Picky, picky: Players offer their views

May 15, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

When Yamaha's FGB1 bamboo instrument showed up in the newsroom, the guitar pickers came out of the woodwork. We asked them to try it out with friends and family and report their findings.

The general feeling was, "Nice try, Yamaha. Better luck next time." Here's what they discovered:

Assistant design director Peter Yuill has been playing the blues for 25 years.

I invited fellow guitarist and band member Jeff Jolbitado for steak on the grill, some jamming and the chance to check out Yamaha's bamboo guitar. It looks like a guitar you'd find on a South Pacific island; Jeff wonders if it would hold up to a humid Maryland summer.

We trade off playing the Yamaha against my Martin HD-35. While the bamboo wrapping looks cool, the instrument has no soul. The sound is crisp but doesn't ring and it lacks the solid bass that gives dreadnought guitars their character. The neck action is fair, but it's a rough ride along the edges when you slide your hand up. Its acoustic shortcomings are intensified next to the Martin.

In the end we decided the guitar is a novelty, an interesting idea but not memorable. Jeff sums up our ambivalence as he marvels at all that laminated bamboo: "That's the beauty of bamboo -- it splits perfectly straight and very thin. That's why it's great for making fishing rods. But guitars? I'm not convinced."

Christopher Garrett, a copy editor, has been playing, singing, writing and recording music for 15 years. He plays blues, rock, jazz, funk and folk.

Yamaha probably intended its bamboo guitar to play well with musicians looking for a novel guitar. We would have preferred, rather, that it just play well.

Make no mistake: The Yamaha plays and sounds decent for a bamboo guitar. Whereas you would expect such an instrument to sound horrible, this one just sounds -- well, like you're playing bamboo. The instrument had very little tonal character and resonance. It was not especially fun to play, either. With a retail price of about $500, the guitar should simply sound better. For a similar price, one can find a much better-sounding guitar -- though it may lack the distinct look of the Yamaha. No great loss there, either.

Reporter Jim Haner has been playing guitar for 30 years in a wide range of styles -- from bluegrass and folk to country and rock.

At first glance, any player is going to fall in love with this guitar. With its bands of laminated, blonde-hued wood, gold machines sparkling on a tastefully subdued headstock and white binding all around, it will stand out in music stores as one of the prettiest guitars on the wall.

But this belle of the ball, tragically, cannot dance in this price range.

Give it a couple points for a nice, bright high end. But it's muddy in the middle range and practically mute down low, the kiss of death for anyone playing blues, rock or "new" country. Worse, it doesn't resonate worth a damn. At a proper dueling distance, all that's really audible is a mincing chirp from the high strings and a muddle of bass tones.

In a market jammed with muscular, midpriced guitars from such makers as Fender, Epiphone, Takamine and the venerable C.F. Martin, Yamaha's bamboo beauty can't begin to compete in sound quality with even the new fiber-composite models. Irony abounds in this instance, since it was Yamaha that led the Japanese invasion of the market in the 1970s that threatened to topple the established American companies with a barrage of well-made, midpriced axes.

Forced to meet the competition or perish, the big boys counterattacked, turning the $500 price strata into a modern-day technological dogfight that has benefited consumers no end. Guitars have generally gotten better, cheaper and more widely available.

Given that new reality, Yamaha's latest offering is bound to become a victim of the company's own success.

Travel editor Bruce Friedland is a longtime blues and folk player.

A bamboo guitar? Are we being bamboozled? Technically, this stuff isn't even wood -- it's a semitropical grass! Yamaha has managed to make a great-looking instrument for a relatively affordable price. The only problem is that they forgot to make it sound good.

To be fair, I have played guitars that cost twice and even three times as much that suffer from a similar thinness and general lifelessness. But mediocre sound is mediocre sound at any price.

And what will happen to a bamboo guitar over time? Will it remain stable and improve with age, as many non-grass guitars do, or will it start sprouting chutes in the rainy season?

Copy editor Eric Moya has played guitar for 13 years.

Aside from a few cosmetic imperfections, the guitar exhibits above-average workmanship for the price. Although on the heavy side for an acoustic, it feels balanced whether played sitting or standing. Its comfortably contoured neck is easy to play.

The guitar produces a bright, even tone; when strummed, each string rings out loud and clear. But it lacks the three-dimensional warmth of the best midpriced instruments. Bamboo or not, an acoustic with a laminated top, such as the Yamaha, won't sound as good as a similar instrument with a solid top. Solid tops -- available on a number of acoustics in this price range -- vibrate more freely, allowing pleasant overtones to come through. When the novelty of building an "all-bamboo" guitar wears off, Yamaha should try using the material in conjunction with conventional top woods such as spruce or cedar, either of which could add richness and depth.

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