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LBenito Alerce-topped Grand Auditorium

Hot Stuff from Chile
 
Hot Stuff from Chile

How much more vintage can you get? If you’re talking about guitar tone woods, not much more vintage than the tops on guitars by LBenito.

Built in Chile, using alerce trees that date back 3,000 to 4,000 years, the wood that makes up the top of LBenito’s guitars was 1,000 years old when Pythagoras (d. 500 B.C.) was devising his string theory!

Old-growth alerce trees were aggressively harvested in Chile prior to 1976, before many endangered varieties became protected under the international CITES agreement. The wood, which is highly moisture-resistant, became popular as a building material. LBenito has secured all available stock of aged alerce and makes a variety of models with traditional and innovative features.

We recently sampled two top-of-the-line Grand Auditorium cutaway models. This is a typical body size for a steel-string guitar, but is unusual for a nylon-string model.

Introduced to the U.S. at last month’s NAMM show, the alerce tops on our review guitars were complemented by Indian rosewood back and sides. Other similarities between the steel-string and nylong-string models include the tapered 4” deep bodies that measures 19” long and 15” wide. This makes the Grand Auditorium Nylon wider, longer, and a fraction deeper than typical classicals.

The hand-carved necks, made of Bolivian cedar, are attached at the 14th fret with a bolt system, while fingerboards are glued to the top. This design allows the neck angle to be easily changed, if necessary. Both guitars have arched fingerboards with 12″ radii, another unusual nylon-string feature.

But that’s where similarities end. The steel-string guitar has a nut width of 111/16″, a scale length of 25”, and adjustable truss rod. The headstock is flared out, toward the curved top, with an attractive inlaid signature logo. The nylon cutaway has a headstock that combines traditional classic features with the curved top and logo. In keeping with nylon-string demands and tradition, the nut width of the ebony fingerboard is 17/8″ and the scale length is 660 millimeters. This is on the long side for nylon-string guitars; the extra length helps drive the oversize body a bit harder. An adjustable truss rod on the 14-fret Grand Auditorium Nylon would be a good option.

The Grand Auditorium steel-string features an x-braced top, while the nylon-string, with its smaller soundhole, has a variation of the traditional fan bracing. The brace closest to the soundhole on the bridge side of the Grand Auditorium Nylon is curved; this unusual detail suggests the designer was meticulous in the development of the bracings for the alerce.

A glance at the workmanship and materials shows tight Boltaron binding on the nylon string and wood binding on the steel string, with differing rosettes, appropriate to the string style. The polyester finish on the bodies is glossy and level, with satin-finished necks. The fretwork is excellent, with the fingerboard edges slightly beveled on the steel string to produce a comfortable feel. I did note some industrial-looking sanding scratches in the pearl dot inlays of the rosewood steel-string fingerboard. The Bolivian cedar neck on the nylon string shows a “fleck” pattern right down the middle, indicating straight, quartersawn lumber.

An interior inspection reveals reasonably clean construction throughout both instruments. LBenito uses hemlock, which is stronger than spruce, to brace its alerce tops, and some of the braces do show a few scratches and other evidence of the manufacturing process. Some of the side reinforcements have furry-looking ends, showing where they’d been sanded to the correct length. The interior of the nylon-string contains a little factory dust, though no glue drips or polishing compound spatters are visible. Joinery, however, is very tight, inside and out. No center strip is necessary on the back, and the top seam is even more difficult to see than the incredibly tight grain of the slow-growing alerce.

LBenito’s alerce tops are seasoned for more than 30 years. In sonic tests, alerce has proven equal to or better than sitka spruce in all but one mid/high frequency range. And it presents a visual challenge to anyone who assumes that blond, straight-grained spruce is necessary for a good guitar top. Although our review guitars have fairly straight grain, alerce, being generally darker than either redwood or cedar, can vary in grain consistency and also often features dark brown streaks. The appearance is like a bit of chocolate melted into caramel. Attractive bear-claw patterns are visible in the tops. This alternative tone wood is very striking. And it’s worth noting that stocks of alerce are finite: the tree can no longer be harvested, and LBenito is committed to responsible lumbering practices.

Alerce gives these instruments (also available with other tonewoods) a very different sonic nature than spruce, redwood, or cedar. We had the opportunity to play some spruce steel string Grand Auditoriums, and it could be said that they had a “prettier” sound. It is distinctive, with excellent string-to-string articulation and a strong, growly low-end.

These features make both guitars a fine choice for fingerstyle, especially if you play without picks. Strummed hard or chopped, Gypsy-jazz style with a plectrum, the steel-string doesn’t compress, but expands in volume, without muddiness. The high-end is crisp, with a good sustain and enough penetration to attempt Django-style improvisation. The Maccaferri-esque cutaway makes treble excursions very accessible.

Tusq nut and saddles are standard on the 234C, while the nylon-string 234CN has a handmade bone nut and saddle. Both guitars suffered a bit from string-binding in the nuts, creating that creaky “plink” sound, which is especially unnerving when amplified. Setup on both guitars made for a very enjoyable experience once we resolved the tuning issues caused by the nut. The B-Band saddle pickup provided an accurate reproduction of the acoustic sound, and the body size and alerce top of the steel-string make it much less feedback-prone than the spruce-top LBerto Jumbo.

All LBenito guitars ship with a GWW custom hardshell case, B-Band electronics, and D’Addario strings. The 234C has 18:1-ratio gold Grover-style Jinho tuners, and the 234CN has Jinho classic tuners, though LBenito reports these will be changed, possibly using a proprietary tuner.

The mix of hand-craftsmanship with modern electronics and distinctive sound produced by the alerce top make these South American offerings a very viable alternative. LBenito Guitars deserves a pat on the back for introducing the Grand Auditorium Nylon cutaway model, a standout in the nylon-string segment.

LBeinito Grand Auditorium
Features Alerce top, Indian Rosewood back and sides, hand-carved Bolivian cedar neck, bound ebony fingerboard with 12″ radius, factory-installed B-band pickup, custom hardshell GWW case.
Price $2,424
Contact LBenitoUSA, 1101 First Street, New Orleans, LA 70130; phone (504) 553-9557; lbenitousa.com.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Apr. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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