NOTE: I’m not a professional review. I do not get compensation or free products from manufacturers. I only review products that I purchase and use in real situations. The only money I make from reviews is from Google Adwords, over which I don’t have editorial control.
Welcome to my review of Breedlove’s Solo Concert guitar. More than a review, it’s also a story. A story of how I purchase a guitar. Maybe you can learn something from it, or maybe you’ll be entertained, or maybe you just want to skip to the darn review.
And so it came to pass that it was time to buy a new guitar. If you’re like me, you don’t need a reason to buy a new guitar, you just need a justification. Hey, it’s a sunny day, I’d better buy a new guitar. Oh look, it’s raining, better buy a new guitar. It’s Monday, better buy a new guitar. Friday, new guitar… Since I’m not rich (and I don’t want to become poor), I’ve learned to resist that temptation. So when the time comes that there really are good reasons to purchase a new axe, I don’t mess around. I revel in the experience, but I also research as much as I can to make sure it’s a good purchase.
I needed a new on-stage guitar. Maggie, my Martin 00CX-AE was on her last legs. I had always had a love-hate relationship with that guitar and some of the manufacturing defects finally caught up to her, making her unplayable and unfixable. Aggie, my Larrivee, is a beautiful and sweet-sounding dreadnought, but I wanted one with a cutaway for those face-melting acoustic solos, and I feel cautious using her on stage because she seems too vulnerable to scratches and dents. I needed what they call in the car world a “daily driver.” A guitar that was durable enough to take on stage in the dingiest of bars, but that would still let me sound my best. So, justification found, I set out to buy a new guitar!
I am a strong believer in playing a guitar before purchase. I know many of you are happy with mail-order purchases, but that doesn’t feel right to me. There are too many variations between different instruments – not just different brands and models, but the individual guitars themselves. This is especially true with acoustics, where the choices of which pieces of wood to use can make such a difference in the sound and appearance. I want to play not just the brand I’m buying, but that exact instrument. Unfortunately, that limits choices these days, as more and more local shops close.
I live in a medium sized city in the U.S. There is a Guitar Center and there are a couple high quality locally owned shops, but not to the extent of a city like New York or even Boston. Still, there is a big enough selection in town that I was confident I would find an instrument I liked. My confidence was well-placed.
I knew what I wanted (cutaway, acoustic-electric, good plugged-in sound, durable, easy to fingerpick), I set a budget ($2000, which I didn’t end up coming close to), and I set out. I think I played every high end consumer level acoustic guitar in the greater Charleston area. I asked questions, I went online and read reviews, but mostly I played. I played fingerstyle, I strummed, I picked the blues, I played high notes and low notes and every note in between. I played acoustic, I played plugged in, I asked other people to play while I listened. I hemmed and hawed, I researched some more, I played some more. I played thousand-dollar Martins, two-thousand-dollar Taylors, fancy Guilds. Those are all high quality guitars, but the one I kept coming back to, the one I heard in my head when I played in my sleep, the one I compared all the others to, was a $750 Breedlove Solo Concert.
I experienced some cognitive dissonance thinking about the purchase. Now $750 is not exactly loose change, but this guitar was half the price of those others. How could I like it better? The reasons for the lower price are easy to explain – it’s made in Korea and the back and sides are laminate rather than solid wood (although the top is solid cedar). That keeps the price down. Most experts agree that solid woods are preferable, although it’s debatable how much difference that makes for the back and sides (as opposed to the top, which is the soundboard), and laminate materials are actually more durable and less susceptible to the effects of climate. In my case, I was shopping for all solid, but I chose not to be dogmatic about it if this was a better guitar. Likewise, I went in hoping for an American made instrument, but the workmanship was impeccable on the Breedlove, so I had no hesitation purchasing a Korean-made model. The company says they run quality control for each instrument at their Oregon factory. Breedlove’s higher end guitars are American made and all solid wood, but interestingly none of them has the combination of features that the Solo series has.
In the end, the provenance is secondary to how it sounds and plays. “Okay Eddie,” I can hear you thinking, “cool story and all, but what about the review?” But, but, don’t you want to hear about the microbrews I drank while making up my mind? Don’t you want to hear about the friendly local store clerks? Oh, okay, maybe another time. On to the review:
Breedlove was founded in 1990 by two former Taylor employees, luthiers Larry Breedlove and Steve Henderson. They are known for high quality guitars, originally targeted towards fingerstyle playing, and innovative techniques.
