Anyone who went to buy an acoustic back in the swingin’ 60s would’ve been met with the same problem.
You either raided the piggy bank and looked at the high end of the market, which was the expensive imported USA ranges from the likes of Gibson and Martin, or you took your chances at the more affordable end of the price range. This quite often meant sundry anonymous torture devices from far-flung lands or, if you were lucky, you’d discover Yamaha’s early FG range.
Arriving in the midst of what James Taylor refers to as “the great folk scare of the 60s”, the Folk Guitar Range was the perfect antidote for novitiates with permanently sore fingers and tuning fatigue. Suddenly there was hope - a range of guitars that not only sounded perfectly reasonable and stayed in tune, but were a relative breeze to play. Furthermore, ‘Yamaha’ was the name appearing on the headstocks of some of the prime movers of the British folk movement - Bert Jansch, for instance, was an early adopter.
After quietly celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic red label acoustics in 2016, Yamaha decided it was time to revisit the range, employing some modern tweaks and upgrades along the way. What we have in the test area today is a from the reissued Red Label range, an electro- acoustic FGX3 from China.
It’s interesting to note that, at first glance, the word that springs into your mind here is, obviously, ‘dreadnought’, but Yamaha insists that this is not the case, preferring to use its original term ‘Traditional Western’. In fact, the company says: “Yamaha was the first Japanese guitar brand to develop an original body shape instead of simply copying previous designs. The differences are subtle, measured in just millimetres, but the slightly wider body contributes to the warm FG sound...”
So there you have it. In fact, we compared the spec of the FG model here with Martin’s standard dreadnought size and Yamaha is correct in that, for instance, a Martin has a slightly longer scale length and a mite more body depth, whereas the Yamaha has a smidge more body width and the body is a whole 3.1mm shorter... and so on. Vive la différence!
The has a Sitka spruce top, which Yamaha tells us is sourced from either Canada or Alaska, and it has been subjected to Yamaha’s Acoustic Resonance Enhancement - ARE for short - which is the company’s take on the practically universal torrefaction process where the wood is heated, and, in the company’s own words: “The ARE process gives the instrument a rich, vintage-quality tone, producing a sound like you’ve been playing it for years.”
It has solid mahogany back and side and it must be said that all-solid wood construction at this kind of price point is something we’re seeing less and less today, so kudos to Yamaha on this alone. Necks continue the mahogany theme, both are scarfed just under the Gotoh tuners and finish with the slight V-shape at the top of the headstock, which was a characteristic of those early FG models. In fact, reference is made to the red label lineage via the truss rod covers, which bear the words “Since 1966”. The fretboard is ebony, with 20 well-seated medium frets with pearl dot position markers in the accustomed places.
The nut and saddle are urea, while the pickguard is some sort of black plastic material. The bridge pins are white-dotted ABS - and, it also has Yamaha’s Atmosfeel fitted.
This guitar comes fitted with Elixir Nanoweb Light Gauge 80/20 strings - weighing in at a perfectly adequate 0.012 to 0.053 - and so the next thing is to hear what this instrument sounds like.
Picking up the FGX3, we notice that the action has been set on the high side of medium and, while this might not be of any concern to someone who just wishes to bang out their rendition of Wonderwall at the local open mic night, fingerstylists who often trespass up the dusty end of the fretboard might want to fettle things a little to make such manoeuvres a little more comfortable under the hand.
The finish on this instruments is referred to by Yamaha as being ‘semi-gloss’, but, by all accounts, could easily be dubbed ‘satin’ to our eyes. It gives an appropriate played-in feel, nonetheless. A few initial noodles reveal a good combination of treble and bass, the former perhaps a little on the light side, but no cause for concern to our ears. Chords have an appropriate amount of shimmer; using either fingers or a pick, single notes ring out clearly. The 44mm nut width is just about perfect for fingerstyle and it’s true to say that we played the FGX3 for far longer than necessary for this review, out of sheer enjoyment. And that says a lot about an acoustic guitar, because some of them you just want to be shot of as quickly as possible. Not the case here.
A word or two about the Atmosfeel pickup/preamp combo installed here. Rather than just a straightforward under-saddle piezo, Yamaha has used a three-source combination in order to wheedle out the very best plugged-in voicing it could. The three components comprise a piezo in the bridge, an internal mic and a treble sensor under the soundboard. The three controls on the preamp allow the player to blend all three to taste, making the Atmosfeel far more versatile than many systems on the market at present. It’s all powered by a single AA battery that has been squirrelled away in a compartment under the end pin/jack socket. It works, too. Mixing the voices from the various components is easy and instinctive - it took us literally seconds before we found a sound that was absolutely spot on through our AER Compact 60 amp. Yamaha is definitely on to a winner with this system.
The original red label Yamahas have become sought after on the collector market and, if these two reissues are anything to go by, it’s easy to see why. Pitched in the lower-mid price range, it would keep a beginner to semi-pro happy for years as it is eminently playable and the Atmosfeel pickup system is top-class for anyone wishing to venture out into the nether regions of live performance, too. All in all, it’s a good all-rounder that will suit many tastes and playing styles, so we’d like to say a hearty welcome back to these iconic instruments and, who knows, if you come across one, you might want to have a red label day of your own.