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#005 MS: Bocote & Carpathian Spr.

REVIEW OF THE MS CARPATHIAN SPRUCE / BOCOTE #005

About a month ago, I purchased this guitar after the original owner had tried it for a short while, and decided it just wasn’t right for him. At the price it was being offered, I was a little suspicious that something was up. But the seller seemed sincere, and when I checked out the Burner website, I saw that the base price for a new Burner guitar was indeed very low for a handmade instrument, although I suppose it was in line with the prices offered by some other novice luthiers.

What really surprised me though (and what continues to surprise me), is that there is nothing about this guitar that suggests “novice luthier”. I’m neither a guitar expert nor an advanced player, but I’ve played acoustic guitar for almost 40 years, and to my eyes and ears, this guitar is essentially flawless.

I won’t list the guitar’s specifications, since these are provided on Burner’s website, along with photos of the guitar’s construction. What I’ll try to do is comment on the look, the sound, and playability of the guitar.

I basically play fingerstyle, but I’m not an instrumentalist; I just like accompany myself when I sing with something more interesting than strumming. So that you understand where I’m coming from, I once thought that acoustic guitar music had reached its pinnacle in the solo material Bruce Cockburn was performing in the mid-70’s on his custom-made Larrivee. Although it’s difficult to describe a guitar’s sound with words, those early Larrivees (and the guitars subsequently built by Larrivee’s former apprentices) sounded full and rich, bright and crisp, and clean and balanced. And those are the same words I would use to describe the Burner. Its also got lots of volume and sustain, and isn’t overly bassy.

What I’m really enjoying about the sound of the guitar, is the way it sounds when you play a chord somewhere up the neck allowing the open strings to ring. The guitar produces some really beautiful effects when the open strings act as drones, and it just makes you want to experiment with all sorts of strange fingerings to see you might stumble across.

The guitar is definitely a fingerstyle instrument, but it sounds good when played with a flatpick. I’ve played some nice fingerstyle guitars that just sound muddled and noisy when played with a flatpick (and unfortunately, I own one of them), but the Burner doesn’t. It sounds great when played with a flatpick in an open-tuning, as well.

The fingerboard has a standard fingerstyle width of 1.75″ at the nut. The previous owner had felt the neck was a little bit chunky, but I haven’t found that at all, and I have very small hands. The neck is comfortable, and I have no problem reaching over the top with my thumb to fret the E-string.

One thing that I have found is that the guitar will not tolerate being played even slightly out of tune. My primary instrument for several years has been an old Martin 00-21, which is a much more subtle sounding guitar. When its a bit out of tune, its just not that noticeable — in fact, you almost expect it from a funky old parlour guitar. But with a guitar as bright and clean sounding as the Burner, when something is a bit off, it just stands out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, the guitar has no intonation issues.

Although the guitar wasn’t built for me, it has most of the features that I would ask for in a custom-built guitar; these being,

  • No pickguard. I play fingerstyle, and don’t play particularly aggressively. When I do use a flat-pick, I play in such a way that the pick doesn’t come in contact with the top of the guitar. I’ve always preferred the look of a guitar without a pickguard, and surely a piece of plastic glued to the top of a guitar must take something away from its sound.
  • No markers on the fingerboard. A clean fingerboard is much more elegant looking than one with mother-of-pearl inlays. And if you really need to know which fret you’re on, you generally look at the markers along the fingerboard binding rather than those on the fingerboard itself. Instead of the small dots most guitar builders use along the fingerboard binding, Burner has used tasteful bits of maple inlay.
  • Almost no mother-of-pearl. I was going to say “no mother-of-pearl” but then remembered the small MOP dots on the bridge pins (which are wood by the way, not plastic) Like everything else I’m saying here, this is just personal preference, but I’m just not a fan of mother-of-pearl inlay. Unless you’re Grit Laskin, it can just make a guitar look tacky.
  • Beautiful woods. What I AM a fan of, (and who isn’t?) is the use of beautiful looking woods. The guitar is built primarily of two woods that I was not familiar with, which are Carpathian Spruce and bocote. The top has a nice straight uniform grain with lots and lots of silky cross-grain. The bocote back and sides have a very strong grain pattern, with the back containing a centre-strip of sapwood. If I can say anything negative at all, from an aesthetic viewpoint, there is maybe a bit too much happening at the back of the guitar, with the high-contrast grain pattern of the bocote clashing with the five-piece mahogany/maple/ebony (?) neck, and the strip of sapwood. But I’m really stretching here. Otherwise, its kind of cool how the centre-strip of sapwood continues up the neck as a centre-strip of maple. Another thing I really love is how they’ve taken a piece of the bocote, including the sapwood, to make a soundhole rosette. Its stunning.
  • Everything else on the guitar is ebony, which I think is necessary to keep the guitar from looking too ‘busy’, but I just love the look of ebony, regardless. This includes the fingerboard, the bridge, front and back headpiece veneers, the bindings, and even around the edge of the soundhole. The buttons on the tuners are black to match the ebony.
  • Hardware. The end pin, neckstrap pin, and Gotoh tuners are all gold in colour, which is the only really flashy thing about the guitar, but gold suits the colour of the spruce top, and the gold tuners look great set against the ebony headstock veneer. The pickup is a passive K&K Pure Western, which would have been my choice if I’d ordered the guitar.

My first impression was that the guitar was on the heavy-side, which I thought was an indication that the guitar was overbuilt or too heavily braced, as might be expected from a new builder. But I’ve since compared the guitar to a couple of other guitars of mine, and I’ve found this not to be true at all. The Burner has about the same body size as my Larrivee L-07, with the Burner having slightly wider bass and treble bouts, making it only slightly heavier. Paul Burner has also since explained the bocote is a particularly heavy hardwood.

I’ve looked at the guitar closely, and I’m unable to see any mistakes or cover-ups that you’d expect on a luthier’s fifth (FIFTH!) guitar. In some ways, I’m still waiting for the bubble to burst, and that I’ll wake up one morning to find the top bellying, or cracks developing, or the neck angle changing, which were horror stories you used to hear about handmade guitars in the ’70s. But obviously the craft of guitar making has advanced from those days, and the Burners have picked it up quickly.

I actually feel a bit guilty about owning this guitar. I have an idea of how much the raw materials cost, and when you figure out how much is left over to go towards the substantial time it must have taken to design and then build this guitar, its really shameful. But things won’t remain this way much longer. I just feel fortunate that the guitar has found its way into my hands, and hope that someday soon one will fall into the hands of a much better player than me.

Rob Wakelin
Brooklin, ON
CANADA
1/23/2010