The fertile mind of Roger Bucknall has been busy cooking up a new guitar combining the power of sitka spruce and the beauty of flamed maple. Jerry Uwins assesses the result
Of all British acoustic makers, Roger Bucknall is one of the most highly respected, and a run-down of players who use his Fylde guitars reads like a who’s who of many of the UK’s finest. Formed in 1973, Fylde was soon producing nearly 1000 guitars a year, though for various business and personal reasons – and an interlude making snooker cues – Bucknall later restarted the operation on a smaller scale, which remains the case today. Fylde now makes around 100 guitars per year, plus 250 or so mandolins and bouzoukis.
Although Fylde employs many jigs and templates and has invested in computer-controlled machinery for some ancillary tasks, Roger is proud of the fact that 95 percent of the production process is handworking, with the main elements – bending sides, shaping and fitting necks, bracing, bridges and so on – undertaken by the man himself. His four-strong team concentrate on final assembly, fretting, finishing and other latter-stage work.
The 16" wide, medium-depth Leonardo small jumbo sits midway in size between the super-jumbo Magician and the auditorium-width Alchemist, both of which debuted in 1998 to help mark Fylde‘s 35th anniversary.
With its Florentine-cum-Venetian cutaway the Leonardo is not dissimilar in looks to these other models, but the timbers are different. The Magician and Alchemist have cedar/walnut bodies; the Leonardo‘s is sitka spruce and flamed maple – all solid, of course.
Roger hasn’t used maple on a production model since the Lysander in the ’70s, citing concerns that it can look ‘clinical… and rather amateur.’ It certainly doesn’t here: the rich flaming, thrown into high relief by the marquetry-purfled rosewood binding and a thin, dark back centre strip, looks stunningly gorgeous.
This maple is master-grade, as is the close-grained, deliciously cross-silked sitka top, which receives a herringbone and marquetry triple-ringed rosette. In Lowden fashion, the soundhole carries a doughnut-shaped ring of spruce on its underside to reinforce what a potential weak spot. It gives the impression of a double-thickness top.
The full-scale neck is also maple – a two-way laminated affair plus a black centre fillet of dyed boxwood (the Magician and Alchemist‘s necks are a five-piece sandwich of mahogany, walnut and ash). Embellishments are tasteful and classy: a rosewood head overlay with matching truss rod cover, black-buttoned gold Gotohs, and abalone diamond markers along the bound ebony fingerboard.
The only thing that might look at odds with the high-grade materials and presentation is common-or-garden plastic bridge pins. Roger’s view is that wood pins wear over time, where plastic doesn’t, and anyway they’re ‘disposable items’ which an owner can change for wooden ones. Fair enough.
Until a few years ago Fylde finishes were done with acid-catalysed lacquer without any prior grain filling. Due to environmental working considerations and the inordinate amount of sanding back involved, Bucknall changed to polyurethane over a UV-cured base filler.
The materials may be different but the instruments still receive up to 12 coats of lacquer, and the result here is faultless – a beautiful mirror-like gloss on the body, and a super-slick low gloss up the neck.
The neck, as on all Fyldes made since 1980, is attached by an aluminium-reinforced bolting system, and the fretboard carries a Fylde hallmark – a zero fret in front of the bone nut. Rarely used these days, and unfairly associated with some budget boxes of yesteryear, the zero fret provides a slinky, intonation-friendly set-up over the lower positions.
Add the Leonardo‘s near-flat fingerboard camber, and you’ve got a speedy, low-action player. The neck kicks off at a semi-wide 44mm accompanied by a spacious 57mm string spacing at the bridge. Very much a fingerstyle affair, then, but it’s manageable thanks to a shallow, fairly flat-backed ‘C’ shape.
The only caution is that the fret ends are quite steep-angled, making runs up the fingerboard feel a tad notchy. Roger does this to avoid any risk of string slip-overs, so you need to weigh that against the comfort of more oblique, rounded ends. I’d prefer the latter.
Part of Roger’s rationale for using sitka and maple was to produce an attacking, strong-toned instrument, and that’s certainly been achieved. Dynamics and volume are generous, the low end is warm and resoundingly forthcoming, and there’s a delicious chimey sustain to the delivery.
Best of all is the pinpoint clarity, hi-fi-like cleanness and sweet zing, attributes that are surely mainly courtesy of the maple, though Roger would argue against the popular view that maple is, by its nature, a bright-sounding tonewood. It does veer that way here, but in the most favourable and desirable manner.
The Leonardo is a cracking instrument, brimming with personality and made with all the care, precision and flourish we've long associated with Fylde. Its configuration makes fingerstyle its forte technique-wise, but have no worries about big, bell-like strums - it's got those plangently sorted too. And while I'm in praise mode, do check out Fylde's website. It's the most exhaustively informative of any maker's site I've seen: it's stuffed with facts and figures, but there's also a good helping of the gospel according to Roger Bucknall. It's an essential, absorbing browse.