Charis Acoustic SJ
Price: $4,800 (base); $7,100 (as reviewed)
The spiritual aspects of music perhaps originate with the creation of the musical instrument. To that end, Charis Acoustic builds guitars under luthier Bill Wise’s stated mission to reflect his spiritual commitment with the love and care that he puts into his craft.
The Charis SJ (Small Jumbo) shows that commitment in every detail. Though there are some constants with the SJ, including body dimensions featuring a lower bout width of 15.25″, Wise’s one-person shop allows him to customize each instrument. Functional and decorative options are numerous, including cutaways, fingerboard widths and radii, and a remarkable array of inlays.
Our tester SJ was a cosmetically simple affair compared to other SJs, but the beauty of the materials and craft speak for themselves. The back and sides comprised of Malaysian blackwood, showing a rich, dark chocolate hue through the natural finish. The top was solid “sinker” redwood – lumber that has been underwater, often for decades, resulting in enhanced tonal qualities and distinctive coloration. (The many theories about old Italian violins include the notion that the lumber was floated downriver, filling pores with mineral sediment and subtly changing the structure of individual wood cells.)
Several other timbers were used to great advantage on #366. The neck was a multi-laminate of mahogany, maple, and rosewood topped with an ebony fingerboard. Inlay details used Malaysian blackwood and ebony enhanced by pearl, with ebony facing both the top of the headstock and the comfortable arm bevel on the lower bout. The sound port on the bass-side upper bout was also bound and reinforced with ebony, while blackwood formed the rosette. And the ebony bridge was fitted with a water buffalo bone compensated saddle. All of this delicious lumber was assembled with the highest level of craft. Pristine workmanship was visible through the sound hole and sound port.
An SJ neck is mounted with a bolt-on system. The stiffness of the multi-laminate neck allows for a D shape carved to a thin profile with a subtle taper from headstock to heel. A simple C logo rides an attractive unbound headstock, topped with a design that resembles a wave before it goes pipeline. A subtle “icon” design marks the 12th fret and 2-millimeter pearl dots show the way up the bass side of the fingerboard. Rather than a traditional volute, an SJ has what Wise describes as a “ducktail,” a carefully carved raised edge that adds strength and mass without trespassing into the playing section of the neck. The test SJ featured gold Gotoh 510 Delta Series tuners with attractive black buttons.
Charis Acoustic offers two scale lengths for the SJ – 25.6″ with a 14-fret neck joint and (as on #366), 24.9″ with the joint at the 13th fret. Differing neck joints allow the bridge to be placed at the sweet spot regardless of scale length.
Players will likely debate the tonal differences between the dovetail joint versus bolt-on connection. Traditionalists argue that the classic dovetail is sonically superior, but the SJ redefines any potential negative connotations of the term “bolt-on” by delivering a multifaceted aural experience distinguished by a full bass. The clear treble response resulted in an overall clarity, and a lovely growl in the bass notes imbued each note with character. The highly playable neck and 16″ fingerboard radius with 1.75″ nut was a fingerstylist’s dream. Digging in with a stout plectrum produced awesome volume with a lengthy decay. Single-note lines up and down and across the fingerboard excited the premium tonewoods, exploding off the top and through the side sound port, affording an intimate earful of music. And comfort afforded by the arm bevel, though it makes for some complex binding details, made one wonder why every acoustic guitar doesn’t have this feature.
The Charis website notes that the SJ was designed to excel in open tunings. In double-dropped D and DADGAD, the three open D strings conspired to create a pulsating, vibrant sound, making modal explorations in D particularly satisfying. Open G tuning created extraordinary body resonance, yet each fretted note emerged through the mix, with the strong fundamental sounding fat and plummy, distinctive through the wash of reverberant overtones.
The Charis Acoustic SJ represents a remarkable achievement of masterful craft in playability and sound. For solo fingerstylists, in particular, the Charis SJ just might be the guitar that awakens the musical spirit.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.