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.

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.

Pumping Iron and Pumping Nylon

Learning classical guitar is only one part of what I’m referring to as my “complete life makeover”.

After a protracted mid-life crisis lasting about six years, in which I went through just about everything in a person’s life that could be considered a crisis (no need to bore you with the details), I recently declared that my mid-life crisis is over. The remainder of my life will be much better.

Last October I was sick, with multiple serious health problems, and weighed 190 lbs (86kg). By February of this year I had worked myself down to 150 lbs (68kg). I did this by making permanent changes to my lifestyle, what I eat, and other stuff, but mostly I did it by working out like mad–initially three hours a day. Hiking, running, deep water aerobics classes, aerobic exercise equipment, lots of stuff. Now I feel much better.

Since February, part of my routine has been doing the Cybex weight training circuit at my local YMCA.

crunch

I am now physically stronger than I’ve ever been at any time in my life. How many guys my age do you know that can do 14 chin-ups? That’s the “Pumping Iron” part.

Pumping Nylon, of course, refers to the 1995 modern classical guitar technique bible written by Scott Tennant, best known for his work with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.

nylon 2

nylon 1

I just got this book a week ago, and I’m trying to devote some time each day to absorbing all its wisdom and working through its left- and right-hand dexterity exercises. So far it’s been great. It shows me what I can achieve.

Pumping Nylon is not a beginning guitar book. It’s for a guitarist who already reads music and knows his way around a guitar. Its purpose is to un-learn bad habits, hone technique and correct physical problems that may interfere with your playing your best.

I also got the companion volume, Pumping Nylon: Supplemental Repertoire, Easy to Early Intermediate, which contains etudes and pieces that appropriately illustrate the techniques in the first Pumping Iron volume.

So to anybody in my situation, I recommend both pumping iron and pumping nylon. It’s never too late for either.