other instruments by hand, with a minimum of special tools and industrial capabilities, and great ingenuity. The quality of what they make there can vary greatly.

My instrument is an unusual example, not just because of its not just elaborate but completely-over-the-top ornamentation, but also because of its unusual, modern construction features which I have not seen on any other instruments.

My vihuela has a scale length of 20 7/8 inches, or 530mm. A Mexican vihuela,  when you strum it, makes a sound similar to the Hawaiian ukulele. The vihuela has five single unwound nylon strings, tuned up under considerable tension and making a loud, chirping, choppy strumming sound that cuts but needs little sustain. The pitch of the lowest string on the neck is the “a” that, on the guitar, is made on the second fret of the “g” string. But it has a re-entrant tuning: the fifth string is “a”, then up a fourth to “d”, up a fourth to “g”, but then down a minor sixth to “b”, and up a fourth from there to “e”. So any chord you play will effectively be confined to pitches within a single octave, and one or two pitches within a chord played on all five strings will be repeated in unison on different strings.

A proper set of five vihuela strings is not that hard to find in the States, but you can also make up a set from the treble strings of two conventional classical guitar sets in a pinch.

LaBella sells a vihuela Mexicana set for $5.50, and the string gauges are as follows (all are unwound plain nylon):

5th A, .042 inches
4th D, .032
3rd G, .028
2nd B, .040
1st E, .032

Vihuelas typically only have three tied gut frets, and consequently they are only used to play simple major, minor or dominant seventh chords in first position only. The upper range of the neck  is inaccessible and is not used at  all, and the vihuela can’t be used to play a melody due to the re-entrant tuning. In usage in mariachi music, the guitarron (the bass instrument) always plays the note of the downbeat of the measure, invariably a chord root. The, vihuela then strums chords on the off-beats. Thus, for instance, if the song is in 3/4 time, the vihuela will only be heard strumming on beats 2 and 3, and it is not used to establish the root of a chord, neither the lowest note in a chord played in inversion.

My vihuela, just as I found it sitting in the store in Paracho, has nine metal guitar frets, going up the full length of the neck to where it joins the body. It’s the only vihuela I’ve ever seen or read about that has guitar frets, and the only one that has more than three frets. So whoever designed and built this instrument thought it was time that vihuelas be used to play chords higher up the neck. Obviously this idea hasn’t caught on yet, as the only vihuelas you can find for sale anywhere continue to have only three tied gut frets in first position!

Other unusual features of the vihuela are the construction of the bridge, the shape of the sides and back, the method of gluing them together, and the headstock and tuners.

In size and shape, the vihuela is remarkably similar to its musical mate, the much larger six-string mariachi guitarron, the bass instrument. (A guitarron has a body bigger than a cello, but is nonetheless strung on a strap and played standing up and walking around like all the other instruments in the mariachi band.)

To begin with, the bridge of the vihuela (and the guitarron) does not look anything like a classical guitar bridge. It does not have a wooden bridge foot and a separate saddle across which the strings pass before they are tied down. It merely has a one-piece wooden construction. The point of tying the string down is also the “break point” and witness point of the string. This is traditional, but it is also clearly a structural disadvantage, as there is no possibility to compensate anything for more accurate intonation or action, and the instrument cannot be calibrated or set up after it’s built. Given that the traditional vihuela is only used to strum chords in first position, this is not a problem, because intonation need not be critical, while the action  should be quite high to make for a loud acoustic sound in a crowded restaurant or marriage reception. But if the unidentified genius who decided to put nine metal frets on my instrument keeps going with his ideas, perhaps he’ll build a vihuela with a more traditional classical guitar bridge for the sake of better intonation calibration for playing chords in higher positions.

About the back and sides–well, you’ll just have to look at the pictures. The deeply v-shaped back has a practical aspect; it’s a great shape for playing the instrument standing up. Hug it to your body and the top of the instrument is naturally angled up and outward for maximum acoustic projection, perfect for a strolling musical ensemble, which is what a mariachi band is!

On my instrument the top, back and sides are glued together without the use of kerfing, which seem strange to me as the concept of kerfing is quite well known and used in constructing all the regular guitars in Paracho. Perhaps it’s because of the unusual angles involved in the joining of the wood panels. Custom angled kerfing would have to be designed for this.

