Guitar Notes:

Yamaha Living In Sin With Martin


An unexpected return to childhood revitalizes an old flame in new clothes.

For those who may not have the cash for a Martin D28, it's quite okay ...

The Yamaha FG700s and
FG730s ...
 



First off: Put any thoughts of the boxed Yamaha guitars you’ve seen at Costco away, while perhaps remembering that Nikon and Canon cameras are also offered at warehouse operations, as well -- without the attendant loss of prestige. Forget that you may, more often, associate Yamaha with jet-skis and motorcycles -- even though their gas tank logo is comprised of three tuning forks in homage and recognition of the company’s history as, principally, a musical instrument maker, dating back to 1887. Combine this knowledge with the fact that you may well find Yamaha pianos in both concert halls, as well as recording studios, with a ubiquitous frequency that rivals Steinway. And, in early 2008, Yamaha would effectively take over Bosendorfer …

But, most of all, I want you to forget the price of something that has an actual, off-the-rack price of a mere $200. Or $300, for the upscale offering. And further, to those who have long loved Yamaha acoustic guitars, dating back to the ‘Red Label’ 1960s, I want you to consider how far production guitars have since come, meaning no particular disrespect to the beloved, ‘FG-180’ dreadnaught model you initially purchased to commemorate the first boastful sprout of pubic hair, along with the ornamental roach clip you bought at the Head Shop. And, as it relates to the same, I want you to set aside what plot of land a factory is situated upon as, since the production of many items has moved to Taiwan, Malaysia and China, the once snickered-at Japan has more recently been mythically elevated to the new Germany and Switzerland as the standard-bearer of world craftsmanship. Moreover, know the difference between that which is entirely ‘farmed-out’ and that which is guided and fundamentally produced by the parent company, with little more than different scenery out the factory windows as the only point of distinction. But if it’s the socio-political landscape of a particular country that turns you off, that is your privilege, naturally.

As for me, I’d be far from the Far East when I pulled into a New England music store to purchase a mere capo. It was here that I’d inadvertently reacquaint myself with Yamaha guitars as a brief time-killer while the counter personnel continued to assist others. And in that wait, it was a sense of nostalgia, I know, that compelled me to pull a new acoustic Yamaha off the rack as a synthesized return to my childhood. After all, any kid who was an aspiring ‘folkie’ or acoustic-rocker, back when, had owned at least one Yamaha -- somewhat akin to everyone we’ve ever known in our lifetime had a Volkswagen at some point in their early adulthood. And the somewhat aging and scratched Yamaha guitars would ride in the back of those used Beetles, resting comfortably, just above the battery. The two, combined, created the complete picture of a Seventies existence -- at least for those who didn’t get into the pot.

Yamaha guitars were often the ones we learned on, abusing their laminated bodies with a cleaning ritual that included some Windex, a roll of paper towels, and a bottle of Turtle Wax -- curiously the very same kit we used for the Volkswagen Beetles. If nothing else, we knew how to maximize common resources, I suppose. In any event, it was a medley of ‘Gui-Car’ supplies that complimented the Brillo and Tarnex we tried on the strings as the bronze coating morphed into a metallurgical bio-hazard we continued to play and bend until they snapped across our faces. That’s when the absorbent paper towels came in handy, yet again.

And yet -- still, despite this abuse, the Yamaha ‘FG’ series of guitars kept playing with a clarity and unusual warmth, that even made the older and more cash-flush owners of high-end guitars take some degree of favorable notice. And the ones who didn’t do a double-take were the players who had previously owned a Yamaha, prior to their pricey Martin acquisition, already familiar with their qualities. Several, indeed, owned them, still -- and further spoke of them with a bright-eyed enthusiasm that combined both nostalgia and respect. They were, after all, the best Japanese folk guitar bang for the buck, serving up a sound that seemingly defied their laminated construction. Indeed, many who have since inherited their Yamahas from their once stoned-out uncles, adamantly believe that their ‘FG-180’ model sports a one-piece, solid spruce top -- even though Yamaha, themselves, would tell them otherwise, unless there was some production-run fluke they were wholly unaware of. Indeed, such a rumor exists, and I did see one small photograph of an FG-180 soundhole that looked as if the grain was running straight through the cutout. But don’t count on it. It should be noted that Yamaha’s own literature cites the FG-365S and 375S of 1977 as the first solid-top FG models, outside of a few high-end offerings, such as the FG-2000, as precursors to the handcrafted ‘L’ Series. Such is the nature of a mythical-like folklore legend that surrounds the early imported Yamahas -- particularly the Japanese ‘Red Labels’ that sometimes command an Ebay price five-times their original retail, in often trashed-out condition.

