Boulder Creek ECR-3N Solitaire Acoustic-Electric Guitar
Boulder Creek Guitars, bouldercreekguitars.com
Originally printed in Guitar World, December 2008.
The Solitaire's “exotic” design is really more about function than form.
You may not be aware of this, but playing an acoustic guitar could be the most unselfish act a guitarist could make. Because an acoustic guitar’s sound projects outward from the sound hole, the fullest and most harmonically rich sound is heard a few feet away from the guitar by listeners who are positioned directly in front of the sound hole. The player’s ears are located above and just behind the sound hole, so the player has to settle for hearing tones that aren’t quite as rich and robust.
Despite this fact, most acoustic guitar designs feature a sound hole that is located just below where the end of the fingerboard meets the body. In addition to providing a less than ideal monitoring situation for the player, this design actually prevents the top from doing much of what it was designed to do in the first place—vibrate freely and project the full range of frequencies that a string can produce.
Boulder Creek’s new Solitaire models present a logical solution to these design quirks by placing the sound hole on the side of the guitar and facing it up toward the player, leaving the soundboard hole-free. A special bracing design allows the top to flex freely and still provide ample strength to support the strings. Surprisingly, this innovation is offered on a very affordable line of instruments that includes cutaway acoustic-electric models, like the ECR-3N that I auditioned for this review.
From the front, ECR-3N looks like a typical dreadnought cutaway acoustic model except for the absence of a sound hole in its top. Materials include a solid cedar top, solid mahogany back, laminated mahogany sides and a 20-fret rosewood fingerboard—all the usual suspects. The 18:1 tuners boast wood buttons, and they’re mounted on a distinctive jagged-shaped headstock that evokes a mountain crest.
The side-mounted sound hole is surrounded by a plastic ring that makes it look like a drink holder, but you won’t want to put your Bud in there. The built-in AB4-T preamp system is mounted just above this sound hole in the typical location you’d expect to find acoustic-electric controls. The preamp features four EQ bands (brilliance, treble, middle, bass) with slider controls, a volume knob, a phase in/out switch and a chromatic tuner that automatically bypasses the output when the tuner is switched on. Outputs include a 1/4-inch unbalanced jack and a balanced XLR jack.
The side-mounted sound hole is very clever, but the true genius of the Solitaire’s design is its Suspended Bracing System (a.k.a. SBS), which features two aluminum bars aligned in the same direction as the neck and strings and affixed to the guitar’s soundboard at the top, bridge and bottom, which allows the soundboard to flex freely. Instead of the usual assortment of braces, crossbars and struts used on a traditional crossbracing design, the SBS uses just a simple wooden “X”-brace to stabilize the soundboard.
Most untraditional designs seem more like a novelty than an actual improvement, but the Solitaire’s side-mounted sound hole and SBS deliver on their promises. The guitar produces very full and loud tones that project directly toward the guitarist. You can instantly hear the difference in the treble and midrange, which no longer seems to fight against the bass the way they do on a traditional dreadnought. But even without the sound hole, the tone and volume output still sounds just as good to listeners sitting in front of the guitar. This is probably because the suspended bracing really lets the soundboard do the job it was originally designed to do.
Plugged in the ECR-3N sounds even better. The AB4-T system features a one-piece cable-type saddle transducer that produces warm, natural tone without the annoying piezo “quack” and with all the enhanced treble and midrange frequencies that the guitar produces naturally. Although its great to have four EQ bands to adjust, you really don’t need to tweak the EQ much, if at all, to get very attractive amplified acoustic tone. And the side-mounted sound hole eliminates the need for a monitor, since it pushes the sound directly at you at a volume level loud enough to be heard over a band.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Solitaire's “exotic” design is really more about function than form. These seemingly simple innovations make playing the instrument a very satisfying experience both for the player—as intended—but also for the audience, who get to enjoy tone that’s as good as what the player hears. Finally, a win-win situation.
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