With regard to the headstock, a vihuela has five single strings, so typically they use a set of classical guitar tuners but cut off one tuner, leaving two tuners on one side of the neck and three on the other. Mine was set up with a traditional six-string guitar headstock, and one tuner simply sits unused. Again, mine is the only vihuela I’ve ever seen or read about that looks like this.

The top of my vihuela is made of a single, rather thick solid piece of tacote, which I believe to be a local Mexican wood. It appears to be fan-braced; I haven’t put a dentist’s mirror in there to look at the construction. The back and sides are made of palo escrito, also known as Mexican rosewood, a handsome-looking wood commonly used in Paracho guitars. The fingerboard is granadillo, a hard wood associated with South America, and mine is sealed with glossy shellac. The bridge appears to be palo escrito as well. The multi-piece neck could be cedar or mahogany, and it has a dark, thick headplate on the elaborate, dimensionally-carved head stock. The headplate is probably granadillo or it could be some form of rosewood dyed darker than the palo escrito used elsewhere. There is a stiffening rod or “skunk stripe” of what appears to be granadillo in the back of the neck, and there is no truss rod.

The binding, purfling, and inlay on this instrument are just insanely detailed. I’ll leave you to the photographs, and I may post more closeups later. Stripes and laminations involve wood strips dyed green, red, black, and natural tacote or maple. The top inlay in the amazing rosette and the purfling appears to be real abalone, and it sparkles; the unique inlay in the headstock, disappointingly, might just be plastic.

Overall the finishing and staining is sloppy, and there are numerous flaws in the astonishingly ambitious binding, purfling and inlay, including a couple of  places where ugly brown filler was noticeably applied to fill in gaps.

In the gallery above is the maker’s mark. I know nothing about this luthier shop. The one time I was in Paracho, sadly, it was on a Sunday afternoon and almost everything was closed. I found the vihuela in a large music store with hundreds of instruments from many builders, and I was not able to inquire about the luthiers. If anybody out there knows anything about the shop of Jose Luis Velazquez, please let me know!

And how does it sound? This instrument barks loudly, in the chihuahua register (the dog, not the state elsewhere in Mexico) which is what a vihuela is supposed to do.

All in all this is a truly unique piece. Clearly it’s not a working man’s mariachi vihuela; it’s much too elaborate in its decoration to be used in that manner. So you might assume that it’s a showpiece designed to be hung on a wall and admired. The most curious thing, though, is that it has nine metal frets, meaning that it can be used to play lots and lots of chords that you can’t play on a conventional vihuela. So what is it? A display showpiece, or an innovative cutting-edge instrument that expands on what a vihuela is capable of doing in the hands of a forward-thinking mariachi musician? I just don’t know.

But now that I’ve paid the capable masters at Maple Street Guitars to cut a better, stronger nut and fix its intonation problems, I need to take this instrument down from the hook on the wall and find opportunities to play it.

Lâg Crossover Classical Guitars are coming to America

Stop the presses! At the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show in Anaheim, California, Korg USA has just announced that they will be distributing Lâg guitars, from France, in the United States. They have never been available here before.

Lâg make several models of affordable nylon-string crossover guitars with traditional woods, full bodies, full scale length, 48mm nut width, 400mm radiused fingerboard, cutaway, and options for pickups and preamps. List prices, according to the new web site, are between US$675 and $925. I do not know what the street prices will be. Lâg America says that they will announce dealer relationships after March 1, 2010.

Korg USA distributes Korg, Marshall, and Vox, among other brands, and their products are all very widely available in the US, so it’s likely that all the major online retailers and many local music stores will also carry Lâg guitars.

I did not get to go to the NAMM show this year, so I was not able to see or play these guitars. According to what I can see on the Lâg America web site, their classical guitars look like modified folk guitars, and they all seem to have non-traditional satin finishes, dark, smokey-looking wood stains. In other words, they look a bit like Taylor’s classical crossover guitars. They don’t look anything like the traditional-looking models that Alhambra and now Cordoba are producing.

More news when I get it!

