While we are traditionally used to seeing guitars made of wood, it is becoming more common to see ‘alternate’ materials being used. A great example is the HPL, (High Pressure Laminate) currently being used in some offerings from C.F. Martin. And while some are unhappy with this material, others maintain that the instruments aren’t too bad as well as offering a Martin guitar for a fairly reasonable price.
CEO of Falbo Guitars and former VP of product development for the Seymour Duncan Company, Frank Falbo offered some thoughts about the use of alternate materials in the guitar market, “It’s highly marketable,” says Falbo “but many musicians dislike what it has done to the art form. There are a few who have worked in composites that I would say deserve a place in the market, Composite Acoustics is one of them. Ken Parker’s concept of the wood with an exoskeleton was worthy as well. The market has limited acceptance to both of those examples, but they’re both worthy of their accolades.”
Which certainly makes it seem as though alternate materials are going to be around for a while, but are guitar buyers prepared to accept these new materials with open arms and will alternate materials become as common as wood?
“The general populace is not prepared to accept these new materials en masse, and I’ll tell you why” observed Dr. Robert Elliott, a business process consultant with Florida’s Performance Excellence Consulting “because the music industry is still very traditional and like to see traditional materials in their instruments. As a result people do not want too much innovation too soon. Companies will charge more money for traditional offerings and people will pay it.” But rather than a discussion of shifting materials in the musical instrument industry the discussion so far has been a means to set up the actual subject of this article.
Composite Acoustics Guitars are a manufacturer that you may or may not be familiar with. Founded in 1998 in Lafayette LA by Ellis Seal, a former aerospace engineer with a passion for guitars, Composite Acoustics are currently distributed through Peavey.
Using a proprietary process, Composite Acoustics guitars use carbon fibre to replace any wood traditionally used in guitar. Complemented by the use of high end hardware and electronics, (such as Hipshot tuning pegs as well as L.R. Braggs or Fishman pickups and preamp systems) the end result is a very well made, well thought out instrument.
Offering seven different models the company does not overly limit the consumer’s choices. The look ranges from fairly traditional, such as The Legacy model, to the more radical looking, such as the Xi model and the company offers both matte and high gloss looks. Offering both full size and travel size models rounds out the catalogue, unfortunately at this point a bass model is not offered.
While an initial review of the catalogue gives the appearance of limited options in terms of the guitar’s appearance, the company in fact offers a wide range of customizing options in terms of colour and decorative. The initial impression created by the look of some models may either surprise customers at first or it may also draw them in, depending on personal preference.
As mentioned carbon fibre replaces all wood in the guitar, which also means that the fretboard is carbon fibre. Now some may have a concern about added costs to getting routine fretwork, such will the guitar have to be shipped back to the manufacturer for any work? Not so. The company assures buyers that fretwork, (including refrets) can be done by in a traditional shop using traditional methods.
The two models tested were the Gx and the Cargo.
The Gx is a full sized center sound hole offering with neck width choices at either 1.69” or 1.75” at the nut and a 25 ½” scale length.
Equipped with either Fishman Prefix plus or Fishman Aura pickup/preamps systems, 20 stainless steel frets (14 frets to the body) and is designed (or voiced) to extend low end response.
The GX has Hipshot tuning keys that offer a 18:1 tuning ratio
The Cargo is a travel size guitar with a 22.75” scale length. An offset sound hole, an L.R. Braggs Active Element pickup system and 21 stainless steel frets round out the Cargo. Like the Gx the Cargo also has Hipshot tuning keys, with the same 18:1 ratio
But how do they play and sound?
The guitars are lightweight and very comfortable, and are easy to hold and balance. Access to higher frets is very easy without requiring awkward hand movements. Anyone who uses the higher range will find that movement along the neck is very smooth and even. The heel design allows even access across the entire neck, and a thin feeling neck makes for fairly quick and easy chord transitions.. Both finger style and flatpicking are not a problem with the string spacing, and despite it’s size your fingers won’t feel confined in the first position of the Cargo. At first the thinner neck may seem strange, almost as if you are playing an electric rather than an acoustic. But that passes and you find the guitar to be very easy to play.
The sound for both instruments is large and well balanced, it sounds just like a good acoustic guitar and not too thin or too boomy. To hear a demonstration of how the guitar sounds, the below link is a demo that Sweetwater Sound posted on YouTube:
On their website the company states that their guitars are not subject to climate changes and have a 15 degree headstock angle for increased strength. They also add that due to neck construction you will never need to get the truss rod adjusted, even going so far as to include ‘Ever!’ to that statement.
For some the promise of reduced maintenance and damage concerns may be enough to sway them past the material. But what about any damage? Considering the material and the construction technique very few repair shops are equipped to handle repairs. On the Composite Acoustics website the company prints that they pride themselves on top customer service, but then every manufacturer makes the same claims. One way to check this is a search of the internet, usually even the most basic search will find someone who is unhappy about something a company is doing.
Happily, there wasn’t anything to report. In fact a browse through various acoustic guitar forums reveals that the guitar community seems very pleased with the work being done by Composite Acoustics, and on the website (in the ‘Owners Gallery’ section) there is a collection of images sent by actual owners in a wide range of settings that would normally be reserved for the ‘beater’ or campfire guitar.
Now we have well made, well playing guitars, that offer a wide range of options to customize your instrument with promises of reduced maintenance and increased durability. So what, if any, is the catch?
Basically – none of this will come cheap. Anyone expecting to walk into a store and pick up a new Composite Acoustic guitar for a few hundred dollars will be sorely disappointed. Prices on the Cargo are around $999.00, ($1499.00 list) and the prices go up from there. But considering the rising cost, (as well as both availability and eco concerns) of traditional materials, good acoustics continue to rise in price making the offerings by Composite Acoustics par for the course with well made traditional guitars. Perhaps the cost offset by reduced maintenance and increased durability may be enough to negate the concerns touched upon during the opening discussion for some.
Another thing to consider is when you buy an one of these guitars, how it sounds in the beginning is how it will always sound. Because there is no wood, there won’t be any of the settling and changing of tone that is commonly experienced with wood guitars as the guitar ages.
Regardless of individual feelings about materials and tradition, the guitars manufactured and offered by Composite Acoustics are certainly worth the time to at least play once. Despite any initial feelings, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Further information can be found at the Composite Acoustics website
*Images are the property of Composite Acoustics and are used with permission. ** YouTube video is the property of Sweetwater Sound and is used with permission
Special thanks to
Frank Falbo @ www.falboguitars.com
Robert Elliott @ www.performexcelconsulting.com
Brent Leuthold @ www.sweetwater.com
Special thanks to guest contributor John Goodale for this review. John Goodale is the author of the book Johnny Gora and has released several instrumental cd’s under the name Johnny Gora, all avaiable on Amazon.com