Weekend Test Drive: Elderly Instruments Edition

Martin D-28CW, Santa Cruz 1929, Reverend Eastsider, Fender Classic 50s Lacquer, and Fender Mark Knopfler Reviewed

My significant other hails from the great state of Michigan, which also happens to be home to one of my favorite music stores in the United States. Elderly Instruments is located in downtown Lansing (Go Spartans!), and boasts an impressive and diverse inventory of new and used guitars. I had the chance this past weekend to drop in and test drive some fine guitars, most of which would be hard to find anywhere else in the same location.

The Acoustic Room

Elderly’s acoustic room is usually the highlight of any store visit. Not only is it well-stocked with fine instruments from both big-name and boutique builders, but the shop’s staff makes sure every guitar is lovingly maintained and playable. Frankly, I find that most guitar shops phone it in when it comes to the acoustic room; instruments are either under- or over-humidified, strings haven’t been changed in months, and fingers bleed from high action. Not so at Elderly. Just as important, and despite the high quality of the inventory, you don’t see any “don’t touch” signs at Elderly; patrons are encouraged to play the instruments. The staff are there when you need them, but otherwise you won’t find sales-hungry agents hovering over your shoulder.

I spent some quality time with a Martin D-28CW Clarence White Special Edition. I’ve written previously about White’s famous dreadnought, which was acquired by Tony Rice following  the untimely death of the Byrds’ pioneering lead player. The D-28CW is inspired by that guitar’s unique mods, including an enlarged soundhole, bound fingerboard, and dalmatian tortoise-style pickguard. Fit and finish were superb, as expected for a guitar in this price range, and playability was top notch; the action was low by acoustic standards (but not too low), which isn’t necessarily common on factory-fresh Martins. The neck has a comfortably substantial V profile that should suit most players. Tone-wise, the instrument I played exhibited pretty much everything one would want from a rosewood and spruce dreadnought; powerful bass, solid mids, and sweet (but not at all brittle) highs. The instrument was strung with Martin’s new Tony Rice signature Monel strings, which are made from a nickel-based alloy; the sound difference is subtle but noticeable, with less of the metallic overtones yielded by conventional bronze strings. Despite the steep price tag, this instrument definitely earns a place on my gear lust shortlist.

Another acoustic highlight came in the form of a Santa Cruz Model 1929. I’ve been eyeing a small-bodied acoustic to complement the large, boomy dreadnought I’ve been playing for ten years now. The O-size Santa Cruz certainly qualifies as a compact guitar, just big enough to still rest comfortably on an average-size player’s leg. Tonally, however, the all-mahogany 1929 punches well above its weight. I was impressed by the bold, dry, and cutting tone coming from the little guitar — think Telecaster in acoustic form. The 1929 sounds great fingerstyle or picked, and would be perfectly at home in blues or folk settings. I can imagine the instrument getting swamped in a busy acoustic mix (especially in the presence of larger guitars or a banjo), but that’s what a good mic is for, right?

Plugging In

The electric selection at Elderly is no less impressive. One of the first solid-bodies I pulled off the wall was a Reverend Pete Anderson Eastsider. Anderson is probably most famous for his production work and lead playing with Dwight Yoakam during the 80s and 90s; he also boasts an impressive and diverse resume as a session player, producer, and solo artist. While Reverend is generally known for its original designs, the Eastsider is Reverend’s interpretation of a familiar design; the “T” version is appointed like a standard two-pickup tele, while the “S” that I played marries a tele-style body with a Wilkinson tremolo and two strat-style single coils (in addition to the tele-style bridge pickup). This combination of features is usually only found on high-end custom instruments from builders  like Tom Anderson or Suhr, so needless to say I was interested in putting the Eastsider through its paces.

Besides a clunkily carved graphite nut, the Eastsider’s fit and finish were excellent, though I found the satin sunburst finish a little underwhelming. Tonally, the Eastsider S errs strongly in the direction of a strat, which may not be every player’s cup of tea; I personally want my teles to sound like teles (or at least mostly like a tele). That said, players who care less about tradition and more about versatility should give the Eastsider S a chance. I’m still itching to try the more conventional Eastsider T, which seems more likely to suit my preferences.

Speaking of teles, I had a chance to plug in the new Fender Classic Series 50’s Telecaster Lacquer, which updates the Mexican-made reissue-style model with an Eisenhower era-approved nitrocellulose finish. The white blonde guitar I tried was gorgeous, and the ash body was exceptionally light; the look was complemented by a solidly twangy sound plugged into a Deluxe Reverb. A great tele indeed, but the highlight of my time with Elderly’s Fender collection was a Mark Knopfler Signature Stratocaster. I’m a big Knopfler fan, and have been wanting to try this guitar since it debuted 10 years ago. It did not disappoint. While I can’t vouch for every Knopfler model in circulation, this particular guitar was one of the best-sounding strats I’ve played in a long time. The combination of ash body (sporting a killer hot rod red finish), Texas Special pickups, and rosewood fingerboard yields a sound that is warm, springy, and 3-dimensional — basically everything you would expect from a guitar designed for the Sultan of Swing. It’s unfortunate that Fender appears to have recently discontinued the Knopfler model; if you’re looking for a great strat and have the cash to spare, give the helpful folks at Elderly a call before this guitar can only be found on the second-hand market.

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