Lâg TN300A14CE

Auditorium Nylon Cutaway Acoustic/Electric

FEATURES

  • Headstock : Solid Indonesian Rosewood, linseed oil finish, with Lâg Maple Logo inlay
  • Machine Heads : Classical Satin Black, with Satin Black buttons
  • Top Nut : Black Graphite 46mm
  • Truss Rod : 2-way System
  • Neck : Smooth round shape, Dove Tail assembly system, Mahogany French Satin finish
  • Fingerboard : Indonesian Rosewood
  • Radius : 400mm
  • Frets : 20, Silver-Nickel, Medium type
  • Body Top : Solid Red Cedar, with Classical Fan bracing
  • Back & Sides : Indonesian Rosewood
  • Bindings : Rosewood + Maple
  • Body Thickness : Bottom 110mm – Neck 90mm
  • Rosette : Rosewood with Maple, with Occitania cross
  • Bridge : Indonesian Rosewood with Black Graphite saddle
  • Pickup ( Ac/El ) : Nanoflex Piezo Pickup under bridge saddle
  • Electronics ( Ac/El ) : StudioLâg Nylon system
  • Finish : French Satin
  • Strings : SAVAREZ Cristal Corum with G Alliance

Les Paul, but don’t forget Leo Fender

The Guitar and The Man

The Guitar

Being an armchair musicologist, I have to make a comment on the passing of Les Paul.

In the writeups the newspapers have been publishing, the emphasis is on Les Paul the man endorsing the Gibson Les Paul guitar. This is really a side-note, a footnote, to a brilliant career as an inventor and as an incredible performing and recording musician.

What nobody seems to mention (this week) is that, while Les Paul developed his own solid-body guitars and playing style (which was very important), he really had not much to do with production-model solid-body electric guitars that were sold to the public and stoked the rock revolution. That distinction goes to California inventor (and non-musician) Leo Fender (1909-1991), who started mass-producing Fender Broadcaster guitars in 1950. It is clear from the record that Gibson’s first Les Paul guitar in 1952 was their reaction to the Fender Broadcaster.

Fender was the Henry Ford of the guitar business. He designed an instrument that was easy to build and service, which could be mass-produced with great efficiency, and which was inexpensive. He designed the manufacturing process itself. He also was influential in the area of electric guitar amplifiers and amplification technology in general. And, most importantly in my mind, he invented the electric bass guitar (Fender Precision and Jazz models), which on balance was even more successful than the electric guitar itself, and more influential in more styles of music.

Gibson’s Les Paul guitar was what Gibson did best; they didn’t want to compete in Fender’s space; they wanted to create a luxury instrument with old-world hand-crafted detail, made from premium, expensive materials. Les Pauls were ornate, while Fenders were very plain and efficient. Now, fortunately, Gibson developed a sound with the Les Paul that was unique and extremely successful and influential. But you must not forget that the Fender line (Broadcaster, Esquire, Telecaster, Stratocaster) sold in tremendous numbers and was a huge success, starting in 1951, while the Gibson Les Paul line was not successful at all, commercially, until the late 1960s, more than 15 years later.

The Man

This weekend I’ve had a wonderful time learning about him.

First, I went to iTunes and bought his original recordings of “Lover” (12 overdubbed guitars direct to lacquer disc in 1947), and with Mary Ford, “How High the Moon” and “Sittin’ On Top of the World” (some of the very first 8-track multitrack tape recordings, and amazing, amazing pop music besides).

Then I found a circa-1990 interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” that’s about 20 minutes long, and is on the NPR web site.

Finally we are Netflix subscribers, and I watched “Les Paul: Chasing Sound”, the 2007 documentary, 90 minutes long, which is available for streaming over the Net if you are a subscriber.

In addition to multi-track tape, this guy conceived of and invented echo in the recording studio, or what we now call tape delay. For several years he had the sound in his head. He had a hard time explaining it to other musicians. But he felt compelled to invent a machine that could create it, and he did. Just amazing.

And Mary Ford is under-rated, way under-rated. She was an amazing pop singer and a musical vocal genius in her own right, when paired with her husband Les Paul. She revolutionized the way singers perform in the recording studio, and the way that engineers and producers record singers, forever. All that, and she was breathtakingly beautiful in a ball gown; go look for the press kit photos and album covers. It’s a shame she’s overlooked today.

Les Paul (fueled by his professional relationship with Bing Crosby) is pretty much the history of recording studio engineering in a nutshell, in one person. He was the messiah of the recording business and its application to art.

I was talking with Michelle Moog-Koussa on Les Paul’s influence, and I said, “His influence was even more profound than Dr. Bob Moog’s. Les Paul was both a tremendously successful and influential performing musician and a supremely important inventor. It would be like having Keith Emerson and Robert Moog in one person.”

