I didnít set out to buy Brazilian rosewood guitars. It just worked out
that way. However; having come to own them, I have to say the hype
surrounding the merits of this wood as a component of musical instruments
is well earned. The tone is very rich. If you get a chance to pick one
up and can afford it, you will be rewarded.
Both of these stories started in the early 90s and ended much later.
PRS Dragon 2000
I first noticed the PRS dragons while working in Texas in the early 90s.
There was a decent music store not too far from work that I would visit
to try out new guitars. The first time I noticed a PRS was a Dragon.
The workmanship was amazing. It was the first guitar Iíd ever seen in
a store that I was reluctant to try. I was not going to be the one who
did it any harm. I surprised myself by actually thinking about buying it,
but fiscal prudence won out. I had just bought our first house and with
a mortgage rate of over 12%, by far the best use of spare cash was to
pay down the mortgage.
That Dragon, and the Dragon II that followed stuck in my mind and they
bumped PRS to the top of my list of desirable electric guitars. When I
traveled, I searched out PRS dealers and tried them out so I would know
what I wanted when the day came that I could afford one. It was a very
special day in the mid 90s when I walked into a store in Chicago and they
had a copy of all 3 Dragons. They were willing to part with one of them
for $10,000. I noticed at the time that I would have done all right if I
had bought one of the ones Iíd seen in Dallas a few years earlier. I was
also very aware later on how quickly that $10,000 would have proven to
be an excellent investment. That said, I have a strict personal rule about
not tricking myself into believing a personal possession is an investment.
I buy things because I believe I am going to get value out of them.
By 1999, I had what I considered to be a pretty comprehensive inventory of
guitars: a bass, a classical, a steel string acoustic, a Telecaster,
a Les Paul, and 4 PRS Ė which at the time I considered to be one of each.
On the way home from a vacation, as we were approaching the DC area well
ahead of schedule, I asked my wife if she was interested in visiting the
PRS factory. She said yes and we detoured over to Stevensville. When we
arrived, we were advised that random guests were not normally entertained.
I said that was OK, we had just stopped by because I had a few of their
guitars and thought it might be fun to visit, and I might as well pick up
some spares of the 3 string gauges I used. As this was happening, in walked
a fellow who offered to give us a tour. I believe it was Paul Miles,
but canít honestly swear to it.
The tour was quite interesting: the woods, the drying room, the various
work stations, and of course guitars everywhere in various stages of
completion. The highlight of the tour came in the paint drying room:
a red Dragon 2000. Even unfinished, this guitar was jaw dropping. It
struck me that a person who had this would find it very difficult to get
interested in any other guitar. I started watching for these guitars to
actually become available and made inquiries in some of the locations
I traveled to and pestered Brent at The Guitar Shop a bit to see if he
would or could get one.
I hadnít really contemplated the reality of paying for it if I found one,
but sometimes the chase is all that matters. Then a funny thing happened.
An associate of mine got funding for a dot com and felt quite strongly
that he needed me to deal with technology issues. I was doing reasonably
well and had a good work arrangement where I was, so offered to help him
out a bit in my spare time while he worked with the head hunters to find
someone to hire. While that is an interesting story in itself, it has
nothing to do with guitars, so Iíll jump past it to the part where my signing
bonus would be a Dragon 2000. Now I made some calls in earnest to find one.
A shop in Atlanta that Iíd dealt with before directed me to their sister
store in Cincinnati. I made arrangements to visit their blonde Dragon 2000
on Saturday and made the 10 hour drive with my wife Friday. I was put
in private room with the guitar and given plenty of space and time. The
guitar was amazing: beautiful looking & beautiful sounding. We walked out
for a bit to catch our breath and I gave Brent one last call to see if
there was any chance he could get one, but PRS hadnít made any available
to the international market. This would have to be the one, though that
neednít preclude negotiating a good price.
I got the guitar without caring about the fact that it had a Brazilian
rosewood neck. All that mattered was that it looked and sounded amazing.
The tone of that neck is unlike anything else. It is most notably rich
in the lower harmonics; it is very earthy and rings forever. You really
have to hear it to appreciate it. The feel of the unfinished neck makes
it impossible for the left hand not to bond very closely with the instrument.
If you touch it, you will have to play it, and once you start playing it,
it is very hard to put down. Iíve owned this guitar for over 10 years now,
and my feelings for this guitar havenít changed. For what it is worth,
Iíve only ever played original music on this. It is too good an instrument
to be bound by the confines of someone elseís music. It is amazing. And
there is something poetic about having a Dragon from the Year of the Dragon.