If for a nostalgic return to one’s childhood, akin to paying $200 for a boxed, 1964 G.I. Joe doll, one wishes to purchase an early Yamaha import at elevated pricing, then justify it as a cost of recapturing a moment. But, as it relates to a musical instrument -- as a longtime owner of both an FG-140 Red Label (Japan) and an FG-160 Black Label (Taiwan) -- I have to advise that one should exercise good judgment with such expenditures, even though I think the older Yamahas can be magnificent -- potentially. It’s true that an FG-160, originally listing for around $160 in its day, would equal around $650 in 2008 money. But this may more accurately reflect the value of what you can purchase for $200 ~ $300 today, rather than the inherent or mythical worth of the older instruments. We’re not, after all, speaking of a pre-war, solid-top Martin from the 1930s.

And no, laminated top guitars don’t generally improve with age -- or marginally so , at best … with exceptions. What has changed as it relates to the apparent sound of the older Yamahas since the original purchase is improved string technology and their construction processes (including unannounced improvements, even with the same name and number designation) … as well as one’s individual ‘aural shift’, particularly as one approaches forty, or thereabouts (sooner, for those in rock bands). It’s somewhat more likely that one’s hearing has become more ‘mellow’ or ‘warm’ than the sandwich-like construction of an acoustic guitar with a layered, laminated top. This said, Yamaha had seemingly conjured some sort of freakishly unusual construction recipe for its lamination process that eluded most other makers. But for those hell-bent on purchasing one of the older, laminated Yamahas, appreciate what may be its compelling sound for what it is, firstly -- and has most generally been, differences in string construction and character aside. Said another way, let yourself be lured by the inherent and true merits of a particular folk guitar, not by contemporary folklore -- and ‘vintage pricing’. In another article, I will be discussing the true and verifiable merits of the older Yamaha imports, so hold on, you classic ‘FG’ enthusiasts ...

But Yamaha, What Have You Done For Me Lately?

So there I would be, in a music store, January of 2008, biding my time with a wall of acoustic guitars before me. On a nostalgic whim, I unhooked a Yamaha featuring a stringed tag that denoted it as having a ‘Solid Top’ -- that is, no lamination used as part of the guitar’s most critical and tone-defining section. Having previously been remotely aware that Yamaha offered guitars that were more upscale, relative to the original ‘FG’ series I had grown up with, I assumed that I had grabbed one of these upper-class samples. As usual, I fingered an open ‘G’ chord -- the one I usually first choose when auditioning a new guitar, reasons unknown -- and played the note cluster, finger-style … “Pretty nice”, I thought, as an impromptu assessment I could make with that single, finger-picked chord. But a little nicer, still, once I tweaked the tuning a bit …

Okay, now I was ready to play a series of chords -- otherwise known as a song -- to delight in the characteristic ‘Yamaha Sound’, chime-like and detailed. There was a nice sheen to the upper register, if the bass region was a bit lean. But I still fully accepted this as an example of Yamaha’s more posh offerings, if in a minimalist form, without excess. With this, a natural curiosity prompted me to flip the tag over to reveal its price. It read: $199.

“Fuck me”, I thought -- and may have actually uttered, but people hanging out in music stores are accustomed to such language, as well as similar invitations.

The Yamaha guitar was, indeed, the lowest-priced instrument of their more recently revised ‘FG’ series -- an FG700S. And this was no Costco ‘Gig-Maker’ package in a cardboard box. It was a rather impressive guitar. And, at the hanger price, more impressive, still.

With this, I started to grab other (more expensive) guitars off the rack to ‘recalibrate’ myself. So out of the loop, was I, regarding the newer breed of inexpensive guitars, I had little idea that solid tops were now available at this price-point. And as I sampled a variety of acoustics, I kept returning to the Yamaha in a hastened succession of A-B comparisons. While having its own characteristic sound, this new ‘FG’ was, at least, welcoming those comparisons to guitars twice its price -- not as a sound-alike clone, but certainly as something to be compared -- and considered, on its own merits, with a moment of pause ...

It didn’t take too long for me to render a decision I was unprepared for when I had initially walked in the store for a simple capo: I wanted this guitar. It was light and airy, and would be a nice compliment to yet other guitars in a multi-track recording context. I do consider guitars, relative to how they’ll likely record -- aside from their ‘open-air’ qualities -- as an ‘acquired ear’. With that, I approached the now-vacant counter and said, “Wrap this one up for me … Oh, and a Kyser capo, too.”