The Breedlove Solo Series is notable for including a Side Monitor Soundhole, basically there’s a second soundhole in the side of the guitar that points straight at your ear as you’re playing. When I first heard about that feature, I thought it was a gimmick — or worse, that it would interfere with the guitar’s resonance or structure. But playing it changed my mind instantly. You know how a guitar sounds different when you’re playing it verses when someone else is playing it? I’m not talking about playing style here, but the projection of the guitar, which in most acoustics is designed to go outward, towards the audience. With the side hole, you hear what the audience hears – more subtle dynamics, a louder sound, and a sound that is less muffled. It’s a difference that has changed the way I played for the better.
Another unusual feature is the solid cedar top. Cedar is generally accepted as a good choice for a soundboard, but in reality you don’t see it very often. The wood is a darker color than the typical spruce, with more variations between specimens and a more visible grain. While spruce can be described as “blonde” in color, or even “honey,” cedar is more decidedly brown. At first I was not super impressed with the appearance of the cedar top, but as time passes it has grown on me. It has a cozy feel to it. Cedar is also lighter-weight than spruce, but that’s not a big consideration for me.
As far as the effect it has on the sound, various sources claim that cedar sounds warmer or darker in sound. Without having a direct model-to-model comparison, it’s hard for me to judge how much of the Concert Solo’s sound comes from the wood choice and how much from its design.
Speaking of design, the shape of Breedloves is slightly unconventional, although not revolutionary. The headstock is swoopy and pointy, while the cutaway body has a Dali-esque flow. It feels comfortable and well-balanced in the lap or attached to a strap. Aesthetically, it is not for everybody, especially the headstock, if you prefer the more traditional designs. If you aren’t a traditionalist, there is an elegance to the swoop and flow. Mostly, whether you like the shape will be a matter of personal preference, with a couple small caveats: I play with a capo frequently, and like many players I’ll often clip the capo to the top of the headstock when I’m not using it. Because of the headstock’s shape, that is not feasible with the Breedlove. So the capo goes in my pocket or on the mic stand. Not the end of the world, but a change in routine.
Also, while the guitar is not that big, the pointed end of the headstock brings the tip-to-tip length to a bit less than 42 inches, so if you have a favorite guitar case, you might want to measure the inside space to make sure the Breedlove will fit. The guitar does come with a foam-padded gig bag that fits nicely.
This guitar is easy to play. The fingerboard is tight enough to avoid over-long stretches but spread out enough to avoid cramped fingers. The model I purchased came with D’Addario coated light strings, providing a nice resonance and balanced sound, although with a noticeably loud finger squeak if you’re not careful to fully lift your fingers when changing chords. The action was nice and low.
After a couple months of regular playing, the action increased a bit, as will sometimes happen with a new guitar. I brought it back to my place of purchase for a free adjustment at that point. (It’s always a good idea to have your guitar set up more frequently during the initial break-in period.) Close to the nut, the fingerboard is a little thicker than I was used to on my Martin. This made it harder to finger the F chord with the thumb wrapped around to reach the low E string — a common technique in fingerpicking. However I did get used to that after a couple weeks.
Describing a guitar’s sound in words is always a challenge. Most players know intuitively the difference between “warm” and “bright,” but besides that it’s all metaphors. My experience is that the Breedlove is not as tinny-bright as a Taylor, but brighter than a corresponding Martin. But it also has a richness to the harmonic overtones which makes it feel quite warm. As a relatively small-bodied guitar, you will not hear the boominess or percussive quality that you’d get in a dreadnought. For my purposes, that was a good thing. Articulation when playing fingerstyle is great — the individual strings ring out clearly and distinctly. For the plugged in sound, we get an L.R. Baggs Element pickup and the Breedlove LR-TCV preamp, with a built in EQ and LED-lit tuner. I’ve played gigs at least weekly with it for the last six months, and I’m very happy with the amplified sound. Feedback has not been an issue with properly adjusted PA controls, even when going through an amp modeler for electric-style solos.
Pinless Bridge, Finish
All Breedlove guitars feature pinless bridges. This means they don’t have to drill holes in the soundboard for the strings to go through. It also makes changing strings a pain in the ass. I am getting better at it, but it’s still tricky to thread the string though the little hole in the bridge. The trick is to pre-bend the tip of the string to get it past the turn in the hole.
There is no pick guard. I was worried at first about creating scratches and pick marks, but that has not been an issue, even with hard playing. I’m not sure what kind of varnish they use on their guitars, but it seems durable enough that a pick guard is unnecessary. This durability is a comfort to me when playing in cramped quarters in the corner of a dingy bar, and also when dealing with my general clumsiness.
I put a lot of thought and research into the decision to purchase the Breedlove Solo Concert, and I have not regretted it one bit. Oh, and I’ve named her Clara.
If you have questions or opinions, please feel free to comment on this review in the Guitarator Forums.