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Evolution is slow in the guitar universe. And when you consider how many 50-year-old instruments—or even 150-year-old instruments—have come to represent design “perfection,” you can understand why. But while guitar purists may look askance at any attempt to improve the dread, the OM, the Les Paul, or the Telecaster, many engineering minds still consider the 6-string a blank slate calling out for revision.
Nashville-based Cory Batson is clearly of this more irreverent school. A woodworker and student of electrical engineering, Batson is also a self-trained luthier. And he’s nabbed the attention of players such as Phil Keaggy and fingerstyle wiz Don Ross with guitars distinguished by side soundports, truss bracing, and cantilevered fretboards.
With the help of his woodworking brother and business partner, Grant Batson, Cory has built Batson Guitars into one of the more respected new acoustic guitar companies in a Nashville music community that can be wary of innovation. Batson guitars have never been inexpensive, however. Though it’s not cheap, the brothers’ latest model, the handbuilt No. 5, is an effort to make their offerings more affordable.
The Sum of Changes
The mahogany-and-spruce No. 5 we received for review is evidence that Batson hasn’t taken any shortcuts on the innovations that have made their instruments special from the beginning. The guitar’s bridge looks like it was inspired by the organic shapes in ’70s furniture design, with fluid curves that are both comfortable for fingerstyle playing and practical—adding mass and structural reinforcement where the strings pass through the bridge from saddle to tailpiece.
Our No. 5 is built around a traditional grand concert-style body profile. But similarities to any cookie-cutter version of that style end there. The most overt difference is the lack of a center soundhole. Though this is more common on boutique guitars than it used to be, it still gives the No. 5 an oddly minimalist visage that takes a minute or two to adjust to.
There’s also an architectural bent to the Batson’s design. The cantilevered fretboard, which hovers free of contact with the top past the 14th fret, evokes some of the more intriguing bridges on modern roadways, as does the portion of the guitar’s bridge that resides behind the saddle. Similarly, the ShorTail tailpiece is suspended above the soundboard by a space the width of a few business cards.
The architectural and engineering influence is even more apparent when you peek through the oval soundport on the upper treble bout. Rather than Martin-style X or A bracing, you’ll find that the top is undergirded with a grid of smaller, diamond- shaped trusses that resemble bracing used by some modern classical builders. According to Batson, this signature lattice bracing is more flexible and responsive, giving the guitar a greater dynamic range.
Batson’s effort to make the No. 5 more affordable involves a few aesthetic sacrifices, depending on your view of such things. The choice of materials is still top-shelf, but the luxurious finish seen on pricier Batsons is replaced here by an ultra-thin satin finish that seems a little ordinary for a guitar in this price range. Inside our review model, there were a few errant spots of glue and some bracing joints that weren’t quite flush—factors that don’t affect sound or playability but that are somewhat surprising given the price. Elsewhere, however, fit and finish were superb to flawless.
Rumbling, Ringing, Resonant
If you’ve never played an acoustic with a soundport, your first experience can make your ears do a double take. In general, the guitar will sound louder and, quite literally, more in your face. The No. 5 is no exception, and the difference can require compensating adjustments to pick attack and touch dynamics. Once you do so, it’s plain that the No. 5 is a very sensitive and articulate instrument.
As the lack of pick guard might suggest, it works best as a fingerstyle guitar. The softer tones of the mahogany back and sides mean you might have to put a little more oomph behind your picking to get a really kicking midrange. But bass and treble notes resonate and ring with definition and sustain—the guitar truly captures the best warm and bright qualities of the mahogany-and- spruce combination.
Fingerstyle players who play in alternate tunings with dropped fifth and sixth strings will discover an expansive range of color and dynamics to work with in the No. 5. The guitar has an impressive bass presence in standard tuning. Tuning down to D and even C, however, makes the No. 5 growl like a lion. This is where you sense that Batson’s bracing, cantilevered fretboard, and tailpiece—all designed to maximize vibration— really pay sonic dividends. Sustain and overtone content were impressive in DADGAD and C–G–C–F–A–D, and when I wobbled the neck a little here and there, it made a single chord sound wondrously colorful and multidimensional.
The No. 5 feels especially fast and playable when detuned. Hammer-ons on the sixth string brim with a deep, funky, almost baritone-like quality, and peppering lazy legato moves with sitar-style bends was perfect accompaniment for the big, droning bass notes. However, the Batson feels slinky in standard tuning, too. While I wasn’t pulling off full-step bends with the same ease I would with a lightly strung Les Paul, I was still able to play some pretty expressive blues runs. Batson claims this is because the extra string length behind the bridge makes a given string gauge feel lighter.
If there’s one the thing the Batson is less than ideal for, it might be the heavy strumming that tends to find a singer-songwriter type opting for a big dreadnought. The Batson is loud and bossy enough for the job if you want it to be—and it also retains a lot of its low-end character—but heavier strumming can obscure the overtone minutiae and low-end detail that are the guitar’s greatest strengths.
Batson’s quest to create a better-sounding guitar through unconventional bracing and other non-dogmatic design moves pays off in a guitar that’s full of character and responsive to nuanced playing. In that sense, it’s a fantastic fingerstyle guitar, and if the soft midrange of our mahogany model is a deterrent to fingerstylists that crave popping mids, the rosewood-backed version may well do the trick.
If there’s any one beef to pick with this Batson, it’s that, at $2800, it’s still a bit pricey for what’s ostensibly a more affordable guitar. That said, an American-made, handbuilt guitar is rarely an inexpensive proposition, and innovation doesn’t come cheap. And, if you’re jazzed about the potential of evolutionary guitar engineering and creative woodwork, you’ll consider the No. 5 a piece of art just as much as you consider it an instrument.
your need for a sweet-sounding fingerstyle machine are matched by a thirst for artful, innovative design.
you wish they’d stopped tweaking the look of git-fiddles back in ’32!
Street $2800 - Batson Guitars - batsonguitars.com