$200 for the guitar, tucked in a backroom Ovation box, $20 for the capo, a little bit of tax, and I was gone.

Bringing It All Back Home …

I think I may have bought the Yamaha under what may have been the best of evaluative circumstances. Other than being aware of its solid, Sitka spruce top, I knew very little of its construction details or that it was even assembled in China, at the time of in-store evaluation. I did give the guitar the visual ‘once over’, but didn’t bother reading the label beyond the sound hole. As “ignorant” and “research-free” as this may seem, there is a certain merit to the ‘blindfold’ … My impressions were based purely on the guitar’s sound and its fretboard playability -- even before I flipped the price tag. As such, nothing skewed or biased my decision regarding that which was most important.

It wouldn’t be until later in the evening that I started to actually research the guitar -- one that had garnered a number of favorable reviews, inclusive of the UK’s ‘Acoustic Magazine’ that awarded it with a 95/100 score -- even though, curiously, the FG700S model turned up missing at Yamaha’s UK-based website, starting off with the ‘720’ model, instead. I would, later, come to discover that the ‘700’ was, indeed, available at the London shops (Chappell of Bond Street … actually located on Wardour St, off Oxford, in Soho … has virtually all musical things Yamaha -- inclusive of some guitars not generally available in The States. Really worth the morning perusal after coffee).

With this after-the-fact research I learned that the newer ‘FG’ series, revised back in 2005, had adopted much of what was originally developed for Yamaha’s upper-crust, handmade ‘L’ series guitars, from the bracing pattern, to a somewhat more massive bridge piece -- occupying some extra real estate, to the neck joint interface -- if in a somewhat modified form. Indeed, these revisions -- combined with the solid tops -- offered what some may consider to be among the best ‘FG’ series Yamaha has yet produced. And yes, with these now being produced in China.

Upon closer inspection, relative to my quick perusal at the guitar shop, I saw no slop in its construction, whatsoever. The joints were pretty much impeccable and there were no signs of excess glue on the inside -- or out. It was all cleanly done with very good fret work, to boot. The spruce grain, nicely bookmatched, was tight and straight with just a bit of a bear claw pattern running perpendicular to the grain (a character preferred by some Luthiers). The back and sides were, indeed, laminated pieces made of Nato wood (sometimes referred to as ‘Eastern Mahogany’), regarded as ‘cheaper’ than conventional mahogany because it grows in greater abundance, but still retains much of the same sonic character (keep in mind that mahogany, itself, was once thought of as a lower grade of wood, relative to rosewood, but ultimately became an entirely accepted standard, even among several Martin models). The neck was also milled with nato, as well, served up in a smooth matte finish for an easy glide. As to the finishing coat, I only wish the Zebrano wood in my Mercedes E-Class was finished as well (and that the clear coat didn’t crackle in time, Mercedes engineers, who tell me that “Zay all do dat”). Abalone and pearloid flourishes on the headstock and rosewood fretboard finish it off with a restrained sparkle, without the lounge act bling. And yes, again, all of this coming out of a Yamaha factory located in China. More on that, coming up ...

But in contrast to some personal appraisals I’ve read regarding the Yamaha ‘Grover Copy’, chromed tuners, I’ve found them to be proficient and entirely serviceable. This, from one who often engages in ‘micro-tuning’ tweaks that sound musical, rather than slavishly following the clinical readout of digital tuning devices. As it relates to tuning, I don’t deal in nickels, I listen for pennies -- particularly when recording, where I’ll make micro-adjustments on a song by song basis. The stock Yamaha tuners don’t prevent me from doing so.

The China Syndrome…

Admittedly, when one considers the notion of China involved in guitar-related products, a torturous image is conjured of reverse-direction, bamboo fingerpicks. But be that as it may …

In a new world economy, working with smaller margins, a large number of well-respected manufacturers have moved production away from their respective mother lands, setting up shop in a less expensive labor environment. Indeed, several of Nikon camera’s most popular products -- cameras and lenses -- are now produced in Malaysia or China. This, without any reduction in quality. In fact, its been reported that there are Japanese companies experiencing a lower defect rate out of their China-based plants. These factories are not “farm-outs”, but rather, are essentially exact duplicates of their Japanese counterparts -- all under the supervising eye of the parent company …

As such, the quality of a number of instruments being fashioned in China -- Yamahas, inclusive -- shouldn’t surprise. Today, “manufactured” guitars begin their life navigated by CNC (Computer Numerical Control) -- also used by the famed American, one-man luthier, James Olson (James Taylor’s longtime choice), as well as by Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars. And while there remains to be ‘human intervention’ in assembly, many are experienced “button pushers”, right down to the robotic spraying stations.

