With its walnut back and sides and redwood top, the 25 1/2"-scale Focus SE has a recipe that’s hard to beat for this reviewer—and the tonewoods are just the start.

Like a lot of successful guitar companies, Breedlove maintains a guitar line with a little something for everyone. Last year, I reviewed an under-$1000 American Series C20 with solid Sitka and solid mahogany that blew me away with its value and playability (July 2010 web exclusive). But Breedlove still makes beautiful high-end guitars of the sort that put the company on the map in the first place, and the company’s Passport series are a fine example of how to mix quality, style, and sound in an affordable instrument.

The walnut-and-redwood Focus SE reviewed here tends toward the pricier end of Breedlove’s product spectrum, but it demonstrates why Breedlove remains a major player in the high-end acoustic market and a favorite of players from Jeff Tweedy to Ed Gerhard and ex-Byrd and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman. This is an exceptional and unique guitar.

Walnut and Redwood
With its walnut back and sides and redwood top, the 25 1/2"-scale Focus SE has a recipe that’s hard to beat for this reviewer—and the tonewoods are just the start. Subtle ornamentation, a bound ebony fretboard, and ebony tuner buttons all exude a soft-spoken luxuriousness. The delicate abalone rosette and redwood top complement each other perfectly, and the asymmetrical winged, pinless bridge almost seems to wink at you when you look at the guitar. With its compact, cutaway body and signature headstock, the Focus SE is unmistakably a Breedlove. It’s tough for any guitar manufacturers to move successfully beyond the lines of tradition, but this guitar gorgeously illustrates how Breedlove has helped bridge forwardthinking and old-world styles.

The neck is a fingerstyle-friendly 1 3/4" at the nut, and the slim, one-piece mahogany neck has a 16" radius. Our Focus SE also came with an L.R. Baggs Element Active undersaddle system with a simple Volume and Tone control, though it can be ordered with other electronics, if desired.

Warm and Snappy
From the very first strum, the deep-bodied Focus SE sounds full and brilliant. And it begs one to question why more luthiers don’t take advantage of the walnut-and-redwood combination. It’s quite loud, projects extremely well, and is responsive to a light touch—all of which translates to great dynamic range. Play it whisper-soft and you’ll get a crystalline, delicate tone. Dig in, and the Focus SE rocks without significantly blurring overtones. That dynamic range is great news for fingerstylists who work in alternate tunings. DADGAD sounded simultaneously dark and brilliant, thanks to the snappy-but-deep qualities of the walnut back and sides—which sound a bit like a cross between rosewood and mahogany—while the redwood has the warm detail of cedar. Likewise, C–G–D–G–B–D tuning became deep and swampy—almost hypnotic—as it sustained. There’s plenty of punch and power for expressive use of the lowest and highest ranges, and the essential voice of the guitar remains intact and consistently lovely.
One reason for this Breedlove’s impressive sustain may be the 91.5 degree neck angle, which increases tension a touch without sacrificing playability. The JDL Bridge Truss also makes it possible to put a bit more tension on the top. The combination of the two construction elements makes the guitar exceptionally lively. The action on the Focus SE was a little high right out of the box, but I used the included hex wrench to crank the neck relief a hair, back where I like it.

I tested the Focus SE at a solo festival gig, and I was so confident that it would handle whatever I threw at it that it was the only guitar I took with me. I had no regrets. With an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI in front of a rather shoddy PA, the guitar still sounded warm and lovely. And throughout a set in which I employed three different tunings in brutal heat, harsh humidity, and a fierce wind, the Focus SE hung tough, and the pickup sounded fantastic. If you’re a gigging musician, that’s what you want—a guitar that’s versatile, rugged, and sweet sounding in a multitude of musical and performance environments. I can’t imagine putting a guitar through a tougher gigging situation, and the Focus SE navigated all if it while sounding great and looking mighty stylish.

The Verdict
The Focus SE is a stellar acoustic in almost every respect. It’s gig-ready and at home in a lot of playing situations— though it really works best as a fingerstyle machine. The warm-but-snappy tone is something you can get lost in. The active pickup system is outstanding and a great match for the guitar. Factor those gorgeous looks and the buttery playability, and this guitar is ready for all comers—even in this rarefied price range. If you’re ready for a 6-string that’s something out of the ordinary but playable under every situation, the Focus SE will not let you down.
Buy if...
you need a professional, gorgeous workhouse that plays like a dream, sounds like an angel, and is ready for any gigging situation.
Skip if...
your playing style veers away from fingerstyle-friendly realms and toward more traditional fare.

Street $3999 - Breedlove Guitars -