While it’s not unusual for a modern guitar company to present a line of lovingly-made and reasonably priced guitars, it is a little unusual for that company to tout its guitars’ musical and ecological virtues with equal pride and energy. Walden Guitars is such a company, with eight models in their Madera line, all of which are made solely of sustainable, non-endangered woods. And I’m itching to begin singing the praises of the instrument I currently have in my hands, the Madera CG-4041 grand auditorium, one of two new additions to the Madera line. But since Walden makes such a promotional point out of the ecological care they take in the procuring of materials for their instruments (enough to paste a label inside the soundhole equal in size to their company label that reads “FSC 100% from Well-Managed Forests”), I feel I should get the sustainability business out of the way first.
Many traditional woods used in instrument-making around the world are being logged greedily, illegally, or stupidly, the result being that some species are facing extinction, and these extinctions are creating general ecological nightmares in addition to making future generations’ use of such woods an impossibility. This is not news. But what may come as a surprise is that a few makers like Walden have found business partners in Central and South America and in Asia who share a common desire to keep fine instrument-worthy wood viable and available on into the future. They work with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to use only wood grown in sustainable forests and logged in sustainable ways. They avoid endangered woods like ebony and find sustainable alternatives like the wonderfully-named katalox (also known as Mexican Royal ebony). And finally, they establish a chain of custody from forest to finishing workshop to ensure that their instruments are as ecologically guilt-free as they are fun to play.
So here I am, looking at this new Walden Madera guitar. As I take it all in, its eco-friendly qualities are not on my radar screen at all. My first visual impression is of a confidently, cleanly-built guitar, stained a deep and even red and adorned with tasteful, unfussy binding and pickguard. There’s no unnecessary flash here, though details from the scalloping of the bridge to the cut of the peg head to the black-buttoned tuning machines combine to create the unified look of a much more expensive instrument. The Central American mahogany of the top, back, and sides is uniformly tightly-grained and free of figuring. Like the other models in Walden’s Madera and Supra-Natura lines, the soundboard is backed with pre-World War II era-style scalloped-X bracing and the entire instrument is coated with high-gloss nitrocellulose lacquer finish. The guitar is lightly-built and pleasantly balanced on the lap. The workmanship inside and out is without obvious flaw, which speaks volumes for the high level of technical expertise present in Walden’s Chinese workshop. All in all, the Madera is a very inviting instrument.
I have long preferred the grand auditorium size body to the dreadnought, so this guitar nestled comfortably on my lap like an old friend. The real eye-opener, though, hit when I started to play. This guitar sang out with exceptionally bright overtones and a clear attack — a vibrantly alive sound that made me want to linger on notes just to listen to them ring and decay. This clarity could be heard from open strings and right up the fretboard, pretty evenly across the top five strings. To provide a low bed for all this clarity, the low E would have had to really bloom, but it didn’t. Rather, it helped sustain the overall clarity and ring of the rest of the instrument. This is really no knock on the Madera; merely an acknowledgment that an important aspect of its appeal may lie in the formidable clarity of its midrange, coupled with its delightfully bright high overtones.
I am no expert on the relative merits of different hardwoods used in guitar construction. Still, over the years I’ve compared and contrasted the sounds of spruce versus mahogany versus cedar tops, mahogany versus rosewood sides and backs, and even the odd exotic Australian wood touted for some tonal strength or other. I have gravitated toward spruce tops on my guitars, confident in the warmth I get. That being said, I would have to give this all-Central American mahogany guitar high marks in the warmth department. The reason I enjoy the clarity and sustain of the mid- to high-range on this guitar is due in part to the subtle warmth underlying the highs. The attack is never aggressive or harsh. And I imagine that, given the quality of wood used in its construction and the nitro-cellulose lacquer finish, it will only improve with age.
When I played with a flatpick and really dug for volume, the Madera responded by playing cleanly and buzz-free, though sheer muscle didn’t add any gravitas in the lower end. Of course, this lack of boomy bass is one of the virtues the grand auditorium size can claim over its dreadnought cousin. When playing in an ensemble with a bass, it could be just the ticket for tonal balance without muddying the low end.
Finger-picking was an immediate joy, playing either as delicately as I could or accompanying my singing at normal performance levels. This is a fine folkie’s instrument, suited equally to picked chordal acompaniment and single-note soloing. The smooth feel of the frets and fingerboard also tended to lure me up to experimenting higher up the neck than I often do, which I found quite appealing. Tuning down to Drop-D seemed to improve the overall resonance of the midrange on the instrument (notably in the key of A, for some reason: A for ‘awesome’), though it didn’t noticeably change the balance of the low end.
To see if some styles might be noticeably better than others on the Madera, I let the guitar take me every which way stylistically. I played a little Irish traditional, some old, well-loved licks copped from John Renbourn, on to Malagasy finger-picking, an embarrassing attempt at Django-style jazz, a Tim O’Brien song, Travis picking, Martin Carthy back-snap faux frailing, Grateful Dead, country, original indulgences, and further into the depths of my musical walk-in closet. In the end, everything sounded clean and fresh to my ears and the fun of playing the Madera was sustained as the instrument grew more familiar in my hands.
A decently long test drive was a good idea, as the width of the neck is slightly wider than I usually play. Happily, the width quickly began to feel solid and comfortable (I’ll admit I pay a price for using a thumb-over barring technique). The depth of the gently-rounded neck fills my palm nicely and feels comfortable right up to the 7th fret and beyond. If you favor a skinnier neck feel, you might compare Walden’s Madera dreadnought. It’s 1/16” narrower at the nut.
I would happily hand a Walden Madera CG-4041 to a beginning guitarist or recommend it to a seasoned professional. For the beginner, it provides instant gratification and clarity of tone without fighting back, and for a very reasonable price. For the professional, the possibilities of sustain and overtone power will be intriguing and worthwhile. And who wouldn’t love the added bonus of knowing that you can help save the planet while you play your guitar?
AT A GLANCE
THE SPECS: Solid Central American mahogany top, back, and sides. Neck also of solid Central American mahogany, with 2-way adjustable trussrod and reinforced with carbon graphite rails. South American katalox fingerboard. Katalox bridge with compensated bone saddle. Bone nut. Gold sealed tuners with black buttons. 25.6-inch scale. 1 3/4” nut width. 2 1/4” spacing at saddle. Fit with D’Addario medium-guage strings. Made in China.
THIS IS COOL: The single-note sustain is particularly nice.
WATCH FOR: Low end may not be as powerful as the mids and highs.
PRICE: List $1699, Street $1190. [note to ed: I found these prices on-line… the range may be different elsewhere]
MAKER: Walden Guitars: (888) 925-3369; waldenguitars.com.