But the actual handwork of the Chinese assemblers has also proven to be excellent. So much so that Yamaha now produces several of their revered, hand-made L-Series guitars in China. The truth is, when under parental control, the guitar doesn’t care whether it’s made at the North Pole, as long as temperature and humidity are kept in check.

And no, these aren’t slave-based, child-labor, sweat shop operations. While the wages are low by our standards, the workers at Yamaha (among other out-of-country parent companies) are living higher than ever before, and are reportedly happier than previously anticipated … while, in time, expecting even more in the way of riches, both personal -- and monetary … As the cost of Chinese labor rises (that which has already begun), many companies will move operations yet again -- to, say, Vietnam (perfect for Yamaha, as yet another icon of the 60s and 70s). Perhaps Malaysia, instead. It will then be that the “older”, Chinese-produced Yamahas will become the new darling of the market as the Taiwanese and Japanese units now seemingly are with the move to China-based production. At such time, there will be those on eBay promoting these current guitars as the “desirable, Chinese ‘Maroon Label’ Yamahas”. Wait and see …

But, as it relates to “social consciousness”, China plays “host” to about 1.3 billion Chinese. About a billion of those people live in outright poverty. Those working at Yamaha are not among them. So, I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s better to boycott a country (or, rather, it’s government) -- or to improve at least some of their lives through commerce. I pose the question, for your own consideration, as a non-Republican.

Sound Evaluation …

When making an initial evaluation -- in the music store -- I listen for the general character of the instrument, knowing that the details will require more time and, to a degree, experimentation. A mere change of strings, for example, can decidedly alter the details. For instance, at $60 more, the Yamaha FG720S didn’t sound quite as good in the store as the 700 -- something I would also find reported elsewhere on the Internet. But … this said, the 720 may have had 100 more oily hands all over it, diminishing the string character. After all, while the 720 had a little more bling in its binding, relative to the 700, the guitars should have sounded remarkably alike -- essentially being the same guitar, with common wood selection and construction. Beyond this, I recalled that, in the old days, the factory strings that Yamaha supplied could be readily dismissed -- and quickly changed. If you liked the sound of the Yamaha -- in store -- it would only be elevated when one swapped out the strings for something better. This would remain true for today’s Yamahas.

My initial at-home evaluation would be conducted with two string offerings -- a set of Martin Bronze 140s (non-phosphor), and a second audition performed with a package of Elixir Nanowebs (lights, initially, then moving up to medium-lights). I initially string with the Martins simply because these have long be a ‘reference point’ for me when conducting a first evaluation -- even though they may not be my ultimate selection for a particular guitar.

But before any strings replace the original factory set, I give the new fret board a few swipes of #0000 steel wool, then lightly oil it with virgin olive oil -- wiping most of it away, thereafter. It’s here that one will likely be amazed as to how much dirt comes off the new guitar onto the cotton rag. With a fresh and clean fretboard, the Martins would go on -- and the evaluation would continue for a couple of weeks with that string set, followed by the Elixir Nanowebs.

Impressions …

As anticipated, tossing the factory strings made a realizable difference, while the guitar, itself, retained its innate qualities -- that which drew me to it, in the first place ...

With a Flat Pick (Dunlop Medium), Strummed Open Chords:
Bright, punchy, chime-like, and “jangly” -- having a very complex harmonic structure that nicely swirls in a long sustain, as if there was actually just a bit of ’12 String’ DNA in this 6-string guitar (even more so with the Elixir strings, relative to the Martins). Just a little sense of ‘wow’ that brought a smile to the face. For those preferring and seeking mellow tones, exclusively, it may not be for you. But for those wishing to expand their acoustic sound palette with ‘something else’, even as a specific task-oriented alternative -- again, nice. A rather extraordinary top-end, with no brittleness. Subjectively, the bottom end is somewhat anemic in the bass region, relative to the bright tones, but it’s all there. For recording, microphone selection -- and placement -- will offer a variety of high-to-low balances, as something one might keep in mind. Alternative pick materials can also impart a profound influence, in addition to other string compositions, naturally.

