David Mead looks at a recent addition to the Paul Brett Vintage Signature range from John Hornby Skewes
Regular readers will know that Acoustic’s very own Paul Brett has been working with the people at Vintage to produce a range of signature instruments – and a very interesting bunch they are, too. First of all there were the six and 12-string models, followed by the Viator travel guitar and now the Viaten tenor plus Gemini baritone are set to join the critically acclaimed ranks. I reviewed the Viator when it came out a couple of years ago and found it to be excellent, very modestly priced and bags of fun all at the same time. So I’m eager to see what the collaboration between Paul and the boffins at Vintage have come up with this time…
It’s not very often that we get the chance to hear about a project like the Viaten from the people behind it, but seeing as Paul is close at hand I was able to ask him to colour in the background to the tenor’s origins.
‘Vintage and I are trying to add instruments to the range that they haven’t already got in place,’ he tells me. ‘From my perspective, the Viator Travel guitar has been a brilliant success with loads being sold and so I wanted to add a tenor in a similar vein but with some design modifications. These include a solid headstock and a different shaped neck which is based more on an early European design rather than Americana. The binding is different but still keeps the look of my other Vintage guitars. I also wanted it to have the flexibility to adapt to different tunings and I wanted it to be loud and good for both picking and strumming.’
Tenor guitars seem to have originated around the 1920s and were designed to give four string banjo players a chance to double on guitar. A four-stringed instrument, the tenor is tuned in fifths as opposed to the fourths tuning found on the regular instrument. The most common tuning is C, G, D, A bass to treble, but, as Paul says above, the thinking was that players could adopt and adapt where tunings are concerned and go where their musical whim takes them at any one time. These days, you’ll hear tenor guitars in many of the so-called “neo acoustic” bands as well as a few traditional folk outfits. Nick Cave, The Kate Rusby Band and Seth Lakeman have taken to the tenor cause and so it looks like this diminutive addition to the Vintage range could be a timely one.
Different makers tend to build tenor acoustics to varying dimensions and so, for completeness’ sake, I’ll give you the Viaten statistics, if you’ll excuse the pun. Measuring just 820mm from tip to toe and with just four strings, it would be easy to confuse the Viaten with a large ukulele. But to my eyes, it looks more like a smaller parlour instrument. The body is 390mm long and 283mm wide, measured at the bridge and it has a depth of an average 84mm. So it’s sweet and petite with an immediately recognisable family lineage as the overall look and body décor is very similar indeed to Paul’s other signature models.
So the Viaten’s top is spruce with both bindings and rosette made from a herringbone pattern of rosewood and maple. As we’ve come to expect from the Vintage series, everything is very neat and tidy both inside and out, the body’s matte finish adding an extra touch of class. Back and sides are sapele, that generally honey-toned timber presented here in a darker hue forming a rich contrast to the pale spruce top.
There’s a maple heel cap at the base of the mahogany neck – a three-piece affair with a separate heel and an almost invisible scarf joint at the top. Tuners are unbranded Waverly lookalikes, open-backed with those distinctive old style buttons. Over on the front of the headstock, there’s a rosewood veneer that bears the Vintage logo and model name and a suitably slender bone nut rests at the top of the sonokeling fingerboard. This is a timber that is, for all intents and purposes, from the same tree as Indian rosewood but differs in place of origin and climate. Popular in Indonesia, the colour tends to vary more than its Indian counterpart, but here on the Viaten if someone had told me it was Indian rosewood I would not have questioned it. Finally, back at the body end, the bridge is sonokeling once again, with a bone string saddle and four plastic pins.
The Viaten is an attractive little chap and I’m thinking that I’d better plumb the depths of my memory to haul up some mandolin chords for the next section.
As I’ve said, the standard tuning for a tenor guitar is C, G, A, D, the bass C being the same pitch as the one found at the third fret on a regular guitar’s A string. Realistically speaking, the world’s your oyster here as many different tunings will sit well on the Viaten and might possibly take your fretboard meanderings in some very interesting new directions at the same time. I decided to stick with the norm for my tests here and what I found was a very lively little instrument that packs quite a punch in the volume stakes, too. It’s easily as loud as a lot of mandolins that I’ve played, but somehow more fun. Having only four strings is by no means a limitation either, and it’s easy to imagine the Viaten’s voice sitting perfectly in the mix in practically any acoustic ensemble. It’s bright, sweet and vibrant and I think it would keep any seasoned player happy for ages.
It really is remarkable that Vintage keep coming up with quality instruments at bargain prices like this. The Viaten will sit well in the burgeoning Paul Brett Signature series – and its future looks bright, too.
Over to the man himself: ‘We are putting out a new version of the Viator with a different antique finish, an onboard Fishman Matrix system and a USB output. The Viaten will have this option, too. I have a sample of the Viator with these additions and it sounds great via an amp and with the USB you can record direct to any device that has a USB input. They are putting it out as a limited edition in June for only £30 or so more than the acoustic version.’
A pickup would increase the appeal of the Viaten for many players out there on the circuit and the ability to plug it directly into a DAW on a computer really is the icing on the cake. Congratulations are due all round!
Retail Price: £229
Body Size: Tenor (see text)
Made In: China
Back and Sides: Sapele
Tuners: Open gear style
Nut Width: 35mm
Scale Length: 559mm
Left Handers: No
Gig Bag/Case Included: Custom Viaten padded carry bag