Writing about new gear is a problematic situation when you’re called Vintage Guitar magazine. Fortunately, most of the gear we review is based on long-accepted concepts. Even the advanced technology of a modeling guitar or amp falls in line; the gear is designed to faithfully reproduce favorite sounds produced by instruments and amps of the past.
However, every now and again, new thinking shakes things up. At least, that’s how I felt when I first saw a photo of a Jeff Babicz guitar.
Babicz, whose experience includes engineering work in the semiconductor industry and nearly 10 years with Steinberger Sound, is no stranger to the introduction of new concepts in guitar design. Remember, Steinbergers are paddle-shaped, with no headstock, and feature a bridge/tailpiece/tuning system down where the paddle would hit the water when you’re paddling your pirogue with the thing.
It’s just that kind of sarcastic response to change that Babicz faced when, after helping redefine solidbody electrics, he and partner Jeff Carano set out to give acoustic players something new to consider.
The Babicz guitars (also available in the handcrafted Signature Series made with master-grade timbers by Babicz in New York) are not for the hardcore traditionalist, even though they feature commonly used tonewoods and recognizable body shapes. Babicz – guitarist, craftsman and engineer – has developed three radical patent-pending features that can be found on his handmade and production lines.
Our review guitar is an Identity Series Acute manufactured in Indonesia. The Babicz models all have a smooth-operating mechanism at the neck joint that allows the “continually adjustable neck” to move up and down.
The first time I checked out a Babicz guitar, Jeff actually raised the action by moving the neck down as I continued playing, with no perceptible change in intonation or string tension. Detuning to open D and lowering the 14-fret neck for a higher/slide action was simple and quick with the easily accessible adjustment wrench, mounted on the back of the headstock.
A two-way truss rod makes the rest of the necessary neck adjustments easy. I noticed that the neck on the Acute was slightly out of longitudinal alignment, but it’s possible this could be reduced with a sideways adjustment of the next innovative feature.
Babicz Guitars also feature a “torque-reducing split bridge.” The rosewood bridge is attached with a proprietary screw system that, when loosened, allows it to be moved incrementally to facilitate intonation adjustment. A string retainer is similarly attached, providing necessary down pressure. There are no bridge pins to lose, and the compensated saddle never has to be tinkered with for setup purposes, which are performed with simple neck and bridge adjustments.
Most noticeably, the Acute utilizes an entirely new design in anchoring the strings, resulting in a uniquely different load distribution on the top. Each string is anchored with a lightweight piece of hardware near the rim, positioned so the strings fan out from the retainer. The design allows for an extremely light bracing pattern that features two longitudinal tone braces, cross-grained hardwood braces under the string anchors, and beefed-up braces around the moving neck joint. This guitar, with its “lateral compression soundboard,” displays much less top distortion due to string-related stress than more commonly accepted bridge designs, despite its delicate interior structure.
The sonic result of Babicz’s design is a profound resonance and sense of air movement that is immediately apparent when the instruments are strummed or fingerpicked. The guitar seems to open up and blossom when the strings are struck. Chords fretted up the neck have an open-string dimension, and the hang time on a strummed chord in any position is long enough to do a little songwriting while waiting for the end of the note decay. Response across the frequency spectrum is even with an impressive volume. Although the Acute is not as penetrating when played up the neck in a single-note style as some acoustics, soloists will enjoy the flexibility afforded by the extra string length. Standard strings fit all Babicz models.
The onboard LR Baggs iMix system offers an excellent range of sounds. Both the iBeam pickup and the under-saddle Element sounded good individually and blended, and the phase switch allows for great sonic variation. Only a fine microphone might better capture the airiness of the Acute. Too-tight string spacing was the only detraction from the pleasure of playing the Acute live: I couldn’t play a first position C or A-minor chord without my forefinger hitting either the open G or high E string. There is plenty of room on the 13/4″ plastic nut to widen the string spacing.
Sitka spruce and Javanese rosewood, very similar in appearance to Brazilian, are joined together to form the mildly tapered Acute body, 191?4″ long, 151/16″ wide and 37/8″ deep at the tailblock with multi-layer purfling on the top and black binding on the neck and body.
The mahogany neck of the Acute has a spliced-on heel and headstock with rosewood overlay, 251?2″ scale length, and a pleasing rounded shape. A few inadequately filled wood pores on the neck and back are visible, but that is also a sign that the urethane finish is nice and thin.
The Babicz Identity Series Acute is outstanding in the categories of design, materials and workmanship and is a fine value for any musician brave enough to buy a guitar that stands outside the parameters of traditional design.
Jeff Babicz Acute
Features Continually adjustable mahogany neck, torque-reducing ebony bridge, lateral compression top of solid spruce, solid Javanese rosewood back and sides, optional LR Baggs electronics, Grover tuners.
Contact Jeff Babicz Guitars, PO Box 1007, Poughkeepsie, NY 12602; phone (845)542-0400; jeffbabiczguitars.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.