In the July issue we looked at affordable L-style flat-tops for the acoustic blues player. This month, we look at similarly inspired instruments, but at a premium price point. All three are American-made, one comes from a cadre of skilled workers, one was made by the hands of a solo luthier, and the third is the product of an industry stalwart.
Huss & Dalton’s 00-SP casts a first impression of striking simplicity, with its natural-finish spruce top with cross-grained figure – a sign of quality, quartersawn timbers. Trimmed with wooden purfling, bindings, and a herringbone rosette, a quick look reveals fine detail such as the perfectly sculpted pyramid bridge, figured Brazilian rosewood headstock veneer, and quadrangular, slotted-diamond pearl inlay at frets 5, 7, and 9.
In the simple strum of a few chords, the 00-SP offers a loud, full-spectrum sound that’s almost unnerving coming from its diminutive 141/8″ body. With back and sides of Indian rosewood, domed Engleman spruce top braced with Adirondack red spruce, a slotted headstock for enhanced string tension, and hefty Honduran mahogany 12-frets-to-the-body neck all working together, the 00-SP is orchestral in its response and even in its tone, with well-defined highs and mids and a rumbling bass. The subtly V-shaped neck, with a 24.9″-scale ebony fingerboard, 17/8″-wide nut, and 16″ radius, might take some getting used to for a small-handed player (Huss & Dalton offers several options, including neck and fingerboard details). But the setup was ideal for the fingerstylist, and the craftsmanship of the fretwork, nut, and saddle is impeccable.
It’s easy to understand why H&D has risen to the level of one of America’s premium guitar makers in just over 10 years; virtually all elements of craft, playability, materials and sound put the 00-SP among the finest modern L-style guitars.
The Running Dog Mini Jumbo by Seattle-based luthier Rick Davis is a showcase for the inspired options only an indie builder can provide – Adirondack top, flamed koa back and sides, spiral rosette, thin abalone “micro-pearl” purfling, and sycamore binding. Blue-dyed wooden purfling tastefully enhances the color of the shell, and the sycamore exhibits an attractive, reflective fleck.
Davis’ mahogany/maple neck with two-way truss rod is reinforced with two lengths of carbon graphite, adding to its stability and stiffness and allowing more vibration to pass to the body. An ebony fingerboard with 25.4″ scale, 14″ radius, and 13/4″ nut is fitted with artfully dressed medium-small frets and an unbleached bone nut.
Rounded at the tailblock with soft waist curves, the Mini Jumbo body has an optional wedge design attributed to luthier Linda Manzer. Deeper on the treble side, the ergonomic body makes it easier for any juke-joint blues man to knock out hours of dance music.
The Mini Jumbo inspires blues, ragtime, jazz and Latin styles, both pick and fingerstyle, with its direct attack and even voicing. Even the most emphatic right hand histrionics explode under a heavy touch without compressing, with fine single-note sustain and superior chord articulation. One wonders if the Manzer wedge enhances the sound by eliminating sympathetic hot/dead spots created when backs and tops are too close to parallel. The reinforced neck, the fine tonewoods, and the unique care and craft all add up to a noteworthy example of a 1930s-inspired guitar with a contemporary character.
Among L-style guitars, it makes sense that the ultimate reissue would come from Gibson – the Robert Johnson L-1. Strung with .011s, the Robert Johnson L-1 shows the extra work that the Gibson’s crew in Bozeman (Montana) puts into the Signature Artist Series. Feather-light, the L-1 is predictably responsive, with an acoustic shimmer that would make it a fine choice for old blues or new-age fingerstyle playing. The V neck with 13/4″ nut width and 25″ scale makes for a very easy playing experience.
The quality materials – Sitka spruce, mahogany, and ebony (bridge and fingerboard) are a step up from what Gibson of the late ’30s might have used on a budget model, but the white-button Gotoh tuners and old-style “The Gibson” logo bring it all home, appearance-wise. The tone braces look familiar to anyone accustomed to peering into old Gibsons, although we sort of missed the occasional saw kerf marks often visible inside the original models. The dovetail neck joints and nitrocellulose lacquer finishes will please old school purists.
Does the Robert Johnson L-1 have the legendary mojo – that almost indefinable quality of mysterious allure that helps a musician connect with both music and audience? Period-authentic vibe aside, it carries a right-hand thumb/bass thump with a round, satisfying sound a solo bluesman would appreciate as jukejoint dancers start swaying. The ebony bridge and fingerboard help with the treble punch for slide and single-note work.
In the same way that access to the internet doesn’t necessarily impart a user with the spiritual wisdom of the ages, possession (not that midnight/Delta crossroads type!) of an RJ L-1 is not going to suddenly give any player the sudden ability to translate left- and right-hand movements into a powerful, hypnotic expression of the blues. That mojo is in a player’s mind, heart, and fingers, and could certainly be expressed in any of these L-style guitars.
Special thanks to International Vintage Guitars, New Orleans.
Huss & Dalton 00-SP
Contact Huss & Dalton Musical Instruments, 420 Bridge Street, Staunton, VA 24401; phone (540) 887-2313; hussanddalton.com.
Running Dog Mini Jumbo
Contact Running Dog Guitars, 118 North 35th Street, Suite 105, Seattle, WA 98103; phone (206) 547-1407; vtguitars.com.
Gibson Robert Johnson L-1
This article originally appeared in VG‘s December 2008 issue. All opyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.