By Guitar Buyer magazine, August 2010.
More on the CD4040-CERT.
Play acoustic guitar and save the planet at the same time? What could be better? Sam Wise investigates going green.
Walden Guitars may not be immediately familiar to you, and with the marketplace as crowded as we can remember it, perhaps that’s why the company has taken a bold step in order to differentiate itself. Responding to both the sharp decline in the planet’s resources and the rise in the general awareness of and interest in ‘ethical’ product, Walden has launched the Madera series, built using only Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified sustainable woods. While guitar making is a relatively small industry and is far from the biggest consumer of endangered woods, it does have a relatively high profile and also relies on old-growth wood to supply the best tone. Walden is a partner in the Greenpeace Music Wood campaign (together with big players like Martin, Taylor, Fender, Gibson and Yamaha), which seeks to demonstrate the consumer demand for FSC-certified wood via the guitar makers and encourage more companies to get on board. With the Madera range, Walden is putting this issue front and centre, and the FSC stamp guarantees that all the wood used here comes from forests which are managed and harvested in a sustainable way.
Body & Neck
So what about the woods used on this guitar, the Madera CD4040-CERT dreadnought? The Sitka spruce soundboard is fairly broad-grained – more so than we’d normally look for in a guitar at this price point, though not disastrously so. The back and sides are South American mahogany, attractive enough in terms of grain figure but nothing out of the ordinary. Walden has gone light on the decoration for this guitar: there’s some understated tortoiseshell binding, which chimes in with the pickguard, and a fairly simple abalone soundhole ring. This subtlety extends to the fingerboard too, which is a slab of katalox, a sustainable ebony alternative which is pretty much indistinguishable to our eyes, and Walden has left it unadorned by any dot markers. The C-shaped mahogany neck is gloss finished and slim. We would perhaps have liked just a little more depth, but this is a matter of personal preference, of course. The neck finish doesn’t cause the squeaky, sticky feel that some gloss necks have, and the tortoiseshell fingerboard binding contributes to a very slick feel overall. On the topic of the frets, there are 20 of them, of what might be called medium jumbo size, with a few exhibiting some slightly sharp ends, which is disappointing at this price. The slim, tapering headstock is faced in what appears to be more katalox, and carries unbranded closed-back tuners with black buttons. These are made of a rubbery-feeling plastic, and while they look nice enough, we might have preferred more katalox. The bridge is again of katalox, with a compensated bone saddle, and there’s a bone nut as well – it’s nice to see these details done right. The Madera is a pretty conservative-looking guitar, and that’s probably deliberate. The tactic used by most companies selling ethical and fair trade goods in recent years has been to move away from the perceived alternative or ‘hippy’ markets, and to look as mainstream as possible. If Walden wants the world to buy this guitar, then it needs to look pretty much like other spruce and mahogany dreadnoughts, and in that respect it’s a success. Just because things are keep neat and simple, that’s not to say it isn’t a handsome creature; in particular, the unadorned fingerboard and tapered headstock really work for us. But it doesn’t scream ‘save the whales’, and that’s perhaps a win for Walden.
Of course, we know what to expect from a spruce and mahogany dreadnought: there should be plenty of sparkle from the top end, but a certain amount of complexity and warmth introduced into the mid-range by the mahogany. The Madera not only doesn’t disappoint, but perhaps goes somewhat beyond our expectations. There’s not an excessive brightness to the top end, nor quite what we might call ‘sparkle’. Instead, it has a chiming, ringing quality. There’s plenty of sustain, which is likely to be enhanced by the bone nut and saddle, but picking big open chords and arpeggios with notes fretted up the neck really brings out the pure, transparent nature of the top end. Moving into the mid-range, there is the expected harmonic blossoming as the mahogany does its work, and for us, slightly more of that gentle warmth to the tone than we expected. There’s none of the muddiness which can occasionally afflict still-warmer-sounding cedar-topped guitars, though; as you progress into the bass register, there’s plenty of tautness and punch. Dig in and strum a little more, and the chord sings out, not losing clarity as you up the volume. Walden has done a fine job in offering warmth and harmonic richness without losing any of the note separation that makes spruce dreadnoughts such a favourite of strummers the world over. We find that the combination of plenty of body and depth to the tone, and lots of punch, means that the Madera lends itself in particular to funky blues fingerstyle. Riffs on the bass strings ring out, and when you hit a big chord, the warmth and richness really fill it out. On a guitar at this price, we’ve come to expect the intonation to be perfect, string-to-string balance to be even: in fact, not to have to think about such issues at all, and the Walden really steps up to the plate. You could describe the tone as middle-of-the-road, but really it’s just an excellent general-purpose guitar. It doesn’t have such a strong tonal character that it’s perfect for one style, yet unsuitable for another. Sure, you can find a picker’s guitar with a sweeter voice, or a cedar-topped instrument with more warmth. Certainly a Gibson J-200 would give you a more booming, in-your-face sound, but if you want a guitar that can do all of those things well enough, a spruce/ mahogany dreadnought is your friend, and the Madera is a good example of the breed.
So, it appears Walden has done what it needed to do and produced a guitar that allows you to do your bit for the planet without looking like you knit your own yoghurt. Best of all, that doesn’t come at the cost of performance. Though some might look for a little more individuality in terms of looks and sounds, we think this guitar’s understated appearance and impressive all-round tone will win it plenty of admirers, whether ecological issues are a priority or of no concern.