"Buying Your First Weissenborn"
Written By Aron Radford
Buying your first weissenborn can be a little bit of a minefield for someone who has no idea what to consider when deciding to purchase their first hollow neck Weissenborn style guitar.
I have over the years had numerous conversations about this subject with newcomers to the weissenborn and it normal boils down to these 2 fundamental questions...
1; ”How serious are you about playing the weissenborn long term"
2; ”How much money do you want to spend"
These two factors will usually determine where you start looking for your first weissenborn purchase.
So here’s a scenario then. You play a little regular guitar (or have done in the past) and you’ve been on YouTube as seen an increasing number of people playing this intriguing lap steel guitar called a Weissenborn. Then like a lot of people you’ve felt a calling to this wonderful instruments sound and decided to investigate the idea of purchasing one. So what next?
Well you probably Googled “Weissenborn” and come up with a host of companies and sites offering Weissenborns for sale at alarmingly differing prices.
Now it’s important at this point to distinguish between two main groups of the search results here, DISTRIBUTORS & LUTHIERS
“Distributors” are on the whole advertising and selling a volume produced ready made (and on the shelf ready to dispatch immediately), product that is normally manufactured on mass from a third party company in Asia or Mexico.
“Luthiers” are advertising their own guitar making skills and experience and offering you a custom, made to order instrument that will take longer to make and to be delivered but does have the advantage of customising the ornamentation and choice of wood to your specific tastes and needs.
I would generally break down all the Weissenborns on sale on the internet today into 3 categories (these don’t include “ORIGINALS" which is a whole different ball game entirely and something which I won’t be focusing on in this particular feature).
“Entry Level” £200-£500
“Mid Range” £500-£1500
“Top End” £1500-£5000
Now i am going to have to generalise here somewhat and say “Distributors” are going to be focusing on the budget and mid range guitars, and “Luthiers” are going to fall into the Mid range and Top End regions.
Lets deal with “Entry Level” first.
An “Entry Level" guitar is going to be made from a LAMINATED/VENEERED wood. Strictly speaking a laminate guitar consists of two layers of wood glued together. But a typical laminate material for guitars in this catogory has more than two layers in all probability. The top veneer of these guitars will look very pretty in the photos but this might give you a false sense of quality. What you are actually looking at is the top thin layer of expensive wood over multiple layers of very ordinary/inexpensive wood (or in some cases a compound board material). These guitars are generally made on mass in Asia/Mexico somewhere to a lower level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, they are perfectly functional and playable instruments but lack high end refinements. The important thing to remember here is laminated wood is “tonally” counter productive to producing a quality rich tone full of complex harmonies and long lasting sustain, which lets face it are THE fundamental qualities a weissenborn is renowned for. Many of these laminated weissenborns have reasonable tonal qualities but what they lack is ‘RESONANCE’ i.e. The ability to hang onto a note, and to activate the harmonics associated with it, for a longer period of time. In other words better SUSTAIN. This would become really apparent if you were you to play a good quality solid wood weissenborn for weeks and months, before you can go back to a laminate one in order to 'hear' what it is lacking, in terms of resonance and sustain.
It’s also useful at this juncture to note the difference between the two main categories of ‘Laminate” wood weissenborns. A lot of weissenborns produced on mass overseas use a laminate that consists of very thin veneers of nice looking ‘tone wood’ over a core of pressed board or some other cheap wood material. This board material often has no name or origin it's just a "mystery wood," and it won't be as resonant or be as durable as real laminate. The second kind of ‘Laminate’ (or "real laminate") will be multiple layers of ’Tone wood” laminated together. This is obviously more desirable it has to be said but “DO NOT” be fooled by a less than honest vendor/distributor when he says it’s a ‘Solid Wood’ guitar. Technically he is right in saying that because all the layers of the laminate are solid tone woods but this is still a ‘laminated’ guitar and will still show signs of inferior tone and sustain but to a lesser degree than the previous "Mystery wood" example. There is a third hybrid of laminate guitars that uses a solid top and laminated back and sides. A solid top to a weissenborn is far more important, tonally than for the back and sides. Think about it the sides aren't going to resonate much anyway when played, so they are of least importance. The back of the guitar is resting against your lap, so that seriously inhibits the resonance from the back. The top is by far the biggest contributor to overall tone and sustain. Another factor which will affect your guitars tone and sustain is when the top wood is sometimes too thick and the bracing is too stiff. This all leads to a less than bright sound even though its an solid wood top. All of this is important knowledge when buying a weissenborn. But! When you're buying a guitar it can be academic. You don't buy a guitar for the satisfaction of knowing what solid wood or laminate it's made of. You buy a guitar to play music with. So make your buying decision based on what it sounds like if at all possible and how it feels to play. You could find a laminate guitar that plays beautifully and likewise you could find a guitar made from the finest solid hardwood that you just don't like the feel or sound of. The irony of this is that you will probably never be in a position to “Try before you buy” but if you were ever in a position to do i highly recommend making the effort to do so.
