With a revolutionary approach to managing string tension and improving soundboard resonance, Riversong Guitars is making waves. Steve Harvey puts the technical stuff to one side and asks, ‘Yes, but how do they actually sound?’
Words: Steve Harvey Images: Matthew Smith
Riversong’s guitars are nothing if not striking. Sporting metal bolts protruding from the neck stack and end block, and a floating wooden disc just inside the soundhole, the Tradition 1 Performer is a curious looking guitar. And that’s before we get to the side sound-port, the ultra-narrow headstock, and post-22nd fret curved fingerboard.
Riversong Guitars is the brainchild of Mike Miltimore who, with years of experience in the family music store behind him, has designed a range of guitars with the aim of reducing the tension a tuned-to-pitch guitar suffers at the hands of the strings. For more details on the specifics check out our feature in Acoustic 113, but, for the moment, suffice to say that Riversong’s guitars are not braced in the same way as ‘traditional’ guitars. Rather, the majority of the string tension is loaded across an extended neck which runs past its usual meeting point and down to the end block. The resulting engineering has produced a guitar that can have its action adjusted in seconds with the quick turn of an Allen key. It’s somewhat ironic then that the guitar’s makers have chosen to include the word Tradition in its name, as it’s the most untraditional guitar we’ve come across for some time.
As a result of the way Riversong guitars are constructed, the soundboard around the neck ‘floats’ without bracing underneath. When pressure is gently applied from above, the wood flexes. It’s a strange sight at first but it does start to give an indication of how much freer the guitar’s top is and, Riversong claims, how much more resonant it is.
Our review model, the Tradition 1 Performer, is a dreadnought electro with Florentine cutaway made in British Columbia, Canada. The guitar features a locally sourced British Columbian solid Engelmann spruce top, described by Riversong as master grade, which is edged with solid wild cherry, also from British Columbian local sources. The same wild cherry wood is also used for the two-piece, book-matched back and sides – and a gorgeous selection it is too, being rich in grain, contrast and texture. The ultra-thin matt finish is not only a contributing factor to a freer-moving soundboard, but gives the guitar an earthy, natural feel. Lovers of wood will appreciate not just the look, but the feel of this guitar.
The up-turned Super-Mario-esque (our words, not theirs) bridge is a thicker-than-usual slice of rosewood and is home to a compensated saddle. The four-inch soundhole is edged by a ‘Wheels of Fire’ inlay (again, our words, not theirs), which does just enough to lift the guitar’s appearance out of plain and into minimal. Decorative features are always subjective issues. For this reviewer, a little less is definitely more, and we’d suggest Riversong has struck a good balance between simple and stylish. Clearly, with its focus on wholesale changes to construction techniques and practices, this Riversong doesn’t need to be overly laden with bling.
Riversong guitars also feature an elliptical-shaped soundhole located on the lower bout. Though not being perhaps the most pretty of features, the side soundhole does offer two benefits here: one being the noticeable increase in volume for the player, the other is that it serves as something of an peep-hole into the innovative design at work here. The structural beam which runs ‘mid-air’ through the guitar is easier to see and understand from this side-on vantage point. We can also see high standards of quality control. All interior joints are tight and clean with no signs of excess glue or splinters.
The Canadian hardrock maple neck is obviously at the heart of this guitar’s USP. The neck is four-piece and is shaped to a flattened ‘C’ profile, which retains its shape right up to the neck stack. We found the neck to be particularly comfortable and easy to whizz around. As you’ll notice from the accompanying pictures, the extended fretboard has a curved end which accommodates a 23rd and 24th fret, giving two full octaves on the top three strings. In truth, even with the Florentine cutaway, reaching the top frets is a quite a challenge. Unlike some oversized fretboards, which are sometimes floating, the Riversong’s is supported beneath by a solid block, which is the same piece of wood that extends from the neck to the lower bout and, as outlined in our article in the previous issue, is fundamental to the structural security of the guitar as a whole.
