October 21, 2009
The Kragenbrink is a high-end, high-performance acoustic for serious fingerstyle players
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DADGAD Capo at 5th
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Meet the Fingerstylist
This is a very simple but extremely elegant guitar. Kragenbrink let the woods speak here, visually as well as audibly. The top is Adirondack spruce, the back is a purplish dark Indian rosewood, and the five-piece neck is mahogany with two accent strips of Brazilian rosewood. Bridge, fretboard and headstock overlay are also Brazilian, as are the rich dark bindings. The soundhole is circled by one stunningly simple piece of Indian rosewood, and the perflings are black/white/rosewood/white/black. There is no backstrip, and the joint is so clean you can barely see it. The finish is polyurethane, glossy and glassy smooth. Altogether, it’s simply gorgeous.
The fretboard is 1-3/4" at the nut and 2-1/4" at the saddle, which is not an unusual width, but the flatness and thinness of the neck make it seem wider. It plays like buttah, and that’s a tall order for an acoustic. The body is 19-3/4" long and 15-1/4" across the lower bout, with a nice slope from 3-1/2" at the neck to 4-5/8" at the butt. The Gotoh 510 “Contour” tuners are a lovely complement, and feel solid as a rock. All Kragenbrink guitars ship in climate controlled, premium Ameritage hardshell cases, which are quite attractive and sturdy, but heavy.
Lance Kragenbrink has been building guitars in his one-man shop since 2000, producing six to eight guitars a year, and he currently has a two- to three-year backlog. He has several models, small bodies and dreadnaughts, along with a 12-string and a short-scale guitar. He worked hard to develop his signature sound, which he describes as an even balance that is rich and powerful and highly sensitive. I can’t find a single word to argue with in that description. He also says he prefers understated appointments that feel and look organic, and again, all I can say is “amen.”
One of the first things I did was to take the guitar to visit my local Guitar Mafia. Hearing it when it’s on your own lap is one thing, but hearing it played by someone else whose playing you’ve heard most of your life is another. This guitar has an almost ethereal tone, but at the same time it’s incredibly powerful. Each guitarist brought out some different properties. In Steve Armstrong’s hands I noticed incredible punch and snap, but when Pat Smith picked it up it was the sustain and brilliance that really came through. Michael Belmont brought out a funky-cool undertone that still had a belllike purity. I don’t think this is a sign of a guitar with multiple personalities; this guitar simply gives you tremendous tone however you approach it. Some really appreciated the wide fretboard while others found it too much of an adjustment. The body shape and size were universally popular.
Ever curious, Armstrong reached inside the soundhole to see what he could detect in the bracing. He thought, from what he could feel, that Kragenbrink hybridized X and classical-style bracings. I asked Lance about that, and he told me that his ideas about bracing come from his own intuition and experience. “A guitar is a guitar,” he said. “If you build something that looks like one, it’ll probably sound like one. So what you’re left with to distinguish your guitars from the rest are playability and sound; your own personal sound, which comes in a large part from the way you voice and brace the top.” His bracing is similar to Martin bracing, but he has a few wrinkles of his own. “I have specific places that I put braces on my guitars,” he said, “and I spend a lot of time flexing and bending the top. There’s a certain feel I’m going for; a certain flexibility. Where I place the tone bars depends on the flexibility of the top, and I might have to take quite a bit off a brace to allow the top to vibrate the way I want it to, to get my sound.” Every piece of wood is different, so Kragenbrink says the bracing is a little different for each guitar.
Turn Those Fingers Loose!
Back home again, I decided to spend a little time recording right away, because I suspected this guitar would be an amazing studio instrument with its brilliant highs and beautifully supported lows. I was right. It shimmers with warmth, and is capable of both thunder and lightning. Not many guitars will give you both. It records very purely, without any weird mid-rangey artifacts or bass overdrive, even dropped into a C tuning.
On the couch for an evening, it was a perfectly delightful companion. The body shape is quite comfortable to hold for long periods of time, and the wide fretboard and thin neck let me play without fatigue. Some of the DADGAD stretches require a pretty big finger spread, and they were a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, hands adjust pretty quickly to new territories.
I couldn’t resist a little flatpickin’ just to see what this baby would do. For the loose, Celtic-style big chords with lots of moving notes between, it’s lovely. However, for serious fiddle tune or cross-pickin’, that wide fretboard and string spacing is not ideal. A flatpickin’ guitar is not what this axe is trying to be, so no harm, no foul. It is, however, one of the best damn fingerstyle guitars these fingers have ever been on, and that’s just fine.
Standard tuning is great on this guitar, which is no surprise, but when you drop it into altered tunings it simply comes alive. Wide fretboards encourage a serious fingerstylist to be more accurate and aggressive, to nail the hammer-ons with both hands, to push beyond how we normally play just because we can. Big, booming bassy chords sustained beautifully under melodic lines, and harmonics rang nearly forever, letting me play melody over the top and lose only the strings I touched. Slides were great, and I could still hear the original note ringing clearly when I slid to another, especially if I dug in a little bit on the attack. It takes a truly remarkable instrument to do all of that without overwhelming the ears with unfriendly overtones, so well done.
The Final Mojo
The joy of playing a top-notch, truly exceptional instrument cannot be compared to much of anything else, but if you’re reading PG you probably know that. This is one of those guitars that can provide a peak experience for a player, where time doesn’t mean anything and the world drops away. In the studio, this could become a go-to axe that could complement any recording. If you’re a serious fingerstyle player, this could be your Holy Grail.
you’re looking for a monster fingerstyle guitar that will allow you to soar.
you’d rather be flatpickin’ or if you aren’t ready for a guitar this advanced.
MSRP $5650 - Kragenbrink Guitars - kragenbrinkguitars.com