Batson No. 5 Review

AG 229 January 2012 Cover

by Adam Perlmutter

When Cory and Grant Batson were teenagers, their father engineered a 30-foot carport that he built to withstand the fierce winds of central Texas. Years later, this invention would inspire the brothers to rethink the structural elements of traditional steel-string guitars—particularly the bracing. Like the carport, which flexed in the wind, Batson’s trademark lattice bracing moves with a guitar’s vibrations to provide excellent resonance and tone. This bracing can be found in all the guitars the Batson brothers make by hand in their Nashville, Tennessee, workshop. Their line of fine instruments includes parlor, grand concert, auditorium, and jumbo size guitars, all customizable with a range of options in tonewoods, appointments, and electronics. We checked out Batson’s new No. 5 model, part of a new line that is considerably more affordable than Batson’s other guitars, because it is made by a team of builders, rather than just the Batson brothers, and features a limited number of options and less premium hardware.

Nonstandard Construction

The concert-size No. 5 is available with African mahogany or East Indian rosewood back and sides (the latter commanding a $100 surcharge) and a Sitka spruce or western red cedar top. Our review model’s rosewood and spruce body, which includes an optional Venetian cutaway ($250), is particularly attractive: the rosewood has handsomely variegated stripes of brown and the spruce a warm, reddish hue with tight, uniform grain.

Like all Batson guitars, the No. 5 includes a number of nonstandard structural features. It eschews a standard top soundhole in favor of one on the side of the upper left bout, giving the soundboard a greater vibrating area while also directing sound toward the player’s ear. And while the guitar’s bridge is glued to the top like a standard flattop bridge, the strings are anchored on a separate tailpiece (which is affixed through the top to the tail-block by a mortise and tenon) and travel through holes in the bridge prior to passing over the saddle.

Our review No. 5 is aesthetically pleasing, to say the least. The focus is clearly on the beauty of the woods and not fancy ornamentation. In fact, the only embellishments on this Spartan guitar include ivoroid body binding and heel cap and a mother-of-pearl Batson logo on the headstock. The sculpturally asymmetric bridge and tailpiece lend a clean, modern sensibility to the design, as does the curved end of the fingerboard, which extends above the top from the 15th to the 21st fret. An ebony headstock overlay and truss-rod cover provide an organic touch.

Craftsmanship on the No. 5 is very good. The 21 medium jumbo frets are perfectly polished and seated and the nut and saddle slots appear to have been cut with great care and precision. The binding is tight and flush and there are no imperfections in the satin polyester finish. A peek inside the soundhole betrays a hint of untidiness—some glue squeeze-out at the heel block and in some areas of the kerfing.

Extremely Playable and Fine-Sounding

Removing the No. 5 from its included TKL Pro Arch-Top case, I was struck by how comfortable it felt to cradle and how playable it was. The guitar’s C-shaped neck is substantial but not overly full and invites barre chords in all registers. The medium-low action makes the neck feel smooth and easy, hospitable to some swift single-note work. I could even pull off some electric-style string bends; it might be that the extra string length behind the bridge imparts a little slinkiness to the feel.

Hitting some basic open chords, I was impressed by the guitar’s volume, which is probably a result of the location of the soundhole and the added real estate of the uninterrupted soundboard. I proceeded to fingerpick some ragtime-style improvisations as well as standard country-blues fare and found the guitar to be super-responsive and well-balanced, with an articulate, rumbling bass and smooth, singing trebles from open position to the highest frets. It also had uncommonly long sustain and a pronounced natural reverb—attributes perhaps owing to the guitar’s fine solid tonewoods as well as its bracing and tailpiece. The overall tone is somewhat unusual, slightly hollow with “scooped mids,” and because of the guitar’s cons-truction, it sounds more immediate to the player than to the listener.

With its 1 3/4-inch nut and lack of a pickguard, the No. 5 is clearly designed with the fingerpicker in mind. The guitar does excel in this capacity, maintaining a colorful lively voice even when tuned way down to open C. However, I found that the Batson responded just as nicely to brisk strumming in standard and alternate tunings like open G and D A D G A D. While the No. 5 doesn’t have the power of a dreadnought or jumbo, it does have a substantial presence in this context. And it sounds robust, with a wide dynamic range, when subjected to flatpicked bluegrass runs and bebop licks as well as modal meanderings in slackened tunings.

Small-Shop Value

While not cheap at $2,800, the Batson No. 5 represents an incredible value in an all-solid-wood steel-string that is handmade in the United States and receives the attention to detail that is only possible in a small shop. Its flattop design, with lattice bracing, bass-side soundhole, and bridge-and-tailpiece solution, strikes an excellent balance between tradition and innovation. The guitar is eminently playable and super-responsive. It shines in contexts ranging from folk and blues to jazz and beyond in nearly any tuning, fingerpicked or strummed, making it an ideal companion for the well-rounded acoustic guitarist.

SPECS: Concert-size body. Solid Sitka spruce top. Solid East Indian rosewood back and sides. Lattice bracing. Mahogany neck. Ebony fingerboard, bridge, and tailpiece. Bone nut and saddle. 25.5-inch scale. 1 3/4-inch nut width. 2 1/4-inch string spacing at saddle. Polyester satin finish. Chrome Gotoh SG381 tuners. D’Addario EXP medium-gauge strings. Made in USA.

PRICE: $2,800 base/$3,150 as reviewed.

MAKER: Batson Guitar Co.: (615) 649-0033; batsonguitars.com

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar January 2012

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