Finger Picking -- Combination, Fingertips and Finger Nails:
Here, the guitar naturally mellows, particularly with the fingertips, alone (I often graze the strings with both the fingertips and nails in a single action). Here, the high end retains excellent, chime-like detail for the finger-picker, while serving up a rounder bass -- without wooliness or undue muffle. The sound is still filled with harmonics, with the fundamental tones being nuanced at a variety of levels (volume). Nice. Real nice. About 75% of my acoustic playing is finger-picked. And while the string spacing may be regarded as somewhat close on Yamaha’s relatively narrow neck profile, I’ve never experienced any problems playing any Yamaha, fingerstyle (at least with my fingers). If you can play Martin’s D18, you can handle this guitar.

Sidebar Notes:
Initially, with the Martin bonze strings, the ‘B’ and ‘high E’ strings seemed just a little forward and aggressive, relative to the rest of the cluster -- something that would settle back a bit in about 2~3 days. When outfitted with the Elixir Nanowebs, the balances were better, right out of the box. This, as referenced to my particular sample -- not as a universal endorsement or preference among strings. Additionally, the Elixirs seemed to expand upon the innate and inherent sound of the Yamaha as a very nice compliment to the guitar’s intrinsic, bright character. For those looking to mellow the sound of this guitar, perhaps look elsewhere for your individual string selection.

Later, switching out the stock saddle for one I had fabricated in bone did, indeed, refine the tone, making the upper register just a little smoother, for lack of a better description. But this distinction should be regarded as subtle in this particular case.

As a matter of finger-picking ‘manicure’, I noticed that that the guitar was somewhat sensitive to the fingernail “particulars”, with regard to clipping and filing. Martins seemed a little more “forgiving” -- likely tied to the Yamaha’s bright, harmonic complexion. Small adjustments with a nail file pulled the act together, while keeping the Martin sound basically untouched when switched over. In a similar vein, you may also notice a somewhat greater difference in comparative tone when switching between light and medium flat picks, relative to some other guitars … Medium picks, generally recommended (as for most guitars, I find).

For those with fingers that have been reasonably well exercised, a switch to Elixir medium lights -- or simply mediums -- did render a little better tone in the bass to mid-bass region, quite predictably. This, again, not as a recommendation in the absolute, as one’s individual fingers come into play here (no pun).

As it relates to the above, I found the overall playability of the Yamaha to be absolutely fine (both before and after an experimental saddle shave that was quite modest). With the medium strings, the action pulled just a little higher -- as to be expected. But, unlike others, I don’t define playability solely by ‘how low’ the action can go without buzzing. For those who do regard string height as the defining moment regarding playability, they may be missing -- or are wholly unaware of -- a world of other issues relating to playability -- as well as sonics. In fact, I often find excessively low action to be excessively tedious, having -- in effect -- little ‘action’ at all, with an attendant loss of response and control. For beginners, without a trace of finger callus, okay. For those more advanced -- and nuanced -- you already know what I’m talking about.

Back to the sound, a couple of observers, Acoustic Magazine among them, noted that the Yamaha FG700S began to compress and crush tonally when strummed quite hard (with a pick). This is fundamentally true -- but I, myself, don’t play with violent actions. Pete Townsend may wish to look elsewhere, perhaps. But for those of us a little more reserved (or a little less deaf), this isn’t even a consideration. Here, again, a switch to medium strings will give you some extra headroom, should you require it.

In the final analysis, the rolled-off bass region made the guitar somewhat reminiscent of a smaller, ‘OM’ 000 - sized guitar in a ‘Dread Format’, but with a bit more jangle and zing. It was this characteristic that made me entertain (and purchase) one for particular recordings.

Six Months Later: The Upscale Yamaha FG730S …

No FG730 had been at the music store when I first sampled the 700S. While the ‘Mid Grade’ 720 employs the same construction and wood as the 700 -- with the addition of ivory-colored neck binding, the even more upscale 730 would bring rosewood to the back and sides, in place of the nato wood. And more bling, as well. A full wrap of ivory binding around the body, up the neck, and around the head stock. A very elegantly executed ring of abalone inlay was also added to the soundhole rosette. While I was never entirely into guitar jewelry, when I saw my first 730S six months after my 700 acquisition, the elegance did reflect a guitar that would be more typical of a mega-dollar guitar -- all still executed with a reserved restraint that kept it out of the lounge act category. My only wish is that Yamaha had gone the extra measure to serve up a bevel to the pick guard edge for better visual fluidity on this upscale-looking guitar (for all of a measly $300).

