David Mead looks at an entry-level custom acoustic from Avalon
A while ago, I reviewed a top of the range and feature laden Avalon Ard Rí which was, quite simply, lovely. This L2 is one of their Pioneer models and I was curious as to where exactly it fits in to the acoustics on offer from the Northern Ireland based company. Avalon’s managing director Steve McIlwrath told me: ‘Pioneer is our entry-level range. The specifications are fixed so we can gain from production efficiency to keep the price as reasonable as possible. There are four body shapes to choose from: jumbo, auditorium, dreadnought and concert, each with two soundboard options – spruce or cedar – and two back and sides options, Honduran mahogany or Indian rosewood.’ I understand that further options on the L2 are a non-cutaway version and a 12-string that comes with a spruce top. Now, to my way of thinking, that’s quite a lot of choice for any player’s first foray into a custom build; but let’s move in for closer look to see exactly what’s what with the L2.
As you can see from all the aforementioned, we’re basically talking about a model that has a few custom features available and so if you wanted to tweak the L2 to your tastes, you are free to do so within some sensibly placed parameters. If you desired any more embellishments, you’d probably have to consider moving up to the Ard Rí class and, as I’ve already said, they’re marvelous and I would be insanely jealous if you did!
I have to say that the L2 is a looker. Its simplicity of design means that, to my eye, it’s not as swollen looking as a lot of jumbos. In fact the “jumbo” designation tends to vary between manufacturers, but to Avalon it means an upper bout of 303mm and a lower at 416mm with an average depth of 124mm. So you can see that it’s a fulsome beast but as all of its vital statistics are so perfectly coordinated, you honestly wouldn’t find yourself instantly thinking “jumbo” when you pick it up.
The soundboard is a very nice looking piece of Sitka spruce, matt finished and currently quite pale, but we all know that this will begin to change very soon. Bindings are blonde sycamore and the purflings are a blend of sycamore and rosewood toped off with an attractive multicoloured abalone rosette around the soundhole.
So much for the furnishings on top of the instrument, if we move to the back it’s Indian rosewood all the way and if you find yourself thinking that this is a tonewood that isn’t particularly renowned for any vigorous grain patterning, in the case of the L2 you’d be wrong. It’s not the wildest I’ve seen, but it’s got a lot more happening than many similar backs that have passed before me. Needless to say, the build quality is tip-top and that nitrocellulose matt finishing I mentioned earlier really does set the aesthetic apparatus within me tingling. With this type of finish, you really feel more in touch with the wood itself. Yum.
On to the neck now and our journey here begins with a heel cap of ebony, leading on to a single piece of mahogany with a rosewood and sycamore centre strip. In the hand, the neck feels slim but wide; nut width here is 44mm which is only 1mm more than you’d find on a standard instrument, but it’s made a difference that is definitely detectable with the fingers. As such, it’s unlikely to upset anyone who doesn’t like the wider fingerstyle-friendly neck widths, though.
The tuners are gold-coloured Gotoh with black buttons that are offset nicely by the Brazilian rosewood headstock veneer – an understated bit of additional class – and the Avalon logo pearl inset. The spec on this model tells me that the headstock fascia would normally be ebony, but Steve informs me that some models go out with this little touch of Braz. Nice.
There’s a neatly cut ox bone nut at the top of the ebony fingerboard which is itself devoid of position markers, save for those on the side of the board which have been fashioned from pearl.
Arriving back at the guitar’s bridge, this is ebony once again with a split saddle and the customary six ebony bridge pins. Finally, the end pin is a combo of ebony with sycamore purfling instead of the more usual plastic. It’s another nice touch!
Returning briefly to the subject of options available for a custom built version of this instrument, you can choose between Fishman, LR Baggs or K&K pickups if you want to amplify your Avalon. Our review model, however, is “unplugged” and so we’ll be looking solely at its unamplified voice.
Usually, a spruce top combined with a rosewood back and sides is going to sound crisp, airy and well defined although maybe a little bright in the trebles, especially if it’s a new build. That’s certainly the case here, although I thought that the jumbo body might well mean a bit of extra bass as is sometimes the case. However, the response from strummed chords is really very even with the balance between top and bottom end in fine fettle. I don’t doubt that this will change with maturity; the trebles will mellow slightly and the basses become perhaps a tad more prominent. But this is part of the fun of owning a hand built guitar; you get to see it grow up and its sound picture develop.
I threw as many variations in playing approach as I could muster at the Avalon and it fought back bravely each time. Using a pick summons up good clean separation and remarkable sustain while fingerstyle uncovers a good set of dynamics and a lot of clarity. Drop tune to D and the L2 hints at what lay just around the corner, with the bass string setting up a well-sustained drone underneath the chords.
Realistically speaking, if this is Avalon’s idea of an entry-level instrument then they’ve definitely thought the whole thing through. Providing a good array of choices without going over the top is a good way of introducing a player to the delights of owning a hand made guitar without the unnecessary option anxiety that often accompanies it.
The non-cutaway version of the L2-20 comes in at £2,950 and so if this optional extra isn’t important to you, you’d be buying an impeccably built custom instrument for just under the £3k mark, which in today’s marketplace is something of a bargain!
Pros: Hand built quality within a sensible range of options
Cons: I’d like a tad more bass, please…
Overall: Good looking, good sounding custom model with a range of great sounds and excellent playability
Retail Price: £3250
Body Size: Jumbo
Made In: Ireland
Top: Sitka spruce
Back and Sides: Indian rosewood
Tuners: Gotoh SG381
Nut Width: 44mm
Scale Length: 650mm
Strings Fitted: D’Addario EXP16 .012 – .053
Left Handers: Yes
Gig Bag/Case Included: Hiscox Pro II