« Photo of the week - August 19, 2014 | Main | Dear sound guy: I will scowl at you if you don't put enough volume on my guitar »

40 reasons to drive 9 hours to try 8 Collings guitars

Having just turned the corner on 40, I decided that I could splurge for a new guitar. I love D-18-style guitars (i.e., mahogany and spruce dreadnoughts), and wanted something with even more cut and volume than a Martin D-18 (which I have and love; it's a classic bluegrass, folk, and singer-songwriter guitar). I dig Collings guitars, so I quicky honed in on a Collings D1A. In the past I had a D1VSB (i.e., vintage neck and sunburst top) that I traded for another Collings some years back, so I had a pretty good idea that this was the direction I wanted to go.

It's not as simple as just running down to a local shop and getting a D1A (especially since Acoustic Roots closed several years ago); there are lots of different options that one can get on top of the standard adirondack spruce and mahogany configuration:

  • standard sitka bracing vs. adirondack bracing
  • neck profile and corresponding string spacing at the saddle: 1-11/16", 1-23/32", 1-3/4" standard, vintage now, and vintage necks
  • standard vs. varnish finish
  • standard bracing or sans tongue brace
  • sunburst or natural finish
  • standard or vintage/cut-through saddle
  • other cosmetic bits like bound fretboards and pegheads, back strips, etc.

Rather than ordering online, I decided I had to get my hands and ears on guitars with these various options for a purchase of this magnitude. Luckily, a top Collings dealer is within driving distance, so I decided to take a road trip to Acoustic Music works in Pittsburgh. They have about 200 Collings in stock, and a great variety of different D1A configurations.

Raymond and Steve at AMW were awesome hosts for my afternoon of D1A sampling. Since it's a 4.5 hour drive each way, I only could spend 2.5 hours there before heading home, so I didn't get a chance to check out any of the other fine instruments they have other than those in the running in the D1A quest.

Cost wasn't a primary deciding factor, so I'm not going to mention it below. None of these are cheap guitars, but they are not astronomically expensive either, at least relative to other boutique and vintage instruments. I also wasn't concerned with the durability of the varnish, which is softer and gets dinged more easily. I tend to take good care of my guitars and don't mind honest wear, so the only thing I was really concerned with regarding the varnish finish was how it impacted the tone.

All the guitars had adirondack spruce tops, mahogany back and sides (except for #3 and #4 below); all had 1-3/4" necks except for the two CWs which are 1-23/32" (#2 was "vintage now" profile); all were "new" instruments except for #4.

The sampling never involved more than three guitars at a time. When Raymond brought out a fourth guitar to try, it replaced one of the previous three (i.e., one was elminiated from the running). Once I had gone through all of the contenders, I narrowed down the remaining "top three" to two, then one, and I had found *my* winner. I fully acknowledge that what appeals to me probably differs from everyone else. Eight people might have preferred eight different guitars from those I sampled. On a different day, in a different mood, I might have choosen a different one (that's why some of us have more than one guitar!). They were all that good.

Here's what I played, roughly in order (#3 and 4 might be flipped):

1. D1A (i.e., a standard model, other than the 1-3/4" neck) - This one had just arrived from Collings and sported new strings, so we started here to set the baseline...It was just killer. Everything you'd expect from a D1A, with power and brightness without being overlly shrill or too treble. I can only imagine what this guitar will sound like when it opens up. If this was the only guitar they had, I would have walked out with it and been happy.

2. D1A varnish, vintage now neck - What a great feeling neck! It was a bit more open and warm, and not as brash as the fresh-out-of-the-box D1A (#1 above), but still had plenty of volume. It definitely leaned towards the Martin sound than the other guitars, but still was unmistakably Collings. This one ended up being a top three contender.

3. D1A with figured Mountain Spanish Cedar back/sides - A beautiful guitar; going into the visit I was hoping that this would be the one I'd love and take home. A very nice instrument, but I didn't connect with it like the previous two. It had a very sweet voice but didn't seem as powerful, which will probably appeal to a lot of people who aren't trying to out-gun a gaggle of banjo players. The right person is really going to love this guitar.