I would, indeed, happenchance upon a minty-clean 730S, out of Bellingham, Massachusetts, for $195 -- with a truly excellent hard-shell case, adorned with some luxury appointments. As I would normally purchase a $100 case for the guitar in any event, I reason that I got the guitar for $95. It would so clearly represent one of the ‘best-value’ guitar purchases I had made in my instrument-playing lifetime. So, with this, I didn’t feel silly for buying this 3 year old guitar so soon after I impulse-purchased the 700. Moreover, it would satisfy a passing curiosity I had about the upscale version since I bought the 700 …

According to conventional guitar wisdom, while using different woods on the back and sides can provide different sonic characteristics, this generally applies to solid woods -- not laminated construction (not to be confused with Yamaha’s solid tops). While the differing solid back and sides of a Martin D18 and D28 can be easily discerned, laminated construction -- inclusive of the adhesives used to bind the layers -- generally inhibit such distinctions. That is, for all practical purposes the 700S and 730S -- with otherwise seemingly identical construction -- should sound fundamentally the same. But … they don’t. Yamaha, again, had managed to coax nuance and distinction from laminated construction techniques that shouldn’t be there. But ... they are. And I’m not talking about hyper-subtle distinctions …

The 730S has a sound that is, indeed, more ‘round’ and refined than the 700, with additional textures happening around the fundamental tone -- as well as having more body in the bass to lower mid-range region … almost as if they had used … solid rosewood. Go figure. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I didn’t have the opportunity to string the 700 and 730 up with the identical string compliments -- even replicating the bone saddle addition between the two guitars. TUSQ bridge pins were also inserted into each.

So, with this, if your budget doesn’t stop at $200, is the 730S worth an extra street price of $300? In a word, yes. That extra $100 buys more sonic refinement -- clearly realizable, adorned in a package that ‘looks the money’, as an old Jewish term would describe it. But remember, always figure in another $100 for a case -- if not immediately, soon …

It should, perhaps, be noted that the particular 730S I was comparing had three years of playing on it and, as such, the top was beginning to ‘open up’ and refine -- relative to the 6 month old 700S. But the distinctions I was hearing would be somewhat beyond a top that had only aged slightly.

I would, in fact, begin to wonder -- beyond the rosewood wrap -- if the spruce top of the 730S was more “select”, relative to the 700. But then I pondered if Yamaha would actually have people ‘tap-testing’ individual pieces of wood in a production guitar at this price level. Then again, at current Chinese labor costs, they could theoretically have 20 ~ 30 people on hand who did nothing but ‘tap-test’ the wood. You decide.

In either event, with the 730S, things start to become real interesting, prompting brave comparisons …

Comparison: Yamaha FG730S to Martin D16GT and D18 …

As suggested in my article regarding guitar auditioning and selection, if you’re asking how a particular guitar compares to a given Martin or Taylor, you’re asking yourself the wrong question. The point to ponder -- always -- is, “does this sound musical?”, whether the instrument is coincidentally reminiscent of some other guitar -- or if it sounds like a cross between a zither and a tack piano … That is, it’s best to appraise any instrument on its own, individual merits.

Still, in this instance, I recognize that there are those who will naturally wonder how a $300 six-string stacks up against guitars in the $1000 ~ $2000 street-price range. It’s the sizable distinction between price that begs a question that I otherwise don’t advocate. I also don’t select guitars on speculation as an investment vehicle, pondering what it may be worth in the future. For those interested in the music, the returns are in the here and now -- or should be …

With this, as a price to musical satisfaction return ratio, is a Martin three to six times “better” than the $300 Yamaha? Without even a nanosecond of hesitation, I can say, “no”, quite firmly. This is often the case regarding a number of product offerings -- from microphones to automobiles -- whereby coaxing a subtle refinement is the most expensive of propositions, from engineering to execution.

With the above in mind, the ‘ratio comparison’ is quite predictable: The Yamaha FG730S is certainly more impressive, relative to its $300 expenditure than, say, the Martin D16GT is at the $1000 price tag (which, in turn, may be regarded as a better bang for the buck than the D18 at almost twice the price). Indeed, at least part of one’s giddiness over the Yamaha is that it only cost $300.