Calling Jazz Guitarists with Crossover Guitars

I would like to hear from players who use a crossover nylon-string guitar to play jazz, and other forms of music other than traditional classical guitar music. Please post a comment here. I hope you can contribute to what I’m writing about.

As I’ve mentioned, I got a crossover guitar to play genuine classical guitar music. I play with (well, at this stage I rehearse with) a start-up unamplified classical guitar trio.

But I suspect that most guitarists who play crossover instruments are jazz or bossa nova players (or folk, rock, metal or country players) who don’t care to play traditional classical guitar music. They will also be more likely to use a crossover guitar to play plugged in with a loud stage band, needing to cut through drums, bass guitar and horns. They will play with a thumb pick in addition to their fingers, or they will hold a conventional plectrum pick. They will be looking for different features and a different sound than what I was looking for. They might even prefer a piano-black guitar with gaudy, tacky abalone binding. Hey, those things are being sold to somebody.

So you non-classical nylon-string players out there, from John McLaughlin to Jerry Reed to Richard Smith to Earl Klugh to Rodrigo y Gabriela, and all points in between, please drop me a line.

Models of Crossover Guitar: Cordoba Fusion

Cordoba has a new line that I got to try out at the Summer NAMM show in Nashville in 2008. The rep said that they are designed by master luthier Kenny Hill and manufactured in China.

The Cordoba Fusions look a lot like a classical guitar with a cutaway, but they are 14 frets to the body (like a modern steel-string acoustic guitar), not 12 like a standard classical guitar. The body is not as deep as a standard guitar. It has the full acoustic classical guitar body structure and bracing. They come with a pickup and preamp and are designed to be played plugged in. They all have the standard 650mm scale length, I believe. They have a 47mm nut width, with a slight fingerboard radius; I don’t know the measurements. It feels great and plays great. Acoustically it is not loud, but it would be okay for practicing or playing around the house.

There is a Fusion 12, in black, that has 12 frets to the body, but it is not a crossover. It has a regular full-width, flat fingerboard.

The Cordoba Fusion 14 Jet is piano black, with a spruce top and mahogany back and sides. It looks tacky with abalone binding on the top, and white binding on the pale rosewood fingerboard. It sells for around US $500, with a hard shell case, making it the least expensive crossover guitar of which I’m aware.

Cordoba Fusion 14 Jet
Cordoba Fusion 14 Jet

Detail of binding on Cordoba Fusion 14 Jet
Detail of binding on Cordoba Fusion 14 Jet

Among the line, the Cordoba Fusion 14 RS looks the most like a conventional classical guitar. It has a cedar top, rosewood back and sides, and an ebony fingerboard, and it is finished in a clear coat so you can see the natural color of the wood. It also has a better pickup and preamp from B-Band. It sells for around $800 with a hard shell case. Acoustic Guitar Magazine has a review posted here.

Cordoba Fusion 14 RS
Cordoba Fusion 14 RS

They also have a model with maple back and sides, and a model that has a rosewood top as well as rosewood back and sides. How unusual. They promise forthcoming models with figured koa tops. These are obviously meant to appeal to the jazz or folk player who wants something that looks much more like an acoustic steel-string guitar but has (some of) the nylon-string sound.

If you intend to play plugged in most of the time, this might be a good choice. I think this is an innovative instrument at an entry-level price.

Cordobas are available from online retailers, and you might find a black Fusion 14 Jet on the wall at your local Guitar Center.

Models of Crossover Guitars on the Market, Introduction

No endorsement is implied. I have not had the opportunity to examine or evaluate many of these first-hand. What I’ve learned has come from Internet searches, visits to music stores, catalogs, and conversations with the people at Atlanta’s most excellent classical guitar store, Maple Street Guitars. Another source of information was Grant MacNeill from The Twelfth Fret music store in Toronto, who played a large part in designing Alhambra’s crossover guitars.

I will try to link to pictures on the Web and not re-post pictures myself, but in all respects all the pictures are the property of the various rights holders, which are not me.