So after saying all the above!….Laminated weissenborns have their place in the evolutionary chain of a players journey/career. I myself started off with an inexpensive mahogany laminated weissenborn from China which when I received it I was very happy with. It allowed me to get to grips with the whole sliding tone bar playing thing and to see whether or not this instrument and technique was for me or not. I recorded several tunes on it (two of which made it onto my debut album ("Mevagissey Memories" and "Reflections Of Time") but I outgrew it within a year because I could hear it's limitations sonically. And that’s the point to the “entry level" end of the spectrum it allows you to experience the lap steel culture and decide whether or not it's for you. There’s no point spending big bucks on a guitar that you eventually find out isn’t for you. Like every hobby or pursuit it’s about dipping your toe in the water, getting the bug and moving on to bigger and better things. So lets move on to the next category…..
Next “Mid Range"
There will be some people out there who are pretty certain they will be playing their purchase in over a years time and want (and can afford) a better quality instrument straight away, so that’s where the “Mid Range” weissenborns come into play. Mid range guitars are pretty much going to be exclusively SOLID wood guitars (no laminate in sight). Be aware that the top material (spruce, cedar, mahogany, maple, sapele, koa, etc.) will affect the tone of the guitar quite noticeably. You may want to listen to the way the top wood colours the tone to see which sounds you prefer. These woods are sometimes less expensive than Koa, woods such as Spruce, Mahogany, Mrytle, Blackwood etc. They offer a quality product made from quality materials, but these non koa materials are often slightly cheaper to source and cheaper to buy but still offer great sounding complex tones. They often look plainer and less fancy than the top end koa wood guitars. Needless to say there are plenty of solid koa weissenborns that fall into this category too but are often less pretty, more regular grained than the high end 5A curly grade koa used by the very best luthiers for the very best weissenborns. It's important to note here i feel that the pattern (or lack of curl or flame) of the grain in Koa especially is NOT as important as you might think in affecting the tone and sustain so don’t be fooled by plain vs 5A curly Koa as some people think it’s the plainer more ordinary/regular grained koa wood that often makes for the best SOUNDING guitars, this theory goes right back to the days of the Hermann Weissenborn originals and so has some basis of truth i believe.
Finally “Top End”
The “Top End” weissenborns are by definition the most expensive and exclusive guitars on the market and are in 99/100 cases all solid wood construction, and I would say 9/10 times be made from Koa wood. Why Koa wood well it's simple it's simply the best sounding wood to build weissenborns with.
These top end weissenborns are on the whole made to order from the very best LOOKING and SOUNDING woods (predominately koa) and because of this they can be tailored to your personal needs and personal style preferences. A luthier will normally have a waiting list of clients on his books already and in some cases that can be as much as 18 months+ and will probably ask for a hefty deposit to secure your build. But this is only to be expected as the premium materials needed for these high end guitars are not cheap. The luthier can’t afford to stock pile tens of thousands of pounds of guitars as the wood used to make these guitars costs a lot of money and time to make and customers may not want that exact style and specification of weissenborn that he (the luthier) decides to make for stock. So asking for a 50-80% deposit upfront is normal practice for the initial purchase of the raw materials which are very expensive and increasingly hard to come by these days. Check out the articles on this website “FACTS ABOUT KOA” and the "ISEMAN GUITARS INTERVIEW" for more detailed information about koa wood.
You remember I said earlier that the prettiest looking Koa isn’t always the best sounding but when it comes to the "Top End" weissenborns, looks are everything too when your in this pricey arena. It’s as much about the looks as the tone and when your paying THE BIG BUCKS, you CAN have the best of both worlds :-) the luthiers skill and experience really comes into play here and the choice of bracing systems, the slightest deviation in measurements or curvatures in assembly can really bring out the best of what the Weissenborn design has to offer. Minuscule bridge placement, lower bout curve, depth of body, head stock angle, bracing placements, kurfing dimensions, bracing patters, type of glue all can collectively make audible differences when all these criteria are closely monitored during the building process. The countless hours spent observing and measuring original weissenborns in the pursuit of build perfection is what you are paying these top end prices for.
Other factors to check out or enquire about (especially when purchasing a “Entry Level” or "Mid Range" weissenborn) are….
*Does it come with a built in pick up system, or can you (for an added charge) have one add before distpatch?
*Does it come with a hard case? (please note weissenborns don’t fit in standard guitar cases so you will need a specially designed case for your weissenborn)
*What material is the nut and saddles made of, bone or plastic? Bone is preferable as it can offer more tone and sustain
*If it’s advertised as “Solid Wood” is it solid wood or laminated solid woods? (be careful some vendors are clever with their wording in advertisments)
*Check out customer feedback and reviews and ask about the after sales care. Ask around on various sites and forums for recommendations and see if their customers were happy with their purchase. Check out YouTube videos as well.
*Ask about the companies returns policy and warranties i.e. postal damage, or faulty craftsmanship.
*Ask what string gauges and tunings you can use safely on your purchase.
*Get a clear and concise estimated delivery time (or build time) and postage costs (including import taxes) in writing so there is no future misunderstandings.
Well I hope that has been informative and useful in some small way in helping you ponder the pro's and con's and decisions to be made when deciding what's best for YOU when buying your first weissenborn.
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