With solid Englemann tops, solid rosewood back and sides, cutaway options and Fishman electrics, these Cedar Creek guitars from Freshman look to have what it takes. Review by Huw Price
Description: FA400D: Dreadnought acoustic. /FA400GACE/F: Grand Auditorium acoustic guitar. Made in China
Price: FA400D: £799.95 inc. hard case/FA400GACE/F £999.95 inc. hard case
Contact: Access All Areas – 01355 228028 – www.freshmanguitars.net
Although both these guitars form part of Freshman’s ‘Cedar Creek’ series, neither one has a cedar top. Both have solid Engelmann spruce tops with a pale and almost creamy sheen; they’re ‘AAA-grade’, so we’d have to conclude that the grading scheme that Freshman employs involves tap tone as well as appearance. The Grand Auditorium has straight but widely-spaced grain with an even colour, while the dreadnought has tighter grain and the shade varies noticeably each side of the centre joint. Both are attractive but we don’t think the slightly opaque gloss finish does the spruce many favours.
In contrast the back and sides look gorgeous. Both guitars are graced with solid Indian rosewood of a deep chocolaty brown with subtle shades of purple, and it contrasts really well against the pale Canadian maple binding on the front and back.
The necks are three-piece mahogany with a stacked heel and a scarfe-jointed headstock. You might expect the profiles to be identical, but the Grand Auditorium has a slim, almost ‘electric’ neck profile while the deeper C profile gives the dreadnought a more traditional ‘acoustic’ feel. Both necks are treated to 20-fret rosewood fingerboards with black bound edges and pearl dots. Pearl logos grace the rosewood peghead overlay and gold-plated Grover tuners with lightweight black buttons complete the look.
Some modern Grovers are sloppy and vague but these are smooth and precise and allow you to tune up or down with ease and accuracy.
The finish may be glossy but the adornment ends there; Freshman’s styling is neat, understated and bling-free, with only a few bands of mahogany forming the rosette. The crimson hue of the pickguards does look a bit ‘plums and custard’ against the colour of these tops and if you’re used to the ‘Martin look’ then they might appear to be at a bit of an odd angle.
Besides the shape, size and neck profile both guitars are more or less identical, but the ‘F’ in the Grand Auditorium’s model designation refers to a Fishman Presys Blend pickup system that’s side-mounted on the upper bout. The control panel has a built-in tuner, a master volume and Bass, Middle and Treble EQ controls, plus a phase switch, a notch filter and a mic blend control that balances an internal microphone with the undersaddle piezo pickup. The unit unclips on one side and swings outwards to provide battery access.
One strum and you will be in no doubt that you’re playing a solid wood guitar. The FA400D is loud and punchy, deep in the bass and crisp in the treble. The bass notes don’t quite have the snap and focus of a good OM or 000 but you can feel it in your chest and it provides a low, almost humming drone that underpins open tuning adventures to delicious effect. The dynamic response is superb; play gently and the GA400D responds with a delicate but complex whisper, then add some power and it starts to roar. This may be a brand-new spruce guitar, but already the treble is showing a degree of sweetness that will only improve with age.
The tonal range is excellent too. Play near the neck and the GA400D sounds sweet and fulsome; move your picking hand towards the bridge and the GA400D responds with a glistening sprang. In fact the contrast is so pronounced, it’s akin to changing pickup settings on a Telecaster.
Despite the identical materials and build spec, the Grand Auditorium body creates a very different character. Rather than the dreadnought’s muscular exuberance, the FA400GACE/F has a dynamic thump and a crisper, more defined sound. It’s a guitar for the dedicated fingerpicker rather than the strong armed-strummer. The mids sound more balanced with the highs and lows, and impressive string-to-string balance makes it forgiving to play. The FA400GACE/F does have a slightly stiffer feel than the dreadnought and it isn’t quite as responsive to a gentle touch, but we’d expect that to improve after a playing-in period.
We ran the pickup system into a studio monitor setup. The microphone alone sounds fairly bright and bass light, but it does add some airy detail to the dry pickup tone. It also makes the system more susceptible to feedback and can accentuate noises that are transmitted through the body. In contrast the undersaddle pickup is mellow and full-bodied. With the tone controls, notch filter and blender it’s possible to dial in a vast range of tones and deal with feedback issues, to some extent.
We’re pleased to report that the Presys system produces an impressively ‘acoustic’ sound, but the GA400GACE/F’s solid body resonance probably means it’s more compatible with solo or small ensemble work than full-on rock bands.
One thing we noticed by accident was that the placement of the control panel affected the sound from a player’s perspective. All around the edges there’s a gap that directs sound up towards the player to create a brighter, more open tone. Place your hand over the unit, and the tone mellows out.
Some minor tweaks would lift these guitars into a higher league. The pickguard colour is a matter of taste and you won’t be able to do anything about the finish build-up around the fingerboard tongue, but we’d suggest that these guitars would look and sound even better with real bone for the saddle and nut. Despite a steadily climbing reputation Freshman hasn’t yet acquired the glamour of some big name brands, yet both these guitars offer really good value for money and we can’t really quibble about the quality. The Grand Auditorium is a fine acoustic instrument and the pickup system does it justice. As for the GA400D, it’s one of the most enjoyable dreadnoughts we’ve seen in a while and it comes highly recommended.