Preface

First off, what are the criteria? For a classical guitar to be considered a crossover guitar, for my purposes, requires:

  • A slimmer neck
  • A narrower nut width
  • A radiused fingerboard
  • A cutaway

Additional criteria that others might require could include:

  • An internal pickup and preamp, with easily accessible controls
  • Reduced acoustic vibration and volume, in the name of reducing feedback on a stage with an amplified band
  • A smaller, thinner body that does not feel like a traditional classical guitar
  • Finishes, woods, or colors that are non-traditional and more emblematic of steel-string acoustic-electric guitars

As you know if you’ve read my previous posts, I wanted something that looks, sounds and performs like a traditional acoustic classical guitar, because I want to use it to perform traditional classical music. My requirement was that it have a neck more comfortable to a player who does not come from a classical guitar background.

However, there are many performers, coming from jazz or what have you, that want a guitar that looks and feels much more like a solid-body electric guitar, a hollow-body electric guitar, or an acoustic-electric steel-string guitar. In other words they just want the nylon strings, not the classical guitar experience. Probably they don’t want to play traditional classical guitar music on this instrument in the first place. They want to incorporate some of the sound of nylon strings into amplified, electrified solo or ensemble jazz or rock.

There are a lot of guitars on the market that are essentially traditional classical guitars that are designed to be played primarily plugged-in (amplified) and not acoustically. They almost always have a cutaway. In addition, they may have smaller bodies, thinner bodies, or even solid bodies. However, I am giving little coverage to those kinds of guitars if they have a traditional wide neck and flat fingerboard. To me those are not crossover instruments.

And I am leaving flamenco guitars completely out of the equation. There are a lot of interesting acoustic-electric or crossover flamenco guitars out there, but that’s outside the scope of these essays.

Ok, let’s go.

Thoughts on crossover guitars

All this research has prompted some observations, first about what a crossover guitar needs, and secondly about what traditional classical guitarists could learn from the features of a crossover guitar. I expect this to be controversial!

It is my belief that a nut width of 48mm on a nylon-string guitar would be just fine for many guitarists, even those who play classical guitar exclusively. It provides considerably wider string spacing (at 8mm between strings) than what you find on most steel-string guitars. It is noticeably narrower than the 9mm string-to-string spacing you find on a traditional classical guitar with its 52mm nut width. It really does make a difference. If you are not already accustomed to a traditional classical guitar neck, try it; you’ll like it.

At the other end, however, a crossover classical guitar needs to have a string spread of 57 to 60mm at the bridge saddle. This is the traditional classical width, much wider than that found on most steel-string guitars. The reason for this is that if you are playing traditional classical right-hand finger technique (p i m a), you need a lot of space between the strings to dig in and get a good loud sound.

Virtually all traditional classical guitars have a completely flat fingerboard which has no inlays on the fingerboard or on the side. However, virtually all electric and steel-string acoustic guitars have “side dots” that let the player glance down and determine the fret location of his left hand. All classical guitars should have side dots. There is no drawback to this. And if you’re worried about traditional appearance, don’t be. Nobody can see the side dots except the person playing the guitar.

Furthermore, there is no reason that a classical guitar should have a flat fingerboard. This is an unproductive hold-over from the 18th and 19th century when flat fingerboards were the only kind that luthiers made on plucked string instruments. The primary reason for remaining with the flat fingerboard design is one of ease of manufacture and low cost for the luthier. It does not benefit the player in any way.

Regardless of the width of the neck, some curvature in the fingerboard profile, or radius, is always helpful in making the guitar easier to play. I have read about classical guitars with a very slight curvature, 24-inch or 20-inch (610mm or 510mm). Mine has a 15-inch radius, like a Martin steel-string guitar. A greater curvature, say a 10-inch or 7.5-inch radius like on a Strat, would probably be more than a nylon-string player would want.

The late Thomas Humphrey, builder of the Millenium Guitar, championed a slightly radiused fretboard on his traditionally-proportioned instruments with full-width fingerboards. He mentioned that in addition to comfort and playability, it was helpful to increase the curvature under the bass strings to enable a slightly greater string height to correct problems with string buzzing.

Obviously, it’s easier to plane a flat fretboard and hammer in flat frets. With a radiused design, you have to sand or mill the fretboard to a specific tolerance, and you need to individually bend each piece of fretwire to match that radius before it is hammered in to the fingerboard, in order to get a good fit. Finishing the frets by leveling and polishing is a bit more complicated also. Then you need a radiused profile on the nut and the bridge saddle, and this probably complicates intonation compensation. All this takes time and money, but boy is it worth it to the player.

