July/August 2005

Weber Big Sky Acoustic Archtop

While the name Weber may not yet ring a bell in the minds of guitarists, it's far from obscure in the tight, friendly, roots-music community. Mandolinists have trusted the brand since it rose from the ashes of the former Flatiron mandolin operation in Bozeman, Mont.

In 1987, Gibson USA, which has a guitar-production plant in Bozeman, purchased the Flatiron factory, whose luthiers had been crafting mandolins since 1979. After 10 years of ownership Gibson moved the Flatiron business to Nashville, Tenn., leaving the factory's workers to choose between uprooting and heading east or finding new work locally. Montana must truly be beautiful, because all of the Flatiron employees elected to stay there, and many eventually took jobs with the fledgling company Sound to Earth. Founded in part by Bruce Weber, a former Flatiron luthier, Sound to Earth has in the ensuing eight years produced mandolins from its factory, presently located in a converted schoolhouse in Logan, Mont., and seen the Weber name become ubiquitous in roots-music scenes worldwide.

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A mandolin is an extra two strings and a tuning system removed from a six-string guitar, but Weber's first step into guitar production, the Big Sky, a modest-sized acoustic with a hand-carved arched top, is a success in luthiery. How it succeeds on the market depends on the demand for a 15-inch, parlor guitar with a retail price of $7,500. F-holed acoustics in the Big Sky's size don't hang on many store walls, so I can't imagine that demand for such a guitar is too high; so Weber presents the market with a niche-filler instrument, and as is usually the case for such a delicacy, it's tricked out to its expertly bound edges with capital "N" Niceness.

Starting from the top, where the Weber name, inlaid in mother-of-pearl, sits in the ebony veneered headstock above another inlay depicting tall flowers in a vase-a Deco flourish that's echoed on the guitar's other end in its unique, graduated V-shaped tailpiece. The tuning machines, sturdier than they appear, come from Waverly, a company based in nearby Bozeman, and with Ivoriod knobs further the guitar's years-past aesthetic appeal. The one-piece maple neck widens from 1 3/4 inches at the nut to 2 3/8 inches at the terminating 22nd fret, and is capped with a bound ebony fingerboard outfitted with dot-style inlay (though fancier inlays can be substituted).

In keeping with the compactness of the entire instrument, the neck is quite slim, which is wonderful on the hands but may also remove a certain amount of robustness from the guitar's overall tone. Where the neck joins the body hardly a seam can be spotted, and at the rear of the joint another mother-of-pearl inlay, this one a Celtic-like design of twisting curves, sits above the expanse of the Big Sky's richly finished flamed maple back. The sides appear akin to the back, made from the same material and outlined with the ivory-colored binding with black pinstriping that also binds the inner curves of the F-holes on the solid spruce top.

Hand-tuned and supported underneath with a tone-enhancing, X-bracing pattern, the carved top protrudes as a generous mound from the sides. Vern Brekke, Weber's acoustic design engineer, created an adjustable Traditional Brekke bridge in ebony for the Big Sky, and while only a comparison with other bridges would reveal what the bridge does for the guitar's tone, it's easy to tell that Brekke's five-piece design is a thoughtful one-and easier to notice how the guitar has flawless intonation and an appreciated ability to remain in tune even after car trips in a gig bag. At the 17th fret, the neck begins its suspension above the top, so that only the bridge actually makes contact with the top, allowing it to vibrate more, which increases projection.

And the Big Sky packs quite a lot of power for its size. Even when the newly fitted strings dulled after a few sessions of play the guitar still sang with a bright authority. The lack of a commanding bottom end and a long sustain come naturally from a guitar this size, but that's the instrument's strength, a heavy contributor to the even and tight sound generated when the guitar is pushed hard. So it's a fine tool for adding a punchy undercurrent when comping, but it also has a lovely, clear tone that, even with its short decay, makes a kind of magic from slow-paced, impressionistic chord and arpeggio work. It's also great accompaniment for a voice, especially when strummed by a thumb or fingerpicked-techniques that roll off the brightness and yield tone that recalls early folk recordings.

This particular Big Sky model was brand new when it arrived, and I expect the wood will change for the mellower over time and dim the tone's brightness. Still, the loud and proud sound that comes from flat-picking the instrument is a boon to anyone with a Django jones. Due in part to the quickness of the neck and a fine setup job-the strings' action sat in a definite sweet spot-picking solos on the guitar hardly feels like work. And as long as a combo group is made of sympathetic acoustic musicians, getting lost in the mix shouldn't be a problem.

Taking the guitar's pickup-deficient state into consideration, the Big Sky could become a popular choice for Reinhardt-style players who'd like to avoid mimicking the Gypsy's every move and choose a different style ax than the Hot Club-approved D-hole flattop. Perhaps I've stumbled upon a niche for the Big Sky to sit in.

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