From travel guitars to a 12-string, Freshman’s all-new Songwriters look very promising indeed. We take a closer look at a cutaway dread and an OM. Review by Huw Price
Description: Dreadnought acoustic. Made in China
Price: £599.95 inc hard case
Description: OM-sized acoustic. Made in China
Contact: Access All Areas – 01355228028 – www.freshmanguitars.net
If there is one positive aspect to recessionary times, it’s that guitar manufacturers are inspired to design quality guitars at affordable prices. That was certainly the intention of Freshman’s head honcho Sean Kelly, and the specs of the new Songwriter Series are impressive to say the least.
Top of the list has to be the all-solid wood construction. Kelly says that he handles wood selection duties himself rather than leaving it to the factory; apparently there are around 10 timber merchants around the globe that the high-end manufacturers use, and the wood used for the Songwriter Series comes from them.
Talking of tops, we’re looking at AA-grade Canadian sitka spruce. The slightly opaque sunburst finish of our review OM makes it hard to discern what’s beneath, but the dreadnought’s clear finish reveals a very attractive bit of timber. While not ruler-straight, the grain is tight, the colour is even and there is ample cross silking. Wood is also used for the binding, with a band of mahogany all around the front and rear of the bodies, along the edges of the rosewood fingerboards and around the headstocks, while the purfling and rosette are herringbone.
While many manufacturers use bling to try and distract you from the inadequacies of their budget models, it’s not the case with Freshman’s Songwriter models. The reason is simple – there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. Bone is used for the nuts and the compensated saddles, and the matt finish is applied so thinly that there’s no unsightly build-up around the neck joints or fingerboard tongue.
It’s fair to say that the designs are traditional rather than innovative. The open-geared butterbean tuners look the part; they’re gold-plated and unbranded, but they operate smoothly and there’s a pleasing absence of neck-heaviness. The braces are quartersawn spruce and they’re arranged in Freshman’s derivation of an X pattern with scalloping. Kelly tells us that the construction techniques Freshman guitars have developed for their high-end European made guitars are also employed on the Songwriter series, and their confidence is such that both guitars come with a lifetime warranty.
The model designation is more informative that catchy, but at least it serves a purpose. Decoding the cipher we get SONG for Songwriter, D for dreadnought, C for cutaway, E for electric, and RW for rosewood. For convenience let’s refer to this one as the ‘DCERW’. The back and sides are solid wood, and there are thin crack-stopping rosewood popsicle braces glued to the rims. The deep brown tone does make the rosewood fingerboard appear pale, but it’s not an unattractive look.
The peghead overlay matches the overall scheme of things but the presence of a slightly off-centre gold transfer logo provides the first clue that this isn’t a high-end model. Flip it over and you’ll notice a scarf-jointed headstock and a stacked heel. The heel itself is formed from three blocks of wood and the whole assembly is mahogany. It’s all stained a pleasing shade of reddish brown – except for the mahogany heel cap. If they were going for contrast they succeeded, but as it is the heel cap matched neither the neck nor the binding. Anyway, at the price, this is just nitpicking. Besides a very small but filled gap in the binding at the rear corner of the cutaway, the build quality is impressive.
Sean Kelly collaborated with German pickup manufacturer AER to voice the electronics. This system is exclusive to Freshman, and it’s a ‘Tube System’ undersaddle pickup with a single volume control mounted just inside the soundhole. The integrated preamp/output socket is mounted through the tail block, and the battery pouch is fixed to the neck block.
The quality of the DCERW’s sound is a surprise. Some rosewood dreadnoughts can sound metallic and brash when new, but the DCERW is way more refined; there’s a balance and poise that gives it an even and joined-up quality without being dull or unexciting. It has real thump in the lows, navigating a line between OM-style focus and dreadnought roundness while avoiding boominess. The treble has plenty of ker-ching to even things out, and the midrange is up-front enough to make the DCE a viable fingerpicker – but it excels as a rhythm instrument with its dynamic range, top end volume and muscular delivery.
