Collings D1 AV Review

AG 210 June 2010

by Scott Nygaard

One of the latest trends in guitar making, at nearly every price point, is the back-to-vintage craze. While great strides have been made in playability and ergonomics in the last 20 years, many guitar makers have been acknowledging that the guitars made in the golden age of lutherie, the 1930s and ’40s, have an indefinable quality that makes them just as attractive as any modern design to many guitarists. While nearly every guitar company has a “vintage” or “traditional” line these days, including the companies responsible for building those iconic vintage specimens in the first place, luthiers like Bill Collings, who first started building vintage-inspired guitars more than 35 years ago, must be looking with some bemusement on the sudden rush to traditionalism. And while Collings has expanded into building mandolins, electric guitars, and ukes, it maintains a rigorously traditional line. With so many companies introducing vintage-style instruments, we decided to take a look at one of the pioneers of the trend and requested a Collings D1 AV dreadnought made with anAdirondacktop and mahogany back and sides, the tonewood combination that defined Martin’s venerable D-18s.

Vintage Virtues

As with Martin’s style-18 guitars, if you are not a wood connoisseur you might think this D1 AV is rather austere, with its simple pearl dot inlays in the fretboard, minimal tortoiseshell-style body binding and pickguard, and squared-off peghead adorned only with the Collings logo. And the relatively simple-looking but high-grade woods—wide-grained Adirondack top; mahogany back, sides, and neck; and ebony fretboard, bridge, and peghead overlay—may only thrill you if you’ve experienced the kinds of tones that have been produced by vintage instruments built with these woods or have developed an aesthetic sense that values simple and clean lines and flawless construction. If so, you’ll likely view the Collings D1 AV with close to holy-grail fervor.

The D1 AV features the Collings Vintage Now neck profile, which is coupled with a 1 3/4-inch nut width and 2¼-inch string spacing at the saddle. The profile will feel a little chunky to those accustomed to fast, modern fretboards, but normal-size hands should adjust to it easily, and if you prefer a little more heft to your neck, you’ll love its finely tuned compromise between vintage girth and contemporary playability.

 

Bluegrass Cannon with Warmth

The Martin D-28 has become the standard-bearing bluegrass guitar, but for anyone interested in flatpicking fiddle tunes or bluegrass leads as well as pounding out driving rhythm, a mahogany dreadnoughtis often preferred. Bluegrass lead-guitar pioneer Clarence White may be known for the enlarged-soundhole D-28 that has been played by Tony Rice for the last 35 years, but White played most of his distinctive, influential lead breaks on a D-18, and flatpicking legends Norman Blake and Doc Watson both played D-18’s on many of their early recordings. A few strums on the D1 AV are enough to give you an idea of why many guitarists prefer mahogany bodies. The D1 AV is what is known in bluegrass parlance as a “cannon,” a “banjo killer,” or an “ear bleeder.” In other words, it’s loud!

But volume isn’t the only thing that will make this guitar cut through the aural jungle of banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and dobro. Collings seems to have engineered the tonal spectrum of the D1 AV specifically with this function in mind. It’s almost as if they designed a perfect wave form that could cut through a band but still maintain midrange warmth and high-end sparkle, and then somehow infused it into this guitar. I almost expected to see a USB port and speaker inside the guitar. But seriously, what Collings has really done, of course, is build an amazing mahogany and spruce guitar.

The D1 AV’s low end is fat and aggressive, but not so boomy as to give microphones fits, which is another advantage of mahogany over the rosewood used in D-28’s, and laying into classic G-chord strums on the D1 AV produces a satisfying “chang.” But this is often as much as vintage re-creations aspire to—when you try to venture up the neck or play some quiet melodies or fingerpicked chords, the stereotyped bass-heavy dreadnought’s weakness is revealed. Not so with the D1 AV. Single-note lines up and down the fingerboard sparkle and bloom with a rich tone under any kind of attack. And while the D1 AV seems to want to remain in a roots or bluegrass setting, I did coax it into other musical styles, where it performed admirably. The slightly wide string spacing at the bridge will make it attractive to guitarists who flatpick and fingerpick, and the balanced sound and ringing warmth make it right at home with more contemporary sounds that include lush chords and voice leading.

The one drawback to the D1 AV’s aggressive sound is a slightly overamped midrange peak that can be a bit unpleasant When I attacked an E5 chord at the seventh and ninth frets, the sounds of the open E and B strings rubbed against each other, producing a jagged curve that will need some finessing. Backing off with my picking hand smoothed out the sound, but you don’t always want to do this when trying to drive a bluegrass, Celtic, or rock tune.

 

Versatile Power

The D1 AV’s strength is undoubtedly its volume and power; it’s an exceptional bluegrass guitar, with few modern peers, but it’s not a one-trick pony. If you’ve been looking for a guitar that will allow you to shine on bluegrass rhythm and solos, but won’t let you down when you get more contemplative, you can’t go wrong with the Collings D1 AV. 

SPECS:

14-fret dreadnought body size. Adirondack spruce top. Honduras mahogany back, sides, and neck. Ebony fretboard and bridge. Prewar-style scalloped X-bracing. Bone nut and drop-in saddle. Bolt-on neck. 25 1/2-inch scale. 1 3/4-inch nut width. 2 1/4-inch string spacing at the saddle. Collings Vintage Now neck and bridge. Lacquer finish. Nickel Waverly tuners. D’Addario EJ17 (.013–.056) phosphor-bronze strings. Made in USA. 

PRICE: $4,725 list. 

MAKER: Collings Guitars: (512) 288-7776; collingsguitars.com

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar June 2010

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