David Mead enters upon a safari into the blackwoods of Africa with this exotic little guitar from darkest, erm, Scotland!
As many of you would have seen in a recent Workshop feature, Ricky Claffey is a builder in Scotland who has been making guitars for seven years. He started out by learning instrument making at college before going on to study with Bill Kelday and Paul Hyland. These days he is based in Thornliebank, turning out a range of custom models and working on commissions from customers. This guitar is an OM that has just left the workbench with a very interesting medley of body woods…
When I heard that a guitar with African Blackwood back and sides was on its way to me, I immediately took up position whereby I could ambush the delivery van the minute it came into view. As a tonewood, African Blackwood is revered almost as much as Brazilian rosewood for its tendency to steep an instrument in heavenly tone and supernatural sustain. As such it comes at a premium, often adding around £3k to the price of a custom build and, like its Brazilian cousin, years of over harvesting means that it’s in short supply. African blackwood is not on the CITES register yet, but it’s possibly only a matter of time before use of this much sought after timber comes under very strict guidelines for import/export. It’s a genuine rosewood – Dalbergia Melanoxylon – but much, much darker than any of the other varieties in common use. Known to blunt chisels in the workshop, it is such a densely resonant wood that sometimes bells have been made from it. But enough about the back and sides, let’s look at the rest of this OM in fine detail…
The top is Engelmann spruce, known for its creamy appearance (initially anyway, it soon ambers up after a couple of years) and slightly stronger midrange than the more commonly used Sitka variety. On this Claffey it’s still in its infant creamy hue because this guitar is barely two months old at the time of writing. As with other spruce tops, Engelmann tends to open up nicely after being played in and thus represents a good investment for future development.
The imposing rosette is a combination of abalone and African blackwood and the body binding is ebony – there’s a good overall balance between the creamy texture of the spruce and the almost completely black back and sides. There is a grain pattern to the Blackwood, but the light has to be right to enable you to see it in its full glory. When you do, you are met with patterning that, again, rivals Brazilian rosewood. It’s not quite as crazy as some I’ve seen, but extravagantly textured nonetheless.
The Claffey’s neck is Honduras mahogany – another sought after tonewood that is subject to rigorous restrictions and dwindling supplies these days – with a separate heel. The neck is a bolt on affair, Ricky saying that he prefers this method of securing the neck to body as it cuts down weight.
Both the back and front of the headstock have an ebony veneer with chrome buttoned Schaller tuners on either side. African Blackwood turns up again in the guise of the teardrop-shaped truss rod cover.
The fingerboard is ebony, as is the bridge, with what looks like bone (or a simulation thereof) for the nut and string saddle. There’s an attractive white purfling around the edges of the fingerboard, which is another appealing decorative feature – but let’s hear what the beast sounds like, shall we?
One thing you notice immediately on picking this OM up is its weight, due no doubt to the density of the Blackwood. Luckily this hasn’t resulted in any imbalance as the guitar is very comfortable to hold in the playing position with no untoward veering to one side or the other.
The neck is a generous D profile and sits in the hand nicely – but I did notice some very slightly sharp fret ends, possibly due to a little wood shrinkage since the guitar’s manufacture.
The sound is very pure and sweet with a good amount of sustain, but there’s a little compression present in the sound picture, too. This, again, could be down to youthfulness and will most likely disappear once the woods settle down and begin interacting.
There’s a nice amount of volume in evidence and I found that gentle fingerpicking brought out the best tone for me. But chordal strumming and playing with a pick both had their story to tell, making this OM a good all-rounder in the music style stakes.
Overall, this is a guitar that has a great deal going for it and I think it will improve inordinately once it’s got a few months of playing under its belt.
There’s a really excellent level of build quality going on with this OM. Its understated looks add to its appeal – I like the fact that there are no fretboard markers, for instance. Then, of course, there are the bodywoods which not only add to the Claffey’s luxurious allure but should be exciting for the eventual owner to hear develop to their full potential over the next few years. There’s also the fact that you can pick this guitar up for just over £3k, which is nothing short of remarkable for an instrument with the holy grail African blackwood on board!
With everything that I’ve seen and heard here it will be very interesting to see what instruments emanate from Ricky’s workshop in the near future – I, for one, will be keeping a close watch. David Mead
Model: African Blackwood OM
Retail Price: £3250
Body Size: OM
Made In: Scotland
Top: Engelmann spruce
Back and Sides: African Blackwood
Neck: Honduras mahogany
Nut Width: 45mm
Scale Length: 630mm
Strings Fitted: .011 – .052
Gig Bag/Case Included: Hard case
Pros: A custom build with some highly sought after tonewoods
Cons: Fret ends could use some loving care to make them less harsh
Overall: An OM with a host of good features, both in terms of build quality and sonic quality
Contact Details: Claffey Guitars