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Martin DRS1

List Price: $999 Street Price: $799

At the most affordable end of the 2011 Martin line we find the DRS1, the first installment of new Road Series, aimed at the gigging musician on a budget. With its attractive, no-frills style, this acoustic-electric dreadnought offers the most bang for the buck and sounds even better than it looks.

It comes with a Fishman Sonitone pickup system to amplify the lovely acoustic sound resonating from the solid sapele sides, back and top. Sapele is an African hardwood that looks a lot like mahogany, and sounds even drier and brighter. But when you replace the spruce normally used for the top with a hardwood like sapele it warms up the voice and adds a unique quality I refer to as “sweetness.” This guitar is very sweet, indeed.

It has nice resonance in the bass when doing palm-muted thumps and good separation when building up extended picking patterns. But it excelled at the light strumming and chunk-a-chuck rock chords that should inspire many singer-songwriters. The A Frame X bracing pattern is identical to that found on the 15 Series, which has fewer tone bars, so the denser top vibrates freely and responds well to a light touch. The downside of this shows up when doing heavy strumming or fingerpicking with a serious attack, as it can get brappy and gain some harsh edges. This will become less of an issue as the top wood seasons over time. If the new sapele-topped guitars of the Road Series break in like the mahogany-topped 15s, these guitars will be a serious bargain.

As for playing plugged in, the sapele top helps filter out some of the brittle timbre that an electronic pickup exaggerates and unlike most guitars in its price range, the DRS1 has on-board volume and tone dials discretely hidden just inside the sound hole for easy access. The tone dial is a midrange sweep of some kind, but a creative player can use it like flipping the pickup switch on an electric guitar to go from rounder and warmer to a crisper, cutting sound.

A variety of modern materials are used in the construction of this model. The comfortable Modified Low Oval neck is made from Stratabond, a high pressure laminate originally invented to make gunstocks. The bridge and fingerboard are made from Richlite, a composite material made of recycled paper that has a density slightly greater than the African ebony found on more expensive guitars. The nut is made of Corian, which resists pitting and the saddle is Tusq®, an inert substance that Martin believes is best for transferring string vibration to an under saddle pickup, because it is free of the tiny air pockets found in natural material like animal bone.

In addition, much in the way of usual trim and cosmetics has been left off the DRS1. There is no binding or back strip, purfling, heelcap or endpiece. The fingerboard has small dots and the rosette is a simple set of white rings. All such measures reduce the price tag; yet rather than looking cheap, Martin has embraced the no frills motif and designed a guitar that is truly attractive. Having no inlay or binding to break up the patterns in the sapele puts all focus on the wood, which has a dark toner that brings to mind the vintage 17s, but it remains light enough to show the banding in the wood. People are drawn to the striped, chocolate brown body of the DRS1 and then pleasantly surprised that the least expensive guitar in the collection sounds so pretty and is so effortless to play.

When the shortages of genuine mahogany first hit the guitar market, Martin made their 15 Series guitars out of sapele with a mahogany top. They then surprised us by upgrading the 15s to all-mahogany construction and adding vintage-style appointments. I had a feeling this was laying the groundwork for a new group of sapele Martins. The Road Series appears to be it. With a street price under $600 for an acoustic-electric that looks this nice and sounds this sweet, the DRS1 is a very good start.

Pros: The all-solid sapele body looks cool, sounds sweet, with on-board electronics at a great price.

Cons: Bare bones cost cutter (lack of) appointments, flimsy tuners, non-wood bridge. Limited bracing reduces attack ceiling.

Bottom Line: This modestly priced alternative to the popular D-15 is truly impressive in looks, tone and playability, with quality electronics thrown in.

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