|“Amazing Volume From Martin Baritone"|
Price: $3,999 Retail
Like: Real loud, intoxicating bass
Dislike: bigger strings, bigger callus'
by Ty Ford
The Martin Grand J-28LSE baritone acoustic guitar is a cross between a bass and a guitar. The body isn’t particularly bigger than typical jumbo-sized guitars, but the neck is slightly longer to accommodate the longer scale. It does not look that unusual. You might just think it is just another full size acoustic — until you play it and hear how much volume it projects.
The Martin Grand J-28LSE is termed a Grand J, 14-fret model which is slightly larger than a the normal J series (J40). The key to its distinctiveness is the 27.5 inch scale neck, as opposed to the typical 25.4-inch scale of modern dreadnought and typical jumbo acoustic guitars. Longer scale gives you a wider octave spectrum of notes from which to play, including lower-than-standard bass notes.
To accommodate the longer scale and to drive the top, the Martin J28LSE is set up with bigger strings — .70-.014. In contrast, typical dreadnought strings run .56 to .013. Martin supplies the guitar with Martin Lifespan strings .014 to .070 strings for baritone tuning, which are made for Martin by Everly Music, under the Cleartone banner. The Cleartone strings are treated with an ultra-thin layer that resists contamination from finger grime and oxidation, yet has less of a dampening effect on the string tone.
The J28LSE body is made from solid East Indian rosewood and the top is a solid sitka spruce. Finished in Martin’s standard, gloss nitrocellulose lacquer, the natural sample sent to me was an excellent example of a finely made, made-in-USA guitar. The top is designed with Martin’s standard ''X'' bracing and progressively scalloped tone bars. The fingerboard is ebony. The modified, low-oval neck is made from “select hardwood” (usually mahogany or Spanish cedar) and finished in the satin. The neck is thinner than my 1969 D28S neck and feels comfortable. Fifteen frets to the body, twenty-one total, no cutaway. The fingerboard width at the nut is: 1-3/4-inch; the fingerboard width at the 12th fret and bridge is 2-1/4 inches.
To capture the big sound of the J28SLE while plugging in, the guitar is equipped with a D-Tar Wave Length Multi Source pickup system comprised of an under saddle pickup and a small omni mic mounted at the lip of the sound hole. There are two controls. One varies the volume of the mic, the other is a master volume control for both. The AA-battery compartment is inside the sound hole, which requires moving the fifth and sixth stings to change the battery — a negative in my book. I think every acoustic guitar built today should have batteries accessible without dropping the strings. Martin does so on its Performing Artist Series.
When you first pick up the J28LSE and start to strum, the first thing you’ll notice is that the strings are bigger. When you start playing it, you are immediately intoxicated by the increased bass response of the guitar. The Martin SP LIfespan 92/8 phosphor bronze strings that come with it run from .014 to .070 are significantly heavier than the normal mediums I use. Martin’s Tim Teel also says you can run with standard mediums and tune to “E” to “e” to have the more familiar feel, but the baritone setup is where you get the power.
When you first pick up the J28LSE and start to strum, the first thing you’ll notice is that the strings are bigger. When you start playing it, you are immediately intoxicated by the increased bass response of the guitar.With baritone tuning, the slightly longer scale means those first four frets are wider requiring more finger stretch. The fingerboard is 1 3/4” at the bone nut. A little wider than a D28; more like my 1969 D28S. The larger gauge of the strings and their tension has a lot to do with the massive sound, as does the construction of the instrument.
As a result, even if you capo up to the second or third fret, this guitar sounds a lot more massive than a regular six string tuned E to e. Using a capo on the fourth fret or above, however, takes away the real mojo of the open or low-fretted fifth and sixth strings.
At first, I though that players who are used to lighter strings would be put off by the bigger stringed J28LSE, but my friend local actor/singer Pete Papageorge (petepapageorge.com) stopped by to take the baritone for a spin. Though he normally plays lights on his acoustic, he said he quickly got used to the string tension and longer scale.
Normally, I am fingerstyle player and don’t use finger or thumb picks. The day after playing for several hours, the outside edge of my playing thumb was tender from working the bigger strings. New calluses formed as I continued to play.
Because my finger nails seldom last and regular maintenance is too fiddly, I trim them and play with flesh. That results in a softer sound. After working with a flat pick and enjoying the attack, I tried a National medium on my thumb. After getting used to it, I was very pleased. Clean, clear and punchy. The J-28LSE sounds larger than life. The 4th, 5th and 6th have a lot of power. I found myself sort of waiting for my thumb to hit the sixth string to savor the big low note. Boom! What fun!
|The old and the new: D28SL and J-28SLE|
As a vocalist, I’m a baritone and the best key for my singing voice, melody depending, is “A.” I’m used to singing the the same notes as the fifth and sixth string notes on my guitar. “A” baritone guitar goes even lower; to a “B” or “C“ below the “E” to which guitars are normally tuned. So, if you play a first position “E” chord on a baritone, what you get is a “B” or “C“ chord, depending whether you tune from “B” to “b” or “C” to “c.”