The super-slim, pinched-waist headstock, which measures just 45mm at its narrowest, is not just for the sake of being different. Part of Riversong’s tension-relieving design involves minimising lateral tension. On ‘traditional’ guitars, as the strings pass through the nut, they veer off at an angle as they head toward their respective tuning post. Not so with the Riversong. The strings here run straight ‘home’. The headstock shape might not be to everyone’s taste but the structural benefits are tangible.
Played acoustically, the Tradition 1 Performer is a competent and capable guitar. The tone is bright but not brittle, warm but not mushy, and the guitar responds remarkably well to variations in picking and fingerstyle techniques. It whispers as well as it shouts, and does both with impressive definition. Though reticent to make comparisons, this reviewer would pitch the Riversong’s timbre somewhere in between the clarity of a Taylor and the character of a Martin making it something of a perfect all-rounder. In addition we particularly liked the ‘feel’ of the Riversong. Though a little heavier than comparable dreads, it remains comfortable to play and, with reference to the builders’ intentions, the guitar vibrates more than most we can remember. Striking chords in first position, you can feel the entire guitar come to life. I can’t remember a guitar being so ‘alive’ since playing a Collings OM2H some years ago. In view of the dreadnought’s body size, this is no mean achievement.
Onboard electronics come in the form of B-Band’s T65, an active three-band EQ preamp system which sits at the top of B-Band’s T series. The system boasts two output jacks, one standard quarter-inch jack, and one XLR. The system handles dual inputs; UST and AST, with both signals being blended via a slider mix control. The rest of the control panel features five rotaries (bass, middle, treble, a notch filter for feedback control and a larger volume knob), a push-button for tuner on/off and a back-lit LCD screen for the chromatic tuner. The unit is powered by a nine-volt battery, which is housed at the base of the guitar alongside the output jacks. We like the fact that the tuner can be engaged even when the guitar is not plugged in and, in practice, the tuner tracks well. Engaging the tuner when plugged-in mutes the signal making it ideal for onstage tuning.
Plugged into our house Schertler David with the controls set flat, we were massively impressed with the Tradition 1 Performer’s amplified performance. The bass is fat, mids are defined, and the top end crystal clear. Be it heartily strummed chords, single-note runs or chippy riff work, it’s difficult to think of a situation where the plugged-in output wouldn’t suit. The performance was sufficiently rewarding that, during the period the guitar was at Acoustic Towers for testing, we often chose to plug it in, even when there was no need to do so!
Overall, the Tradition 1 Performer is fantastic guitar. It’s well made, the fit and finish is excellent throughout, and it performs extremely well both with and without an amplifier – certainly, as well as any similarly priced guitar. The only thing that stands in this guitar’s way is how ‘untraditional’ it is. For some, the sight of metal bolts protruding out of the guitar will be enough to be put off. It does have to be said that there are parts of the guitar that look somewhat ‘industrial’. But for those that are willing to embrace the bravery of Riversong’s non-traditional approach and its accompanying metalwork, the Tradition 1 Performer is a really great guitar.
Riversong Tradition 1 Performer
Need To Know
Manufacturer: Riversong Guitars
Model: Tradition 1 Performer
Body Size: Dreadnought with Florentine cutaway
Made In: British Columbia, Canada
Top: Master grade British Columbian solid Engelmann spruce
Back and Sides: Solid British Columbian wild cherry
Neck: Canadian hardrock maple
Fingerboard: Indian rosewood
Frets: 22 plus 2 half-sized
Nut Width: 42mm
Scale Length: 25.5”
Onboard Electrics: B-Band T65 Dual Source
Strings Fitted: D’Addario EXP16
Gig Bag/Case Included: Bronze Tweed Hardshell
Acoustic test results
Pros: Beautifully finished, high quality tonewoods, impressive performance
Cons: It’s non-traditional DNA and accompanying metalwork
Overall: In blindfold tests it’d compete with the best of them, but aesthetics won’t be to everyone’s taste
Sound Quality: 5/5
Build Quality: 4.5/5
Value for Money: 4.5/5
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