But putting the name on the headstock and price aside (as one should, in the comparative ideal), the Yamaha FG730S is simply a fine sounding instrument -- different, yes, than a dreadnaught Martin, but one that holds its own on its own merits. The Martins, for example, have a little more authority in the bass -- with some added ‘undertones’ (as I compare to an older Martin, more broken-in). But the ‘low-E’ on the Yamaha has a bit more “ring” to it, as if married to a brass bell. Which do you prefer? That depends upon you -- as well as the requirement of the moment …

The differences are somewhat akin to a Steinway and a similar piano offered by … Yamaha. While individual Steinways actually vary quite a bit in character -- to the extent that it often comes down to the individual serial number -- they are more generally thought of as being ‘darker’ and somewhat subdued in tone. Yamaha grands, however, are generally brighter and more punchy -- making their way into the studios for their ability to cut through a dense ‘pop mix’, layered with synthesizers and electric guitars. Both pianos -- Steinway and Yamaha -- have their adherents, and their distinct applications. I apply similar notions relating to Martin and Yamaha guitars. In fact, in the past, where two acoustic guitar parts were called for -- particularly when arranged with close, overlapping parts -- I would record one on a Martin, with the other on an “old FG Yamaha”. Even if channel-summed in mono, the individual parts had better separation -- or distinction. Better, in fact, than slightly ‘pitch shifting’ the two parts using the same guitar. And the recording wasn’t any the lesser for using the ‘lesser’ guitar as 50% of the contribution. I wouldn’t be the first to do this, by the way, in the most professional of studio environments. Today, a similar approach will now be used with the newer Yamaha FG730S (as well as the 700S, by the way). Summarily, I think of the two guitars (Yamaha and Martin) as being quite complimentary.

Now, for those who have taken a moment to consider my sonic descriptions, you may well have arrived at this conclusion: That these Yamahas sound, perhaps, more Taylor-like than Martinesque. There, now I’ve offended both Martin and Taylor owners in my dare-to-compare analysis. Twisted, aren’t I?

The principles above and, indeed, the entirety of this article may reflect my most telling comparison between the Yamaha and more expensive guitars. I simply take the Yamahas with all of the seriousness I would apply to most any Martin sitting across the room. They get the very same care and attention, from tweaking to temperature and humidity management. The Yamahas, after all, deserve it. You may consider that as a telling endorsement ...

In Consideration of Others …

As I looked over the personal accounts of others on the Internet, I often encountered two general groups of ‘appraisers’: The Boastful and The Timid. When I would read personal reviews of the Yamaha that proclaimed the likes of, “Blows away the Martin D28!”, I have to greet such enthusiasm with a certain degree of dismissal. I’m willing to accept that one might, perhaps, prefer the general tonal character of the Yamaha, relative to a particular Martin. But I resist taking any review that includes the citation of, “blows away” seriously -- relating to any guitar review or comparison. Still, I’m sure Yamaha appreciates their enthusiasm.

Others come across as being seemingly shy or timid -- apologetic, even -- about liking a Yamaha FG, as if fearing online ridicule for proclaiming that, “this thing sounds really, really good.” They’ll go there, yes -- but temper it with, “a great guitar for beginners or intermediate players”. Yes, it does take a reasonable degree of self-confidence to say that a production guitar, assembled in China, is so good. And yes, it’s easier when you already have some high-end guitars on tap, with nothing to prove -- except for those who, having already spent $3000 on their ... whatever … need to believe that it still ‘blows away’ the Yamaha, dismissing their inexpensive purchase as a mere “campfire guitar”. But I did read one personal review from a Taylor owner who, upon purchasing the less expensive Yamaha FG700S for camping and beach adventures … and after restringing it with Elixirs, coincidentally … put it like this: That the Yamaha was far better sounding than any $200 guitar had a right to sound. Good summation -- one that’s accurately descriptive.

Yet others offer views that might be too ‘definitive’ in their appraisal, such as, “the best guitar south of $700.” … I tend to reject the word, ‘best’, relating to most things -- particularly to items that are so subject to subjective evaluation. Allow me to suggest something more conservative in tone: If you’re looking at guitars priced at, say, $500 and below, the Yamaha FG series -- any one of them -- is certainly worthy of putting on your short list. At $700 -- or rather, at $750, I’d be putting the handcrafted Yamaha LL16 on the list in the ‘under $1000 category’ . They’re real nice. Some do freely compare them to $2000 acoustics (Yamaha does, indeed, also produce guitars with a $3000 street price, by the way … up to over $10,000). The bummer of the LL series is that you may not as readily find them in town, for those situated exclusively in The States. In the UK -- particularly around London -- the handcrafted Yamahas are far easier to be had … or seen … or heard. But I digress, as we’re talking about a $200 ~ $300 Yamahas here … But I will say this: The Yamaha 730S, in particular, does overshadow some guitars -- indeed, several guitars I’ve played -- in the over $1000 category (without naming names). Need I be more succinct?

For Whom The String Tolls …

It’s here that I’ll make some solid recommendations for two groups of guitar purchasers: ‘The Starter’ and ‘The Ebay Crowd’ … without, in any way implying that the Yamaha FGs should be exclusively reserved for the inexperienced. The entirety of this article should tell you otherwise.

