Boulder Creek ERJ7-N Review
Boulder Creek is a relatively new presence on the acoustic guitar market, but through its radical designs and mid-level prices, it has managed to separate itself from the pack. The company’s avant-garde concepts aim to improve traditional guitar-building techniques, specifically the X-bracing system that has been the norm on flattop steel-string guitars for more than a century. Boulder Creek’s president, Mike Shellhammer, designed the Suspended Bracing System (SBS), which uses aluminum rods held in place by plastic supports against the top to improve tone, volume, and sustain, as a direct challenge to traditional building techniques, aiming to use modern technology to improve the acoustic guitar. This system can be found in all of the company’s guitars, including the Solitaire series ERJ7-N jumbo reviewed here, as well as the company’s more traditional-looking Stage and Studio series. Boulder Creek also offers the Solitaire design in dreadnought and OM body sizes.
The ERJ7-N is a radical-looking guitar. The absence of a traditionally placed soundhole is a little disorienting at first. Boulder Creek puts a small soundhole in the upper bout, and another soundhole, called a soundport, is cut into the side with a rubber ring around it, facing up toward the player’s ear. The idea is that, since many guitar players spend most of the time playing by themselves, why not place the soundhole to the player’s benefit?
The combination of the ERJ7-N’s Sitka spruce top and maple back, sides, and fingerboard means there is little visual contrast on the instrument; the only break from blondness being the pearl top binding, a translucent silver rosette around the small soundhole at the upper bout, and the rosewood bridge. Though not highly figured, the flamed maple back and sides add some visual interest, and the solid Sitka top is tight and even grained. A quick look inside the ERJ7-N revealed a few glue gobs and rough-cut braces. And in addition to being poorly book-matched, the two sections of the maple back were out of line with the center inlay.
The ERJ7-N revealed its redeeming qualities in its playability. The action was perfect—no buzzing, even and consistent across the entire fingerboard, and easy to play. Aside from a few sharp edges, the frets were well laid and provided a great playing feel. I really liked the profile of the 111/16-inch neck—nice and slim. It fit my hand well and was a pleasure to play. And my picking arm fell into a comfortable playing position on the large body almost immediately.
A Player’s Guitar
The ERJ7-N is quite loud and has unusually long sustain. As a player, I really liked the soundport. I often have trouble hearing myself when I jam with other people, but that’s no problem with this guitar. I heard every nuance of what I played, and I was able to react to my own playing much better with this guitar than others without a soundport. The tone of the ERJ7-N is a bit mid-heavy. The highs have nice definition, but not much depth, and the guitar lacks the big, ballsy, open E-chord sound you would expect from a jumbo. When I had a friend play as I listened, I noticed that the soundport design creates a polar shift in the traditional listening experience—with this guitar, the player hears the best tone, not the audience. I had my friend tilt the guitar so that the soundport was facing me, which created a significantly fuller, richer tone.
The ERJ7-N includes a Boulder Creek exclusive AB4-T preamp with undersaddle piezo pickup, which features a four-band EQ, chromatic tuner, phase polarity button, and gain. I like that the guitar has two outputs, a 1/4-inch and an XLR, which can be used simultaneously. The XLR goes directly to the soundboard without need for impedance matching, and players can use the ¼-inch jack to get their favorite stage sound with an amplifier. I was impressed with how effectively the four-band EQ shaped the sound, allowing me to get many usable tones, from shimmery to deep and round.
Boulder Creek really went out on a limb to defy tradition with the ERJ7-N. Not only does the guitar look different, but its ambitious design elements create a different acoustic experience altogether. The absence of a traditional soundhole and the addition of the soundport reserves the best tone for the player. The instrument gets much of its character from the onboard electronics, making it more suitable for electric guitarists looking for an acoustic vibe, acoustic guitarists in a pop/rock situation, or singer-songwriters looking for a radical plug-and-play solution. Traditionally oriented flatpickers and fingersylists will probably not be drawn to this instrument. Its design and sound may not be for everyone, but it’s nice to see this kind of innovation and forward thinking in a mid-price instrument.
SPECS: Jumbo body size. Solid Sitka spruce top. Maple back and sides. Rosewood bridge. Synthetic saddle. Maple fingerboard. Suspended Bracing System (SBS). 25.625-inch scale. 111/16-inch nut width. 21/8-inch string spacing at the saddle. Natural polyurethane finish. 18:1 Schaller-style tuners. AB4-T preamp. Light-gauge D’Addario EXP11 strings. Made in China.
PRICE: $1,141 list/$799 street.
MAKER: Boulder Creek Guitars: (408) 779-3845; bouldercreekguitars.com.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar December 2011
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