This down tuning difference caused me to rethink songs on my list. If the baritone is tuned “C” to “c,” when I play a first-position “A“ fingering, I’m really playing an “F.” So I had to transpose some songs or learn to play them with differing fingerings; not very efficient. What it did do nicely is put some songs I like to sing in range, without having to use extreme capo positioning. So, some gain, some loss. Caution: After playing the J-28LSE for a few days, my D28S, which most folks tell me sounds great, felt small and sounded thin.
Appalachian Bluegrass here in Baltimore had both the Taylor six-string and eight-string Baritone on the rack, but no Martin baritones. I made an appointment with Tim Kolberg and stopped by with the Martin baritone to check them out and see how they compared. After spending about half an hour with the J-28LSE, I switched to the Taylors. When I switch to my old Harmony 12-string, it normally takes a while before my right hand gets used to the double strings. I felt the same sort of awkwardness with the Taylor eight string, but it did have a very rich and complex sound.
The six string Taylor felt good, but the action was slightly higher than the Martin and I think the strings were slightly lighter gauge. Both Taylor guitars were brighter than the Martin; Taylor bright, if you get my drift. After playing the six string Taylor for about twenty minutes, both with and without the Bose system that Appalachian Bluegrass has set up, I switched back to the Martin. There was the big Martin bottom, and it was also obvious that the Taylor, with its tone controls centered, sounded scooped in the mids and smaller.
Tim and I thought maybe if the bottom on the Martin wasn’t quite so big, the sound would be more balanced. Maybe with a .065 instead of a .070 on the sixth, a .048 or .050 instead of the .054 on the fifth and maybe a .038 to .40 instead of a .042 on the fourth and the low end would tuck in some.
The J28LSE body is made from solid East Indian rosewood and the top is a solid sitka spruce. Finished in Martin’s standard, gloss nitrocellulose lacquer, the natural sample sent to me was an excellent example of a finely made, made-in-USA guitar.Martin only offers one set of big strings, so, at Tim’s suggestion, I contacted D’Addario to search for alternative sizes. If you like experimenting with string gauges, D’Addario makes a very complete line of single and three pack Phosphor Bronze strings from .020 to .070 that you can buy online. They were kind enough to forward me Phosphor Bronze .039, .047, .049 and .064 for this review. Swapping out to lighter fourth, fifth and sixth strings did make for a more balanced sound that was easier to record, but I have to admit, I sort of missed the big low end.
I noticed that the .070 and .064 sixth strings were a little quieter than the other five; more so with skin than with a pick. I’m not sure if the strings’ frequencies were below the resonant frequency of the body or something else. I restrung with a set of Keyser PowerCore Phosphor Bronze (KA230) Mediums that run .013 to .056. I use those strings on my D28S Martin. I tuned “E” to “e,” as Tim Teel of Martin had suggested. The J-28LSE sounded noticeably brighter than these strings ever sound on my 1971 D28S, probably because of the scalloped tone bars. Not high-strung bright, but definitely brighter. All strings were equally loud.
Recording the beast
I found that the J-28LSE’s huge low end was too big for my usual recording methods, swapping my Schoeps CMC641 microphone when placed eight inches from the body. Next I tried a Neumann U 89i, in omni mode, to reduce the proximity effect. The J-28LSE was still huge, but I could get the mic closer. That, however, still didn’t give me a sound I liked. Bottom line: I think this guitar needs a little more mic space than others. Pulling back the mics to about 16-inches to 18-inches worked best.
As I continued to work with the J-28LSE, my performing style began to change. I capo’d on the second fret and used the fingerings that I knew to try to bring some of the songs back into my vocal range. I could hit the notes, but many were in the bottom of my register and below the power range of my vocals. That meant I was singing softer and with less force. After a while I realized that I liked that a lot more than my “regular” voice on some songs, which, to me, can be a little harsh, even as a baritone.
Taking more than one guitar to a gig is a chore, but you can eliminate the extra case by using the J-28LSE and a capo. Capo’ing on the 4th fret brings a C tuning back up to E with 12 frets to the body.Flat pick strumming the J-28LSE required a new touch. I usually use medium picks for the folky, strummy stuff, but lights worked better because mediums overworked the 4th, 5th an 6th strings making the low end sound jumbled and muddy. If you’re flat picking is less folky and more bluegrass, picking out individual notes, you’ll do just fine with a medium pick with the Martin. If you’re used to banging the chords out for rock, you may have to pull back and/or use power chords rather than full chords because you may overplay the very responsive low end strings. Just switching to a Fender Light flat pick cleaned up the bottom and made the guitar sound a lot brighter.
Taking more than one guitar to a gig is a chore, but you can eliminate the extra case by using the J-28LSE and a capo. Capo’ing on the 4th fret brings a C tuning back up to E with 12 frets to the body. Unless you are currently playing up the neck a lot with a cutaway, this is a very workable solution to the too many guitars conundrum; give your regular guitar (and the bass payer) the night off and just take the J-28LSE and a capo.
The Martin Grand J-28LSE baritone acoustic requires adjustments to your regular playing style to maximize its advantages over a regular jumbo or dreadnought, but it is a great sounding and nice playing guitar. It offers new playgrounds in tonality, string choice, pick choice and key choice. It’s definitely worth a trip to the store to have a Grand J-28LSE in your hands — so you can find out for yourself, but watch out! That low end is very intoxicating.
Ty Ford is an accomplished musician and professional;l audio recording engineer. be reached at www.tyford.com
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