One of the UK’s finest luthiers aims to make the most of his last stocks of an incredible but endangered hardwood by going all-out for the ultimate. Review by Jerry Uwins
Patrick Eggle has been making his 16"-wide Saluda for some years now, and we’ve reviewed variants of the model a couple of times within these pages. The guitar – a small or medium jumbo, depending on your classification preference – now merits a further viewing, as our cutaway example is one of only three that Patrick will make using Madagascar rosewood.
Madagascar – a highly regarded substitute for Brazilian rosewood – is still legally obtainable, but Eggle is ‘no longer personally comfortable’ with using it, due to the wholesale deforestation and dubious logging practices in the country since a government coup there in 2009. In October of that year, the National Geographic described Madagascar as ‘the worst country to be a tree. In the last year things have got even nastier’. The BBC reported that from the national parks in the north-east of the island alone, loggers took an estimated 100,000 rosewood and ebony trees in 2009.
This appalling situation is all the more galling – yet, frankly, a temptation for makers to continue to import it – because the wood is such a beautiful timber to behold, as the bookmatched swirls, whorls, stripes and deep-brown-to-golden colour gradations on the Saluda’s back sumptuously demonstrate. Indeed, such was the impact of the figuring on its own that Patrick and his team decided not to insert a centre strip, which they normally would do, as they felt it would be visually redundant. Appearance aside, some luthiers actually prefer Madagascar to Brazilian, saying that it’s less prone to cracking, splitting and warping. The timber is highly prized for its tonal characteristics and resonance too.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of quality doesn’t come cheap, and our Saluda C is nearly £1500 more expensive that the standard Indian rosewood-backed cutaway model. The Madagascar rosewood accounts for £1000 of the uplift; the remaining £460 factors in the custom Celtic knot rosette and neck markers, and the cedar top’s English yew purfling. These decorations are a tour-de-force in their own right, and they look stunning. Although created with the aid of CNC and laser-cutting machinery, every piece of the complex patterns is inlaid by hand and the woods are left to express their own natural colouring, without any staining.
The rosette comprises cocobolo, pink ivory wood, padauk and yew; the position markers are done in ivory wood. Attention to meticulous detail is also emphasised by the purfling. Edged with cocobolo binding and light/dark-wood inner plies, the laser-cut segments of yew are applied with the grain at right angles to the perimeter.
If the effect of the Madagascar and the inlaywork is impressive, so is everything else about the execution of the instrument, inside and out. Patrick’s thin-coat, UV-cured gloss lacquering is buffed to a faultless concourse lustre; the ebony bridge carries cocobolo pins (with abalone dots) to match the body binding, while the Canadian red cedar looks absolutely tip-top quality with its rich cross-silking and fine, even graining.
Fretting on the unbound ebony fingerboard is dressed and polished to perfection. Eggle doesn’t provide a bottom strap button, though one can be requested at no extra charge, as can a second one at the heel. The main reason for not pre-fitting is that if a customer orders an instrument with an optional electro system, it’s easier and more efficient to drill the hole for the endpin socket from scratch than ream out a pre-existing one. It’s worth noting that where the strap button would be, we find a reprise of Celtic knot inlays across the rim.
Topped by Eggle’s distinctive bite-out-of-it headstock carrying an ebony overlay and a beautifully smooth set of PJE-branded, black-buttoned Gotoh tuners, the one-piece 645mm-scale mahogany neck – attached by a Collings-style bolting system – is fashioned to Patrick’s usual, shallow ‘C’ profile and has a small volute under the peghead. The fingerstyle-friendly fingerboard measures a tad wider than the nominal 44.5mm norm at the nut, which does nothing to detract from its being a dream of a player, aided not only by the aforementioned immaculate fretting but also the neck’s super-smooth low-gloss finish. The action is set up for fast, easy workouts too, and the 55mm string spacing at the bridge allows for good picking definition.
The claims for Madagascar contributing to fine-sounding acoustics are utterly vindicated here, for this Saluda C delivers the goods with a seasoned passion. The highs are zesty without being too bright or brittle, the lows are gorgeously rich and deeply pinned, and the whole sound – as anticipated given the top timber – is interwoven with a lovely cedary warmth, fluidity and quick-responding attack. On top of all this is unequivocally generous jumbo-like punch and projection, hugely responsive dynamics and a long, vibrant, balanced sustain. The fact that the sound has such verve and expressive freedom from new is especially impressive, suggesting that with a year or two’s playing under its belt, the guitar’s performance will be even more wondrous, if that’s possible.
I’ve played a goodly number of Patrick’s guitars over the years, and they’ve all been world class, whether you measure them on painstaking craftsmanship, playability or quality of sound. This Saluda C Madagascar, though, unless my memory is playing tricks, is the crème de la crème. It just comes across as right in absolutely every respect: the fabulous – and fabulously worked – Celtic theme, a superbly easy-playing neck, and the guitar’s big-hearted, supple, mature-from-new sound. The price of all this is considerable, of course… beyond the means of most of us. But if ever there was an acoustic that looks and plays like it’s paying its way, then this Saluda does. Should you be in a position to be able to afford one, you might need to get your name in quickly, because this example is unlikely to remain unsold for long, and chances are neither will the upcoming other two. When they’re gone, they’re gone, so be quick!