Friday, July 4, 2014

Proof in Pudding

IMG_0003 A while back, I referenced new knowledge (to me) about owning an acoustic guitar that I’d discovered in Allen St. John’s Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument. If you look at the picture of me playing my new guitar and if you’ve read St. John’s book, you’d have to assume I learned absolutely nothing from Wayne Henderson. You might be wrong. I’m not a good enough guitarist to know much about the intricacies of acoustic guitars, but like all pedestrian art lovers “I know what I like.” I can’t describe it well enough to put forward any intelligent theories or descriptions, but I am reasonably sure I could put together a list of important criteria that might provide someone with a bigger brain some insight into what matters to me as a guitar player.

IMG_0004 The guitar I ended up with is a Composite Acoustics Cargo, that company’s entry into the environmentally indelicate travel guitar market. Here’s what CA has to say about the Cargo, “A travel size instrument that sounds like a full size guitar? Impossible! Our Cargo is comfortable to play anywhere, from the forests of Oregon to the foothills of the Catskill mountains, and even in your favorite armchair. Finely appointed and incredibly durable, the Cargo is ready when you are. It easily fits airline overheads or anywhere space is tight. It's a portable guitar with the playability, sound and satisfaction of a full size guitar.

  blackbird riderOddly, other than the exclamation marks, I pretty much agree with CA’s self-assessment. A friend called, knowing that I was looking for a replacement for my all-around-miserable Martin Backpacker travel guitar, saying that he’d found a used Cargo at a local guitar store and wanted to know if I was interested in tagging along to play it with him. We went to Willie’s American Guitars, first, to check out the Blackbird Rider (steel string). The Rider was pretty impressive, but at $1,600 I decided to wait until I’d sold the Martin 00016C before I plunked down another pile off money on a guitar I might not play. On we went to the next guitar shop where we played a used and purple 2008 (pre-Peavey) Cargo non-electric. The shop was asking $1,000 due to the “collector value” of the pre-Peavey status and Tim and I decided to pass for a while to see how the day’s comparisons sat. When I got home, I looked up current prices on the Cargo and found that $999 was a pretty common street price for the electric-capable version of the “raw carbon” version. Tim ended up ordering one from Sweetwater. About the time he ordered his, I found a used one with the “high gloss carbon burst finish” on Craig’s List. We ended up getting out hands on our new guitars at about the same time, same day, and damn near the same place. Tim’s is new, mine is pre-Peavey used. To my ears, they look and sound pretty much the same, except for string differences and the gloss finish on my guitar.

IMG_0003Ellis Seal, an aerospace engineer, began Composite Acoustics in 1999 and after a couple of wrong steps, over-optimistically anticipating the market for the company’s products and under-pricing their products (at least pricing them so the company didn’t make enough profit to survive), CA went bankrupt in 2010. That same year, Peavey bought the remains and began marketing the carbon graphite guitars, pretty much unchanged, in early 2011. Since then, Peavey has refined some manufacturing processes, but kept the guitars themselves most intact; in spite of the fear-mongering some “vintage guitar” dealers are promoting.

The Cargo is an interesting work in acoustics, psychoacoustics, nearfield design, art, engineering, and ergonomics. After I got my Cargo, Willie’s picked up another Rider and I went to the store with my guitar to compare the two. The Rider has the “advantage” of a smaller body, which makes it a slight bit easier to store. Some of that turns into a disadvantage when you are playing the guitar, though. It does not side in your lap like a guitar, unlike the Cargo. While the body of the Rider is more narrow, it is also deeper so the total stored volume is pretty similar. From a distance, the two guitars sound remarkably similar. From the player’s position, the Cargo has it all over the Rider. The sound hole is high and right under the player’s face, providing more low end to that listening position than the Rider. The body shape of the Cargo puts a very resonant part of the guitar’s back right against your chest and rib cage, providing low frequency bone conduction. Just holding the guitar away a fraction of an inch or wearing a coat is enough to lose this portion of the bottom end. It is a brilliant solution to an otherwise unsolvable problem with a small body guitar. Both guitars have excellent pickups; the Rider the Fishman MiSi pickup electronics, with a tone control, and the Cargo has a less featured LR Baggs pickup. With a half-decent acoustic guitar amplifier, the Rider’s tone controls would be unnecessary.

Your mileage may vary, but I am more than satisfied with my Composite Acoustics Cargo electric and expect to be playing this guitar for years. When a friend first saw the CA guitars at a NAMM show, the company had three of their instruments on stands under a running waterfall. The demonstrator just pulled a guitar out of the water, shook it off, and started playing. That’s not all that far from the kind of environment living in an RV can be.

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.