The AER Tube System is basic but effective. The absence of a tone control means that the preamp’s frequency response needs to be voiced sympathetically, and we’re pleased to report that it is. Although it clearly originates from an undersaddle unit, the sound has plenty of warmth with a sweet and rounded quality in the treble that adds up to a very likeable plug-in-and-play tone.
Output levels are very healthy, so the AER Tube System shouldn’t be fussy about preamps. We also found the DCERW quite resistant to feedback considering it’s an all-solid big-bodied acoustic. Although undersaddle systems always seem to exhibit a slight mismatch between acoustic and electric dynamic response, the AER performed better than most.
You’ve probably got the gist of this by now, but just in case, it’s O for orchestral model and TSB for tobacco sunburst. Unlike the DC, this model comes in four flavours – a natural finish SONGO and a left-handed variant, the SONGOLH, while the SONGOC is a cutaway electro-acoustic version. We’ll just refer to this one as the SONGO.
This ‘shaded top’ doesn’t have the trademark teardrop shape of an old Gibson, but the deep amber and dark brown combine to create the merest hint of cherry as they transition, and it certainly looks the part. It’s very nicely done, and the colour contrast makes the herringbone pop.
Again the back and sides are solid, but this time it’s mahogany. For the most part the colour is natural but there’s dark brown shading at the tail, waist and around the neck joint. The back of the body and headstock are sunburst too, with more shading along the neck. The au naturel heel cap looks more effective this time thanks to the contrast, and it’s a better match for the body binding.
The gold tuners are the same and on our review model the logo is white; it will be gold on the production guitar we’re assured. Although we do like the look of the sunburst, when Freshman describe the finish as matt, they really do mean matt. It’s really well done but it has a slightly downmarket vibe. Never mind, that’s just our taste, and the natural finish probably looks fantastic.
The SONGO sounds completely different to the DCERW, but it’s no less impressive. The first strum was greeted with a big, loud and joyful chime with a gust of wood scent hanging in the air. The SONGO is extremely responsive and very little effort is required to get the body resonating. It also has unusually long sustain. As a strummer it’s a tad crashier and more exuberant than the DCERW, but that’s more of a mahogany thing than a defining characteristic of this guitar. The wound strings retain fantastic definition and punch for bluegrass rhythm work ,and the upper harmonics cut through cleanly without any edginess.
The dynamic range impresses too. It sounds sweet and tuneful strummed gently then really barks when you hit it hard. If it does have an upper limit, then we couldn’t find it. Another impressive quality is the range of tones. Move the plectrum from the end of the neck to the bridge and it’s not unlike changing pickups on a Tele.
If anything, the SONGO does the pickin’ thing even better. This guitar is very crisp and articulate, with solid bass notes, a Martin-like feathery quality to the treble and a nice strong midrange. It’s easy-going, too, so you don’t need perfect technique to keep those arpeggios even.
You might expect deeper bass from this OM but what the SONGO lacks in sonorous refinement it makes up for with rootsy and bluesy country charm. It sounds very much at home picking out ragtime tunes, and notes really gel together under a bottleneck.
Freshman isn’t the only company manufacturing affordable, all-solid wood acoustics in the Far East with bone bits and cool tuners, but it can’t be said that anybody is doing it better. Some may have an aesthetic preference for gloss, but the quality of the finish on both these Freshmans cannot be faulted. In general we veer away from commenting on the quality of setups in guitar reviews – unless its remarkably bad or good. In this case it’s the latter because both guitars play superbly. Strung up with D’Addario 12 gauge EXPs phosphor bronze strings as standard, they are extremely easy to play.
They have proper acoustic necks too, with a palm-filling C profile that cannot be faulted. Best of all the there’s no fret buzzing or rattling, and notes chime clearly, so whether you stick to cowboy chords, use a lot of barre chords or like to mix fretted notes with open strings, the SONGO and the DCERW ring true and easy. The models in the Songwriter series are more than likely to keep improving as time performs its wonders on the wood. If you hurry, there’s even an introductory offer with a hard case, tuner and leather strap thrown in to sweeten the deal.