This article originally appeared in: Acoustic Guitar Magazine, July 2012
Aeronautical engineer and helicopter designer Charles Kaman was as fond of guitars as he was of flying machines. He introduced his first round-backed, space-age composite-bodied Ovation guitar in 1966. Most Americans, though, didn’t become aware of his unprecedented design until 1967, when Glen Campbell performed with one on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Quickly, Ovations began popping up everywhere, with their signature bowl-shaped bodies sculpted of a pebble-textured composite material dubbed Lyrachord. The ground-breaking 1960s “Balladeer” model began a 45-year run of success for the Ovation company, which now markets over 60 models and configurations, including guitars, basses, mandolins, and even a double-neck 6 & 12-string.
I first got my hands on an Ovation in the early ‘70s when my roommate proudly brought one home, trying to explain how the weird-looking back was the stuff they made helicopter rotors out of. I admit I didn’t like the feel of that early model, even though it may have sounded better than the cheap guitar I was playing. I just couldn’t keep it balanced on my lap and it felt about as heavy as a helicopter. Clearly the Ovation engineers worked the kinks out over the years, because today’s Ovations, including the Elite TX I’m playing now, have evolved into pleasantly balanced and surprisingly lightly-built instruments. Here’s to more helicopter designers applying their talents to the musical world.
On initial examination, the new Ovation Elite TX D-Scale guitar seems like it was designed as much to be admired in a modern art museum as to be played on stage. Other than the scalloped trim at the top of the peg head and the matte-finished rock maple neck, the entire instrument is aggressively black. Nut, bridge, stained rosewood fingerboard with no inlay, tuners, Lyrachord composite-coated spruce top and solid Lyrachord single-cutaway bowl back: all jet black. The cluster of small, offset sound holes on the upper shoulder of the top seem even blacker. The fretboard elegantly swoops eight frets past the 14th fret single cutaway. With this much visual attitude, one would expect the guitar to deliver some truly dark and confident sounds to match. And so it does.
After only a few strums tuned the way Ovation suggests (D-G-C-F-A-D, low to high), I felt compelled to tune down to drop-C and play a series of big, full chords, letting each ring as long as it wished. Hunched over the instrument, with the offset sound holes so close to my ear, I felt enveloped by the luxuriant, yet entirely balanced low end. Ovation used a “mid-depth” bowl on the Elite TX, the second-shallowest of the four bowl depths used throughout the line. This is quite clearly a good choice to combine with the resonant qualities of the scalloped X-braced spruce top to provide such tonal balance in this instrument.
It’s tempting to think of the Elite TX as a baritone guitar, but you might want to approach it instead as a regular-tuned guitar capoed down two frets. In my experience, a real baritone guitar retains the relative tuning of a standard guitar but the low and high strings are tuned very low indeed: down either a fourth or a fifth to B or A. The instruments must be larger, the scale length must be longer, and the string guages must be substantially heavier to accommodate these low voicings. The Elite TX, on the other hand, plays like a regular guitar, using standard string guages, and yet brings out some delicious low voicings when tuned the way Ovation suggests. When you try a drop-C tuning or one of many open slack key tunings, other remarkable things start to happen.
While one could capo on the second fret and play it like a standard scale-length guitar, that sort of misses the virtue of the Elite TX. The wider reach from the nut to the second fret takes a little settling in, but the string guages and tension feel entirely familiar. Playing familiar songs pitched just this much lower, I found them suddenly imbued with new and intriguing emotional qualities. The guitar made me want to play more slowly, and to dial my internal mood lighting down from bright to firelight glow.
While I’m not much of a slack-key player, I spent considerable time riffing improvised island tunes in an open F with a low B, practically smelling the plumeria. The only problem I had was with the string spacing at the nut, which I found a little tight and which forced me to alter some fingerings to keep from killing the ring of adjacent strings. I left the islands in search of songs to accompany and the first ones that demanded to be played were Richard Thompson’s “Night Comes In” and Chris Smither’s “Leave the Light On”. The Elite TX revelled in Thompson’s dark mood for the first and encouraged me to wade around in Smither’s dark baritone vocal range for the second. Whether sad or hopeful, the songs played on this lower-pitched instrument shared an appealing gravitas.
While I mostly finger-picked, I tried some sharp flatpick attack as well. I learned, somewhat to my dismay, to what extent my flatpick position digs right into a guitar’s sound hole. Unfortunately, the Ovation has no central sound hole, so when flatpicking, I was left either holding back on the volume or hearing my pick brush the pebbled face of the Lyrachord-coated top, a sound which I was not crazy about.
As the Elite TX is equipped with built-in electronics I plugged it in and ran it through its paces as an electro-acoustic. The OP-Pro preamp and high-output OCP-1K pickup combine to provide very clean amplified sound. The Pre-EQ button let me choose between “bypass” and “shape” with no information on precisely what frequencies were involved. The “bypass” position seemed to give the amplified sound a brittle quality, while when switched to “shape” the amplified sound was nearly identical to the unamplified sound. Rarely do I hear an amplified guitar that sounds so natural and acoustic through an amp, so full marks to the Ovation engineers for pulling this off.
There is also a 3-band EQ (6-8 dB boost or cut with a wide Q), though I found that any setting other than flat created more problems than it addressed. Certainly, this EQ can be useful in multi-instrumental settings or when working through different amps in different performance spaces. It’s just nice to know that playing solo in a controlled setting, the untweaked pickup sound is very pleasant indeed. The onboard electronic controls also include a in-line chromatic tuner with an easy-to-read display. The unit pops out for easy battery replacement, too.
Overall, I found the Ovation Elite TX a strangely appealing guitar, so different from the instruments I habitually play, yet so comfortable in its low-pitched luxuriance and ease of play. It led me down a few less-traveled musical paths and for that I am grateful. This is a thoughtful instrument that should fit any size hand easily while offering a big, though controlled, sound. If you play it in public, you should plan to invest in some very cool performance clothes. Otherwise this very cool-looking guitar might upstage you.
AT A GLANCE
THE SPECS: Spruce top coated in textured black Lyrachord composite, with scalloped X-bracing. Bowl back of molded Lyrachord composite. Single cutaway at 14th fret. Cluster of small sound holes at upper shoulder. Neck of rock maple, finished with a matte natural varnish. Black-stained rosewood fingerboard with no inlay. Black-stained rosewood bridge with compensated saddle. Black-anodized proprietary sealed tuners. 28 1/3-inch scale. 42mm (1 5/16-inch) nut width. 54mm (2 1/8-inch) spacing at saddle. Strung with D’Addario EXP medium-guage strings. Built-in electronics include an OP-Pro preamp and high-output OCP-1K pickup, with 3-band EQ, preset enhancement switch, and chromatic tuner. Made in Korea.
WATCH FOR: String spacing at the nut may be a little cramped for large hands.
PRICE: List: $979.00, Street: $679.00.
MAKER: Ovation Guitars: www.ovationguitars.com. U.S. DISTRIBUTOR: KMC Musicorp: email@example.com; www.kmcmusic.com.