Martin J-28LSE Review

AG 220 April 2011

by Teja Gerken

Once built only by individual luthiers, baritone guitars are increasingly finding their way into the production lines of major manufacturers. Alvarez-Yairi and Tacoma were pioneers in offering baritones through a wide dealer network; Taylor released the Baritone Six-String last year; and now the Martin Guitar Company has produced a long-scale, low-tuned baritone guitar for the first time. Using its recently introduced Grand Jumbo body, first used for the J12-40E Special (see “Six Stellar 12-Strings Reviewed,” August 2009), Martin designed the new J-28LSE from the ground up to be used with heavy strings and low tunings.

28-Style Big-Body

Although offering a baritone is a first for Martin, the J-28LSE adheres to standard style-28 appointments—the familiar formula of Sitka spruce top, rosewood back and sides, white-and-black plastic binding and rosette, unbound ebony fingerboard with simple dot position markers, and a black teardrop pickguard. The woods on the J-28LSE sent to us for review are typical for a Standard Series Martin. The East Indian rosewood is in the middle of the possible color spectrum, with a bit of striping that is especially noticeable on the back. The Sitka spruce top is very evenly grained from the center to the outer perimeter, displaying attractive cross-grain as well as a touch of bearclaw figure in the upper bout. The 15-fret neck has Martin’s modified low oval shape and the style-28 diamond volute at the headstock, which is also home to a set of chrome Grover tuners. Inside the body, the J-28LSE has nonscalloped X-bracing and three tone bars in the top’s lower bout area. As for the guitar’s craftsmanship, the fit and finish are extremely accurate.

Long-Scale Stretches

The J-28LSE’s 17-inch body (measured across the lower bout) combined with its 27.675-inch scale makes it a huge instrument that requires some arm-reaching to get both hands into playing position. But once comfortably settled, the physical demands of the instrument aren’t much different from most standard six-strings. The guitar is strung with gauges .015–.070 and tuned down to B (B E A D F# B), resulting in string tension that feels looser than a set of mediums tuned to pitch on a standard guitar, and the action is low and very playable. Chords that span more than a few frets are certainly more difficult to play than on a standard guitar, but I was able to play my usual repertoire without much effort.

Nazareth Thunder

A simple pluck of the guitar’s lowest string proves that this is the most thunderous six-string to leave Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The J-28LSE is incredibly fun to play: basic open chords take on a whole new character, open strings chime and sustain with sonorous lows, and the guitar simply charms with a warm, woolly, sonic experience. Baritones have some characteristics that players need to be aware of: The instrument hovers in range somewhere between a guitar and a bass, so it’s not surprising that big strums can be a bit muddy. And if you’re planning on using a baritone in an ensemble, you’ll need to transpose familiar chord shapes and scale patterns to the key you’re playing in. But this is relatively easy. The J-28LSE is tuned a fourth below standard tuning, so you can just think of the strings as being shifted one string toward the trebleside. An Am shape in first position sounds as an Em, a C shape becomes a G chord, etc.

The guitar really excels at fingerstyle material that is sparse enough to allow each note to fully develop. I even enjoyed lowering the guitar’s tuning further, landing in the equivalent of D A D G A D (sounding as A E A D E A). An arrangement of the Irish traditional tune “Shebeg and Shemore” in this tuning had an incredibly rich sound that encouraged me to play more simply than usual, allowing the guitar to ring out to maximum effect.

Electronics Onstage and in the Studio

The J-28LSE is equipped with D-Tar’s Wave-Length Multi-Source pickup system, which combines an undersaddle pickup with an internal microphone (mounted inside the soundhole at the X-bracing’s cross section), soundhole-mounted volume and blend controls, and a preamp. I took the guitar to a couple of club and wine bar gigs, where I used the electronics with a full PA and an AER Compact 60 amp, respectively, and where I alternated playing it with a Martin OM with L.R. Baggs Anthem electronics. In both instances, the onboard D-Tar electronics excelled at reproducing the guitar’s rumble. At higher volumes and with lower tunings, the guitar’s bass frequencies pushed the limit of the AER, but this wasn’t a problem when playing through the PA’s 15-inch Mackie speakers. Switching between the J-28LSE and my OM required some EQ adjustments for each guitar. At the club gig, for example, I boosted the bass slightly for the six-string, but this made the J-28LSE too woofy. I didn’t use the D-Tar’s internal mic at the club gig because I had little time to do a sound check and didn’t want to risk feedback with loud monitors, but it added a nice sense of woody realism at the quieter wine bar gig.

When I recorded the J-28LSE in my home studio, I was very impressed with the pickup’s performance. I was able to get a very satisfactory sound going directly into a Mark of the Unicorn audio interface, and I further enhanced the sound with a jumbo guitar image on a Fishman Aura Spectrum. When I used the baritone in a recording with other guitar tracks, it functioned well in a bass role, demonstrating its wide range of studio applications.

Low Tones and New Tunes

The Martin J-28LSE is an incredibly fun guitar that’s hard to put down. Players who are new to baritones will likely find themselves re-exploring familiar material in new ways and becoming inspired to find new compositions and playing techniques that suit the guitar’s deeper sound and longer scale. And seasoned baritone pickers will appreciate that Martin has assembled such a complete package that delivers the goods in professional settings.

SPECS: 17-inch Grand Jumbo body. Solid Sitka spruce top. Solid East Indian rosewood back and sides. X-bracing. Mahogany neck with dovetail joint. Ebony fingerboard and bridge. 27.675-inch scale. 1 3/4-inch nut width. 2 1/4-inch string spacing at saddle. Polished gloss lacquer finish. D-Tar Wave-Length Multi-Source electronics. Chrome Grover tuners. Martin SP strings gauged .014–.070. Made in the USA.

PRICE: $3,899 list/$2,899 street.

MAKER: C.F. Martin and Co.: (610) 759-2837; martinguitar.com.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar April 2011

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