Guitar Review – Allan Bull Guitars

One of the great privileges I have in writing this blog, aside from writing for you good folks twice a week, is taking receipt of some fantastic gear (albeit temporarily) to play around with for a bit and review – all course with you, dear reader, in mind to inform and delight! Oh OK, and to have fun indulging myself too……

So, my latest privilege this last couple of weeks has been playing around with two guitars from one of Australia’s top luthiers, Tasmanian-based Allan Bull. I own a 2008 Allan Bull guitar, so the opportunity to see what Allan had been up to of late, the progress and development in his design and sound was an absolute must for me!

This past couple of weeks I’ve been getting to grips with a new fan-braced spruce top and a cedar top with asymmetric grid bracing from the Bull Guitars stable, road testing them and having some of my students play them to get their thoughts and reactions and to hear how they sound from an audience perspective. It’s a tough gig, but someone’s got to do it!

First up, let’s take a look at the spruce top. This guitar is probably the closest of the two to the 2008 spruce top model that I own, but it is quite a different beast. Not a massively helpful comment for you, dear reader, I appreciate. What I mean to say is that Allan’s design and guitar building techniques have quite clearly continued to progress in a really positive direction.  And when I say that I don’t mean to say that the 2008 model was a bad guitar (far from it) – it’s just fantastic to see the concept of continuous improvement at play here.

The spruce top  has the full-bodied physical weight of similar Aussie-built guitars – a good sturdy instrument, which is going nowhere when playing. You feel like you can give it a bit of welly without feeling like you’re going to break it. The neck has a similarly sturdy feel, somewhat substantial, and not an overly fast neck and fretboard for my hands, although beautifully finished and a pretty nice feel overall for the left hand.

The timbers selected for the instrument itself, as always with Allan’s guitars, are of fantastic quality and visually striking. The pale, white blonde colouring of this particular spruce is striped through with an intriguing bearclaw pattern (much prized by some guitarists).

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Bull Spruce Top (with protective soundboard shield just for demo purposes)

The spruce top, much like other fan-braced, and particularly the Aussie-built guitars, has a lot of power – to say you don’t really have to milk the guitar is an understatement! So it’s a powerful guitar, with that great thick fan-braced kind of sound, but it also delivers clarity in this too. The tone production is probably a little too direct for my own personal taste – the primary note is very clear and distinct, but the tonal depth, the character delivered by the presence of overtones (which aren’t that apparent from the guitar) is perhaps missing from this instrument (although I understand this may appeal to those with flamenco preferences).

It’s also worth bearing in mind that spruce tops do tend to send a lot more direct, bright and “zingy” when brand, spanking new. This type of timber can often take 12-24 months to really open up and reveal the full depth and warmth of tone. My 2008 spruce top model, for example, took around 18 months to fully open up. I’d really love to hear this instrument when played in and the wood opened up and coming into its own.

The overall finish and attention to detail on this instrument, as with the cedar top too, I am really impressed with – the rosette, the bridge, the headstock, the purfling are all really well done indeed. Really top quality.

The cedar top with asymmetric grid bracing is most definitely my favourite of the two guitars tested and an absolutely fantastic instrument in my humblest of opinions. It shares all the quality build features, attention to detail, physical weight and playability of the spruce top, but has a completely different tonal “feel” and sound. As Allan often does with is cedar tops, with this particular model there is a rather attractive blonde “stripe” running through the middle of the soundboard. There’s no mistaking an Allan Bull soundboard, that’s for sure!

The sustain from this guitar is awesome! You can strum a chord or even a single note, put the guitar down, go away, make a cup of tea, check the mail, come back and the note will still be ringing on! OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture. Great sustain like this makes for really easy legato playing.

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Bull Cedar Top with attractive blonde stripe in the soundboard

It has a lovely warmth to the sound, which one might expect from a cedar top, with really fantastic projection. The depth and character of tone is nicely rich too, with much more obvious presence of overtones delivering that character.  This guitar was a real joy to play and found myself very happily playing this for a good hour or so. Definitely worth a look at if you’re interested in a quality, Aussie-made cedar top.

All in all, both of these instruments are of fantastic quality and neither of these would be a bad buy at all – I’d consider both a pretty good buy in fact. Which one you might choose to go for – the bright and direct spruce, or the warm and more characterful cedar is up to your own personal choice. The cedar top is a full-bodied shiraz in comparison to the spruce’s pinot gris (and just like Alsatian pinot gris, I think this one will age well) – both nice, just different and suiting different tastes for different occasions.

If you’re in Melbourne and you want to check out the Bull Guitars for yourself give Pierre Herrero at Guitars Online a call: http://guitarsonline.com.au

Or head over to Allan’s website to find out more about his design philosophy and his wonderful instruments: http://www.bullguitars.com

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An Interview with Australian Luthier Allan Bull

I’m so very pleased to present this article today. Allan is a well-respected member of the Australian guitar making community and was the maker of my very first high quality, truly hand-crafted instrument. He’s been so very helpful in answering my questions about the guitar over the last few years.

