Since 1986, Germany’s Lakewood guitars have been flying the flag for quality European lutherie. We sample a couple: one fingerpicker, one all-rounder. Review by Huw Price
Description: Cutaway grand concert-sized electro acoustic. Made in Germany
Price: £1,939 inc. hard case
Contact: Go To Guitars – 01925 444696 – www.gotoguitars.com – www.lakewood-guitars.com
Cleanliness, precision and accuracy are the attributes that first struck us about these two examples from Lakewood’s Natural Series. The lines are simple and elegant, decoration is restrained, and everything present seems to have a function or purpose.
The overall theme is woodiness – and lots of it. If any plastic is used in the construction of these guitars, we couldn’t find any. Although the website doesn’t trumpet the fact, bone is used for both nuts and saddles and the bridge pins are turned ebony with pearl dots; even the tuners have rosewood buttons. These guitars are made from solid woods rather than laminates – exactly what you’d expect at this price. Even the mahogany necks are one-piece affairs, joined to the bodies with bolts though the heel and glue under the fingerboard extension.
The fingerboards are ebony, and it’s either very high grade or it has been dyed to achieve such a uniform colour. We suspect the former because nothing stained the fingers during playing – the usual telltale sign. The absence of binding exposes the fret ends, so it was immediately apparent that whoever installs and dresses frets in the Lakewood factory is a master craftsman. They are perfectly seated and dressed to kill.
Although the two guitars’ basic designs are identical, the rosettes have different centrepieces. Lakewood select the inlay wood to match the backs and sides, so for these two models, East Indian rosewood is chosen for the A-31 and ovangkol for the M-18.
All the purflings and bindings are wood, but the headstock logos are white pearl. It’s expertly done but the placement of the logos, combined with the design, makes them look a tad off-centre. We measured them to check so we can report that they’re not, but some might feel the logos would look better across the top of the headstocks.
Although the model designations suggest that Lakewood took inspiration from the UK’s road network, the term Natural Series most likely alludes to the finish. The factory has gone for the currently popular ‘open pore’ style finish that isn’t preceded by grain filling. This means the wood is sealed and protected, but it feels like natural wood rather than a layer of lacquer or plastic. So, having determined which characteristics these models share, it’s time to examine the individual features in more detail.
The A-31 Custom is the smaller of the pair. Although the slot head with 12th fret neck joint formula may be old-school, the clean aesthetic and cutaway body design makes for far more contemporary overall feel. Looking closely at the construction, the neck has an exaggerated volute and the bridge is located dead centre on the lower bout.
Small pearl dot markers are provided along with a noise-cancelling LR Baggs Anthem pickup system that combines an Element undersaddle piezo pickup with an internal condenser microphone. The mic sits 3mm off the bridge plate, much like a boundary microphone, and the onboard crossover circuitry rolls off the piezo response above 250Hz.
The pickup’s primary function is to generate the bass and low mid frequencies while allowing the Tru-Mic to handle the upper mids and treble. A control module is located just inside the soundhole and features a volume control, phase switch, battery status switch and a slider to blend the signals from the two sources.
Although slot-headed guitars are slightly trickier to string up, the trade-off is easier tuning. There’s no need to reach over or around to grab a button, which is a real advantage if you like to play in a variety of tunings. On a side note, it must be said that these Schaller tuners are aesthetically very pleasing. These open-geared tuners are a perfect match for this style of guitar and they feel very smooth and precise.
String-to-string balance is very even, although the fairly small body doesn’t allow for deep chesty bass. The rosewood contributes crisp and airy treble with plenty of sustain and complex harmonic overtones. Scoring low on the ‘boxy’ meter, the A-31 is some distance away from the woody, retro tones associated with some Martin style slot-heads.
The Anthem’s output level is slightly lower than some modern pickup systems, but it’s surprisingly resistant to feedback. With the fader set towards the undersaddle pickup the sound is dry and fairly typical of a high- quality piezo pickup – albeit with all the nasty top-end rolled off. The microphone sounds louder and brighter, with a discernible airiness that could never be achieved with an undersaddle pickup alone.
The microphone will certainly help the A-31 to cut through drums, bass and electric guitar in the mix, but used alone through a good amp some might find it too bright. The piezo fills out the sound and bolsters the bass without adding boominess, but so long as there is some of the microphone signal in the mix the Anthem system tends towards brightness – and there are no equalisation controls.
If you are playing through a preamp or mixer with tone controls, this shouldn’t present too much of a problem. Ultimately this is a superior acoustic pickup system that actually manages to reproduce the sound and dynamic response of the guitar itself.
The Grand Concert sized body combines an AAA grade European spruce top with ovangkol back and sides. For those unfamiliar with ovangkol, Taylor established its use as a tone timber for guitar making. It’s a rainforest hardwood from West Africa that some describe as a cheaper and more sustainable ‘rosewood substitute’.
Since its headstock is thinner than the A-31’s, the volute has a more subtle appearance. There are no position dots on the front of the fingerboard, but they are present along the top side. The tuners are Lakewood-branded Schaller M6 diecast units and, like the A-31, the M-18 has a rosewood veneer headstock veneer and heel cap.
Although it appears much larger, the M-18 is actually only 10mm wider at the upper and lower bout, and the bodies are in fact the same length. If it weren’t for the cutaway there wouldn’t be much to choose between them, but the 14th fret neck join and bridge location should provide some sonic contrast.
We had anticipated hearing some extra bass from this one, but there isn’t much to choose between the two Lakewoods in that regard. The most striking differences are the softer trebles and stronger mids exhibited by the M-18. Both guitars are decent all-rounders, but the A-31 has a more delicate tonal quality with a faster and more complex response that might just win out with dedicated fingerpickers.
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The M-18 is a beefier and punchier-sounding guitar, so it’s better suited to more forceful picking styles and rhythm duties. Unlike some, Lakewood make no claim that ovangkol is a ‘rosewood substitute’, and that’s probably for the best. The clear treble, complex harmonics and impressive sustain are certainly rosewood attributes, but this guitar’s thicker and chewier midrange character is perhaps closer to walnut. In fact you might have thought the back and sides were walnut until you checked the specs.
Dedicated acoustic players often prefer a medium-high action, and these Lakewoods were set up that way. Unlike many acoustics, the M-18 and A-31 had plenty of scope for adjustment because the saddles were unusually tall – protruding a little over 5mm above the bridge at their highest points.
The build quality and sound certainly justify the retail price and, at this level, a setup should be part of the deal if you’re buying from a shop. These are the types of guitars that serious players might buy if they tend to follow their heads rather than their hearts.