But for those who have been considering the Costco-featured, ‘Gig-Maker’ packages from Yamaha (boxed with ‘Eterna’ or ‘F Series’ guitars -- not ‘FGs’), I implore you … Forget the extra picks, spare strings, strap, ‘gig bag’, and instructional video -- you can pick up any of these later. And any Casio keyboard you have laying around the house can be your ‘electronic tuner’ -- or even a $6 pitch pipe available at any music store, in addition to a variety of ‘online tuners’ available on the Internet for free.

It’s not that the ‘Gig-Maker’ guitars are outright bad -- they’re not. It’s just that putting in an extra $50 ~ $60 can purchase a truly better instrument in the $200 Yamaha FG700S -- one that may be regarded as ‘a keeper’, even if you get that Martin D28 someday. Save up the extra $60, if you have to. The additional good news of spending only $200 on your guitar is that it won’t have a sizeable trade-in value. This should encourage you to do the right and sensible thing in the future, if you ever consider purchasing an ‘exotic’... Keep the Yamaha. It’s a truly worthy instrument that you may still refer to after your $2500 expenditure. Further, this is not to imply that everyone should always long for expensive guitars. The Yamaha FG series can surely be with you for years upon years, exclusively, as a very nice sounding instrument (if you take reasonably good care of it).

Now for The Ebay Crowd … Okay, I know that there are many who are highly enamored of their old, laminated, ‘Red Label’ Yamahas. As a longtime owner of the same, I understand the ‘Karmic Connection’ to these guitars … as well as certain qualities that can be supported, both objectively or subjectively. If you own them, enjoy them, by all means. But for those of you considering a drop of $400 to $500 for some of these old Yamahas, I do recommend that you consider what Yamaha is serving up now in their ‘FG730S’. At the least, don’t be entirely dismissive. For less than the eBay price, you get to see the actual guitar, locally -- one without the scratches and dings that eBayers promote as having ‘that great vintage look’. You won’t have to worry about an expensive neck reset, and further … there’s no need to wonder if that Yamaha was once subjected to the pubescent polishing with Windex and Turtle Wax (even though they miraculously seemed to survive such treatments) … Moreover, you get to actually play it -- and hear it. Respectively put aside the people so in love with their old ‘Red Labels’ (that ‘blow away any Martin’, as told), they actually hear the new offerings as being woefully ‘deficient’. This, to some extent, is fueled by romance …

In truth, the newer FGs have, indeed, benefited from construction parameters borrowed from Yamaha’s handcrafted ‘L Series’. There’s no doubt in my mind -- or ear -- about it. Further, you’ll be getting a guitar with a solid spruce top -- one that will improve in time, likely more so than an old, laminated ‘Yammie’ (as Yamaha owners often call them). Yes, it’s true that -- back when -- Yamaha managed to coax things out of laminated tops that few others were able to so successfully achieve, as if by some sort of black magic. But still, these newer, post-2005 ‘FGs’ -- particularly the 730S -- represent some of the best Yamaha has yet achieved in this long-loved series of guitars.

In truth, it would be real nice to have both -- an old, intelligently selected FG Yamaha … along with the newer FG730S. Each genre and vintage has its distinct merits, to be covered more in my ‘Classic Yamaha’ articles.

Parting Notes …

Some may wonder if I simply happen-chanced upon a particularly sweet samples in my off-the-rack grabs. After all, even with the general consistency that Computer Numeric Controlled production affords, there is always a notable variable: The tree. Indeed, I briefly entertained the possibility as there were some visual indicators that suggested one particularly nice piece of spruce -- on both of the new Yamahas.

Some months later, I would return to the same music store and sample yet another, off-the-rack FG700s. To really make a valid comparison, I would have to bring my own sample in (after returning it to factory spec, with the original setup, saddle and bridge pins). And, even with this, I’d have to load both guitars with the same strings. But the general character of the newer, in-store sample remained quite similar -- very much as I remembered my initial impressions, some months earlier, with my personal sample. With this, I would feel reasonably confident in purchasing another one, if I were so inclined. Moreover, I remain confident in recommending these $200 ~ $300 guitars to most anyone -- even to those who own guitars with their own, dedicated insurance policies.

And, indeed, the Yamaha 730S has since become among my favorite guitars in my collection, with no particular consideration of its $300 price tag.

Enough said.

      

Send an Email to JosephMind

 

RETURN TO CONTENTS MENU



RETURN TO THE MIND ENTRANCE

 original contents copyright © joseph bambach