Huss and Dalton DS-12 Custom Review

AG 219 March 2011

by Paul Kotapish

Jeff Huss and Mark Dalton started their namesake company in 1995 after both had been employed by Stelling Banjo Works. Realizing they could work together to add something new to the guitar-making world, their goal from the start was to make custom-quality guitars in a production shop. A decade and a half later, Huss and Dalton has grown into one of the leading mid-size shops around. The company’s founders have assembled a team of luthiers who do a surprising amount of handwork—braces are painstakingly fitted and shaped with chisels and hand planes, and the finishing process involves plenty of old-fashioned elbow grease with sanding blocks and scrapers, but they also make judicious use of a CNC machine for precision carving on necks and bridges. Huss and Dalton now offer a full line of flattop guitars in a variety of finishes and appointments—each an expression of tradition melded with subtle innovation that has the look, feel, and sound of a handmade instrument.

Unique 12-Fret Design

For this review, Huss and Dalton sent us a slightly customized DS-12 model, substituting an Italian Alpine spruce top for a Sitka spruce top, simple fretboard dots for snowflake inlays, and ivoroid tuner buttons for nickel. Taking inspiration from a vintage Gibson Roy Smeck model, the DS-12 is a 12-fret guitar with a dreadnought-size body. The guitar’s bridge is located farther toward the center of the lower bout than on a 14-fret dreadnought, a position that is often considered to be highly efficient for producing serious volume and rich, warm tone. By combining this body design with a contemporary-feeling neck, a 25-foot radius top, and an extra large (4 3/8-inches) soundhole, Huss and Dalton has created a unique instrument.

Stunning Sunburst

The pleasures of this instrument begin with the natty tweed TKL case and increase when the latches are sprung, revealing a stunning sunburst finish with a deep chocolate perimeter that melds into warm, reddish tones and a dark amber center, very much like the classic Cremona finish on a Lloyd Loar–era Gibson mandolin. The Italian Alpine spruce top features fairly tight grain and some light bearclawing visible through the sunburst. The Honduras mahogany back and sides are not particularly fancy looking, but the binding and zipper inlaid up the back lend an elegant touch to the visually modest wood.

The DS-12’s appointments are simple but refined—figured maple binding and black/white/black purfling around the top, a modest white rosette around the enlarged soundhole, and maple binding on the fingerboard. The guitar sports meticulous craftsmanship, with crisp detailing at every joint in the woods and intersection of appointments.

Multipurpose Performer

The DS-12 arrived set up with comfortable medium action well suited for handling an aggressive attack without buzzing or breaking up yet responsive and full sounding with the gentlest touch. For my hands, the round neck profile was a perfect compromise between a prewar feel—which I often find too clubby—and a slim, modern neck—which I usually find a bit skinny.

In terms of sound, the DS-12 delivers all of the volume and punch one expects in a dreadnought, without the attendant boominess or “woofy” bass notes that big boxes—particularly some 12-fret dreads—occasionally deliver. I played it in a variety of settings—alone, in a duet with another guitarist, and as a rhythm player in a string band—and the DS-12 never failed to deliver everything I look for in a guitar. The simple delights of playing boom-chuck rhythm accompaniment don’t get much better than on this guitar, but it was also a pleasure to spin out solo versions of Irish tunes like “Dr. O’Neill’s Favorite” and “Miss Monahan’s Reel” or flatpick hoedowns like “Forked Deer.” I also fingerpicked some blues, the Allman Brothers’ “Little Martha,” and some Carter-family songs, and it sounded right on everything—the tone and responsiveness were equally impressive with flatpicks, fingerpicks, or bare flesh. The clarity of the individual notes is particularly pleasing when cross-picking or playing arpeggiated figures and pop hooks like the Byrds’ intro to “My Back Pages.”

The DS-12 is a natural fit for anyone playing roots-music styles, including song accompaniment, old-time string band music, blues, or jug band music, and it would definitely delight most singer-songwriters, rock strummers, and flatpickers who don’t require access to the stratospheric frets. Despite its nonconforming appearance, it would make a killer bluegrass guitar, too. Some fingerstyle soloists might prefer slightly wider string spacing, but for anyone with slightly smaller paws, the neck and action are a dream. My only caveat is that the relationship of the enlarged, shifted soundhole to the bridge may require some minor adjustment to the picking-hand, particularly for anyone who plants a pinky in that interim zone.

Love at First Strum

For me, guitar lust is usually fostered over time and through the test of gigs, rehearsals, and woodshedding, but this guitar had me from the moment I opened the case and didn’t let go. The understated design and vintage vibe coupled with the huge, balanced sound and ease of playing will make this a dream guitar for some lucky player, whether they are quietly plucking it on the back porch or punching it hard on the main stage.

SPECS: Slope-shoulder 12-fret dreadnought body. Solid Italian Alpine spruce top. Solid Honduras mahogany back and sides. Scalloped X-bracing. Bolt-on mahogany neck. Ebony fingerboard and bridge. 24.9-inch scale. 1 23/32-inch nut width. 2 7/32-inch string spacing at saddle. Catalyzed urethane finish. Waverly tuners with ivoroid buttons. D’Addario EXP17 strings. Made in the USA.

PRICE: $5,033 list.

MAKER: Huss and Dalton: (540) 887-2313; hussanddalton.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar March 2011

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