For a split-second we thought Washburn was getting into the canned fish market with the Bella Tono series but - hold the mayo - Bella Tono translates as “good tone”, and this series is big news because it sees the Chicago-based guitar giant introducing a new body shape.
OK, that’s not as dramatic as ‘Washburn’s skipjack tuna steak in brine’, but it’s nonetheless a tasty move, with the new Studio body design offering a more compact playing experience without compromising on tone. Not only that, but these compact, Chinese-made instruments have an abundance of visual flair, a feel tailored for today’s player, options for onboard pickups and preamps, and all at a competitive price.
With the flagship models, the quite exquisite Elegante 24S and the acoustic-electric Allure SC56S, complementing their more affordable kin, the electro-acoustic Vite S9 and purely acoustic Novo S9, it certainly looks as though the Bella Tono series is well positioned in a hotly-contested market.
In the not-so-distant past, such a series would have been impossible at this price. Not so today, but with that comes rising expectations, and there’s only one way to find out if the Bella Tono series will meet ours...
Washburn Bella Tono Elegante S24S - $469.99
KEY FEATURES: Solid spruce top with select pau ferro back and sides, quarter-sawn scalloped bracing, mahogany C profile neck, 25.5” scale, 20 frets, ebony fretboard with abalone ‘birds in flight’ inlay, ebony bridge, diecast gold tuners
FINISH: Gloss Natural
What is the build like?
Very nice. The Elegante features a solid spruce top with beautifully figured pau ferro laminate on the back and sides. The premium feel continues with the ebony fretboard and the details in the finish. There’s abalone all over the shop, with the mountain and ‘birds in flight’ fretboard inlay, and the ostentatious rosette and purfling. There’s even abalone to complement the padauk and ebony binding.
This looks a little smaller than the others in the series?
Ever so slightly. It shares the same depth but is 7mm thinner than the Novo when measured across the lower body bout. The difference is subtle but surely contributes to the Elegante being such an accessible, welcoming instrument.
How does the pau ferro perform?
The CITES restrictions on rosewood have been lifted in recent months but it remains to be seen if the industry’s go-to replacement will be phased out, especially for instruments at this price. And why should it? It looks stunning, and on a smaller-bodied acoustic such as this it helps keep the low-end tight.
Washburn Bella Tono Novo S9 - $199
KEY FEATURES: Select spruce top with select figured walnut back and sides, quarter-sawn scalloped bracing, okoume C profile neck, 25.5” scale, 20 frets, ebony fretboard w/lotus inlay, ebony bridge, diecast black tuners
FINISH: Gloss Charcoal Burst
What can I expect from the cheapest in the series?
Value, and plenty of it. Sure, the Novo has a laminate construction, with spruce on top and walnut on the back and sides, but at this price the finish is immaculate. Here, Washburn has plumped for okoume for the neck, which offers a more lightweight - and cheaper - alternative to mahogany.
That finish looks a bit different...
It’s Gloss Charcoal Burst, and while it might not be the traditionalist’s choice it nonetheless complements Washburn’s tonewood choices nicely. And besides, if you’re going all-in for that moody singer-songwriter vibe it might be more your speed than cherry red.
What makes this so good for beginners?
It’s so playable. Sharing the same slim C neck profile as the others in the series and its shallow body, the Novo is less intimidating a proposition for beginners than a dreadnought or jumbo. Not that long ago, beginner acoustics could be a chore to play, but instruments such as this will keep you playing longer. And, of course, the price isn’t bad either.
Washburn Bella Tono Allure SC56S - $499
KEY FEATURES: Solid spruce top with select acacia back and sides, quarter-sawn scalloped bracing, mahogany C profile neck, 25.5” scale, 20 frets, ebony fretboard w/abalone and turquoise island inlay, comfort arm rest, abalone purfling, maple binding, Barcus Berry LX4 pickup and onboard tuner, ebony bridge, diecast gold tuners
FINISH: Gloss Natural
What is the pickup system like?
Those who have played Washburn’s Apprentice series of electro-acoustics will be familiar with the Barcus Berry LX4 pickup. Positioned on the shoulder of the instrument, with the pickup fitted underneath the saddle, the LX4 features an onboard tuner, and controls for bass, middle, treble, volume and presence. Like the others in the series, we find the Allure offering well-balanced tones, and the LX4 doesn’t step all over the guitar’s natural voice.
The arm rest is a nice touch. Does it make much of a difference?
It is and it does! The Studio body shape already sees the Bella Tono series prioritise comfort, but the super-smooth bevel is very kind on the forearm.
And what about that fretboard inlay?