The first guitar I ever bought for myself was a classical. I got it because
the style of music seemed like a good diversion from playing in a bar
band and because I wanted to keep my sight reading skills up. It served
me quite well for over ten years until one of my daughters took a tumble
off the couch and landed on the guitar, snapping the headstock. She was
quite devastated, so we quickly patched it up as well as my skills
would allow. While the fix helped my daughter believe she wouldnít be
sold off to the gypsies for her transgression, the guitar was no longer
really suited to serious playing.
As the months without a classical guitar turned into a couple of years,
I decided it was time to get a new one. It was the early 90s and I had
been hearing a bit about Grit Laskin, a local builder. I poked around and
found exactly one dealer who had no inventory. Basically the guitars
were generally sold prior to being built. At the time Laskin had a waiting
list something over a year and his guitars were priced a fair bit more
than I wanted to pay for something I couldnít actually see and hear for
myself. I spent another year playing through the fairly sparse collection
of classical guitars that can be found in the average music store and ended
up buying a Kamouraska Collection, which I still consider great value.
It was a bonus that is was hand made in Canada.
Fast forward to the winter of 2010. In the recent years, I had managed
to acquire some exceptional guitars. As many as fit in the music room
lived in a well controlled, instrument friendly environment. The Kamouraska
was among a handful that had migrated to where I work where there are
large fluctuations in both temperature and humidity. One day as I was
playing some classical pieces, I noticed that the Kamouraska was suffering
some, perhaps to the point of having a hard time lasting as long as me.
I immediately started a case humidifier program with it and it has recovered
nicely. However, in the course of the close inspection, it struck me that
the quality of my classical guitar now lagged behind everything else I
owned. And so, I set out to rectify this inequity.
I immediately thought of revisiting the possibility of owning a Laskin.
A search turned up three used ones that would let me see if his guitars
were up to the story I remembered from the 90s. One was in San Diego and
the others were in Toronto. I made the short drive to Toronto and tried
them both. Both were cosmetically challenged, but felt good and sounded
better than anything else in the store. The best sounding of the pair had
a finish that was an absolute mess. It was suggested that I could buy
for the sound, or get something else for looks. Iíve never liked that
compromise, so I contacted Laskin himself.
At the time, Laskinís wait list was 38 months, and his prices were not
for the faint of heart. I decided if I was going to wait 38 months anyway,
I might as well spend a few months investigating the options for more
immediate gratification. Sadly, the classical choice in most music stores
is still quite limited. Most of what I found wasnít noticeably better
than the Kamouraska by any measure other than age. This meant going to
specialty shops, many of which are by appointment only. I prefer to visit
a store anonymously to evaluate whether or not they are people Iíd like
to deal with, but the hunt was on. Toronto Iíd been to. New York and
Cleveland were day trip candidates. I even made a detour to Lexington
Kentucky on my way to Indianapolis to try some interesting guitars from
a couple of generational guitar builders in Spain. There were some nice
instruments, but nothing that gave the tone of that beat up Laskin in Toronto.
I was ready to put down a deposit on a build, but there was still a used
example in San Diego. The guitar was priced such that it was more than
I wanted to spend based on a few pictures on a web site. I knew from
an inquiry a couple months earlier that the store owner no longer had
the higher resolution images from the camera. He had indicated at the
time that there were a couple of small marks in the top you could see
in the right light. That is a bit of a flag to me, since most people
are much less critical of flaws than I am. I checked in again to see
what his return policy was. Simple enough: I give him a credit card
to cover shipping and send it back in 5 days if I donít like it. Done.
When UPS brought the package, I left it on the floor for a while. I was
prepared to be disappointed by the tiny marks and wanted to put that off
as long as possible. Eventually I opened it, fighting through the snow
worms to extract the guitar case. The case was a very precise fit to
the guitar. You had to look just right to see a couple of tiny marks
on the top Ė Mike at Luthierís Collection tells it as it is. Brazilian
rosewood back and sides. Ebony fingerboard and armrest. Cedar top.
All beautiful woods, expertly finished.
I gave it a quick tune and played my normal guitar test bits. This was
the real deal. I played everything I have by Carulli. The sound of this
guitar is very hard to describe. The tone and volume are incredibly
consistent over the full 3 octave range. The guitar sings like Michael
Jacksonís voice: pure and clean. It is impossible to say how much of
the sound of this guitar can be attributed to the Brazilian rosewood
and how much must be attributed to William Laskinís artistry. But there
is no question that when you put exceptional materials into the hands
of a gifted craftsman, you will get a treasure.
This guitar is the jewel of my acoustic collection. It would have been
worth waiting 38 months for, and I wouldnít bet against some future
generation declaring Laskin the Stradivarius of my generation.