Cutaways are good. You can play the high notes more easily.

The idea of the cutaway first came from archtop steel-string guitars in the 1930s, and was incorporated in to the design of most solid-body electric guitars. Additionally, many models of steel-string acoustic guitar are available with or without a cutaway.

I won’t offer any verifiable data here, because the cutaway issue has been discussed far and wide for many years. Let’s just say that traditional classical guitarists have not approved of the cutaway because it simply makes the guitar look unlike a traditional classical guitar. The cutaway remains an unpopular option for serious, acoustic classical guitar players. But the cutaway is gaining acceptance. It’s been demonstrated that the presence of a cutaway does not necessarily alter the sound, volume or projection of a guitar.

One of my tenets in this blog is that classical guitars should break from tradition in terms of size and shape if there are innovative new ideas that prove beneficial. So I would like to ask traditional classical players to be more open to new shapes and dimensions for their guitars. Why must all guitars look, externally, just like the ones they built in Europe in the 19th century? If somebody builds a design that’s easier to play yet sounds just as good or better, it shouldn’t be rejected just because it does not look orthodox and conformist.

If you want to do some outside reading, I would refer you to the Web site of the famed and innovative builder Greg Byers, who discusses different designs with regard to scale length. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of information on the Web about Thomas Humphrey’s design principles, since his passing and the abandonment of his Web site and domain. I’m sure you can find many other links. The biggest area of innovation is in the construction of the tops of the guitars and how they are braced, and that’s way outside the scope of my blog.

My review of the Alhambra crossover guitar

Review of the Alhambra 5p CWX

Please read my previous three posts, which provide full specifications and detailed pictures.

My primary aim in selecting and buying this guitar was to find an instrument that is built like, and sounds like, a traditional classical guitar, with its traditional acoustic properties, but which has a cutaway and a crossover neck (you can read all about that in my earlier posts).

Alhambras are all entirely made in Spain. While I think China is making good guitars these days (they seem to be able to emulate any design developed elsewhere), it’s refreshing to find an actual Old World-crafted instrument at an affordable price. Everybody is feeling economic pressure from the competition of cheap Chinese labor. I get a strong “old-world” authentic Spanish vibe from the Alhambras, and hey, what’s better than Spanish (or Catalonian; hi to my friends in Barcelona!) if you are talking about a traditionally built, braced and voiced classical guitar?

Out of the case, the Alhambra smells like cedar and rosewood, and not like lacquer or glue, like a good guitar should. It’s such a pleasant sensation when you open the case, pick up the instrument, and start playing. This guitar is noticeably (and surprisingly) lighter in weight than similar guitars in its price range, which are usually more heavily built, often to the detriment of the sound quality.

My Alhambra, designed along the specifications of their stock 5P model, is a mass-produced student-grade instrument, with a solid red cedar top with traditional fan bracing. It has laminated rosewood back and sides. The neck is Spanish cedar, not mahogany or sapele as used on cheaper instruments. The body is what is considered full-size and full-depth, and the neck meets the body at the 12th fret, like a traditional classical guitar. I think the regular 5P sells for somewhat under US $1,000. Mine is not a regular production model, so there’s no price comparison.

These are the measurements from the Alhambra web site:

Measurements

I’m not yet an experienced classical guitarist, and my technique is limited, so I’ll admit that I don’t understand the complexities and subtleties of how a classical guitar should sound, particularly with regard to timbral variations and dynamic range.

My friend Eric Larkins, an accomplished professional classical guitarist, played my guitar and offered that he liked the sound. “It’s loud” were his first words.

Eric likes cutaways but prefers extra-wide fingerboards (54mm nut width and of course flat), so he’s not convinced of the value of the “crossover” concept. Still he happily played the guitar and gave it a thumbs-up.

The guitar is comfortable to hold and play. I found playing a traditional classical neck to be quite fatiguing, but this neck causes me no fatigue or strain, by comparison.

