Tanglewood Guitar Company UK has been around since 1991, producing the bestselling brand of acoustic guitars in the UK and Ireland. They’ve only recently begun to market the brand here in the States, so we were curious and excited to take a look at one of their newest offerings from the MasterDesign Series, designed by Swedish luthier Michael Sanden.
Sanden has been building guitars in Sweden for over thirty years, earning a reputation for innovation and beauty, as well as for his signature brilliant tone. The collaboration includes six guitars sporting Sanden’s distinctive “paint brush” bridge and bracing pattern, available in either mahogany or rosewood. The MasterDesign Series guitars are made in China from Sanden’s blueprints, and to his standards. The guitar we received for review is in the rosewood series, a grand auditorium with a Tibetan spruce top, three-piece mahogany neck and bindings, and ebony fretboard and bridge. It’s a rather voluptuous shape, almost more like a jumbo than a GA. The box is deep at the bottom and angles up steeply to the neck, which Sanden feels increases projection dramatically.
Let’s talk about tone
This guitar is bright, very bell-like and not at all brittle, but it sounds nothing like an American guitar. From mids to top, it’s a powerhouse: defined, clear, sweet and pure. Dropped into DADGAD or lower, it doesn’t really fatten up much; it’s got a very lean bass response. If you’re addicted to warm, round, booming bass, you will want to look elsewhere.
We recently had a Schertler guitar in for a web exclusive review, and it had a similar sound, with the focus on the top end. It took our ears a little time to get used to it, but we found after a while that we liked it. Same goes for this guitar. I decided to talk to Michael Sanden to see if this focus on the bright side is as much of a European convention as the bassy side of tone is the American convention. He explained, “I think over the years the way European guitars are made has been more and more differentiated from the American guitars, like the Martin dreadnaught. And of course, we don’t brace at all the same way as a dreadnaught, for instance. We try to have more definition in each range between the bass, middle and top. In these guitars the bass is there, but it’s more clear.” The TSR2 certainly has definition and punch—just no rumble.
Play it, don’t spray it
Factory strung with Elixir .012 guage strings, it’s very comfortable and playable. I heard no buzzing or distortion anywhere on the fretboard, and everything I played felt natural and easy. The fretboard is 1-3/4 inches at the nut, so it’s a great choice for fingerstyle guitarists. The zero fret is another nice touch. There’s a sharper angle on the headstock, but the strings don’t fan out as much as some guitars, adding some stability when shifting between altered tunings. Fingerstylists and singer-songwriters gotta love that.
There was a very pleasant surprise in store when I put a capo on at the fifth fret. There was no difference in the fullness of the sound. Speechless, I pulled the capo off and listened to the open sound of the guitar, then replaced it and listened again. It sounded the same, only higher. To me, that’s extremely significant. Sometimes I dread putting a capo on a guitar, because so many guitars lose their luster when you capo them, even some highend guitars. If you’re going to pay close to two grand for a guitar, it’d better stay lively above the fifth fret, and this one does.
I became anxious to try this guitar with my trio. Working with a bassist and drummer has been an adjustment for old solo-guitar me, and learning how to share frequency space has been a real revelation. I am now on the lookout for highly responsive and playable guitars that will let me leave the low end to the bass man without leaving my ears unsatisfied. This one does that trick extremely well. It’s the aural equivalent of shining a spotlight on the sound while using backlights to add depth and drama. In fact, my bass player could cover even more territory than usual because we’re not in competition for the range at all—and when it was time for me to solo, there was no trouble hearing what I had to say.
The electrified side
The MasterDesign Series guitars come with B-Band UST pickups and A1.2 preamps installed, and they seem to be a terrific complement. I plugged into a SanGreal Acoustic Amp and just about rocked my windows out with not even a hint of feedback, which impressed the hell out of me. It was slightly brittle with the amp’s EQ flat, so I rolled the highs back a smidge and beefed up the bottom end slightly. I was rewarded with a very rich tone that retained the brilliance but lost the brittle. It’s a simple setup with just a volume control set right under the soundhole. Sanden’s goal was to keep it simple. “Today, you can get anything except for a sofa built in your guitar,” he says. “There is so much gadgetry you can put on the inside of the guitar with tuners and notch filters and everything like that—in my ears, the more you put in the worse it sounds.”
I like to gig with the equipment I’m reviewing, because that’s one of the main points of buying gear—to play it for other folks. I took it with me to a small venue with an L-shaped space. The guitar carried through the whole place clearly through the SanGreal. I used the Tanglewood for the entire performance, going from standard tuning to DADGAD to CGDGBD to DADGAE in fairly rapid succession, and the guitar stayed where I put it. I had to tweak it a couple times when I put the capo on, but other than that it was very stable. My hands felt good after the first full hour, and I didn’t worry about either of us making it through the gig.
Back at home, I decided to plug into my LR Baggs Core 1 Reference Amplifier. With a little more tweaking with the multi-band EQ, I was able to dial in more bottom end. You’re never gonna go swimming in the bassiness with this guitar, but you can get your feet more than wet. I spent a little time in DADGAD, and dropped to CGDGBD again. I got an incredibly well balanced spectrum from low to high. The lows weren’t overwhelming, the highs weren’t brittle or fragile, and the mids were fully present without a hint of snottiness.
I picked up my Gallagher GA-70 (another rosewood and spruce grand auditorium), which rumbles like a really good thunderstorm tuned down to C. Because my ear is so familiar with that guitar, I wanted to use it to “reset” the way I was hearing the TSR2. These two guitars are not braced alike, they’re slightly different shapes, and the Gallagher isn’t as deep through the lower bout. The Gallagher definitely had more bass, but it was equally clear and brilliant and the highs and mids were just as shimmery. When I picked up the Tanglewood again, I was a lot more aware of the mid-range, but it’s not unpalatable, and that mid-to-top emphasis makes this a very stage- and ensemble-friendly guitar.
The Final Mojo
The Europeans may be onto something here. The more I play the TSR2, the more I like it, and the more applications I find where it’s extremely complementary. As a soloist, I did miss the bass response, even though my ears adjusted after a while. But for playing with a folk-rock or pop ensemble, this guitar shines. Bass addicts, this is not your guitar, but if you’re looking for a high quality guitar that will make your bass player happy, this may just be the ticket.
you want an affordable, stage-friendly, gig-worthy guitar that will let you pop out of a mix.
you crave the booming bass response of a dreadnaught.