Review Published in Performing Musician Magazine
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Here is the review of BJH Guitars that was featured in the September 2009 edition of Performing Musician magazine.
THE PINNACLE OF THE GUITAR MAKERS ART?
by David Etheridge
These could be regarded as the golden years for guitarists in the choice, range and price of guitars on offer. If you look hard enough, it seems that you can pick up just about any type of model at fiercely competitive prices that will be more or less ideal for your purposes. While this is fine for yer average axeperson in the street, musicians of individuality will always want to go to the bespoke luthiers for the dream guitar tailored precisely to their needs. Probably the highest form of guitar making lies in the art of the Archtop guitar, with a level of skill required similar to that of violin makers. In fact it can be said that with hand built archtops from a single maker that no two instruments will ever be exactly alike, as they’ll be hand carved with a minimum of jigs or templates, conceived purely through the eye of the maker.
I first looked at BJH guitars in 2006, and was immediately impressed by the whole concept of Bryan Hill’s guitars, let alone the details. Quality archtops built in the classic tradition of Roberto Benedetto (and Bryan readily acknowledges the advice and influence of the master on his work), but with Bryan’s own developments that go to produce a range of guitars that are distinctly unique. In fact since 2006 Bryan has not stood on his laurels but continues to refine the range and has developed the whole concept of archtop bridges, as we shall see later. Firstly, let’s look at two six string models that typify the BJH approach.
Bryan brought two models for review: his Blonde model with a floating pickup and his new model bridge, and a Sunburst archtop with a fixed pickup and the more customary adjustable bridge. The models are very similar, differing only in the finish, type of pickup, bridge and some small but delightful indulgences on decoration. A BJH body comprises a carved spruce top and bookmatched maple back and sides, all with kerfed linings supporting the joints between the sides and top and back plates. The underside of the top is fitted with cross bracing, although the fabled 7 string models have parallel bracing for added strength. Traditional black and white bindings are on all the edges, including the F holes on the Sunburst model. The ebony finger rest (here with contrasting edge binding on both models) is curved to the shape of the hand both for extra comfort, and to avoid unwanted hand noise when playing and recording. Since 2006 this has been given an extended scallop in response to feedback from players for even more playing comfort. The tailpiece is ebony again in the classic offset Benedetto shape, with slotted string holes for quick string changes, while the adjustable ebony bridge is individually calibrated for string intonation. The single Kent Armstrong (custom for BJH) pickup can be fixed (brighter tone) or floating (mellow), controlled by a single volume control on the finger rest; a tone control is an option if required.The neck (carved Maple or Mahogany to choice) has an ebony fingerboard with 21 frets, a bone nut and bound white edges. A 12″ radius fingerboard is standard. The single truss rod has extra stability from twin carbon fibre rods set into the neck, originally developed from a customer’s request for a 7 string model with a very thin neck. Standard scale on BJH models is 25″. The headstock is a maple continuation of the neck, ebony veneered, and inlaid with mother of pearl and black/white binding. The tuners (Grover black chrome as standard, others to choice) are positioned to allow parallel string routing. Strings are Nu-tones roundwounds which give more projection to the sound, although any make can be provided to customers preferences.
A bridge too far.
The bridge on the Blonde model breaks new ground for BJH. This is set over the cross braces and the bridge contact at that point greatly adds to the tone. With other types of bridge Bryan couldn’t see what the centre piece of the bridge achieves by resting on the body. The basic principles of the new bridge come once again from tutor Benedetto, who reckons that the worst thing you can have on a bridge is metal for archtop guitars, even though many players insist on having adjustable bridges. A light bridge with no metal will give a startling amount of difference, as basically it’s the same approach as on a violin: a very thin bridge to support the strings that helps transmit the vibration effectively throughout the body. The thicker and heavier the bridge is, the more the vibration tends to deaden. So if you’re prepared to have the intonation and action set up for you (standard practice for a classic archtop), the only time you’ll want to change the bridge is if you change the gauge of the strings.On these types of bridges it’s easy to take the action down by filing the slots, but you can’t raise the action. The new BJH model bridge uses shims and an aligning tool to easily adjust the height. It can be popped out easily and any shim added in minutes. Bryan will make up a cardboard template showing the bridge position so it can be taken on and off many times and will always go back in the correct position for the intonation. By its very nature, an archtop bridge is held in position by the strings, so it cannot have all the strings removed without the bridge obviously moving and the intonation suffering as a result. Now while you may think that you could put any bridge on the guitar, the bridge is sanded precisely to the shape of the body for the correct contact and tone production.
These two new 6 strings are fully up to the standard that so surprised and delighted me (and quite a few others) way back in 2006. Both guitars balance and play perfectly, with the trademark resonant quality which shows that the construction is right up to the mark. The backplate on BJH guitars is superbly carved, and if you tap it gently you can hear the resonance in the body that contributes so much to its superb tone, while the top is equally well matched to create a superbly expressive guitar. I found that the Blonde model with its new model bridge and floating pickup gives a better and more subtle response, with warmer and (to me) more satisfying tones than the Sunburst with its adjustable bridge and fixed pickup, although Bryan did advise me that the fixed pickup on the review model needed some final adjustments to the sound. Despite this, both guitars are supremely responsive, rich and sonorous in tone, comfortable to play, and give excellent results all the way up the fingerboard.
There’s little doubt that BJH guitars are fast becoming one of the most highly regarded makers of jazz archtops in this country, and it’s easy to see why: peerless quality throughout with classic design and that beautifully responsive bridge give a guitar that’s in a class of its own. Basically the two models here are in many ways identical, with the only real differences in decoration, bridge and pickup options. BJH try to offer as many options as possible within the format of this guitar: different neck sections, width and cutaways, controls, left hand models and 7 strings if required. Interested parties will be able to see these models on display at Ivor Mairants shop in Central London by the time you are reading these very words -providing they haven’t been snapped up!
Facts and figures
BJH Jazz Guitars: from £2500.
Keynotes: 6 and 7 string models.17″ wide, 3″ deep body; carved spruce top, carved maple back and sides.Parallel or cross bracing dependent on model.Kerfed linings on body joints for extra strength.Black/white binding throughout (dependent on chosen finish).Ebony finger rest with black/white binding, volume control and tone control if desired.Ebony tailpiece (slotted string holes for easy string changing) and carved bridge, shaped for string intonation.Floating or fixed custom Kent Armstrong pickup with bright or mellow tone.Carved maple neck with twin carbon fibre rods and single truss rod, ebony fingerboard and 21 frets, bone nut and bound black/white edging. 12″ radius as standard, any radius, fingerboard width and neck thickness to order. 25″ scale length.Maple headstock, ebony veneered, inlaid with MOP and black/white binding. Grover Black Chrome machines as standard (others to order).Gloss finish; any colour as required.Kinsman hard case as standard.
A beautifully made guitar in every respect, and it shows in the finish, balance and feel. Monumentally resonant -just tap the body gently and you’ll hear- makes this the responsive guitar par excellence. Waves of warm and classy tone for the discerning jazz player who can afford one of the ultimate in jazz archtops. Not cheap (although other makes can be even more expensive), but each one takes 300 hours to make, and the finished item oozes quality in every respect. Some top jazz players have already taken notice.
Price: from £3500 (inc. VAT).
Contact: BJH Guitars 01603-426925.