I haven’t made any study of classical guitar necks with regard to the profile of the back of the neck or its thickness, but suffice it to say that this one has a thinner neck that  is easy to get your hand around, and feels great in my hand. Again, this is a crossover feature designed to appeal to guitarists who are not comfortable with the thick, bulky neck of a traditional classical guitar in the first place. But this one is not too thin to affect the sturdiness of the neck. There is an ebony stiffening rod glued into the back of the neck, which is visible. There is no truss rod; I would have preferred one, because I want to try different string gauges and tunings, and a truss rod would mean that it would be possible to adjust the neck relief if it were found to be necessary with different strings. But I do not anticipate any problems here.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the cutaway and especially the contoured heel (with its compound cutaway on the back) are wonderfully done, comfortable, and effective. I think Alhambra really knows how to do a cutaway correctly, and theirs is better than what you often find on much more expensive instruments from other makers.

The headstock and neck are carved from a single piece of cedar, while the neck block and heel are a separate piece of wood (possibly mahogany) to which the neck has been glued. The headstock has an attractive rosewood veneer on top.

The headstock logo is nicely done, although traditional classical guitars don’t have headstock logos. Looking at this guitar from a few feet away, this is the only obvious visual clue that this is not a fully-traditional instrument (aside from the cutaway). The letter “A” appears to be an inlay made from some wood that has an irridescent stain, set into what appears to be an unstained, natural maple chevron. (See the picture in my previous post.) But if I had been able to special-order my own instrument, I would have asked for a guitar with a plain headstock with no logo. I’m just not in to that.

The ebony fingerboard is fine, and the fret finishing is good. The side dots are very helpful. It has the standard 19 frets.

The guitar came properly set-up. I asked for more or less traditional string height and action. I’m now using D’Addario Pro Arte composite strings.

The pronounced curvature of the saddle causes the bass strings to have a shallow break angle going in to the traditional tie block. The saddle sits extremely low under the bass strings, which you can see in the photo in the previous post. I imagine this has a somewhat negative effect on sustain and tone. I believe that, had it had a 12-hole tie block (a recent innovation which Alhambra does not offer), that this would provide a better break angle. I have not examined the bridge saddle on the regular production line of Alhambra crossover guitars, but this is something that they might need to address.

When I changed to my own preferred gauge of string, I experience some buzzing on the D string with the stock setup, so this may have to be addressed. The fact that I have selected a guitar with a radiused fretboard, nut and bridge saddle will make this task more difficult. I don’t consider this a negative thing, because every guitarist needs to have his instrument set up correctly after he buys it.

The finish is urethane, and it’s well-applied. This is a durable finish often used on mass-produced student-grade instruments. Professional guitars have only a very thin layer of French polish, which is thought to be better because it does not impede the vibration and sound, but which provides less protection to the wood. So for student instruments, the priority goes to protecting the guitar from getting banged up, rather than using the thinnest possible finish to avoid restraining the sound. Professionals know that a French-polish finish makes a guitar very delicate and that it must be treated carefully.

On my guitar, the (presumably Indian) rosewood, (sometimes called palisander or palosanto), does not have the most attractive color or grain that you would find on more expensive guitars. It’s laminated construction, not solid wood. Hey, all this is just fine with me. I don’t much care about what the back of the guitar looks like, because neither I nor an audience could see it while I’m playing it. And the idea of a more durable laminate over a more delicate solid wood seems sensible to me.

The back and the sides are nicely book-matched, although as I mentioned, they are not highly figured. There are two unattractive knots visible on the sides, but this doesn’t affect structural integrity or sound. The binding is rosewood with a thin strip of un-dyed maple on both edges, and looks simple and elegant. There is a thin maple strip down the two-piece back.

You can look at my pictures to see the rosette, which is authentic and traditional. The tie block on the bridge has some attractive wood strips, but it does not have a matching rosette figure (not many guitars do these days).

I can see a slight gap on one edge where the rosewood bridge is glued to the top, and a slight unevenness in the finishing of the bridge around the edge. Nothing major, and I think the bridge is solidly and properly mounted.

The tuners are decent quality, nothing too fancy, but better than what you would find on inexpensive mass-produced guitars. The tuners are in the lyre style, gold-plated, with black threads on the gear posts, and pearloid plastic buttons that are not removeable. The rollers are white. This is all quite traditional.

This model, from a custom-ordered run commissioned by The Twelfth Fret of Ontario, Canada, does not have a pickup or preamp. I think I will need one, and so at some point I’m going to pay $180 or so to install a simple, unobtrusive L. R. Baggs or Fishman undersaddle piezo pickup with an end-pin preamp and battery.

