Words: Sam Wise Images: Richard Ecclestone
Cole Clark has been doing things its own way, or perhaps the Australian way, since 2001, when the eponymous founding duo of Bradley Clark and Adam Cole started off with a couple of CNC machines and a dream. Their concept at that point was to make a steel strung guitar with a Spanish heel (more on that later) and the best pickup in the world, but along the way, they got into alternative timbers too. How much of this was driven by ecological concerns and how much by sheer Australian bloody-mindedness only those present will know, but today, you can buy the Antipodean boxes with a range of exotic sounding woods, many of them far more sustainable than the hardwoods we are used to. This guitar is one such, built entirely with sustainable woods.
At first blush, this guitar looks very raw; there’s little staining and the satin finish gives it an organic feel that is presumably intended to appeal to the earthy type who might prioritise sustainability. The top is bunya, a native Australian wood that, as used by Cole Clark, has a slightly darker colour than spruce, and features some apparent spalting, emphasising the ‘it’s not spruce’ look. The rosette is a simple wood inlay – just a couple of narrow rings – and though the company isn’t averse to a blingy abalone inlay in their most expensive models, that’s not the aesthetic here. The back and sides are Australian blackwood (more often known as Tasmanian blackwood, but we assume available in other states as well), which is striped in a way redolent of mahogany, though, either through nature or staining, slightly paler. The back is three-piece, bound in a pale timber the nature of which Cole Clark’s website keeps to itself. Three piece backs first came to prominence at Martin during the 1960s when they struggled to source enough Brazilian rosewood of a size to make two-piece backs. With the inlay, however, it becomes a rather appealing design feature. The neck is made from Queensland maple, and rather than being bolted to the body, it’s joined directly to the sides with a dovetail joint. This means that where you’re used to seeing the block that the neck bolts to through the soundhole, on a Cole Clark you will see the endgrain of the neck itself. This produces a very strong and stable joint – and to paraphrase a luthier I once read from: “it would be the best type of neck joint, provided that you never needed to replace the neck.”
The unbound fingerboard is black bean, described on timber sales sites as being “quite a greasy wood”, and here not remotely black. It’s a good deal darker than a maple board, however, and the snowflake dot inlays stand out nicely against it. The large footprint bridge is also black bean, with a TUSQ saddle to match the nut at the other. The deeply carved headstock is adorned only with a screen printed logo, and wears Grover machine heads.
The Spanish heel isn’t the only innovation here either: the top and back are carved internally (as opposed to the external carve of an archtop), and rather than traditional kerfing, the top and sides are joined with a ridge joint. Cole Clark prides itself on its pickup system too, which features a piezo for the bass, a top sensor for the mid-range, and a tiny condenser mic designed to take out any piezo harshness from the very high end. CF Martin must be turning in his grave.
If you’re expecting all of this to produce a guitar which is virtually indistinguishable from the norm, the Fat Lady will come as a surprise. It’s unique. The neck profile is a chunky C section, and feels considerably thicker than the average, which we loved, though it did make a thumb-around fingering which I’d been working on a bit trickier. As good as Cole Clark’s word, the guitar does have a tone all its own. The top end is softer and darker than a spruce or even cedar top; it’s closer to mahogany, though it doesn’t quite match the tonal complexity. The midrange is decidedly punchy, and the bass is immense, not in an overwhelming way, but powerful and well projected. Tuning it down to drop D provides no hint of the boominess that dreadnoughts can suffer from, and indeed, the bass remained focused and powerful no matter what we threw at it. It spoke to us much more as a strummer than a picker, though good old country flatpicking would no doubt work well here, and overall, the word which most came to mind for the tone was muscular. It’s almost how one might imagine a mahogany top on maple back and sides might sound, but a lot louder.
We had high hopes for the plugged in tone, what with Cole Clark’s vaunted pickup system, but in reality, we had to work quite hard to get what we wanted. We were able to approximate the acoustic tone, but it wasn’t the simple matter of setting everything flat and plugging in that we’re used to with our Headway Shire King. The mids initially seemed out of balance, and it took considerable tweaking to get what we wanted. The wonderfully muscular bass was still there, thankfully, and the head unit gives a lot of flexibility. As well as the conventional bass, mid, treble and volume, there’s also a mix control for the piezo and top sensor, and a separate control for the condenser mic. These did give a lot of tonal possibility, and no doubt will be useful when in a tricky room, but having worked hard to get a tone we were happy with, we didn’t feel too inclined to wander far from it.
This guitar is truly different from the average. Whether it’s the construction or the wood choices, it’s hard to tell, but it’s not a tone that we’ve heard from anything else. The muscular tone, big body and chunky neck come together to give what might just be a flavour of Australia. It won’t suit everyone – fingerpickers in particular may find it pushes them away – but if you want to strum with real punch, you need to try one of these.
Fat Lady 2 Sustainable
Manufacturer: Cole Clark
Body Size: Dreadnought
Made In: Australia
Back and sides: Australian blackwood
Fingerboard: Black bean
Nut width: 44mm
Onboard Electrics: Cole Clark three-way
Strings Fitted: Phosphor bronze .12-.53
Gig Bag/Case Included: Hard case
Acoustic test results
Pros: Unusual looks, sustainability, hugely muscular tone
Cons: Pickup system can be hard work
Overall: A guitar with a strong personality
Sound Quality: 4.5
Build Quality: 4.5
Value for Money: 4
5 Stars: Superb, almost faultless
4 Stars: Excellent, hard to beat
3 Stars: Good, covers all bases well
2 or 1 Stars: Below average, poor