An Avalon from the upper echelons of the custom Celtic world in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, sends us into a fingerstyle frenzy…
Words by Guy Little Images by Richard Ecclestone
There have many Avalon Guitars featured within these pages, and each one of them has demonstrated impeccable attention to detail and flawless construction. The guitar we have here is a custom shop model of the highest order from their workshop in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, and like every other Avalon featured, it is immaculate – in terms of construction, finishing, and playability.
The Avalon L1-390CB is a bit of a mouthful, but let’s clear that up, shall we? Their referencing system is based around letters to denote the body size; the first number is the soundboard, and the second number is the back and sides tonewood. Finally, the last letter(s) tells us what extra features we have. So the letter L denotes a jumbo body size, the 1 tells us that it has a cedar top (Alaskan, since you ask), and the 390 means we have Ziricote back and sides. The C is for the cutaway, and the B refers to the bevel. Phew. The L1-390CB is from Avalon’s “Arc” series which all feature a bevel – or two! It has to be noted, however, that when ordering from Avalon, you will have a degree of control over what features to include – if you don’t like bevels, don’t order them. It really is as simple as that.
Firstly, with this being a custom model, it’s not overly ostentatious. Yes, we have some incredible abalone shell on the sound-hole rosette and binding, but other than that, it’s a toned-down Avalon in terms of looks when comparing it to some we’ve previously featured (honestly, it is…) It is still a pretty niche guitar, though, and there’s a certain player in mind – after all, it is a custom build! The guitar just screams sheer class when you open the Hiscox case. It really is something to behold and the figuring on both the Ziricote and cedar is a treat. I like the plain ebony fingerboard – just a Celtic triquetra inlayed in abalone at the twelfth fret. Nice. Elsewhere, spec-wise, there’s an Ox bone nut and split saddle, an ebony bridge with ebony pins, and a largeish – but quite flat – mahogany neck with some GoToh tuners topping it off.
The neck is a five-piece comprising mahogany, sycamore and rosewood; the fingerboard is ebony and bound with bloodwood and sycamore and the headstock is overlaid with rosewood over a layer of sycamore. The neck has a unique custom build option, too: it has Avalon’s “fingerstyle” neck profile. This means it is a little wider at the nut and splays wider toward the body giving more separation between the strings for the right hand. The 47mm nut width is a custom option that’s been requested on this review guitar, but by way of contrast, Avalon offers two variations of the fingerstyle neck – a standard taper and a wide taper. The standard taper goes from 44mm at the nut to 56mm at the fourteenth fret and the wide taper from 45mm to 60mm from nut to fourteenth fret.
Then there’s the bevel – this is a bit of a Marmite thing as some players seem to adore them, others not so much. I’m in the former camp – it’s a lovely addition to this Avalon and is beautifully inlaid with that abalone with a kind of flick to the start of the bevel and where it ends; almost like the flick of a paintbrush if it had been dipped in abalone shell. Take a look at the pictures – you’ll see what I mean straight away.
The Ziricote party constitutes the high price of this guitar, but look at that colour spilling from rich, dark chocolate into an amber flash where bookmatched. If you could eat it, I’m sure it’d be delicious. There’s a second strap peg on this Avalon and it has a pickup in there (you’d never notice it tucked away so neatly), so it’s clearly got performance in mind. The pickup fitted is the Schatten HFN under bridge system and from our (separate) tests of this unit, it’s as close to the sound of a great quality mic that you’re likely to get in such a compact system. Anyway, this adds £150 to the price of this model brining it to a whopping £5,100 (the base model without a pickup will cost you £4,950).
Avalon says that Ziricote has a unique appearance, rarely mistaken for any other wood with its beautiful spider–webbing patterns – and that’s apparent here. This Central American wood has a tone similar to Indian rosewood. The guitar hasn’t long been off the bench, but the sound is warm and almost broken in – the use of cedar for the top will have something to do with this as it has a shorter “break-in” time. The cedar produces quite a warm tone when combined with the Ziricote and it has a clean, fast attack when picked.
The Avalon was happy in standard tuning, but it really came to life when picked in DADGAD – we even got it down to open C tuning without a fuss. The tonal character is akin to that of a piano; it’s clear, balanced, and articulate over all strings in all places on the neck. The dynamic range really is stunning – everything from chord work to fingerstyle chops are ably catered for – though its happy place is DADGAD, of course, with no drop in sound quality along the way.
Even after just a few open string chords, you just know that this guitar has first class tonal attributes. There’s a separation to the notes that makes it possible to hear everything you play with equal clarity – and the sustain is great. The harmonics seem to be playing on another level. Singing out at the twelfth fret in an otherworldly bloom of sonic delight, they just ring and ring.
The bass response is great, too. After some exploratory tunes played in DADGAD and open C, the Avalon was drop tuned to D and the guitar retained all its precision of tone with the bass cutting through enough without cluttering the midrange. Admittedly, playing a guitar with your fingers yields a sumptuous tone, but played with a pick, chords just sing out with a considerable amount of volume and projection. Amazing crispness comes to life with fingerstyle.
The excellence of Avalon instruments truly renders you speechless. The build quality of this guitar is of an incredibly high standard and the fact that you can build in your custom variations is an amazing asset for anyone who is still seeking perfection from an instrument.
I haven’t yet commented on value for money. Clearly, at over £5,000, this guitar isn’t going to be an impulse purchase (well, not for most of us, at least!), but with handmade guitars from several other key makers priced at over £6,000 (and still not exorbitant compared to some US makers) the Avalon looks like pretty reasonable value for what you’re getting. If you’re in the market for a top quality guitar in this price range, Avalon guitars should be at the top of your list. With consistent, stunning build quality, idiosyncratic styling, superb playability and tone by the barrow-load, I suspect you’ll fall for that Irish charm, too.
Need to Know
Retail Price: £5,100 (£4,950 without a pickup)
Body Size: Jumbo
Made In: Northern Ireland
Top: Alaskan Cedar
Back and Sides: Ziricote
Tuners: GoToh SG381
Nut Width: 47mm
Scale Length: 648mm
Onboard Electronics: Schatten HFN under bridge
Strings Fitted: High quality USA-made
Gig Bag/Case Included: Hiscox
Acoustic test results
Pros: Stunning build quality with tonal attributes to die for – and Avalon’s reputation is practically second to none.
Cons: Some won’t like that bevel, but it’s a custom build so if you don’t want it, you can order without; aside from that, the price will deter many.
Overall: A wonderful guitar with plenty of Irish charm for DADGAD musings and strumming alike.
Sound Quality: 5
Build Quality: 5
Value for Money: 4.5