I love this guitar. It’s perfect for me, and I’m glad, because I did an awful lot of research before I ordered it sight-unseen from a dealer in another country. I certainly recommend buying an instrument from The Twelfth Fret in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The co-owner, Greg MacNeill, spent a lot of time with me on the phone and in numerous emails to answer all my questions and educate me about what I was buying.

Pictures of my Alhambra crossover guitar

Click on a thumbnail to bring up a new page with a larger image. Click on that image again to get the full-sized picture to see all the detail.

Take special note of the neck heel. The sharp corner that would normally be left by the cutaway has been carved down to meet the neck heel (which is tapered and rounded, unlike the sharp pointy neck heel you usually find on a classical). This makes it much easier to fret the high notes, because when you go all the way up, your hand is in a more natural, relaxed position. There’s more room for your thumb.

A contoured neck heel requires extra work for the luthier compared to a regular cutaway. It may seem like a subtle difference, but I’m sure it requires a lot of extra labor.

Not a lot of cutaway guitars have this feature, but I highly recommend that you look for a guitar that does. It’s a great feature.

All these pictures are Copyright© 2009 by Wheat Williams. You can link here, but please don’t copy and repost them without receiving permission from me.

My Alhambra crossover guitar

By the way, crossover guitars are sometimes called “fusion” guitars, and that term is usually applied to a thin-line acoustic-electric guitar designed for jazz players.

But mine is not. It’s a fully acoustic guitar, no pickup, designed to sound and project just like a regular classical guitar.

Here are the details:

My guitar is a limited-run instrument, not a production model. But Alhambra now has three production models that you can order, and they are similar.

Mine is identical to an Alhambra 5P, except for the neck and the bridge saddle.

Alhambra 5P CWX from The Twelfth Fret, Toronto
Alhambra 5P CWX from The Twelfth Fret, Toronto

Specifications

Alhambra 5P CWX Crossover

  • 1-7/8″ wide nut (48mm), 8mm string-to-string spacing
  • Radiused ebony fingerboard (15-inch or 380mm)
  • Side dots at 3, 5, 7 & 9th frets
  • Ebony reinforced Spanish cedar neck (no truss rod)
  • True Spanish neck joint
  • 650 mm scale length
  • Venetian cutaway design
  • Extra access neck heal contour (sometimes called “compound” or “contoured” cutaway)
  • Solid Western Red cedar top
  • Traditional fan bracing
  • Laminated Indian rosewood back & sides
  • Rosewood body binding
  • Radiused saddle (for appropriate string height and action given the radiused fingerboard)
  • Traditional rosewood bridge with angled tie block. String span at bridge is 60mm, or string-to-string of 12mm, just like a standard classical guitar.

It came with a flat-top hard shell case, one that looks like it was built by TKL.

Here is the background:

Grant MacNeill and the luthiers of the Twelfth Fret guitar store of Toronto, Ontario, Canada designed the first Alhambra crossover model. They carved a custom neck and fingerboard, and commissioned Alhambra to produce two-hundred 5P guitars with replicas of this neck and fingerboard. Twelfth Fret took delivery in 2007 and sold them exclusively from their store.

Alhambra was pleased with the results so they added three models of crossover guitar to their regular production lineup. The new models are higher-grade instruments than the 5P CWX, and all come with a Fishman pickup and preamp system built-in. The new Alhambra crossover models can be ordered from any Alhambra dealer. (I provided a link to the list of dealers in the United States only, but they are available world-wide.)

I got my 5P CWX at a great price, from Twelfth Fret. I bought in in March, 2009, and it was one of the very last of the 200 that they ordered. They may still have one or two left, and at any rate they can get you one of the new production models, so contact them if you are interested. Ask for Grant and tell him that Wheat Williams sent you.

I’m taking the liberty of posting Twelfth Fret’s pictures from their page on the 5P CWX, because I fear that they are no longer available and Twelfth Fret might take down their page.

The new Alhambra crossover models are true classical guitars, but I don’t like the bridge design, the binding, or the big honkin’ headstock logo, because they look quite un-traditional. My guess is that Alhambra is betting that these non-traditional elements will make these models more appealing to those who were not classical guitarists to begin with.

Alhambra CS-3 CW E2 Crossover Guitar
Alhambra CS-3 CW E2 Crossover Guitar