July/August 2002

Eastman Strings Uptown Archtop

It happens every time a new guitar catches my eye in a shop, on a stage, on TV, in a dream, wherever. My eyes dart to the headstock for a glimpse of the manufacturer’s name. It’s something I think all guitarists do, whether to avoid picking up some dreadful ax whose headstock reads “Stella” or simply to cop a new brand name to throw around in conversation with fellow gearheads.

My name game was thrown off, however, at the winter NAMM show when I spied a guitar whose headstock bore no name or logo at all. Trying hard to conceal my confusion, I looked around to find out what company’s booth I was standing in. Eastman Strings. I’d never heard of Eastman then, or its Uptown archtop, but six months later its company name and especially this guitar have become a sort of mantra for my nervous soul. The Uptown hypnotizes with its classic look and beautiful sound.

Were television’s ever-dignified Frasier Crane a guitarist and not a pianist, I can imagine him strumming the Uptown whilst lamenting over the fate of his tossed salads and scrambled eggs. Such is the guitar’s neoantique style. A translucent, chestnut-brown varnish covers the body and brings out the organic beauty in the grain of the spruce top and especially in its flamed maple back and sides. If it weren’t for the pickup, and perhaps the Venetian cutaway, the Uptown would look old school enough to pass for something that belongs behind glass at a museum. But even the pickup blends into the assemblage, it being black and more or less camouflaged at the end of the ebony fingerboard and beside the pickguard, which is also a piece of smooth, solid ebony. Just as there is no inlay in the headstock, the frets are left unmarked on the fingerboard. Small black dots do appear in the binding that runs along the neck’s sides, however, just in case you get lost. A yellow-ochre binding frames the body, but the edges of the binding are slightly out of focus, dissolving into the finished wood as if lit from some inner light source. It would have been a damn shame if the Uptown’s hand-carved top were marred with a volume knob protruding from its lower bout. Fortunately, some guru of design placed the Uptown’s volume knob—really a volume disc—underneath the rounded corner of the pickguard. It keeps the guitar looking 1930-something and also provides convenient access for a quick volume hike or some creative swelling effects. Plus, all of the electronics are on the exterior of the body. Someday some poor schmo, maybe you, will be saved the aggravation of getting inside that f-hole to reach the knob’s fixture if something goes awry.

The 24 3/4-inch scale is standard enough, but I will warn that the neck, made from three-ply maple, is beefier than what most players might be used to. Unfortunate is the soul, however, who picks up an Uptown, fingers a couple chords and, turned off by the neck’s extra mass, returns it to its stand. While the neck didn’t immediately feel “right,” after a few vamps and a few runs up the neck’s 22 frets, I found it just as easy to play on as my dirty, rock ‘n’ rollin’ Gibson SG.

Intrigued by the surprisingly loud sound of the box itself, I put off plugging in at first. The Uptown rings out even and full acoustically, and Eastman does offer a pickupless version, but I couldn’t imagine being deprived of the tone delivered via the floating Kent Armstrong pickup when it’s amplified. Jazz is this guitar’s nature. The sound is bread-and-butter hot-club tone—basically the acoustic sound of the guitar warmed over just a bit. A tube amp with even EQ settings revealed the transparent quality of the pickup. As when played unplugged, the amped guitar featured no stinging highs or harsh mids, just pleasant mellowness and low notes that ring deep with complex overtones. Exploring the upper reaches of the fretboard can be done without fear as the intonation is solid.

Searching for something wrong with the guitar, I thought the list price of $2,499 might have been a mistake: it seems a little low for a guitar of this build and beauty. Then I realized that forgoing unnecessary adornments like mother of pearl inlays in the neck not only serves its sleek, classic style but keeps the price reasonable. Still, it is strange that Eastman didn’t place its logo on the Uptown’s headstock. Wouldn’t a company that’s created such a unique and quality instrument want its name stamped all over it?

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