Handmade Guitars United Kingdom

The Carsington

The Carsington Review

Northworthy’s hand-built acoustic meets Headway’s top-notch pickup system in an all-British show of strength.
Matthew Wig.

IF YOU’RE NOT HAPPY SPENDING YOUR money on a dedicated electro-acoustic because you require ‘acoustic’ first and ‘electro’ second, then why not consider the set-up we have here.

Luthier Alan Marshall’s Northworthy firm seems the very epitome of British independent guitar production. Like its inspirational forefather Fylde, its output is aimed exclusively at the quality end of the market with unique, scrupulously researched, hand-built instruments that cater for guitarists who know what they want. Any Northworthy guitar can be made to your own spec regarding wood, neck dimensions and other options, and as such is more akin to a bespoke tailored suit than a high-street fashion item. The Carsington Custom Myrtle is a ‘production model’ of sorts, but the version reviewed here is only one of many possible incarnations.

Headway Electronics is also a small British firm with the admirable intention of getting under your saddle before the Americans. At the moment, it produces a couple of active transducer pickup systems for the acoustic guitar. Both have preamps, but the FEQ (fixed EQ) model found here is the simpler and cheaper version without volume and EQ controls. With a minimal impact on its host’s bodywork, this coupling seems fairly logical: but is this a working relationship or just a brief affair?

Build Quality

The body of the Carsington Custom Myrtle looks like the lovechild of a classical guitar and a Gibson J45, creating a small but buxom soundbox. Giving us a full frontal of solid Sitka spruce, the top wears little other than a single-band rosette of abalone, between two laminates maple and rosewood rings.

A single strip of this laminate also runs along its edge while the outer binding, both here and around the bottom edge, is maple rather than the all-too-common plastic, which reflects Northworthy’s ‘all natural’ approach to materials.

Natural beauty also abounds in the gorgeously flamed appearance of the myrtle sides and book-matched back, while a thin, dark line of rosewood circumnavigates the edges of these panels. This wood certainly deserves its name-check in the title.

The neck is the antithesis of the one-piece school of thought. It’s essentially a three-piece construction (head, neck and heel) with each section itself being a three-ply laminate consisting mainly of English sycamore with a thin central strip of rosewood. The heel, however, isn’t strictly a single piece, but a five-layer composite of laminate sections. This type of structure ensures great strength and wastes considerably less wood.

The dark majesty of solid ebony rules the fingerboard, doubling as its binding to form a seamless border. Real mother-of-pearl dots inject colourful reflections between the 20, superbly neat, wide, low profile frets with the heel/body joint at the 14th. The fairly plump bridge is made of Rio rosewood, chosen for its inherent sustain and timbre. Sitting snugly in it, is the carefully compensated, one-piece bone saddle, backed up by an arc of brass bridge pins. Above the nut, the veneered headstock is the tasteful background for the abalone Northworthy logo and blends well with the gold Gotoh machines.

Looking inside you can spot some surprisingly bulky struts supporting the back, but the top’s bracing seems promisingly light and volume friendly.

Yet despite some minute gaps in the abalone rosette inlays and some noticeable flaws in the body’s lacquer in places, the build is superb, and the coaxial piezo cable used in the HE1/G1 was developed originally for picking up vibrations on North Sea oilrigs, so it’s obviously rather robust. This flexible, rounded cable senses evenly along its length and in all directions, potentially offering a complete picture of saddle, bridge and soundboard vibration.

The piezo material isn’t heavily pressure sensitive and can suit guitars with low saddles and minimal string pressure. The cable diameter restricts

this pickup to a standard saddle width, but it’s long enough to cover a huge variety of slot lengths.

Structurally, the pickup consists of a piezo composite core surrounded by a foil sheath and an earthed, diamond-wound, stainless steel layer for screening. A tough, clear protective outer layer protects against moisture. A rugged, screened joint to a PTFE/FEP coated cable, of silver-plated copper and silvered steel, which rejects all those nasty interference noises, connects this.

The FEQ preamp (into which the connection is hard-wired) is a discrete, class ‘A’ device and comes in a large black box. Its main compartment houses the circuitry and a smaller one houses the inside end, locking nuts and wiring of the jack socket for easy removal if it goes down. The battery holder has non-reversible terminals for the fumbling fool in us all, mounted on the top block with Velcro.

A welcome, original design from British luthiers Northworthy

Playability (guitar only)

Considering you can order this guitar with just about any neck profile and width that suits you, I wouldn’t treat this as a definitive assessment of the model’s playability. For the record, this guitar has a shallow, flattened D-profile neck which, coupled with its ample width at the nut, gives almost a classical feel.

This particularly suits barre-style manoeuvres rather than a ‘wrap around’ technique, and with the extremely consistent neck depth from nut to heel, moves at the 12th fret are no more effort than those at the first.

Nut slots are a tad shallow and deep on bottom and top E strings respectively, but the rest are spot-on and a barre F major is a piece of cake to hold down. The short-scale length makes the strings very succumbing, although the string height on this one is too low for my most exuberant plucks, which are greeted with a vibration deadening buzz.

Lovely fat frets — excellently dressed and magnificently even —coupled with the ebony’s smooth hardness make for extremely fluid motion about the fingerboard and, thanks to the effective saddle compensation, the intonation is perfect wherever you roam. This particular version seems biased towards fingerstyle playing with its neck dimensions and comfortable string spacing, but as I say this isn’t a fixed arrangement and your preferences can be satisfied to order.

