By Craig White
Australian Guitar magazine, January 2009. More on the O550.
We take a look at a petite offering from Walden Guitars.
Walden Guitars are rapidly establishing an enviable reputation for producing high quality, low cost acoustic guitars. OUr expectations have routinely been pushed higher and higher over the past decade, so that it becomes increasingly difficult to raise the bar further, however our initial impressions of the Walden instruments did just that. Designed in the U.S.A and manufactured in China, they are an object lesson in taking advantage of the global manufacturing paradigm — it is far too easy these days to source a generic model and have your logo printed on the headstock, with predictably uninspiring result, whereas the guitars that have been pushing the budge envelope have utilized cheaper off-shore manufacturing in service of solid design and with the benefit of demonstrably proactive quality control. The 550 has been a foundation model in the Walden range to date, and has previously been available in dreadnought and grand auditorium configurations. This year, the company expanded the range to include orchestra and traveler versions of the 550, and this issue we have the orchestra version O550 for your perusal.
THE ORCHESTRA QUESTION
While the O550 is also available as a cutaway electric-acoustic, the review model is the plain vanilla version. This is not a problem as it allows us to concentrate on the indigenous tone of the guitar, which is very impressive for a guitar that retails for $399. One of the features that surely contributes greatly to the quality of its output is a solid spruce soundboard, which although much more common on guitars in this price range these days, is still a wonderful development — nothing sucks up the tone like a laminated soundboard, and there was a time not so long ago when any guitar in this price range would have necessarily been stuck with one. The back and sides are sapele, which is an African timber closely related to mahogany. It has become quite popular in luthiery over the past decade, and it is an attractive tonewood, both in terms of its figured appearance and mellow yet clear tone. In tandem with a spruce soundboard, sapele back and sides contribute to create a well balanced output that is warm without sacrificing definition, and that is as good a description of the tone of the O550 as any. The orchestra body shape is a little smaller than a dreadnought, and although this inevitably sacrifices some volume, it also helps to ensure that the O550 does not have the strident tone that characterises so many sub-$500 acoustic guitars.
Picking it up, the O550 is one of the most comfortable acoustic guitars I have played. This slightly smaller orchestra shape is very nicely positioned when you sit to play, and the body is about half an inch shallower than the corresponding dreadnought model. The result is that the string length seems more accessible, which is particularly important for fingerstyle players. The O550's neck is a very subtle V-shape, which is not too deep but still feels substantial in your hand. As we said earlier, the O550 has a beautiful natural tone, which is mellow and rounded without losing any of its definition. Walden suggest that this body shape is particularly well suited to recording due to its focused voice, and it is easy to agree with them. It really comes alive when you fingerpick, its evenness allowing each note to emerge equally, however it is just as well suited to strumming, where its natural restraint smooths any dynamic rough edges.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Walden O550 is an impressive instrument regardless of price, and the fact that it retails for so little only makes it all the more of a stunning find. There are lots of affordable guitars around these days, and you could easily make the mistake of assuming that since even the cheapest instruments are pretty well put together these days, an entry-level guitar is going to be pretty much equal, however the O550 proves that is not the case. One of the things you are looking for in an expensive acoustic guitar is character, and it is something you rarely encounter in an instrument costing as little as this one, however that is exactly what the Walden O550 has. All in all, it is an expressive and attractively voiced instrument that you would not baulk at spending twice as much on.