Washburn released a batch of new acoustics at this year’s NAMM show. Sam Wise take a first look at two from the Heritage Series, aimed at first-upgraders
WORDS: Sam Wise IMAGES: Richard Ecclestone
Washburn is a company with a long and rich history. Since 1883, as a division of Lyon and Healy, now mostly known for their harps, Washburn has made largely high quality instruments, competing with the leading brands for the top end of the market. Like most manufacturers, they also take an interest in the lower end of the market, building a good proportion of their instruments today in China. Our two review models are representatives of that more affordable breed of Washburn, featuring solid tops at reasonable prices.
Full disclosure here: this reviewer is a long term Washburn user. I have a D6M – an all mahogany dreadnought which provides an interesting counterpoint to most review guitars. I’m also reliably informed that Acoustic editor Steve Harvey’s first guitar was a Washburn.
One striking thing about these much less expensive guitars is that Washburn has returned to a headstock style that echoes their vintage models, where my mahogany model has a very simple headstock shape. In fact, these two, despite different price points, have more in common than not. Both have solid Sitka tops and laminate back and sides (albeit with different veneers), and their RRPs are very close, at £299 for the WLO20S, and £249 for the HD10S. Let’s take a closer look.
The HD10S is priced not far above an entry-level dreadnought, but it doesn’t look it. The solid Sitka top isn’t the most evenly grained you’ll ever see, but it’s pretty good, and decorated with an attractive rosette. This is presumably a transfer, rather than an inlay, but gives a decent impression of a beautiful shell inlay in an art deco pattern. There’s a tortoiseshell pickguard, and the top is simply bound in black and cream. The back and sides are veneered in nicely figured mahogany, which sits nicely against the cream binding, and the cream heelcap has a stylised ‘W’ engraving. The almost butterfly shaped bridge is rosewood, and has a fully compensated saddle, which, along with the nut, is presumably Nubone. The neck is mahogany, and the rosewood 20-fret fingerboard – while decorated with simple dot inlays – is also bound, lending a further sense of quality to the instrument. The somewhat torch-shaped headstock mirrors to an extent the inlay, and also carries a classy, calligraphic Washburn logo. On the back are unbranded closed back tuners which, if not as buttery smooth as a set of top end Grovers, are nonetheless accurate and steady.
There are a lot of spruce topped dreadnoughts out there in this price range, and creating a bit of visual differentiation is a challenge for most manufacturers. Many stick to an identikit look, and those who stray from the Martin-alike path sometimes do so ham-handedly, but the Washburn’s combination of headstock, tortoiseshell pickguard and stylish rosette means it catches the eye without grating.
The advent of affordable CNC machining has transformed the entry-level guitar market to the extent that it’s hard to find a badly made guitar today. This one is cosmetically beyond criticism, and the only possible issue is that the lowest two strings are a couple of cents sharp at the 12th fret, but in practice there is no impact from this.
The WLO20S is an OM-size body; not parlour small, but well under the jumbo and dreadnought size, and the more wieldy for it. Another Sitka top of decent quality is a good start, and once again Washburn has made a good fist of the styling. This time there’s no pickguard and a simple bi-colour rosette, again probably a transfer, but with the look of alternating rosewood and maple. The top is bound in what looks to be maple rather than ivoroid, and the back and sides are veneered with rosewood, nicely figured in a way which is easier to achieve with a veneer than a solid back.
The bridge, saddle and neck are identical to the dreadnought, but here the fingerboard is unbound, and one can’t help thinking that, while the current look works well with the dark rosewood, a maple binding might have been even more attractive. Finally, the tuners here have ebonite, rather than chrome buttons.
Quality wise, there is nothing to criticise, but it’s interesting that the tiny intonation issue on the dreadnought is not in evidence here, despite apparently identical necks and saddles. Appearance wise, this is again a classy, clean and subtly differentiated guitar. What’s less obvious is why it’s more expensive than the dreadnought. A bound fingerboard on one hand, and maple binding with ebonite buttons on the other don’t seem terribly substantive, but no matter, both are keenly priced guitars.
Picking up the dreadnought will yield no surprises to anyone who has played one before: it’s big, relatively cumbersome and wider than other body shapes at the waist. The neck is a comfortable C-section – I would prefer a bit more heft to it, but I am forced to accept that’s not what the rest of the market wants. The action is comfortably low, and, with the light gauge strings, this is an easy player.
The tone is more or less what you might expect, in that there’s plenty of everything. The spruce top gives you plenty of treble headroom; it’s bright and sparkling up there, but not in the somewhat shrieky way that you occasionally find. The big body means tons of bass punch too, so if you want that traditional boom-chick, you’ll be well off with this guitar, but that’s not all it has to offer.
The HD10S is pretty malleable. In the hands of a reasonable player it’s capable of real subtlety. Fingerstyle can be delicate and balanced, while driving it hard with a plectrum brings out plenty of volume without becoming too boomy. There’s always the slight risk with a dreadnought that a beginning player will hit the bottom end too hard and create overwhelming bass, but this guitar isn’t pushing that on you. Indeed, if anything it’s a little quieter than you might expect from such a big body.
The WLO20S is significantly more approachable on a physical level. The body is shallower, it’s slimmer at the waist and those of smaller stature may find it more welcoming. The neck and action are pretty much indistinguishable from the dreadnought, but, despite the identical woods (the veneer on the laminate makes no difference), the tone is considerably different. The treble is similarly bright, but feels, for whatever reason, slightly more focused.
Flatpicked bluegrass lines aren’t especially more cutting, but there’s a greater solidity somehow than with the dreadnought. The midtones aren’t lush in the way that they might be on a more expensive guitar (although of course the spruce will open up over time), but there’s a hint of warmth and complexity there. The bass is notably tighter and more easily controllable than on the dreadnought, but retains plenty of punch, and the relative beginners who are likely to be buying at this price range may find the orchestra model more forgiving. While both have plenty of winning characteristics, it’s not difficult to see why, in these days of good pickup systems, the predominance of the dreadnought has ended. If you don’t need extreme levels of volume and projection, it’s easier to get a balanced tone out of a smaller top and a sound chamber of lesser volume.
Neither of these guitars will disgrace itself around the kitchen table, and it’s hard to imagine that, with so many pickup-equipped guitars out there, anyone would choose one of these to compete in a band situation. In front of a close mic at a café gig, the WLO20S is the more likely to perform well, it’s tighter tone being easier to capture.
These are fine guitars at a bargain price, but if your budget is £250-300, you have a lot of choice, and the Washburns aren’t streets ahead of the competition. Both are, however, thoroughly worthy of your consideration.
For us, they are both above average style wise, and in the top bracket of quality for the money. We like the dreadnought’s styling somewhat more than the orchestra’s, but the orchestra tone is more manageable and flexible. The key thing is if either lights up your eyes visually, you should play them – they will not disappoint.
Spec boxes on the next page…