Features (pickup only)

Aside from the pickup’s interesting structural features, there are a couple of electrical tweaks worth mentioning. Although there are no EQ controls, the preamp has a couple of tonal contours built into its circuitry.

Rather than opting for a flat response, there’s a fixed mid cut to help alleviate the over-emphasised nasal frequencies that piezo's are so fond of. Body noise and general bottom-end boom/rumble is also kept in check by a low frequency roll-off that cuts in below bottom E, yet enables unaffected de-tuning to about C. There’s also a ‘slow power on’ circuit included in the preamp which reduces the harsh and potentially destructive ‘plugging in’ sound. Coupled with a silent-switching jack plug lead, you could virtually eliminate this clunk.

Sound

Purely acoustically, the Carsington Custom Myrtle has the kind of tone that commands immediate attention. Over-low string height restricts the output a little, so I’m not experiencing the full nine yards, but it’s potentially loud enough for any occasion. It’s bright and lively, yet never remotely guilty of the metallic ping I hear so often on the unwound top strings.

This lush cocktail of fine woods, with a particularly responsive soundboard, sustains a vibrantly full mid-range, which avoids nasal honking and projects these prominent, yet balanced frequencies with immense enthusiasm. Bottom end is controlled and punchy, although perhaps somewhat modest in quantity.

This body size won’t have your whole torso resonating in sympathetic vibration, instead favouring exceptional clarity and articulation. Fingerpicking is almost mini-orchestral while strumming is full, sparkling and satisfyingly percussive.

'Acoustically, the Carsington Custom has the kind of tone that commands immediate attention'

I felt like my whole repertoire had been to elocution lessons and I found myself sounding uncannily like someone else, slightly better than me. Most importantly, it inspires you to play, and realise how good you can sound if you own a guitar like this. After sorting out a few saddle-based problems with the seating of the pickup, which isn’t uncommon with any new piezo fitting, I got to hear this Northworthy/Headway partnership. It was definitely worth the wait.

At low volume, I thought the pickup was producing practically no signal, until I realised a lot of the sound I thought to be acoustic was the Dl sound; turning up to a dominant level, you realise this pickup’s tone is uncannily natural. Imparting only minimal piezo sheen on the natural acoustic sound, this system’s warmth, dynamic range and generally excellent performance is very impressive. The output isn’t very high, but the circuitry is so silent that any gain required doesn’t increase unwanted noise. I hardly missed the lack of controls at all, and the artful effects of the mid-cut and bass roll-off work almost invisibly.

The fine tone of the Carsington CM is treated with the utmost respect by this Headway system, producing a sound to suit even the most refined ears.

Value For Money

The VFM of a guitar like this is judged in the eyes of the beholder. I know over £1,000 is a lot of dosh, but having an instrument handmade especially for you from top-grade materials by an expert luthier is, frankly, just plain expensive. That said, I wouldn’t be quite so understanding if I didn’t think this is one of the finest acoustic guitars I’ve played. Despite the finishing flaws, which I’m sure are confined to this review model, every pound is justifiable.

The Headway system is also a quality item and is priced accordingly. You can get apparently similar piezo's for a lot less, but it would be a false economy to put one in a guitar of this standard. Like any good tool, the more you use it the more its value becomes apparent, and in this case, its price will soon seem a bargain.

Verdict

As far as this acoustic is concerned, I’d be on the phone to Northworthy straight away if I had the money. Apart from the obvious virtues of supporting independent, home-grown enterprise, this is the only way you can get a truly individual and special instrument. Not every hand-built guitar is a gem — and I’ve certainly played a few that weren’t — but Alan Marshall has made an inspired fusion of well-chosen materials and classic design, combining subtle idiosyncrasies with more established features. Suffice to say that if it sounds right, feels right, and looks right, then it is right.

This marriage of convenience which dutifully issues the Northworthy its gigging ‘green card’ is likely to grow into a real romance. The Headway HE1/G1 is ideal for a solo guitarist seeking a straightforward, piezo route to a stunning live sound. This kind of arrangement will be at its most effective in small, quiet gigs, so if you need complex on-board sound control and a whole host of anti-feedback features then look to the big boys of electro-acoustics. If, however, you have the acoustic guitar of your dreams — and the Carsington Custom Myrtle could easily be that instrument — then it’s only fitting to couple it with a pickup system which will do it justice.

SPEC CHECK

Northworthy Carsington Custom Myrtle

Origin: UK
Top: Sitka Spruce
Back & Sides: Myrtle
Neck: Sycamore With Rosewood Central Strip
Fingerboard: Ebony
Fingerboard Inlays: Mother-Of-Pearl, Dots
Bridge: Rosewood
Number Of Frets: 20
Scale Length: 625mm
Neck Width At Nut: 44mm
String Spacing At Nut: 38mm
String Spacing At Saddle: 55.5mm
Overall Length: 965mm
Max Body Width: 385mm
Max Body Depth: 100mm
Machineheads: Enclosed, Gold Gotoh CASE: Hiscox Or Calton Flightcase Extra
Left Handers:Yes

Northworthy Carsington Custom Myrtle

Build Quality ~ ****
Playability ~ ****
Sound ~ *****
Value For Money ~ ****

Guitarist Says:   If you fancy something a bit different, try one of these supremely well built and playable British guitars.

GUITARIST • FEBRUARY 1998.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Guitarist Magazine

For Custom Guitars Handmade & Built in the UK
Call Northworthy Guitars On: 01335 370 806

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