Breaking new ground by adapting Spanish classic guitar
construction methods to a steel stringed guitar
Every premium acoustic guitar maker boasts about unique design and construction methods, but Cole Clark Guitars, based in Melbourne, Australia, is one of few offering an instrument that truly deviates from convention. Handcrafted out of sustainable Australian tone woods, Cole Clark guitars incorporate a totally original and patented design that blends steel string body shapes with Spanish classical guitar construction techniques. The result is a guitar that, according to company CEO Miles Jackson, offers “great note separation, incredible dynamic response, and an almost piano like clean bottom end.” This distinctive tonal profile is complemented by an equally innovative pickup design that combines piezo technology, a top-mounted sensor, and a condenser microphone to produce what Jackson calls, “the most naturally sounding” amplified guitar available.
Cole Clark was launched in 2001 with the goal of building a guitar unlike anything else on the market. Jackson says that with conventional acoustic guitars, the neck is attached to a neck block, using either a bolt-on or dovetail joint. There’s nothing wrong with the design, he concedes, but “it makes them all sound similar.” To develop a guitar that offered a completely different sound and feel, Cole Clark’s founders adopted the integral neck design that defines the finest Spanish classical nylon stringed instruments.
The integral neck design involves building the guitar around the neck. The process starts with gluing an extended neck to the top of the guitar, with the end of the neck reaching just short of the sound hole. Then the sides and back are glued to the neck. A proprietary ridge design for fitting the top and back to the sides eliminates the need for internal kerfing. Getting rid of these additional support materials results in enhanced resonance. Carving the back and top to varying thicknesses adds to the responsiveness.
Cole Clark acquired two five-axis CNC machines, set up shop in Melbourne, and in May of 2013 produced its first production model, the “Fat Lady” dreadnought. The unusual name was selected because, as Jackson jokes, “Your search for the perfect acoustic guitar isn’t over until the ‘Fat Lady’ sings.” The Fat Lady 12-string followed a year later, and in 2006, the Angel Grand Auditorium was introduced. The product line has since been expanded to include several equally distinctive ukuleles, and a range of lap steel guitars.
Cole Clark guitars are also distinguished by the use of distinctive woods from Australia. 90% of the tops are fashioned from bunya, a hardy Southern Queensland Australia pine species. The bunya is the only surviving member of the Araucaria genus, and, based on fossil studies has remained unchanged for 60 million years. This durability isn’t why it’s popular though. Jackson says, “Bunya just sounds better in our guitars.” For the more traditional player, spruce and cedar tops are also available. On some select models, rare Huon pine is incorporated. An endangered species that is illegal to harvest, Huon can be used for commercial purposes only when fallen trees are recovered from rivers and lakes in Tasmania. Most back and sides are fashioned from blackwood, a straight-grained native Australian hardwood, but Indian rosewood is also available along with Queensland maple.
“Mini Cooper has been successful by enabling customers to configure a car that perfectly fits their personality,” says Jackson. “We’ve taken the same approach at Cole Clark.” Customers can readily mix and match body styles, woods, and features to create their personal instrument. With 61 options listed on the price list, along with a variety of woods, Cole Clark offers at least 500 distinctive instruments.
Cole Clark’s unique three-way pick-up is designed to accentuate the instrument’s tone. Bridge-mounted piezo crystals are used to amplify the bass range, mid-range tones are amplified with a sensor mounted on the top, and an internally mounted condenser microphone picks up the higher frequencies. Jackson contends that the system provides the best of all worlds, capturing the warmth and spatial quality of a fine guitar, while avoiding the feedback problems associated with microphones.
Over the past five years, Cole Clark has managed to find opportunities in a challenging domestic market. Australia charges a 10% tax on imported guitars, but individuals who buy instruments for their own use can bring them in tax free. This disparity has soured some local retailers on U.S. made products and created an opening for Cole Clark, which offers a level playing field. Last year’s bankruptcy of Allans/Billy Hyde Music, Australia’s largest retail chain, was a severe shock to the market. However, Jackson responded deftly by bringing on a seasoned field sales force that quickly added 30 new outlets and made up much of the lost business.
A recent survey of acoustic guitarists has prompted Jackson to gear up production for a major push into international markets. He explains, “About 45% of acoustic players are not happy with their sound. Players of Cole Clark guitars, on the other hand, truly believe their pickup system and instrument are the best sounding on the market. With that kind of an endorsement, we’re positioning ourselves to be a very serious player in the $1,500 to $4,000 segment of the acoustic guitar market.”
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