Godin MultiOud Review

AG 231 March 2012 Cover

by Teja Gerken

CANADA’S GODIN GUITARS has always been an innovative company. While its Seagull and Simon & Patrick lines of flattop acoustics may seem fairly mundane, many of the company’s electrics include features not seen anywhere else, and the extensive MIDI compatibility, advanced amplification systems, and radical designs of its Multiac line of acoustic-electrics have long fascinated players. But even with the Multiac’s edgy looks and unique electronics, Godin’s instruments were still basically guitars. That changed a few years ago when Godin introduced the Glissentar—a fretless 11-string with a thin body and no soundhole. While some adventurous players immediately realized that it was a fusion of the Middle Eastern oud (an 11-string instrument with a bowl back) and a modern guitar, to others, it seemed like a platypus of an instrument. While it’s unlikely that the Glissentar is a big seller, it did fill a niche for many world-music players and studio musicians. Now Godin has gone all out by applying the Multiac design to a real oud.

Judging by several online videos of accomplished oud players using the MultiOud in a traditional context, it appears fair to say that Godin has succeeded in its quest to create a modern version of the instrument. But since this is Acoustic Guitar, we thought it would be fun to look at the instrument from a guitarist’s perspective.

Old Age to New Age

At first glance, the MultiOud looks like what you’d get if you combined equal parts traditional oud, Godin Multiac Nylon, and Giannini Craviola. Anyone who has held a traditional bowlback instrument knows how awkward it can be just to keep it on your lap. But this is not a problem with the MultiOud. Not only does it have a flat back and shallow 2 3/4-inch depth, its outline is completely asymmetrical—the bass side mimics the pear shape of a traditional oud and the treble side has a pronounced waist that keeps the instrument from slipping off the player’s leg. A deep cutaway adds to its unique appearance, as does the arrangement of 15 small soundholes, reminiscent of the openings used for electronic controls in some Multiacs. The instrument’s back and sides are carved from a single piece of mahogany, and the back is ladder braced. Godin used solid spruce for the top, which has two thin longitudinal braces as well as three ladder-style cross braces.

Stubby, Fretless Neck

Even though the MultiOud’s neck has traditional oud dimensions and a fretless ebony fingerboard, it has some guitar-like elements. The neck is bolted to the body in a modified Fender-style arrangement with four bolts through the body, and it has a slotted headstock with standard guitar tuning machines, rather than the angled-back headstock and friction pegs of the traditional oud. Furthermore, the neck is equipped with an adjustable truss rod that is accessible just behind the nut.

The MultiOud’s 11 nylon strings are tied to an ebony bridge and arranged in five courses with a single low string (the first two courses are plain; the others are wound). While most traditional ouds don’t have a separate saddle, Godin equipped the MultiOud with a standard guitar-style saddle made of ebony.

Custom Electronics

In a final effort to drag the oud into the 21st century, Godin outfitted the instrument with a Fishman undersaddle pickup (actually two Acoustic Matrix units, due to the length of the saddle) and a sidemounted Aura Pro preamp. Fishman created custom sound images for the MultiOud, which can be blended with the straight pickup sound for a more microphone-like character. The preamp also includes a three-band EQ and controls for volume, phase, and antifeedback. A chromatic tuner—which is especially useful on a fretless instrument—rounds out the system’s busy interface.

Tuning and Playing Style

OK, so the MultiOud is an intriguing instrument. But how do you play it? Our review instrument arrived in no discernible tuning, and my initial fascination quickly led to head scratching as I searched for an appropriate tuning. Godin recommends F A D G C F, which the company calls “Arabic” tuning. But a Google search resulted in dozens of other choices, including E A B E A D and C F A D G C (identified as “typical Turkish” and “typical Arab” at oudcafe.com), and an oud-playing friend suggested starting with a low B or C and going up in fourths, which he called “Turkish Conservatory” tuning. Having no intention of learning to play traditionalstyle oud, I opted for familiar territory and tuned the MultiOud to D A D G A D.

My next decision was whether to play with a pick or fingers. The neck has a very pronounced string taper (standard for an oud), beginning with a 1.6-inch nut and flaring to 313⁄32 inches at the saddle, which posed a challenge for my usual fingerstyle technique. So I decided to focus on playing it with a pick. Traditionally, ouds are played with the shaft of a feather, although many modern players use long, soft pieces of plastic. I ended up using a standard flatpick, though I preferred a much softer one than what I would normally use on guitar.

Having decided on a tuning and an approach to picking, the biggest challenge facing a guitarist trying to play the MultiOud is dealing with the lack of frets. I've had a little experience playing fretless bass and I own a fretless nylon-string guitar, but the MultiOud's short scale requires more precision for accurate intonation. As an oud novice, I also wished for more position markers, or even simulated fret lines, like those on Godin's Glissentar. I decided to try approaching the instrument as if I were learning to play scales with a bottleneck, instinctively finding the notes I wanted and sliding up to them if necessary. This is an incredibly valuable exercise, because it requires you to really listen to your playing. I've found that playing fretless instruments has resulted in better tone when I play regular fretted guitars, because my fingers more often find themselves in the sweet spot right behind a fret, rather than somewhere between two frets. But even after mastering single notes, playing in-tune chords is a very difficult proposition on any fretless instrument, and the MultiOud is no exception.

Once I reached a degree of familiarity and comfort with the instrument, though, I had tons of fun using it to play single-note melodies and improvisations. I soon found myself picking out “Little Sadie” and “The South Wind,” and the MultiOud added a completely new voice to these folk and Irish tunes. I also discovered that throwing out the option of playing chords made me really focus on developing melodic ideas, and, as such, the MultiOud turned out to be a powerful compositional tool.

Authentic Tones

If you're not familiar with how an oud sounds, do a search for the instrument on YouTube (for a great contemporary example, check out Anouar Brahem). I can't claim to be an expert on how a fine oud sounds up close, but I was surprised at how well the Godin captured the essence of the midrangey growl typical of the instrument. It's loud enough played acoustically to compete with other acoustic instruments, and plugged into an AER Compact 60 as well as various PAs, it sounded good; the Aura electronics do an excellent job of removing any unnatural pickup artifacts.

A friend of mine owns a Godin Glissentar, and we were able to compare the two instruments at a shared gig. While similar in their basic tonal character, there are some distinct differences. The MultiOud has a more satisfying sound; it is louder acoustically and more natural sounding when amplified. But with its standard guitar scale and string spacing, the Glissentar was easier to get used to and more accommodating to fingerstyle playing.

Overall, the MultiOud is an incredibly fun instrument to play. Serious oud players are likely to find that it is an excellent stage instrument, while those interested in expanding their tonal palette will delight in discovering new sounds.

SPECS: Acoustic-electric 11-string oud. Solid spruce top. Mahogany back and sides. Mahogany bolt-on neck. Fretless ebony fingerboard and bridge. 23.03-inch scale.1.6-inch nut width. 313/22-inch string spacing at the saddle. Slotted headstock with open-back tuners. Gloss finish. Fishman Aura Pro electronics. D’Addario strings. Made in Canada.

PRICE: $1,945 list/$1,600 street.

MAKER: Godin Guitars: (514) 457-7977 godinguitars.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar March 2012

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