July/August 2004

Saga Gitane Guitars

Arguably no other jazz guitarist has been so blatantly imitated as Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Gypsy whose acoustic work from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s has attained virtual cult status. And while he died in 1953, his spirit lives on, witnessed by the presence of Gypsy jazz in feature films like Sweet and Lowdown and The Triplets of Belleville as well as myriad television and radio commercials.

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Saga Gitane D-500 Guitar

Guitarists bitten by the Gypsy jazz bug not only have to play the right tunes with the right feel, but also play the right instrument, which is where Saga Musical Instruments' relatively affordable Gitane D-500 and DG-250 acoustics ($895 without case) enter the picture. Introduced in 2001 and 2003, respectively, the D-500 and DG-250 are faithfully reproduced from models originally designed for Selmer Musical Instruments by Mario Maccaferri, the classical guitarist/innovative builder whose instruments were played by Reinhardt. In common to both models are a solid spruce top, an ebony fingerboard with a "zero" fret, rosewood back and sides, an adjustable truss rod, a "moustache" bridge with a moveable center and a cool-looking Art Deco-style trapeze tailpiece.

Distinguishing features of the D-500 (shown) include an oversized "D"-shaped soundhole, a 24-fret fingerboard, a 12th-fret neck/body joint, enclosed tuners, a 1 7/8-inch nut width, and a 25 1/4-inch scale length. The DG-250, on the other hand, has an oval soundhole, an unslotted peghead with open tuners, a 21-fret fingerboard, a 1 3/4-inch nut width, a 26 5/8-inch scale length and a neck/body joint just shy of the 14th fret, a Maccaferri design quirk replicated by Saga. Both guitars are manufactured in China to obviously high standards, given their attention to detail and overall clean construction.

While appearance is important-and these guitars are certainly fine-looking-practically speaking, it's secondary to playability and sound. In the latter category, the D-500 produces a tone that virtually proclaims Gypsy jazz. Pump out the chords to "Djangology," "Minor Swing" or "Blues for Ike," and you get an authentic sound that's sharp and punchy but still resonant, one that just might transport you back to Brick Top's club in 1930s Paris.

Put through its paces with some Django-style single-note phrases, the D-500 feels like an acoustic should, in part due to its heftier (but not overly so) neck. The action of the review instrument was adjusted just about perfectly, striking a nice balance between ease of playing and clarity all the way up the fingerboard, even in the upper portion that extends over the soundhole (having those extra frets is sweet indeed).

In contrast, the DG-250 handled more like an electric, primarily due to its sleeker neck. Although its underlying resonance exhibited the potential to sound great, its overly low action enabled some nasty buzzes at certain frets, which, in combination with a bevy of tailpiece rattles, added up to an experience that was less than ideal. Now, I've owned several guitars with tailpieces, and I've never known any of them to be totally trouble-free. Tailpiece rattles and buzzes, however, usually can be at least minimized by means of a little judicious bending and general fudging. Removing and replacing the decorative plastic insert of the DG-250's seemed to help, but some improvised sound-deadening shims might ultimately be called for. (The D-500's tailpiece, identical to that of the DG-250, didn't rattle at all.)

The next two points concerning the DG-250 have to do with the issue of replicating vintage instruments with original design quirks. The 14th-fret neck/body joint was mentioned earlier, but there's also the 21-fret fingerboard itself, which goes up to high C-sharp, an odd note to terminate with. And what about the 10th-fret side fingerboard marker, which leaves so much of the fingerboard uncharted that it's very easy to become disoriented in higher positions? While this may have worked for Django, players used to a more common 12-fret marker will probably want to apply a temporary position dot, a simple fix that can be easily removed.

Finally, while the instruments' price doesn't include a case, each of the review models arrived in a Travelite C-1580 ($64.95), a dreadnaught-size affair made of nylon-covered foam that left the smaller-bodied Gitanes loose and bouncing around inside. Be warned that quality control might be an issue, since one was haphazardly lined with material that should have been rejected at the factory.

Despite the caveats concerning the DG-250, both instruments, while not exactly cheap, represent a lot of guitar for the money. Overall, tres bon travail to Saga for serving Gypsy jazz guitarists everywhere.

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