Martin SC-13E Review
A unique and responsive acoustic with an electric soul.
Lovely and unique tones. Supreme playability. Beautiful build. Fair price.
Piezo pickup only.
According to Martin, the company's new SC-13E model was “designed to bridge the gap between acoustic guitar and electric guitar." It certainly does! At first glance, it looks sort of like a D-28-style dreadnought with an offset waist and an unusual cutaway. But with its extra-slim neck, low action, and innovative no-heel neck joint, it feels a lot like a well-set-up electric guitar.
It's an inviting concept for players who feel more comfortable on electric than acoustic. But don't let the striking design details blind you to the fact it's also a fine-sounding steel-string with a lovely and unique voice.
Built to Thrill
The Mexico-made SC-13E has a handsome solid Sitka spruce top. It's graced by a lovely blue and pearloid rosette and retro faux-tortoise pickguard. The glossy finish is immaculate. The understated 4-ply binding includes a thin layer of blue, mirroring the rosette. The back and sides are koa veneer, but, man, that's some pretty veneer! The guitar is gorgeous from any angle.
The 20-fret neck is fashioned from an unspecified hardwood (Martin uses mahogany, sapele, sipo, and Spanish cedar interchangeably for the neck on this model). It meets the body at the 13th fret. But those top seven frets are almost absurdly accessible thanks to the guitar's most immediately striking features: an unusually shaped cutaway and a no-heel neck joint. There's a deep taper where the heel would ordinarily be, making it almost as easy to summit the fretboard as on, say, a Telecaster. I've never played an acoustic guitar with a more accessible top register. Unconventional acoustic guitar cutaways—or, for that matter, any acoustic guitar cutaways—are matters of taste. But I think this one looks pretty bitchin'.
The strings sit close to the ebony fretboard. The action is super-low yet buzz free. It's startlingly easy to barre the strings or play complex chords on the topmost frets. The playability is simply phenomenal.
A Tone of Its Own
The SC-13E's voice is sparkly and articulate. The treble and bass strings balance beautifully. Tones are uncommonly expressive, and when you shift your picking hand toward the bridge or soundhole, you definitely hear the difference. It's equally responsive to picking dynamics—the guitar seems to encourage you to exploit extremes of loud and soft. Particularly striking is the strong natural compression under forceful playing. When I played with about 80 percent of maximum force, tones were aggressive yet solid. But when I advanced to 100 percent force, the guitar didn't get noticeably louder. It simply sounded more forceful.
It's not an especially loud acoustic guitar, nor does it have a great deal of low-end power. Close-miked in the studio or amplified onstage, that's not an issue. But if you need maximum acoustic volume for busking, playing in church, or whatever, you may prefer an instrument with more output and low end.
You know how so many steel-strings crap out under maximum picking force? Strings clatter against frets. Tones get harsh and thin. But that simply doesn't happen here. That's especially impressive given the low action. So, paradoxically perhaps, the SC-13E's dynamic response may suit both skilled acoustic players who exploit the guitar's entire dynamic range and ham-fisted frontpersons that take their acoustic guitars into the nasty zone when they get passionate and strum too hard. Regardless of your playing abilities, it's hard to make this guitar crap out.
The SC-13E employs Fishman MX-T electronics, the OEM cousin of the popular Matrix system. There's no internal microphone or condenser mic—just an under-saddle piezo. Piezos are extremely feedback-resistant, which suits a guitar designed to hold its own onstage with a band at high volume. To many players, piezos sound thin and “quacky." (Okay, I'm one of those players.) But this is an uncommonly nice-sounding piezo system. It delivers higher highs and lower lows than a microphone.
Check out the demo video at 3:20, where I contrast the miked sound with the pickup sound. Single notes from the pickup sometimes display some papery thinness, especially on the third string. But with a bit of reverb, it's quite listenable. Add bass and drums, and no one in the audience will complain.
Meanwhile, the piezo arrangement means you can get seriously loud onstage without making the guitar shriek. (According to Martin, the asymmetric body shape also discourages feedback.) I had a lot of fun plugging the SC-13E into amps and amp simulators for decidedly non-acoustic sounds, as heard in the final portion of the demo video.
The MX-T system also includes a nifty tuner mounted at an angle just inside the soundhole, where the player can see it, but the audience can't. It mutes the guitar output when engaged.
Martin's SC-13E is an innovative instrument, thoughtfully conceived and beautifully realized. Players who've logged more hours on electric than acoustic will almost certainly dig it, but they aren't the only ones. The guitar literally lets my fingers play things I'd have trouble replicating on most steel-strings. It's packed with stage-friendly features: sharp looks, great feedback resistance, a concealed tuner, and more. It excels as both a traditional acoustic and a springboard to sonic experimentation.
Watch the Review Demo: