2007 Circa OM
– Adirondack spruce top
– Madagascar rosewood back, sides & headplate
– Ebony fingerboard & bridge
– Mahogany neck
– Bone nut, saddle & bridgepins
– black plastic ‘short’ binding
– white maple side & back purfling
– custom radial rosewood & maple rosette
– black & white bound fingerboard & headstock
– water buffalo horn strap button & endpin
A Player’s Review, 8/24/07:
John Slobod has worked for years with Dana Bourgeois (among others) and makes his own guitars under the Circa name, based on the designs of the great pre-war Martin 00, OM and dreadnaught guitars. He is passionate about the use of Adirondack spruce soundboards, hide glue and thin finishes. My Circa guitar #33 is an OM cutaway with Adirondack spruce and Madagascar rosewood back & sides, ebony bridge & fingerboard, bone saddle and nut, mahogany neck with a diamond-shaped volute, Madrose headplate and nickel Waverly tuners. The body is bound in black plastic with thin black & white maple purfling on the top, and single strips of white maple purfling on the back and sides. The fingerboard and headstock are bound with black & white trim and the rosette is John’s custom rosewood & maple ‘radial’ design. The endpin and strap button are water buffalo horn.
Playing a guitar is a rich sensory experience involving Sight, Sound and Touch. A fine instrument should be pleasing to the eye in form and construction, should feel good against the body with a neck and action that make playing easy and enjoyable, and, of course, have a sound that is satisfying to the ear. So here are my evaluations of each of these dimensions for this guitar.
I told John that what I was striving for visually was an understated elegance that let the wood itself be the ‘bling’, so we used his thin, ‘short binding’ in black plastic & maple strips for the body, fingerboard and headstock, which was also left blank. The Madrose set we chose for its sound properties also had the grain figure that I found most attractive, with chocolate and reddish highlights reminiscent of Brazilian rosewood. It’s the Adirondack top, however, that is truly special. Most Adirondack or red spruce has some characteristic light streaking along the grain, but this one is nearly uniform in color with only the slightest short streak an inch from the bass side of the fingerboard. The grain is generally very tight and narrow with lots of webbing across the grain, with one strip about a quarter-inch wide on each side so tight it’s difficult to see the grain unaided. With a magnifier, one can see about ten growth rings in that quarter-inch, perhaps indicating a long period of drought in the life of the tree. You can see it in the close-up photo of the area just below the bridge. John had only a very few tops this uniform, which he said he had never seen in Adirondack spruce before. The rosette is John’s own design, incorporating 24 segments of rosewood, enclosed by thin maple strips, with the grain running radially from the center of the soundhole, and flanking black/white/black circlets on the inside and outside of the rosette. The nitrocellulose finish is like glass – flawless. I have put my face to the instrument and gone over every inch of it, and shone a flashlight into the interior of the soundbox, and with the exception of the central 5th fret diamond inlay, which looks up close like the hole routed out for it was initially a little overlarge, the construction, fit & finish are impeccable – not a hint of tearout anywhere along the purfling, joints invisible, interior kerfing and bracing absolutely even and clean with not the slightest speck of glue to be seen anywhere. The fingerboard has John’s ‘long pattern’ of slotted diamond abalone position markers at frets 5, 7, 9, 12 and 15 with double markers at 7 and 12, and abalone dots down the side of the fingerboard at the same positions. There is a slight bit of bi-refraction along the seam of the top just below the bridge and just above the butt, which are mirror-images of each other. Except when the top is at the right angle it’s hardly noticeable. A thin, clear plastic pickguard will be installed in a few weeks.
The instrument basically employs Martin OM specs for the body and feels about as anyone who has played a similar instrument would expect. The body is narrower than a dreadnaught, and tapers toward the neck. Having played a Collings OM for years, it feels completely comfortable and familiar to me. Other than requesting a slightly wider nut for my long fingers, the other dimensions are John’s standard. Here are the specs as I measured them, in inches: width, lower bout: 15, width, upper bout: 11 1/4, waist: 9 1/4, depth at neckblock: 3 1/2, depth at tailblock: 4 1/8, body length: 19 1/2, total length: 40, fret scale: 25 2/5 (25.4), nut width: 1 25/32, string spacing: 2 1/4.
For a rosewood instrument, it is surprisingly light at 4.4 lbs, and when played, it’s easy to feel the guitar vibrating against the body throughout its tonal range, even (faintly) with notes played on the first and second string. The neck is a shallow, rounded ‘V’ shape that has replaced that of my Sobell cittern as the most comfortable neck I’ve ever played. The neck profile stays fairly slim as it approaches the body, and combined with a beveled edge to the fingerboard binding, I have no trouble wrapping my thumb onto the 6th string even up around the 9th fret. I notice some slight squeaking from my palm against the neck’s finish when my hands aren’t absolutely dry; I may ask my local repairman to take off a little of the gloss. The action is set up for fingerstyle, but slightly on the high side since I also use the guitar for rhythm accompaniment for flute and fiddle. I play with a fairly thin pick and a light strum, so no buzzes so far. For fingerstyle it’s pretty comfortable given the trade-off in action height. The cutaway is a new feature for me, and I’m still getting used to the feel and new hand positions when I venture above the 14th fret. I usually string with light gauge phosphor bronze, and the fretting is easy and comfortable, requiring minimal effort. The Waverly tuners are smooth and efficient.
Before I begin this review section, let me relate the goal I gave the builder for this guitar and three short anecdotes.
I told John that sound was paramount, and all other aesthetic and design decisions about the guitar must be secondary to those made to reach the sound I’m after. I’m a sucker for a small guitar with a big, fat low end. I gave John several pages of detailed instructions about the sound I wanted, but summarized them by saying, “Build me an OM with the sound of a prewar dreadnaught.” (minus the 70 years of playing, of course). If he used that as the target, I was confident that the smaller soundbox would give me the bottom end I wanted without any ‘boom’ to muddy it up.
– John personally delivered the guitar to me at the Swannanoa Gathering, and after a wonderful half-hour getting to know it, I gave it to him to display at the Guitar Week’s luthier’s exhibit. Most of the staff tried it out that week. At one point, Paul Asbell was in an empty classroom putting it through its paces, moving from blues and ragtime to swing chord solos and finally bluegrass, with G-runs, licks and strong rhythm playing pushing the volume. Then he stopped and said, “You know it almost sounds like a dreadnaught!” You can perhaps imagine my grin.
– My old music partner, with many years experience in retail and performance was in attendance that week. He owns several Collings guitars, and he’s the toughest guitar critic I know. He gave it a strum, pressed his lips together and began shaking his head. Over the next ten minutes, as he continued to play, he gave an occasional noncommital grunt, then stopped, looked at me and said, with deep sincerity, “Damn you, you’ve ruined my life.” He played a little more, then gave it back to me, soberly pronouncing it (to my astonishment) “the best guitar he ever played.” We discussed the guitar in detail over lunch the next day and I asked him to confirm the opinion he expressed the day before. “Yep,” he said, “the best guitar I ever played.”
– John Slobod has had a hand in the building of thousands of guitars, but mine is only #33 under his own Circa brand. Of those 33, nearly 1/5 are owned by top professionals including Tony McManus (told me his is the best he’s ever played), Al Petteway (bought his on the spot at last year’s Gathering, then sold his Ryan), Stephen Bennett, Ed Dodson (has a second one on order), Mark Cosgrove, Steve Baughman, and, though I don’t consider myself in their league, myself. I think that says something about John’s instruments. After all, we know something about guitars, and we didn’t buy them by accident.
Now, on to the discussion of sound. The guitar was first strung up on July 30, 2007, so the sound is the feature most likely to change, of course. I hope to update this evaluation after it’s been well played-in. A guitar’s sound has a number of different qualities: volume, sustain, responsiveness (including the speed at which the guitar responds to the touch, as well as the energy required to produce it), overtones, balance, a quality I call ‘depth’ or ‘spaciousness’ (does the sound appear to come from the surface of the guitar or from deep down at the bottom of the soundbox?), and that most difficult-to-describe quality we call tone. My evaluation is, of course, subjective, but some of these qualities seem easier to measure than others.
Sustain: I measure sustain by using a stopwatch, hitting a firm strum, then closing my eyes and leaning in close until the sound fades to silence. I do this 4 or 5 times, then average the times. I’m usually within a second each time. My 1985 Sobell cittern is my benchmark instrument for a long sustain at 42 seconds. For some styles of music it’s almost too long. I consider a guitar with a long sustain to be around 30 seconds. The Circa sustains for 30+ seconds.
Volume: This is not the loudest guitar I’ve ever played (some prewar dreads were louder), but it’s pretty close. When giving it a firm strum, it’s difficult to hear conversations in the room, and people sound like they’re shouting. Because it’s set up with light gauge strings and a low action, I get string buzz before I ever max out its headroom. With higher action and/or heavier strings the volume might be even greater.
Response: As to responsiveness, sound comes off the strings very quickly, and when one digs in for more volume, the response is immediate. The response at low volumes is less dramatic, but still respectable. Played fingerstyle without picks, it responds reasonably well to a light touch with a volume that is intimate and somewhat restrained, but with flat or fingerpicks it gets huge quickly and with little effort.The low-volume response may improve as the guitar continues to open up.
Depth: The depth or spaciousness of the sound is what gives a guitar that solid, ‘fat’ quality across its dynamic range, and this is an area in which this guitar excels. The bottom end is what I hoped it would be: a deep, substantial rumble, unusual in a guitar this size, that you can feel in your chest when you play, but one that still retains its clarity. When you move across the open strings into the higher registers, that throaty quality continues on all strings, revealing this instrument’s greatest strength – its balance.
Balance: A big low end and plenty of volume quickly become a liability if they overpower portions of the guitar’s dynamic range, but this instrument is consistently strong and fat from 1st through 6th strings. It just sounds solid and substantial on every string, anywhere on the neck. There is just the slightest scooping of the mids, but this is typical of the traditional vintage sound, so it ‘sounds right’ to me. I’ve owned well-balanced instruments before, but combined with the depth of its tone, the balance in this guitar’s voice is right up there with the best guitars I’ve ever played.
Overtones: Overtones are the harmonic frequencies complementing the fundamental tones. Some limit the definition to partials of the plucked strings, but I use it to encompass sympathetic vibrations in the unplucked strings as well. As luthier Alan Carruth puts it, “An acoustic guitar acts as a complex filter, reducing the output of some frequencies and enhancing others relative to the mix the plucked string produces. Every guitar is a bit different in this regard.” An instrument that generates a lot of overtones is said to be ‘complex’ or ‘sparkling,’ while one with fewer overtones is said to be ‘dry.’ These complementary frequencies add tonal color and give the sound personality. As one might expect with a guitar so new, and one based on the vintage Martin sound, #33 has very strong fundamental tones, with, at this point, subtle overtones which have grown steadily stronger over the last few weeks. The rosewood gives the sound some richness, but there is also a surprising clarity to the individual strings when strummed which I have found to be more typical in mahogany guitars. Overtonic complexity is the area where I expect to see the most development as the instrument gets played more, ‘opens up’ and the tone sweetens.
Timbre/Tone: If the overtones give the sound ‘personality,’ timbre describes the quality of that personality, combining the fundamentals, overtones and all other resonant frequencies generated by both the vibrating strings and the vibrating wood to create a particular instrument’s unique voice. It’s what makes a middle ‘C’ played on a clarinet sound different from a middle ‘C’ played on a trumpet. It’s this ‘quality of personality’ I believe most folks refer to when they speak generally about a guitar’s ‘tone,’ and this is a subjective area I find difficult to discuss at all without the heavy use of metaphor. The tone is, of course, immature, but already I hear a quality in it that I might describe as ‘regal,’ ‘sumptuous,’ or ‘aristocratic.’ The image that keeps recurring to me is that of a thoroughbred colt with champion bloodlines, young, but already impressive, with the promise of enormous, perhaps even unlimited, potential.
My goal is to own a few guitars that I would consider ‘exceptional;’ the best of the best. So does this one qualify? I think it’s too soon to go quite that far, so, as good as it is right now, I’m trying to contain my excitement. It surprises me every time I pick it up. I seem to hear something different in the sound of it every day. It will take some time, and experimentation with different brands of strings, picks, playing techniques and styles for me to really get familiar with the specific character of this instrument’s voice. I guess you could say it’s still ‘imprinting’ itself on me. However, I will say that I already feel that I have been entrusted with the stewardship of something extraordinary, an instrument that may very well prove in time to be to be a truly ‘exceptional’ guitar.
See photos of Al Petteway’s Circa here.
In August, my Circa OM will be three years old. During that time it has been my main, do-everything guitar, and, until the arrival nine months ago of my Bashkin 00, my only guitar.
Most of what I play these days is Celtic music, and when I do gigs with my wife (flute) and son (fiddle), it’s a rhythm guitar and gets played pretty vigorously, but when I gig solo, I play fingerstyle exclusively, with a lighter touch, in a variety of altered tunings, so I’ve ‘played-in’ the OM in several different ways.
With another Circa, a custom 00, due to arrive in about a month, I thought it was time to update how the OM has fared, and how it might have fulfilled the potential I first saw in it.
– Soon after I received the guitar, I had a clear plastic pickguard installed by Randy Hughes. It’s essentially invisible and provides the finish with a bit of extra protection when I’m strumming it as a rhythm instrument.
– A few months later, I had Bob Colosi send John Slobod a saddle blank of west African hard ivory (WAHI), which John shaped, compensated and sent to me to replace the original bone saddle (more on this below).
– A friend of mine has a ToneRite device for speeding up the maturation of an instrument’s voice, and I borrowed it on two separate occasions to give the OM a few days’ treatment.
In my initial review, I described the OM metaphorically as “like a thoroughbred colt with champion bloodlines,” and now, with a few years perspective, the metaphor seems especially apt, in a number of ways. A champion thoroughbred can be particular in what it likes, and require special accommodations, but when handled properly, can achieve true greatness. Similarly, the OM has required a bit of special handling and some accommodations on my part.
This guitar has been more sensitive to humidity changes than any instrument I’ve owned. I got the guitar in August, and a few months later, as we moved into cooler, drier months here in the mountains, a hairline crack developed in the finish (not the wood) about two inches long directly above the center seam between the bridge and tail where the two pieces of the top were joined. Since it was in the finish, it was only visible when light refracted through it at just the right angle. It was a simple cosmetic flaw, and was repaired under warranty by arrangement with a local repairman, Randy Hughes, and it has been stable since.
While John told me that this top, with its flawless, tight, straight grain is unique in his experience with Adirondack spruce, it has also proved to move more, seasonally, than other tops he’s seen. I’m picky about having the action just right, and if it’s off by 1/64 inch, I’ll notice it, so although I was careful to keep a moistened humidifier in the case except during our humid summers, I also gigged with the guitar frequently, and during the dry indoor heat of the winter months, fret buzzes would develop from action that had become too low. I found I had to loosen the truss rod every winter and tighten it back in the summer. The day John delivered the guitar to me, he expressed concern that the neck angle might need to be increased slightly, and after this summer’s Guitar Week he may take it home with him to do just that in order to give the neck a bit greater range of adjustment.
This guitar also demands a precision in tuning unlike any other guitar I’ve owned. It takes me a bit more time and focus to get it tuned just right, because if a string is off by even a few cents, the guitar’s voice is so clear and revealing that it’s a noticeable distraction to me. On the other hand, when I get it just right, everything about the sound falls exactly into place, and all I notice is the music. This guitar compels the player’s focus and rewards fine technique and sensitive dynamic control. Conversely, it can also be unforgiving, and an unimaginative, pedestrian or clumsy technique will be painfully apparent.
By now, the guitar has received its share of minor dings and small scratches from string changes, the occasional capo falling off the neck onto the body or top, or other consequences of inattention on my part. The finish, already ridiculously thin, is now revealing slight contours to the grain and pores in the woods of the body that I find quite beautiful. Bellying behind the bridge is slight and just what it should be at this point in its life. The frets have just begun to show some slight signs of wear, and the fingerboard is about due for a light steel wool polishing to remove some finger oil and dirt buildup.
All in all, life with this guitar requires a little more attention than I’m used to, but not much.
Now to the heart of the matter – how the sound has changed. The basic character of the sound that I described in my initial review remains, but there have been some developments.
Replacing the bone saddle with one made of WAHI made a noticeable change for the better on this guitar. The new saddle seemed to give everything about the sound ‘just a little bit more,’ as if a layer had just been removed from it. On another guitar that might initially be on the bright side, WAHI may add an unwanted crispness, but on this guitar, resonance, volume and sustain increased, and the entire dynamic range gained a bit more presence without sacrificing warmth. When strummed, it has a satisfying growl or bite that allows it to cut through the mix, all of which make it an outstanding guitar for rhythm accompaniment.
You can find lively debates about the merits of the ToneRite device on most guitar forums, but my own experience with it was ultimately inconclusive. After two treatments, I think it did give a slight boost to the presence, similar (but to a lesser degree) to that of the WAHI saddle, but whether the change was actual or imagined, I couldn’t say for sure.
Other changes, occurring over a longer time period, have been even more subtle and difficult to quantify. In this guitar forum thread, I question our ability to notice such gradual changes based on memories from years ago. Has the guitar ‘opened up’ and improved? Yes, I think so, but it might be more useful to say that what has really improved is my opinion of the sound.
Like many fruitful partnerships, the OM and I have ‘grown into’ each other. There are still some days when it doesn’t sound quite as good to me, and, until I got a second guitar in the house, there were times when I think I was habituated to it and didn’t fully appreciate it, but most of the time I can easily get lost in its voice, discovering new layers of richness.
In thinking about my guitars one day, I came up with a ‘3-Word Review’ for each, summing up their qualities in three descriptive adjectives. For my Bashkin 00, they were ‘Warm, Sweet, Intimate.’ For the OM they were ‘Regal, Assertive, Complex.’ The OM demands my best efforts, but rewards them spectacularly, and in so doing makes me a better player.
The real question for me, of course, is, “Is this OM an Exceptional Guitar, my own term for one of the very few of the Best Guitars I’ve Ever Played?”
The Perfect Guitar, the Holy Grail, The Best, the guitar that completely satisfies the player every single time, is an ideal, not a real guitar, and so, unobtainable. For this reason, I avoid the term ‘best’ because I believe over-use, and perhaps any use, devalues it into meaninglessness, even if I’m just expressing my own opinion. Even the phrase, ‘one of the best,’ makes me squirm. But regarding this guitar, some things have become clear to me.
I knew soon after its arrival that the OM was undoubtedly the best guitar I’ve ever OWNED, but whether it was among the best I’d ever PLAYED was still in question. The OM re-kindled my love affair with the guitar, and in these three years I’ve made it a point to play many outstanding guitars by some of the world’s top luthiers. There was a Somogyi that dazzled me in a way my OM didn’t, and a few more I thought might be comparable, but most just emphasized to me what an extraordinary instrument I was privileged to own.
It’s been a slow realization, but each guitar I’ve played over these three years has brought me closer to the conclusion that, yes, in fact, I am in possession of one of the Best Guitars I’ve Ever Played, that my Circa OM is truly an Exceptional Guitar, and in that, I am a fortunate man, indeed.
Over the past year, I noticed that there was a slight bowing in the center of the saddle as the string tension pulled it toward the headstock. I was also getting some buzzes when I played it hard and the saddle slot in the bridge was too shallow to risk raising it with shims. John’s saddle was the traditional thickness of the Martins his OM was based on and, having noticed this deformation in other guitars, he was now building with a thicker, stiffer saddle.
In August, he decided to bring #33 into the shop to re-rout the bridge for a new saddle, but once it arrived, he decided to just make an entirely new bridge for it. When the guitar arrived home after the modifications, I found that John had also dressed the frets, cleaned nine years of finger-gunk off the fingerboard and polished & buffed out the entire guitar. It gleamed like it was brand-new with an action that was slightly higher and just right for vigorous rhythm playing. And there was something else as well… the sound was subtly different – in a very good way.
Perhaps the thicker saddle caused it or the new bridge varied in density from the old one, but the voice seemed a bit smoother and somehow more satisfying. It could be that the spruce-up just made me want to play it more and this renewed my appreciation for it, I don’t know. But I do know that I feel like I have re-discovered my delight in this extraordinary instrument.
Since my last update, I’ve added to my Bashkin and Circa two phenomenal fingerstyle guitars, a Buendia jumbo and a Doerr Legacy Select (similar to a small jumbo). They don’t have quite the crisp bite I like to hear for rhythm accompaniment, but since most of my playing is fingerstyle, these guitars with their sumptuous tone are what I play the most. However, I’ve always held that the OM design is the ideal all-purpose guitar size, and it’s worth mentioning that even with stiff competition from the Buendia and Doerr, the Circa does everything well enough that if I could only have one, it remains my do-everything, Swiss-Army-knife, ‘desert island’ guitar.