Acoustic guitarists are a fairly discerning bunch. Solid woods and sophisticated electronics are the order of the day, while more affordable instruments made from laminate materials are often dismissed without so much as a single strum.
But we can't all afford the price tag on such high-end instruments. Step forward the Gear4Music single cutaway electro acoustic, which sets out to provide a rather more basic acoustic option.
Some manufacturers cover their instruments in fake pearl and gaudy inlays to disguise their budget origins. There's no such 'dressing up' here from Gear4Music, though - this is a guitar that wears its simplicity with pride, leaving the sound to take centre stage.
It's clear from the outset, then, that this is a budget instrument, and the obviously laminate top and cheap-looking paper label on the inside of the guitar are rather less pride-worthy. The gloss finish, though, is reasonably slick and not too plastic-feeling, making runs up and down the mahogany neck a pleasure.
The intonation and action are spot-on - we managed to execute accurate sounding, complex chords all the way up the neck. What's not so nice, however, is the quality of the fret work, which unfortunately lets the playing experience down. Every fret feels scratchy and unfinished, which means that string bends and vibrato are unpleasant and generate excess noise. That's something that can be fixed by a decent guitar tech, of course, but it will cost you an extra £40-60.
Aside from the poorly finished frets, you can't help but be impressed at how much tone this acoustic is hiding in its unassuming frame once you get down to playing. Budget dreadnoughts and jumbos have a tendency to sound muddy or overpowering, but the Gear4Music electro's smaller body produces a bright, chiming and clear tone that sparkles on the top strings and clangs like a bell on the lower notes.
Strumming sounds balanced and colourful, but fingerpicking is where it really comes alive, responding brilliantly to changes in attack. Even though the woods are laminate you can still feel the top, back and sides resonating independently and giving your ribs a good shake as you play.
The other cool thing about this guitar is the fact that it also comes with a battery-powered preamp and under-saddle piezo pickup. This enables you to record direct or plug into a PA or amplifier when the guitar's acoustic volume doesn't quite cut it. The resulting tone is admittedly a tad processed and artificial, but the four-band EQ helps shape your tone adequately, and the presence control, in particular, helps tame the high end.
It would have been nice if Gear4Music had built a tuner in the preamp to complete the electro package, but at this price we can forgive them.
Lots of tone for your buck
We rather like this guitar. For the asking price there's a lot of tone on offer - far more than on the budget acoustics of just a few years ago. The finishing on the frets is the only black mark against an otherwise admirable effort.
Even taking this into consideration, for a guitar priced on the right ride of £90, this is a real bargain and is a great place for any aspiring singer-songwriters to start their musical journey.