It’s quite insane. And there’s nothing like a taste of tiki island beach paradise in turquoise and abalone to brighten up your set at the Star and Garter. It might be a bit much for some. Besides, the Allure is already a handsome instrument, its solid spruce top and laminated acacia back and sides is immaculately finished in high gloss.
Washburn Bella Tono Vite S9V - $259
KEY FEATURES: Select spruce top with select walnut back and sides, quarter-sawn scalloped bracing, okoume C profile neck, 25.5” scale, 20 frets, Barcus Berry LX4 pickup and onboard tuner, ebony fretboard w/ exotic wood vine inlay, ebony bridge, diecast black tuners
FINISH: Gloss Charcoal Burst
This looks familiar?
Well, yes. Take the S9, give it a Venetian cutaway, install a Barcus Berry LX4 pickup system and onboard tuner, garnish with some vine inlay, et voila! The Vite S9V. And it’s perfect for those who liked the look of the S9 but really needed an electro-acoustic option.
That pickup system at this price? Not bad.
Indeed, and it makes the Vite a persuasive option for those seeking an affordable, playable instrument to play some shows or hit the high street with a songbook and an open gig bag to collect change from passersby. It can’t be overstated how useful an onboard tuner is on a guitar at this price. As with the Allure, the LX4 is powered by a 9V battery, fitted discreetly in a compartment on the lower treble-side bout.
The cutaway looks inviting...
If upper-fret access is a priority, this is as good as it gets in acoustics at this price. Inveterate noodlers will enjoy exploring the territory between the 14th and 18th frets - especially when the neck profile encourages fleet-fingered playing.
Head to head
The Bella Tono series’ Studio body shape is going to please those who tend to find a regular dreadnought or jumbo a little unwieldy, and a parlour too much of a toy. The Studio shape is shallow, with a four-inch depth, and is similar to a grand concert or auditorium style.
The full 25.5-inch scale feels reassuringly familiar, the tone full and well-balanced across the series. Tone-wise, the series plays the percentages. Indeed, when launching the Bella Tono acoustics at NAMM 2019, Washburn promised “to maintain the tight lows, focused mids and clear highs commonly associated with larger body sizes”.
While it is no surprise to find a tight, upfront precision about the upper-mids across the series (which is articulate and convincing in the Novo and Vite models and has a bell-like chime quality in the premium Allure and Elegante instruments), there’s plenty of low-end authority, too. There is no shortage of volume.
While the Novo and Vite share much DNA, with a similar laminate construction and finish, and an all but identical feel, too, the Allure and Elegante are quite different instruments, with the latter using pau ferro laminate on the back and sides, the former laminate acacia.
Both are strikingly figured. The nigh-on bookmatched pau ferro back on the Elegante is jaw-dropping under its high-gloss finish, and the Allure, with its comfort arm rest and ornate finish, has a real premium quality, and a playability that is hard to beat in an instrument at this price.
If there is one thing that is common to all in the Bella Tono series, it’s that each instrument accommodates all kinds of playing styles. Whether you are a fingerpicker, a devout flatpicker or implement a hybrid style, there’s a lot to love about the modern C profile and the player-friendly dimensions of the body. Sure, the series is named ‘good tone’, but perhaps versatility is its strongest suit.
If you are a gigging musician who’s looking for a super-playable acoustic with a decent pickup and preamp system, the Allure is the one. But we would love to see a stripped down version without the tropical abalone island inlay. For many, that will be too much decor when a more low-key rosette and inlay would let the guitar speak for itself - something it’s more than capable of.
But in terms of build quality and playability, the Allure is a lot of guitar for the money. So too is the Elegante, which out of all the guitars in the series is the hardest to put down. Again, it might be over-dressed, but its punchy voice and easy ride makes for a seriously addictive acoustic.
Each guitar in the series came out of the box with an impressive setup, the finishes largely unimpeachable save for the odd bit of grit in the body cavity. Beginners and those on a budget will find a lot to like in the Novo and Vite. Tonally there’s nothing between them, but we liked the more subtle inlay on the Novo, and if you can do without the pickup then that might be the guitar that presents the best value.
What we’d like to see next are left-handed options, a little restraint with the abalone, and - with the Studio body shape a winner - an expansion of the series. Over to you, Washburn.
Best all-rounder - Wasburn Bella Tono Elegante S24S
4.5 out of 5
Best for beginners - Washburn Bella Tono Novo S9
4 out of 5
Best for gigging - Washburn Bella Tono Allure SC56S
4.5 out of 5
Best for buskers on a budget - Washburn Bella Tono Vite S9V
4 out of 5