We've probably all been scolded at one time or another for late night practice sessions. The moment that the muse grants you unlimited access to your creative powers rarely arrives at a time that will suit everyone you happen to share your life with, after all. But housemates can now rest easy in their beds because Yamaha has the solution in hand - and a very elegant and well considered one it is, too.
The concept behind Yamaha's renowned Silent Guitar Series is as profoundly simple as it is highly ingenious. If you take away the soundbox of either a classical or a steel string acoustic and provide a tip-top array of electronic wizardry in the form of an onboard preamp packed full of useful sounds instead, you're free to fully indulge your inspiration in private at any time of the day or night.
The SLG range comes in two basic formats: nylon string classical or steel string acoustic. There are various finish options along the way, not to mention the all-new SRT preamp that promises studio quality sound for either practice, stage or recording.
We'll begin by looking at the nylon string version of the Silent Guitar. When it first arrived it came housed in a custom gig bag so slender that we would imagine no airline could possibly question its carry-on status. This is because the upper part of the guitar's open frame is stowed separately from the main body of the instrument and locks into place with a twist of the strap pegs fore and aft. Once assembled, it looks to me like a piece of modern sculpture with the graceful and easily recognisable lines of a traditional cutaway acoustic, but that's just about where any familiarity ends.
Normally at this point we would be waxing lyrical about the tonewoods, but that isn't really appropriate in this case! Instead, the outer frame is made from a ply of rosewood and maple with a solid mahogany leg rest on the underside to facilitate playing in a sitting position. The central core is mahogany too and not only holds everything together, but also houses the SRT Preamp and the various outputs.
The finish is what Yamaha refer to as "satin" and on this model the grain of the various woods is neatly highlighted. As I have mentioned, there are other options available, including translucent black and tobacco sunburst if this particular rendering isn't to your taste. Personally, we like it.
There's a little pickguard made from black plastic which, if you think about it, maintains another acoustic guitar tradition and doesn't look in the least out of place here. It's mahogany for the neck with a shallow but wide profile which will make any player used to a straightforward classical guitar feel pretty much at home.
The slotted headstock plays host to a pair of three-a-side open gear tuners and there's a truss rod cover set in the centre. Yamaha has been fitting truss rods to models in their nylon string range for ages, offering players a bit more control over the straightness of the necks. As such, it's possible for a much lower action than you would normally find on a classical guitar - something we welcome as it makes the instrument more playable, especially if your nylon string meanderings don't necessarily sketch the standard classical repertoire. In other words, if you're used to the sort of actions you find on steel-string acoustics, you're going to feel welcome here!
As the two models we have in front of me have identical preamps on board, we think it is more appropriate for me to address both models' sound quality together, otherwise we might end up repeating ourselves overmuch and we don't really want that to happen…
Unsurprisingly, these two models are extremely similar both in terms of look and construction details. Noticeable differences include a slightly shorter scale length on the 200S, but this is offset by the fact that here the neck joins the "body" at the 14th fret instead of the 12th. Strangely, when we hold both instruments back to back, the S is just a tad taller than its sibling, but essentially the two are as close as makes no difference in terms of general looks.
So the outer frame of the 200S is made from the same rosewood and maple combo as before with a mahogany centre column tracing the body's length. A mahogany neck, rosewood board, sealed back tuners, nut and saddle both made from urea are all in order, the neck here being 43mm wide at the nut broadening out to 55mm at the 14th fret. The profile is slender but substantial enough in the hand to make everything feel just about right. Apart from that, these two could almost be mistaken for twins. But of course, the actual construction details of Yamaha's Silent Guitars is really only half of the story. Their real cachet is in the circuitry that brings these beasts to life.
The SRT Preamp
The thing about the SLGs is that they are perhaps aimed at private practice first and foremost. Along the way though Yamaha has realised that one or two players might like to take advantage of the instruments' portability and actually use them on gigs. As such, both activities are ably catered for in the run of things.
As an overview, the SRT controls comprise a power button, volume, treble and bass plus a chromatic tuner and built-in effects that include reverb and chorus. There's also an auxiliary input for linking up to an MP3 or CD and a jack plug socket so you can employ an amplifier for stage use.
So far so good, but how much of an authentic sound are you going to get from a guitar without a body? Surely the lack of tonewoods is going to become an issue somewhere down the line? Well, Yamaha has thought this one through and provided a solution in the form of a modelling system sculptured upon a high-end Yamaha acoustic and top of the range microphone. The company has been experimenting with instrument and microphone modelling for some years - anyone remember the excellent AG Stomp Acoustic Preamp, for instance? So they have something of a proven track record in this quarter and it's the same sort of technology that is in use here.
Sounds and Playability
Of the two, the 200N has the softer acoustic sound, the 200S sounding a little bit louder than an unamplified electric guitar. Both would be excellent for maintaining a good relationship with neighbours and cohabitants as acoustically they emit only a whisper. In order to get them to roar, you'll need either a pair of headphones or an amplifier.
Accessing the SRT via headphones, you have the choice of using the modelling on a sliding scale where with the rotary pot far left you are hearing pure piezo. At the opposite end, it's full-on simulation and it's up to the individual to find their own personal sweet spot.
Effects-wise there are two types of reverb that sound like "room" and "hall" plus chorus, but you can only dial up one effect at a time. With the SRT on piezo only, the sound on both instruments is quite basic and where it might be good for a bit of practice, it really wouldn't cut it in a live scenario. But switch in the modeller and the timbre changes quite dramatically; everything becomes instantly fuller and more resonant as it might do on an instrument with a set of fine body woods. The combination of modelling and reverb gives you quite a lot of parameters to play with and we suspect that most players would be able to locate a sound that was suitable for rehearsal with no problem at all. Of the two, we found the nylon string sound a little more authentic - and by that token possibly more useful - than its steel string counterpart.
The other possibility here is to output both guitars via an amp and a perfect pairing would be with the Yamaha THR5A, which is a superbly well thought out and useful device offering a staggering amount of sonic variations and recording possibilities, and so we don't doubt that they're absolutely right. The amplified voice of the SLGs is much like we heard via headphones; careful adjustment of the SRT will open up a range of sounds and the modeller will ably make up for the lack of body woods present in the manufacture. If we were going to criticise anything at all, we'd say that the hall reverb is a little too expansive and lacks an ability to tame it, but we think we would opt to use my own reverb facilities in a live situation. For practising, what's here is more than adequate.
There's no doubt that the SLG range is an asset to any player for whom practising amid the turbulence of modern domestic life has become a problem. These instruments will keep the peace but still allow regular bouts of fretboard activity irrespective of the time of day. As rehearsal tools, they're also a complete boon as the portability factor couldn't really be any better for a full size instrument. It's possible that many players would opt to go the more conventional tonewoods'n'all route for live performance, but there's plenty here to recommend the SLGs in a concert setting.