My beloved Allan Bull guitar
My own beloved Allan Bull guitar

Allan kindly agreed to take some time out of the workshop to provide us some insight into his style and approaches to making his marvellous instruments.

1) Why guitar and not any other instrument? In fact, do you build any other instruments?
I guess the simple answer is that the guitar is built mainly from wood.  It’s a wonderful intersection between two of my great loves – music and working with wood.  I build requintos and the occasional steel-string guitar but haven’t bothered with any of the guitar’s relations whether plucked or bowed.  Maybe a cello one day……..
2) How long have you been making guitars for and how did you get into it?
I built my first “serious” guitar over forty years ago but didn’t start building commercially until about ten years ago.  I built a couple of guitar-like instruments in my early teens but my interest really took off when I bought a Japanese Xenon nylon string guitar at about fifteen years of age.  This was soon followed by a Hagstrom classical and a Maton 12-string and I built my first guitar a couple of years later.
3) Who did you learn your craft from?
Like so many other luthiers my first detailed instruction was from Irving Sloane’s “Classical Guitar Construction”.  This is a wonderful book and was a great starting point for me.  My other early inspiration was from Frank Williams who was a guitar shop proprietor in Brisbane in the 1960’s.  Frank repaired guitars but I don’t think that he ever built a guitar from scratch.  Nonetheless he encouraged me and others to give it a go.
I have since learned something from every luthier to whom I’ve spoken and from each guitar I’ve played.  Every one teaches you something, even if sometimes it’s what not to do.
 4) What is your philosophy or vision in making your guitars?
My philosophy is fairly simple.  I try to build the most playable guitar that I can with as much tonal response and consistency across the range as I can engineer and with the fewest vices that I can achieve.  All guitars have vices/weaknesses.  It’s essentially a flawed instrument.  If the classical guitar wasn’t so charming players wouldn’t tolerate its shortcomings.
The sound is all-important but I believe that the guitar needs to be structurally sound and durable and aesthetically pleasing as an object.  I like to use Australian woods wherever possible, but never for the soundboard.
5) Who or what are your inspirations? What is that inspires you?
My ongoing inspiration comes from the players.  Otherwise I might just as well make timber craft or designer furniture.  If there weren’t players willing to support Australian luthiery, buy our guitars and make them sound good, I wouldn’t bother.

6) Which other guitar makers do you admire? Why?

I admire any luthier who develops a design, makes it work and builds guitars with integrity that stand on their own merits.  There are quite a number of Australian luthiers who seem to me to achieve this.  Most luthiers have their own sound signature and a particular guitar cannot appeal to every player.
If I were to single out one Australian luthier it would be Simon Marty.  To my ear his spruce guitars have a great balance across the range and a wonderful array of (in tune) partials.  There’s all the attack you could want with great sonority and sustain.  In the hands of the right player they sing in the trebles and growl in the bass and the mid range does exactly what’s asked of it.  Karin Schaupp and Anthony Garcia provide all the evidence of this that you could want.
I also admire the work of Jean-Noel Rohe, a French luthier, though I must admit that I have not heard his guitars “in the flesh”.
7) Australia seems to punch well above its weight in guitar making talent. Why do you think that is?
Australia tends to punch above its perceived weight in many areas so I don’t think that this is necessarily peculiar to luthiery.  I am sure that the fact that Smallman is an Australian helps the rest of the world to take notice of Australian guitars.  However, this would not be nearly as persuasive if Australian guitarists and teachers didn’t so wholeheartedly support Australian luthiers.  I don’t know of one Australian classical guitarist of any note who does not own and play at least one Australian concert guitar.  By-and-large, advanced players seem very willing to think of Australian hand-made guitars when they are ready to make the move to a concert guitar.  Obviously they wouldn’t do this if there weren’t very good Australian guitars on offer, but the importance of their support shouldn’t be underestimated.
I think it helps that we are prepared to experiment and do not feel so constrained by the dictates of tradition as our European counterparts.  And luthiers seem to be well over-represented in the Australian population.  I have not done the detailed numbers but would be surprised if we didn’t have two or three times the number of professional luthiers per capita of many European countries with a much longer tradition in the instrument.  There’s nothing like a bit of competition to improve performance.
8) What’s coming up on the horizon for Allan Bull guitars?
A lot more years of building and selling guitars, I hope, with incremental improvement.  I’m disappointed if each guitar is not better than the last in some way.  I will continue to experiment with new design elements.  I’m currently working on an asymmetrical grid soundboard bracing design with a view to improving evenness of response across the guitar’s range. I plan to do a much-needed update of my website next year with new sound clips, photography and information.  This was supposed to happen this year but I managed to find other, more interesting things to do such as building.