4. CW Madagascar rosewood, varnish - We threw this in just to validate my belief that I'm a mahogany guy. This is a super guitar, but just not what I was looking for. I'm glad I didn't love it, because I have some qualms about the environmental and political issues surrounding Madagascar rosewood and would have to do some serious cognitive gymnastics to justify owning a guitar made from it.

5. D1A sunburst - Structurally the same guitar as the first D1A listed above, but this one has the perfect Collings sunburst, a "CW"-style pickguard, and a nice "Style 3" backstrip (i.e., decoration running down the middle of the back...purely cosmetic, and only the player will ever see it). Interestingly, this one has a serial number that dates it to 2009, even though it's new. The strings had been played-in a bit (not dead by any means, but not super-new/bright). As expected, it sounded similar, although not quite as "in your face" as the 2014 natural topped D1A. Maybe it was the strings, maybe it's because it's had a few years to mellow. This one had it all: power, warmth, openness. Not to mention the killer sunburst top.

6. D1A varnish sunburst - In theory, this one should have sounded like the D1A varnish (#2; although with the standard/smaller neck, there's less mass there which could impact the sound), while looking similar the sunburst D1A (#5). A perfect combo, right? Somehow this one didn't do it for me, which is odd given how much I liked the other varnished D1A and love the looks of the other sunburst guitar. It didn't sound as rich as the other varnished D1A (#2); a bit more jangly than I expected. And the sunburst was a tad too orange for my taste, and the grain on the adirondack top didn't show through as much as the other sunburst D1A (#5). It's shallow, I know. On a different day, maybe I would have fallen for it, but we missed our connection today.

7. A mahogany CW with sunburst varnish finish - This is a very cool guitar. It's open and loud, and the 3rd and 4th strings just explode with sound (i.e., a mid-range boost, which can be attributed to the larger soundhole). After playing this guitar, I narrowed things down to this one and the sunburst D1A (#5). After about 20 minutes going back and forth, I decided that while the hot G and D strings on the CW sounded great, that over the long-haul I might want something a bit more evenly-voiced. I was worried that novelty and uniqueness would wear off; this might be a bit too much of a "hot rod" for me to handle. And it's not like other Collings are lacking in midrange. The CW seem to take that special Collings sound that all of the D1As had, and pushed it up a notch, right on the edge of being awesome to over the top.

8. A DS1A - The 12-fret version of the D1A...just to make sure I was on the right track with the standard 14-fret dreadnought. A nice guitar, but the 14-fret version seems to suit me better.

image from Acoustic Music WorksSo, #5 above was the winner for me. This D1A varies from standards specs pretty minimally:

  • 1-3/4" standard neck
  • sunburst (not quite as bright as in the picture; it's brown to tan to golden and less orange)
  • CW pickguard
  • Style 3 backstrip
  • No varnish, has a tongue brace, sitka bracing (i.e., it doesn't have any of the "hot-rod" features that a lot of people like to throw in to take these guitars up a notch)

I would have liked to try the used 1991 Brazilian Rosewood Clarence White Collings, but I couldn't have afforded it even if I fell in love with it. Also, the Bourgeois "aged-tone" guitars (especially the mahogany 12- and 14- fret dreadnoughts) looked interesting. But I had run out of time and needed to head home, so I didn't sample these guitars.

I hope to be back to Acoustic Music Works to treat myself to something special for my 50th birthday, in 10 years, if not sooner! 

A few more thoughts: 

  • I have begun to realize that I'm pretty flexible with neck sizes...This was my first experience with the Vintage Now neck, which was really comfortable. But the standard 1-3/4" is totally fine too, as was the ever-so-slightly narrower 1-23/32" CW neck. Even the 1-11/16" on my old D-18 is fine. As long as it's not a super-low-profile 1-11/16" neck, I'm probably okay with it.
  • A special shout-out to my 2002 Jetta diesel wagon, which made this trip possible in that (a) it got me from Philly to Pittsburgh and back (nearly 600 miles) with 1/8th of a tank left, and (b) has been a reliable car that keeps ticking and lets me spend money on things like guitars rather than a new car. 

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>